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UCSF-Led Study Confirms Some Cancer Immunotherapies May Lead to Myocarditis and Other Potentially Serious Arrhythmias

Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) have transformed cancer care by unleashing T-cells to fight tumors, but they can cause serious cardiotoxicities including myocarditis. ICI-induced myocarditis represents a new clinical syndrome because of the novelty and considerable usage of ICIs. 

While it has been hard to fully define the clinical features of ICI-myocarditis, new research provides a clearer picture of the highly arrhythmogenic nature of myocarditis brought about by these inhibitors.

In a study headed by UC San Francisco researchers and published in Circulation this week, the investigators report electrocardiographic and arrhythmogenic features of ICI-myocarditis. The group utilized an online platform to establish an international registry from 49 institutions and 11 countries of ICI-myocarditis. While close to 500 cases have been collected, 125 patients with electrocardiograms at the time of hospitalization were identified. Two cardiologists analyzed the electrocardiograms while blinded to the individual case and outcome.

The results establish ICI-myocarditis to be highly arrhythmogenic and define specific electrocardiographic features that will help clinicians diagnose and prognosticate the syndrome.

Mandar Aras, MD, PhD

Mandar Aras, MD, PhD

The study builds on previous research by Javid Moslehi, MD, William Grossman Distinguished Professor and Section Chief of Cardio-Oncology and Immunology for the UCSF Heart and Vascular Center. His research reported on the cases of two patients with melanoma who died from fatal myocarditis that they developed after treatment with ipilimumab and nivolumab, two drug therapies used for treating melanomas.

“ICI-myocarditis is still poorly understood, but patients and physicians need to be aware of the adverse impact ICIs may have on some patients’ hearts,” said Moslehi. “Further studies are needed to evaluate how ECG changes in patients treated with ICIs can inform prediction and monitoring strategies for ICI-myocarditis.”

The study included all of the approved ICI (totaling 9 today) but mostly concentrated on ipilimumab, nivolumab and pembrolizumab, the first three drugs approved and most widely used. The patients in the study presented a wide range of ECG abnormalities including conduction blocks, decreased voltage, and repolarization abnormalities that frequently degenerate to malignant arrhythmias.

Alan Baik, MD

Alan Baik, MD

Besides Moslehi, two other UCSF cardiologists – Mandar Aras, MD, PhD, and Alan Baik, MD, – are co-authors of the manuscript.

“This study really exemplifies the power of teamwork. We have formed a true international network with cardiologists and cardio-oncologists from around the world,” said Moslehi. In particular, the group has formed a close collaboration with cardiologists at Sorbonne University in Paris, led by Joe-Elie Salm, MD. “We are now excited about the next studies using the database,” Moslehi said.

About HVC: The UCSF Heart and Vascular Center is home to a world-class team of cardiologists, heart surgeons, vascular surgeons, interventional radiologists and other specialists. The center provides the highest-quality care for all heart conditions, from the most common to the rare and complex.

The center focuses on prevention and on encouraging heart-healthy lifestyles, but also offers the most state-of-the-art treatments available. Many of these therapies were developed at UCSF, including ablation to treat arrhythmias and cardiac resynchronization to treat heart failure. Specialties include cardiovascular diseases, clinical cardiac electrophysiology, thoracic surgery, adult congenital heart disease, advanced heart failure and transplant, interventional cardiology, and vascular surgery. The center’s specialists also conduct a wide range of research projects and are committed to improving heart care on all fronts: prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

About UCSF Health: UCSF Health is recognized worldwide for its innovative patient care, reflecting the latest medical knowledge, advanced technologies and pioneering research. It includes the flagship UCSF Medical Center, which is ranked among the top 10 hospitals nationwide; as well as UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, with campuses in San Francisco and Oakland; Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital and Clinics; UCSF Benioff Children’s Physicians; and the UCSF Faculty Practice. These hospitals serve as the academic medical center of the University of California, San Francisco, which is world-renowned for its graduate-level health sciences education and biomedical research. UCSF Health has affiliations with hospitals and health organizations throughout the Bay Area.


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