Department of Pathology News

Teaming Up to Bring Life-Saving Immunotherapy to C

Monday, May 01, 2017

Teaming Up to Bring Life-Saving Immunotherapy to Cancer Patients



Drs. Changcheng Zhu, left, and Balazs Halmos


When the world learned, in the summer of 2015, that Jimmy Carter had been diagnosed with metastatic cancer, the prognosis looked grim. The melanoma had spread to the then 91-year-old former president’s brain and liver. Just months later, Mr. Carter’s doctors pronounced him cancer-free. The secret to his miraculous rebound? Treatment with radiation and an immunotherapy drug called Keytruda.

Immunotherapy, a revolutionary approach to cancer treatment, uses a new class of drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors to harness the patient’s immune system to fight tumor cells. It’s an effective alternative to conventional chemotherapy, with fewer toxic side effects. But immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone.

Manufactured by Merck, Keytruda (pembrolizumab) has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a first- and second-line treatment for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the most aggressive form of lung cancer. Doctors have also used it to successfully treat several other cancers, including melanoma.

How do clinicians decide which patients are likely to benefit from Keytruda? They rely, in part, on a diagnostic tool called the PD-L1 test. Fortunately for Montefiore oncologists and their patients, a PD-L1 test--PD-L1 IHC 22C3 pharmDx, developed by DAKO and approved by the FDA—is now available in-house through the Pathology Department’s Immunohistochemical (IHC) Laboratory. This companion test for administering Keytruda is regarded as the gold standard for PD-L1 testing. Test results are delivered within 24 to 72 hours—a time frame that can make a critical difference for patients with advanced NSCLC.


A Fruitful Collaboration


zhu-team  PD-L1 stain 

Dr. Zhu and members 

of the IHC Lab team. 


PD-L1 stain.



“Montefiore was the first and is now one of only three academic medical centers in the New York metropolitan area to offer the PD-L1 test,” notes Changcheng Zhu, MD, PhD, director of the IHC lab and an associate professor of clinical pathology at Einstein.

“We used to order the PD-L1 test through a commercial reference laboratory, but it took 10 days to get the results,” says Balazs Halmos, MD, MS, director of thoracic oncology at Montefiore and a professor of medicine and director of clinical genetics at Einstein. “The clock is ticking for these patients. Sending the test to an outside reference lab wastes tissue—and precious time. The more we can streamline the process, the better it will be for our patients.”

With this in mind, Dr. Halmos and his team reached out to Dr. Zhu’s lab in 2015 and asked if they could develop the process in-house. 

“We wanted to answer the call from our oncologists,” recalls Dr. Zhu, “but it was a challenge.” To validate the test, the lab needed positive cases with known PD-L1 status, as well as negative cases, and it took time to collect them from a commercial laboratory. After a 10-month implementation process, the PD-L1 test went live at Montefiore in July 2016.


Unleashing the Immune Response


“Keytruda is a humanized monoclonal antibody that increases the immune system’s ability to help detect and fight tumor cells,” Dr. Zhu explains.
The PD-L1 test detects the percentage of PD-L1—the target antigen for Keytruda—expressed in the patient’s tumor cells. Based on the test results, the pathologist reviews the stains and assigns the patient a Tumor Proportion Score (TPS). A TPS of greater than 50% PD-L1 expression is considered positive; however, a recent clinical trial showed that even patients with a score as low as 1% can benefit.
“If you think about it logically, tumor cells should be killed by the patient’s own immune system,” says Dr. Zhu. “But tumor cells are smart. When they grow, they go undetected and suppress the patient’s immune system to prevent the immune cells from attacking them.

“PD-L1, an immune checkpoint protein, regulates the immune response by keeping cytotoxic T cells from attacking healthy tissue as well as tumor cells. Keytruda unleashes the suppressed immune reaction against the tumor cells, and kills them.

“We don’t interpret test results as either positive or negative,” he adds, “we just report the percentage of cells expressing the target as a TPS. We give this information to the oncologist. The oncologist then uses his or her judgment to assess whether or not a particular patient is a good candidate for the drug.”


The Power of Immunotherapy: Case in Point


“Patients who show evidence of the protein do much better on immunotherapy,” says Dr. Halmos. “They maintain their functionality better and experience long-term benefits.” To illustrate this point, he recounts a remarkable story: “One of our patients, a contractor and family man in his mid-40s, presented with NSCLC. Our initial treatment approach, targeted chemotherapy with detailed sequencing, was unsuccessful. Then we ran the PD-L1 test. The results showed that the patient was in the highest category of PDL expression, making him an excellent candidate for Keytruda.

“By the time he started treatment his life expectancy was measured in days. He actually ‘died’  and was resuscitated, twice. We began prepping him for hospice care when, suddenly, he started to improve. He got better and better, and has continued ever since. He’s running his business again, and he’s still receiving immunotherapy.” Dr. Halmos shared the story with a global audience, as a guest contributor to the" target="_blank">U.S. News & World Report. 


Impact on Patient Care


Currently, the IHC lab performs 5 PD-L1 tests per week. That volume will be increasing, say Drs. Halmos and Zhu, because PD-L1 will soon be a reflex test—that is, instead of being requested at the discretion of an individual oncologist, it will be performed as a routine test whenever the lab receives a tissue sample with a lung cancer diagnosis.

