Lu-177-PSMA-617 and “what’s next?”


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The presentation that received the most attention from readers of this blog and the press at this year’s ASCO meeting was the one about Lu-177-PSMA-617 for patients with advanced, metastatic castrate resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC). I have previously posted about PSMA and this approach to treatment as you may want to review here. Briefly, Prostate Specific Membrane Antigen, is a protein expressed on the surface of prostate cancer cells. There are molecules (ligands) that bind to this protein and can be tagged with radioactive isotopes. Thus, the tagged ligand, once injected, carries the isotope to the tumor cells. If the isotope is a positron emitter, a CT-PET scanner (Positron Emission Tomography) will light up the tumor’s location. Examples include Ga-68 and F-18. If the isotope releases stronger radiation, (for example Lu-177 releases strong beta particles that can kill cancer cells, just as the approved agent, Radium 223 -aka Xofigo™ -is a bone seeking agent that seeks out bone metastases and kills cancer cells by releasing strong alpha particles) then prostate cancer cells expressing PSMA will be killed.

The data presented at ASCO 2021 on Lu-177-PSMA-617 was from a large phase III trial comparing Lu-177-PSMA-617 with “standard of care” in patients who had progressed on most other therapies. The results are shown in the following figure:

Slide from presentation on Cancer.net, 6/16/2021.

These data will be evaluated by the FDA and it seems likely this new therapy will be approved. The answer to the question of “what’s next?” for a new drug is usually to study its use in earlier stages of disease. What if patients who have metastases but have not yet been treated with hormonal manipulation were to receive the drug at the same time they start hormonal treatment? What if used before prostatectomy? There are 9 such ongoing trials you can read about here. The hope is, that by using the drug earlier, even more benefit will result, and this is often the case in cancer medicine – for example using early “adjuvant” chemotherapy in high risk breast cancer, or using apalutamide (Erleda™) at the outset when initiating prostate cancer ADT in high risk patients.

As we progress in our understanding of when and in whom to use more aggressive therapies, it will also be helpful to identify the patients at greatest risk for failing one treatment or another. In an article appearing this month in Annals of Oncology, investigators evaluated tumor DNA levels after a single cycle of abiraterone (Zytiga™) and found that patients who didn’t have circulating tumor DNA at the start or converted from positive to negative had significantly better overall survival than patients who did not convert to negative. This means that as soon as 30 days after starting abiraterone, you could already pick out patients in whom you might want to change therapy or add other agents to treatment. They also showed that patients with alterations in specific genes like TP53, RB1 or PTEN either at pretreatment or after one cycle had significantly shorter overall survival. This kind of individualizing risk analysis will further enhance the ability to introduce new drugs like Lu-177-PSMA-617 earlier in patients who need it and avoid toxicities in those who don’t.

For those who helped support my mustache during Movember, these findings are tangible evidence of real progress we can all be proud of. You can share in the great feelings and read about your accomplishment here: https://au.movember.com/story/new-treatment-for-men-with-advanced-prostate-cancer-more-effective-than-chemotherapy?tag=prostate-cancer. Our donations DO make a difference and thanks for your help!

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Immune-oncology seminar tomorrow: May 4, 1:30pm EDT


Dear subscribers,

My normal goal is to send out a new post only once/month since, if you are anything like me, getting more and more emails is annoying to say the least. I am making an exception this month because I just received a reminder about a seminar I think many of you might enjoy. I have tried to do a few posts on this rapidly evolving treatment modality for you here, and here, and here.

For a more sophisticated education, designed for patients and taught by real experts, you may wish to register for the American Association for Cancer Research Seminar, “The Promise of Immuno-Oncology.” Here is the link:

Happy learning from the AACR, one of my favorite societies!

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The Androgen Receptor (more than you wanted to know…)


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The treatment of prostate cancer by depriving the cancer cells of testosterone is now over 70 years old. Charles Huggins along with Clarence Hodges, a medical student at the time, discovered that by either administering estrogen (which will inhibit the brain from signaling the testicles to make testosterone) or surgically removing the testicles, patients with prostate cancer would have remissions, sometimes lasting for years. He received the Nobel prize in 1966 and there is a nice article reviewing the discovery and Huggins’ humility here.

