Category Archives: Targeted treatment

CAR-T and related immunotherapies

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One of your co-subscribers to this blog contacted me and asked if I would write a blog about CAR-T cells, and I have decided to include the closely related bi-specific antibody therapies. I am very intimidated by even attempting this, because the complexities of this field are daunting, so please do NOT show this post to your PhD immunologist cousin.

As most readers probably know, the immune system consists broadly of the “humoral” and “cellular” arms. When you get corona virus, (or any other virus) both arms are activated. Broadly speaking, your B-cells (lymphocytes that live in the lymph nodes and also circulate in your blood stream) make antibodies that attach to targets (“antigens” – in the case of corona virus, the spike protein you are tired of looking at on TV is the target antigen we hope a vaccine can be made from) and can inhibit the virus or can clear the antigen from your circulation. Antibodies consist of proteins (chains) that combine with each other and this is where things start getting VERY complex, but a single B-cell can make only one type of antibody (called a monoclonal antibody). Whether you know it or not, if you have an interest in prostate cancer, monoclonal antibody technology is “why you are here” – PSA detection was made possible by isolating a monoclonal antibody that would bind to Prostate Specific Antigen. But with modern recombinant DNA techniques, the chains that make up these antibodies can be combined in highly variable ways never found in nature. The history and complexity of the antibody story is illustrated here from this article. Screen Shot 2020-06-13 at 10.31.25 AM

The Y-shaped figure above is “an antibody” and the colored chains are the proteins in the antibody that can be extremely variable and give the antibody its ability to bind to any target. Note that the two arms of the antibody could be designed so that one arm would bind to one target and the other arm could bind to a different target. Voila! You could design one arm to bind to PSMA and another to a killer T-cell that would link a killer cell to your cancer cell.

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 This is the general idea behind an innovative cancer approach you may hear about called BiTE. In this figure, the working part of the tips of two “Y” antibodies have been linked and when injected into a patient, in theory the “killer” T-cell is forced to bind to the tumor cell via its “TAA” or tumor antigen. If you are a dedicated reader of this blog, you already are thinking about a great target antigen I previously introduced you to, PSMA

Now on to my VERY oversimplified description of CAR-T cells. The terminology refers to Chimeric Antigen Receptor – T cells. The science of these is related to the above description of antibodies in the following way: On the surface of the T-cells in your lymphocyte library is a completely different group of proteins that allow the T-cells to bind to and recognize antigens, much like the antibody system we discussed above. These proteins combine in chains on the surface of the cells to form “T-cell receptors”. Unlike the antibody system, their interactions with antigens are further modified by requiring recognition of “self”. Non “self” is why people who receive a kidney or heart transplant must receive drugs to suppress the immune system that will reject the transplant. Unfortunately cancer cells are mostly recognized as “self” so we don’t reject them. BUT… again using recombinant DNA technology, the T-cell receptors (TCR) can be re-designed so they DO recognize a tumor target, even though it is “self”. You can start with lazy, somewhat unresponsive T-cells that might be in the blood or even infiltrating a tumor, take them out, modify the receptor (dramatically as shown in the following figure), and force them to recognize a cancer, then re-infuse them into the patient like any blood transfusion.

Screen Shot 2020-06-13 at 11.02.34 AM

In the figure (taken from this article), the “antibody like” part of the receptor that controls “self” is CD3 and the “antibody like” part of the TCR receptor that binds to a tumor antigen or virus infected cell are the green proteins marked alpha and beta. The recombinant magic that is WAY beyond this blog is everything on the right. If you have the time and interest in really delving into CAR-T therapy for cancer, you really do have to read this article. But, for those who wonder “so why aren’t we doing this?”, the Cliff’s Notes answer is that (1) it is VERY expensive – each patient has to have his/her T-cells taken out and modified, expanded, then re-infused; (2) it has only worked well for blood cancers like leukemias so far; and (3) even though PSMA or some similar tumor target might be thought to be “tumor specific”, it turns out these targets are often expressed in low levels in places like your brain or lung. When the CAR-T cells begin attacking your normal tissues, you are in a world of hurt. If you have followed the COVID-19 story, you may have heard about the “cytokine storm” that is killing people by destroying their lungs. As you might imagine, combining these approaches with the other “hot” area of immunotherapy, the PD-1 inhibitors I have previously written about could make CAR-T treatment more effective but the toxicities even worse.

I hope this has been helpful and that your immunologist cousin or highly informed oncologist will forgive the effort to simplify a very promising but challenging field. I’m also grateful to the myriad of incredible researchers who have put this all together for us “cancer fighters” and their dedication is equally as worthy of honor as other warriors on front lines.






Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment

PSMA PET-CT scans for Prostate Cancer

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PSMA stands for Prostate Specific Membrane Antigen, which is a protein (enzyme) that is expressed on the surface of prostate cancer cells (and on a few other cell types). As with many cell surface proteins, you can find ligands that will bind to the protein, and then label these with radioactive isotopes that allow imaging. PET stands for Positron Emission Tomography, and of course, CT stands for Computerized Tomography. When you put these technologies together, you obtain a powerful way to look for prostate cancer that has spread outside the prostate gland. The physics of this (how a positron interacts with an electron, releasing gamma photons at 180 degrees) is very cool, but probably of interest only to the most nerdy. (I made a cloud chamber for my 7th grade science project and my hiking buddy is a nuclear medicine doc who wrote a definitive text on the math/science of his craft…so go figure).

Prior to developing PET agents for prostate cancer, we had standard CT scans and bone scans and we used these to determine whether someone with, for example, a very high PSA or high Gleason score had cancer deposits that had escaped (metastasized) from the prostate. If so, it was felt that putting them through surgery or radiation treatments in an attempt to cure was fruitless and exposed the patient to the unnecessary toxicity risks (impotence, incontinence, rectal damage, etc.) Especially if they had symptoms (e.g. bone pain), hormone treatment reducing testosterone was the best approach. If you had a rising PSA several years after local treatment, the question was always, “Where is the cancer?” but the sensitivity of routine bone and CT scans was quite limited not showing anything until the PSA reached 10 or so at which time ~1/2 of scans would be positive. Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 7.26.14 AMThis figure illustrates the difference in sensitivity. A normal sized lymph node on CT scan (left) is revealed to  contain prostate cancer with the PET isotope technique (right). At present, the only approved PET scan in the U.S. is fluciclovine, the “Axumin” scan, which the FDA approved for detecting cancer in patients with rising PSA, but not in newly diagnosed patients. In several studies PSMA-PET CT scans are even more sensitive (about 3x) than Axumin. At the risk of calling up an overused phrase, “this changes everything”.

First, it is clear that many high risk patients we would previously have treated with surgery or radiation to the prostate hoping to cure them might now be found to have prostate cancer deposits outside of the treatment target (prostate or prostate + pelvic lymph nodes). A superb study in this month’s Lancet found that PSMA PET-CT scans provided higher sensitivity (85% vs 38%) and specificity (98% vs 91%) than routine bone and CT scans in high risk patients (PSA >20, Gleason 4+3 or worse). Does this mean we shouldn’t treat the prostate in high risk patients with positive scans? In the study, conventional imaging changed the management in 15% of men, while PSMA PET-CT imaging changed the plans in 28% (p=0.008). Should all high risk patients have a PSMA PET-CT before deciding on treatment? Should the FDA approve this scan quickly? (It is currently available only in research centers and not covered by insurance…read my blog on how to search for such studies or click here).

Second, what about treating a small number of prostate metastases (oligometastatic prostate cancer) in a patient who was treated years ago and now has a rising PSA? Ongoing investigations suggest this might delay the need for hormone therapy in such patients or potentially even cure some of them. But the PSMA PET-CT isn’t perfect. How high do you let the PSA go up before ordering such a scan? – the farther it rises, the more likely the scan will show something, but that gives the cancer more time to spread. A negative scan is no guarantee there aren’t many more foci of a few prostate cancer cells that will eventually show up elsewhere in the body. Is this some version of Whack-a-mole? And how do we define “cure” anyway?? (My personal definition is that you die from something else, regardless of your PSA or scan results).

