Tag Archives: genetics

COVID-19, ADT and Prostate Cancer


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Spoiler alert: As I start to write this, my intent is to delve into some basic science readers may find too detailed/complex and some speculation that has limited/no support and should NOT be taken as anything other than hypothesis generating. I fell in love with biology in about the 8th grade and with thinking about how to answer biology questions in medical school, so this is more self-indulgent writing rather than being written to inform.

Starting with the COVID-19 story, there have been so many excellent articles that if you haven’t read too many already, you can get a one minute overview from this video. Now for some more Screen Shot 2020-03-29 at 8.47.20 AMdetailed science. This figure from an excellent article in Science shows the real details of how the virus works and some of the drugs that might be useful in stopping or slowing it down at the cellular level. If you use your best “Where’s Waldo” approach, (and if you are an avid follower of prostate cancer biology) you may find a very familiar protein hiding in the membrane where the virus binds to the exterior of the cell, TMPRSS2. This protein is an enzyme in the family of serine proteases, proteins that can cut peptide bonds at the site of the amino acid serine. Trypsin is another example of this category of enzymes we use in the lab to release cells from petri dishes, and you use various enzymes every day in your dishwasher to digest proteins stuck to your dishes. As shown in the figure, TMPRSS2 plays a crucial role in the entry of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into the respiratory epithelial cells leading to COVID-19 disease.

I first heard of TMPRSS2 several years ago in a lecture at the PCF annual scientific meeting. Investigators at the University of Michigan found that in a large percentage of prostate cancer, the androgen response elements in DNA that control the expression of TMPRSS2 have become fused to an oncogene, ERG. Every gene in our DNA is controlled by “upstream” segments of DNA called promoters or enhancers that regulate the expression of the gene. In the case of prostate cancer the androgen receptor, AR, binds to testosterone (or DHT) and then the is translocated to the nucleus where it binds to DNA at the sites of androgen response elements, leading to transcription and expression of the “downstream” genes. A reasonable analogy is to think of testosterone flipping a light switch to “on” and the AR being the wire going to the light bulb, TMPRSS2, in our case. You are familiar with this if you know about drugs like Lupron, Zytiga, or Xtandi that block testosterone signaling in various ways. Although taking any of these drugs turns off many genes related to prostate cancer development and progression, one of these genes is clearly ERG (if you have the TMPRSS2:ERG fusion), and of course you probably turn down expression of TMPRSS2 in normal cells.

So what does this have to do with COVID-19? As you may have seen, men have approximately twice the mortality of women from infection with SARS-CoV-2. There are no doubt many possible reasons. Men smoke more. Men may not practice social distancing as much. Men have more heart disease. But what if one reason is that they express higher levels of TMPRSS2 in their respiratory epithelium? The exact mechanism of TMPRSS2 in the infection can be found in this article.  A cartoon from the article illustrates the several points in the viral infection cycle where TMPRSS2 (and other serine proteases) acts to facilitate the entry, replication and budding of the virion from a cell.

Screen Shot 2020-03-29 at 10.19.32 AM

The article discusses several drugs that are being investigated to inhibit TMPRSS2 that could hopefully be effective in fighting COVID-19. One of them, camostat (seen in the first figure in this post), is already scheduled to begin clinical trial at the end of this month.

