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:

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 2.01.08 PM

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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An Amateur Explanation of Immunotherapy


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For as long as I can remember, there has been lurking excitement regarding the possibility that our immune systems can find and destroy cancer cells. The history of well-documented spontaneous remissions goes back decades and is briefly reviewed here. I have personally never seen a spontaneous remission of cancer, although I have had patients who have done far better than anyone would have expected, suggesting that something must have slowed down their tumor progression.

In prostate cancer, one of the early hints that it might be possible to stimulate an immune attack on the disease came from the studies on Provenge (Sipuleucel-T). My colleagues and I placed several patients on the trials that led to approval of this “vaccine” by the FDA. These studies have continued to demonstrate improved survival of patients with metastatic disease who have failed hormone therapy, although the trials were all done before the availability of the newer ADT drugs abiraterone, enzalutamide, and apalutamide. On the other hand, in spite of the optimistic data we obtained in another vaccine trial on a product known as prostvac, the pivotal trial to prove efficacy failed. It is possible that the vaccine produced modest efficacy, but the signal was drowned out by treatment with the new ADT agents.

As anyone who watches the evening news or other TV-ad-saturated programs aimed at us seniors, other cancers – especially melanoma, lung, bladder, kidney and a few additional ones have been more “easily” treated with newer immune therapies known as check point inhibitors. The idea here is that our normal immune system has built in “braking systems”, the best studied and clinically utilized to date being the PD-1/PDL-1 mechanism. If we immunize you against, for example, measles – you want a vigorous immune response, but you don’t want your entire immune system to keep working on fighting measles. There are other threats it needs to be on guard against. Shutting down the T-cells that fight viruses and cancer involves the Programed Death receptor-1 on these T-cells with a specific protein, Programed Death receptor Ligand-1. Cancer cells can take advantage of initiating this same braking system by releasing their own PDL-1 that will kill the incoming tumor-fighting T-cell. This devious cancer mechanism to avoid our immune systems can be blocked by therapeutic antibodies directed against either the receptor or the PDL-1 ligand protein.

At the recent ASCO meeting, it was revealed that selected metastatic lung cancer patients who have an activated PD-1/PDL-1 braking system are now more effectively treated with pembrolizumab (Keytruda) than chemotherapy. It is emerging that the subgroup of patients who have tumors that are genetically highly unstable, (regardless of tumor type) with lots of mutations leading to abnormal proteins that can stimulate an immune response, may all benefit from PD-1/PDL-1 directed therapy. These patients, including prostate cancer patients can be identified by testing their tumors for microsatellite instability or mismatch repair deficiency. At a practical level, however, when and how to test prostate cancers for such biomarkers remains challenging. Last week at the ASCO annual meeting, Dr. De Bono from the UK reported results on treating patients with metastatic prostate cancer who had progressed on hormones and chemotherapy (docetaxel) with pembrolizumab. 17/163 patients had ≥30% shrinkage of their tumors, but overall results were disappointing with only 11% of patients having ≥50% decline in PSA. Testing for the presence of PDL-1 was not particularly predictive of which patient would benefit most. However, this way of treating prostate cancer will eventually lead to important progress in my opinion. Combining vaccines with the checkpoint inhibitors is currently being studied, and there are other checkpoint drugs and targets that are in development as well. Timing the checkpoint drugs with hormonal therapy or radiation therapy may also find optimal ways of stimulating an immune response. The field of immuno-oncology is an exciting new frontier and well worth keeping your eyes on.

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Here be Dragons


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There are times in everyone’s life when it is worth pausing to consider larger issues than the conditions you find yourself facing every day. Big issues like the meaning of life, how we got here, what happens after we leave…, have been the topics of philosophers and kings with far more eloquence than I have. Nevertheless, I am compelled to pay homage to one of the most influential philosopher-teachers in my own life today, because failing to do so would be an injustice to my feelings about him, and this blog is my sole “public forum”.

Donald Seldin was the Chief of Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical School, better known to most people as “Parkland Hospital”, the place they took Kennedy. I went there as an intern in 1972 and was privileged to be under his spell for the two years of my training that represent, for most physicians, the most intense interval in all of their preparation to become “a doctor”. Unless you have lived through your first night on call, wondering whether and how your medical school has prepared you to actually make decisions about another human being who has, by choice or by chance, placed their life in your hands, it is hard to put those feelings into words. “Here be Dragons” is a myth about maps relating to what early cartographers would put on maps when they reached the edge of the known world. I always found that phrase evocative when it comes to facing the unknown. For thousands of physicians who trained under Dr. Seldin, he became the pilot who helped you edge out onto that unknown sea called MEDICINE and gave you the confidence to succeed.

