Immune Reconstitution following High-Dose Chemotherapy and Autologous Stem Cell Transplantation with or without Pembrolizumab Maintenance Therapy in Patients with Lymphoma

Transplant Cell Ther. 2022 Jan;28(1):32.e1-32.e10. doi: 10.1016/j.jtct.2021.10.010. Epub 2021 Oct 17.


Autologous stem cell transplantation (ASCT) is a standard of care for patients with chemosensitive, relapsed/refractory (R/R) classical Hodgkin lymphoma (cHL) and diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL). Whereas the clinical benefit of ASCT has traditionally been attributed solely to cytoreduction from intensive chemotherapy, ASCT has important immunogenic effects that may contribute to its antitumor efficacy and could provide a favorable immune environment for post-ASCT immune-based maintenance treatments. We previously reported clinical results of a phase II trial ( identifier NCT02362997) testing 8 doses of pembrolizumab maintenance therapy after ASCT for patients with R/R cHL or DLBCL. To clarify the impact of pembrolizumab on immune reconstitution, we compared the kinetics of peripheral blood immune cell recovery after ASCT for trial patients receiving pembrolizumab maintenance to those of a contemporaneous control cohort of similar patients undergoing ASCT without pembrolizumab maintenance. This study was conducted to characterize the impact of post-ASCT pembrolizumab maintenance therapy on immune reconstitution for patients with R/R DLBCL and cHL and to identify candidate biomarkers of efficacy and immune-related adverse events (irAEs). Peripheral blood (PB) mononuclear cell samples were prospectively collected at 1 to 18 months after ASCT and analyzed by flow cytometry using a panel of fluorophore-conjugated monoclonal antibodies to identify B cells, natural killer (NK) cells, and various dendritic cell (DC) and T cell subsets. A median of 5 (range, 1 to 8) post-ASCT PB samples were collected from 144 patients (59 in the pembrolizumab group and 85 in the control group). Clinical characteristics of the 2 cohorts were similar. Compared with cHL patients, DLBCL patients (all of whom received anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody therapy before ASCT) had delayed CD19+ cell reconstitution that persisted for at least 18 months after ASCT. No other differences in immune reconstitution based on lymphoma subtype were observed. Post-ASCT pembrolizumab maintenance therapy was associated with an elevation in circulating DCs (driven by higher levels of plasmacytoid and immature DCs) that persisted for the duration of pembrolizumab treatment, along with a significant reduction in PD-1+ T cells that persisted for 6 to 12 months after completion of pembrolizumab therapy. Despite the key role of T cells in mediating the effects of PD-1 blockade, pembrolizumab maintenance did not affect recovery of any T cell subsets. In an exploratory analysis, a higher baseline CD4+ terminal effector memory cell count (defined as CD3+CD4+CD45RA+CD62L-) was associated with inferior progression-free survival (PFS), but only among patients who received pembrolizumab maintenance (P = .003). As continuous variables, lower absolute levels of NK cells (P = .009), PD-1+ CD4+ T cells (P = .005), and PD-1+ CD8+ T cells (P = .005) before pembrolizumab initiation were each associated with a higher risk of grade 2+ irAEs. Our findings indicate that post-ACST pembrolizumab maintenance therapy is associated with a persistent elevation of circulating DCs, but its impact on the reconstitution of other immune cells in peripheral blood appears limited. Our study suggests that early features of post-ASCT immune reconstitution could be associated with PFS and the risk of irAE and warrant additional investigation. © 2021 American Society for Transplantation and Cellular Therapy. Published by Elsevier Inc.

Keywords: Autologous stem cell transplantation; Diffuse large B cell lymphoma; Hodgkin lymphoma; Immune reconstitution; PD-1; Pembrolizumab.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial, Phase II
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes
  • Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation*
  • Hodgkin Disease* / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Immune Reconstitution*
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local
  • Transplantation, Autologous


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • pembrolizumab

Associated data