FDA Approves Immunotherapy Combo for Liver Cancer

Nick Mulcahy

March 11, 2020

Patients with advanced liver cancer have a new treatment option ― the immunotherapy combination of nivolumab (Opdivo, Bristol-Myers Squibb) and ipilimumab (Yervoy, Bristol-Myers Squibb).

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted an accelerated approval of the combination for use in patients with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) who have previously been treated with sorafenib (Nexavar, Bayer).

Nivolumab is already approved as monotherapy for use in advanced HCC in patients who have previously been treated with sorafenib.

The immunotherapy combination has shown a response rate that is more than twice that seen with nivolumab alone.

The combination was tested at three different dosage schedules in the single-arm phase 1/2 trial known as CheckMate-040, which was conducted in 148 patients with advanced HCC who had previously been treated with sorafenib.

The approval was based on one arm of this trial, a cohort of 49 patients who were treated with nivolumab 1 mg/kg IV and ipilimumab 3 mg/kg IV every 3 weeks for four doses, followed by nivolumab 240 mg every 2 weeks until disease progression or unacceptable toxicity.

After a minimum follow-up of 28 months, 33% (16/49) of these patients showed a response, with 8% (4/49) showing a complete response and 24% (12/49) a partial response.

In terms of duration of responses, 88% of the responses lasted at least 6 months, 56% at least 12 months, and 31% at least 24 months, according to the company.

The results that led to the 2017 approval of nivolumab monotherapy for advanced HCC, as previously reported by Medscape Medical News, come from a cohort of 154 patients who received nivolumab 3 mg/kg administered intravenously every 2 weeks.

The overall response rate was 14.3% (22 of 154 patients), with three patients (1.9%) showing a complete response and 19 patients (12.3%) a partial response. The duration of the responses ranged from 3.2 to 38.2+ months; 91% of those patients had responses of 6 months or longer, and 55% had responses of 12 months or longer.

Notably, patient responses in all arms were achieved regardless of baseline tumor PD-L1 status.

Aggressive Disease, Incidence Is Rising

"HCC is an aggressive disease in need of different treatment approaches," said Anthony B. El-Khoueiry, MD, of the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, in a company press statement.

"The overall response rate observed in the Opdivo + Yervoy cohort of the CheckMate-040 trial underscores the potential of this dual immunotherapy as a possible treatment option for patients," he commented. El-Khoueiry was lead investigator of the study and has received honoraria and consulting fees from Bristol-Myers Squibb.

"The incidence of liver cancer is rising in the United States, and HCC is the most common and aggressive form of the disease," said Andrea Wilson, president and founder, Blue Faery: The Adrienne Wilson Liver Cancer Association.

"Today’s approval provides a new option for patients with HCC previously treated with sorafenib, giving the community more hope," she said in the company press statement.

Safety Profile

The nivolumab-ipilimumab combination had an "acceptable" safety profile overall in the CheckMate-040 trial, wrote lead study author Thomas Yao, MD, of the University at Hong Kong, China, and colleagues in their study abstract, which was presented at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Yao has received honoraria from Bristol-Myers Squibb and has served as a consultant to the company.

According to those data, 37% of patients had a grade 3–4 treatment-related adverse event (TRAE), the most common of which were pruritus and rash; 5% had grade 3–4 TRAEs that led to discontinuation.

Nivolumab is associated with pneumonitis, colitis, hepatitis, endocrinopathies, nephritis, renal dysfunction, skin adverse reactions, encephalitis, other adverse reactions, and infusion-related reactions, as well as embryo-fetal toxicity. Ipilimumab has a boxed warning for immune-mediated adverse reactions.

Nivolumab alone is approved for use in the treatment of unresectable or metastatic melanoma, non–small cell lung cancer, small cell lung cancer, and classical Hodgkin lymphoma.

The combination of nivolumab with ipilimumab is also approved for use in the treatment of melanoma and renal cell carcinoma.

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