Review of Indications of FDA-Approved Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors per NCCN Guidelines with the Level of Evidence

Cancers (Basel). 2020 Mar 20;12(3):738. doi: 10.3390/cancers12030738.


Cancer is associated with higher morbidity and mortality and is the second leading cause of death in the US. Further, in some nations, cancer has overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of mortality. Identification of molecular mechanisms by which cancerous cells evade T cell-mediated cytotoxic damage has led to the modern era of immunotherapy in cancer treatment. Agents that release these immune brakes have shown activity to recover dysfunctional T cells and regress various cancer. Both cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated protein 4 (CTLA-4) and Programmed Death-1 (PD-1) play their role as physiologic brakes on unrestrained cytotoxic T effector function. CTLA-4 (CD 152) is a B7/CD28 family; it mediates immunosuppression by indirectly diminishing signaling through the co-stimulatory receptor CD28. Ipilimumab is the first and only FDA-approved CTLA-4 inhibitor; PD-1 is an inhibitory transmembrane protein expressed on T cells, B cells, Natural Killer cells (NKs), and Myeloid-Derived Suppressor Cells (MDSCs). Programmed Death-Ligand 1 (PD-L1) is expressed on the surface of multiple tissue types, including many tumor cells and hematopoietic cells. PD-L2 is more restricted to hematopoietic cells. Blockade of the PD-1 /PDL-1 pathway can enhance anti-tumor T cell reactivity and promotes immune control over the cancerous cells. Since the FDA approval of ipilimumab (human IgG1 k anti-CTLA-4 monoclonal antibody) in 2011, six more immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) have been approved for cancer therapy. PD-1 inhibitors nivolumab, pembrolizumab, cemiplimab and PD-L1 inhibitors atezolizumab, avelumab, and durvalumab are in the current list of the approved agents in addition to ipilimumab. In this review paper, we discuss the role of each immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI), the landmark trials which led to their FDA approval, and the strength of the evidence per National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), which is broadly utilized by medical oncologists and hematologists in their daily practice.

Keywords: CTLA-4; FDA; NCCN; PDL-1; T-cells activation; atezolizumab; avelumab; cancer; cemiplimab; checkpoint inhibitors; durvalumab; immunotherapy; ipilimumab; nivolumab; pembrolizumab.

Publication types

  • Review