Nothing much changed in prostate cancer treatment after that until the early 80’s when leuprolide, a peptide that could inhibit the signaling (like estrogen) from the brain to the pituitary entered the picture. This is the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, and another Nobel prize was awarded to Andrew Schally for elucidation of the role of GnRH as the key hormone driving the system. (leuprolide is an analog of GnRH) Surprisingly, given the rapid development of anti-estrogens for breast cancer, truly effective anti-androgens took another 25 years or so to emerge. The past decade has yielded several new drugs that are now in standard use for prostate cancer as shown in the following table.

https://www.hematologyandoncology.net/files/2021/04/ho0421IsaacsonVelho-1.pdf

But blocking androgen synthesis by the cancer cells (abiraterone), or blocking the androgen receptor (all the other drugs listed in the table) kills most of the cancer cells, but not all. How do they survive? The answer lies, in part, in the complexities of the androgen receptor (AR) itself. This is where it gets really interesting (but probably more than you wanted to know).

In an absolutely superb recent review article, Velho and colleagues review how the AR works and drugs that are in development to block its activity when resistance to the above drugs develop. You need to download the PDF to see the figures, but this one illustrates the basics. Androgens get into the prostate cancer cell, then bind to AR, which then partners (dimerizes) with another AR molecule, and the dimer enters the nucleus of the cell and sits on specific genes, causing their expression. PSA is the gene you would know best, but there are many other genes that are activated, some of which lead the cells to divide or develop characteristics that lead to them metastasizing to lymph nodes or bones.

Testosterone (androgen) drives gene expression via the Androgen Receptor (AR)
https://www.hematologyandoncology.net/archives/april-2021/new-approaches-to-targeting-the-androgen-receptor-pathway-in-prostate-cancer/

The good news is that understanding how this system works has led to a wealth of drugs that can inhibit various steps in the AR pathway of cell/gene activation. These are shown here:

New drug categories being developed to block T (androgen) stimulation of prostate cancer.

Although the details are very complex, two of the more interesting approaches are bipolar androgen therapy (BAT) and the category shown as PROTACs. BAT consists of giving patients large doses of testosterone monthly while they remain on drugs like leuprolide to suppress the normal levels. In the recently published TRANSFORMER trial Denmeade and colleagues demonstrated that BAT was a better first choice in patients who had failed abiraterone when compared to the anti-androgen, enzalutamide. Further, BAT can re-sensitize some patients to abiraterone after BAT stops working.

PROTACs are drugs that can target various cell proteins for destruction by normal cell machinery. As shown in this figure, the proteasome is like a disposal that chews up proteins that have been “tagged” by attaching a protein called ubiquitin to them. Imagine that the green folded protein is the AR. If you can tag it, you will get rid of AR altogether, and that is what an experimental drug called ARV-110 does, attaches ubiquitin to the AR.

Folded protein could be the AR, and ARV-110 can lead to degradation of AR.

Ongoing clinical trials with ARV-110 have shown impressive PSA responses in a few patients who have been heavily pretreated and are resistant to all the other approved AR targeting drugs.

So, the good news is that there is still room for improving on treating prostate cancer patients with drugs that attack the testosterone axis, even 80 years after the first proof of principle was shown. However, it is also true that cancer cells are very “smart”, and can learn to survive via other cellular pathways having little to do with AR signaling. Other approaches, such as stimulating the immune system to recognize these cells is under equally intense study. If this doesn’t make you a believer in “science”, and a cheerleader for further investment, I give up! 😁

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Return to Estrogen?


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Remarkably, estrogen was discovered to be a cancer driver for breast cancer by surgeons in the late 1800’s but it was 5 decades before the relationship of hormones to prostate cancer was discovered. George Beatson had considered performing oophorectomy for women with breast cancer because the procedure was successful in prolonging lactation in cattle. His first patient experienced a complete remission from soft tissue breast ca metastases and lived another 4 years. He later said that he thought this treatment would induce “fatty degeneration” of malignant cells.

