The promise of PD-1 inhibitors in gastro-esophageal cancers: Microsatellite instability vs. PD-L1

Zhaohui Jin, Harry H. Yoon

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Preliminary clinical studies of anti-programmed cell death-1 (anti-PD-1) therapy in gastroesophageal cancers have suggested promising single-agent activity. In patients who received prior treatment for advanced disease, pembrolizumab has been associated with a response rate of 20% in programmed cell death-1 ligand 1 (PD-L1)-positive tumors, and nivolumab with a response rate of 12% in unselected tumors. Both agents yielded a median duration of response lasting ~6-7 months. PD-L1 expression and microsatellite instability (MSI) have emerged as potential predictive markers for PD-1/PD-L1 blockade. PD-L1 expression in tumor cells and in immune cells within the tumor microenvironment has been detected in 14-24% and ~35% of patients with gastro-esophageal cancer, respectively. PD-L1 tumor cell expression appears to be more common in Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-positive gastric cancers (GCs) and has been associated with an increased density of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL). To date, data are too sparse to determine whether PD-L1 expression predicts efficacy of anti-PD-1 therapy in gastro-esophageal cancer, but data from other tumor types have not been consistent regarding its predictive value. MSI occurs in 10-20% of gastro-esophageal cancers and arises from deficient mismatch repair (MMR). MSI is highly correlated with non-synonymous mutation burden, as well as a dense accumulation of TILs. MSI has been associated with improved response to anti-PD-1 therapy in gastrointestinal cancers. Multiple studies are ongoing which examine therapeutic blockade of the PD-1/PD-L1 axis in unselected patients with gastro-esophageal cancer, as well as patients whose tumors express PD-L1 or exhibit MSI. These studies will clarify their activity in this disease and potentially can determine whether identify a strong predictive biomarker can be identified. Checkpoint inhibition is also being studied in combination with curative-intent chemo (radio) therapy and surgery.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)771-788
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Gastrointestinal Oncology
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2016


  • Gastro-esophageal cancer
  • Microsatellite instability (MSI)
  • Programmed cell death-1 (PD-1)
  • Programmed cell death-1 ligand 1 (PD-L1)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Gastroenterology


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