Assessing and Managing CAR T-Cell Treatment Toxicities

Key Points

  • Two side effects have emerged during clinical trials that were previously uncommon to cancer treatments: cytokine release syndrome (CRS), also known as cytokine storm, an escalated immune response that causes flu-like symptoms and can be fatal; and neurological toxicity that the researchers have named CAR T-cell–related encephalopathy syndrome (CRES), which can sometimes lead to lethal swelling in the brain.
  • Researchers also developed a simple and fast method to flag development of neurotoxicity. The 10-point test asks a patient to name the year, month, city, hospital, and president/prime minister of their home country (5 points); to name three nearby objects (3 points); to write a standard sentence and to count backward from 100 by tens.
  • Researchers also built a neurological assessment, which they named CARTOX-10. An existing general method didn’t effectively quantify the neurological effects caused by CAR T-cell therapies.

Immune-cell based therapies opening a new frontier for cancer treatment carry unique, potentially lethal side effects that provide a new challenge for oncologists—one addressed by a team led by clinicians at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center with proposed guidelines for systematically dealing with the toxicities of these drugs.

Their work, published by Neelapu et al in Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, discusses the two main side effects of chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, known as CAR T-cells, white blood cells genetically engineered to strike cells with a specific target on their surface.

“CAR T-cells provide an entirely new level of improved disease response among patients with certain blood cancers, and hold promise for more wide-ranging use,” said Elizabeth Shpall, MD, Deputy Chair and Professor of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy at MD Anderson. “The algorithms that we published are conservative, detailed, and will help us save lives as we move forward with these exciting but also more toxic therapies,” Dr. Shpall said.

The review covers wide-ranging research on CAR T therapies by many institutions, and includes insights based on more than 100 patients treated at MD Anderson, Moffitt Cancer Center, Sylvester Cancer Center at the University of Miami, and Mayo Clinic Cancer Center.

Patients were treated by the researchers with CAR T-cells under development at four different companies for leukemias and lymphomas that attack B cells. They target CD19, a protein found on the surface of both malignant and normal B cells.

In clinical trials of CAR T for patients who have had all other treatments fail, response rates range from 50% to 90%.

“This represents a sea change in how we treat these patients,” said lead author Sattva Neelapu, MD, Professor of Lymphoma and Multiple Myeloma at MD Anderson. “We need longer-term follow up of patients treated so far in clinical trials, but these are potentially curative treatments,” Dr. Neelapu said. “The toxicities are unique, and every member of the care team needs to be trained to recognize them and act accordingly.”

Uncommon Side Effects

Two side effects have emerged during clinical trials that were previously uncommon to cancer treatments:

  • Cytokine release syndrome (CRS), also known as cytokine storm, an escalated immune response that causes flu-like symptoms and can be fatal
  • Neurological toxicity that the researchers have named CAR T-cell–related encephalopathy syndrome (CRES), which can sometimes lead to lethal swelling in the brain

Both CRS and CRES are treatable, with early identification important to swift improvement. The review provides specific recommendations for pretreatment preparation; monitoring of patients during and after CAR T infusion; identifying and staging emerging CRS and CRES; and tailored treatment of those side effects depending upon their severity.

New Test for Neurotoxicity

Researchers also developed a simple and fast method to flag development of neurotoxicity. The 10-point test asks a patient to name the year, month, city, hospital, and president/prime minister of their home country (5 points); to name three nearby objects (3 points); to write a standard sentence and to count backward from 100 by tens.

A perfect score defines normal cognitive function. A patient has mild to severe impairment depending on the number of questions or activities missed.

For one patient treated for B-cell lymphoma cited in the review, deterioration of her handwriting was the first sign of neurological impairment, which led to prompt intervention and reversal of the toxicity within hours.

Building on such insights, co-lead author Sudhakar Tummala, MD, Professor of Neuro-Oncology, led development of the neurological assessment, which they named CARTOX-10. An existing general method didn’t effectively quantify the neurological effects caused by CAR T-cell therapies.

Researchers also tapped the existing research published or presented about these therapies. For example, CAR T-cell pioneer Carl June, MD, and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, found abundant expression of interleukin-6 to be a driver of cytokine release syndrome. They successfully treated the first pediatric patient who suffered from CRS with IL-6 suppressors.

The review provides detailed guidance on how and when to use such drugs and other therapies for CRS and CRES.

Precise causes of these side effects are unknown and remain under investigation. Researchers also are trying to work out what factors allow strong responses in some patients and resistance to treatment or relapse in others.

“While we all work on those issues, and learn how to better manage and harness these therapies, the CARTOX algorithms provide ground rules for patient safety,” said Dr. Shpall, who holds the Howard and Lee Smith Chair in Cancer Research at MD Anderson.

The algorithms also will be applicable to other types of cell-based immunotherapy, including CAR natural killer cells, T-cell receptor (TCR) engineered T cells, and combination drugs that use an antibody to connect T cells to targets on cancer cells, Dr. Shpall said.

Moon Shots Program™ Support

The multi-institutional and multidisciplinary team formed for this research is called the CARTOX Working Group. Its research was funded by MD Anderson’s Cancer Center Support Grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health and by philanthropic support for MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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