Background: Immunotherapy with checkpoint inhibitors (CI) represents an important novel development in cancer treatment. Metastatic triple-negative breast cancer (mTNBC) is incurable, with a median survival of only ~ 13 months. We have initiated the randomized placebo-controlled phase IIb study ALICE, evaluating PD-L1 blockade combined with immunogenic chemotherapy in mTNBC patients (n = 75). Intriguingly, the host immune response is strongly predictive for the effect of chemotherapy in mTNBC. In the ALICE trial, we release the brake on the immune response by use of atezolizumab, an inhibitory antibody against PD-L1. We utilize anthracyclines, shown to trigger the immune system, and low-dose cyclophosphamide, which has been reported to counter immunosuppressive cells.
Methods: ALICE is a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled exploratory phase II study evaluating the safety and efficacy of atezolizumab when combined with immunogenic chemotherapy in subjects with mTNBC. The trial will enroll 75 evaluable subjects, randomized 2:3 into two arms (A:B). The patients receive identical chemotherapy, i.e. pegylated liposomal doxorubicin (PLD 20 mg/m2 intravenously every 2nd week) + cyclophosphamide (50 mg per day, first 2 weeks in each 4 week cycle). Patients in arm A receive placebo, while patients in arm B receive atezolizumab. The primary objectives are assessment of toxicity and progression-free survival. The secondary objectives include overall survival, tumor response rate, clinical benefit rate, patient reported outcomes, biomarkers and assessment of tumor-immune evolution during therapy.
Discussion: The question of how CI should be combined with chemotherapy, is a key challenge facing the field. There is a strong preclinical rationale for exploring if anthracyclines, which are considered to induce immunogenic cell death, synergize with PD-L1 blockade, and if low-dose cyclophosphamide counters tumor tolerance. However, the data from patients is as yet very limited, and the clinical evaluation of these hypotheses is among the key objectives in the ALICE trial. The study includes extensive biobanking and translational sub-projects, also addressing other clinically important questions. These analyses may uncover mechanisms of drug efficacy or tumor resistance, and identify biomarkers allowing personalized therapy. If the trial suggests acceptable safety of the ALICE therapy and provide a signal of clinical efficacy, further studies are warranted. Trial registration NCT03164993, May 24th 2017; https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/record/NCT03164993.
Keywords: Anthracycline; Breast cancer; Checkpoint inhibitor; Cyclophosphamide; Immunogenic cell death; Immunotherapy; PD-1; PD-L1; Triple negative.