The relationship of testosterone as a driver of prostate cancer is credited to Huggins and Hodges, who found that either surgical castration or administration of estrogen to men with prostate cancer could reduce what was then the only known marker of prostate cancer, acid phosphatase. Additionally, if they administered testosterone to these patients, the acid phosphatase would increase. This built on observations that the enzyme was present in the prostate gland and would go up in patients as they developed metastases, usually in the bones. For this work, Huggins was awarded the Nobel prize in 1966. The use of surgical castration or estrogen administration remained the mainstay of treating metastatic prostate cancer until the introduction of leuprolide in the early 1980’s. I had the extraordinary opportunity to participate in those trials, which we published in 1984. We compared leuprolide to DES, an oral form of estrogen that works on the same endocrine axis as leuprolide, causing the pituitary gland signaling hormone, LH to drop, and subsequently the testicles stop making testosterone. Leuprolide worked as well as DES, but oral estrogen is dangerous – leading to blood clots and increased risk for heart attacks or strokes. Thus, leuprolide (and other GnRH analogs…including the recently approved oral GnRH antagonist, relugolix) became the standard for ADT therapy of prostate cancer.

But estrogen still works. In fact, it may have some significant advantages over surgical castration or GnRH therapy. Our team found that DES could still produce meaningful responses in patients with rising PSA’s who had failed GnRH even though we did see blood clots. But, you can also give estrogen via transdermal patches which avoids many of the problems of oral DES. This week, the PATCH trial program in the UK reported the safety results of using estradiol patches (E) to treat prostate cancer patients compared to GnRH agonists. The ability to produce therapeutic (castrate level) testosterone was the same, but the E treated patients had lower cholesterols, lower blood pressure, less diabetic tendencies, and far fewer hot flushes. Previous study analyses have shown that E is better for bone health with no calcium loss. The only thing that was worse was breast enlargement (gynecomastia) which was seen in 86% of E patients compared to 38% in the GnRH agonist patients. To some extent, gynecomastia can be treated by radiating the breast tissue. The efficacy of E in treating the prostate cancer in these patients will be reported in 2023 and 2024. The cost of E treatment (4x .025mg/24h patches every 3.5 days) is about $62/week ($750/3 months) which is definitely less than any of the GnRH agonists or antagonists. It will be terrific if this “old fashioned” treatment can again join the treatment options for men with advanced prostate cancer. I think it would also be reasonable to try in patients who are failing the newer second generation agents before trying the more expensive/complicated/toxic alternatives like taxane chemotherapy or radionuclide agents (Radium 223, Lu177-PSMA, etc.) With PSA monitoring, it should be relatively easy to find patients who benefit from such treatment.

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Pills vs Shots for Androgen Deprivation Therapy (ADT)


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My own interest in prostate cancer began with what, in retrospect, seems quaint and naive. When I arrived at the University of Colorado in 1978, as the first board certified medical oncologist, there were very few clinical trials underway. Having trained (at DFCI) with teams of researchers, my philosophy had evolved to the thought that “every patient should be treated on a protocol, and there should be a protocol for every patient”. This idea (in academic centers, at least) is how we make progress in treating cancer. I continue to urge every patient to participate in clinical research whenever possible, recognizing that for reasons of geography, convenience, or eligibility, it may not be possible. Clinicaltrials.gov lists all of the ongoing clinical research trials for patients and physicians, a dramatic advance in keeping everyone informed. You can learn how to use this tool in one of my previous blogs, here.

With few clinical trials going on at our cancer center, I wrote a naive letter to a number of pharmaceutical companies asking if they had any drug development trials that I might participate in. A single company, Abbott, wrote back inviting me to Chicago to discuss “Abbott 43-818”. This drug was an analog of gonadotropin releasing hormone, GnRH, a peptide (10 amino acids in this case) that looks like this: Pyr-{His}{Trp}{Ser}{Tyr}{Gly}{Leu}{Arg}{Pro}{Gly}-NH2. The 43-818 analog came to be known as leuprolide, and I had the opportunity to participate in taking it all the way from the first dose in men to a final clinical trial resulting in its approval as Lupron™. I’ve been caring for prostate cancer patients and doing clinical trials in prostate cancer ever since – fate!

