Promising new treatment for rare pregnancy cancer leads to remission in patients

Three out of four patients with the cancerous forms of gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD) went into remission after receiving the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab in a clinical trial carried out by researchers at Imperial College London.

The trial, which took place at Charing Cross Hospital, part of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, is the first to show that pembrolizumab can be used to successfully treat women with GTD.

The team hopes that this small early stage study, published in The Lancet, could provide another treatment option for women who have drug-resistant GTD and lead to a 100 per cent cure rate.

Professor Michael Seckl, lead author of the study, said:

“We have been able to show for the first time that immunotherapy may be used to cure patients of cancerous GTD. The current treatments to tackle GTD cure most cases of the disease. However, there are a small number of women whose cancers are resistant to conventional therapies and as a result have a fatal outcome. Immunotherapy may be a life-saving treatment and can be used as an alternative to the much more toxic high dose chemotherapy that is currently used. These are landmark findings that have implications on how we treat the disease in the UK and around the world.”

GTD is the term used to describe abnormal cells or tumors that start in the womb from cells that normally give rise to the placenta. They are extremely rare but can happen during or after pregnancy.

The most common type of GTD is so-called molar pregnancy where a foetus doesn’t form properly in the womb and a baby doesn’t develop, instead a lot of abnormal placental-like tissue forms. A molar pregnancy can usually be treated with a simple procedure to remove the growth of abnormal placental cells from the womb but some of this material is usually left behind. This can become cancerous and spread to other parts of the body, requiring lifesaving chemotherapy. In around one in 50,000 pregnancies cancerous GTD known as choriocarcinoma develops after other types of pregnancy including normal pregnancies and this also requires life-saving chemotherapy.

Globally, 18,000 women are diagnosed annually with cancerous forms of GTD, most of whom are cured with chemotherapy or surgery. However, up to five per cent of these women’s outcomes are fatal due to factors such as chemotherapy resistance and rare forms of the cancer such as placental site trophoblastic tumours (PSTT) that develop four or more years after the causative pregnancy has ended.

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that helps a person’s immune system fight diseases such as a cancer. The immune system fights off invading infections but can miss cancer cells. Pembrolizumab works by stimulating the body’s immune system to target and kill cancer cells. The drug is also used to treat some cases of lung cancer and melanoma.

The researchers wanted to test whether pembrolizumab could be used to treat four patients aged between 37-47 years with multi-drug resistant cancerous GTD.

The patients were given pembrolizumab intravenously every three weeks over a period of about six months between 2015-2017.

The trial also took place at the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health in Stockholm.

The researchers then carried out a blood test to measure the amount of the pregnancy hormone hCG in their system, which is an indicator of whether abnormal placental cells are left in the womb or elsewhere in the body.

They found that most patients’ hCG levels started to fall by three doses and once their hCG was normal five consolidation doses of pembrolizumab were given before stopping treatment. This contrasts with melanoma and lung cancer where this drug is given to patients continuously for two or more years. The patients remain without signs of cancer recurrence for between five months to over two years on follow-up.

The researchers also found that pembrolizumab was well tolerated in GTD patients. This is in comparison to chemotherapy which can cause nausea, vomiting and hair loss.

The team suggests that this could have cost saving implications for the NHS as six months of the drug costs about £30,000 per patient compared to two rounds of high dose chemotherapy which costs £70,000.

Melody Ransome took part in the clinical trial after being diagnosed with choriocarcinoma, which had spread from her uterus to her liver, kidney, pancreas, lungs and brain. Melody was given the immunotherapy drug over five months in 2015. After her second infusion, Melody’s hCG levels dropped by 50 per cent and she was in remission two months later. Melody continues to be in remission two and half years after receiving the immunotherapy.

“Before the trial I was being treated by high dosage of chemotherapy which made me feel awful. I experienced hair loss, fatigue and it was difficult to carry out normal tasks like looking after my two children. On top of that, the chemotherapy wasn’t working.

This all changed for me once I was given the immunotherapy drug. Each week I felt better and better. I had no side effects and I started to feel more normal. When I was told that I was in remission I was shocked that the treatment had worked in such a short amount of time. It’s been life changing and I’ve been able to enjoy spending quality time with my family again. I used to be able to swim 40 lengths before my illness and since having the immunotherapy I am close to it. It’s been an incredible journey.”