“We don’t dismiss chemotherapy completely, but it’s better for the patient to receive something more effective and less toxic, whenever possible,” says Dr. Halmos.

“PD-L1 is not a consistent or reliable predictive biomarker to exclude patients from checkpoint inhibitor treatment,” he adds, “but it can be used to predict how well a particular patient will respond to treatment. It can also help identify patients who are candidates for more aggressive, combined treatment strategies.”


Pathology’s Critical Role


“As oncologists, we’re committed to providing our patients the best possible care,” says Dr. Halmos. “And we’re relying more and more on our colleagues in the Pathology lab as an integral part of our team.

“We’ve been lucky to work with Dr. Zhu and his staff. They’ve been incredibly responsive. They steward the tissue specimens, maintain reasonable timelines and avoid running unnecessary tests. They read the results in a way that we can trust the information. Their expert interpretation is critical.”

For some patients, immunotherapy can have a downside. As recently reported in the New York Times, certain individuals whose cancer has been arrested by checkpoint inhibitors go on to develop unexpected, severe or life-threatening reactions such as a new type of acute-onset diabetes. Still, says Dr. Halmos, he and his colleagues in the oncology field remain optimistic.

“We’re finding that patients treated with immunotherapy do much better than those receiving conventional chemotherapy,” he says. “We’re just at the dawn of this exciting new era in cancer treatment. Obviously, more research has to be done.”

“The ability to do the PD-L1 test in-house is a win-win for our clinical staff, and for our patients,” says Dr. Halmos. “Our collaboration with Dr. Zhu and his team has put Montefiore on the cutting edge of cancer treatment. I am super happy with that.”

Recent News 


Remembering Dr. Tanowitz

We mourn the passing of our beloved colleague, mentor and friend. [Read more]  

Announcing the Dr. Herbert B. Tanowitz Honorary Lecture for Parasitology and Tropical Medicine

Created by the Montefiore Einstein Department of Pathology in honor of Dr. Herbert Tanowitz who passed away on July 17, 2018, the lecture will focus on parasitology and tropical medicine—the driving research interests of Dr. Tanowitz’ long and distinguished career. The inaugural lecture will be a full-day symposium on the pathogenesis of Chagas Disease, including research on the role of adipose tissue in this chronic infection. 

Click here to donate to the Lecture Fund or for more information 


 Stemming Hepatitis in the Bronx 

 Yitz Goldstein, MD, assistant director, Montefiore Einstein Virology Laboratories, was featured with Sheila Reynoso, MPH, director, Montefiore Hep C Treatment Network, on the BronxNet TV show “Open,” on July 18. The interview, aimed at raising awareness of the “hidden epidemic” of Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C in New York City, was aired in connection with the global observance of World Hepatitis Day, July 28. Dr. Goldstein and Ms. Reynoso explained viral hepatitis; discussed the ongoing efforts of Montefiore pathologists and clinicians to diagnose, treat and prevent hepatitis in the Bronx community; and noted the services available at Montefiore. 

 View the interview here   

Amy S. Fox, MD, MS, director, Montefiore Einstein Virology Laboratories, and professor of Pathology at Einstein, and Jonathan M. Schwartz, MD, a member of the liver transplant team at Montefiore and professor of Medicine (Hepatology) at Einstein, co-authored an article aimed at informing residents of the Bronx community on practical steps to take for protection against viral hepatitis. The story was featured in the August 9 print and online editions of the Bronx Voice.

Read the article here 

 Research Retreat 2018

Panoramic views of the East River were the backdrop for this year’s Pathology Department Research Retreat, held on June 8 at Marina Del Ray in the Bronx. An enthusiastic crowd of pathology post-docs, PhD candidates, fellows and residents, along with their faculty mentors, converged on the venue to present, discuss and debate the merits of the trainees’ original research projects. [Read more] 



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Recent Awards, Honors & Appointments
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Experimental pathology aims to define disease in terms of fundamental molecular and cellular processes. Research in our Department is focused on critical issues in multiple disease classes. Areas of focus include 

Research in each of these areas is highly interactive, and the Department strives for a collegial atmosphere in which collaborations can flourish. This effort is conducted through a variety of department-level activities, including regular meetings to discuss work in progress and a departmental retreat at which students, postdoctoral fellows, residents and faculty all have opportunity to present and discuss their research.

Research Funding Program

The Department of Pathology has established a research funding program to encourage residents and fellows to participate in clinical pilot research projects. Up to $2,000 will be awarded per research project, for projects of up to two years in duration.

Research Faculty

Amanda Beck, DVM 

Geoffrey Childs, PhD 

Joan W. Berman, PhD 

Mahalia Desruisseaux, MD, PhD 

Amy Fox, MD  

David Fooksman, PhD  

Rachel Hazan, PhD 

Lawrence Herbst, DVM, PhD 

Huan Huang, MD 

Fernando Macian, MD, PhD 

Maja Oktay, MD, PhD 

Harry Ostrer, MD 

Thomas J. Ow, MD 

Michael B. Prystowsky, MD, PhD 

Moshe Sadofsky, MD, PhD 

Laura Santambrogio, MD, PhD 

Bridget Shafit-Zagardo, PhD 

Louis Weiss, MD 


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