Category Archives: Targeted treatment

Lu-177-PSMA-617 and “what’s next?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pills vs Shots for Androgen Deprivation Therapy (ADT)


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

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

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

The hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis

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

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

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

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

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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.

Screen Shot 2020-06-13 at 10.42.33 AM

 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.

 

 

 

 

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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!

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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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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).

Screen Shot 2019-11-11 at 8.13.35 AM

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.

 

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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…

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

 

 

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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