expert roundtables

The Evolving Role of Immunomodulatory Agents in Multiple Myeloma

by Kenneth C. Anderson, MD; Sagar Lonial, MD, FACP; and S. Vincent Rajkumar, MD


Immunomodulatory drugs act through multiple mechanisms, some of which have yet to be fully characterized. In addition to pairings with proteasome inhibitors and monoclonal antibodies, immunomodulatory drugs hold great promise in pairings with novel immune-based therapies.


How would you characterize the immunomodulatory drugs in terms of their complementarity to existing and emerging treatment strategies?

Sagar Lonial, MD, FACP

Chair and Professor
Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology
Anne and Bernard Gray Family Chair in Cancer
Chief Medical Officer
Winship Cancer Institute
Emory University School of Medicine
Atlanta, GA

“The idea is to use immunomodulatory drugs throughout the disease course as a way to kill multiple myeloma cells and to set up other agents for success."

Sagar Lonial, MD, FACP

The use of immunomodulatory drugs was likely one of the most effective and earliest true treatment developments in multiple myeloma. It started with thalidomide, which, in many ways, was superior to the alkylators and/or to the corticosteroids when given separately. However, many would argue that allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation was the first major advancement. While it may be a valuable option for some patients, I would not count that in the same category as the immunomodulators in terms of treatment efficacy.

As second- and third-generation immunomodulator drugs (ie, lenalidomide and pomalidomide) have become available, and now with the cereblon E3 ligase modulators iberdomide and CC-9480 in development, we have come to understand that these agents not only influence multiple myeloma cell survival but also have a major effect on immune function. Part of the success of the CD38-directed monoclonal antibodies daratumumab or isatuximab is that they synergize so nicely with immunomodulatory agents, beyond what a doublet in 2 different classes would generally add.

And I am optimistic, as we look to the data on the persistence of response with immune-based therapies such as bispecific antibodies and even chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, that immunomodulatory drugs may be good partners with those strategies and may enhance their efficacy as well. The idea is to use immunomodulatory drugs throughout the disease course as a way to kill multiple myeloma cells and to set up other agents for success. Given that we have drugs such as iberdomide or CC-9480 in development that are more potent immune simulators than either pomalidomide or lenalidomide, this field will become even more exciting.

Kenneth C. Anderson, MD

Kraft Family Professor of Medicine
Harvard Medical School
Director, LeBow Institute for Myeloma Therapeutics
Director, Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Boston, MA

“The ability to add immunomodulatory drugs to novel immune therapies may not only enhance efficacy but also may allow for the use of lower doses of each, thereby improving the therapeutic index.”

Kenneth C. Anderson, MD

The immunomodulatory drugs are appropriately named because they upregulate T cell, natural killer (NK) cell, and NKT cell responses. They also downregulate regulatory T cells, which are at least in part responsible for the immune compromise in patients with multiple myeloma. These treatments are wonderful partners with proteasome inhibitors and with monoclonal antibodies, as they upregulate antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity, among other activities.

We are in the midst of an extremely exciting time with novel immune therapies emerging, such as the bispecific T-cell engagers (BiTEs) and the CAR T-cell therapies. To focus on the utility of immunomodulatory drugs in this setting, we conducted a preclinical study of one of the BiTEs directed against B-cell maturation antigen, specifically looking at the effect of a combination with lenalidomide or pomalidomide. The results showed the synergistic killing of multiple myeloma cells at low doses of the BiTEs combined with low doses of either lenalidomide or pomalidomide, as well as at lower effector cell to target cell ratios (ie, lower ratios of immune cells to multiple myeloma cells). In other words, the ability to add immunomodulatory drugs to novel immune therapies may not only enhance efficacy but also may allow for the use of lower doses of each, thereby improving the therapeutic index.

Along with enhancing response and achieving an improved side-effect profile, we need to determine whether immunomodulatory drugs can prolong the responses to novel immune agents, just as they have prolonged responses when used as maintenance therapy. Although CAR T-cell therapies have achieved a remarkable depth of response even in advanced multiple myeloma, the durability of these responses has been 8 to 12 months, and clinical trials will determine whether immunomodulatory drugs can prolong responses.   

S. Vincent Rajkumar, MD

Edward W. and Betty Knight Scripps Professor of Medicine
Mayo Clinic
Rochester, MN

“My hypothesis is that we will see an augmentation of the activity of these immune-targeted therapies, but, since much of this is currently unknown, we need empirical evidence.”

S. Vincent Rajkumar, MD

Empirical evidence is what we are ultimately going to rely on. It is almost expected that new drugs will be tested with an immunomodulatory drug, given the potency of these agents, to see whether the partnership will be a good one. We know that immunomodulatory drugs work in multiple myeloma, but we do not know exactly what will happen when these pairings are tested in the clinic. I suspect that we will someday have that empirical evidence on the feasibility, safety, and efficacy of combining new drugs with immunomodulatory agents. My hypothesis is that we will see an augmentation of the activity of these immune-targeted therapies, but, since much of this is currently unknown, we need empirical evidence.

There are a number of immune-based strategies now, and we tend to classify them as monoclonal antibodies, antibody-drug conjugates, bispecific antibodies, or cellular therapies such as CAR T cells. However, in the long run, I believe that it is more important to look at the targets and determine whether resistance has developed. Whether the target is CD38 or BCMA, or like we saw at the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting & Exposition last year, GPRC5D, which is an orphan receptor, or FCRH5, and so on.

Thus, you pick the antigen and then consider the circumstances to target it, and this is a way of looking at it that makes it easier to consider combinations. For instance, suppose the combination of an anti-CD38 therapy with BCMA-directed therapy is of interest. Then you would look at the available BCMA-directed options and decide which one would be best combined with an anti-CD38 monoclonal antibody.


Cho S-F, Lin L, Xing L, et al. The immunomodulatory drugs lenalidomide and pomalidomide enhance the potency of AMG 701 in multiple myeloma preclinical models [published correction in: Blood Adv. 2020;4(22):5772]. Blood Adv. 2020;4(17):4195-4207. doi:10.1182/bloodadvances.2020002524

Dimopoulos K, Fibiger Munch-Petersen H, Winther Eskelund C, et al. Expression of CRBN, IKZF1, and IKZF3 does not predict lenalidomide sensitivity and mutations in the cereblon pathway are infrequent in multiple myeloma. Leuk Lymphoma. 2019;60(1):180-188. doi:10.1080/10428194.2018.1466290

Kinneer K, Flynn M, Thomas SB, et al. Preclinical assessment of an antibody-PBD conjugate that targets BCMA on multiple myeloma and myeloma progenitor cells. Leukemia. 2019;33(3):766-771. doi:10.1038/s41375-018-0278-7

Lancman G, Richter J, Chari A. Bispecifics, trispecifics, and other novel immune treatments in myeloma. Hematology Am Soc Hematol Educ Program. 2020;2020(1):264-271. doi:10.1182/hematology.2020000110

Nadeem O, Tai Y-T, Anderson KC. Immunotherapeutic and targeted approaches in multiple myeloma. Immunotargets Ther. 2020;9:201-215. doi:10.2147/ITT.S240886

Raje N, Berdeja J, Lin Y, et al. Anti-BCMA CAR T-cell therapy bb2121 in relapsed or refractory multiple myeloma. N Engl J Med. 2019;380(18):1726-1737. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1817226

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