ASCO Guidelines podkast

Nervous System Toxicities: Management of irAEs Guideline (Part 9)

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An interview with Dr. Bianca Santomasso from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, author on “Management of Immune-Related Adverse Events in Patients Treated With Immune Checkpoint Inhibitor Therapy: ASCO Guideline Update.” She reviews neurologic toxicities in patients receiving ICPis, such as myasthenia gravis, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, peripheral neuropathy, aseptic meningitis & encephalitis in Part 9 of this 13-part series. For more information visit




SPEAKER: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.

BRITTANY HARVEY: Hello and welcome to the ASCO Guidelines Podcast series, brought to you by the ASCO Podcast Network, a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content, and offering enriching insight into the world of cancer care. You can find all the shows, including this one, at

My name is Brittany Harvey, and today, we're continuing our series on the management of immune-related adverse events. I am joined by Dr. Bianca Santomasso from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, New York, author on Management of Immune-Related Adverse Events in Patients Treated with Immune Checkpoint Inhibitor Therapy: ASCO Guideline Update, and Management of Immune-Related Adverse Events in Patients Treated with Chimeric Antigen Receptor T Cell Therapy: ASCO Guideline. And today, we're focusing on nervous system toxicities in patients treated with immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy. Thank you for being here, Dr. Santomasso.

BIANCA SANTOMASSO: Thank you for having me.

BRITTANY HARVEY: Then I'd like to note that ASCO takes great care in the development of its guidelines and ensuring that the ASCO conflict of interest policy is followed for each guideline. The full conflict of interest information for this guideline panel is available online with the publication of the guidelines in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Dr. Santomasso, do you have any relevant disclosures that are directly related to these guidelines?

BIANCA SANTOMASSO: Yes, I'd like to disclose that I've served as a paid consultant for Celgene, Janssen Pharmaceutical, and Legend Biotech for advising them on the topics of CAR T cell therapy side effects.

BRITTANY HARVEY: Thank you. Then getting into the content of this guideline, what are the immune-related nervous system toxicities addressed in this guideline? And what are the overarching recommendations for evaluation of these neurologic immune-related adverse events?

BIANCA SANTOMASSO: So neurologic immune-related adverse events actually encompass a very diverse spectrum of neurologic syndromes that can occur as a complication of treatment with checkpoint inhibitors. So the spectrum that is covered by this guideline includes myasthenia gravis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, polyneuropathy, aseptic meningitis, and encephalitis.

And although these are rarer than many of the other immune-related adverse event types affecting other organ systems, they're increasingly being encountered due to more patients being treated with novel combinations of immunotherapies. And they're important to recognize, because along with myocarditis, they have generally more morbidity and even more mortality than irAEs affecting other organ systems. So it's important for clinical care providers to have a high index of suspicion for these events.

Studies have suggested that these tend to occur in about 3% to 12% of patients, probably between 1% and 2% of patients developing severe events. So they're rare. But again, the events are probably more commonly seen in patients treated with combination checkpoint blockade. And we're increasingly seeing more combinations. So we should be on the lookout for these.

Neurologic immune-related adverse events can be divided into syndromes that affect the peripheral nervous system, so meaning the peripheral nerves, the neuromuscular junction, and muscle. So that would be Guillain-Barre syndrome, myasthenia gravis, and myositis. And those that affect the central nervous system, such as the brain, spinal cord, or leptomeninges. So those would be aseptic meningitis and encephalitis.

The peripheral nervous system irAE appear to be more common than those affecting the central nervous system. And patients can present with a number of different symptoms that kind of relate to these syndromes. That can be as diverse as a headache to numbness, tingling, or focal weakness, such as a foot drop or facial weakness. You may see patients with severe altered mental status or personality changes or gait difficulty, walking difficulty, which could actually mean any number of syndromes.

It's generally important to be aware that the timing of onset is generally early, a median of four weeks after the start of treatment, but can range anywhere from one week after the start of treatment to greater than a year. And because we know that cancer can spread to many parts of the nervous system, neurologic toxicity should be considered a diagnosis of exclusion.

