Immunotherapy use outside clinical trial populations: never say never?

Ann Oncol. 2021 Mar 24;S0923-7534(21)01078-4. doi: 10.1016/j.annonc.2021.03.199. Online ahead of print.


Background: Based on favourable outcomes in clinical trials, immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs), most notably programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) and cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen-4 (CTLA-4) inhibitors, are now widely used across multiple cancer types. However, due to their strict inclusion and exclusion criteria, clinical studies often do not address challenges presented by non-trial populations.

Design: This review summarises available data on the efficacy and safety of ICIs in trial-ineligible patients, including those with autoimmune disease, chronic viral infections, organ transplants, organ dysfunction, poor performance status, and brain metastases, as well as the elderly, children, and those who are pregnant. In addition, we review data concerning other real-world challenges with ICIs, including timing of therapy switch, relationships to radiotherapy or surgery, re-treatment after an immune-related toxicity, vaccinations in patients on ICIs, and current experience around ICI and coronavirus disease-19. Where possible, we provide recommendations to aid the often-difficult decision-making process in those settings.

Conclusions: Data suggest that ICIs are often active and have an acceptable safety profile in the populations described above, with the exception of PD-1 inhibitors in solid organ transplant recipients. Decisions about whether to treat with ICIs should be personalised and require multidisciplinary input and careful counselling of patients with respect to potential risks and benefits. Clinical judgements need to be carefully weighed, considering factors such as underlying cancer type, feasibility of alternative treatment options, or activity in trial-eligible patients.

Keywords: CTLA-4; PD-1; checkpoint inhibitors; immunotherapy; special populations.

Publication types

  • Review