Category Archives: 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)

Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 5.01.55 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 10.14.33 AM Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 10.22.35 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 4.07.50 PM

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

Of Prostates and Teslas

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If you thought this might be an article about how your urologist shops for his/her newest fancy car, you are mistaken (sadly…). Nikola Tesla was a fascinating inventor and ultimately “mad scientist” at the turn of the last century. Every time you plug your cuisinart into the wall to chop something up, you are the beneficiary of his contributions to the alternating current coming to your kitchen and the motor driving the chopper. My favorite story (because of the local connection) was his laboratory in Colorado Springs, where he attempted to develop a method of transmitting power without wires. By creating YUUUGE electromagnetic fields, he could make lots of electrical things happen at considerable distances, including knocking out the power station for the city. Here’s a quote from the Wikipedia article:

He produced artificial lightning, with discharges consisting of millions of volts and up to 135 feet (41 m) long.[11] Thunder from the released energy was heard 15 miles (24 km) away in Cripple Creek, Colorado. People walking along the street observed sparks jumping between their feet and the ground. Sparks sprang from water line taps when touched. Light bulbs within 100 feet (30 m) of the lab glowed even when turned off. Horses in a livery stable bolted from their stalls after receiving shocks through their metal shoes. Butterflies were electrified, swirling in circles with blue halos of St. Elmo’s fire around their wings.[12]

Of course, for purposes of this blog, the key thing is that the strength of magnetic fields was named after him. When you get an MRI of your prostate, brain, or anything else, you are put into a machine with a superconducting magnet that produces 1.5 or 3 “T” of strength. At the risk of being completely wrong and oversimplifying, what happens in the MRI machine is that a strong magnetic field temporarily lines up the hydrogen atoms in the water that is 70% of “you”, and when these atoms “relax” they give off radio signals that can be converted to images. Details and images are here. Early on, my colleagues and I were fascinated by the possibility of using MR to investigate the prostate gland and published an article (completely ignored – cited only 3 times, so must not have been that important…) showing changes in MR that occurred after testosterone administration to castrated rats.

Now there are complex MRI protocols to image the prostate using techniques I don’t fully understand (multiparametric imaging) that give us remarkable pictures of the prostate gland. Here is one:

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Prostate gland with red arrow indicating a suspicious lesion that could be biopsied or followed closely.

As with any radiologic imaging technique, the skill of the radiologist as well as the equipment being used determine the accuracy of the MRI to diagnose a cancer.

While most of us learned how to “read X-rays” in medical school, it is beyond most clinicians to read MRI’s of the prostate. Fortunately, the radiologists have developed a system that helps us think about “how abnormal” some area of the gland is, called PI-RADS.  This can be very useful in thinking about what area to concentrate on when biopsying a patient, or in trying to determine whether surgery or radiation therapy should be altered if there is concern that the cancer is outside of the gland. An interesting question that is still controversial is whether the MRI could replace repetitive biopsies in a man who has chosen active surveillance. Particularly when combined with molecular techniques (see my previous blog here) to characterize biopsies, it may be that Tesla will be helping to do more than get you from one place to another or run your electric shaver. (Rock on, Elon Musk) To me, that is a pretty interesting outcome from knocking out all of the lights in Colorado Springs!


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