The way Lupron™ works is shown in the figure below. Normally a part of your brain called the hypothalamus (1) releases a “pulse” of GnRH several times/hour. The peptide travels to the pituitary gland (2) and lands on cells called gonadotropins, causing them to release hormones LH and FSH that travel to the gonads (4) where the ovaries release estrogen or the testes release testosterone. Leuprolide interrupts this process by “over stimulating” its receptor on the pituitary cells and they turn off their LH/FSH production. Because of the small and relatively simple peptide sequence 100’s of other analogs have been made, and the molecular interactions with the receptor have been extensively studied. Some are agonists (like leuprolide/Lupron™/Eligard™, or goserelin/Zoladex™ and others are antagonists (degarelix/Firmagon™).

The hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis

After a long research path, an oral antagonist (relugolix/Orgovix™) has now been synthesized, tested, and approved for treating prostate cancer. It is not a peptide, has the advantage of not having to be injected, and may be safer in patients with a cardiac history. The HERO trial evaluated 934 prostate cancer patients, 2/3 of whom received relugolix and 1/3 received leuprolide. As expected (based on the history of antagonists research), relugolix resulted in more rapid reduction in testosterone, faster recovery upon discontinuation, and faster reduction in PSA.

The frequency of the common bothersome side effects, hot flashes and fatigue, was similar. More patients on relugolix (12.2%) had diarrhea than those on leuprolide (6.8%). However, the leuprolide treated patients had more serious cardiovascular events (myocardial infarction, central nervous system hemorrhages and cerebrovascular conditions, or death from any cause), especially if they had a cardiac history. The incidence was 6.2% in the leuprolide group vs. 2.9% in the relugolix group.

All things being equal, use of relugolix would seem to be a superior choice for ADT in prostate cancer patients. However, as usual, “all things” may not be equal. First, while the biology above may seem to favor the antagonist, there are no data on whether this affects survival or time to progression of prostate cancer. The biology of reducing testosterone as the mainstay of treatment has not changed – we are attacking the same target: testosterone stimulation of prostate cancer cells. Indeed, the more rapid recovery of testosterone upon discontinuation of therapy (for example in a patient who receives several months of relugolix in combination with radiotherapy) might result in better quality of life with rapid recovery, but have a higher rate of recurrence due to the shorter overall duration of ADT treatment. Some patients will prefer pills to shots. On the other hand, insurance coverage for injections might be much better than that for an oral medication. The internet reported cost for a month of relugolix is reported to be $2313. The cost for a one month leuprolide dose is around $1700. However, the cost of a myocardial infarction is not insignificant, and thus comparison of one form of treatment vs another is always more complex than it initially seems.

I am writing this because I suspect there will be “news” articles and other advertising efforts for “Orgovyx™” in coming weeks/months and I hope to refer my patients to this article (and all the other ones I write). If a newly diagnosed patient has impending spinal cord compression, or major organ involvement or a history of cardiac disease, I would recommend the antagonist (relugolix/Orgovyx™) over the agonists (like leuprolide/Lupron™/Eligard™ or goserelin/Zoladex™). If a patient is already on one of those agonists, is doing well and has no cardiac history, there is probably no reason to change therapy. For a patient who is about to start therapy, I will discuss the options, and am happy to prescribe either an agonist or antagonist – it may well depend on insurance issues for a given patient. As with the Covid vaccine, the scientific progress in developing a non-peptide, oral agent is a testament to “our” (medical science) phenomenal scientific advances. The cost of such research (dating back at least to 2013 for relugolix) and what represents fair costs to patients or to Medicare and fair reimbursement to the pharma companies remain concerning to me.

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Holiday greetings and philosophy


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I want to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas, happy holiday (whichever ones you celebrate or just celebrated) and a safe and vaccinated New Year. And most of all, THANK YOU to the many folks who contributed to my annual Movember Moustache. We again blew the top off my goal, and it makes me abundantly happy to join you in supporting the research into prostate cancer survival and cure.

