The emerging treatment landscape of advanced non-small cell lung cancer
Review Article on Breakthroughs in the Treatment of Advanced Lung Cancer: Making Progress Through Innovation

The emerging treatment landscape of advanced non-small cell lung cancer

Panagiota Economopoulou1, Giannis Mountzios2

1Medical Oncology Department, “Attikon” University Hospital, Athens, Greece; 2Medical Oncology Department, 251 Air Force General Hospital, Athens, Greece

Contributions: (I) Conception and design: G Mountzios; (II) Administrative support: G Mountzios; (III) Provision of study materials or patients: None; (IV) Collection and assembly of data: All authors; (V) Data analysis and interpretation: All authors; (VI) Manuscript writing: All authors; (VII) Final approval of manuscript: All authors.

Correspondence to: Giannis Mountzios, MSc, PhD. Medical Oncologist, 251 Air Force General Hospital, P. Kanellopoulou 3 (Katehaki) Str., PC 115 25, Greece. Email: gmountzios@gmail.com.

Abstract: Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer related death worldwide. Despite broad advances in diagnostics and therapy, the five-year overall survival for patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) has not significantly changed over the past few years. Following the decoding of human cancer genome and the advent of therapies targeting driver mutations, the selection of systemic therapy changed from “one size fits all” approach to a more precise selection of biologic therapies targeting distinct genetic profiles. Molecular alterations can be targeted by specific drugs that are administered orally, have higher response rates and a better toxicity profile compared to standard chemotherapy. More recently, better understanding of the interactions between tumor cells and the immune system has led to the development of new therapeutic strategies that enhance the body’s own immune response towards antitumor immunity. Robust data on these new drugs have been generated not only in the second-line setting, but also as first line therapy and in combination with standard therapies. In this review, we aim to illustrate a comprehensive up-to-date within the newest advances in the field of NSCLC, with the view to educate new practitioners and stimulate new thoughts for clinical trials.

Keywords: Advanced NSCLC; treatment; targeted therapy; immunotherapy


Submitted Sep 25, 2017. Accepted for publication Oct 12, 2017.

doi: 10.21037/atm.2017.11.07


Introduction

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer related death worldwide, with approximately 1.6 million deaths anticipated in 2015. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) accounts for approximately 80–85% of cases (1). Despite broad advances in diagnostics and therapy, the five-year overall survival for patients with advanced NSCLC has not significantly changed over the past few years. Following the decoding of human cancer genome and the advent of therapies targeting driver mutations, the selection of systemic therapy changed from “one size fits all” approach to a more precise selection of biologic therapies targeting distinct genetic profiles. Molecular alterations can be targeted by specific drugs that are administered orally, have higher response rates and a better toxicity profile compared to standard chemotherapy. Eventually, clinical and molecular resistance develops, but novel drugs active in this setting have been currently incorporated in clinical practice. Indeed, NSCLC is no longer considered a single entity, but a heterogeneous disease, comprised of molecularly defined subgroups of tumors, susceptible to target inhibition.

Even more recently, better understanding of the interactions between tumor cells and the immune system has led to the development of new therapeutic strategies that enhance the body’s own immune response in order to shift the balance towards antitumor immunity. Genomic instability in cancer favors the generation of immunogenic clones, which can be eliminated by an immunocompetent host (2). However, it is believed that the immune system might lose the ability to eradicate cancer cells or new mutations might render tumor cells poorly immunogenic, so that they can disrupt, suppress or evade immune control. Among mechanisms of immune evasion, the development of a cancer-permissive tumor microenvironment by exploiting immune checkpoints, such as the programmed death ligand 1 (PD-L1)/programmed cell death 1 (PD-1) axis is the most studied. Cancer cells often express the PD-L1 protein on their surface, and binding of PD-L1 to co-inhibitory receptor PD-1 on cytotoxic T cells blocks T cell activation (3). Blockade of the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway by novel drugs unleashes T cells and enhances anti-tumor response. Robust data on these new drugs have been generated not only in the second-line setting of patients with NSCLC, but also as first line therapy and in combination with standard therapies.

Remarkably, there have been a series of rapid and dramatic transformations in the therapeutic landscape of NSCLC over a short period of time. In this review, we aim to illustrate a comprehensive up-to-date within the newest advances in the field of NSCLC, with the view to educate new practitioners and stimulate new thoughts for clinical trials.


New advances in the treatment of NSCLC

Based on tumor mutation testing, patients are divided into three subgroups: patients with EGFR-positive mutations (10–30%), patients with ALK rearrangements (4–7%) and patients who do not harbor EGFR/ALK abnormalities or have unknown mutation status. However, the evolution of molecular profiling and the implementation of next generation sequencing in the evaluation of a patient with advanced NSCLC has currently led to the discovery of targetable alterations in patients who previously had not known actionable targets. As effective treatments are found for novel targets such as HER2, ROS1, RET, BRAF, MET and others, treatment algorithms are becoming more complex (4).

EGFR mutant NSCLC

ΕGFR mutations have been described in approximately 10–15% of Caucasians with lung adenocarcinoma, most commonly in never smokers (5). In Asians, the frequency of EGFR mutations is three times higher. The most common EGFR mutations are exon 19 deletions (del19) and exon 21 L858R substitutions (45–82% and 30%, respectively), that are commonly referred to as ‘sensitizing mutations’ as they confer sensitivity to tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) (6). The current recommended standard of care for EGFR-mutant NSCLC in the advanced stage is EGFR TKI monotherapy, such as gefitinib, erlotinib and afatinib. Gefitinib and erlotinib are both first generation TKIs, whereas afatinib is a second generation TKI. Afatinib covalently binds and irreversibly blocks EGFR, HER2 and HER4, therefore enhancing the effect on important and relevant signaling pathways and delaying resistance (7). Landmark clinical trials have demonstrated superior overall response rate (ORR), progression free survival (PFS) and quality of life compared to the former standard treatment of platinum-based doublet chemotherapy for all TKIs mentioned (8-11). The pooled analysis of the LUX Lung 3 and 6 studies also suggested an overall survival (OS) advantage of afatinib compared to chemotherapy in the first-line setting for the subgroup of patients with exon 19 deletions (12).

