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Jul 21, 2023

In this JCO Article Insights episode, Davide Soldato interviews Dr. Naqash  from University of Oklahoma. Dr. Naqash provides insight into the original article published in the July JCO issue: “Safety and Activity of Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors in People Living With HIV and Cancer: A Real-World Report From the Cancer Therapy Using Checkpoint Inhibitors in People Living With HIV-International (CATCH-IT) Consortium”. The interview offers a deep dive into the manuscript results on efficacy and safety of Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors in this specific population and offers insights on future research direction in this space.


The guest on this podcast episode has no disclosures to declare. 

Davide Soldato: Welcome to this JCO Article Insights episode for the July issues of JCO. This is Davide Soldato and today I will have the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash, the author of the manuscript titled "Safety and Activity of Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors in People Living with HIV and Cancer: A Real World Report from the Cancer Therapy Using Checkpoint Inhibitors in People Living with HIV-International Consortium."

 Dr. Naqash is an Assistant Professor of Hematology-Oncology at the University of Oklahoma and a Medical Oncologist working at the Stephenson Cancer Center. His research interests revolve around early-phase clinical trials in solid tumors, lung cancer, and the study of immunotherapy, biomarkers, and resistance. 

Welcome, Dr. Naqash, and thank you for accepting our invitation today.

Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: Dr. Soldato, thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited to discuss this article with you today.

Davide Soldato: So I just wanted to go a little bit over the manuscript with you. So basically, this is a retrospective multicenter study that was conducted across the US, Europe, and Australia by the CATCH-IT Consortium. And so the aim of the study was really to investigate the safety and the activity of immune checkpoint inhibitors among patients diagnosed with cancer and also living with HIV. The article examined two different cohorts, and I just wanted to start with a brief explanation of how the two cohorts were built so that our readers can get a little bit of understanding of what you did then.

Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: Sure. Before I take a deep dive into the cohorts, Dr. Soldato, I would definitely like to mention the premise and the background for this paper as to why we did what we did. And one of the primary reasons was that people living with HIV, historically, there have been very limited number of trials that have included these individuals. So it becomes a very important question from a disparity standpoint. And most often we end up, in the real world setting, we end up extrapolating data from clinical trials, but not necessarily know what is the outcome of these individuals in the real world setting. 

So there have been some very important studies in the last three years or so in people with HIV as far as clinical trials with checkpoint inhibitors go, but most of those trials have been limited by the number of patients, number of people that have been part of those trials. So we wanted to understand it from a broad perspective, whether it is from a broad geographic perspective or from a heterogeneous patient population perspective, which is why we built this consortium called the CATCH-IT Consortium, which basically stands for Cancer Therapy Using Checkpoint Inhibitors in People Living With HIV-International Consortium. And this required a lot of effort from a lot of different centers, including those in the US, Europe, and Australia, as you mentioned. And then we ended up having data worth around 400 plus patients, close to 400 patients or so. And then we wanted to look at obviously outcomes, whether it's related to a certain tumor such as lung cancer, which we did in this case, or a pan tumor assessment of toxicities and safeties. 

So, to your question, the cohorts that we basically had, we had close to approximately 390 patients that we included in the safety analysis. So first we looked at the safety analysis, which was the entire cohort, and then out of those we excluded around 12 patients or so. Those were patients that were treated in the adjuvant setting. So in the metastatic advanced setting, we had close to 378 individuals that we assessed clinical outcomes for. So, response rates, progression-free survival, and overall survival. And then as far as a separate cohort, we looked at non-small cell lung cancer, which was the most commonly represented tumor type, with approximately 111 patients that had non-small cell lung cancer. We did exclude a certain proportion of those that were earlier stage, stage III. 

So in the stage IV, basically we ended up matching in this separate cohort, around 60 odd patients or so of non-small cell lung cancer to 110 stage four, non-small cell lung cancers. So basically it was a one-to-two matching and we chose the same site. So if a site had, let's say, two people with HIV and lung cancer treatment checkpoint, we tried to match it to approximately four to five patients from the same site and we used some variables for matching so that we had some level of homogeneity between the HIV patient population and the non-HIV positive lung cancer individuals. So that's basically cohort A was around 370-something patients, tumor agnostic advanced metastatic setting. Cohort B was lung cancer individuals matched to non-HIV positive lung cancer treatment checkpoint inhibitors.

Davide Soldato: Thank you very much. That was very clear. Just to go back to what you were saying before because I think that this is very interesting. You mentioned that patients living with HIV were mostly excluded from clinical trials and in the few that included them, there were some restrictive criteria in terms for example of CD4-positive cells in the blood. And so I was wondering if when you included the patients inside of this cohort, you also had this type of exclusion criteria or you chose a broader population to make the results more generalizable and applicable in clinical practice. 

Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: Right, a very important question. Thank you, Dr. Soldato. So yes, previous clinical trials have had some level of restrictions as far as the inclusion of these individuals, but in our study, this was a real-world study, basically, patients whoever presents to the clinic with a history of HIV, they were all included. So we did not restrict it to certain CD4 counts or viral loads because the important thing was we wanted to understand the ground situation of how these individuals do, irrespective of some of these limitations. As far as what we identified as baseline CD counts or HIV viral load positivity, we took three months before immune checkpoint initiation as a cut off so obviously there's a limitation there. We didn't have results of these CD4, CD at a viral load assessments done like the day of or the week before in some patients. So we took three months and we included individuals that had received at least one or more dose of immune checkpoint therapy between January of 2015 to October of 2021, which was our database lock. 

And then obviously the regimens included immune checkpoint anti-PD1, PD-L1 monotherapy, or in combination with other anticancer agents including anti-CTLA-4 or chemotherapies targets, which is important to point out here. So the trials that have been mostly done in this space are single-agent checkpoint inhibitors or anti-PD1 with anti-CTLA-4. There's not much data for immune checkpoint inhibition combined with other agents such as targeted therapies, chemotherapies. So we had some of that data in this cohort, which kind of made it interesting.

Davide Soldato: Yeah, I think that it's very interesting and it's very wise to choose very broad eligibility criteria for these type of studies because it really answered to the question that we identified and that we spoke about in the beginning.

 So going back to the results, you said that the cohort A, so the one that included all the patients, irrespectively of the type of tumor that was diagnosed, it was mainly for evaluating what was the safety of immune checkpoint inhibitors in patients living with HIV and with a concurrent cancer diagnosis. So I was wondering if in this cohort you identified some differences compared to historic data in terms of, for example, incidence of grade three or higher toxicities or incidence of immune-related adverse events in general, and if maybe there was some adverse events that was very characteristic or particular in this cohort.

Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: So immune-adverse events is a very interesting question not only from this cohort but in general because it overlaps with this question of autoimmunity and cross T cell cross reactivity. And this is a unique patient population where we have the ability, although not fully but to some extent, to look at the role for CD counts and also look for patterns of adverse events. 

To answer your first part of the question, we didn’t see any significant differences for the types of adverse events. We did see the incident was a little lower than what you would expect in the real-world setting for non-HIV individuals. Whether that has something to do with how the immune system is constructed in these individuals, nobody knows. We did look at CD4 and CD8 counts. As far as absolute CD4 counts, about 200 or below 200, we didn’t see a difference as far as the cumulative incidence for immune checkpoint inhibitor-related adverse events. When we did a ratio of CD4 to CD8 of greater than 0.4 and compared it to less than 0.4, we did see that at around 24 weeks, there was a difference in terms of the cumulative incidence for adverse events. It was around 10% versus 26% when we use that cut-off of 0.4, suggesting that there might be some role of how the peripheral immune system results in the related adverse events in these individuals, but it’s a very important question. 

I think there are ongoing evaluations that are being done from other prospective studies that had collected blood samples in these individuals. But generally, we saw the same range of adverse events, diarrhea, colitis, pneumonitis, hepatitis. We did have a few patients who had  a history of opportunistic infections, but we didn’t see any significant reactivation there which was part of the safety assessment in our analysis.   

Davide Soldato: So basically, because I think that in HIV patients, even if those included in the study were almost all were on antiretroviral therapy, but you didn't observe any opportunistic infection that developed during the course of immunotherapy.

Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: You're absolutely right, we did not. In fact, we are trying to look at that in a different setting, in a different cohort because there have been some data on mycobacterial reactivation in individuals in general, not just HIV, but in our cohort of 400 odd patients, we did not see any new opportunistic infections.

Davide Soldato: I think that one aspect that pops into my mind right now is also that we have kind of some data regarding also possible HPV reactivation in these types of patients treated with immune checkpoint inhibitors. So maybe that could be also something that you would be interested to look at in the future, I imagine.

 Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: Yes, we are planning to look at HPV-driven cancers actually for starters, anal and head and neck. We are also looking at hepatitis B-related HCC in a separate ongoing cohort. So there are definitely subsequent steps that we are currently involved in as far as viral-driven cancers and concurrent HIV is concerned.

