Tag Archives: cancer research

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:

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

Tweet Storm from ASCO GU

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The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) along with other professional societies sponsors an annual symposium focused on GU cancers, with a day and a half devoted to prostate cancer. You can view all of the abstracts on screening, detection, and management of localized disease here. If you have an area of specific interest (for example, the use of MRI in detection) you can use the search function on your browser to find articles of interest. On the mac, it is “command+f” keys for both safari and chrome. You then type “MRI” into the box and use “command+g” to scroll through all of the abstracts. You come up with very interesting new information like an abstract on page 108, “MRI targeted biopsy dramatically increases detection of clinically significant prostate cancer while reducing the risk of indolent cancer detection.”

If your interest is more on the newest studies for advanced prostate cancer, you can go here, and do the same thing. What you will find, of course, is that the avalanche of information is pretty hard to digest. When we started ASCO OnLine in the early 90’s, the technology was limited, but now it overwhelms. We are left to hope that the experts who select the most important abstracts to be presented will have done a good job, but that presumes they know our individual interests, which of course they can’t. When tweeting became available, I decided I was too old. I did sign up for a handle, @ascotwit, that I used in a couple of meetings but in general, I haven’t found twitter to be very helpful, even though some of my younger colleagues tried to help me and we even wrote an an article about it. (…I certainly don’t think it is a good way to run a country…but I digress).

So to you, my loyal followers, and with no attempt to correct spelling (why should I if the leader of the free world doesn’t do it?), here are the tweets from the oral abstract presentations that I would have sent out if I was a twitter user:

Ipi + novolumab – “checkmate 650) therapy duration  only 2.1 or 1.4 months. Only 1/3 reached maintenance phase with ~1/2 of patients dropping out for toxicity. compared to patients in melanoma trial getting about 4 doses.“if you can’t get the drug in, you can’t see a response” 25% of patients had a response in cohort 1. They tend to respond early The subsets are those who had PD-1 positivity or high tumor mutation burden.

  • Scher assay. Getting to CTC 0 was useful in predicting better survival and was better than looking at a drop of 50% in PSA. The development of a show term outcome marker remains elusive. 46% of the patients who lived 13 weeks were not included because of not enough CTC’s
  • #140 ARAMIS study – efficacy and safety of darolutamide in nmcrpc.  Different structure than end and app and does not cross blood/brain barrier. men with no mets and psa dt <10 months. ADT + placebo vs dark. met free survival 18 months vs 40 months . overall survival 83% vs 73% placebo at 36 months. also improved time to pain, time to skeletal, time to cytotoxic chemo. Tolerance was excellent with no difference in AE rates. Fatigue 15.8% vs 11.4% (see nejm this week)
  • Final analysis of Phase III Latitude study. High risk met castrate naive pca newly diagnosed
    • High risk gleason >/= 8
    • Abi vs placebo + ADT. 
    • Final analysis showed hazard ratio of 0.66. OS 36.5 months vs 53.3 months. Time to pain progression was much longer (see slide). High volume patients clearly benefited most
  • #687 ARCHES trial ADT +/- Enz
    • included both low and high volume CHAARTED criteria, as well as could have had prior docetaxel or not. 2/3 had gleason 8-10; 18% had prior doce in the hormone sensitive setting
    • Primary endpoint was rPFS or death. secondary: time to spa progression, new rx, spa undetectable rate objective response rate
    • rPFS HR =0.39 across all subgroups including those who had previous doce Time to spa progression was 91% at 12 mo vs 63%. 68% got 0 psa vs 18%. 
    • Fatigue and hot flashes were worse but mostly grade 1/2. 93% of patients still alive. at 14.4 months
    • Is M0 crpc really important? New imaging techniques – does it even exist??. Inflection point of doubling time <6mo is important predictor (matt smith curve). Cost: for Enz 220k/year of life saved. PFS2 is the time to progression or death on the theft therapy. The Latitude trial suggests delay in time to next endpoint.  
    • Cost for abi/p is still 10k/mo but generic is now approved
    • discussion of which one to use. not strictly comparable patient populations. need cost effectiveness randomized trial?
  • # 2 Choline scan can replace conventional imaging, but has poor negative predictive value – identifies mets earlier but no way to say that the earlier management changes makes any difference.
  • #144 – small. initiation of apalutamide early may result in prolonged effect looking at psa2 See screen shot. Earlier treatment for non-metastatic disease is likely better than waiting for mets. There are 3 potential agents (enz, apa, dur). Delaying time to symptoms is also very important. Suggests that anything you add later still does not make up for starting early.
  • #365 – yu. Pembro + olaparib in doce pretreated patients with mCRPC. Needed disease progression after doce, randomized to cohort A Pembro + olap 68% had measurable disease. 41% with visceral disease. None of the patients had DDR mutations by biopsy or circ. dna. 12% response rate. 39% had some measurable disease response. they will expand from 42 to 100 patients. Continue randomizing to other cohorts.
  • #146 Chen Genetic drivers of poor prognosis and enz resistance in mcrpc. 86% patients had ar gain. Complete biallelic loss of RB1 median OS 14.1 months vs 42 months (not looked at in association with enz resistance -they didn’t look). WNT btea catenin pathway was highest abn asso with resistance. CTNNB1 mutation found only in enz resistant patients and was also associated with  poor prognosis similar to the RB1 
  • #147 – compared 3 arms. MDT upfront with SBRT. vs abi/ADT up front vs ADT up front. Assumed 10 years. Markov model. Looked at  cost effectiveness. ADT upfront low cost/low effective. Abi/ADT is not cost effective compared to MDT. Willingness to pay threshold of $100,000/qaly. Costs would need to decline by 90% to be the dominant strategy. MDT is a cost effective treatment. Did not look at MDT + upfront ADT with or without abi. Model assumed 1-3 extracranial metastases using data from STOMP and M1 Stampede.
  • #148 Doce +/- enz CHEIRON study. N=246. Combo arm more toxic with neutropenia. disease control 89% combo vs 73%. But no difference in overall survival but most patients did go on to receive 2nd gen adt.