Gefitinib and erlotinib have not been compared in the first line setting in EGFR mutant patients, but no difference in efficacy has been found in Asian populations in the second line setting (13). LUX-LUNG 7, a randomized phase IIb trial is the first report of a direct comparison between EGFR TKIs in the first line setting (14). In this landmark trial, afatinib and gefitinib were compared as first line treatment in patients with advanced NSCLC and common EGFR mutations. Afatinib has been shown to improve PFS (HR =0.73) and ORR (70% vs. 56%) independently of mutation subtype. Furthermore, OS was numerically higher favoring afatinib, albeit not statistically significant (HR =0.86, P=0.25) (14). In another recent report, dacomitinib, a second-generation TKI, was compared to gefitinib in patients with advanced EGFR mutant NSCLC in the first line setting. Dacomitinib was superior to gefitinib in terms of PFS (14.7 vs. 9.2 months, HR =0.59); OS results are awaited (15). The superiority of second (afatinib, dacomitinib) vs. first generation TKIs (gefitinib) can be partially explained by their different mechanism of action; second-generation TKIs irreversibly bind to and block signaling from all relevant HER family receptor homo- and heterodimers (EGFR,HER2, HER3 and HER4), whereas gefitinib only inhibits EGFR signaling (7). In the randomized phase III FLAURA trial, gefitinib or erlotinib are being compared to osimertinib in previously untreated EGFR mutant patients. Osimertinib is a third generation TKI that targets the T790M mutation; the development of this mutation is the most common mechanism of acquired EGFR resistance, but it can also pre-exist on the same allele with the primary EGFR activation in a small population of patients (1–8%), which implies a poorer prognosis (16). In July 2017 it was announced that FLAURA showed a statistically significant and clinically meaningful PFS benefit with osimertinib; final results are eagerly awaited.

Antiangiogenic agents have been also evaluated in EGFR mutant patients. In the phase II single arm BELIEF trial, the combination of erlotinib and bevacizumab was tested in treatment naïve T790M positive and negative patients. The primary endpoint of the study, which was PFS, was met in the T790M positive subgroup (16 months, 12-month PFS 68%) (17). On the other hand, a randomized phase II trial from Japan demonstrated a benefit for the combination of bevacizumab and erlotinib compared to erlotinib monotherapy as first line treatment in patients with NSCLC and common EGFR mutations (18); the combination has been currently approved by the European Medicine’s Agency (EMA).

Despite initial benefit, all patients with EGFR mutations ultimately progress due to the development of acquired resistance. Intratumor heterogeneity has been suggested as a possible interpretation of incomplete disease response and acquired resistance, based on preferential response of cell subclones on drug therapy (19). A secondary point EGFR mutation that substitutes methionine for threonine at amino acid position 790 (T790M) is a molecular mechanism that produces a drug-resistant variant of the targeted kinase. The T790M mutation is present in approximately 60% of patients with acquired resistance and acts by increasing the affinity of the receptor to adenosine triphosphatase (20). Retesting for EGFR mutations is now the standard of care, and testing plasma cell free DNA is considered an alternative to tissue biopsy. Many platforms have been developed, such as Cobas EGFR mutation test, therascreen EGFR amplification refractory system mutation (both non-digital) and Droplet Digital PCR, BEAMing digital PCR (both digital). Digital platforms have a higher sensitivity in detecting T790M mutation (81% vs. 73%) but concordance between the platforms is above 90% (21). Nevertheless, tissue biopsy is still considered the gold standard, as it displays higher sensitivity and can detect additional mechanisms of acquired resistance, such as HER2 and c-MET amplification and transformation to small cell lung cancer (SCLC) (22).

Third generation TKIs, such as osimertinib, rociletinib, olmutinib and ASP8273 have preferential activity against both T790M and EGFR sensitizing mutations. Among them, rociletinib is no longer being developed due to insufficient data supporting its approval. Osimertinib is now currently approved in several countries. AURA II was a single arm, open label phase II trial that evaluated osimetinib in T790M positive patients after failure of first line TKI. Osimertinib achieved a 70% RR and a 92% disease control rate (DCR). In the phase III AURA III trial, osimetinib was compared to platinum-based chemotherapy as second line therapy after initial TKI failure in 419 patients with T790M positive disease. Osimertinib was superior in terms of PFS (10.1 vs. 4.4 months, HR =0.30) and RR (71% vs. 31%) with a better toxicity profile. On the other hand, T790M negative patients are usually treated with chemotherapy. In patients with c-Met amplification, clinical trials assessing MET inhibitors have demonstrated disappointing results (6). Of note, continuation of EGFR TKI therapy and administration of local therapy is strongly recommended in patients with asymptomatic progression or oligoprogression (23).

Uncommon EGFR mutations represent a heterogeneous group and account for approximately 10–15% of EGFR mutations. These most frequently include exon 20 insertions and point mutations G719X, L861Q, and S768I (24). Exon 20 insertions are typically resistant to EGFR TKIs, although preclinical studies suggest response to osimertinib (25). The largest dataset for uncommon mutations comes from post hoc analyses of pooled afatinib outcomes from clinical trials LUX-Lung 2, 3 and 6, where 11% of patients recruited harbored uncommon EGFR mutations. ORR with afatinib was 71.1% in patients with point mutations or duplications in exons 18–21, 14.3% in patients with de novo T790M mutations and 8% in patients with exon 20 insertions (26).

ALK positive patients

In 2007, Soda and colleagues identified in a patient with adenocarcinoma of the lung, a small inversion in the small arm of chromosome 2 resulting in an oncogenic fusion gene comprising of EML4 (echinoderm microtubule-associated protein-like 4) and ALK gene (27). ALK rearrangements occur in approximately 4–7% of lung cancers, most commonly in light and non-smokers.