Second, I urge you to hang in there, wear your masks, and limit the Christmas interactions. We only have a couple of months to go before we are vaccinated if you are in my age bracket, so stay the course!

Finally, I will share the thoughts of my Department of Medicine Chairman, David Schwartz who has put as fine a summary on where we have been and where we need to go as I have seen. I hope you will find it encouraging:

“A number of months ago, I wrote that ‘Science will lead our way out of this crisis.  Basic modeling and infectious disease epidemiology has helped us understand what’s coming, the science of social distancing, clinical trials have identified remdesivir as a promising agent, novel serologic assays will identify the extent of disease in our communities, and vaccine development will provide the cure.  All of this takes investment, and now is not the time to back away from our scientists or our scientific infrastructure.  In fact, now’s the time to double down.  We still have to get through this crisis but rest assured there will be human health challenges in the future, and we need to be ready.’  

Now with the demonstrated importance of social distancing, the improved care of patients with Covid, and the FDA emergency use approvals of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it’s time that we recognize and celebrate the truly remarkable advances in our fight against Covid that have been made since the initial transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market only one year ago.

·         Social distancing:  The past few weeks have demonstrated the profound effect that social distancing has had on the transmission of the virus.  The story of the coronavirus in America is a compartmentalized one, with different places experiencing different spikes for different reasons at different times.  Fortunately, over the past week in Colorado, there’s been an average of about 3,100 cases per day, a decrease of 28% from the average 2 weeks earlier.  This decrease in cases per day in Colorado is reflected in the census data in our hospitals, and the state-wide hospitalization data with both peaking and slowly going down since the beginning of December.  In contrast, over the past week in the entire U.S., there’s been an average of about 220,000 new cases per day, an increase of 19% from the average 2 weeks earlier.  Continue to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and don’t travel over the holidays.

·         Clinical trials:  Over the past year, well-conducted clinical trials (by many of our investigators) have identified what works and what doesn’t.  Our improved ability to take care of patients with SARS-CoV-2 infection is reflected in the decreased percent of patients requiring ICU care (55% last spring – 40% now) and a decrease in the number of patients in the ICU requiring intubation (90% last spring – 67% now).  Moreover, the survival and re-admission rates continue to improve among our Covid patients.

·         Vaccines:  One year ago, very few people would have predicted that we would be embarking on a vaccination program with two extremely effective vaccines with minimal side effects.  This was not a miracle.  The development of these vaccines were enabled by many scientific accomplishments (bat virology, DNA sequencing, computational biology, and basic science of RNA, proteins and lymphocyte biology to name a few) that have been supported by the federal government, industry, academia, and public-private partnerships.  Investments in science are essential to our future.

I think there are other take home-messages that will continue to strengthen the scientific programs on our campus:

·         Team science and scientific partnerships are critical to combining clinical insights with cutting–edge research.  Collaborations and social networking will improve the efficiency of research.  We need to foster these interactions.

·         Public-private partnerships (like the one between the NIH and Moderna) can lead to powerful advances and need to be nurtured.

·         Our nation has to place a higher value on science.  Part of this involves public education and we’ve got some real opportunities with our patients.  However, we should also do everything possible to help Congress recognize the sad lessons learned from the ways science has been pushed aside during the pandemic, and strongly advocate to substantially increase the federal research budget.”

To all of you who subscribe to this blog, I thank you for your interest, ideas for topics, and your support for the physicians, nurses, staffs and researchers who have made it possible for all of us to live longer and healthier lives than any generation in history. It has been an incredible journey for most of us and in spite of the 2020 “downer” we have much to be thankful for. Keep exercising and my best wishes for the New Year!

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Epigenetics


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One of our faithful readers suggested this topic. My first introduction to the concept of epigenetics may have been in a lecture that the late Don Coffey gave at a course I helped organize at the Given Institute in Aspen which still goes on today. Don was a pied piper to hundreds of students at all levels at Johns Hopkins, and on his first visit to the course told them about arriving late at the Denver airport, driving his rental car too fast over Vail pass, then exiting and hiding under a bridge while a State Patrol car zoomed over him, and getting back on the road to make it to Aspen just in time. Not a bad way to endear yourself to some younger physicians in training!

