Immune checkpoint inhibitors: a new class of anticancer drug

Over the past five years, three anticancer drugs (ipilimumab, pembrolizumab and nivolumab) belonging to a new class known as immune checkpoint inhibitors have become available, which are already having an impact on survival in patients with metastatic melanoma and offering promise in the treatment of other malignancies. However, close monitoring for immune-related adverse events, which can occasionally be severe or fatal, is an important component of treatment.

Melanoma is the least common but most serious form of skin cancer. In 2013, 14,509 cases of melanoma were recorded in the UK, representing 4 per cent of all cancers.1 Many can be cured by surgery, but up to 20 per cent of patients will have disease that spreads beyond the primary site. Metastatic melanoma (see Figure 1) is associated with an extremely poor prognosis, with median life expectancy of eight to ten months, untreated. Those patients presenting with brain metastases fare even worse, with few surviving beyond six months.


Figure 1. Melanoma [top left] can spread to regional lymph nodes [top right] or distant sites including liver [bottom left] and brain [bottom right]. Five-year survival after surgical resection of regional disease is around 30 per cent. Five-year survival of metastatic melanoma is under 5 per cent.

Up until 2011, no systemic therapy had convincingly been shown to improve survival of patients with metastatic melanoma. Dacarbazine was the international standard cytotoxic chemotherapy, offering at best a 15 per cent objective response rate with no survival benefit, and treatment within a clinical trial was an accepted first-line option. In the past five years, however, two new classes of agents – monoclonal antibodies against immune checkpoint molecules and small-molecule inhibitors of the mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase signalling pathway – have radically changed clinical practice, based upon randomised trials confirming overall survival benefit. This article focuses on the first of these two groups, the immune checkpoint inhibitors, including key associated toxicities and their management.

Properties of immune checkpoint inhibitors


Two types of immune checkpoint inhibitor are now approved by NICE for treatment of metastatic melanoma. The first of these, ipilimumab (Yervoy), is a human­ised monoclonal antibody blocking the cytotoxic T lymphocyte-associated anti­gen 4, or CTLA-4, which works in effect by removing the brake on normal immu­nological controls (see Figure 2).


Figure 2. Mechanism of action of immune checkpoint inhibitors targeting CTLA-4 and PD-1. Immune checkpoints initiated by ligand–receptor interactions can be readily blocked by antibodies, resulting in enhanced antitumour immunity and the potential to produce durable clinical responses.

Key: TCR = T cell receptor; MHC = major histocompatibility complex; CD28 = T cell co-stimulatory receptor; B7 = a membrane-bound inhibitory ligand

A series of international studies have confirmed that ipilimumab gener­ates durable disease control albeit in a minority of treated patients. Around 20 per cent of patients treated with ipili­mumab remain alive beyond three years of completing treatment, and many of these are alive and disease-free after 10 years.2-4 Even patients with brain metas­tases have the potential to benefit from this agent, with reported disease control in the brain in 24 per cent of asympto­matic and 10 per cent of symptomatic patients.5

Ipilimumab is straightforward to deliver to patients, the standard regimen being administered as four short 3mg/kg infusions three weeks apart. However, it has a range of complex side-effects rad­ically different to those of conventional cytotoxic chemotherapy. Checkpoint inhibition is associated with a unique spectrum of side-effects, termed immune-related adverse events (IrAEs). IrAEs are frequent, affecting the majority of treated patients, and most commonly involve skin, gastrointestinal, liver and endocrine systems, but pretty much any type of inflammatory event may occur.

IrAEs are believed to arise from general immunological enhancement akin to autoimmunity. Their severity varies; most are mild or manageable, but around one in ten patients may experience severe, life-threatening immune-related toxicities requiring hospitalisation6 and the risk of treatment-related death is around 1 per cent.2,3,7 Most IrAEs occur within three to six months of starting treatment, but can occur up to 12 months later (see Figure 3). Currently, there is no predic­tive biomarker to select those patients who will benefit from ipilimumab or those who are more likely to experience toxicity.


Figure 3. Time to onset of immune-related adverse events (IrAEs) associated with ipilimumab

Even so, based on unequivocal survival benefit, ipilimumab is NICE approved for untreated and previously treated meta­static melanoma patients.

Pembrolizumab and nivolumab

There are now increasing numbers of immune checkpoint molecules being identified as potential therapeutic tar­gets. The most promising of these is the programmed cell death protein 1 receptor (PD-1). Two monoclonal antibod­ies that inhibit PD-1 are pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo) and superior activity has recently been supported for both compared with ipili­mumab.

The KEYNOTE-006 trial reported improvements in response rate (33 vs 12 per cent), progression-free disease (46 per cent vs 26 per cent progression-free at six months) and overall survival (68 vs 58 per cent one-year survival) with pem­brolizumab compared with ipilimumab in metastatic melanoma patients who had received up to one line of previous treat­ment.8 In terms of toxicity, IrAEs were generated by pembrolizumab, but these were generally less frequent and less severe compared with ipilimumab.