Advances in the management of ALK positive NSCLC commenced with the development of ALK inhibitor crizotinib, which showed clinical benefit in early phase I trials. The phase III PROFILE 1014 trial compared crizotinib to standard platinum-based chemotherapy in 343 treatment-naïve patients with advanced ALK positive NSCLC (28). The primary endpoint of PFS was significantly increased in patients treated with crizotinib (10.9 vs. 7.0 months in patients treated with chemotherapy, HR =0.45; P<0.001). ORR was also substantially higher (74% for crizotinib vs. 45% for chemotherapy (P<0.001). Furthermore, crizotinib had a better toxicity profile. However, all patients treated with crizotinib eventually develop tumor progression. Mechanisms of resistance include the development of secondary mutations, ALK amplification, activation of bypass pathways such as EGFR and IGFR, phenotypic change such as development of epithelial mesenchymal transition (EMT), and limited penetration to central nervous system (CNS) (29). It has been postulated that approximately 70% of patients treated with crizotinib experience progression in the CNS (30).

Second generation TKIs ceritinib and alectinib have demonstrated impressive RRs in crizotinib-pretreated patients. In 2014, FDA approved ceritinib for patients with advanced ALK positive NSCLC following treatment with crizotinib, based on the results of phase I ASCEND I trial, which demonstrated an ORR of 56.4% in pretreated patients (31). The efficacy of ceritinib was confirmed in single arm phase II ASCEND II trial, which demonstrated an ORR of 38.6% and PFS of 5.7 months in both chemotherapy and crizotinib pretreated patients (32). Alectinib, another second generation ALK inhibitor has also demonstrated tremendous efficacy in crizotinib pretreated patients. Two large phase II trials evaluated the efficacy and safety of alectinib in patients with ALK positive NSCLC who had progressed on crizotinib. The first study demonstrated an ORR of 50.8% with an intracranial RR of 58.8% (33). In the second trial, a similar ORR was shown, and intracranial RR was as high as 75% (34).

Second generation TKIs have been also assessed in the first line setting. Ceritinib has been recently approved for first line treatment, following the results of the ASCEND-4 randomized phase III trial, which compared ceritinib to chemotherapy in treatment naïve ALK positive patients (35). This trial showed a statistically significant improved PFS in favor of ceritinib (16.6 vs. 8.1 months, HR =0.55, P<0.001). Ceritinib also achieved an intracranial RR of 72%, albeit with a less striking PFS benefit (HR =0.70). Of note, study drug related adverse events led to drug discontinuation in 5.3% of ceritinib patients.

Alectinib has been evaluated in first line setting in the Japanese phase III J-ALEX trial, where it was directly compared to crizotinib, albeit with a lower dose than the one used in two aforementioned phase II trials (300 mg instead of 600 mg) (36). Alectinib demonstrated significant prolonged PFS (median PFS not reached vs. 10.2 months with crizotinib). Although J-ALEX trial was conducted only in Japan and used a different dose of the drug, it led to FDA granting alectinib breakthrough therapy designation for first-line treatment. The results of the international ALEX phase III study comparing alectinib at the standard dose of 600 mg to crizotinib, that was recently reported at the 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting, has shed light to the efficacy of alectinib in crizotinib-naïve patients (37). Alectinib demonstrated statistically significant superiority vs. crizotinib, reducing risk of progression/death by 53% (HR 0.47, P<0.0001). Median PFS was also increased in favor of alectinib (not reached vs. 11.1 months). Furthermore, specific HR of CNS progression was 0.16 for alectinib (95% CI: 0.10–0.28; P<0.0001). Of note, rates of AEs leading to discontinuation, dose reduction and interruption were lower with alectinib (37).

Finally, brigatinib and the third-generation ALK inhibitor lorlatinib are currently being investigated for their effectiveness and safety in ALK positive NSCLC patients who have progressed after one or two ALK inhibitors. In the phase II ALTA trial, patients with crizotinib refractory disease were randomly assigned to receive 90 or 180 mg of brigatinib daily (38). It was shown that patients who received the higher dose achieved a RR of 54% vs. 45% for patients who received the lower dose and a PFS of 12.9 vs. 9.2 months. Of note, 69% of patients enrolled had baseline brain metastases and brigatinib at the dose of 180 mg achieved an intracranial ORR of 67%. As a result, FDA granted accelerated approval to brigatinib for patients with ALK positive NSCLC who have progressed on initial therapy. The phase III ALTA-1L trial that carries a head to head comparison of brigatinib versus crizotinib in the first line setting of ALK positive NSCLC is currently underway. On the other hand, lorlatinib demonstrated impressive results in a phase I study in heavily pretreated patients (ORR of 46% and a PFS of 11.4 months) (39).

Other driver mutations

ROS1 is a receptor TK that acts as a driver oncogene in 1–2% of NSCLC via a genetic translocation between ROS1 and other genes, the most common of which is CD74 (40). ROS1 translocation commonly occurs in adenocarcinoma patients who are young and never smokers. The ROS1 TK is highly sensitive to crizotinib due to a high degree of homology between the ALK and ROS TK domains. Crizotinib is FDA approved for both pretreated and treatment naïve patients; in an open-label, phase I international study of 50 patients with ROS1-translocated NSCLC, ORR was 72% and median PFS was 19.2 months (41). The majority of recruited patients were pretreated. Second generation TKIs ceritinib and alectinib are currently being investigated in this subpopulation of patients.

Activating BRAF mutations have been observed in 1–3% of NSCLC and are usually associated with a history of smoking. They can occur either at the V600 position of exon 15, like in melanoma, or outside this domain (42). For these patients, chemotherapy or immunotherapy is recommended as first line therapy. The combination of dabrafenib plus trametinib has been approved by the FDA for BRAF mutant NSCLC patients who have progressed to chemotherapy. In phase II study of 78 patients with previously treated, advanced NSCLC with the V600E mutation, the combination of dabrafenib plus trametinib was associated with an ORR of 63% in 52 evaluable patients, with a DCR of 79% and PFS of 9.7 months (43).

