Lest we forget…


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Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 11.28.18 AMOn this Veteran’s Day, we would be remiss not to thank the thousands of men and women who serve and remember those who have died in the cause of freedom. My parents used to take me to our local cemetery where the American Legion guys would solemnly fire a 21 gun salute at exactly 11AM and we would lay some flowers on the graves. Those were simpler times, before Viet Nam and all that has followed, but we still need them and I honor their service.

That said, I have wondered over the years how many thousands of men (and women) might have died from cancer caused by smoking that started when they joined the military. In searching for some information on this, I came across this article, actually from a “pro-smoking” magazine, that is a reasonably balanced history of tobacco in the military and admits to the relationship.

Focusing on prostate cancer, there is NO doubt that smoking increases your risk for developing the disease, and if you have prostate cancer, you definitely reduce your length of survival by smoking. I doubt there are many smokers who read this blog, but if you know someone who is fighting prostate cancer be sure to make them aware of this. It is probably one thing they could do (besides EXERCISE, EXERCISE, EXERCISE…) that could increase their survival… more than any supplement which we all continue to put false hopes in. In one (of many) articles evaluating the risk of biochemical relapse (rising PSA) after radical prostatectomy (N=6538) former (N=2086) and current smokers  (N=2214) were 1.5 times more likely to have relapse than never smokers (N=2238). If the men had quit > 10 years, their risk returned to the same as the never smokers.

So, if you know a vet (or non-vet) who is still smoking, thank them for their service, but give them a hug to encourage their smoking cessation.

 

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It’s MO time – please help!


To view this post on my blog site, sign up for future posts, and read more info relevant to prostate cancer, please click here. Donate to my moustache here. Even better, grow your own and get your friends to help out here. The more of us who join in, the wider the recognition of men’s health issues.

In my career fighting for the cure of prostate cancer, two organizations (besides the National Cancer Institute) have been outstanding partners. Movember was started by a couple of friends in a bar in Australia. This became the answer to a long standing jealousy of mine for something as popular and effective as the Susan G. Koman Foundation and Race for the Cure. I often refer to our prostate cancer journey when I lecture by noting how we “crawl for the cure” while our sisters are racing. In 2016, the NCI budget for breast cancer research was $519.9 million, more than twice as much as that for prostate cancer at $241 million. This, in spite of the fact that prostate cancer deaths this year are 3/4 as common (29,430) as breast cancer deaths (40,920). It’s not a contest really, since all cancer research is moving the field forward rapidly, but Movember has been incredibly helpful in sponsoring research and advocating for us.

The other organization, Prostate Cancer Foundation, shows how much a single individual with great connections and personal motivation can do. Michael Milken deserves enormous credit for his vision and leadership. I personally benefited from grants given out by the foundation, and even more from their amazing annual meeting that draws together prostate cancer researchers from around the world to share data and ideas. Dr. Howard Soule is a key factor in PCF’s incredible success and his name should be as well known as Susan G. Koman in my view.

I hope you will join with all of us in fighting for the cure in prostate cancer. Grow one, or support someone who is growing, and tell your friends. The progress and future has never been brighter, and our hairy upper lips should show it!

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Rorshach and biomarkers


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Psychology, or for that matter being able to read others’ personalities, has never been a strong suit for me. Neither was art – I still am at the stick figure stage when drawing. It turns out that Hermann Rorshach was probably good at both. The question of what you see when looking at an ink blot seems relevant to the current status of biomarkers in prostate (and others) cancer. On the one hand, some biomarkers are fabulous – for example the Philadelphia chromosome, described in 1959, was the first unique cancer marker that ultimately resulted in a specific targeted treatment, imatinib (Gleevec), dramatically improving survival for patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia. PSA, on the other hand (our “favorite”) is not so great, and as I previously noted, may give rise to the “PSA Clock” effect in which patients ruin their lives by clock watching. But, as we know, it is remarkably useful as a weather vane. When a prostate cancer patient is being followed on any sort of therapy, going down is good and going up is bad.