The CheckMate 066 trial compared nivolumab with dacarbazine in a dou­ble-blind placebo-controlled trial and reported an extension of progression-free survival from 2.2 to 5.1 months (hazard ratio 0.43, p<0.001).9 Accumulating research suggests that pembrolizumab and nivolumab are almost identical in terms of efficacy and toxicity. The long­est follow-up of heavily pretreated mela­noma patients receiving nivolumab in a clinical study reported plateauing out of survival at four years and a five-year over­all survival of 34 per cent,10 suggesting that durable, long-term survival can be achieved with PD-1 inhibitor monotherapy.

Most recently, the CheckMate 067 trial compared the combination of nivolumab plus ipilimumab to nivolumab or ipilimumab monotherapy in a three-arm placebo-controlled trial.11 Objective response rates were 58 vs 44 vs 19 per cent for nivolumab plus ipilimumab, nivolumab monotherapy, and ipilimumab monotherapy, respectively. Median progression-free survival was 11.5, 6.9 and 2.9 months respectively for the three arms. Of note, 56 per cent of patients treated in the combination arm experi­enced serious or life-threatening adverse events compared with 20 per cent treated with nivolumab and 27 per cent treated with ipilimumab.12 The data from this trial is still immature and overall survival data is not yet available, but it is clear that while new standards of care are being set, toxicity management is challenging.

Pembrolizumab and nivolumab have both been approved by NICE as mono-therapy for metastatic melanoma and are rapidly replacing ipilimumab as the first-line treatment of choice for most patients with this condition. Like ipilimumab, they are administered to melanoma patients as intravenous (IV) infusions either every three weeks (pembrolizumab 2mg/kg) or every two weeks (nivolumab 3mg/kg). Unlike ipilimumab, duration of treatment is until disease progression occurs.

In terms of toxicity, the data are con­sistent in that both PD-1 inhibitors are associated with IrAEs, but these are gen­erally less severe than those occurring with ipilimumab. However, the combina­tion regimen, ipilimumab plus nivolumab appears to be both more active but more toxic than either single agent. The combi­nation regimen requires both drugs (ipil­imumab 3mg/kg and nivolumab 1mg/ kg) to be administered concomitantly IV every three weeks for a total of 12 weeks, followed by nivolumab 3mg/kg IV main­tenance therapy every two weeks until disease progression. In the CheckMate 067 trial, fewer than half of all patients treated with the combination regimen got as far as nivolumab maintenance. Of note, around two-thirds of patients who stopped treatment due to toxicity achieved a response.12 The health economics of the 12-week median treatment duration and frequency of ongoing response after stop­ping plays out in favour of combination versus single-agent immune checkpoint inhibitors, and NICE approved this combination regimen in June 2016 for the treat­ment of metastatic melanoma.

Use of immune checkpoint inhibitors

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are set to change the way oncologists treat a number of solid tumours, not just mela­noma: the PD-1 inhibitors appear to have broad application for a number of tumour types, since the receptor ligand, PDL-1, is expressed on a number of different types of cancer and surrounding cells. Strong positive signals have already been generated in lung13,14 and renal15 cancer clinical trials, and trials are ongoing in many other cancer types.

Priced at around £75,000 per annum per patient, key questions arise regarding the affordability of innovation, health ser­vice capacity to administer these agents to increasing numbers of patients, and optimal management pathways, since toxicity management is complex.16

Currently, systemic therapy for met­astatic melanoma patients is limited to small numbers (typically one to three) of centres within each region of the UK. Patients are managed by specialist melanoma teams, who have access to acute medical support teams as needed. However, patients who become unwell at home more often call upon their GPs for help and are frequently admitted to their local hospital for urgent care. Acute oncology services geared to managing oncological emergencies are now estab­lished in all UK hospitals, but their focus to date has been on managing cytotoxic chemotherapy-induced toxicity and expe­rience with immune checkpoint inhibitors is as yet rudimentary.

The following sections provide a summary of the most common and most serious adverse events associated with immune checkpoint inhibitors, to alert non­specialist doctors regarding when to seek advice and the immediate action to take.

Adverse effects

General toxicities

Fatigue is one of the most common side-effects of immune checkpoint inhib­itors, with an estimated overall frequency of around 20 per cent for the PD-1 inhib­itors and 40 per cent for ipilimumab. Generally, fatigue is mild and tolerable. When fatigue is more severe, it is impor­tant to exclude an immune-related endo­crine cause including thyroid, pituitary or primary adrenal insufficiency (see below). Fever, chills, arthralgia, myalgia, nausea and vomiting have also been described in up to 10 per cent of treated patients, but these are generally mild and manageable with standard supportive means.

Immune-related adverse events

IrAEs most commonly involve skin, gastrointestinal, liver and endocrine systems, but any body system may be affected (see Table 1).16,17 IrAEs result from the relatively nonspecific hyper-stimulation of the immune system and immunosuppression using high-dose corticosteroids is, perhaps not surpris­ingly, usually an effective antidote. In situations where severe symptoms are not responding to corticosteroids, other immune suppressant agents typically used to treat other autoimmune conditions, in particular infliximab or mycophe­nolate, may be beneficial. Use of immune suppressants does not appear to affect response to immune checkpoint inhibi­tor therapy.7 Incidence and/or severity of IrAEs does not appear to correlate with treatment response.7


Table 1. Rates of severe or life-threatening immune-related adverse events (IrAEs) reported in metastatic melanoma trials of immune checkpoint inhibitors


Skin toxicity is the most common IrAE associated with immune checkpoint inhibitors. Approximately 50 per cent of patients treated with ipilimumab and 30–40 per cent of those treated with nivolumab or pembrolizumab will expe­rience rash and/or pruritus. Skin toxic­ity is usually the earliest IrAE to occur after starting treatment, with onset at an average of three to four weeks after first infusion (see Figure 3). Typically, patients develop a reticular, maculopapular, faintly erythematous and itchy rash on the trunk or extremities. Most immune checkpoint inhibitor rashes can be treated with a good topical moisturiser or corticosteroid cream. More severe rashes may require oral corticosteroids. Vitiligo is also com­monly seen. Stevens-Johnson syndrome/ toxic epidermal necrolysis have been reported in rare cases.


Diarrhoea is a common symptom in patients undergoing treatment with immune checkpoint inhibitors. In most cases, the association with commenc­ing treatment is clear, but an infectious cause should always be considered. Immune-related colitis most commonly presents approximately six weeks into treatment, but can occur many months later. The incidence of diarrhoea is much higher in patients receiving ipilimumab compared with PD-1 inhibitors. Diarrhoea was reported in approximately 30 per cent of patients treated in the ipilimumab registration trials, but severe diarrhoea symptoms occurred in around 10 per cent of cases.

Endoscopic findings in patients receiving ipilimumab have revealed mucosal oedema with biopsies demon­strating neutrophilic, lymphocytic, or mixed neutrophilic-lymphocytic infiltrates, confirming a true colitis. Of note, a small number of treatment-related deaths associated with colitis and bowel perforation occurred in the initial trials. In view of this safety signal, management algo­rithms were developed to ensure rapid treatment of IrAEs. These were made available to all specialist teams using ipilimumab both pre- and postlicensing and in fact treatment-related deaths are extremely rare; much less common, for example, than cytotoxic chemotherapy-related neutropenic sepsis.

Key to patient safety is good educa­tion and information provision to patients and carers, and most now carry special alert cards. Prompt, aggressive treat­ment can also be life saving and local hospital teams should liaise with the specialist team for management advice if a patient is hospitalised. Patients expe­riencing severe diarrhoea not respond­ing to high-dose corticosteroids within a week should receive infliximab.

Diarrhoea appears to be less frequent and severe with PD-1 inhibitors: severe or life-threatening immune-mediated colitis has been reported in only 1–2 per cent of treated patients.


Inflammation of the pituitary, thyroid or adrenal glands as a result of checkpoint inhibition often presents with nonspecific symptoms such as nausea, headache, fatigue or vision changes. The incidence of endocrinopathies has been difficult to precisely evaluate due to variable meth­ods of assessment, diagnosis and moni­toring in different clinical trials. Even so, clinically significant endocrinopathy is typically thought to occur in up to 10 per cent of treated patients.

The pattern of endocrinopathy appears to differ between the two types of checkpoint inhibitor. Hypophysitis is more common with ipilimumab and may be confirmed on an MRI scan demon­strating a swollen pituitary gland. Corticosteroid and thyroxine replacement will be required and it appears that hor­mone replacement may be required in the long term. Although MRI imaging may return to normal, the gland itself appears to sustain permanent damage.

With pembrolizumab and nivolumab, the most common endocrine organ affected is the thyroid. Biochemical changes consistent with hypothyroidism are common in treated patients, who may often be asymptomatic, but thyrox­ine replacement is generally initiated. Whether this is required long term is as yet unclear.

The most serious endocrinopathy is adrenal insufficiency, which is, thankfully, extremely rare. A patient presenting with dehydration, hypotension and electrolyte imbalances (hyperkalaemia, hyponatrae­mia) constitutes a medical emergency and requires immediate hospitalisation.

The management of immune-related endocrinopathies is still in its infancy and most regions are now developing links with endocrinologists to assist in man­aging complex cases when they occur. Endocrine-related events tend to occur later than most other IrAEs; typically three to four months after starting treat­ment and sometimes much later.

