Background. Metastatic colorectal cancer (CRC) remains mostly incurable, with a survival of about two years only. It has been recently proved that CRCs with genetic defects in the mismatch-repair pathway (MMRd), occurring in 15% of early CRC but only in 5% of metastatic CRC, present with a high tumor mutational burden (TMB), which results in an increased number of neoantigens that can be recognized by the immune system. Indeed, treatment with the anti-programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) immune checkpoint inhibitor pembrolizumab or nivolumab is effective in inducing durable objective responses in metastatic CRC MMRd cases. These results are quite remarkable considering that the clinical efficacy was independent from RAS mutations, which constrain the use of targeted treatments and negatively affect prognosis. We recently showed in preclinical models that the pharmacological treatment with temozolomide (TMZ) can induce the inactivation of MMR genes and consequently trigger an increase in immunogenic neoantigens. This suggests that TMZ could be used to prime MMR proficient (MMRp) tumors for response to checkpoint inhibitors. Accordingly, mCRC patients recruited in previous clinical trials where TMZ was administered, acquired alterations of MMR genes upon treatment and showed remarkable increase in TMB at disease progression (PD). We thus designed the ARETHUSA clinical trial to test whether a priming course with TMZ in patients can sensitize mCRC to the anti-PD1 inhibitor pembrolizumab.

Methods. Arethusa is a 2-cohorts, phase II trial consisting of three different phases (NCT03519412). During screening-phase, 344 mCRC patients with RAS-extended mutations who failed standard therapies will be tested for MMR status. MMRd CRC patients will proceed directly to trial-phase for immediate pembrolizumab treatment (expected N=14). MMR-proficient (MMRp) patients will be further tested for TMZ sensitivity via assessment of expression of O6-methylguanine-DNA methyltransferase (MGMT) by immunohistochemistry and by promoter methylation analysis. Expected 67 IHC-negative, promoter methylation-positive MMRp patients will thus be eligible for priming-phase and will receive TMZ until PD; TMB will then be assessed on tumor biopsies at resistance. Those patients that will have >20 mutations/megabase (expected N=20) will proceed to that trial-phase and will be treated with pembrolizumab. Overall response rate (primary outcome), Progression Free, and Overall Survival, and treatment related toxicities (secondary outcomes) in MMRp pembrolizumab-treated patients will be estimated. Treatment efficacy and toxicity within pembrolizumab-treated MMRd cohort will be used for comparison. Pre- and post-TMZ biopsies and longitudinal blood and stool collection during priming and trial phases will allow for discovery of predictive molecular markers and for the assessment of integrated tumor and (immune)environment evolution in response to therapy.

Citation Format: Silvia Marsoni, Giovanni Germano, Andrea Sartore Bianchi, Filippo Pietrantonio, Nicola Personeni, Alessio Amatu, Emanuela Bonoldi, Emanuele Valtorta, Ludovic Barault, Federica Di Nicolantonio, Filippo de Braud, Lorenza Rimassa, Armando Santoro, Silvia Ghezzi, Andrea Cassingena, Giovanna Marrapese, Loredana Lupica, Giulia Siravegna, Giuseppe Rospo, Cosimo Martino, Luca Lazzari, Paolo Luraghi, Nabil Amirouchene-Angelozzi, Alberto Bardelli, Salvatore Siena. Pharmacological inactivation of DNA repair to improve response to immunotherapy: The Arethusa trial in metastatic colorectal cancer [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2019; 2019 Mar 29-Apr 3; Atlanta, GA. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2019;79(13 Suppl):Abstract nr CT215.