Fecal microbiota transplants help patients with advanced melanoma respond to immunotherapy

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

For patients with cancers that do not respond to immunotherapy drugs, adjusting the composition of the gut microbiome through the use of stool, or fecal, transplants may help some of these individuals respond to the immunotherapy drugs.

Researchers at NCI’s Center for Cancer Research conducted the study in collaboration with investigators from UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh. The findings were published in Science.

In the study, some patients with advanced melanoma who initially did not respond to treatment with an immune checkpoint inhibitor did respond to the drug after receiving a transplant of fecal microbiota from a patient who had responded to the drug.

The results suggest that introducing certain fecal microorganisms into a patient’s colon may help the patient respond to drugs that enhance the immune system’s ability to recognize and kill tumor cells.

“In recent years, immunotherapy drugs called PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitors have benefited many patients with certain types of cancer, but we need new strategies to help patients whose cancers do not respond,” study co-leader Giorgio Trinchieri, chief of the Laboratory of Integrative Cancer Immunology in NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, said in a statement. “Our study is one of the first to demonstrate in patients that altering the composition of the gut microbiome can improve the response to immunotherapy. The data provide proof of concept that the gut microbiome can be a therapeutic target in cancer.”

Research suggests that communities of bacteria and viruses in the intestines can affect the immune system and its response to chemotherapy and immunotherapy. For example, previous studies have shown that tumor-bearing mice that do not respond to immunotherapy drugs can start to respond if they receive certain gut microorganisms from mice that responded to the drugs.

Changing the gut microbiome may reprogram the microenvironments of tumors that resist immunotherapy drugs, making them more favorable to treatment with these medicines.

To test whether fecal transplants are safe and may help patients with cancer better respond to immunotherapy, Trinchieri and his colleagues developed a small, single-arm clinical trial for patients with advanced melanoma.

The patients’ tumors had not responded to one or more rounds of treatment with the immune checkpoint inhibitors pembrolizumab (Keytruda) or nivolumab (Opdivo), which were administered alone or in combination with other drugs. Immune checkpoint inhibitors release a brake that keeps the immune system from attacking tumor cells.

In the study, the fecal transplants, which were obtained from patients with advanced melanoma who had responded to pembrolizumab, were analyzed to ensure that no infectious agents would be transmitted. After treatment with saline and other solutions, the fecal transplants were delivered to the colons of patients through colonoscopies, and each patient also received pembrolizumab.

After these treatments, six out of 15 patients who had not originally responded to pembrolizumab or nivolumab responded with either tumor reduction or long-term disease stabilization. One of these patients has exhibited an ongoing partial response after more than two years and is still being followed by researchers, while four other patients are still receiving treatment and have shown no disease progression for over a year.

The treatment was well tolerated, though some of the patients experienced minor side effects that were associated with pembrolizumab, including fatigue.

The investigators analyzed the gut microbiota of all of the patients. The six patients whose cancers had stabilized or improved showed increased numbers of bacteria that have been associated with the activation of immune cells called T cells and with responses to immune checkpoint inhibitors.

In addition, by analyzing data on proteins and metabolites in the body, the researchers observed biological changes in patients who responded to the transplant. For example, levels of immune system molecules that are associated with resistance to immunotherapy declined, and levels of biomarkers that are associated with response increased.

Based on the study findings, the researchers suggest that larger clinical trials should be conducted to confirm the results and identify biological markers that could eventually be used to select patients who are most likely to benefit from treatments that alter the gut microbiome.

The clinical trial was conducted in collaboration with Merck, which sponsors Keytruda.

Table of Contents

YOU MAY BE INTERESTED IN

In the days leading up to the 2021 American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting, The Cancer Letter published a piece focused on Axel Grothey’s unethical sexual relationships with women he mentored while at Mayo Clinic. While this news was met by some as shocking, science tells us it is anything but.

Login