Harnessing the epigenome to boost immunotherapy response in non-small cell lung cancer patients

Ther Adv Med Oncol. 2021 May 25:13:17588359211006947. doi: 10.1177/17588359211006947. eCollection 2021.


The introduction of immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI)-based therapy for non-oncogene addicted non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) has significantly transformed the treatment landscape of the disease. Inhibitors of the programmed cell death protein 1/programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-1/PD-L1) immune checkpoint axis, which were initially considered as a late-line treatment option, gradually became the standard of care as first-line treatment for subgroups of NSCLC patients. However, a significant fraction of patients either fails to respond or progresses after a partial response to ICI treatment. Thus, the identification of mechanisms responsible for innate and acquired resistance to immunotherapy within a rapidly evolving tumor microenvironment (TME) is urgently required, as is the identification of reliable predictive biomarkers beyond PD-L1 expression. The deregulation of the epigenome is a key driver of cancer initiation and progression, and it has also been shown to drive therapeutic resistance. Tumor education of infiltrating myeloid cells towards an immuno-suppressive phenotype as well as induction of T-cell dysfunction in the TME is also driven by epigenome reprogramming. As it stands and, given their dynamic nature, epigenetic changes in cancer and non-cancer cells represent an attractive target to increase immunotherapy activity in NSCLC. Accordingly, clinical trials of combinatorial immuno-epigenetic drug regimens have been associated with tumor response in previously immunotherapy-resistant NSCLC patients irrespective of their PD-L1 status. Moreover, epigenetic signatures might represent valuable theragnostic biomarkers as they can be assayed easily in liquid biopsy and provide multiple layers of information. In this review, we discuss the current knowledge regarding the dysregulated epigenetic mechanisms contributing to immunotherapy resistance in NSCLC. Although the clinical data are still maturing, we highlight the attractive perspective that the synergistic model of immuno-epigenetic strategies might overcome the current limitations of immunotherapy alone and will be translated into durable clinical benefit for a broader NSCLC population.

Keywords: anti-PD-1; combination immunotherapy; epigenetics; immunotherapy; non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Publication types

  • Review