Study: Solid-Tumor Cancer Patients Ineligible for Trials Receive Immunotherapy at Greater Rates Despite Lack of Benefits

lung cancer scan

Cancer patients who are ineligible for clinical trials receive immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) at greater rates than patients who are trial eligible despite no survival benefit, according to a new study by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The study, published in JAMA Oncology, suggests that the positive results for Phase III clinical trial participants receiving ICI treatment may not translate to patients who are ineligible for trials due to factors such as organ dysfunction.

ICIs, a type of immunotherapy, are part of the standard of care for patients with many advanced solid tumors and are generally associated with improved survival. Randomized Phase III ICI clinical trials have traditionally excluded advanced cancer patients because of poor performance status—an estimate of a patient’s ability to complete daily activities—or disease-related organ dysfunction, which may increase risk for adverse events associated with ICI treatment. Because of the absence of randomized trial data that defines the impact of ICI treatment on advanced cancer patients deemed ineligible for trials, researchers conducted a retrospective study to look at treatment rates and outcomes for these patients, as compared to those patients for whom trial data are available.

The nationwide study of 34,000 patients diagnosed with advanced solid tumors included those with metastatic or recurrent non-small cell lung cancer, urothelial cell cancer, renal cell cancer, and hepatocellular carcinoma. The researchers set out to determine if the frequency of use and effectiveness of ICIs in this patient population with more advanced disease are similar to those with less advanced disease. They found that use of ICI monotherapy increased over the study period, between 2014 to 2019, up to 30.2% among patients who would be trial-ineligible, compared to 19.4% among patients who would be trial-eligible.

“Patients with advanced cancers are in desperate need of treatment options, and immunotherapy provides a targeted approach worth studying further, especially in trial-ineligible patients,” said Ravi B. Parikh, MD, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy and medicine at Penn. “Despite the lack of evidence and benefits for this vulnerable population, we found that oncologists used immunotherapy at faster rates for trial-ineligible patients. However, healthcare providers of patients with poor functional status or organ dysfunction should not assume immunotherapies will confer the same benefit as the populations studied in trials.”

The researchers did not find evidence of survival benefit among trial-ineligible patients receiving ICI monotherapy or combination therapy compared to other treatment options, and the study suggests the cautious use of ICI combination therapy for trial-ineligible patients due to the potential for early harm.

This study was funded by a Conquer Cancer Foundation Young Investigator Award, the National Cancer Institute, and the Catholic Medical Center Research Foundation.

Edited by Gary Cramer