However, there is already a very interesting global “clinical trial” underway if you have followed the above (and necessarily complex …sorry!) story about TMPRSS2. If ADT, familiar to all men with metastatic or high risk prostate cancer, turns down the expression not only of ERG and other oncogenic pathways, but also the expression of TMPRSS2, it might reduce the infection rate or morbidity/mortality from COVID-19. Looking at large global databases, it may be possible to see whether men with a diagnosis of both “prostate cancer” and “COVID-19”  can be extracted from the data, and then whether within this grouping, those men on ADT have a better outcome than those not on ADT. It would be complex, of course, since some of the men not on ADT might be on chemotherapy, or more sick in general, and thus more susceptible to dying from the infection. It might also be possible to see what the expression levels of TMPRSS2 in the pulmonary epithelium of men versus women are as a potential partial explanation of the differences in mortality. Finally, and this would be the most intriguing possibility of all, a clinical trial that combined some partially effective “drug X” from the list of drugs in the first figure with or without ADT could determine whether short term use of ADT could enhance the treatment. Proof that no one ever has a “unique” idea (and of the speed with which you can share ideas in today’s internet environment), in doing a minimal amount of literature research on this topic, I came across a preprint of a beautiful article looking at exactly the hypotheses I laid out above. It was submitted only 5 days ago! The authors have found very significant differences in the levels of expression of TMPRSS2 among adults using published databases and hypothesize that this could explain why some individuals may be more susceptible to bad outcomes. They also evaluate the potential of down regulation of the gene with ADT drugs like enzalutamide or estrogens and they conclude, “Together, these results identify existing drug compounds that can potentially be repurposed to transcriptionally inhibit TMPRSS2 expression, and suggest that the activation of estrogen pathways or inhibition of androgen pathways can be a promising modality for clinical intervention in SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

In summary, if you have prostate cancer and are on ADT, the well known side effects you put up with are unpleasant to say the least. But there is a “not-zero” possibility that your ADT is also protecting you. The best advice is still to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and be vigilant regarding your health, but maybe there is a silver lining in this story. I hope so, and there are already clinical and basic scientists exploring the hypotheses discussed above. Be well and my best wishes during these trying times!

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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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Thanksgiving for an oncologist


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First, I want to thank those readers who generously helped me reach my goal of fundraising for the annual Movember effort to increase awareness and support research into prostate cancer and men’s health. If you are so inclined and want to make a last minute contribution, you may do so here: https://mobro.co/michaelglode?mc=1 My itchy, scraggly moustache is destined to come off tomorrow!

Second, it has been an incredible journey since my internship to watch the evolution of our understanding of cancer. In 1972, when my mother called to tell me (a young medical intern) she “had a little lump in her breast” – it turned out to be not-so-little, and she fought the disease for another 4 years before succumbing – we had little we could do other than surgery and in some cases radiation. Even adjuvant chemotherapy (the CMF treatment) had not been published yet. During the next decade, remarkable strides were made in finding new drugs, most notably cisplatin, that allowed cures of previously lethal diseases – especially testis cancer.

Then, while on sabbatical in Helsinki in 1986, I found an article to present at our journal club that I thought would revolutionize medicine. The PCR reaction opened the door to rapid DNA sequencing. When I returned to my lab in Denver, my PhD colleague, Ian Maxwell had already started to use the technique with his own jury-rigged thermal cycler, but it would be 3 or 4 more years until a medical student in his/her 3rd year clinical rotation would be able to tell me what PCR stood for. Recognizing there would be a generation of physicians who “missed out” on what would be the revolution, I was able to help start a catch-up course in Aspen, Molecular Biology in Clinical Oncology, that is still ongoing. As a “fly on the wall” I was able to listen to the world leaders in molecular oncology (including this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Bill Kaelin) describe their research that unlocked the mysteries of how cancer works. Fly-fishing with some of them on the Frying Pan was a bonus to be cherished!

As the cancer story unfolded, I was able to participate in many clinical trials, bringing new treatments that emerged to my patients. Thanks to the brilliant writing of Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of “The Emperor of all Maladies“, it became possible for my patients to begin to understand the nagging question, “how did this happen to me?” And now, this week, a brilliant article summarizing all we know about the genes and mutations that cause cancer has appeared in the New England Journal. I invite you to read that (it’s free online) if you want to join me in peering over the horizon to the future of cancer medicine. It is both overwhelming and humbling.