Thus, there have been thousands of articles attempting to either make PSA interpretation  better, or to replace it with more sensitive or more accurate predictors of prostate cancer behavior. I reviewed some of these, and the challenges here. Today, yet another article on a rather “simple” biomarker, PTEN loss, showed up among the >20 prostate related emails I receive each day. Writing in European Urology, a group of well-known prostate cancer investigators looked at immunohistochemistry (using special stains to highlight a protein in cells under a microscope slide) to evaluate loss of PTEN, a tumor suppressor gene, in prostatectomy specimens. This simple test (in this particular experiment) was as good as the commercial Prolaris test that evaluates a panel of genes related to how fast cells are dividing in predicting biochemical recurrence (PSA relapse) or prostate cancer specific mortality. With PTEN loss, the chances of having a biochemical relapse (rising PSA) or developing metastases or dying in a 10 year followup period were significantly greater than if you did not have PTEN loss. A simple, inexpensive test might replace a more complicated one.

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Here’s where Dr. Rorshach’s psychological construct comes into play at so many levels. If you are the scientist looking through the microscope, do you score a loss when there is only faint staining? Are you sure you are looking at a cancer cell and not a normal cell or  a stromal cell, or maybe even an immune cell? If you decide on giving a score to each cell, say “1+, 2+, or 3+” staining, how do you add all those up?  How many cells should you examine? All parts of the tumor, or only the most aggressive (Gleason pattern ≥ 4) And if you can figure all that out, can you teach your colleagues to look at the same specimen(s) and come up with the same answer? These are the challenges we face when we move a lab experiment into the clinic (and they are well recognized by the authors).

But…there is more! Look at the graphs. Obviously you would rather be on the upper curve with PTEN present, but how bad is it really? At 10 years, only ~10% of the men had developed metastases or died in this study. Recognize that these men were a cross section of patients, median age 59, median PSA 5.9, 64% Gleason 3+3 and another 23% Gleason 3+4 with pretty low a priori risk (did we need the PTEN test to tell us?). So the real issue is whether you would want anything different done to you if you were one of the few patients with Gleason 3+3 and PTEN loss, just because you have this new information? And what would that be?? Radiation? Hormone therapy? How much and how long? -all in the psychology of looking at those curves. Some men might want nothing more done, while others would want “the kitchen sink” thrown at them, even if they had relatively little (and unproven) to gain.

So, medicine remains as much an art as it is a science (with no offense to my mathematical statistical colleagues). As the father of American Internal Medicine, William Osler, told his students, “Common sense in matters medical is rare, and is usually in inverse ratio to the degree of education.”

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Money, Medicine, and Me


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In an article appearing on Medscape on September 13, a Reuters correspondent cited a recent study published in the Lancet looking at doctors who tweet. Although tweeting is a form of social media I have not embraced, I did participate in an attempt to study its use in the ASCO meetings in this article. However, the Medscape and Lancet articles did cause me to think about transparency in this blog.

I began blogging at the invitation of an internet company looking for physicians who would provide content they could use. When they were successful enough, they began using pharmaceutical advertising, and I left them, choosing to pay for my own web presence on wordpress.com. However, I now realize that I should also disclose my other relationships with pharmaceutical companies. In the Medscape article, there is a reference to a government website where you can look up the payments and transactions I have with pharmaceutical companies. What it does not reveal is the nature of those transactions which I will herewith share.

In doing drug development, pharmaceutical companies rely on [mostly] academic physicians to perform clinical trials. These activities may involve grants to study drugs in the laboratory, grants to their institutions to offset the cost of data managers, IRB costs, and reimbursement for travel to discuss the ongoing trial or its publication with other physician/researchers. In the past, I have had support in all of these categories, most notably (in terms of career influences) in the development of leuprolide, the first new drug approved for treating prostate cancer in many decades back in ~1985. It was an amazing opportunity for a young faculty member to treat the first patients in the world with a new drug, eventually present the findings to the FDA, publish the results, and then participate in teaching the medical community about its use.