Davide Soldato: Thank you. I think that's very interesting. And I was wondering, you mentioned in the beginning that this patient clearly they have some degree of immune dysregulation or at least some type of dysfunction in terms of immune presentation and immune activation. So I think that one of the concerns or one of the worries of using immune checkpoint inhibitors in this population could also be that the efficacy that we see in patients that do not have HIV could be lower. Could you comment on this if you found any differences both in the cohort including all cancer, but also in the cohort B, that I think you had the strategic idea of pairing these patients living with HIV with patients that were not living with HIV. So I think that this brings very important data to the space.

Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: Yes, we tried to look at this one from a tumor-agnostic perspective and a tumor-specific perspective. So the tumor agnostic perspective was looking at a different set of cancers which included skin cancer, melanoma, lung cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, small cell head and neck, and a couple of other cancers. And one of the things we noticed was that there was a trend, so there was differential efficacy as far as the cancer type is concerned. So for example, skin, Hodgkin's lymphoma, Kaposi sarcoma, melanoma had the highest response rates, somewhere in the range of 60s to 40s. On the other hand, viral-driven cancers such as anal cancer, HCC, head and neck actually had very low response rates, less than 15% or so. So that begs the question of what is going on and we don't necessarily know, which is why we are trying to concentrate on the viral-driven cancers first. Because as you know, melanoma, Kaposi’s do have historically shown better responses to checkpoint inhibitors.  

Now do we know if when we compare these responses or survival to non-HIV individuals in clinical trials, are the outcomes similar? I would say in some of the tumor types the outcomes were somewhat inferior and in some of the tumor types the outcomes were somewhat similar. So for example, lung, we did compare non-small cell lung cancer. As I mentioned, we had two cohorts, we matched it to a non-HIV cohort and there we looked at progression-free survival and overall survival. And again the caveat is that this is a retrospectively matched cohort, this is not a prospectively matched cohort. So these are individuals that are not matched for each and every variable. They're matched for certain top three or four variables as much as we could accommodate. And based on that we didn't see a difference in the progression-free survival and the overall survival when we did an assessment. 

In fact, we looked at it at a 42 month period where we looked at the restricted median survival time and it was not different, was around 17.8% for people with HIV and 18.4% for people without HIV as far as progression-free survival, and around 42% and 41% overall survival at the two-year mark. So basically there is not much significant difference which reiterates the fact that in the right setting, these individuals could be safely treated with immune checkpoint inhibition and could perhaps have similar outcomes. Maybe not in all tumor types, but in some tumor types. But at the end of the day, and we mentioned this in our manuscript also in subsequent work that we are trying to do, we have emphasized on the fact that it has to be a multidisciplinary discussion between the patient, the physician, the medical oncologist, the treating oncologist, and the infectious disease person. Because these individuals have a lot of complicated aspects because of the underlying HIV and taking that into perspective and then assessing risk-benefit is an important discussion.

 So the goal of this work was not to establish that immune checkpoint inhibitors are absolutely beneficial or absolutely safe. The goal was more to create awareness that people in the real-world setting actually can benefit, which the next step would be to have more trials and perhaps modify inclusion criteria in clinical trials so that you can have a more inclusive approach, including these individuals. 

Davide Soldato: Coming back to the multidisciplinary approach because I think that this is very interesting and should be really implemented when we have this type of patient. From the data that you collected, did you add any indication that maybe this patient treated in the real-world setting were not managed in such a multidisciplinary way?

Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: The easiest way to point that out is that most of these people or many of these individuals did not have HIV viral loads or CD4 counts done before treatment initiation. And that's an indirect surrogate for telling you that these are things that should have been thought of, but were not thought of if the individual taking care of these people either did not have expertise as far as HIV is concerned or did not have a colleague on the infectious disease side who was actively managing these people. 

So that's an important indirect way where we kind of got a sense that there has to be more awareness about multidisciplinary care. And especially the immune adverse event situation in these individuals can get complicated because of the way their immune system is constructed and having that multidisciplinary care is very important. We didn't specifically collect data on what teams or what subspecialists were involved in each individual's care, but I think that would be an important assessment for maybe a future quality improvement project to look at why or how some of those things were not done so that it can lead to future improvements.

Davide Soldato: So, just expanding on that, you said that you didn't have much data in terms of CD4 cells or in terms of viral load. But for what you had inside of your cohort, did you see any modification of these parameters that we know that are very important in patients living with HIV under immune checkpoint inhibitors therapy?

Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: Again, a very important immunological question, I think as far as what we saw- so we had close to around 74, 75 individuals that had CD4 T cell counts available. And we didn’t see differences between baseline and post-immune checkpoint therapy changes in CD4 counts. Similarly, we didn’t see a difference as far as HIV viral load and we had HIV viral loads present in around 107 individuals and we didn’t see a difference. Now, again, 30% of our cohort was CD4 count less than 200, and 70% was CD4 count more than 200, , which is again, important to highlight because many trials don’t take individuals with the CD4 count less than 200.

