Biomarkers of pembrolizumab efficacy in advanced anal squamous cell carcinoma: analysis of a phase II clinical trial and a cohort of long-term responders

January, 01, 2024 | Select Oncology Journal Articles


Recent trials suggest that programmed cell death 1 (PD-1)-directed immunotherapy may be beneficial for some patients with anal squamous cell carcinoma and biomarkers predictive of response are greatly needed.


This multicenter phase II clinical trial (NCT02919969) enrolled patients with metastatic or locally advanced incurable anal squamous cell carcinoma (n=32). Patients received pembrolizumab 200 mg every 3 weeks. The primary endpoint of the trial was objective response rate (ORR). Exploratory objectives included analysis of potential predictive biomarkers including assessment of tumor-associated immune cell populations with multichannel immunofluorescence and analysis of circulating tumor tissue modified viral-human papillomavirus DNA (TTMV-HPV DNA) using serially collected blood samples. To characterize the clinical features of long-term responders, we combined data from our prospective trial with a retrospective cohort of patients with anal cancer treated with anti-PD-1 immunotherapy (n=18).


In the phase II study, the ORR to pembrolizumab monotherapy was 9.4% and the median progression-free survival was 2.2 months. Despite the high level of HPV positivity observed with circulating TTMV-HPV DNA testing, the majority of patients had low levels of tumor-associated CD8+PD-1+ T cells on pretreatment biopsy. Patients who benefited from pembrolizumab had decreasing TTMV-HPV DNA scores and a complete responder’s TTMV-HPV DNA became undetectable. Long-term pembrolizumab responses were observed in one patient from the trial (5.3 years) and three patients (2.5, 6, and 8 years) from the retrospective cohort. Long-term responders had HPV-positive tumors, lacked liver metastases, and achieved a radiological complete response.


Pembrolizumab has durable efficacy in a rare subset of anal cancers. However, despite persistence of HPV infection, indicated by circulating HPV DNA, most advanced anal cancers have low numbers of tumor-associated CD8+PD-1+ T cells and are resistant to pembrolizumab.

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