Immune checkpoint inhibitors for treatment of thymic epithelial tumors: how to maximize benefit and optimize risk?

Chen Zhao, Arun Rajan


A greater understanding of anti-tumor immunity has resulted in rapid development of immunotherapy for a wide variety of cancers. Antibodies targeting the immune checkpoints, cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated protein 4 (CTLA-4), programmed death-1 (PD-1), or its ligand (PD-L1) have demonstrated clinical activity and are approved for treatment of melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), renal cell carcinoma, bladder cancer, head and neck cancers, esophageal cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, and Hodgkin lymphoma, among others. Treatment is generally well tolerated with relatively few adverse events compared with standard treatments such as chemotherapy. However, immune activation can potentially affect any organ system and a small fraction of patients are at risk for developing severe immune-related adverse events. Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) and other immunotherapeutic modalities such as cancer vaccines are in nascent stages of development for treatment of thymic epithelial tumors (TETs). Since the thymus plays a key role in the development of immune tolerance, thymic tumors have a unique biology which can influence the risk-benefit balance of immunotherapy. Indeed, early results from clinical trials have demonstrated clinical activity, albeit at a cost of a higher incidence of immune-related adverse events, which seem to particularly affect skeletal and cardiac muscle and the neuromuscular junction. In this paper we describe the effects of thymic physiology on the immune system and review the results of clinical trials that have evaluated immunotherapy for treatment of relapsed thymoma and thymic carcinoma. We review ongoing efforts to mitigate the risk of immune-related complications in patients with TETs receiving immunotherapy and offer our thoughts for making immunotherapy a feasible alternative for treatment of thymic tumors.