The privilege of living through the last half of the 20th century and into the 21st is one of the most amazing journeys one could ask of a human lifetime. As I ponder it, looking out on the snow I will get to ski on next week and enjoying my grandchildren and family, I am truly thankful to have been here. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

 

 

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Here’s your prognosis…


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Bill Farwinkle (a fictional patient) and his wife Judy are seated in two chairs in the exam room as I enter, introduce myself, and take a seat in front of the evil, glowing screen that often dominates physician/patient interactions these days. I have read through the urologist’s excellent intake notes as well as those from the radiation oncologist he saw earlier in the week. It is clear that he has been told most, if not all, of the information about his options for treating a Gleason 4+3 cancer found in 6/12 cores, plus the suspicion of a solitary metastasis in his left ilium. So, I start by asking him to tell me about his goals for today’s visit. As soon as it is convenient in the visit, I move the conversation to what he enjoyed about his import business and what he is doing with his retirement, and from there, just let them ask the questions he or Judy are most concerned about. It takes an hour more or less.

These intimate encounters are the raison d’être of my 4 decades of medical practice. Trying desperately to keep up with the molecular biology of how a loss of PTEN or the presence of a mutation in one of the many DNA damage repair genes, never mind any of the multigene panels that could be ordered, hovers over each encounter as I ponder my role in helping an individual navigate a frightening diagnosis or a change in his clinical picture. Before reading any further in this post, I hereby assign you (as is my duty, being a professor after all…) this reading assignment: “Don’t Tell Me When I’m Going to Die” (You need to click on that title and read the short article before continuing).

The promise of “precision medicine” is all the rage currently. For example, in this week’s NEJM there is an article on re-adding the clinical risk parameters to the 21-gene recurrence score now in standard use for certain breast cancer patients. In the accompanying editorial, Hunter and Longo (discussing the complexities imposed by combining clinical and genomic attributes) state, “Within these groups, both physicians and patients will have to face substantial uncertainty, and ‘educated guesses’ informed by multiple sources of evidence as well as by clinical acumen will continue to be necessary even in the age of precision medicine…”

And so, when “Mr. Farwinkle” looks me in the eye at the end of our hour and says, “I suppose you know what I’m going to ask next…” I’m fully prepared to do my best, but in my heart I realize that medicine remains an art. Does he realize that his parents’ longevity, his smoking history, his cholesterol and blood pressure, and his willingness to exercise may play as much a role as the Gleason score or any genomic tests? “How long have I got, doc?” The question hangs there as I ponder how to answer.

We all share the same prognosis: Our time is fleeting, “threescore and ten, I remember well” as Shakespeare quotes in Macbeth. How to factor in the possibility that enzalutamide or abiraterone, a PARP inhibitor, or even an immuno-oncology agent that blocks the PD-1 pathway may affect this truth by a few months or even a year or two is on the one hand hopeful, and on the other, probably irrelevant. If only I could be as eloquent as Paul Kalanithi, the author of “When Breath Becomes Air“. In his original submission to the NY Times, when he was discussing coming to grips with his own cancer diagnosis, he stated, “What patients seek is not scientific knowledge doctors hide, but existential authenticity each must find on her own. Getting too deep into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.”

And so I answer the Farwinkles. “I think you are going to be fine. Regardless of your decision as to what therapy we choose, you are likely to have a good outcome initially for several years, and I will be here for you. We can get through this together and we will take great care of you. But just as I have to remind myself, every day is a gift and we should live it like there won’t be unlimited tomorrows.”

Nothing has really changed for him. Or for me. I look forward to getting to know this family better…

 

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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!

 

 

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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:

Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 4.07.50 PM

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

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

 

 

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Improving our focus


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I have had two life changing experiences in focusing. The first was when my wife discovered the Myers-Briggs personality classification system and found I am a “strong P”. This meant I couldn’t help it when I was on my way to take out the garbage, noticed a light had burned out, put the garbage down and went to get a light bulb, but found that there was a spot on the carpet that needed cleaning and finally found the carpet cleaner but an hour later wondered why there was a garbage sack in the hall. Prior to her discovery, she just thought I was an idiot, but she became [somewhat] more tolerant of the foibles when she could “classify” me. The second was when I had my congenital cataracts removed and new lenses inserted in my eyes. It was a whole new world of color. I had been living in a fish tank with scum on the glass and “wow, the world is really pretty!” was my response when I took the patches off the next morning. “Trees have LEAVES!”

Focus in understanding prostate cancer is becoming clearer as well. For several decades we have known that the Gleason scoring system is pretty darn good at predicting the cancer’s behavior, adding a lot to what we knew when there was only the digital rectal exam… “Oh, oh, that feels like a really big tumor” or “Maybe I’m feeling something but I can’t be sure”.  Then came the number of biopsies positive, the percentage of each core, differentiating 3+4 vs 4+3, and now an avalanche of new molecular markers, briefly reviewed here. Combining the old standby risk categories with the newer methodologies has been challenging.

A recent paper in the JCO provides us with one way of integrating the old risk categories with the newer molecular classifications. Using the widely adopted risk categories of the NCCN, the authors added to this, one of the more mature molecular classifiers, the 22 gene Decipher™ scoring system to reclassify (focus) a new model to predict outcomes. As I explained previously, these genetic tests are typically developed looking at the level of gene expression in biopsies or in removed prostates in a group of patients for whom an outcome is known (examples include prostate cancer free survival at 10 years or freedom from metastases at 5 years). The investigators (or companies) then go to a different institution or collection of biopsy material and see if their gene expression model developed from the first group accurately predicts the outcome in the second group. This is called “validation” of the test. Decipher has done all of this. The question is how it might change the risk classification of the “old” system.

This figure illustrates how it plays out when a large number of institutions collaborate to study the information gained and develop a new model.Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 10.16.05 AM

As an example of how this can be used in the “real life” clinic, we are often faced with a patient who has a “favorable intermediate” prostate cancer. Let’s say this is a 75 year old man with excellent health. Should we advise that he adopt a “watchful waiting” strategy, given his age and the relatively low risk? By adding the genomic test, you can see that 27% of the time, this might be a bad recommendation. Similarly, in the unfavorable intermediate group, 40% of patients are moved into a high risk category. Such a patient might be well advised to “do more” (example: more prolonged ADT with radiation, or use of brachytherapy in addition to external beam radiation if they had chosen radiation therapy as their preferred treatment modality).

These kinds of improved focus will allow investigators to do better studies prospectively as well. In breast cancer it is already a standard of care to do molecular classification of certain stages and types of tumors, allowing women to make far better decisions on whether (for example) to take chemotherapy in addition to surgery/radiation. In prostate cancer, where I have been concerned that we aren’t “racing for the cure“, rather we are “crawling for the cure”, it looks like we may be catching up. Research is the answer – sign up and contribute!

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23 & You – Genetic tests for pca


The genetics of prostate cancer are daunting, but there are now a range of tests available that could be used at almost every stage of the disease IF you can deal with the answers you are likely to receive. Generally these tests are the product of science that goes something like this: A complete molecular picture is taken of all the mutations or all the genes expressed in a series of prostate cancer patients diagnosed years ago. For these patients “all you need to do” is go back to the paraffin blocks that were saved for each patient, extract the DNA/RNA and quantify gene expression and any mutations that can be detected. A decade ago, the technology for doing this was daunting, but now it is relatively easy. Once you have the gene expression profile, you can ask a computer to look for gene expressions that correlate with a certain outcome. For example, you take 500 patients from one center for whom the outcome is known…50 patients are dead, 32 from prostate cancer…70 patients developed metastases by 5 years…these 315 patients are alive and well with no evidence of recurrence…etc. Let’s say there are 50 genes that show changes in expression or mutation. Do we need all 50 to forecast what happened to the patients in that group? No. A computer algorithm can keep testing combinations and permutations of genes and reduce the 50 to a smaller number. We can either let the computer pick the final genes, or we could start with genes we think are related to tumor progression and then do the reduction. In the end, we have a small number of genes with characteristics that accurately separate the patients into “good” and “bad” groups and everything in between. We now take our gene panel, reduced to something like a computer chip and apply the test to 500 patients at another institution blinded from what actually happened to those patients. If our algorithm works, we should be able to accurately predict what happened to those patients in the next 5 or 10 years. If it works, our testing system has been validated, and we can begin offering the test to newly diagnosed patients at some stage of illness. For example, a Gleason 3+4=7 patient might fall into a group where surgery produced a 90% chance of being cured at 10 years, or a 40% chance depending on the gene expression. BUT…and this is key…what to do about the result is still a complex decision for both patient and physician. If you are a Gleason 3+3=6 patient and with no treatment at all you have an 85% chance of “cure” at ten years, is that good enough? What if it is a 95% chance? Will that make you more comfortable choosing no treatment, or do you want to be cured at any cost (impotence, incontinence, other side effects of radiation or surgery)?

As none of these tests has been proven in a prospective study – that is, using the tests to do something like even more aggressive therapy in a group of high risk patients, we are still in the early stages of understanding how and when to use them. Fortunately, my colleague, Dave Crawford and some colleagues have put together an excellent website to help patients/doctors understand the tests. http://www.pcmarkers.com has a list of most of the available tests and you can see what results might look like before you and your physician decide to send one off. This is a rapidly evolving field however, and not every test that is being commercialized is listed, and at big centers, there are always new tests being developed.

Finally, as with all of medicine, the payment systems/insurance coverage is crazily complex. Only today, I received an email with the “news” that a cardiologist/congressman, Rep. Buchson has introduced a bill called the “Prostate Cancer Misdiagnosis Elimination Act of 2017” that uses DNA profiling to make sure the tissue being tested is yours. You could theoretically apply this test to ANY cancer biopsy of course, so why prostate cancer? Then there is the motivation…call me cynical, but I suspected that the good congressman, meddling in medicine, might have a local connection, and sure enough, the company that markets the test is from his home state, Indiana. Not to say it isn’t important to know that tissue being tested comes from the correct patient or that the test isn’t a nice application of the kind of technology that identified OJ’s blood, just that we live in interesting times where medical technology is rapidly consuming more and more of our tax/insurance/personal dollars. Personalized medicine will depend totally on this type of technology and can be incredibly expensive. Whether it saves money or consumes it may depend on how many “worthless” (for that patient…and is a treatment with only a 5% chance of working really worthless??…not if you are in the 5% group) treatments are avoided and at what cost. I don’t have the answers. Hopefully this blog at least helps you begin to understand the current molecular diagnostic landscape.

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Deep in the weeds. “Doc, is there anything new?”


How to answer this VERY common question is a pretty daunting task. Last week I was at the PCF Foundation annual scientific retreat. This is the ultimate place to hear about new science in prostate cancer, and the incredible progress being made. That said, distilling even one of the many lectures given by leaders in the field is challenging. If I were writing for the National Enquirer, I would have enough notes to write at least a year’s worth of “CANCER BREAKTHROUGH PROMISES PROSTATE CANCER CURE” articles.

So let me just wander into the weeds a bit from only two such lectures . Karen Knudson is one of the best prostate cancer researchers on the planet at this point. She works effectively with clinicians and basic scientists alike on a variety of projects that ultimately yield insights into what controls prostate cancer cell biology. Her lecture this year was on DNA repair targets. (Disclaimer: It is very much beyond my area of expertise to try and cover DNA repair at a sophisticated level, but there is an excellent article dealing with this in the New England Journal this week.) So here we go, weed hunters.

The DNA in each cell is not the long strand of double helix you are used to seeing. Rather, it is intimately wound up with proteins that give it structures looking like a thread wound around a protein ball, then these are further formed into bundles that aggregate and ultimately form the chromosome pictures you find in biology textbooks. The nuclear proteins that are part of this process, in turn, are not only structural, but also contribute to how the Androgen Receptor (AR) binds to specific locations on the DNA and leads to cell growth, turning on the gene that makes PSA and so forth. As you know, AR biology insights led to abiraterone (Zytiga™) and enzalutamide (Xtandi™)

OK, if you have followed this far, get ready for more complexity. The nuclear proteins can all be modified in their functions (helping to initiate the replication of DNA, peeling off the RNA that will go to the cytoplasm to code for proteins, changing the structure of the chromosomes, etc) by enzymes that change the proteins themselves (their shape, charge, function). There are several such modifications, but common ones consist of adding CH3 (methyl) molecules to specific spots on the proteins, or COCH3 (acetyl) molecules. These changes can have dramatic effects on which genes are expressed in which tissues and there is an easy to read overview called the histone code in Wikipedia. (please, please click on that link and read the paragraph on its complexity to get a feel for the research described below)

