A child sat in a hospital bed smiling at the camera wearing a hospital gown and with medical equipment around them

Children with some solid tumours may benefit from receiving a combination of inhibitor drugs, according to interim results of research presented at a conference.

The ongoing research being conducted by an international team including the University of Birmingham suggests that a combination of the PARP inhibitor olaparib (Lynparza) and the investigational ATR inhibitor ceralasertib showed clinical benefit in paediatric patients with solid tumours exhibiting DNA replication stress and/or DNA repair deficiencies.

The as-yet unpublished results from the phase I portion of the phase I/II AcSé-ESMART trial have been presented at the American Association of Cancer Research’s Annual Meeting 2023, held April 14-19.

Dr Susanne Gatz, associate clinical professor in pediatric oncology at the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences of the University of Birmingham presented the study. Dr Gatz said:

“To our knowledge, the combination of PARP inhibitors and ATR inhibitors has not been widely investigated in adult tumour types. This is the first proof of principle that the combination is well tolerated and can lead to clinically relevant responses in paediatric cancers.”

AcSé-ESMART is an international European proof-of-concept platform trial intended to match paediatric, adolescent, and young adult patients with relapsed or treatment-refractory cancers with a treatment regimen targeted to their cancer’s mutational profile. Gatz and colleagues, including Birgit Geoerger, MD, PhD, head of the AcSé-ESMART trial, have so far evaluated 15 different treatments, mostly combination strategies, in more than 220 children following mandatory high-throughput genomic profiling of their tumours.

Arm N of AcSé-ESMART is tailored toward patients with malignancies that exhibit defects in DNA replication and damage repair. Impairments in homologous recombination (HR), a type of DNA repair, can sensitize cells to drugs called PARP inhibitors. PARP inhibitors have proven effective against specific adult cancers with HR deficiencies—most notably, mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2. How to best use PARP inhibitors in paediatric patients where BRCA1/2 mutations are rarely found remains unclear.

Dr Gatz said:

“Paediatric cancer cells proliferate rapidly and have some element of replication stress and a dependency on ATR. We think there might be a kind of primary resistance of paediatric cancers to PARP inhibitors and that combination with an ATR inhibitor could potentially overcome that.”

 A range of medicines

Phase I trial

In the phase I portion of AcSé-ESMART arm N, researchers enrolled 18 paediatric and young adult patients with relapsed or treatment-refractory solid tumours that harboured mutations believed to confer HR deficiencies or replication stress. Three dose levels of twice-daily oral olaparib (given continuously) and ceralasertib (given on days 1 through 14 of each 28-day cycle) were evaluated. The recommended phase II dose was determined to be 150 mg of olaparib and 80 mg of ceralasertib in patients aged 12 to 18. The recommended dose regimen for children younger than 12 remains to be determined.

Patients received a median of 3.5 cycles of treatment. Five patients experienced dose-limiting adverse events (thrombocytopenia and neutropenia), and two such events occurred at the recommended phase II dose.

One patient with pineoblastoma experienced a confirmed partial response and received treatment for 11 cycles. Another patient with neuroblastoma experienced stable disease until cycle 9 of treatment, at which point their disease converted to a partial response. The response was confirmed after cycle 11, and the patient is still undergoing treatment in cycle 12. Two patients in cycle 8 and one patient in cycle 15 also remain on treatment. None of the patients with clinical benefit had BRCA mutations.

Gatz explained that paediatric cancers are often driven by complex mechanisms, making it difficult to identify an effective treatment regimen. Single-agent therapies targeting one mutated protein are often insufficient in paediatric patients, necessitating additional research into combination therapies and mechanisms of response.

“So far, it is unclear if the molecular alterations based on which the patients were enrolled in this trial are the sole reasons for response,” Gatz said.

“Further, it may be difficult to identify patterns of response in specific tumour types due to the tumour-agnostic nature of the study. Nevertheless, this study design can give preliminary indications of signals in specific alterations and tumour types and can provide the basis for future clinical trials.”

Molecular constellations

Gatz and colleagues plan to evaluate biomarkers of response from the raw sequencing data of the enrolled patients, from the expression of key target proteins such as ATM, and from RNA sequencing data.

Gatz noted that these analyses may identify “molecular constellations” indicative of response to olaparib plus ceralasertib.

“There are enormously valuable drugs currently in development and, provided there is a good clinical or preclinical rationale, we need to apply them more creatively to diseases for which the drug is not currently indicated,” Gatz said.

Limitations of this study include a small, non-randomized sample intended primarily as a proof of concept and to determine the optimal dose for study expansion.