Abnormal vascular structure and function within brain metastases is linked to pembrolizumab resistance

Neuro Oncol. 2023 Dec 9:noad236. doi: 10.1093/neuonc/noad236. Online ahead of print.


Background: We recently conducted a phase 2 trial (NCT028865685) evaluating intracranial efficacy of pembrolizumab for brain metastases (BM) of diverse histologies. Our study met its primary efficacy endpoint and illustrates that pembrolizumab exerts promising activity in a select group of patients with BM. Given the importance of aberrant vasculature in mediating immunosuppression, we explored the relationship between checkpoint inhibitor (ICI) efficacy and vascular architecture in the hopes of identifying potential mechanisms of intracranial ICI response or resistance for BM.

Methods: Using Vessel Architectural Imaging (VAI), a histologically validated quantitative metric for in vivo tumor vascular physiology, we analyzed dual echo DSC/DCE MRI for 44 patients on trial. Tumor and peri-tumor cerebral blood volume/flow, vessel size, arterial- and venous-dominance, and vascular permeability were measured before and after treatment with pembrolizumab.

Results: BM that progressed on ICI were characterized by a highly aberrant vasculature dominated by large-caliber vessels. In contrast, ICI-responsive BM possessed a more structurally balanced vasculature consisting of both small and large vessels, and there was a trend towards a decrease in under-perfused tissue, suggesting a reversal of the negative effects of hypoxia. In the peri-tumor region, development of smaller blood vessels, consistent with neo-angiogenesis, was associated with tumor growth before radiographic evidence of contrast enhancement on anatomical MRI.

Conclusions: This study, one of the largest functional imaging studies for BM, suggests that vascular architecture is linked with ICI efficacy. Studies identifying modulators of vascular architecture, and effects on immune activity, are warranted and may inform future combination treatments.

Keywords: brain metastases; checkpoint inhibition; functional imaging; vascular efficiency.