His signature illustrative story was that of the fertilized hen’s egg. There it sits, with all the information needed to make a full chicken encoded in the DNA, but nothing happens until it is put in an incubator and the temperature rises. Only then does the machinery kick in to go from a single cell to billions of cells with everything from feathers to an intestinal tract. “How does that happen?”, he would ask, and then proceed to talk about how the DNA is wrapped around histones as shown in the following illustration:

Dr. Coffey would then show pictures of DNA in prostate cancer cells, some of which was compactly wound around the histone proteins (and therefore inactive) and some of which was “open for business” with long loops of DNA strands sticking out from a chromosome. I love the simplicity of this illustration, because it demonstrates how not only temperature can influence the long string of base pairs that otherwise are the deceptively simple ATCGTCCATA… code, but also begins to explain how environmental factors, drugs, aging, and diet can change gene expression. My hiking friend, who is somewhat of a eugenics devotee, thinks mankind will evolve to [his view of] perfection by using CRISPR to modify just the DNA sequence and change everything from physiognomy to behavior. I, of course, disagree based on epigenetics. A woman in her first trimester who eats too much broccoli one evening might well affect her child’s math score by 1/10 of a point…

But back to prostate cancer! As shown in the above figure, one of the common ways genes and their expression is modified is through methylation. The chemistry is shown in this figure and a complete article on DNA methylation from Wikipedia is here.

This image shows a DNA molecule that is methylated on both strands on the center cytosine. DNA methylation plays an important role for epigenetic gene regulation in development and cancer. [Details: The picture shows the crystal structure of a short DNA helix with sequence “accgcCGgcgcc”, which is methylated on both strands at the center cytosine. 

These methylation changes are frequently found in what are known as CpG islands, or areas of the genome that are rich in Cytosine Guanine base pairs, and particularly in the so called “promoter regions” upstream from the gene itself that control whether the gene is “active” or not. In prostate cancer, methylation of an enzyme called GSTP1 was one of the first methylation markers that became useful in detecting prostate cancer. If a man with a highly suspicious rise in PSA was biopsied and there was no cancer found, if the biopsy of the “normal” tissue next to true cancer was analyzed and methylation of GSTP1 was found, it was highly predictive that real cancer was present but just missed. As time went on, many other genes with hypermethylation changes were found, and panels of such genes could be used to detect prostate cancer cells in the urine, potentially replacing invasive biopsies. More recently, utilizing advanced techniques to search for methylation patterns in the whole genome, it has been possible to find markers (probes) for genes (see this article) which are differentially methylated in prostate cancer and have dramatic prognostic significance. Here is one such example showing that depending on which form (allele) of a gene called ATP2A3 (that can be methylated or not) you inherit, it can affect your survival.

The homozygous alternative genotype of a haplotype on chromosome 17, associated with methylation of ATP2A3, gives a survival advantage. HR and P values are from the CoxPH model.

Although much of the article from which I copied that figure is way (WAY) over my head, the point of understanding epigenetics is that prostate cancer is much more complicated than just a mutation or two in some cancer causing genes. The expression of a myriad of other genes that can be controlled by methylation or other epigenetic processes can play a major role in what happens to us. As it turns out, this week’s NEJM has an article specifically related to the epigenetics of prostate cancer as it evolves from localized to metastatic. Here is the key illustrative figure and accompanying explanation.

