Role of Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors in Small Cell Lung Cancer

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Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) accounts for approximately 13% of all lung cancer diagnoses each year. SCLC is characterized by a rapid doubling time, early metastatic spread, and an unfavorable prognosis overall.

Areas of Uncertainty:

Most patients with SCLC will respond to initial treatment; however, the majority will experience a disease recurrence and response to second-line therapies is poor. Immune checkpoint inhibitors may be an option given the success in other diseases.

Data Sources:

A literature search was conducted using Medline (1946–July week 1, 2017) and Embase (1996–2017 week 28) with the search terms small cell lung cancer combined with nivolumab or ipilimumab or pembrolizumab or atezolizumab or tremelimumab or durvalumab. Five clinical trials, including extended follow-up for 2, that evaluated immune checkpoint inhibitors in limited stage or extensive stage SCLC were included.


In 2 phase 2 trials, ipilimumab was added to upfront chemotherapy. In both trials, an improvement in progression-free survival was seen. Toxicity, when combined with a platinum and etoposide, was significant. In a confirmatory phase 3 trial, ipilimumab did not prolong overall survival when added to first-line chemotherapy. Overall, response rates were similar between the placebo and ipilimumab groups. A phase 1/2 trial evaluated nivolumab alone or in combination with ipilimumab in recurrent SCLC. Results revealed that nivolumab monotherapy and the combination of nivolumab and ipilimumab were relatively safe and had antitumor activity. Pembrolizumab has been evaluated in a multicohort, phase 1b trial. Preliminary data showed a durable response in the second-line setting.


Given the lack of overall survival data and significant toxicity associated with the combination of ipilimumab with first-line chemotherapy, this treatment is not a reasonable option at this time. Nivolumab alone or in combination with ipilimumab is a valid option for recurrent SCLC.

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