So that means that as part of the workup for neurologic immune-related adverse events, it's imperative to rule out nervous system metastasis, stroke, and infection, which we know can occur at higher rates in patients with cancer. So for most neurologic immune-related adverse events, diagnostic workup is similar. It should include MRI brain and/or of the spine, with and without contrast, and often a lumbar puncture for cerebrospinal fluid analysis, including cytology to rule out leptomeningeal metastasis.

BRITTANY HARVEY: Thank you for that overview. In addition to those points for evaluation for all nervous system toxicities, what are the key recommendations for identification, evaluation, and management of myasthenia gravis?

BIANCA SANTOMASSO: So for myasthenia gravis, presenting symptoms usually include fatiguable or fluctuating muscle weakness. It's generally more proximal than distal. And there's frequently ocular and/or bulbar involvement. So that means either ptosis, like a droopy eyelid, diplopia, or double vision, difficulty swallowing, dysarthria, facial muscle weakness, and/or head drop or neck weakness. Again, for any patient with new neurologic symptoms, an MRI of the brain or spine should be performed depending upon the symptoms to rule out central nervous system involvement by disease or some alternative diagnosis.

And similar to idiopathic myasthenia gravis, acetylcholine receptor antibodies can be positive. So these should be checked. This is a blood test. But it's important to note that while these antibodies may be confirmatory, their absence does not rule out the syndrome. The rate of acetylcholine receptor antibody positivity in immune-related myasthenia gravis has not been definitively established. So depending on the presentation, one might also consider sending a paraneoplastic panel for Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome.

The single most important point I'd like to make regarding suspected immune-related myasthenia gravis is that orbital myositis and generalized myositis from immune checkpoint inhibitors can present similarly. For this reason, early neurology consultation and electrodiagnostic testing with repetitive stimulation or single fiber EMG becomes important and helpful to distinguish the two. And to make matters even more complicated, we've learned that there's an overlap syndrome, where patients may develop not only myasthenia gravis, but also myositis and/or myocarditis at the same time.

So basically, the neuromuscular junction is affected. But the local muscle and myocardium, which is heart muscle that's kind of related, may be affected all at once. And this overlap of syndromes may increase disease severity and mortality. So they're important to recognize. So what this means is that when you encounter a patient with suspected myasthenia gravis, you should also be checking CPK, muscle enzymes, aldolase to evaluate for myositis, and troponin and electrocardiogram to evaluate for myocarditis. And this should be done even if there are no obvious symptoms.

So onto the treatment of myasthenia gravis, this is similar to the management of the idiopathic form. Therefore, it's helpful to have the involvement of a neurologist. The immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy should be held. And patients with mild symptoms are often started on pyridostigmine and corticosteroids. And patients with more severe symptoms should initiate IVIG or plasmapheresis.

And patients with more severe symptoms may need to be admitted to the hospital. So that their neurologic and pulmonary status can be monitored closely for improvement. Some patients may require ICU level of monitoring. And considering adding rituximab if symptoms are refractory, and often, as symptoms improve, the steroids can be de-escalated.

BRITTANY HARVEY: Understood. Those are all very important points for clinicians to consider. So then following that, what are the key recommendations for identification, evaluation, and management of Guillain-Barre syndrome?

BIANCA SANTOMASSO: So Guillain-Barre syndrome, like myasthenia gravis, also presents with weakness. Most often, patients present with a progressive ascending muscle weakness. The syndrome can start with sensory symptoms or neuropathic pain that can be localized to the lower back and thighs. In addition to the classic ascending weakness, there may be facial weakness, double vision, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, loss of balance, and coordination.

And shortness of breath may occur due to respiratory muscle weakness. The autonomic nerves can also be affected and can present as new severe constipation or nausea, urinary problems, or orthostatic hypotension. The reflexes are often reduced or absent, deep tendon reflexes. So again, as for all of the syndromes, early involvement by a neurologist is recommended, if possible.

Usually, MRI imaging of the spine is important to rule out spinal cord compression. And it also may show cauda nerve thickening or enhancement, which can occur with this syndrome. And the second aspect is cerebrospinal fluid analysis is important for diagnosis. This is important really for ruling out leptomeningeal metastasis, since that could present similarly. And often, what can be seen in GBS is an elevated protein level in the cerebrospinal fluid.