Since then, the landscape of disclosure has changed for the better. Now when my colleagues and I give presentations or publish articles we sign disclosure agreements revealing which companies we consult for, and there are annual reporting requirements to our academic institutions. In my case, the current companies I have consulting relationships with include Janssen (abiraterone, apalutamide), Bayer (rogaratinib), and Seattle Genetics (enfortumab vedotin). I also have founded (and have ownership interests in) Aurora Oncology, ProTechSure, and Gonex/Cedus, three startup companies attempting to move drugs we have worked on in my laboratory to the clinic. None of these relationships involve giving promotional talks, using company slides in education, or advocating for the drugs on this blog or elsewhere. For the large commercial companies they involve insuring patient safety in ongoing trials as an independent monitor.

I have expressed my concerns about the rapid increase in medical costs for cancer care here and here. I do not have a solution for this intrinsically difficult challenge in our capitalistic system, and I realize that my own consulting and entrepreneurial activities ultimately add to those costs. Indeed, the costs of prostate cancer detection and treatment in men over 70 is 1.2 Billion dollars every 3 years. The newest targeted agents and immuno-oncology agents are phenomenally expensive, often in the $8-10,000/month range which can result in severe economic distress even for those patients who have co-pay supplemental insurance. Eventually, American medicine, with all of its amazing basic science and translational science (bench to bedside research) will need to find a balance between the profit motives that drive innovation and the altruistic care that medicine embodies in its most noble applications. What is an extra 3 months of life worth, and what toxicities (economic or clinical) are acceptable to pay for that? We need to have honest discussions as a society, and importantly, with our own families about these questions, especially when we are facing the diminishing benefits of aggressive/expensive care in terminal illnesses.

 

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A perfect death


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This week in which the country will come together to mourn the passing of a true American original, John McCain, it might be worth considering our (your) own mortality. Even as the ongoing progress toward controlling prostate cancer is underway, it remains clear that “something else” will get us. As an example, in a study I was privileged to lead among patients with high risk prostate cancer, other cancers (many of which were caused by our adjuvant mitoxantrone treatment) were as likely to lead to death and prostate cancer was the cause of dying only ~20% of the time

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As oncologists, we face the “end of life” issues more frequently than most physicians, and certainly deal with the reality of death more than folks in most other professions. I distinctly remember one lovely woman in her 50’s who was very open in discussing her wishes. She wanted to die while lying on her favorite beach in Florida watching the sunlight sparkling on the ocean – not an easy thing to arrange (and it didn’t happen). My own fantasy would be to have a lovely vacation in Hawaii (without this week’s rain) with my entire family, say my good-byes as I put them all on the plane, and stay over an extra day to pay for the hotel and be sure all of my financial affairs were up to date – then die of a heart attack on the way home the next day. Perfect. The airline would be carrying my carcass home for the mere cost of a coach seat and I wouldn’t even have to suffer that long in the crunched position with no leg room.

Short of these fantasies, however, I recently undertook an exercise that anyone could do and I herewith commend to you as well. My wife and I were lucky enough to score tickets to the London production of Hamilton last February. In it, there were two numbers that grabbed me by the heart. First was Washington’s “teach ’em how to say goodbye” song, “One Last Time”. As with John McCain’s final commentaries over the past few months, Hamilton’s farewell speech written for Washington was masterful (as is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reprise).

