Lung Cancer Advancements Highlight the Need for Multidisciplinary Care

April 19, 2021
Caroline Seymour

An expert gives an overview of recent advancements in the lung cancer space.

The optimal treatment of patients with early-stage and locally advanced non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) in 2021 consists of multidisciplinary management, EGFR gene testing, and consolidation treatment with durvalumab (Imfinzi) in addition to clear pathways that enable the successful delivery of such care to all patients, explained Jacob Sands, MD.

“We’ve discussed all these best ways to treat patients based upon the data that we have, and one element of this in the real world that then becomes a challenge is the logistics,” said Sands. “One of the things within our health care system and within our hospital systems to start really recognizing more and doing a better job of is how to help make [high level care] feasible for everybody.”

In an interview with Oncology Nursing News' sister publication, OncLive®, Sands, a physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, discussed current approaches to the treatment of patients with early-stage and locally advanced NSCLC.

OncLive®: How would you define the multidisciplinary treatment of patients with early-stage NSCLC?

Sands: In early-stage disease, treatment can involve a few different things. Often patients end up with surgically resectable disease, so there’s surgery, and then there’s the postoperative pathology that we look at, which really defines what we do after surgery. That pathology gives us a lot more information. If the size [of the tumor] is greater than 4 cm, particularly if there are lymph nodes involved, we are talking about adjuvant chemotherapy in the case of NSCLC. In the case of small cell lung cancer, we really give adjuvant chemotherapy to anybody.

What is your optimal approach to molecular testing?

In early-stage disease, when we’re talking about something that has been resected and there’s no evidence of disease, those individuals often end up getting adjuvant chemotherapy. If [the tumor is] greater than 4 cm, if there’s any lymph node involvement, that becomes a stage in which adjuvant chemotherapy is important.

As far as genomic testing, we have the recent ADAURA publication that showed a substantial improvement in [disease-]free survival. The overall survival data are going to [require] more [time to mature], but [the results] led to [the] approval [of osimertinib in the adjuvant setting]. Now [the results of] EGFR testing, in particular, on the pathology of these patients [is important]. 

As far as doing genomic testing for other potential targets, the data are really compelling [in the metastatic setting] and given how osimertinib [Tagrisso] works for patients with EGFR mutations, what about alectinib [Alecensa] for patients with ALK fusions, or some of these other really effective targeted therapies that we use as a standard of care in stage IV disease? Should we be using those agents in earlier-stage disease as well? Those [questions] have led to a number of other trials that are ongoing and now getting started.

Would you say that, if not for standard practice, but for clinical trials, that next-generation sequencing should be ordered rather than a single-gene panel for EGFR?

Right now, we really don’t have a number of different approved therapies. In the earlier-stage setting, we just have osimertinib right now as an approved adjuvant therapy. It is really important for those patients to also be offered chemotherapy, assuming that they qualify for it. In the ADAURA publication, I was a little surprised by the number of people that actually didn’t get chemotherapy, so it’s important to highlight that these patients should get offered adjuvant chemotherapy, and then, if appropriate, osimertinib.

We don’t really have other approved therapies, so testing for EGFR alone right now as far as what you’re clinically going to do is meaningful. Other agents we don’t really have a defined role for, but consideration of enrollment to these various other trials, I would really encourage. In that sense, getting genomic testing to drive enrollment to some of these other studies is really compelling.

What is the role of postoperative radiation in treatment?

For patients who get surgical resection and have N2 mediastinal node involvement, there is really kind of a question now about radiation. There was a recent trial that was negative for inclusion of postoperative radiation. That being said, there are still patients where I would expect postoperative radiation to provide some potential benefits. This is really a population that requires interaction with radiation oncologists and discussion about each individual case, and whether you think that someone is going to really benefit from radiation in that setting.

What are your thoughts on immunotherapy entering the early-stage treatment paradigm?

We have seen great results with immunotherapy in metastatic disease. We have seen also really impressive results after chemoradiation. Now the question is: In resectable disease, do these checkpoint inhibitors have a potential role to play? There are multiple studies that are being done or have enrolled [to that end]. These are studies that enroll after chemotherapy, but a study that is currently open within the ALCHEMIST portfolio is a study called ACCIO. This is a study I’m running, and I would love for people to enroll and to be aware of this. It’s a 3-arm study [that is enrolling patients] after surgical resection, an R0 resection, who are EGFR and ALK negative, wild-type. Patients need PD-L1 testing for stratification, but all-comers with any level of PD-L1 can enroll, and all [patients with] NSCLC can enroll, [be it] squamous [or] nonsquamous [histology].

The [treatment arms will consist of] standard chemotherapy, followed by observation standard of care vs chemotherapy, followed by pembrolizumab [Keytruda] in a sequential arm, and then the third arm consists of concurrent chemotherapy plus pembrolizumab. Both the sequential and the concurrent arm [will administer] the same duration [of pembrolizumab], which is 1 year, just [at] different starting [points]. This trial is currently open throughout the country, and we certainly welcome enrollment.

Shifting to the stage III setting, what are some of the best practices for ensuring that patients receive durvalumab after concurrent chemoradiation?

The PACIFIC data have really showed pretty impressive and durable results in patients who get chemotherapy plus radiation with curative intent. Specifically, concurrent chemoradiation followed by durvalumab. I was a little skeptical at first [based on] the initial data that were reported. There was separation of curves, the progression-free survival was statistically significant, [but] at the time, I thought maybe some of the people who were in the control arm later on at recurrence [would] end up getting immunotherapy and [the curves] might even out.

[However,] we’ve really seen impressive separation of the curves that has persisted, and the longer these data mature, the more impressive [the data look] to me. In the control arm of the study, there was a pretty good number of patients who at recurrence did end up getting immunotherapy, so we really have a fair comparator arm, which is an important thing to look into.

Not in all of the immunotherapy trials did the control arm later on get immunotherapy in the appropriate setting, but [those in the PACIFIC trial] did, so this is a very fair comparison that had a good standard-of-care control arm. The responses have really been impressive as the data mature. For everybody that gets concurrent chemoradiation for stage III unresectable disease, I then put them on durvalumab for 1 year. We can use [every-4-week] dosing, which is a little better than the initial [every-2-week] week dosing and is easier for patients.

Also, in PACIFIC, those who got durvalumab earlier seemed to do better. That being said, I suspect that those [were] patients who tolerated their prior treatment and had better prognosis. Specifically, individuals who got chemoradiation and recovered immediately and didn’t really have any problems who were then able to start durvalumab earlier. I don’t necessarily take that [to mean that] people have to immediately start durvalumab earlier.

That being said, I want to start it about 4 weeks after, get that scan, making sure that there’s no new disease, and then start durvalumab. However, if somebody is really struggling to recover, for whatever reason, I don’t really stress pushing back or not immediately starting durvalumab after that. That’s probably still okay [to do].

On durvalumab there are people that then end up with adverse effects [AEs] from the treatment. Thankfully, most people getting these checkpoint inhibitors generally do really well, so AEs are somewhat limited. But I certainly have patients that have had AEs, and pneumonitis is always the tough one. Someone with pneumonitis [should be] started on steroids and make sure that they recover. I have patients restart [durvalumab] if it wasn’t a really severe pneumonitis. If [the pneumonitis] recovers well—when I start prednisone, once we complete the taper, and if they’re doing well off of steroids—I do restart durvalumab. In some cases, that’s worked out. In other cases, I’ve had patients who had pneumonitis again, so I haven’t been able to get everybody through 1 year of therapy. We do as much as we can. If patients are having really significant AEs, then we stop at that time.

In the trial, we did see that not everybody was able to complete the full year [of durvalumab], but those who were able to complete the full year had really impressive outcomes. If you’re more than a year out from finishing the chemoradiation, your prognosis is better in that setting as well, so I would expect those numbers to look better, but the results are actually really impressive. I try to get as much of [durvalumab] in as I can over the course of that year. If we have to start a little bit later than I want to start the therapy, that’s fine. I don’t stress about that. If there are AEs that really don’t allow for further treatment, then we stop at that time. However, getting durvalumab is very meaningful [for those patients].

What are some important resources regarding the management of immune-related adverse effects?

I really benefit from being at a center with so many specialists. I’m able to draw in specialists who really focus on some of these specific AEs. When AEs come up on some of these checkpoint inhibitors, whether it be durvalumab after chemoradiation, or any of the others in any setting, there are guidelines on how to manage them, which is important. Thankfully, most people really tolerate the therapy well, but when there are AEs, we really need to make sure that we’re managing them appropriately. Checking the guidelines on how to do that [is important]. There are publications on this, there are the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines on how to manage these AEs, and it’s important to look at those.

For patients who do complete the full year of durvalumab, is there ever a situation where you would continue it?

As far as whether or not to continue treatment after 1 year, I really wouldn’t. A percentage of these patients are cured of their disease. The trouble is, we can’t define and identify prospectively who’s cured and who’s not. That is an area of important research. We know that a percentage of patients are, and the data that we have doesn’t really support doing any treatment beyond 1 year, so I would stop the treatment at 1 year and then monitor patients closely at that time going forward.

Does PD-L1 status affect whether you recommend durvalumab to patients who do not progress on concurrent chemoradiation?

As far as giving durvalumab after concurrent chemoradiation, PD-L1 expression really isn’t something that drives my decision making. If I have somebody who never smoked where I have a high suspicion of them having an EGFR mutation, for example, then I’d look for that and that then becomes harder to know. We know that these checkpoint inhibitors aren’t as effective in general in people who never smoke and have an EGFR mutation. At the same time, I do worry a little bit about somebody being on a checkpoint inhibitor and then having recurrence of disease where we would then use osimertinib because we know that the culmination of osimertinib and durvalumab leads to a higher incidence of pneumonitis. What to do in that setting is a little less clear. The PACIFIC trial did enroll patients that fit this population, although there wasn’t a big population of them. Based on the study results, everyone would get durvalumab. If you’re looking at that subpopulation, that’s where I still kind of have a question about whether or not to add durvalumab in that setting. 

What are some treatment barriers that may prevent patients from receiving optimal care that you would like to see addressed?

Within different communities, [treatment] really looks different. There are some communities where the patient is able to take time off work or is retired or is really financially stable and able to come in at any time and get their treatment at any time. There are other communities where patients are having [to organize their treatment] in the middle of trying to hold everything else together, and those are entirely different situations. When we’re talking about these data, and the different drugs and the different curves, it’s without the challenges of real life, but that’s not how it is for everybody.

There are communities where it’s going to take more coordination and more resources to help people get in [for optimal care]. I have some patients who having to navigate the public transportation system to come in and get chemotherapy and get home is a challenge. Having nurse navigation and having some of these other resources is something that’s overwhelmingly important within our health care system to really provide this very high level of care to everybody throughout society and is clearly something we need to address much better within our health care system and within the country.