Finally, since even at research centers the PSMA PET-CT scan may cost you $3,000 or so, is it worth it? It is “free” in the European health care systems, but we all know nothing is free – even if Medicare pays for something it costs society and ultimately must be accounted for in terms of value. Medicare covered PSMA PET-CT’s vs fixing pot holes and bridges? How about finding a treatment for SARS Co-V2 instead? No easy answers, but if you are like me, homebound as a “high risk” senior citizen, plenty to think about. Wash your hands, wear your mask, and enjoy your grandkids on Zoom!


Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Oligometastatic prostate cancer, Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment

New findings from clinical trials 2020

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There are a number of ongoing trials or completed trials that represent attempts to develop new approaches to prostate cancer. I am sometimes asked what I know or think about them (often not as much as I would like) from various investment consultants, so I thought rather than respond to a recent list, I would just use it to explain the trials for readers of this blog. Perhaps when your friends ask you whether there is “anything new out there”, you can point them to some of these.

The PROFOUND, TALAPRO-1, TRITON-2 studies are all designed to evaluate the efficacy of small molecule drugs that inhibit “PARP” which stands for an enzyme (Poly ADP-ribose polymerase) that is involved in DNA repair. It turns out that patients who inherit a damaged/mutated version of any of several enzymes that help cells maintain their DNA integrity (BRCA1/2 being an example you may have heard of – when mutated it leads to the development of breast and ovarian cancers as well) are more likely to get prostate cancer, and often it is of the more aggressive variety. It is also a frequent condition of prostate cancer metastases in patients who no longer respond to hormone therapies (leuprolide, abiraterone, enzalutamide, etc). These patients appear to be uniquely sensitive to PARP inhibitors and several pharmaceutical companies are developing them. Olaparib and rucaparib received breakthrough designation from the FDA for accelerated development. In the PROfound trial, patients who had progressed on either enzalutamide (Xtandi) or abiraterone (Zytiga) were randomized to receive the “other” new hormonal agent or the PARP targeted drug olaparib (Lynparza). As reported by my friend/colleague Maha Hussain, the olaparib treated patients fared significantly better than the patients who received the “other hormone”. The take-home message from these trials is that we now have ways to look at the molecular underpinnings of resistant prostate cancer. If you have metastatic prostate cancer, ask your physician about the genomic tests that can be done to see if you might benefit from one of these new drugs.

In a somewhat similar design, the CARD trial evaluated treating patients who had had been treated with docetaxel (Taxotere) and then progressed while on enzalutamide or abiraterone with cabazitaxel (Jevtana) rather than the alternate hormone targeted drug. Chemotherapy with cabazitaxel was the better approach. This was similar to a previous trial called FIRSTANA that looked at alternatives of mitoxantrone or cabazitaxel in progressing docetaxel treated patients. The take-home message here is that chemotherapy with cabazitaxel may be a good choice if you don’t fit the PARP profile above, and studies have shown that cabazitaxel is preferred in terms of side effects compared to docetaxel.

Finally, I will comment on the VISION trial. PSMA stands for prostate specific membrane antigen and it is expressed on prostate cancer cells. It can be used to direct pet-scanning agents to metastatic cancer deposits and these scans are currently the most sensitive ones we have for detecting prostate cancer. These scans are available at several centers in the U.S. and are now routinely used in Europe. By linking a more radioactive isotope, Lu177 to the PSMA, you can also treat prostate cancer and early results in patients with progressive hormone refractory disease have been encouraging with more than half of patients responding. The VISION trial compares this approach with cabazitaxel to see which might be the best, but in the long run, it may be possible to use both agents, and potentially to use them even earlier before resistant disease has developed.

We have entered an era when there are numerous promising options for treatment, and the key is to get as many men  as possible to participate so we can finish the trials and get these new agents approved. We also have drugs like cabazitaxel that have been approved for some time and a better idea of when to use them. Working with a team that has the expertise to guide a patient and offer the right choices at the right time is essential for the best outcomes.

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Filed under Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment

Immuno-Fighting Cancer Like Wildfires

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I live in what is now known as the urban wildland interface west of Denver, the kind of area prone to the devastating fires that have been scorching California. Our firewise community efforts have taught us a lot about how a single windblown ember from miles away can destroy your house, and many of us have done a lot of mitigation. But, if the “big one” comes, our best hope is to grab the family albums and head down the hill.

