Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a heterogenous hematological malignancy driven by leukemia stem cells (LSCs) (Lapidot et al, 1994). LSCs resistant against conventional chemotherapy represent the major cause of relapse. Elderly or unfit AML patients not eligible for intensive chemotherapy are treated in a palliative setting with hypomethylating agents (HMA) or low dose Ara-C, but responses are modest and not durable. The reason for the low efficacy of HMA treatment is their insufficient action on the disease initiating- and -maintaining LSC population (Craddock et al, 2013). We recently demonstrated that CD34+ AML cells (progenitors and LSC) consistently express the tumor necrosis factor family ligand CD70 as well as its receptor CD27 and that cell-autonomous CD70/CD27-signaling propagates the disease (Riether et al. 2017). The aim of the current study was to evaluate whether resistance to HMA treatment can be overcome by combining HMA with an anti-CD70 monoclonal antibody treatment.
The effect of HMA treatment on the expression of CD70 on primary human CD34+CD38- AML LSCs was determined in vitro cultures and in patients treated with HMA in vivo. The therapeutic potential of targeting CD70-expressing LSCs in presence and absence of HMA was assessed using the anti-CD70 ADCC-optimized monoclonal antibody (mAb), cusatuzumab, and an effector-dead anti-CD70 mAb in colony formation and re-plating assays as well as patient-derived xenograft models (Silence et al, 2014). The clinical relevance of the findings was determined in a clinical phase 1 trial in previously untreated elderly AML patients with a single dose of cusatuzumab monotherapy followed by a combination therapy with the HMA azacitidine (AZA, NCT03030612). Four different dose levels of cusatuzumab (1, 3, 10 and 20 mg/kg Q2W) were studied; AZA was administered at 75 mg/m² for 7 days every 28 days.
We found that resistance of AML LSCs to HMA treatment is mediated by the up-regulation of the CD70. The up-regulation of CD70 triggered cell-autonomous CD70/CD27 signaling on AML LSCs. Based on these findings we hypothesized that the upregulation of CD70 by HMA may render LSCs more susceptible to CD70-targeting interventions. Targeting CD70-expressing LSCs by a blocking anti-CD70 mAb and the anti-CD70 mAb cusatuzumab, which blocks CD70/CD27-signaling and additionally mediates ADCC and CDC, eradicated LSCs in colony and re-plating assays in vitro and in xenotransplantation experiments in vivo. HMA in combination with blocking αCD70 mAb synergistically reduced LSC numbers in vivo and this was even more efficient when ADCC-enhanced αCD70 mAb cusatuzumab was added in the presence of NK cells.
In order to test the hypothesis that targeting CD70 in combination with HMA eliminates LSCs in AML patients, we initiated a phase 1 dose-escalation trial in previously untreated elderly AML patients with a single dose of cusatuzumab monotherapy followed by a combination therapy with azacitidine. No dose-limiting toxicities (DLT) were observed in the dose-escalation phase 1 trial and responses were observed across the dose levels (1-20 mg/kg). A single dose of cusatuzumab reduced bone marrow blasts in just two weeks in all patients on average by 32%. Cusatuzumab monotherapy significantly reduced LSC numbers and frequencies in all patients analyzed in the bone marrow as assessed in limiting dilution colony assays. Single cell sequencing analysis revealed that cusatuzumab induced gene signatures related to myeloid differentiation and apoptosis in LSCs. In combination with azacitidine, cusatuzumab induced CR/CRi in 10 out of 12 patients. Responses were observed at all dose levels of cusatuzumab and median time to response was 3.3 months.
Blocking CD70/CD27-signaling and targeting CD70-expressing LSCs by the ADCC-optimized mAb, cusatuzumab, eliminated LSCs in vitro and in xenotransplantation experiments. In a phase 1 study promising activity of cusatuzumab in combination with HMA was observed in AML patients, in which translational data indicate that cusatuzumab selectively eliminates CD70-expressing LSCs.
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