Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) pose a significant challenge in clinical management, particularly for patients with lower-risk disease who relapse or have refractory disease. The IMerge trial investigated the efficacy of imetelstat, a first-in-class telomerase inhibitor, in achieving red blood cell (RBC) transfusion independence in this patient population.
The IMerge trial, led by Dr. Uwe Platzbecker and colleagues, demonstrated that heavily transfused patients who failed on erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs) had significantly higher rates of RBC transfusion independence for at least 8 weeks with imetelstat compared to placebo. The data showed a clear advantage for imetelstat, with a 40% transfusion independence rate versus 15% in the placebo group.
Furthermore, the study highlighted the sustained effect of imetelstat in achieving transfusion independence. A remarkable 83% of patients who achieved 8-week transfusion independence with imetelstat had a single continuous period of independence, compared to only 56% in the placebo group. This finding suggests the potential of imetelstat as a viable second-line therapy for lower-risk MDS.
While the results of the IMerge trial are promising, it is important to acknowledge the limitations and challenges associated with the use of imetelstat. A commentary by Dr. Mrinal Patnaik highlights concerns regarding substantial thrombocytopenia and neutropenia associated with the drug. These adverse events necessitate the optimization of supportive care measures, which may be different from those employed for other therapies for anemia-directed MDS, such as ESAs and luspatercept.
The recent FDA approval of luspatercept for the front-line management of anemia in lower-risk MDS patients opens up possibilities for exploring treatment combinations with imetelstat. Dr. Patnaik emphasizes the need for expedited data on whether patients treated with luspatercept respond to imetelstat. This information is crucial in determining the appropriate and safe use of imetelstat to avoid exacerbating the burden of disease on patients.
The double-blind IMerge trial was conducted at multiple sites across several countries, involving 178 patients. Participants were randomized to receive either imetelstat or placebo. The patients had a median age of 72, and the majority were male. The data revealed that the imetelstat group had a higher proportion of patients who achieved the primary endpoint of RBC transfusion independence for at least 8 weeks compared to the placebo group.
The benefits of imetelstat were observed across different patient subgroups. Patients with ring sideroblasts, a common feature of MDS, achieved transfusion independence rates of 45% and 32% with and without ring sideroblasts in the imetelstat group, respectively, compared to only 19% and 9% in the placebo group. Additionally, the imetelstat group experienced a significantly higher increase in blood hemoglobin levels and reported improvements in fatigue compared to the placebo group.
It is essential to consider the safety profile of imetelstat. Grade 3 or 4 treatment-emergent adverse events (TEAEs) were reported in a substantial proportion of patients receiving imetelstat, including neutropenia and thrombocytopenia. The incidence of these adverse events was significantly higher in the imetelstat group compared to the placebo group. However, it is noteworthy that no treatment-related deaths were reported.
The findings of the IMerge trial provide optimism for the future of imetelstat as a potential treatment option for patients with lower-risk MDS who relapse or have refractory disease. The sustained transfusion independence and improvements in fatigue observed with imetelstat highlight the need for further exploration and development of this novel agent. However, thorough consideration of the safety profile and optimization of supportive care measures remain crucial for the appropriate and safe use of imetelstat.
The IMerge trial demonstrates the potential of imetelstat, a first-in-class telomerase inhibitor, in achieving red blood cell transfusion independence in heavily transfused patients with lower-risk MDS who failed on ESAs. The study findings support imetelstat’s role as a second-line therapy and emphasize the importance of optimizing supportive care measures. Further research is needed to evaluate treatment combinations and determine the appropriate use of imetelstat in the context of evolving treatment options for lower-risk MDS patients.