But in general, we did not see a difference in this pre and post-assessment both for viral load and both for CD4 count. Now trials in this space have ongoing assessments that they are doing. The AIDS Malignancy Consortium does have a trial looking at changes in CD4/CD8 counts or viral loads. In fact, the CITN trial which is a pembrolizumab trial published a couple of years back did have an assessment done as far as CD4 counts and viral loads are concerned. And I think they did see a slight increase in the CD4 counts and there are some aspects about how the immune system may change with an immune checkpoint inhibitor. But I think the strength of the data is not that much, and I think we probably need more patient samples to assess why or how some of that could change or what implications it would have for patients. 

Now, there is another concept of HIV viral latency removal that some of the listeners might have heard of, especially in the HIV setting, where you were given an immune checkpoint inhibitor and it can lead to reversal or reduction of the HIV reservoir, which can somehow impact the CD4 counts, and also lead to elimination of the viruses through CD8. But again, that’s a more complicated assessment and we didn't have data for it. 

 Davide Soldato: Thank you very much. That was very interesting also for future perspectives in this topic. 

I just wanted to ask you if the idea for the research came more from ensuring equity in terms of care delivery for patients living with HIV or if it was more also to investigate the immunological components that we discussed just as far or a good mix of the two.

Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: I think the idea actually stemmed from this individual who's the first author, Dr. Talal El Zarif and co-first author Dr. Amin Nasser from Dana-Farber, reached out a year and a half back and they wanted to look at outcomes from an HIV standpoint and see what the real world setting is. And the goal was they would have their data and we would have our data and we would eventually collect the data together or combine the data together. But then after some conversations, we started looking at the available data, the available literature, saw that there was a decent gap in what we know. And I know there are some brilliant groups in the HIV space, especially at the NCI. In fact, Dr. Kate Lurain and Dr. Ramaswami are good collaborators of ours and they worked in this space and are currently developing trials in this space. But it just did seem like this would be a more interesting approach of answering a real-world question and then also looking at the disparities of it because as an early-phase drug development trialist, I still see a lot of trials, in fact, majority of the trials, say people with HIV or history of HIV are excluded. 

Now, the NCI has made important efforts in that space of including those individuals, but I think we still have some ways to go. So basically the idea came from two trainees who were extremely enthusiastic and wanted to pursue this. And I, obviously, seeing their level of enthusiasm and excitement, I was excited too. And then importantly, if you look at the paper, we have a bunch of authors, we have close to 79, 80 authors on that paper. And the primary reason was that each center contributed in certain ways, including patients' data and then expertise. And this ended up being a huge community effort from the oncology community, where everybody's individual effort led to something like this coming to fruition. 

So it was a multitude of different aspects, but yes, it all started with a question of how these individuals do and the current data where they're missing gaps, and we wanted to sort of supplement those gaps and provide insights using this important real-world data set.

Davide Soldato: Thank you very much for the insight on how the idea came to be.

 Is there anything else you would like to add or to summarize for our listeners?

Dr. Abdul Rafeh Naqash: Well, first of all, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss our paper here. I would like to thank you and of course the JCO staff for organizing this, and also the JCO Journal for giving us the opportunity to publish this important work. Some of the things that we would like to highlight as outcomes from this paper, as we sort of discussed, but to summarize those: we saw that we didn't have any significant safety concerns, obviously. We saw that some patients in certain tumor types do benefit, similar to what you might expect in a non-HIV setting in the real world as well. 

And of course, this was the largest real-world data set of people with HIV and cancer. And we have ongoing efforts in different directions, as I mentioned to you. And we are more than happy to collaborate with anybody who has good ideas because this is a community-level data set. It was created for the community, by the community, and the goal is to utilize this data set. So if there is a listener out there who's interested in collaborating, who has an idea, we're more than happy to share the data set in the right setting. And then hopefully, everybody has the opportunity to lead different efforts in the space.

Davide Soldato: Thank you again for being with us today, Dr. Naqash. To hear more from Dr. Naqash, please check out ASCO's JCO Precision Oncology Conversation Podcast. 

So this is Davide Soldato. In this episode of JCO Article Insights, we discussed the results of the manuscript titled, “Safety and Activity of Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors in People Living with HIV and Cancer: A Real World Report from the Cancer Therapy Using Checkpoint Inhibitors in People Living with HIV-International Consortium.” Thank you for your attention and stay tuned for the next episode. 

The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. 

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