Reading through them, with misspellings, poor wording, and probably containing some real errors (don’t rely on this “tweet” – go to the abstract to verify anything above) I realize how challenging it is to keep up these days. My best suggestion to ALL cancer patients is that they find a physician who is focused on their particular disease if at all possible. I fear the era of being a general medical oncologist is over (and certainly over for a 71-year-old like me). While any of us could use the NCCN guidelines (or other practice guidelines from organizations like ASCO or AUA) to care for patients, there is little that can replace the actual experience one gains by participating in the development of new agents that are rapidly coming into clinical use these days. If you can think of a solution, don’t tweet to me because I have no idea how to use it and don’t “follow” many people. However, I welcome your comments on this old fashioned blog, and can even throw in an emoji (of sorts):   😉  Have a great February and remember, the prostate is our only heart shaped organ.

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Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy

It’s MO time – please help!

To view this post on my blog site, sign up for future posts, and read more info relevant to prostate cancer, please click here. Donate to my moustache here. Even better, grow your own and get your friends to help out here. The more of us who join in, the wider the recognition of men’s health issues.

In my career fighting for the cure of prostate cancer, two organizations (besides the National Cancer Institute) have been outstanding partners. Movember was started by a couple of friends in a bar in Australia. This became the answer to a long standing jealousy of mine for something as popular and effective as the Susan G. Koman Foundation and Race for the Cure. I often refer to our prostate cancer journey when I lecture by noting how we “crawl for the cure” while our sisters are racing. In 2016, the NCI budget for breast cancer research was $519.9 million, more than twice as much as that for prostate cancer at $241 million. This, in spite of the fact that prostate cancer deaths this year are 3/4 as common (29,430) as breast cancer deaths (40,920). It’s not a contest really, since all cancer research is moving the field forward rapidly, but Movember has been incredibly helpful in sponsoring research and advocating for us.

The other organization, Prostate Cancer Foundation, shows how much a single individual with great connections and personal motivation can do. Michael Milken deserves enormous credit for his vision and leadership. I personally benefited from grants given out by the foundation, and even more from their amazing annual meeting that draws together prostate cancer researchers from around the world to share data and ideas. Dr. Howard Soule is a key factor in PCF’s incredible success and his name should be as well known as Susan G. Koman in my view.

I hope you will join with all of us in fighting for the cure in prostate cancer. Grow one, or support someone who is growing, and tell your friends. The progress and future has never been brighter, and our hairy upper lips should show it!

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Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues

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 wordpress.com. 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

A perfect death

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This week in which the country will come together to mourn the passing of a true American original, John McCain, it might be worth considering our (your) own mortality. Even as the ongoing progress toward controlling prostate cancer is underway, it remains clear that “something else” will get us. As an example, in a study I was privileged to lead among patients with high risk prostate cancer, other cancers (many of which were caused by our adjuvant mitoxantrone treatment) were as likely to lead to death and prostate cancer was the cause of dying only ~20% of the time

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As oncologists, we face the “end of life” issues more frequently than most physicians, and certainly deal with the reality of death more than folks in most other professions. I distinctly remember one lovely woman in her 50’s who was very open in discussing her wishes. She wanted to die while lying on her favorite beach in Florida watching the sunlight sparkling on the ocean – not an easy thing to arrange (and it didn’t happen). My own fantasy would be to have a lovely vacation in Hawaii (without this week’s rain) with my entire family, say my good-byes as I put them all on the plane, and stay over an extra day to pay for the hotel and be sure all of my financial affairs were up to date – then die of a heart attack on the way home the next day. Perfect. The airline would be carrying my carcass home for the mere cost of a coach seat and I wouldn’t even have to suffer that long in the crunched position with no leg room.