But the song that most moved me to tears (and action) was “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. After listening to it about a dozen times, I realized that we all have a story. It may not be as honest/noble as John McCain’s, or as consequential as Hamilton’s or Washington’s, but for some small group of your relatives or children or grandchildren, your story will have special meaning. If you don’t write it, your memories of your father, your grandfather, your family in general will die with you. In my case, I read a couple of autobiographies, self-published, from friends/acquaintances and decided that their stories were highly personal, and not terribly interesting. But when I started writing the story of my own grandfather and father, and my story, it was a joyful experience of reliving many happy memories, and a way of reconnecting with my first love affair, our children’s births, and the many blessings that have come my way. The result is not a literary masterpiece, but I am going to have it bound and give a copy to each of my kids to gather dust on their bookshelves.

In the arc of history, some things have not changed. “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10). Although trouble and sorrow are a part of life (and of dying), there can be real joy in pausing to appreciate all life has given you. Carpe diem!

 

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The Hits Just Keep on Coming


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I have a hiking companion who loves math, computers, and to a large extent, eugenics. He posits that we will eventually understand the human genome so well that we will be able to make all humans “smart” or “better” through genetic engineering. I argue back endlessly, with little success, that his definition of “smart” and “better” may not be shared  by everyone (he counters that these definitions will be left to the parents…) and that there will be unintended consequences of diving into our DNA with CRISPR/Cas9 technology.

The wonderful complexity of humankind is, of course, reflected in every single cell in our bodies and in all of our cancer cells as well. The debate over the number of synapses (or permutations) in our brains versus atoms (or stars etc.) in the observable universe is well beyond my comprehension. Unfortunately the “much simpler” question of how many things go wrong in cancer cells is also mind boggling. Hence, the phenomenal work of one of the West Coast Dream Team’s recent publications is not surprising. A reductionist view is shown in this diagram from their paper published last month:

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The scientific team, using funds from PCF, SU2C, and Movember (among others), did a whole genome analysis of metastatic tumor specimens from 101 men with castration resistant (hormone insensitive) prostate cancer. There is an excellent report on this work from the UCSF News Center here. Lest you believe that the results have resulted in an “aha moment” that will lead to “A prostate cancer cure”, you might do as I had to do and Google the word I had not heard of in the above figure, “chromothripsis“. Rather, the research leads to some very important insights that will doubtless contribute towards more effective therapy for 1000’s of patients eventually. By looking at the structural variants in the DNA that occurs outside of expressed genes, a much more complex picture of what drives castration resistant prostate cancer (CRPC) becomes evident. For example the androgen receptor (AR) is over-expressed in the majority of metastases and this study found a region of the “junk DNA” (non-coding for genes) that lies 66.94 million base pairs upstream of the AR that was amplified in 81% of the cases. This was 11% more common than the amplification of AR itself – an indication of how important the DNA controlling a gene like AR is, compared to the gene itself. So much for calling the DNA that doesn’t code for a protein “junk”!

A second example is the insight into patients who have alterations in a gene called CDK12 that may render them more sensitive to one of the “hottest” areas of cancer research, the use of checkpoint inhibitors of the PD-1 pathway I described in my last post.  This abnormality results in the cancer cells having an increased number of “neoantigens” (targets) for the immune system to attack as shown in this illustration from another recent exceptional paper.

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The ongoing research from the many scientific teams focused on prostate cancer is awe-inspiring when you consider the complexities involved in the two figures in this post alone. Even getting a complete picture from a single patient is impossible, given the genetic instability and the variable mutations found in different metastases. Remember, this team looked at the DNA from only one (or a few) of the many metastatic sites found in each patient. Other studies have shown lots of different mutations depending on which site is evaluated as I reviewed here.  In spite of all of this complexity, the ability to at least begin to understand what is going on “underneath the hood” is the way forward, and just as we can recognize Fords vs Chevys vs Toyotas, “brands” that emerge from such studies will lead to treatments that are more appropriate for certain classes of patients. As we have known for a very long time, the most common feature is the “gasoline” of testosterone, and how it fuels the amplified AR has remained an effective target for the newer drugs like abiraterone, enzalutamide, and apalutamide. Perhaps studies such as this one will lead to a way of kinking the hose upstream of the gasoline nozzle, or throwing sand (immunotherapy) into the engine itself. But… to admit that we will never understand it all (or design the “perfect human”) still seems an appropriate expression of humility to me.