Figure 2. Epigenetic Regression with Clinical Progression of Prostate Cancer. Pomerantz and colleagues4 describe epigenomic patterns that occur in the transitions from the normal human prostate gland to organ-confined prostate cancer to metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer, with their findings regarding metastasis relying largely on patient-derived tumor xenograft models. Sites of androgen-receptor binding in the genome have been associated with this transition from normal prostate gland to metastatic disease. Such binding sites are “premarked” by the transcription factors HOXB13 and FOXA1. Also, the researchers found that sites that are specific to metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer correspond with sites in the open chromatin state in the normal prostate gland and in organ-confined prostate cancer, which indicates a lower barrier to reprogramming to a metastatic state. The epigenome (H3K27 acetylation) pattern in prostate cancer metastasis was similar to that in fetal (but not adult) prostate cells. A limitation of the study is that it does not include an analysis of circulating tumor cells or metastatic castration-sensitive prostate cancers.

As this story unfolds, “precision medicine” will become a way to individualize prostate cancer treatment. However… the heterogeneity of prostate cancer metastases will remain a major challenge in the practical application of such knowledge. Meanwhile, if you haven’t already supported prostate cancer research through my Movember effort, feel free to wander over to my website and make a contribution – and THANKS to all of you who helped me reach my goal!

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Yay – Voting is over and it’s Movember y’all


Every year, in honor of the guys I care for and the progress Movember has made in supporting research for prostate cancer, I join in the effort to raise funds from my faithful readers. This year is no exception. 2020 has been such a downer, we all need to do something positive to make ourselves feel better. So, if you can spare some change, I humbly ask you to support my annual scraggly moustache, and I can assure you the funds are well spent. For example, new tests are coming out of labs Movember supports. They constantly update the priorities as you can see in this article, and support ongoing clinical trials like this one. And for men isolated in our COVID times, there is the kind of support you need when facing tough questions at “Men Like Me“. In short, I hope you will help me with a donation to my Movember effort by clicking here:

Mike’s Movember Website

  • Then click the DONATE BAR under my picture: (not the one at top right)

For donors of >$50, I have ordered some Movember Moustache masks and will send you one. And for all participants, let’s plan on a zoom celebration in December – maybe I can answer questions sent in on chat or similar. If you are more savvy than me, scan the following image on your smart phone to be taken to my Movember webpage. And THANKS for your consideration and help!!!

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Nex Gen Diagnostics and Treatment


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When I was a fellow in Dr. David Livingston’s lab 40+ years ago, DNA sequencing had just become “widely” available, developed by Maxam and Gilbert. There was a brilliant MIT student, 16 years old as I recall, who visited the lab that summer and brought his TI calculator to the lab, assigning a number (1,2,3,4) to each of the bases and would go into David’s office with a string of numbers to look at. The evolution of that technology to what goes on today when you send in a saliva sample to 23 and Me is shown in the following video:

This video explains next generation DNA sequencing

With what seems (to an old guy like me) shocking speed, the human genome was unraveled and with it, all (most?) of the genes that control cellular processes including cancer. As I have recommended before in this blog, for a fabulous review of the story, I recommend you read “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Due to the power of DNA sequencing it is now possible to obtain DNA that originates in tumors and do sequencing of cancer causing genes directly from the blood stream or from the urine or other body fluids. This is a so-called “liquid biopsy“.

The entry of this technology into caring for cancer patients has also been incredibly rapid. At the present time, for prostate cancer, the NCCN patient guidelines are a great place to start learning about pca in general if you are new to the topic, but the physician NCCN guidelines are much more specific regarding what you need to know about your genetics. Here are the recommendations for “germline” testing, i.e. what you have inherited that may have pre-disposed you to develop prostate cancer and what might affect other members of your family including children or siblings:

The guidelines are also very informative about this testing being done with the help of professional genetic counsellors:

Genetic testing in the absence of family history or clinical features (eg, high- or very-high-risk prostate cancer) may be of low yield.
• The prevalence of inherited (germline) DNA repair gene mutations in men with metastatic prostate cancer, unselected for family history (n = 692), was found to be 11.8% (BRCA2 5.3%, ATM 1.6%, CHEK2 1.9%, BRCA1 0.9%, RAD51D 0.4%, and PALB2 0.4%). The prevalence was 6% in the localized high-risk population in the TCGA cohort (Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network. The molecular taxonomy of primary prostate cancer. Cell 2015;163:1011-1025; Pritchard CC,Mateo J, Walsh MF, et al. Inherited DNA-repair gene mutations in men with metastatic prostate cancer. N Engl J Med 2016;375:443- 453).

