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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!