Hepatic transaminitis

Elevations in blood levels of the liver enzymes, aspartate aminotransferase (AST) and alanine aminotransferase (ALT), occur in 5–10 per cent of patients treated with either CTLA-4 or PD-1 inhib­itors. Most episodes are asymptomatic laboratory abnormalities, but one to two per cent of patients become seriously unwell, exhibiting signs of acute liver failure including jaundice and oedema. Most cases respond well to cortico­steroids, with mycophenolate being an option if unresponsive. The time to onset of liver toxicity is eight to 12 weeks after initiation of treatment, although early or delayed events have been reported.

Less common adverse effects

Less common IrAEs include pneumonitis, nephritis, uveitis and pancreatitis. A vari­ety of neurological conditions have been documented, including several cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome. In contrast with cytotoxic chemotherapy, myelo­suppression is extremely rare. However, haematological reactions including red cell aplasia, neutropenia, thrombocyto­penia18 and acquired haemophilia A have also been reported.


Immune checkpoint inhibitors target­ing CTLA-4 and PD-1 are having a dra­matic impact on the care of patients with advanced melanoma and are being explored as treatments for other malig­nancies. Immune-related adverse events are common. These toxicities are typi­cally transient, but occasionally can be severe or fatal. Early recognition, rapid referral and treatment with immunosup­pressive agents can prove life saving.

Declaration of interests

Dr Corrie has served on advisory boards for Bristol Myers Squibb and Merck, Sharpe & Dohme.

Dr Corrie is a consultant and associate lecturer in medical oncology at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. She is also chair of the NCRI Skin Cancer Clinical Studies Group

1. Cancer Research UK. Skin cancer incidence statistics. health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics­by-cancer-type/skin-cancer/incidence
2. Hodi S, et al. Improved survival with ipili­mumab in patients with metastatic melanoma. N Engl J Med 2010;363:711–23.
3. Robert C, et al. Ipilimumab plus dacarba­zine for previously untreated metastatic mela­noma. N Engl J Med 2011;364:2517–26.
4. Schadendorf D, et al. Pooled analysis of long-term survival data from phase II and phase III trials of ipilimumab in unresect­able or metastatic melanoma. J Clin Oncol 2015;33:1889–94.
5. Margolin K, et al. Ipilimumab in patients with melanoma and brain metastases: an open-label, phase 2 trial. The Lancet Oncology 2012;13(5):459–65.
6. Ahmad SS, et al. Ipilimumab in the real world: the UK expanded access pro-gramme experience in previously treated advanced melanoma patients. Melanoma Res 2015;25(5):432–42.
7. Horvat TJ, et al. Immune-related adverse events, need for systemic immunosup­pression, and effects on survival and time to treatment failure in patients with mela­noma treated with ipilimumab at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. J Clin Oncol 2015;33(28):3193–99.
8. Robert C, et al. Pembrolizumab versus ipili­mumab in advanced melanoma. N Engl J Med 2015;372:2521–32.
9. Robert C, et al. Nivolumab in previously untreated melanoma without BRAF mutation. N Engl J Med 2015;372:320–30.
10. Hodi S, et al. Durable, long-term survival in previously treated patients with advanced mel­anoma who received nivolumab monotherapy in a phase I trial. AACR 2016 Annual Meeting, abstract CT001.
11. Larkin J, et al. Combined nivolumab and Ipilimumab or monotherapy in untreated mela­noma. N Engl J Med 2015;373:23–34.
12. Wolchock J, et al. Updated results from a phase III trial of nivolumab combined with ipilimumab in treatment-naïve patients with advanced melanoma (CheckMate 067). J Clin Oncol 2016;34(15, suppl):abstract 9505.
13. Borghaei H, et al. Nivolumab versus docetaxel in advanced nonsquamous non-small-cell lung cancer. N Engl J Med 2015;373:1627–39.
14. Brahmer J, et al. Nivolumab versus docetaxel in advanced squamous-cell non-small-cell lung cancer. N Engl J Med 2015;373:123–35.
15. Motzer, RJ, et al. Nivolumab versus everoli­mus in advanced renal-cell carcinoma. N Engl J Med 2015;373:1803–13.
16. Michot JM, et al. Immune-related adverse events with immune checkpoint block­ade: a comprehensive review. Eur J Cancer 2016;54:139–48.
17. Weber JS, et al. Management of immune-related adverse events and kinet­ics of response with ipilimumab. J Clin Oncol 2012;30(21):2691–7.
18. Ahmad S, et al. Ipilimumab-induced thrombocytopenia in a patient with met­astatic melanoma. J Oncol Pharm Pract 2012;18(2):287–92.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors: a new class of anticancer drug

Add yours ↓
Web design and marketing agency Leamington Spa