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A chimeric antigen receptor–T cell (orange) on a cancer cell (green)

Eye of Science/Science Source

Cancer immunotherapy company tries to explain deaths in recent trial

More than a year after five leukemia patients died from an experimental treatment involving genetically engineered immune cells, its developer believes it has a better handle on what went wrong—and possibly how to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. Juno Therapeutics, based in Seattle, Washington, last week presented the most comprehensive public results so far from its internal investigation, concluding that individual patient characteristics and “product variability” made for a lethal combination that led to fatal brain swelling. The company says it is now using insights from its analysis to inform work on a modified cell treatment that is in early-stage clinical trials.   

Stephen Gottschalk, a pediatric oncologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, who is not associated with Juno, says he still finds the clinical trial deaths somewhat mysterious, but he praises the company’s efforts to understand them. “They presented a very comprehensive analysis and they did it in a timely fashion,” Gottschalk says.

The treatment that Juno was testing, known as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell therapy, equips a patient’s own immune cells with a new surface protein that allows them to home in on and kill cancer cells. It’s an approach promising enough that it was honored as part of Science’s Breakthrough of the Year in 2013. And earlier this year two CAR-T cell products were approved, one to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in children and young adults, and another for a form of adult lymphoma. 

Juno’s “ROCKET” trial, in which the deaths occurred, offered its CAR-T therapy to patients with ALL. The trial was halted following the deaths, but questions lingered—including whether other CAR-T therapies carried similar risks. The two CAR-T cell therapies now approved in the United States didn’t record the brain swelling, known as cerebral edema, in their clinical trials—though they did cause neurologic toxicities such as altered consciousness, headaches, delirium, and confusion.

Last Friday, at the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer annual meeting in Oxon Hill, Maryland, representatives from Juno spoke about what happened. Several study participants experienced severe neurologic toxicity, akin to what has happened in other trials of CAR-T cells, but five young adults also succumbed to the cerebral edema. Autopsies of two of these patients revealed a complete breakdown of the blood-brain barrier, a membranous wall that largely separates the content of blood from the central nervous system to protect the brain. The engineered T cells and other immune cells, however, were absent from the brain tissue of these patients.  

The blood-brain barrier disruption appears to be “a unique mechanism within this setting,” said Mark Gilbert, Juno’s chief medical officer, who presented the company’s report.

Juno believes that multiple variables, taken together, led to the devastating effects on patients’ brains, though the company hasn’t elucidated them all in detail. Its investigation focused on the medical history of the patients who died, how their T cells were handled, and what happened to those cells after they were reinfused in the body.

Patients who succumbed to cerebral edema tended to be younger than 30 years old and had intensive chemotherapy with fludarabine and cyclophosphamide before CAR-T cell infusion, Juno’s Gilbert says. But another important factor was probably in the cells: CAR-T cell therapy is highly personalized, with a new batch made for every patient. And Gilbert acknowledges that variability of the patient’s immune cells before being engineered and perhaps inconsistencies in how the cells were handled throughout the process may have played a role. For example, each patient batch varied in the amount of CD8 cells, a T-cell subtype, and the dose of this kind of CAR-T cell significantly correlated with edema development.

Then there’s what happens after the T cells are given back. The Juno investigation found that when the CAR-T cells multiplied extremely rapidly, the patient was more likely to suffer severe neurotoxicity and edema. The modified immune cells typically proliferate about 12 to 14 days after a patient receives them. But, in the fatal cases of the ROCKET trial, this expansion happened a week sooner, only 6 to 8 days postinfusion. Individual variability in blood levels of IL-15, a molecule that stimulates T-cell growth, may account for the early CAR-T surge; IL-15 levels in the patients who had the surge were both higher at the start and grew faster than those in other patients receiving CAR-T cells. Previous research shows IL-15 levels correlate with antileukemia activity, but also with neurotoxicity.

Together, the various patient and product factors “create cumulative risk for fatal neurotoxicity,” says Gilbert, although he cautions that the results of Juno’s internal investigation are not definitive.

Yet, it is already using lessons from the ROCKET trial in their latest product, a CAR-T therapy for adults with relapsed or refractory non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In its current phase I clinical trials, the T-cell subtypes are monitored.

Sadly, fatalities are always a risk when developing therapies for advanced cancers, Gottschalk says. “This expectation that you can develop therapies for life-threatening diseases [without deaths] is rather naïve,” he says. “Hopefully, [Juno’s investigation] will also inform other studies going forward.”  When asked whether the deaths in the ROCKET trial could happen with other CAR-T therapies, he doesn’t mince words. “In the end, yes.”