Short of these fantasies, however, I recently undertook an exercise that anyone could do and I herewith commend to you as well. My wife and I were lucky enough to score tickets to the London production of Hamilton last February. In it, there were two numbers that grabbed me by the heart. First was Washington’s “teach ’em how to say goodbye” song, “One Last Time”. As with John McCain’s final commentaries over the past few months, Hamilton’s farewell speech written for Washington was masterful (as is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reprise).

But the song that most moved me to tears (and action) was “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. After listening to it about a dozen times, I realized that we all have a story. It may not be as honest/noble as John McCain’s, or as consequential as Hamilton’s or Washington’s, but for some small group of your relatives or children or grandchildren, your story will have special meaning. If you don’t write it, your memories of your father, your grandfather, your family in general will die with you. In my case, I read a couple of autobiographies, self-published, from friends/acquaintances and decided that their stories were highly personal, and not terribly interesting. But when I started writing the story of my own grandfather and father, and my story, it was a joyful experience of reliving many happy memories, and a way of reconnecting with my first love affair, our children’s births, and the many blessings that have come my way. The result is not a literary masterpiece, but I am going to have it bound and give a copy to each of my kids to gather dust on their bookshelves.

In the arc of history, some things have not changed. “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10). Although trouble and sorrow are a part of life (and of dying), there can be real joy in pausing to appreciate all life has given you. Carpe diem!



Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy

The Hits Just Keep on Coming

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I have a hiking companion who loves math, computers, and to a large extent, eugenics. He posits that we will eventually understand the human genome so well that we will be able to make all humans “smart” or “better” through genetic engineering. I argue back endlessly, with little success, that his definition of “smart” and “better” may not be shared  by everyone (he counters that these definitions will be left to the parents…) and that there will be unintended consequences of diving into our DNA with CRISPR/Cas9 technology.

The wonderful complexity of humankind is, of course, reflected in every single cell in our bodies and in all of our cancer cells as well. The debate over the number of synapses (or permutations) in our brains versus atoms (or stars etc.) in the observable universe is well beyond my comprehension. Unfortunately the “much simpler” question of how many things go wrong in cancer cells is also mind boggling. Hence, the phenomenal work of one of the West Coast Dream Team’s recent publications is not surprising. A reductionist view is shown in this diagram from their paper published last month:

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 2.01.08 PM

The scientific team, using funds from PCF, SU2C, and Movember (among others), did a whole genome analysis of metastatic tumor specimens from 101 men with castration resistant (hormone insensitive) prostate cancer. There is an excellent report on this work from the UCSF News Center here. Lest you believe that the results have resulted in an “aha moment” that will lead to “A prostate cancer cure”, you might do as I had to do and Google the word I had not heard of in the above figure, “chromothripsis“. Rather, the research leads to some very important insights that will doubtless contribute towards more effective therapy for 1000’s of patients eventually. By looking at the structural variants in the DNA that occurs outside of expressed genes, a much more complex picture of what drives castration resistant prostate cancer (CRPC) becomes evident. For example the androgen receptor (AR) is over-expressed in the majority of metastases and this study found a region of the “junk DNA” (non-coding for genes) that lies 66.94 million base pairs upstream of the AR that was amplified in 81% of the cases. This was 11% more common than the amplification of AR itself – an indication of how important the DNA controlling a gene like AR is, compared to the gene itself. So much for calling the DNA that doesn’t code for a protein “junk”!

A second example is the insight into patients who have alterations in a gene called CDK12 that may render them more sensitive to one of the “hottest” areas of cancer research, the use of checkpoint inhibitors of the PD-1 pathway I described in my last post.  This abnormality results in the cancer cells having an increased number of “neoantigens” (targets) for the immune system to attack as shown in this illustration from another recent exceptional paper.

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The ongoing research from the many scientific teams focused on prostate cancer is awe-inspiring when you consider the complexities involved in the two figures in this post alone. Even getting a complete picture from a single patient is impossible, given the genetic instability and the variable mutations found in different metastases. Remember, this team looked at the DNA from only one (or a few) of the many metastatic sites found in each patient. Other studies have shown lots of different mutations depending on which site is evaluated as I reviewed here.  In spite of all of this complexity, the ability to at least begin to understand what is going on “underneath the hood” is the way forward, and just as we can recognize Fords vs Chevys vs Toyotas, “brands” that emerge from such studies will lead to treatments that are more appropriate for certain classes of patients. As we have known for a very long time, the most common feature is the “gasoline” of testosterone, and how it fuels the amplified AR has remained an effective target for the newer drugs like abiraterone, enzalutamide, and apalutamide. Perhaps studies such as this one will lead to a way of kinking the hose upstream of the gasoline nozzle, or throwing sand (immunotherapy) into the engine itself. But… to admit that we will never understand it all (or design the “perfect human”) still seems an appropriate expression of humility to me.


Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues