Within days after anti-PD1 treatment, HRSCs disappear from the tissue, and the TME is altered.
In contrast to solid tumors, no cytotoxic T-cell immune response is detectable.
Classic Hodgkin lymphoma (cHL) is the cancer type most susceptible to antibodies targeting programmed cell death protein 1 (PD1) and is characterized by scarce Hodgkin and Reed-Sternberg cells (HRSCs), perpetuating a unique tumor microenvironment (TME). Although anti-PD1 effects appear to be largely mediated by cytotoxic CD8+ T cells in solid tumors, HRSCs frequently lack major histocompatibility complex expression, and the mechanism of anti-PD1 efficacy in cHL is unclear. Rapid clinical responses and high interim complete response rates to anti-PD1 based first-line treatment were recently reported for patients with early-stage unfavorable cHL treated in the German Hodgkin Study Group phase 2 NIVAHL trial. To investigate the mechanisms underlying this very early response to anti-PD1 treatment, we analyzed paired biopsies and blood samples obtained from NIVAHL patients before and during the first days of nivolumab first-line cHL therapy. Mirroring the rapid clinical response, HRSCs had disappeared from the tissue within days after the first nivolumab application. The TME already shows a reduction in type 1 regulatory T cells and PD-L1+ tumor-associated macrophages at this early time point of treatment. Interestingly, a cytotoxic immune response and a clonal T-cell expansion were not observed in the tumors or peripheral blood. These early changes in the TME were distinct from alterations found in a separate set of cHL biopsies at relapse during anti-PD1 therapy. We identify a unique very early histologic response pattern to anti-PD1 therapy in cHL that is suggestive of withdrawal of prosurvival factors, rather than induction of an adaptive antitumor immune response, as the main mechanism of action.