Honestly, Glode, get to the point….(and I sincerely hope you took a look at some of the links I put in above to make the structures and details more available)

OK, so to make it more relevant to Pca, an important modifier that has explicit functions in cancer is a protein called PARP1. This is an enzyme that modifies the nuclear proteins by a process called ADP ribosylation and adds simple molecules called ADP-ribose to various proteins (including itself) for modifying function. It turns out that PARP1 binds at sites similar to the place where the Androgen Receptor binds in the DNA and also changes other other proteins called DNAPKs that help to repair DNA. The DNAPKs are dramatically over expressed in castrate resistant prostate cancer, and if you inhibit them, you can suppress metastases from forming. Inhibitors of PARP1 and inhibitors of DNAPKs are under intense study as possible therapeutics for prostate (and other) cancers. One such example is cc-115 that is being studied by Celgene, but there are others.

 

So if you got this far, you have successfully navigated exactly 35 minutes of notes from Karen and another colleague from Celgene, Kristen Hege. And remember, the program went on for a day and a half with me furiously writing notes. It was like drinking from a fire hose, but the net result is this answer to the question, “Anything new?” OMG, “YES” and thanks to the science community for working so hard on unraveling what we need to know about how cancer operates!

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What is going to kill me? – the cloudy crystal ball


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With an intense focus on prostate cancer, it is easy to overlook the reality of other causes of death or disability in making decisions about therapy. An example of this issue is the proliferation of molecular tests that have been validated to separate patients with “intermediate risk”, or “low risk” into “even lower” or “even higher” risk disease categories using a number of different gene expression profiles on the tumor or biopsy material. For example, Genomic Health offers the Oncotype Dx test that provides a “Genomic Prostate Score” that gives a patient who (based on clinical criteria such as PSA and number of biopsy cores positive) falls into a low or intermediate risk category another lab value (GPS) that can potentially be useful in making a decision about treatment. GenomeDx has a test that can evaluate high risk men after prostatectomy to more accurately predict metastatic disease at 5 years. There is a very balanced article on the challenges of using these tests (which are a potential step forward to be sure) in the real world of the clinic here.

However, in all of the excitement and marketing of these and other tests, a couple of key facts are often overlooked (and may be much more important in decision making). Prostate cancer is generally a slow disease anyway. Competing mortality looms large as patients get older. And most importantly, there are validated ways to put the “whole patient” into the picture before ordering these tests, whether they be a PSA, biopsy, or molecular analysis. The Charlson comorbidity index can be extremely useful in predicting survival and is barely ever mentioned in the molecular analysis literature/reports. It is a simple yes/no answer to whether a patient has any of these 12 conditions: diabetes, bleeding gastrointestinal ulcer, chronic lung disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, myocardial infarction, angina or chest pain, cirrhosis or liver disease, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, hypertension, and depression. In a lovely article published last year, the use of this analysis in relationship to prostate cancer mortality gave a vivid picture of prostate cancer mortality in the larger setting of 3533 men with prostate cancer. A snapshot of their data looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 9.15.54 AM

Very often, the comorbid conditions lead to death from another cause. In my opinion (and in my practice), we too often ignore our ability to quantify the risk of dying from “something else” when we focus so intensely on the PSA or other tests in counseling patients about what to do. It is also true that patient perception of test results can vary dramatically. One patient with a “GPS score” of 10 might be reassured, while another will perceive it as “not low enough” and opt for aggressive treatment rather than observation. To some extent this exposes the fallacy of “we need to separate the issue of treatment from that of diagnosis” thinking. Until the crystal ball becomes crystal clear, management of prostate cancer will remain challenging and requires the kind of wholistic thinking that is often better done by primary care physicians or public health professionals than by prostate cancer docs, or their patients.

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