The inflammatory microenvironment in brain metastases: potential treatment target?

Anna S. Berghoff, Matthias Preusser


Brain metastases (BM) are frequent in cancer patients and are associated with high morbidity and mortality. The incidence of BM is increasing and only limited treatment strategies are available. Immunomodulatory agents are emerging as effective cancer therapeutics and a deeper understanding of the inflammatory microenvironment in BM might reveal new treatment possibilities. Although the brain has long been considered an ‘immune-privileged’ organ with limited capacity for inflammatory response, BM do contain tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs). Moreover, dense infiltration with TIL showed an association with favorable patients’ overall survival times. Microglia/macrophages were shown to be involved in the pivotal steps of BM formation by providing a “pre-metastatic niche” attracting BM initiating cells and to promote growth and survival of tumor cells in the CNS microenvironment. The anti-cytotoxic T lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA4) immune checkpoint inhibitor ipilimumab showed activity against melanoma BM in a clinical trial, thus providing proof of concept for effective therapeutic immunomodulation in patients with CNS metastases. Collectively, the available data show that BM harbors an active inflammatory microenvironment that may be exploited as treatment target.