Dr. Seldin died at the age of 97 last week. His life and contributions have been extolled by many of his admirers. The shortest version I can find is this obituary from the New York Times. For a more extensive version, and to meet the man himself, you can watch this video. When I was in mid-career in the 1980’s, we took a sabbatical in Helsinki, Finland. It gave me time to think about the larger issues and to write to some of my mentors, thanking them for taking me on as a student and sharing their wisdom with me. Dr. Seldin was one of the men to whom I corresponded. As I recall, in the letter I referred to the pop song, “To Sir with Love” because at an emotional level, the phrase “How do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?”  best captured how I felt about his tutelage. He wrote back to the effect that he “had no idea that he cast such a long shadow”, which was surely not true, but his modesty was just another facet of his remarkable personality.

So, if you are in any sort of a contemplative mood at some point this year, take a bit of time to write to one of your mentors or a family member. Thank them for what they mean to you. When they are gone (or when you are gone), that letter will be worth your time as an emotional bond as you sail on into the unknown. Godspeed Dr. Seldin!

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Improving our focus


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I have had two life changing experiences in focusing. The first was when my wife discovered the Myers-Briggs personality classification system and found I am a “strong P”. This meant I couldn’t help it when I was on my way to take out the garbage, noticed a light had burned out, put the garbage down and went to get a light bulb, but found that there was a spot on the carpet that needed cleaning and finally found the carpet cleaner but an hour later wondered why there was a garbage sack in the hall. Prior to her discovery, she just thought I was an idiot, but she became [somewhat] more tolerant of the foibles when she could “classify” me. The second was when I had my congenital cataracts removed and new lenses inserted in my eyes. It was a whole new world of color. I had been living in a fish tank with scum on the glass and “wow, the world is really pretty!” was my response when I took the patches off the next morning. “Trees have LEAVES!”

Focus in understanding prostate cancer is becoming clearer as well. For several decades we have known that the Gleason scoring system is pretty darn good at predicting the cancer’s behavior, adding a lot to what we knew when there was only the digital rectal exam… “Oh, oh, that feels like a really big tumor” or “Maybe I’m feeling something but I can’t be sure”.  Then came the number of biopsies positive, the percentage of each core, differentiating 3+4 vs 4+3, and now an avalanche of new molecular markers, briefly reviewed here. Combining the old standby risk categories with the newer methodologies has been challenging.

A recent paper in the JCO provides us with one way of integrating the old risk categories with the newer molecular classifications. Using the widely adopted risk categories of the NCCN, the authors added to this, one of the more mature molecular classifiers, the 22 gene Decipher™ scoring system to reclassify (focus) a new model to predict outcomes. As I explained previously, these genetic tests are typically developed looking at the level of gene expression in biopsies or in removed prostates in a group of patients for whom an outcome is known (examples include prostate cancer free survival at 10 years or freedom from metastases at 5 years). The investigators (or companies) then go to a different institution or collection of biopsy material and see if their gene expression model developed from the first group accurately predicts the outcome in the second group. This is called “validation” of the test. Decipher has done all of this. The question is how it might change the risk classification of the “old” system.

This figure illustrates how it plays out when a large number of institutions collaborate to study the information gained and develop a new model.Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 10.16.05 AM

As an example of how this can be used in the “real life” clinic, we are often faced with a patient who has a “favorable intermediate” prostate cancer. Let’s say this is a 75 year old man with excellent health. Should we advise that he adopt a “watchful waiting” strategy, given his age and the relatively low risk? By adding the genomic test, you can see that 27% of the time, this might be a bad recommendation. Similarly, in the unfavorable intermediate group, 40% of patients are moved into a high risk category. Such a patient might be well advised to “do more” (example: more prolonged ADT with radiation, or use of brachytherapy in addition to external beam radiation if they had chosen radiation therapy as their preferred treatment modality).

These kinds of improved focus will allow investigators to do better studies prospectively as well. In breast cancer it is already a standard of care to do molecular classification of certain stages and types of tumors, allowing women to make far better decisions on whether (for example) to take chemotherapy in addition to surgery/radiation. In prostate cancer, where I have been concerned that we aren’t “racing for the cure“, rather we are “crawling for the cure”, it looks like we may be catching up. Research is the answer – sign up and contribute!

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Are we any closer to cure? (yes and no)


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I have at least three thoughts on the issue of curing advanced prostate cancer. First, the number of new treatments that are life prolonging has been incredibly gratifying. See my posts on abiraterone, enzalutamide, apalutamide, Sipuleucel-T, and Radium 223, to say nothing of cabazitaxel and docetaxel. That said, my second comment (and yes, I DO say this in the clinic to try and keep some perspective on a deadly, but often slow disease) is that “if you die of a heart attack or a stroke, we call that a CURE!” Many patients have very slow moving prostate cancer that just grows old with them, and some of the drugs listed above can slow it down still further, even though the side effects (particularly of ADT itself) are definitely unpleasant. The third thought is an old saw: “For every complex problem, there is a simple answer, and it is often wrong.” I looked it up, and it is attributed to H.L. Mencken, who actually said, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”  I found he also said, “We are here and it is now: further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine”. Pretty cynical, but we digress…

Thus, the article that made me think about how complex a problem prostate cancer actually presents us was this one. The authors are very much the Who’s Who of prostate cancer research, and what they did was sequence the exomes from 1,013 prostate cancers. They were looking for so called, “driver mutations”, that is, mutations in a gene(s) that are the underlying cause, or at least the accelerators of prostate cancer. Their abstract conclusion states, “We find that the incidence of significantly mutated genes (SMGs) follows a long-tail distribution, with many genes mutated in less than 3% of cases. We identify a total of 97 SMGs, including 70 not previously implicated in prostate cancer…”

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The list of mutations found

This means that although we might see some drugs developed for the most common mutated driver genes, there lurks a host of others for which developing a drug for the very small number of patients (even if that is possible – not all mutated genes are “druggable”) with a given driver may not be economically attractive. And then there is the issue that if one of the common driver pathways (for example the androgen receptor) is effectively knocked out, as has been done with the second generation inhibitors, it is likely there are other mutated drivers in the wings. 

On the other hand, the study of metastatic prostate cancer has uncovered a wealth of new genomic classifiers that may be of real utility in further separating the “bad” cancers from the more indolent variety. As they state, “this analysis, which includes more advanced cases, has identified new and biologically and clinically relevant events and creates an opportunity to prospectively assess a metastasis-associated genomic marker for clinical stratification in localized prostate cancer.” All well and good, but don’t forget the issue of tissue heterogeneity. If you biopsy one metastatic site, or even one site within the primary tumor, you might get a different answer from a site only a few millimeters away or from a different metastasis, as I previously pointed out in another very sophisticated article by some of the same authors.

Nevertheless, be of good cheer. To have so many outstanding biologists and physician scientists uncovering the underlying mechanisms of prostate cancer is a good thing. The more we learn, the more opportunities we have to slow the disease down, even if there may never be a “cure” other than a heart attack. Immortality may be elusive, but your friends and family are not…carpe diem!

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Delaying metastatic disease – ASCO GU18


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Previously, we have discussed the conundrum of the rising PSA and when to start therapy. I also opined that for some men with a very slowly rising PSA, it might be best to just forget about it and enjoy life, comparing it to watching a clock, an opinion that understandably garnered negative comments from some. Of course the nuances surrounding PSA kinetics and their meaning are myriad. However, one graphic that helps understand this better is shown here.

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Smith, JCO 2013

This figure illustrates the fact that individuals with relatively long doubling times (>8-10 months) have a much lower risk of developing metastases or dying from prostate cancer than those with shorter doubling times. In a classic study published almost 2 decades ago, Pound et. al. followed a large number of patients who had rising PSAs following prostatectomy at Johns Hopkins. On average, men with rising PSA’s  who received no additional treatment, did not develop metastases for ~8 years. “In survival analysis, time to biochemical progression (P<.001), [i.e. the time from prostatectomy until PSA rise was detected] Gleason score (P<.001), and PSA doubling time (P<.001) were predictive of the probability and time to the development of metastatic disease.”

With these findings as a background, two studies were presented at the ASCO GU18 meeting, both involving use of improved analogues of bicalutamide (Casodex): enzalutamide (Xtandi) or apalutamide (Erleada). These drugs block the androgen receptor, thus preventing stimulation of prostate cancer growth, but are more potent than bicalutamide. Patients with rising PSA’s in spite of having low levels of testosterone from surgical (orchiectomy) or medical (GnRH agonists/antatgonists) castration, short doubling times (<10 months), but no metastases were treated either with apalutamide/placebo (SPARTAN trial) or enzalutamide/placebo (PROSPER trial). The trials were both remarkably positive in delaying the time to development of metastatic disease.

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SPARTAN TRIAL (Apalutamide)

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PROSPER TRIAL (Enzalutamide)

These are remarkable findings and great news for patients with the most aggressive forms of prostate cancer. However, there are (as usual) numerous questions raised by the trials, as was nicely discussed by Dr. Kantoff after the data were presented. These included a more careful analysis of the side effects and clinical benefits. Obviously patients are psychologically better off when they don’t have a rising PSA or metastases, but neither study reached statistical significance when it came to improved survival (both are trending in this direction). What are the side effects of being on such drugs for longer periods of time? In the enzalutamide study, there were more deaths from “other causes” – not pca within 3 months of progression. Why? In the apalutamide study there were more falls and fractures compared to placebo. Why? To these, I would add the issue of “pay me now or pay me later” – how much time/quality of life do you really lose by waiting until the first metastasis shows up, never mind the extraordinary costs (to patients, insurers, medicare, etc.) of remaining on these drugs for years. Further, neither study compared the outcome to using bicalutamide, the generic and much cheaper alternative anti-androgen, instead of placebo. And what about using the newer scans? All of the patients have metastatic disease, we just can’t see it until there are enough cells in one spot to turn a scan (e.g. fluciclovine or PSMA PET) positive. We can possibly gain advantages in staying off ADT of any sort in some patients by radiating oligometastatic disease. Nevertheless, these studies are great progress and landmarks in the fight against prostate cancer. Apalutamide became the first drug to be approved by the FDA for use in this setting with a “snap approval“. And I need to disclose that I am a paid advisor to J&J, although I have no personal stock in their company, and did not treat patients on either trial.

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