Following the findings, NHS England has agreed provisional funding to treat some cases of GTD with pembrolizumab for two years at Charing Cross and Sheffield Hospitals where these cases are managed in the UK.

The researchers will carry out a further study to assess the effects of pembrolizumab on fertility to see whether it can be offered to women at an earlier stage of treatment.

Study reveals sweetened drinks during pregnancy puts infants at higher risk for obesity

A recent Danish study of children born to women with gestational diabetes, found that maternal daily consumption of artificially-sweetened beverages during pregnancy was associated with a higher body mass index score and increased risk of overweight/obesity at 7 years.

Artificial sweeteners are widely replacing caloric sweeteners, due to the health concern related to sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) within the general population. Artificially sweetened beverages have been considered as potential healthier alternatives, although this study suggests contrary. This study looks to investigate the long-term impact of ASBs consumption during pregnancy on offspring obesity risk in relation to offspring growth through age 7 years among children born to women with gestational diabetes .

In particular, children born to women with gestational diabetes –the most common pregnancy complication affecting approximately 16% of pregnancies worldwide–represent a high-risk phenotype, which may serve as a unique model to study the early origins of obesity. Further evidence has linked nutritional biological disruptions during pregnancy to fetal development and obesity risk in later life. Thus, the authors argue it is important to identify modifiable dietary factors that may prevent offspring obesity and maternal complications.

The study investigated 918 mother and child pairs from the Danish National Birth Cohort. Enrolled participants completed four telephone interviews at gestational weeks 12 and 30, and 6 and 18 months postpartum, which collected data on sociodemographic, perinatal, and clinical factors. In addition, maternal dietary intake was assessed by a food questionnaire during pregnancy. Offspring body mass index scores and overweight/obesity status were calculated using weight and length/height at birth, 5 and 12 months, and 7 years. When the children were 7 years old, a follow-up questionnaire about the child’s health and development was delivered to the parents.

Results showed that approximately half (45.4%) of women reported consuming artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy. Whereas 68.7% reported consuming SSBs, artificially sweetened beverage consumption–compared to never consuming artificially sweetened beverages–by pregnant women with gestational diabetes was associated with a 1.57 increased risk of being overweight for gestational age babies and a 1.93-fold increase in overweight/obesity risk at 7 years after adjustment for major maternal and offspring risk factors.

Associations were more pronounced in male than female offspring. Substituting SSBs with artificially sweetened beverages was associated with an increased risk of offspring overweight/obesity at 7 years whereas substitution of artificially sweetened beverage with water was associated with a 17% reduced risk. The findings illustrated a positive association between uterus exposure to artificially sweetened beverages and birth size and risk of overweight/obesity at 7 years.

How Prenatal Maternal Infections May Affect Genetic Factors in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Researchers find activation of maternal immune system during pregnancy disrupts expression of key genes and processes associated with autism and prenatal brain development

For some infections, such as Zika, the virus passes through the placenta and directly attacks the fetus. For others, such as the H1N1 influenza, the virus induces maternal immune activation (MIA) by triggering a woman’s immune system during pregnancy. Both Zika and MIA mechanisms may lead to potentially disastrous neurological repercussions for the unborn child, such as microcephaly (an undersized, underdeveloped brain and head) in the case of Zika or cortical abnormalities with excess numbers of neurons, patches of disorganized cortex, synapse mal-development and early brain overgrowth in some cases of MIA.

Large population-based studies suggest MIA caused by infection during pregnancy are also associated with small increases in risk for psychiatric disorders, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In a new study published today in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, University of Cyprus and Stanford University map the complex biological cascade caused by MIA: the expression of multiple genes involved in autism are turned up or down by MIA, affecting key aspects of prenatal brain development that may increase risk for atypical development later in life.

“We provide novel evidence that supports the link between prenatal infections and biology known to be important in the development of autism,” said senior author Tiziano Pramparo, PhD, associate research scientist at the Autism Center of Excellence at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “There are different routes of importance. We highlight a specific pathway that seems to be key in driving downstream early abnormal brain development.”