Other driver mutations include HER2 mutations, MET abnormalities and RET translocations. There is currently no approved targeted therapy for these subgroups of patients. Case series suggest that patients with HER2 insertions respond to trastuzumab in combination with chemotherapy or afatinib (44). Patients with MET exon 14 skipping mutations might respond to crizotinib or cabozantinib (45), whereas tumors with RET translocations might be sensitive to cabozantinib or vandetanib (46,47).

NSCLC with no driver mutations

First line therapy

First line platinum-based chemotherapy remains the mainstay of treatment in the majority of patients with NSCLC who do not harbor a driver mutation. On the other hand, the introduction of PD-1/PD-L1 immune checkpoint inhibitors and their incorporation into clinical practice has ultimately changed NSCLC treatment algorithm in the first line setting. PD1 is a co-inhibitory receptor that belongs to the CD28 family and is expressed on the cell surface of activated T cells, as well as B, NK cells, and monocytes after prolonged antigen exposure. Normally and upon binding to its main ligands, PD-L1 and PD-L2, PD-1 inhibits T cell activation and limits effector T cell activity in peripheral organs and tissues during inflammation, thus preventing autoimmunity. PD-L1 expression occurs frequently in a variety of tumors, including NSCLC. It is currently believed that binding of tumor-expressed PD-L1 to PD-1 blocks T cell activation and leads to immune evasion (2). This is the rationale for enhancing tumor response through blockade of PD-1 pathway with anti-PD-1/anti-PD-L1 antibodies pembrolizumab, nivolumab, atezolizumab and durvalumab.

High expression of PD-L1, which is defined as expression on at least 50% of tumor cells) has been reported as a predictive biomarker for response in early phase I pembrolizumab trials. On the basis of this observation, the phase III KEYNOTE 024 trial randomized 305 patients with high PD-L1 expression >50% to pembrolizumab (200 mg fixed dose every 3 weeks for 35 cycles or until disease progression) or platinum doublet (48). Of note, this trial did not include patients with EGFR mutations or ALK translocations, following the adverse outcomes of immunotherapy in these subgroups of patients in phase II trials. The primary endpoint, which of PFS was met favoring pembrolizumab (10.3 vs. 6 months in the chemotherapy arm, HR =0.50, P<0.001). Improvement in ORR was also statistically significant (44.8% for pembrolizumab-arm vs. 27.8% for chemotherapy-arm, P<0.001). One-year OS was also superior in the pembrolizumab-arm, albeit not statistically significant; this might be attributed to crossover in almost half of the patients in the control arm. In October 2016, pembrolizumab was FDA approved as front-line treatment in patients with NSCLC and strong PD-L1 positivity (>50%) and is now the standard of care for these patients. The results of this trial contrast the outcomes of CHECKMATE-026, which assessed the efficacy of nivolumab vs. chemotherapy as front-line treatment in patients with PD-L1 expression >5% (49). The trial was negative, with primary endpoint PFS favoring chemotherapy (5.9 months in the chemotherapy-arm vs. 4.2 months in the nivolumab arm).

Low PD-L1 expressers are treated with first line platinum-based doublet chemotherapy typically for 4–6 cycles. Platinum based therapies offer a median OS of 7–10 months and a median time to progression of 3–6 months. All regimens are considered equivalent in an unselected population (50). However, histology has emerged as an important factor for regimen selection. Cisplatin/Pemetrexed has been shown to be superior in patients with adenocarcinoma vs. cisplatin/gemcitabine, whereas cisplatin/gemcitabine improves survival vs. cisplatin/pemetrexed in patients with squamous cell carcinoma (51). Carboplatin/Nab-paclitaxel has been more recently introduced as a therapeutic option in the first line setting; in a phase III trial, it was associated with an increased ORR compared to carboplatin/paclitaxel and with a numerically higher albeit not statistically significant improvement in OS in elderly patients >70 years old (19.9 vs. 10.9 months, P=0.009) (52). Bevacizumab has been shown to significantly improve OS in patients with non-squamous histology when added to standard-chemotherapy (53). On the other hand, necitumumab is the first monoclonal antibody against EGFR recently approved for squamous cell lung cancer in the first line setting. In the phase III SQUIRE trial, which evaluated the addition of necitumumab to cisplatin/gemcitabine in treatment-naïve patients with squamous cell lung cancer, OS was superior in favor of necitumumab (11.5 vs. 9.9 months, HR=0.84, P=0.01) (54). After the completion of chemotherapy and before disease progression, maintenance therapy with pemetrexed and/or bevacizumab is typically administered to patients with non-squamous histology, based on older landmark studies (55,56). Maintenance therapy implies the “down-shifting” to a less challenging but still effective therapy with a view to decrease toxicity.

Preclinical data have shown that chemotherapy modulates immune response and might increase PD-L1 expression on tumor cells (57,58). The synergism of chemotherapy and immunotherapy has been evaluated in the front line setting in the multicohort phase I/II KEYNOTE 021 trial. In cohort G of the phase II part of the study, the combination of chemotherapy and pembrolizumab was compared to chemotherapy alone in treatment-naïve patients with advanced non-squamous NSCLC (59). The addition of pembrolizumab to chemotherapy dramatically improved ORR (55% vs. 29%, P=0.0016); PFS was also superior in the combination arm (13 vs. 8.9 months, P=0.0102), although at the expense of greater grade 3–4 toxicity (39% in the concomitant arm vs. 26% in the chemotherapy only arm). The predictive value of PD-L1 was difficult to assess, since RR was 80% among high PD-L1 expressers (80%), but also up to 57% in patients with PD-L1 expression <1%. In May 2017, the FDA granted accelerated approval to pembrolizumab in combination with carboplatin/pemetrexed in the front line setting in patients with advanced non-squamous NSCLC. A phase III trial is currently underway.

Second line therapy

Immunotherapy is now recommended as second line therapy in all patients with NSCLC and no driver mutations. Three immune checkpoint inhibitors that target the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway are currently approved. Nivolumab was the first immune checkpoint inhibitor to show impressive efficacy with a better toxicity profile in the second line setting in patients with advanced NSCLC irrespectively of PD-L1 expression. Two phase III trials, CHECKMATE-057 and CHECKMATE-017 have tested nivolumab vs. docetaxel in squamous and non-squamous NSCLC respectively (60,61). Median OS was superior with nivolumab in both trials (9 vs. 6 months in the control arm in CHECKMATE-057 (60) and 12.2 vs. 9.4 months in the control arm in CHECMATE-017 (61). On the other hand, pembrolizumab was compared to standard docetaxel chemotherapy in patients with previously treated NSCLC and PD-L1 expression >1% in the phase III KEYNOTE-010 trial (62). Pembrolizumab was associated with improved OS compared to docetaxel (10.4 vs. 8.4 months, HR =0.71, P<0.001) and can be used as a therapeutic option in patients with PD-L1 >1%.

Atezolizumab is a fully humanized monoclonal antibody that targets PD-L1. The randomized phase II POPLAR trial evaluated the efficacy and safety of atezolizumab versus docetaxel in previously treated NSCLC (63). Patients were stratified by PD-L1 tumor-infiltrating immune cell status, histology, and previous lines of therapy, and were randomly assigned to receive intravenous atezolizumab or docetaxel. The primary endpoint of OS was 12.6 months for atezolizumab vs. 9.7 months for docetaxel (HR 0.73, P=0.04). Increasing improvement in OS was associated with increasing PD-L1 expression. Based on these results, FDA granted approval to atezolizumab for patients with advanced NSCLC whose disease progressed on platinum-based chemotherapy in 2016. In the phase III OAK trial, atezolizumab was compared to docetaxel as second line treatment in patients with advanced NSCLC. PD-L1 was measured in tumor cells (TCs) and tumor infiltrating immune cells (ICs) and primary endpoint was OS in the intention to treat (ITT) population and in the group of patients with >1% PD-L1 expression on TCs (TC1/2/3) or ICs (IC 1/2/3). Co-primary endpoints were met; median OS in the ITT population was 13.8 vs. 9.6 months (P=0.003), whereas in the TC1/2/3 or IC1/2/3 groups it reached 15.7 vs. 10.3 months (P=0.01) in favor of atezolizumab (64). Of note, a favorable HR was also observed in never-smokers.

PD-L1 monoclonal antibodies durvalumab and avelumab have also been investigated in NSCLC. In a dose-expansion cohort of the phase Ib Javelin trial, avelumab achieved a 12% RR and a 36% DCR in previously treated patients, with 13% of patients experiencing grade 3 events (65). Durvalumab is currently being tested in combination with tremelimumab in phase II/III trials following clinical activity in a phase Ib study (66).

Most recently, antiangiogenic agents have shown promising results in the second line treatment of NSCLC. The phase III LUME LUNG 1 trial has shown superiority of docetaxel in combination of VEGFR TKI nintetanib vs. docetaxel alone in terms of OS in patients with adenocarcinoma histology. Furthermore, the study has demonstrated a non-statistically significant PFS benefit in first line treatment refractory patients (67). On the other hand, the REVEL randomized phase III trial demonstrated a modest OS benefit of the addition of the VEGFR2 inhibitor ramucirumab to docetaxel in both squamous and non-squamous NSCLC (10.5 vs. 9.1 months in the docetaxel arm, P=0.023) (68).

Of note, the pan-HER-targeted EGFR inhibitor afatinib was shown to result in superior PFS and OS in comparison with erlotinib in squamous cancers in the 2nd–3rd line setting and has been recently approved in that setting (69).


Expert commentary

Periodically, new data emerge from clinical trials and modify the standards of care, moving the decision-making process within a tumor type to a different level. Several years ago, such advances changed the treatment algorithm of advanced NSCLC to a more histology- and molecular biology-oriented approach, reflecting the development of drugs specifically effective in patients with certain histologies and the introduction of TKIs targeting distinct genetic profiles. However, at that point and for the vast majority of patients, platinum-based doublet chemotherapy remained the cornerstone of treatment, as it had been for more than a decade.

Since that time, there have been a series of rapid and dramatic transformations in this therapeutic landscape. All these advances in the field of oncology emphasize that NSCLC is no longer a single disease entity, but represents a heterogeneous group of different tumors defined by histologic subtype, genomic profile and more recently, tumor immunophenotype, increasingly pushing treatment selection towards personalizing therapy.

Intrapatient and intratumor heterogeneity add another level of complexity, in some cases predicting acquired resistance mechanisms. For patients with oncogene-driven lung cancer, new generation agents, such as osimertinib in EGFR mutant NCLC and ceritinib/alectinib in ALK positive NSCLC, represent new therapeutic options in patients who develop resistance in front line EGFR TKIs or ALK inhibitors respectively. However, the specific sequence of these agents is still unclear; osimertinib and alectinib have also shown promising results in the front line setting and ceritinib is already approved in treatment-naïve patients. In addition, it is unknown if a specific sequence of therapeutic agents influences the biology of cancer or clinical course of the patient. On the other hand, combination therapy that targets multiple pathways may provide greater clinical benefit.

But it is the new class of checkpoint inhibitors where the most profound advances were made. The results of KEYNOTE-024 that led to the incorporation of immunotherapy in the first line setting in high PD-L1 expressers (48), have displaced the role of chemotherapy in treatment-naïve NSCLC patients without driver mutations for the first time in the history of oncology. However, the fact that a similar trial in design, CHECKMATE-026 (49), did not meet its primary endpoint, creates a confusion about when and how to evaluate PDL-1 status. In addition, nivolumab and atezolizumab are approved in the second line setting irrespectively of PD-L1 status, whereas pembrolizumab can be administered only in patients with PD-L1 expression ≥1%. Despite the fact that the PD-L1 IHC assay seems to be a good predictive assay, it is becoming increasingly clear that PD-L1 expression is not yet a perfect test. Many questions are still unresolved regarding the best antibody, the right cutoff for positivity, the relevance of PD-L1 expression on immune cells versus tumor cells, and the heterogeneity of PD-L1 expression (1). Other potential molecular biomarkers under investigation, such as mutation burden, could also be used to help select the best candidates for therapy. On the other hand, immunotherapy is likely ineffective in patients with EGFR mutations and ALK rearrangements, possibly reflecting the low mutational burden in tumors developed in never-smokers.