In addition, unlike idiopathic GBS, there can be an elevated white blood cell count in the cerebrospinal fluid. Electrode diagnostic testing can also be helpful for confirmation, and serum tests for antiganglioside antibodies, and a paraneoplastic antibody workup may also be considered. Bedside pulmonary function test and swallowing evaluation should be performed if there's a concern for respiratory or swallowing dysfunction.

And some patients do need to have inpatient admission and monitoring if symptoms are severe or if they appear to be progressing from mild. For management, the checkpoint inhibitor therapy should be held. And patients are most often treated with IVIG or plasmapheresis. Corticosteroids can be added to the IVIG or plasmapheresis. These are not usually recommended for idiopathic Guillain-Barre syndrome. However, in immune checkpoint inhibitor-related forms, a trial is reasonable. And steroids are usually given at a higher dose for five days and then tapered over several weeks.

BRITTANY HARVEY: Understood. I appreciate that overview. So then what are the key recommendations for identification, evaluation, and management of peripheral neuropathy?

BIANCA SANTOMASSO: So peripheral neuropathy, or polyneuropathy, is a rare but likely underreported complication of immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy. So in the large databases and meta-analyses, those have really focused on Guillain-Barre syndrome for reporting. But other types of neuropathies, such as painful length dependent sensory and motor axonal neuropathies, or polyradiculopathies or sensory neuropathies do occur after immune checkpoint inhibitors and are probably under-recognized.

So evaluation of immune related neuropathy should include neurology consultation to guide the neurology phenotype determination and also the workup. The evaluation primarily relies on a combination of electrodiagnostic studies, serologic tests, and MRI neuroimaging. Because peripheral nervous syndromes can overlap, screening for neuromuscular junction dysfunction with electrodiagnostic testing and myopathy is recommended for any patient who presents with at least motor symptoms that are thought to be peripheral.

Serum testing can be helpful for ruling out reversible causes of neuropathy. Spinal imaging is recommended to exclude metastatic disease. And for management, it usually involves holding the checkpoint inhibitor in mild cases, using neuropathic pain medication or steroids in more severe cases. And very severe cases that kind of resembled GBS would be managed as per the GBS algorithm with IVIG or plasmapheresis.

BRITTANY HARVEY: Understood. And it's key to look out for those overlapping adverse events. So then following that, what are the key recommendations for aseptic meningitis?

BIANCA SANTOMASSO: Right, so now we're getting into the central nervous system toxicity. So aseptic meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges. And it can present with headache, photophobia, neck stiffness. Patients can have nausea, and vomiting, and occasionally fever. The mental status is usually normal.

And in patients presenting with headache, which in isolation, could suggest an aseptic meningitis, it's important to evaluate if they have any confusion or altered behavior, which might suggest an encephalitis. And this distinction is important, because suspected encephalitis triggers a different workup, which we'll be discussing later, and also even different management. So the workup for aseptic meningitis includes neuroimaging, usually an MRI of the brain.

And on that imaging, we sometimes see abnormal leptomeningeal enhancement. It's important not to assume that this is cancer and to do a lumbar puncture to evaluate cerebrospinal fluid both for inflammation and to exclude other causes of meningeal disease, particularly neoplastic and infectious causes. So cytology, Gram stain, and culture, and other infectious studies should be negative. And it's recommended that empiric antibiotics or antiviral therapy be considered to cover for infectious meningitis until the cerebrospinal fluid results return negative.

What's seen in the cerebrospinal fluid in aseptic meningitis is typically reactive lymphocytes, but also neutrophils or histiocytes may be prominent on the cytology. And while the symptoms can be severe, sometimes requiring hospitalization, the management of this entity, these are usually quite treatable. Aseptic meningitis generally responds very well to corticosteroids. So management involves holding the checkpoint inhibitor. And you can often get away with starting a fairly modest dose of corticosteroids, such as oral prednisone, 0.5 to 1 milligram per kilogram or the equivalent. And steroids can usually be tapered over two to four weeks.

BRITTANY HARVEY: Great, thank you for reviewing those recommendations. So then you just mentioned the distinction of aseptic meningitis and encephalitis. So what are those key recommendations for identification, evaluation, and management of encephalitis?

BIANCA SANTOMASSO: So in encephalitis, the mental status is not normal. It's characterized by, really, an acute or subacute confusion, altered mental status, altered behavior, memory deficits, including working memory and short-term memory. There can be, as associated symptoms, headaches, new onset seizures, psychiatric symptoms, which can include delusions or hallucinations. There could be weakness, sensory changes, imbalance, or gait instability, along with the mental status changes.

And so similar to aseptic meningitis, the other central nervous system toxicity, it's important to distinguish encephalitis from other causes of altered mental status, such as CNS metastases, stroke, or infection. And as for the other syndromes, it's very helpful to have neurologic consultation early, if possible.

An MRI of the brain is critical. And in addition, MRI of the spine may be obtained to evaluate for inflammatory demyelinating ischemic or metastatic lesions. In immune related encephalitis, MRI brain imaging may reveal T2 flare changes, typical of what can be seen in idiopathic autoimmune or limbic encephalitis. But most often, the MRI imaging is normal. So in this situation, a lumbar puncture for CSF studies to evaluate for evidence of inflammation can be very helpful.

You can expect to see either a lymphocytic pleocytosis or an elevated protein, or CSF restricted oligoclonal bands. CSF analysis is also helpful for excluding other causes of encephalitis, particularly viral encephalitis. So HSV, Herpes Simplex Virus, or varicella zoster virus encephalitis should be ruled out and treated with antivirals while the tests are pending. So typically, these entities can be excluded by PCR testing for HSV and VZV.

Electroencephalogram, or EEG, can also be helpful for revealing subclinical seizures or status epilepticus, which can occur as a complication of encephalitis or as a cause of persistently depressed sensorium. But these are not specific to encephalitis. Other testing that's done includes screening metabolic tests to look for alternative etiologies. And for this entity, serum and CSF autoimmune antibody evaluation should be sent to assess for malignancy associated neurologic syndromes.

And your neurologist can help you with the workup and management, in particular which tests to send. There have been reported cases of antibody positive checkpoint inhibitor related encephalitis. For management, in contrast to aseptic meningitis, these are generally not as steroid sensitive. So you often have to treat with either higher steroid doses, even pulsed steroid doses, along with IVIG or plasmapheresis.

If no improvement, escalation to rituximab and cyclophosphamide can be considered, with the assistance of neurology. This management guidance is taken from how to treat autoimmune encephalitities that are not related to checkpoint inhibitors. Unfortunately, these can be difficult to treat. The response may only be partial. So this is one area in need of better understanding of best therapeutics.

BRITTANY HARVEY: OK, thank you for reviewing that and pointing out where there's future research needed as well. And I appreciate your reviewing the recommendations for each of these neurologic immune-related adverse events. So then to wrap us up, in your view, how will these recommendations for the management of nervous system toxicities impact both clinicians and patients?

BIANCA SANTOMASSO: Yeah, so I think this is a daunting list of toxicities. But I'll say that in most situations, the immune checkpoint inhibitor side effects are often manageable and reversible with proper supportive care. They can be serious, and they require close vigilance and prompt treatment and identification. But by knowing what to look for in early identification, that allows early intervention, which is really the key to reversibility and the best outcomes.

So having these toxicities on your differential diagnosis is critical. And I think these guidelines really help inform both clinicians, and care providers, and patients on what the possible manifestations are. So we believe this guideline and its recommendations will help members of clinical teams with the recognition and the management of these unique toxicities. And again, it's timely recognition and early intervention that helps patients, really, by increasing their safety with early management.

BRITTANY HARVEY: Great, well, thank you for your work on these guidelines and for taking the time to speak with me today, Dr. Santomasso.

BIANCA SANTOMASSO: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

BRITTANY HARVEY: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to the ASCO Guidelines Podcast series. Stay tuned for additional episodes on the management of immune-related adverse events. To read the full guideline, go to

You can also find many of our guidelines and interactive resources in the free ASCO Guidelines app, available in iTunes or the Google Play store. If you have enjoyed what you've heard today, please rate and review the podcast. And be sure to subscribe. So you never miss an episode.


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