Tag Archives: cancer research

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.

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 2.27.16 PM

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

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

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:

Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 1.53.20 PM

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

3 Articles and a forth

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OK, I admit to a sleazy, seemingly misspelled word to attract attention. At least I didn’t tweet it at 3AM. So what about the “forth”? I’m using it to remind you to sally forth in your search for information about prostate cancer. I previously wrote a blog giving some practical instructions on how to find the latest research publications on prostate cancer that you can find here. Another possibility, if you want to be overwhelmed is to subscribe to the Prostate Cancer Daily, published by Uro Today. So far as I can tell it is open to all, presents the original abstracts, and links via PubMed to the article itself. I now realize that the prediction of patients knowing more than their doctors about a given condition is glaringly obvious, something I discussed when I first wrote about the Internet and Oncology two decades ago.

So, on to the 3 articles: Typically, the most important articles in medicine are published in high profile journals. The premier one for medical oncology is the Journal of Clinical Oncology, JCO. The editors recently published a “best of genitourinary cancer, 2017” edition in coordination with what we medical oncologists call “GU ASCO” (actually co-sponsored by ASCO, ASTRO, and SUO). I thought it would be of interest to briefly re-cap the 3 prostate articles chosen for that edition.

ARTICLE 1: Enzalutamide Versus Bicalutamide in Castration-Resistant Prostate Cancer: The STRIVE Trial. This study compared the more potent anti-androgen, enzalutamide (Xtandi™) to the older drug, bicalutamide (Casodex™) in patients who had become resistant to initial hormonal therapy. About 2/3 of the men had positive scans, while in 1/3 the resistance was detected only by a rising PSA without a positive scan. As we might have expected from the way enzalutamide was developed, it was clearly superior, with progression free survival of 19 months for enzalutamide vs. 6 months for bicalutamide. In an ideal world, we would use enzalutamide instead of bicalutamide in almost all cases where an antiandrogen is indicated. However, the increased cost of this drug is dramatic, and there may be other options or confounding issues with interpretation of the study.

ARTICLE 2: Randomized Phase III Noninferiority Study Comparing Two Radiotherapy Fractionation Schedules in Patients With Low-Risk Prostate Cancer. This article reports on one of many studies looking at whether radiation therapy treatment times can be safely shortened by increasing the dose of radiation given with each treatment and giving fewer treatments (fractions). The underlying principles are that tumor cells cannot repair DNA damage from radiation as quickly as normal cells, so giving radiation in small fractions daily allows killing of the tumor while normal cells repair most of the damage. Giving all of the radiation at once would kill every cell (and the patient).  Experimentally, prostate cancer cells may be more susceptible to larger fractions, and this study demonstrated that a radiation therapy course could be safely shortened from 41 sessions to 28 sessions with similar “cure” rates at 5.8 years of followup. This is a general trend in radiation therapy for prostate cancer. Using newer radiation focusing technologies (IMRT, IGRT, Stereotactic radiosurgery, etc.) it is possible to treat prostate cancer with as few as 5 treatments, although the long term efficacy is still unknown, and the addition of androgen deprivation to radiation treatment at any dose also improves efficacy. How to combine these approaches, the optimal duration of ADT, and which patients should stay with the older methods is still uncertain.

ARTICLE 3: Improved Survival With Prostate Radiation in Addition to Androgen Deprivation Therapy for Men With Newly Diagnosed Metastatic Prostate Cancer. Proudly, many of the authors on this article are from the University of Colorado Cancer Center. The authors used the National Cancer Database to determine whether patients with metastatic prostate cancer, traditionally treated with hormone therapy (ADT) only (although more recently with hormone therapy plus chemotherapy) benefit from also radiatiScreen Shot 2015-10-30 at 11.02.16 AMng the prostate itself. The analogy would be burning down the barn after the horse has left (with apologies to my radiation therapy colleagues who never like to compare radiation
treatments to burning). The patients who had their prostates radiated
had a 5 year survival of 49% compared to 33% for those receiving ADT alone. Removing the prostate surgically also worked. The prostate may also be a site where metastatic cells from another location return, as illustrated in this picture and discussed here. The take home message is that the cancerous prostate may continue to “seed” cancer cells to the rest of the body, or be a home for circulating tumor cells and getting rid of it, even though not curative, may be a good idea (toxicities and costs aside).

Consider yourselves updated! (sort of…)



Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy, Uncategorized

No pain, no gain?

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One of my patients last week had a heartfelt discussion regarding the survival benefit of ADT vs his quality of life. He enjoys body building and showed me some pretty dramatic pictures of himself during his last ADT cycle (on intermittent therapy) versus now, when he had been off treatment for ~6-9 months. Added to his concern was his decline in libido and sexual function during ADT, a common complaint especially among younger patients. The question of quality vs quantity of life was,of course, utmost on his mind.

Starting from the initial diagnosis, every (maybe that should be every !!) prostate cancer patient will experience a decrement in quality of life. Those who elect “watchful waiting” will nevertheless experience anxiety regarding the shadow of CANCER following their footsteps. Sure, you can put it out of your mind, but turn around and there it is, like the neighbor’s unwanted cat stalking you. Then there is the anxiety over what the next PSA will be. And if on active surveillance, what will that next biopsy show?? These issues are both real, disturbing, and often under-appreciated in the discussions surrounding screening…”we should still be screening, but not treat the men who don’t need it…” Really? What about the 80% of men who die at age 90 with prostate cancer at autopsy who never had to deal with the shadow? (The inevitable counter-argument is, “yes, and what about those who had early detection of a high grade cancer whose life was saved?”)

