MONARCH 2 Adds Semi-sweet Results to the HR+/HER2-Breast Cancer Field

by Arnold DuBell | Jun 3, 2017
Co-authored by Megan Epperson, Ph.D. 

For HR+/HER2- advanced breast cancer patients, endocrine therapy has proved to be an effective and well-tolerated treatment option. In order to delay the initiation of more cytotoxic therapies, physicians will typically utilize hormone therapy as long as possible in these patients, although the majority will become resistant to hormone therapy.  In recent years, pairing hormone therapy with targeted therapies has become a popular strategy.  This strategy began in 2011 with the data from BOLERO 2, which found that addition of Afinitor® (everolimus, Novartis) to exemestane could help re-sensitize patients to hormone therapy regimens1. Even more recently, physicians are combining hormone therapy with cell cycle inhibitors targeting the cyclin-dependent kinases 4 and 6 (CDK4/6).  First to lay claim to this concept was Ibrance® (palbociclib, Pfizer), which was first approved in 2015 by the U.S. FDA as first-line therapy in combination with letrozole (later loosened to include all aromatase inhibitors,) based on the PALOMA-1 trial2. Further, after the results of the PALOMA-2, and -3 trials were presented, the FDA and the EMA approved Ibrance as first-line therapy in combination with aromatase inhibitor or as a second-line option in combination with either an aromatase inhibitor or Faslodex® (fulvestrant, AstraZeneca)3,4. There are now two more players in addition to Ibrance targeting CDK4/6 for inhibition in breast cancer: Kisqali® (ribociclib, Novartis), and abemaciclib (Eli Lilly and Company).  Kisqali was approved by the FDA in March 2017 for use in the first-line setting in combination with an aromatase inhibitor based on positive data from MONALEESA-25.  As targeting of this pathway has proven to yield effective results in breast cancer, many trials have been initiated utilizing this class of inhibitors in breast cancer. Currently, there are 60 active trials involving these three inhibitors in breast cancer (Kantar Health’s CancerLandscapeTM, accessed June 2, 2017). Lilly is also interested in this space for their CDK4/6 inhibitor abemaciclib, having initiated two global Phase III trials (MONARCH 2 and MONARCH 3) in HR+/HER2- metastatic breast cancer.

Top-line results were presented from MONARCH 2 today at the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting.  This trial randomized 669 patients to abemaciclib (150 mg or 200 mg, po, BID) in combination with Faslodex (150 mg or 200 mg, po, BID) or placebo plus Faslodex in HR+/HER2- advanced breast cancer patients as either a first- or second-line treatment option6.   Patients enrolled in MONARCH 2 were allowed to have progressed on neoadjuvant, adjuvant, or first-line endocrine therapy.   Notably, MONARCH 2 differed from PALOMA 3 in that the use of prior chemotherapy was an exclusion criterion.  The addition of abemaciclib significantly improved progression-free survival (PFS; 16.4 months versus 9.3 months, HR 0.553, p<0.0000001). MONARCH 2 also met its secondary endpoint of overall response rate (ORR in the intent-to-treat population; 35.2% versus 16.1%, p<0.001).  Although not significant, the rate of complete responses was also improved with the addition of abemaciclib (3.5% versus 0%).  

Toxicity may be an issue for abemaciclib.  Of specific concern, the incidence of diarrhea was increased with abemaciclib (all grades, 86.4% versus 24.7%; Grade 3-4, 13.4% versus 0.4%). Due to discontinuations related to this adverse event, the dose of abemaciclib was reduced from 200 mg to 150 mg after enrollment of 178 patients. The discontinuation rate before the dose reduction was 24%, and post-reduction discontinuations dropped to 13%.  The presenter noted in his summary, however, that diarrhea was manageable with use of loperamide.  Other grade 3-4 toxicities of note included neutropenia (26.5% versus 1.7%), leucopenia (8.8% versus 0%) and anemia (7.2% versus 0.9%).  As the trial met its PFS primary endpoint, Lilly announced that it intends to file for approval of abemaciclib in Q3 2017 (Press Release, March 20, 2017). 

With Ibrance’s 2015 approval and the recent approval of Kisqali, abemaciclib will be third-to-market in the HR+/HER2- advanced breast cancer setting.  All three inhibitors appear to provide benefit to patients as all showed significant improvements in PFS.  While both Ibrance and Kisqali have similar toxicity profiles, abemaciclib alone appeared to struggle with higher incidences of diarrhea. While it is not completely clear why abemaciclib differs in its toxicity profile in this way, it may be related to the fact that abemaciclib is more potent against CDK4/cyclin D1 than CDK6/cyclin D3 in enzymatic assays; the reverse is true for Ibrance and Kisqali.  The dosing strategy for abemaciclib also differs from Ibrance and Kisqali in that it is administered via continuous dosing, while the other two inhibitors are administered for 21 days, with a 7 day treatment holiday per cycle.  Given the hurdles, these data are only “semi-sweet”: good enough for regulatory approval, but the toxicities seen in MONARCH 2, and abemaciclib’s eventual third-to-market introduction might cause physicians to question when to offer the agent. 



  1. Baselga J, Campone M, Piccart M, et al.; "Everolimus in postmenopausal hormone-receptor-positive advanced breast cancer;" N Engl J Med, 366: 520-529, 2012.
  2. Finn RS, Crown JP , Lang I, Boer K, et al.; "The cyclin-dependent kinase 4/6 inhibitor palbociclib in combination with letrozole versus letrozole alone as first-line treatment of oestrogen receptor-positive, HER2-negative, advanced breast cancer (PALOMA-1/TRIO-18): a randomised phase 2 study;" Lancet Oncol, 16(1): 25-35, 2015.
  3. Turner NC, Andre F, Loi S, et al.; "Palbociclib in Hormone-Receptor-Positive Advanced Breast Cancer," N Engl J Med, 373 (3): 209-219, 2015.
  4. Finn RS, Martin M, Rugo HS, et al.; “Palbociclib and letrozole in advanced breast cancer;” N Engl J Med, 375 (20): 1925- 1936, 2016.
  5. Hortobagyi GN, Stemmer SM, Burris HA, et al; “Ribociclib as First-Line Therapy for HR-Positive, Advanced Breast Cancer;” N Engl J Med, 375 (18): 1738-1748, 2016.
  6. Sledge GW, Toi M, Neven P, et al; “MONARCH 2: Abemaciclib in combination with fulvestrant in patients with HR+/HER2- advanced breast cancer who progressed on endocrine therapy;” J Clin Oncol, 35: Abstract 1000, 2017.

Leave a comment

More than one Google Analytics scripts are registered. Please verify your pages and templates.