“Our work adds to growing evidence that prenatal development is an important window for understanding key biology of relevance to neurodevelopmental conditions like autism,” added lead author Michael Lombardo, PhD, at the University of Cyprus. “MIA is an environmental route of influence on fundamental biological processes important for brain development. The influence it exerts overlaps with key processes known to be important in how the brain in autism develops.”

Pramparo said the effects are not caused by the infectious agents themselves — virus or bacterium — but from the maternal immune response itself. “Although the mechanisms are not entirely known, it has to do with the cascade of altered events regulating production and function of neurons, their synapses and how they arrange themselves in the brain that are triggered when a mother’s immune system is activated.”

For example, increased levels of maternal cytokines (small signaling molecules driven by the immune response) may directly or indirectly alter gene expression in the fetus’ brain.

“These up- and down-regulated genes may lead to an excess or reduction in the normal amounts of proteins required for normal brain development,” Pramparo said. “Importantly, we have found that MIA-induced effects involve both single genes and pathways (many genes working in a coordinated way to serve some dedicated biological purpose) essential for early fetal neurodevelopment.” Among the large number of genes whose activity is altered by the maternal immune response, are a few that, when mutated, are thought to cause more genetic forms of autism in a small subset of all ASD toddlers.

Pramparo suggested the findings have multiple clinical implications.

“In general, the more we know and understand about a disrupted mechanism, the higher the chance of finding amenable targets for potential therapeutic intervention or for informing how to prevent such risk from occurring in the first place.”

Another implication, he said, is the potential to define the effects and clinical phenotypes based upon the underlying mechanisms: genetic, environmental or both.

“The MIA effects are transient but very potent during fetal development and perhaps even more potent than the effects induced by certain types of mutations in single gene forms of autism. Also, depending on when MIA occurs during gestation, the clinical characteristics may vary. The finding of MIA affecting the expression genes known to be important in autism supports the hypothesis that a genetic-by-environment interaction may lead to amplified effects at the clinical level. For example, more severe cases of autism.”

Pregnancy leads to changes in the mother’s brain

Pregnancy involves radical hormone surges and biological adaptations, but the effects on the brain are still unknown. In this study a team of researchers compared the structure of the brain of women before and after their first pregnancy. This is the first research to show that pregnancy involves long-lasting changes – at least for two years post-partum – in the morphology of a woman’s brain.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists have been able to show that the brains of women who have undergone a first pregnancy present significant reductions in grey matter in regions associated with social cognition.

The researchers believe that such changes correspond to an adaptive process of functional specialization towards motherhood. “These changes may reflect, at least in part, a mechanism of synaptic pruning, which also takes place in adolescence, where weak synapses are eliminated giving way to more efficient and specialized neural networks”, says Elseline Hoekzema, co-lead author of the article.

According to Erika Barba, the other co-lead author, “these changes concern brain areas associated with functions necessary to manage the challenges of motherhood”.

In fact, researchers found that the areas with grey matter reductions overlapped with brain regions activated during a functional neuroimaging session in which the mothers of the study watched images of their own babies.

In order to conduct the study, researchers compared magnetic resonance images of 25 first-time mothers before and after their pregnancy, of 19 male partners, and of a control group formed by 20 women who were not and had never been pregnant and 17 male partners. They gathered information about the participants during five years and four months.

The results of the research directed by Òscar Vilarroya and Susanna Carmona demonstrated a symmetrical reduction in the volume of grey matter in the medial frontal and posterior cortex line, as well as in specific sections of, mainly, prefrontal and temporal cortex in pregnant women. “These areas correspond to a great extent with a network associated with processes involved in social cognition and self-focused processing”, indicates Susanna Carmona.

The analyses of the study determine with great reliability whether any woman from the study had been pregnant depending on the changes in the brain structure. They were even able to predict the mother’s attachment to her baby in the postpartum period based on these brain changes.

The study took into account variations in both women who had undergone fertility treatments and women who had become pregnant naturally, and the reductions in grey matter were practically identical in both groups.

Researchers did not observe any changes in memory or other cognitive functions during the pregnancies and therefore believe that the loss of grey matter does not imply any cognitive deficits, but rather: “The findings point to an adaptive process related to the benefits of better detecting the needs of the child, such as identifying the newborn’s emotional state. Moreover, they provide primary clues regarding the neural basis of motherhood, perinatal mental health and brain plasticity in general”, says Oscar Vilarroya.