We also tend to ignore the impact of competing mortality in our discussions. “Sure you had a stent placed last year, and you already survived that small colon cancer, so why wouldn’t we be aggressive in treating this new problem?” Dr. Sartor provided an elegant discussion of this in an editorial on the PIVOT trial you can read here. Whatever the flaws in that study, it remains clear that we are not very good at predicting the non-prostate cancer “future” for our patients, and the older you are, the thinner the ice gets regardless of how many marathons you run.

When patients choose one form of primary treatment vs another, they are weighing the different side effect profiles of surgery or radiation as much as which is “most effective”. I often give patients a copy of this article from NEJM and encourage them to spend some time looking at the graphics in Figure 1 to get some idea of what they will face in the way of side effects from treatment. As any honest physician would tell them, treatment will involve side effects, some permanent, in the best of circumstances.

In the setting of more advanced disease, for example a patient who presents with metastases outside the pelvis, the recent CHAARTED and STAMPEDE trials both suggest an advantage to the earlier use of docetaxel chemotherapy in combination with ADT as opposed to ADT alone. These data suggest that “pay me now or pay me later” analysis favors the “pay me now” approach in terms of overall survival. But at what price for quality of life? Fortunately most chemotherapy side effects are reversible, but distinctly unpleasant, potentially making the equation something like “4 months of misery to provide 14 months of longer life….not all of which will be great anyway”.

Even in the very advanced setting, there is some evidence that greater toxicity results in improved survival. A recent analysis of the TROPIC trial of cabazitaxel suggested that the patients who had the most “toxic response” in terms of dropping their neutrophil count benefited the most in terms of overall survival.

While all of this seems incredibly negative (for which I apologize), the history of oncology as a field has been the incremental improvement in survival AND the development of newer treatments that provide such advances with diminishing toxicity. Pediatric leukemia, as discussed extensively in “The Emperor of All Maladies” is a great example of how pioneering patients and physicians worked together to find cures and reduce side effects. We may only be at the beginning of such achievement in prostate cancer, but with the advent of the newer hormonal and imaging agents, increasingly sophisticated surgery and radiation, vaccines and immunotherapy, and even the chemotherapies now available, we have  no doubt reached the end of the beginning. Onward!


Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy

Olaparib for resistant prostate cancer

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In what is the first (and hopefully one of many) example of using modern genomic methods to match treatments to the molecular defects in prostate cancer, the FDA has just granted “breakthrough designation” to olaparib, a drug made by AstraZeneca. This followed a publication in the NEJM with nearly as many authors as patients, illustrating the power of team science and international collaboration.

Cancer cells develop numerous mutations that provide them with the ability to divide, metastasize, escape immune surveillance and so forth. One of the drivers of this mutation cascade is genetic instability, in part due to the accumulation of mutations that keep the cells from correcting DNA alterations. These mutations in DNA-repair enzymes can leave the cancer susceptible to additional inhibitors of DNA repair, one of which is PARP, an enzyme found in the nucleus that detects DNA strand breaks and initiates repair. When olaparib interferes with this enzyme, cells can become so genetically unstable they die.

In the TOPARP-A trial, 50 patients who had castrate resistant prostate cancer and had progressed on second generation anti-androgen treatment and docetaxel were given olaparib. 16 of 49 evaluable patients responded, however the exciting finding was that because these patients participated in the clinical trial and allowed the investigators to biopsy their tumors, it was possible to relate response to the presence of defects in the DNA repair genes. For this subgroup, 14 of 16 responded, indicating that using the repair defects as a biomarker you could predict high response rates, while at the same time, patients without such genetic defects had a much lower response rate (2/33). There is an excellent video that illustrates the results accompanying the publication that you can find by clicking here.

Although this is terrific news for prostate cancer patients, it brings a number of challenges. Testing for genetic mutations is a growing (and somewhat expensive) process. When compared to giving patients a drug that predictably won’t work, however, it can be very cost effective. Second, when you biopsy a tumor, the results can vary depending on where you biopsy as I discussed in this previous blog. “Liquid biopsies” of circulating DNA or tumor cells may provide some help in meeting this challenge.  Third, responses to targeted therapies such as olaparib tend to be rather short-lived, as the cancer cells continue to mutate to find ways around the new agent. The hope would be that combining a targeted treatment like olaparib with an immune approach might bring more prolonged responses. Finally, we must find a way to deal with the extraordinary costs of the new oncology drugs. The actual cost of olaparib is $13,440/month according to this article in the ASCO post. I have previously opined on this issue and invite you to join the discussion by clicking here.


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

Gentlemen, Start your Moustaches !

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Movember is both a month and a cause, the latter being one you should commit to supporting. Adam Gerone described his journey starting this remarkable movement in a TED talk that you should watch, just for it’s inspirational value if nothing else. This year, Movember has morphed ahead and is challenging all of us to not only support the research into men’s health (and especially prostate and testicular cancers), but to get off the couch and MOVE, with the tagline “30 MOVEs in 30 days“. As my faithful readers will know, exercise is an incredible way to fight both cancer and the side effects of androgen deprivation.

So here’s the deal: I think you should sign up with Movember to raise money for our cause AND you should commit to exercising more this month. If you don’t have a team to join or don’t want to grow your own moustache to remind your friends of how important our health is, you can support my scraggly moustache by clicking on THIS LINK, but in any case, enjoy this fabulous month and get off the couch! That’s it for today – I’m off to the gym.

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