Finally, the combination of immunotherapy with chemotherapy is still an area of active investigation. The results of KEYNOTE-021 have prompted accelerated approval of the combination of chemotherapy and pembrolizumab, but the clinical or molecular setting in which concomitant therapy could be the appropriate selection of treatment is not clear and there has been no direct comparison between the combination and pembrolizumab monotherapy.


Conclusions

It is becoming increasingly clear that NSCLC is a diverse disease comprising of clinically and genetically distinct subgroups and each individual patient is truly unique. Researchers continue to elucidate many molecular pathways involved in thoracic malignancy. Following the introduction of targeted therapies and immunotherapy into clinical practice, treatment algorithms for NSCLC have dramatically changed over the past few years. Indeed, it is likely that this current state of treatment in advanced NSCLC will continue to evolve, as new studies are completed and new preclinical data help to explain the underlying biology beneath the clinical outcomes observed.


Acknowledgements

None.


Footnote

Conflicts of Interest: The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.


References

  1. Tsao AS, Scagliotti GV, Bunn PA Jr, et al. Scientific Advances in Lung Cancer 2015. J Thorac Oncol 2016;11:613-38. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  2. Finn OJ. Immuno-oncology: understanding the function and dysfunction of the immune system in cancer. Ann Oncol 2012;23 Suppl 8:viii6-9.
  3. Schreiber RD, Old LJ, Smyth MJ. Cancer immunoediting: integrating immunity's roles in cancer suppression and promotion. Science 2011;331:1565-70. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  4. Janku F, Garrido-Laguna I, Petruzelka LB, et al. Novel therapeutic targets in non-small cell lung cancer. J Thorac Oncol 2011;6:1601-12. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  5. Rosell R, Moran T, Queralt C, et al. Screening for epidermal growth factor receptor mutations in lung cancer. N Engl J Med 2009;361:958-67. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  6. Juan O, Popat S. Treatment choice in epidermal growth factor receptor mutation-positive non-small cell lung carcinoma: latest evidence and clinical implications. Ther Adv Med Oncol 2017;9:201-16. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  7. Wirth SM. Afatinib in Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. J Adv Pract Oncol 2015;6:448-55. [PubMed]
  8. Rosell R, Carcereny E, Gervais R, et al. Erlotinib versus standard chemotherapy as first-line treatment for European patients with advanced EGFR mutation-positive non-small-cell lung cancer (EURTAC): a multicentre, open-label, randomised phase 3 trial. Lancet Oncol 2012;13:239-46. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  9. Zhou C, Wu YL, Chen G, et al. Erlotinib versus chemotherapy as first-line treatment for patients with advanced EGFR mutation-positive non-small-cell lung cancer (OPTIMAL, CTONG-0802): a multicentre, open-label, randomised, phase 3 study. Lancet Oncol 2011;12:735-42. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  10. Fukuoka M, Wu YL, Thongprasert S, et al. Biomarker analyses and final overall survival results from a phase III, randomized, open-label, first-line study of gefitinib versus carboplatin/paclitaxel in clinically selected patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer in Asia (IPASS). J Clin Oncol 2011;29:2866-74. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  11. Sequist LV, Yang JC, Yamamoto N, et al. Phase III study of afatinib or cisplatin plus pemetrexed in patients with metastatic lung adenocarcinoma with EGFR mutations. J Clin Oncol 2013;31:3327-34. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  12. Yang JC, Wu YL, Schuler M, et al. Afatinib versus cisplatin-based chemotherapy for EGFR mutation-positive lung adenocarcinoma (LUX-Lung 3 and LUX-Lung 6): analysis of overall survival data from two randomised, phase 3 trials. Lancet Oncol 2015;16:141-51. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  13. Urata Y, Katakami N, Morita S, et al. Randomized Phase III Study Comparing Gefitinib With Erlotinib in Patients With Previously Treated Advanced Lung Adenocarcinoma: WJOG 5108L. J Clin Oncol 2016;34:3248-57. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  14. Park K, Tan EH, O'Byrne K, et al. Afatinib versus gefitinib as first-line treatment of patients with EGFR mutation-positive non-small-cell lung cancer (LUX-Lung 7): a phase 2B, open-label, randomised controlled trial. Lancet Oncol 2016;17:577-89. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  15. Mok T, Cheng Y, Zhou X, et al. Dacomitinib versus gefitinib for the first-line treatment of advanced EGFR mutation positive non-small cell lung cancer (ARCHER 1050): A randomized, open-label phase III trial. J Clin Oncol 2017;35:abstr LBA9007.
  16. Godin-Heymann N, Bryant I, Rivera MN, et al. Oncogenic activity of epidermal growth factor receptor kinase mutant alleles is enhanced by the T790M drug resistance mutation. Cancer Res 2007;67:7319-26. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  17. Rosell R, Dafni U, Felip E, et al. Erlotinib and bevacizumab in patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer and activating EGFR mutations (BELIEF): an international, multicentre, single-arm, phase 2 trial. Lancet Respir Med 2017;5:435-44. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  18. Seto T, Kato T, Nishio M, et al. Erlotinib alone or with bevacizumab as first-line therapy in patients with advanced non-squamous non-small-cell lung cancer harbouring EGFR mutations (JO25567): an open-label, randomised, multicentre, phase 2 study. Lancet Oncol 2014;15:1236-44. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  19. Bai H, Wang Z, Chen K, et al. Influence of chemotherapy on EGFR mutation status among patients with non-small-cell lung cancer. J Clin Oncol 2012;30:3077-83. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  20. Suda K, Onozato R, Yatabe Y, et al. EGFR T790M mutation: a double role in lung cancer cell survival? J Thorac Oncol 2009;4:1-4. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  21. Thress KS, Brant R, Carr TH, et al. EGFR mutation detection in ctDNA from NSCLC patient plasma: A cross-platform comparison of leading technologies to support the clinical development of AZD9291. Lung Cancer 2015;90:509-15. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  22. Cortot AB, Janne PA. Molecular mechanisms of resistance in epidermal growth factor receptor-mutant lung adenocarcinomas. Eur Respir Rev 2014;23:356-66. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  23. Liao BC, Lin CC, Lee JH, et al. Optimal management of EGFR-mutant non-small cell lung cancer with disease progression on first-line tyrosine kinase inhibitor therapy. Lung Cancer 2017;110:7-13. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  24. Barnes TA, O'Kane GM, Vincent MD, et al. Third-Generation Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors Targeting Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor Mutations in Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. Front Oncol 2017;7:113. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  25. Hirano T, Yasuda H, Tani T, et al. In vitro modeling to determine mutation specificity of EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors against clinically relevant EGFR mutants in non-small-cell lung cancer. Oncotarget 2015;6:38789-803. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  26. Yang JC, Sequist LV, Geater SL, et al. Clinical activity of afatinib in patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer harbouring uncommon EGFR mutations: a combined post-hoc analysis of LUX-Lung 2, LUX-Lung 3, and LUX-Lung 6. Lancet Oncol 2015;16:830-8. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  27. Soda M, Choi YL, Enomoto M, et al. Identification of the transforming EML4-ALK fusion gene in non-small-cell lung cancer. Nature 2007;448:561-6. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  28. Solomon BJ, Mok T, Kim DW, et al. First-line crizotinib versus chemotherapy in ALK-positive lung cancer. N Engl J Med. 2014;371:2167-77. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  29. Matikas A, Kentepozidis N, Georgoulias V, et al. Management of Resistance to Crizotinib in Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase-Positive Non-Small-cell Lung Cancer. Clin Lung Cancer 2016;17:474-82. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  30. Costa DB, Shaw AT, Ou SH, et al. Clinical Experience With Crizotinib in Patients With Advanced ALK-Rearranged Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer and Brain Metastases. J Clin Oncol 2015;33:1881-8. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  31. Felip E, Kim D, Mehra R, et al. Efficacy and Safety of Ceritinib in Patients with Advanced Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase (ALK)-rearranged (ALK+) Non-small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC): An Update of ASCEND-1. Ann Oncol 2014;25:iv426-iv470. [Crossref]
  32. Crinò L, Ahn MJ, De Marinis F, et al. Multicenter Phase II Study of Whole-Body and Intracranial Activity With Ceritinib in Patients With ALK-Rearranged Non–Small-Cell Lung Cancer Previously Treated With Chemotherapy and Crizotinib: Results From ASCEND-2. J Clin Oncol 2016;34:abstr 2866-2873.
  33. Ou SH, Ahn JS, De Petris L, et al. Alectinib in Crizotinib-Refractory ALK-Rearranged Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer: A Phase II Global Study. J Clin Oncol 2016;34:661-8. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  34. Shaw AT, Gandhi L, Gadgeel S, et al. Alectinib in ALK-positive, crizotinib-resistant, non-small-cell lung cancer: a single-group, multicentre, phase 2 trial. Lancet Oncol 2016;17:234-42. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  35. Soria JC, Tan DS, Chiari R, et al. First-line ceritinib versus platinum-based chemotherapy in advanced ALK-rearranged non-small-cell lung cancer (ASCEND-4): a randomised, open-label, phase 3 study. Lancet 2017;389:917-29. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  36. Hida T, Nokihara H, Kondo M, et al. Alectinib versus crizotinib in patients with ALK-positive non-small-cell lung cancer (J-ALEX): an open-label, randomised phase 3 trial. Lancet 2017;390:29-39. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  37. Shaw AT, Peters S, Mok T, et al. Alectinib versus crizotinib in treatment-naive advanced ALK positive non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC): primary results of the global phase III ALEX study. J Clin Oncol 2017;35:abstr LBA9008.
  38. Kim DW, Tiseo M, Ahn MJ, et al. Brigatinib in Patients With Crizotinib-Refractory Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase-Positive Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer: A Randomized, Multicenter Phase II Trial. J Clin Oncol 2017;35:2490-8. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  39. Melosky B. Current Treatment Algorithms for Patients with Metastatic Non-Small Cell, Non-Squamous Lung Cancer. Front Oncol 2017;7:38. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  40. Bergethon K, Shaw AT, Ou SH, et al. ROS1 rearrangements define a unique molecular class of lung cancers. J Clin Oncol. 2012;30:863-70. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  41. Shaw AT, Ou SH, Bang YJ, et al. Crizotinib in ROS1-rearranged non-small-cell lung cancer. N Engl J Med 2014;371:1963-71. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  42. Paik PK, Arcila ME, Fara M, et al. Clinical characteristics of patients with lung adenocarcinomas harboring BRAF mutations. J Clin Oncol 2011;29:2046-51. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  43. Planchard D, Besse B, Groen HJ, et al. Dabrafenib plus trametinib in patients with previously treated BRAF(V600E)-mutant metastatic non-small cell lung cancer: an open-label, multicentre phase 2 trial. Lancet Oncol 2016;17:984-93. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  44. Mazières J, Peters S, Lepage B, et al. Lung cancer that harbors an HER2 mutation: epidemiologic characteristics and therapeutic perspectives. J Clin Oncol 2013;31:1997-2003. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  45. Paik PK, Drilon A, Fan PD, et al. Response to MET inhibitors in patients with stage IV lung adenocarcinomas harboring MET mutations causing exon 14 skipping. Cancer Discov 2015;5:842-9. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  46. Drilon A, Rekhtman N, Arcila M, et al. Cabozantinib in patients with advanced RET-rearranged non-small-cell lung cancer: an open-label, single-centre, phase 2, single-arm trial. Lancet Oncol 2016;17:1653-60. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  47. Gautschi O, Zander T, Keller FA, et al. A patient with lung adenocarcinoma and RET fusion treated with vandetanib. J Thorac Oncol 2013;8:e43-4. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  48. Reck M, Rodriguez-Abreu D, Robinson AG, et al. Pembrolizumab versus Chemotherapy for PD-L1-Positive Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer. N Engl J Med 2016;375:1823-33. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  49. Carbone DP, Reck M, Paz-Ares L, et al. First-Line Nivolumab in Stage IV or Recurrent Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer. N Engl J Med 2017;376:2415-26. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  50. Schiller JH, Harrington D, Belani CP, et al. Comparison of four chemotherapy regimens for advanced non-small-cell lung cancer. N Engl J Med 2002;346:92-8. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  51. Scagliotti GV, Parikh P, von Pawel J, et al. Phase III study comparing cisplatin plus gemcitabine with cisplatin plus pemetrexed in chemotherapy-naive patients with advanced-stage non-small-cell lung cancer. J Clin Oncol 2008;26:3543-51. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  52. Socinski MA, Bondarenko I, Karaseva NA, et al. Weekly nab-paclitaxel in combination with carboplatin versus solvent-based paclitaxel plus carboplatin as first-line therapy in patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer: final results of a phase III trial. J Clin Oncol 2012;30:2055-62. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  53. Soria JC, Mauguen A, Reck M, et al. Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised, phase II/III trials adding bevacizumab to platinum-based chemotherapy as first-line treatment in patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer. Ann Oncol 2013;24:20-30. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  54. Thatcher N, Hirsch FR, Luft AV, et al. Necitumumab plus gemcitabine and cisplatin versus gemcitabine and cisplatin alone as first-line therapy in patients with stage IV squamous non-small-cell lung cancer (SQUIRE): an open-label, randomised, controlled phase 3 trial. Lancet Oncol 2015;16:763-74. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  55. Paz-Ares LG, de Marinis F, Dediu M, et al. PARAMOUNT: Final overall survival results of the phase III study of maintenance pemetrexed versus placebo immediately after induction treatment with pemetrexed plus cisplatin for advanced nonsquamous non-small-cell lung cancer. J Clin Oncol 2013;31:2895-902. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  56. Barlesi F, Scherpereel A, Gorbunova V, et al. Maintenance bevacizumab-pemetrexed after first-line cisplatin-pemetrexed-bevacizumab for advanced nonsquamous nonsmall-cell lung cancer: updated survival analysis of the AVAPERL (MO22089) randomized phase III trial. Ann Oncol 2014;25:1044-52. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  57. Liu WM, Fowler DW, Smith P, et al. Pre-treatment with chemotherapy can enhance the antigenicity and immunogenicity of tumours by promoting adaptive immune responses. Br J Cancer 2010;102:115-23. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  58. Remon J, Pardo N, Martinez-Marti A, et al. Immune-checkpoint inhibition in first-line treatment of advanced non-small cell lung cancer patients: Current status and future approaches. Lung Cancer 2017;106:70-5. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  59. Langer CJ, Gadgeel SM, Borghaei H, et al. Carboplatin and pemetrexed with or without pembrolizumab for advanced, non-squamous non-small-cell lung cancer: a randomised, phase 2 cohort of the open-label KEYNOTE-021 study. Lancet Oncol 2016;17:1497-508. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  60. Borghaei H, Paz-Ares L, Horn L, et al. Nivolumab versus Docetaxel in Advanced Nonsquamous Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer. N Engl J Med 2015;373:1627-39. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  61. Brahmer J, Reckamp KL, Baas P, et al. Nivolumab versus Docetaxel in Advanced Squamous-Cell Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer. N Engl J Med 2015;373:123-35. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  62. Herbst RS, Baas P, Kim DW, et al. Pembrolizumab versus docetaxel for previously treated, PD-L1-positive, advanced non-small-cell lung cancer (KEYNOTE-010): a randomised controlled trial. Lancet 2016;387:1540-50. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  63. Fehrenbacher L, Spira A, Ballinger M, et al. Atezolizumab versus docetaxel for patients with previously treated non-small-cell lung cancer (POPLAR): a multicentre, open-label, phase 2 randomised controlled trial. Lancet 2016;387:1837-46. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  64. Rittmeyer A, Barlesi F, Waterkamp D, et al. Atezolizumab versus docetaxel in patients with previously treated non-small-cell lung cancer (OAK): a phase 3, open-label, multicentre randomised controlled trial. Lancet 2017;389:255-65. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  65. Gulley JL, Rajan A, Spigel DR, et al. Avelumab for patients with previously treated metastatic or recurrent non-small-cell lung cancer (JAVELIN Solid Tumor): dose-expansion cohort of a multicentre, open-label, phase 1b trial. Lancet Oncol 2017;18:599-610. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  66. Antonia S, Goldberg SB, Balmanoukian A, et al. Safety and antitumour activity of durvalumab plus tremelimumab in non-small cell lung cancer: a multicentre, phase 1b study. Lancet Oncol 2016;17:299-308. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  67. Reck M, Kaiser R, Mellemgaard A, et al. Docetaxel plus nintedanib versus docetaxel plus placebo in patients with previously treated non-small-cell lung cancer (LUME-Lung 1): a phase 3, double-blind, randomised controlled trial. Lancet Oncol 2014;15:143-55. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  68. Garon EB, Ciuleanu TE, Arrieta O, et al. Ramucirumab plus docetaxel versus placebo plus docetaxel for second-line treatment of stage IV non-small-cell lung cancer after disease progression on platinum-based therapy (REVEL): a multicentre, double-blind, randomised phase 3 trial. Lancet 2014;384:665-73. [Crossref] [PubMed]
  69. Soria JC, Felip E, Cobo M, et al. Afatinib versus erlotinib as second-line treatment of patients with advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the lung (LUX-Lung 8): an open-label randomised controlled phase 3 trial. Lancet Oncol 2015;16:897-907. [Crossref] [PubMed]
Cite this article as: Economopoulou P, Mountzios G. The emerging treatment landscape of advanced non-small cell lung cancer. Ann Transl Med 2018;6(8):138. doi: 10.21037/atm.2017.11.07