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Human Sexuality and Prostate Cancer


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My first academic encounter with the field of human sexuality as a topic was a series of lectures by none other than William Masters and Virginia Johnson at Washington University in 1970. The sexual revolution afforded by birth control pills and the reactionary politics of the late 60’s have been well chronicled in many places but were fairly remote to someone like me who had been studying hard to achieve medical school admission and then trying to keep up with an exceptionally bright group of classmates. Never-the-less, as a prostate cancer specialist, I have been drawn into countless differing situations that impact individual patients and their sexuality issues. While discussing sexual function has become far easier than it was when Masters had the doors locked at the back of our lecture hall in order to show videos of the human sexual response to our class, it is still a delicate topic for most patients, and, I suspect, for most physicians.

Every patient I have encountered has a different history, sexual relationship, and level of interest in delving into the side effects of prostate cancer treatment. There are a few givens that every patient should understand, however. First, in my experience there are virtually no patients who don’t experience negative side effects of ANY prostate cancer treatment, although with active surveillance and focal treatment of a small cancer with a technique like cryotherapy or HIFU , many have minimal side effects (if they are lucky). Even these patients must deal with the psychological burden of being diagnosed with cancer and the possibility that further treatment may eventually be necessary.

A second observation is that even though for most of my patients, sexuality is a “couples experience”, only about half of the men have had a spouse or significant other with them during my initial consultation. In addition, the spouse/SO has her/his own issues regarding the sexual side effects their partner may experience. As a relatively common observation I have noted among heterosexual, married patients, the wife often expresses some version of the following statement: “I just want it out of [George/John/Billy] – we don’t care that much about the side effects…I just want him to be alive 10 years from now…” Often, George is sitting quietly in the patient chair looking somewhat forlorn after such a revelation/statement. There are many books etc. written about the highly variable but often differing interest in sexual relationships among aging couples.  I am certainly not an expert, just an observer, but I have pondered the larger meaning of these sentiments compared to the relatively intense emotions that some attach to, for example, breast reconstruction after a mastectomy for breast cancer. In any case, I think those men who have supportive SO’s who come to their doctor visits with them are fortunate and should express their appreciation to their partners. Sometimes these life challenges can be opportunities for growth in a relationship. Sometimes they are a disaster…

Most of the prostate cancer support groups, and the very large body of literature available on the internet and elsewhere, have sessions and chapters devoted to sexuality, recovery from treatment, and references to other resources. Examples include the ASCO patient website, and a similar one from the AUA. I have cared for a few men from the LGBT community and I was recently sent a book, Gay & Bisexual Men Living with Prostate Cancer,  that I scanned and seems to be a well written and fine resource for those men, but there are also a very large number of websites devoted to that community as well.

The bottom line for men with prostate cancer is that there will be sexual side effects, even if only emotional ones. The same could of course be said for aging itself. Whether one chooses to talk about it or “just deal with it” is an individual decision, and different for each man/couple and no doubt different for men of differing ages. In reality, as with the many competing causes of death/debilitation as we grow older, prostate cancer is but one of the many challenges we all will face. In this regard I rather enjoy this perspective from Willie Nelson:

“I have outlived my pecker.”
The Penis Poem–by Willie Nelson

My nookie days are over,
My pilot light is out.
What used to be my sex appeal,
Is now my water spout.
Time was when, on its own accord,
From my trousers it would spring.
But now I’ve got a full time job,
To find the f***in’ thing.
It used to be embarrassing,
The way it would behave.
For every single morning,
It would stand and watch me shave.
Now as old age approaches,
It sure gives me the blues.
To see it hang its little head,
And watch me tie my shoes!!?

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