Pre-existing effector T-cell levels and augmented myeloid cell composition denote response to CDK4/6 inhibitor palbociclib and pembrolizumab in hormone receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer

J Immunother Cancer. 2021 Mar;9(3):e002084. doi: 10.1136/jitc-2020-002084.


Background: Single-agent pembrolizumab treatment of hormone receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer (MBC) has demonstrated modest clinical responses. Little is known about potential biomarkers or mechanisms of response to immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) in patients with HR+ MBC. The present study presents novel immune correlates of clinical responses to combined treatment with CDK4/6i and ICI.

Methods: A combined analysis of two independent phase I clinical trials treating patients with HR+ MBC was performed. Patients treated with the combination of the CDK4/6i palbociclib+the ICI pembrolizumab+the aromatase inhibitor (AI) letrozole (palbo+pembro+AI) were compared with patients treated with pembrolizumab+AI (pembro+AI). Peripheral blood mononuclear cells collected at pretreatment, 3 weeks (cycle 2 day 1) and 9 weeks (cycle 4 day 1) were characterized by high-parameter flow cytometry to assess baseline immune subset composition and longitudinal changes in response to therapy.

Results: In the peripheral blood, higher pretreatment frequencies of effector memory CD45RA+ CD8+ T cells and effector memory CD4+ T cells were observed in responders to palbo+pembro+AI. In contrast, this was not observed in pembro+AI-treated patients. We further characterized T-cell subsets of effector-like killer cell lectin-like receptor subfamily G member 1 (KLRG1+) ICOS+ CD4+ T cells and KLRG1+ CD45RA+ CD8+ T cells as baseline biomarkers of response. In comparison, pretreatment levels of tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte, tumor mutation burden, tumor programmed death-ligand 1 expression, and overall immune composition did not associate with clinical responses. Over the course of treatment, significant shifts in myeloid cell composition and phenotype were observed in palbo+pembro+AI-treated patients, but not in those treated with pembro+AI. We identified increased fractions of type 1 conventional dendritic cells (cDC1s) within circulating dendritic cells and decreased classical monocytes (cMO) within circulating monocytes only in patients treated with palbociclib. We also demonstrated that in palbociclib-treated patients, cDC1 and cMO displayed increased CD83 and human leukocyte antigen-DR isotype (HLA-DR) expression, respectively, suggesting increased maturation and antigen presentation capacity.

Conclusions: Pre-existing circulating effector CD8+ and CD4+ T cells and dynamic modulation of circulating myeloid cell composition denote response to combined pembrolizumab and palbociclib therapy for patients with HR+ MBC.

Trial registration number: NCT02778685 and NCI02648477.

Keywords: CD4-positive T-lymphocytes; CD8-positive T-lymphocytes; breast neoplasms; immunotherapy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

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