• Genetic counseling resources and support is critical and pre-test counseling is preferred when feasible, especially if family history is positive.

• Post-test genetic counseling is recommended if a germline mutation (pathogenic variant) is identified. Cascade testing for relatives is critical to inform the risk for familial cancers in male and female relatives.

https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/prostate.pdf

However, as noted above, we can also sequence the tumor itself or look for mutations in tumor DNA that is circulating. The most important thing that may show up in these analyses is a mutation that can be specifically targeted with one of the newer drugs. Examples include the finding of a DNA repair gene mutation such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 in which case the use of a category of drugs called PARP inhibitors or platinum based chemotherapy might be an important consideration for patients who have failed hormone therapy. Thus, we now utilize DNA sequencing both in patients who have family histories for certain cancers, patients with metastatic disease, high risk disease, and again when there is progression of the cancer after hormone treatment stops working. Beyond these impacts of DNA sequencing are the many gene-based tests that have evolved that can help determine risk for finding prostate cancer on a biopsy, or predicting whether someone is at high or low risk for metastatic disease after a positive biopsy and Gleason score is known.

I tried to help understand the complexities of integrating all of these new tests and therapies in this blog. Although it may be difficult to keep up with this rapidly evolving landscape for both patients and physicians, there is no doubt that we have entered the “next gen” era of prostate cancer management. Finding an expert who focuses on pca and discussing some of the issues raised in this blog is key to taking advantage of what is being learned. Hopefully this blog will help you become a better informed member of your team in terms of the underlying technology. For a more erudite discussion of cancer precision medicine, you might read this newly posted discussion.

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Why can’t we cure this???


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A frustration for patients and physicians alike is the incurability of metastatic prostate cancer in spite of the great response that many/most patients have to initial hormonal treatment. As most readers of this blog know, almost all prostate cancer cells depend on stimulation from testosterone to grow and to get outside the prostate, moving to lymph nodes or bones (the most common place for metastases in pca). Testosterone is normally made by the testes and adrenal gland, circulates in the blood stream, and enters the cancer cells where it binds to the AR (androgen receptor). The AR then translocates to the nucleus where it binds to specific locations “upstream” from various genes (including PSA, and interestingly TMPRSS2 which has implications for COVID-19) leading to the gene being “activated”. Many of the activated genes lead to cell division and invasion that characterize/lead to metastases we detect with bone, CT, or PET scans.

Normally, the way we detect that cancer cells are “turned off” or dying is by the PSA falling. PSA in general is far more sensitive than scans, but it really tells us about the “big picture”, not what is going on with individual collections of metastatic cancer cells. Measuring PSA every 3 months is a very common way to monitor the response to drugs that stop testosterone synthesis (abiraterone – Zytiga) or block testosterone from binding to the AR (bicalutamide-Casodex, enzalutamide-Xtandi, apalutamide-Erleda, darolutamide-Nubeqa)

Although much more expensive, monitoring response by repeating scans can begin to answer the question posed for the title of this blog. Why doesn’t hormone therapy lead to cures? The reason lies in a single word, heterogeneity. As I reviewed previously, when we look at different sites of cancer metastases, the tumor deposits in one area may have a very different genetic mutation profile than those in a different area. I was very struck by how well this is illustrated in a recent article using quantitative PET scans. In patients treated with enzalutamide, the different sensitivity is graphic as shown in this figure from the article:

Compare PET1 taken at the start of treatment with enzalutamide to PET3 when disease was progressing indicated by a rising PSA. Green spots indicate partial or complete response to the antiandrogen while red ones are new or progressive locations. This is a graphic example of the result of tumors having genetic changes that make them more or less sensitive to the drug. Finding a combination of chemotherapy or hormone therapy that can attack all of the genetically different deposits is impossible at this time. However, the immune system may be able to keep up with all the changes in some patients, and this provides hope for the expanding trials of immunotherapy in prostate cancer you can find here. Glass half full or half empty? You choose!

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