Immunotherapeutics represent highly promising agents with the potential to improve patient outcomes in a variety of cancer types. Unfortunately, single-agent immunotherapy has achieved limited clinical benefit to date in patients suffering from pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). This may be due to the presence of a uniquely immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment (TME) present in PDACs, which creates a barrier to effective immune surveillance. Critical obstacles to immunotherapy in PDAC tumors include the dense desmoplastic stroma that acts as a barrier to T-cell infiltration and the high numbers of tumor-associated immunosuppressive cells.

We have identified hyperactivated focal adhesion kinase (FAK) activity in neoplastic PDAC cells as a significant regulator of the fibrotic and immunosuppressive TME. We found that FAK activity was elevated in human PDAC tissues and correlates with high levels of fibrosis and poor CD8+ cytotoxic T-cell infiltration. Single-agent FAK inhibition (VS-4718) significantly limited tumor progression, resulting in a doubling of survival in the p48-Cre/LSL-KrasG12D/p53Flox/+ (KPC) mouse model of human PDAC. This alteration in tumor progression was associated with dramatically reduced tumor fibrosis, decreased numbers of tumor-infiltrating immature myeloid cells and immunosuppressive macrophages. We postulated that these desirable effects of FAK inhibition on the TME might render PDAC tumors more sensitive to immunotherapy. Accordingly, we found that FAK inhibition rendered the previously unresponsive KPC mouse model responsive to anti-PD1 and anti-CTLA4 antagonists leading to a nearly tripling of survival times. These data suggest that FAK inhibition increases immune surveillance by overcoming the fibrotic and immunosuppressive PDAC TME and thus renders tumors responsive to immunotherapy. The results of these pre-clinical studies have led to the development of a new clinical trial (NCT02546531) testing the combination of FAK inhibition (Defactinib) with Pembrolizumab and Gemcitabine in advanced PDAC Patients.

Citation Format: David Glenn DeNardo.{Authors}. Reprograming the tumor microenvironment to facilitate responses to immunotherapy. [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the AACR Special Conference on Pancreatic Cancer: Advances in Science and Clinical Care; 2016 May 12-15; Orlando, FL. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2016;76(24 Suppl):Abstract nr IA22.