Cancer can be very similar. If someone walks in with widespread disease, unless it is one of the highly treatable ones like testis cancer, flying over the patient with flame retardant (chemotherapy) may delay things for a while, but often the home is lost. The earliest realization of how to do better may have come from breast cancer. William Halstead realized in 1894 that putting out the fire effectively might include getting the surrounding “embers” (lymph nodes) at the time of removing the primary breast tumor (campfire in this analogy). A century later, it had become clear that in many instances the embers had spread too far for more radical surgical approaches, but that in some cases the embers could be extinguished (adjuvant chemotherapy) before the fire got out of control.

But what if the fire could be self-extinguishing? What if there was a boy scout at the campfire with a fire extinguisher? Better yet, what if you had smoke jumpers who could parachute in and help the boy by putting out the small fires elsewhere started by the embers? Immunotherapy offers just such hope. In the 1980’s we learned that giving high dose IL-2 to some patients with particularly sensitive tumors (kidney, melanoma) could produce cures in some cases. I liken this to sending in a group of non-specialist firemen/women in huge numbers to fight the forest fire doing the best they can.

Sending these individuals to more specialized training resulted in Provenge (sipuleucel-T), the first “vaccine” approved for treating any cancer, prostate being the target, and I was fortunate to participate in some of the first trials of this approach. But what was needed was both more effective equipment (in this case the PD-1 inhibitors that can “extinguish” the cancer’s ability to turn off the immune response) and more highly trained firefighters (potentially think of CAR-T cells) who have advanced skills, graduate degrees from a university, and can be deployed to go in search of the embers.

Now to torture this analogy just a bit further, let’s imagine that rather than sending the firefighters to universities for advanced generalized training, we could send them to CIA camps where they would receive the most specialized training possible right at the site where the fire started. In cancer, this may be the idea of using cryotherapy or irreversible electroporation to kill the local tumor, then injecting some cocktail of immune stimulatory molecules that enhance the body’s ability to create very effective T-cells that can go out as smoke jumpers looking for the embers (metastases), without the need for the university training outside the body (Sip-T or CAR-T).

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Already there are clinical trials underway with this technique that show promise. Gary Onik has demonstrated some remarkable responses in metastatic prostate cancer patients. Diwakar Davar just presented similarly exciting data in high risk melanoma patients who received intratumoral CMP-001 and systemic nivolumab before resection of the primary tumors. 62% of the patients had no tumor left in their surgical specimens! So  the cancer/firefighters are out there and although there will always be wildfires we simply can’t extinguish, the prospects for controlling them before or soon after they have spread have never looked better.



Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Targeted treatment

What we see and what YOU get.

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Will Rogers is said to have stated, “When the Oakies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the IQ of both states.” This story has given rise to the concept of the “Will Rogers phenomenon” in medicine that is very well explained in this essay. Basically, it provides a cautionary message when evaluating new therapies in cancer medicine, because if a new study has taken advantage of newer diagnostic techniques to eliminate some of the patients with higher risk (say those with metastases), then it could easily be that an improved result is not from the new therapy, but from the ability to throw out the higher risk patients from a study cohort.

We are certainly at risk of this now in prostate cancer. In the last 5-10 years, a number of more sensitive scans have been introduced that can reveal metastatic deposits previously missed by standard technetium-99m bone scans or CT scans. Most of these rely on the technology known as PET (positron emission tomography) scanning. The first clinical PET scans mostly utilized glucose to which a positron emitter, Fluorine-18, was attached. For bone metastases, it is easy to see how much more sensitive F-18 scans are as shown in this image: (Same patient – A. “Regular” Tc-99m bone scan  B. NaF-18 PET scan)

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Suppose you have a new treatment that is for patients “with 10 or fewer” bone metastases. If you are comparing the new treatment with one that was used in the past, and you now use the PET scan (on the right), this patient would not be eligible, whereas in the past (old scanning technique) he would have been. He clearly has a higher tumor burden than 10 metastases. Hence, he is now eliminated from the new study, and therefore the new study will automatically look better in terms of outcome than previous treatments. This is called “stage migration” or the “Will Rogers phenomenon”.

