Metastatic cancers resistant to immunotherapy require novel management strategies. DNA damage response (DDR) proteins, including ATR (ataxia telangiectasia and Rad3-related), ATM (ataxia telangiectasia mutated) and DNA-PK (DNA-dependent protein kinase), have been promising therapeutic targets for decades. Specific, potent DDR inhibitors (DDRi) recently entered clinical trials. Surprisingly, preclinical studies have now indicated that DDRi may stimulate anti-tumor immunity to augment immunotherapy. The mechanisms governing how DDRi could promote anti-tumor immunity are not well understood; however, early evidence suggests that they can potentiate immunogenic cell death to recruit and activate antigen-presenting cells to prime an adaptive immune response. Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is well suited to test these concepts. It is inherently immunogenic as ~50% of patients with advanced MCC persistently benefit from immunotherapy, making MCC one of the most responsive solid tumors. As is typical of neuroendocrine cancers, dysfunction of p53 and Rb with upregulation of Myc leads to the very rapid growth of MCC. This suggests high replication stress and susceptibility to DDRi and DNA-damaging agents. Indeed, MCC tumors are particularly radiosensitive. Given its inherent immunogenicity, cell cycle checkpoint deficiencies and sensitivity to DNA damage, MCC may be ideal for testing whether targeting the intersection of the DDR checkpoint and the immune checkpoint could help patients with immunotherapy-refractory cancers.
Keywords: ATM; ATR; DNA damage response inhibitors; DNA-PK; Merkel cell carcinoma; PD-1 pathway; cell cycle checkpoint; immune checkpoint inhibitors; immunogenic cell death.