Programmed Death: A Cat and Mouse Game

Oncologists are excited to relay the news to patients that hard-to-treat tumors benefit from a new type of immunotherapy called checkpoint inhibition, but is there a way to explain this without putting everyone in the room to sleep?

Prologue: The world of cancer care has been shaken up by the news that patients with hard-to-treat tumors benefit from a new type of immunotherapy, called checkpoint inhibition. A key receptor, called programmed death 1 (PD-1), is charged with suppressing the ability of activated T cells and other immune cells to destroy cancer cells, all in the name of preventing damage to normal tissue via autoimmunity. When PD-1 receptors on T cells bind with PD-L1 and PD-L2, complimentary receptors expressed on tumor cells, the immune response (call it the assassination of the cell) is checked and the tumor lives on. The anti PD-1 monoclonal antibodies nivolumab and pembrolizumab keep PD-L1 from turning off T cells, which has produced durable responses in several tumor types including melanoma, lung cancer, and renal cell carcinoma and represents a new hope for many.

Oncologists are excited to relay this news to patients, but is there a way to explain this without putting everyone in the room to sleep? Well, I like to use analogies to make seemingly complicated mechanisms easier to understand and the PD-1/PD-L1 relationship has inspired several colorful examples, to wit:

“Think of T cells as killers that use photographs to identify individual bad guys. Their weakness is that they will not act if the intended victim shakes their hand first. The bad guys used to be born without arms, but over time they evolved to grow arms and hands, thus avoiding elimination. The antibodies are boxing gloves that cover the hands of the T cells. Goodbye, bad guys.”

“Think of T cells as cats specially trained to eliminate mice wherever they hide. Their only weakness is if they smell catnip they will roll over and purr like idiots instead of doing their job. The mice then develop special glands that secrete catnip, thus pacifying the kitties. Solution: plug up the cats’ noses with nivolumab or pembrolizumab. Sayonara, Mr. Mouse.”

“Think of T cells as a fire sprinkler system designed to activate when a metal plug is heated to its melting point, releasing water from a pipe. The fire then emits a toxin that coats the fusible metal, keeping it below its melting point. By fitting a protective shield around the plug we block the toxic molecules and allow the plug to melt in a fire. The shield is the monoclonal antibody against PD-1 and thus the fire is successfully extinguished.”

This is getting exhausting, so I think I will stop, but don’t you agree that the concept of checkpoint inhibition lends itself to a plethora of metaphors? Now for the next lesson: how to explain chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy to patients. Hold on-I think I need to explain it to myself first.