For “soft tissue” metastases (lymph nodes, liver, lung, etc.) the regular Fluorodeoxyglucose FDG-PET scans were approved decades ago for lung cancer, colon cancer, lymphomas and breast cancer but they never worked well for prostate cancer. A simplistic explanation may have to do with the different metabolism of prostate cancer which tends to utilize lipid rather than glucose for energy. (see our study here). Therefore researchers looked for other metabolites that would light up prostate cancer. Acetate and choline could be labelled with Carbon-11 and worked well. However, C-11 has a half life of only 20 minutes, so making the label in a cyclotron had to be done essentially in the room next door to the scanner and injected immediately into the patient. Another metabolite taken up by prostate cancer, an artificial amino acid (fluciclovine), could be labeled with F-18, worked well and has now been approved, called the Axumin scan.  Potentially even better will be the PSMA scan, now in research mode.

The net result of these new scans is to allow physicians to answer the frequent question patients ask, “Where is the PSA coming from?” The problem then becomes the title of this essay – What we see and what You get. There are numerous scenarios. For example, a patient who comes in with a very aggressive Gleason 9 cancer and a PSA of 12.3. Should we go immediately to a routine bone and CT scan, or just order an Axumin scan? And if we find 2 positive spots, one in a rib and the other in a lymph node, does that mean the patient can’t be cured?? Five years ago, we would have never known about the metastases and we would have operated or used radiation therapy in a curative attempt. Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 9.56.43 PMWhat about the patient with a rising PSA 5 years after he had surgery. We do a PSMA scan and find a solitary node near the left iliac artery. Should we irradiate the node? What about operating and removing it – remember, it may not look any different from all the other nodes to the surgeon. Which one should he/she take out? And what is accomplished by these efforts? Should the PSA go down (yes if that’s the only metastasis) and what to do if it doesn’t go down. Are we playing “whack a node”? How many times do we go after spots that keep showing up, versus starting some sort of hormone therapy?

There is an excellent article addressing some of these questions written by my good friend Chris Sweeney and colleagues that you can read here. A summary quote from their article states, “Given the current limited understanding of how reliable these scans are in predicting the need for appropriate management change, data-driven guidelines and standardized consensus approaches are more critical than ever.” A review of some of the early attempts to treat a small number of metastases (called oligometastatic disease) has just appeared here. One example of a paper reporting interesting results is summarized as follows: “Of the retrospective reports, the largest includes 119 treatment‐naive patients who had ≤3 sites of oligorecurrence and received SBRT to all involved sites, with 92 of 119 (77%) undergoing pretreatment choline PET. The 3‐year distant PFS [progression free survival] rate of 31% and the 3‐year OS rate of 95% are favorable and suggest a subset of patients likely benefitted from aggressive local therapy; however, conclusions from these data are limited in the absence of a comparative control arm.”

Maybe we simply have to refer back to another quote from Will Rogers, “America is a nation that conceives many odd inventions for getting somewhere but it can think of nothing to do once it gets there.” Stay tuned…







Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Oligometastatic prostate cancer, Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment

Black holes and genetic laws

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I just finished reading Stephen Hawking’s last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, which I found more accessible than A Brief History of Time, written more than 30 years ago. Hawking’s abilities to explain the very (for me) abstract concepts of how no information can flow out of black holes and that the amount in there is somehow directly related to the cross sectional area of the hole was satisfying. As a very math challenged individual, I’m also a fan of Heisenberg and the perplexing issue that in the quantum/wave world of particle physics, you just can’t be certain about position and momentum. Yet, there are certain laws, like the speed of light, that are never violated, at least in the universe we live in.

So what does this have to do with genetics and prostate (or other) cancers? Here is a law: A always pairs with T, and C always pairs with G. In our biologic universe, without this law, no life as we know it could exist (prions may be an exception, but that gets too far into the definition of “life”). Yet, just as with the uncertainty of Heisenberg, the base pairing in DNA/RNA is not completely inviolable. Mistakes are made…and this can result in cancer. Cancer is a genetic disease and for anyone who hasn’t read it, I still recommend you avail yourself of the incredibly well written book, The Emperor of All Maladies. In the short time since that book was written, the explosion in our understanding of how genetic errors and cancer are related has been difficult to keep up with. The Cancer Genome Atlas (clever name, eh?) is but one example, and its use by scientists skilled in math (ugh) continues to help classify cancers based on how their mutations drive them rather than just how they look under the microscope or which organ they started in. Here is the math and the results one such analysis has on predicting survival for stomach cancer:

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As you can see, the prognosis and potentially the treatment for one subtype of “stomach cancer” might be very different for one patient than for another. Bringing this technology to prostate cancer, we already know the mutational landscape is vast. For example, this article looked at 1,013 different prostate cancers and found 97 significantly mutated genes, including 70 not previously recognized, and many present in <3% of cases. There is hidden good news in this story, in that the same mutational uncertainties that can give rise to cancer (breaking the law of AT-CG) also allows our immune systems to react to the novel mutated proteins that cancers now display. For an interview from this week’s NEJM on gene editing, click here.

Keeping up with this world of laws, broken laws, and “black holes” will be a remarkable challenge for patients and oncologists alike. My final recommendation for reading about this is a terrific article you can find here by George Sledge, one of the outstanding leaders in our field. He notes that even the most skilled oncologist, paired with the smartest of patients, will be unable to keep up. But remember this, you can’t go faster than the speed of light. That’s the law!




Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment

Ho, Ho, Hox

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Fruit flies are a fascinating scientific resource to consider if you can get beyond your annoyance when they appear in one of those lovely boxes of ripe fruit you receive from a relative this time of year. (Just be thankful it wasn’t fruitCAKE!). For some great reading on the topic, I highly recommend a book, “Time, Love, and Memory“, the story of Seymour Benzer and how his graduate students figured out how different genes are involved in these creatures’ sense of time, or how they do their mating dance or remember whether they shouldn’t put their little leg down into a beaker and get a shock.

As with their behavior, there are wonderfully complex genes that also control how they develop from a single fertilized egg into an adult fly. These are called homeobox or “Hox” genes and it turns out their analogues are conserved throughout the animal kingdom. In this nice review of their functions, the following picture shows how the gene family controls development in the anterior – posterior development of the fly AND the mouse embryo.

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Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.39.27 PMWhen things go wrong in the fruit fly (Drosophila), you can get a fascinating mutation that makes the fly look like this, with legs appearing where there should be antennae. In humans, analogous mutations can result in having extra fingers or malformations. You can read in more depth about how the Hox (a subset of the master homeotic regulator) genes are regulated at the Kahn academy in this article.

OK, you say, but what could this possibly have to do with prostate cancer? Ah, that’s what I find fascinating. Cancer is a superb example of dysregulation of the genetic programs that make cells behave. By the time you get to an animal developing a prostate gland, there are countless regulatory genes that must each turn on or off at the right time in embryogenesis. And just as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny“, oncology recapitulates ontogeny. One of these homeobox genes, HOXB13 was discovered to be mutated in studies of families with hereditary risk for prostate cancer by Johns Hopkins investigators several years ago. This gene interacts with the androgen receptor, so it makes some sense that the prostate gland would be affected by mutations. Further studies of families with this mutation indicate that if you inherit one copy of the G48E mutation, your risk of developing prostate cancer is 2.6 fold increased.

Whereas testing for such genetic mutations (and many others) used to be the provenance  of research labs, we are entering a time in medicine when genetic testing is becoming “mandatory” for best practice care. The following criteria are now used to help discern who might benefit from such testing:

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This table comes from a company, Myriad, that is now advertising for its own cancer risk gene panel, but there are several such companies and panels of genes. Although we (I) still don’t send off a genetic panel test to Myriad, Foundation Medicine, Invitae or the other companies in all patients, we are rapidly approaching the time when that will be standard. The challenges (as outlined in this article) are which genes should be tested, and what to do with the results. Some mutations such as those involving DNA damage repair, are already recognized as useful in directing therapy. For now, it is a topic best discussed with a genetics counsellor, and I fear, even more importantly one with an interest in prostate cancer if you can find one. Most of us physicians are struggling to keep up with which panel (if any) to order and when to order it.

So just remember when you see that little fly emerge from your fruit box this season, he/she/it has made immeasurable contributions to cancer research, and be thankful for all the science that is helping us to understand our amazing world.



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Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment

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 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.



Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment

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.


Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment

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!


Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment