Research ArticleCancer

Trastuzumab emtansine (T-DM1) renders HER2+ breast cancer highly susceptible to CTLA-4/PD-1 blockade

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Science Translational Medicine  25 Nov 2015:
Vol. 7, Issue 315, pp. 315ra188
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aac4925

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Targeted therapy with more punch

Overexpression of the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) is common in breast cancer, and it is associated with poor outcomes despite the availability of trastuzumab, an antibody against HER2, and other HER2-targeted agents. The reason for the poor outcomes is that many patients develop resistance to the targeted drugs. Müller et al. have now shown that this resistance can be overcome with trastuzumab emtansine, an antibody-drug conjugate that combines the HER2-targeting ability of trastuzumab with a cytotoxic drug, which the antibody delivers directly to the tumor. In addition to its cytotoxic effects, treatment with trastuzumab emtansine activated a strong antitumor immune response and effectively combined with immune checkpoint inhibitors, suggesting that it can be used in combination therapy.


Targeted drug delivery with antibody-drug conjugates such as the HER2-directed ado-trastuzumab emtansine (T-DM1) has emerged as a powerful strategy for cancer therapy. We show that T-DM1 is particularly effective in eliciting antitumor immunity in patients with early breast cancer (WSG-ADAPT trial) and in a HER2-expressing orthotopic tumor model. In the latter, despite primary resistance to immunotherapy, combined treatment with T-DM1 and anti–CTLA-4/PD-1 (cytotoxic T lymphocyte–associated protein-4/programmed cell death protein-1) was curative because it triggered innate and adaptive immunity. Tumor rejection was accompanied by massive T cell infiltration, TH1 (T helper 1) cell polarization, and, notably, a substantial increase in regulatory T cells. Depletion of regulatory T cells resulted in inflammation and tissue damage, implying their essential role in protecting the host during therapy. This study provides insights into the mechanisms of T-DM1’s therapeutic activity and a rationale for potential therapeutic combination strategies with immunotherapy.

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