Patients with glioblastoma (GBM) exhibit a complex state of immunodeficiency involving multiple mechanisms of local, regional, and systemic immune suppression and tolerance. These pathways are now being identified and their relative contributions explored. Delineating how these pathways are interrelated is paramount to effectively implementing immunotherapy for GBM 2).
Progress in the development of these therapies for glioblastoma has been slow due to the lack of immunogenic antigen targets that are expressed uniformly and selectively by gliomas.
Trials have revealed promising trends in overall survival and progression free survival for patients with glioblastoma, and have paved the way for ongoing randomized controlled trials 3) 4)
Some clinical trials are reaching phase III. Significant progress has been made in unraveling the molecular and genetic heterogeneity of glioblastoma multiforme and its implications to disease prognosis. There is now consensus related to the critical need to incorporate tumor heterogeneity into the design of therapeutic approaches. Recent data also indicates that an efficacious treatment strategy will need to be combinatorial and personalized to the tumor genetic signature 5).
A recurrent theme of this work is that immunotherapy is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, dynamic, tumor-specific interactions within the tumor microenvironment continually shape the immunologic balance between tumor elimination and escape. High-grade gliomas are a particularly fascinating example. These aggressive, universally fatal tumors are highly resistant to radiation and chemotherapy and inevitably recur after surgical resection. Located in the immune-privileged central nervous system, high-grade gliomas also employ an array of defenses that serve as direct impediments to immune attack. Despite these challenges, vaccines have shown activity against high-grade gliomas and anecdotal, preclinical, and early clinical data bolster the notion that durable remission is possible with immunotherapy. Realizing this potential, however, will require an approach tailored to the unique aspects of glioma biology 6).
Clinical experiences with active specific immunotherapy demonstrate feasibility, safety and most importantly, but incompletely understood, prolonged long-term survival in a fraction of the patients. In relapsed patients, Van Gool et al developed an immunotherapy schedule and categorized patients into clinically defined risk profiles. He learned how to combine immunotherapy with standard multimodal treatment strategies for newly diagnosed glioblastoma multiforme patients. The developmental program allows further improvements related to newest scientific insights. Finally, he developed a mode of care within academic centers to organize cell therapy for experimental clinical trials in a large number of patients 7).
Current clinical trials take a multifaceted approach with the intention of harnessing the intrinsic cytotoxic capabilities of the immune system to directly target glioblastoma cancer stem cells (gCSC) or indirectly disrupt their stromal microenvironment. Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), dendritic cell (DC) vaccines, and chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapies have emerged as the most common approaches, with particular iterations incorporating cancer stem cell antigenic markers in their treatment designs. Ongoing work to determine the comprehensive antigenic profile of the gCSC in conjunction with efforts to counter the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment holds much promise in future immunotherapeutic strategies against GBM. Given recent advancements in these fields, Esparza etal. believe there is tremendous potential to improve outcomes of GBM patients in the continuing evolution of immunotherapies targeted to cancer stem cell populations in GBM 8).
Immunostimulating oligodeoxynucleotides containing unmethylated cytosine–guanosine motifs (CpG-ODN) have shown a promising efficacy in several cancer models when injected locally. A previous phase II study of CpG-ODN in patients with recurrent glioblastoma (GBM) has suggested some activity and has shown a limited toxicity. This multicentre single-blinded randomised phase II trial was designed to study the efficacy of a local treatment by CpG-ODN in patients with de novo glioblastomas.
Patients with a newly diagnosed glioblastoma underwent large surgical resection and CpG-ODN was randomly administrated locally around the surgical cavity. The patients were then treated according to standard of care (SOC) with radiotherapy and temozolomide. The primary objective was 2-year survival. Secondary outcomes were progression free survival (PFS), and tolerance.
Eighty-one (81) patients were randomly assigned to receive CpG-ODN plus SOC (39 patients) or SOC (42 patients). The 2-year overall survival was 31% (19%; 49%) in the CpG-ODN arm and 26% (16%; 44%) in the SOC arm. The median PFS was 9 months in the CpG-ODN arm and 8.5 months in the SOC arm. The incidence of adverse events was similar in both arms; although fever and post-operative haematoma were more frequent in the CpG-ODN arm.
Local immunotherapy with CpG-ODN injected into the surgical cavity after tumour removal and followed by SOC, although well tolerated, does not improve survival of patients with newly diagnosed GBM 9).
Epidermal growth factor receptor 3 (EGFRvIII) is present in approximately one-third of glioblastoma (GBM) patients. It is never found in normal tissues; therefore, it represents a candidate target for glioblastoma immunotherapy. PEPvIII, a peptide sequence from EGFRvIII, was designed to represent a target of glioma and is presented by MHC I/II complexes. Dendritic cells (DCs) have great potential to sensitize CD4+ T and CD8+ T cells to precisely target and eradicate GBM.
Li et al. show that PEPvIII could be loaded by DCs and presented to T lymphocytes, especially PEPvIII-specific CTLs, to precisely kill U87-EGFRvIII cells. In addition to inhibiting proliferation and inducing the apoptosis of U87-EGFRvIII cells, miR-326 also reduced the expression of TGF-β1 in the tumour environment, resulting in improved efficacy of T cell activation and killing via suppressing the SMO/Gli2 axis, which at least partially reversed the immunosuppressive environment. Furthermore, combining the EGFRvIII-DC vaccine with miR-326 was more effective in killing U87-EGFRvIII cells compared with the administration of either one alone. This finding suggested that a DC-based vaccine combined with miR-326 may induce more powerful anti-tumour immunity against GBM cells that express a relevant antigen, which provides a promising approach for GBM immunotherapy 10).