Tag Archives: health

Immuno-Fighting Cancer Like Wildfires


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I live in what is now known as the urban wildland interface west of Denver, the kind of area prone to the devastating fires that have been scorching California. Our firewise community efforts have taught us a lot about how a single windblown ember from miles away can destroy your house, and many of us have done a lot of mitigation. But, if the “big one” comes, our best hope is to grab the family albums and head down the hill.

Cancer can be very similar. If someone walks in with widespread disease, unless it is one of the highly treatable ones like testis cancer, flying over the patient with flame retardant (chemotherapy) may delay things for a while, but often the home is lost. The earliest realization of how to do better may have come from breast cancer. William Halstead realized¬†in 1894 that putting out the fire effectively might include getting the surrounding “embers” (lymph nodes) at the time of removing the primary breast tumor (campfire in this analogy). A century later, it had become clear that in many instances the embers had spread too far for more radical surgical approaches, but that in some cases the embers could be extinguished (adjuvant chemotherapy) before the fire got out of control.

But what if the fire could be self-extinguishing? What if there was a boy scout at the campfire with a fire extinguisher? Better yet, what if you had smoke jumpers who could parachute in and help the boy by putting out the small fires elsewhere started by the embers? Immunotherapy offers just such hope. In the 1980’s we learned that giving high dose IL-2 to some patients with particularly sensitive tumors (kidney, melanoma) could produce cures in some cases. I liken this to sending in a group of non-specialist firemen/women in huge numbers to fight the forest fire doing the best they can.

Sending these individuals to more specialized training resulted in Provenge (sipuleucel-T), the first “vaccine” approved for treating any cancer, prostate being the target, and I was fortunate to participate in some of the first trials of this approach. But what was needed was both more effective equipment (in this case the PD-1 inhibitors that can “extinguish” the cancer’s ability to turn off the immune response) and more highly trained firefighters (potentially think of CAR-T cells) who have advanced skills, graduate degrees from a university, and can be deployed to go in search of the embers.

Now to torture this analogy just a bit further, let’s imagine that rather than sending the firefighters to universities for advanced generalized training, we could send them to CIA camps where they would receive the most specialized training possible right at the site where the fire started. In cancer, this may be the idea of using cryotherapy or irreversible electroporation to kill the local tumor, then injecting some cocktail of immune stimulatory molecules that enhance the body’s ability to create very effective T-cells that can go out as smoke jumpers looking for the embers (metastases), without the need for the university training outside the body (Sip-T or CAR-T).

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Already there are clinical trials underway with this technique that show promise. Gary Onik has demonstrated some remarkable responses in metastatic prostate cancer patients. Diwakar Davar just presented similarly exciting data in high risk melanoma patients who received intratumoral CMP-001 and systemic nivolumab before resection of the primary tumors. 62% of the patients had no tumor left in their surgical specimens! So ¬†the cancer/firefighters are out there and although there will always be wildfires we simply can’t extinguish, the prospects for controlling them before or soon after they have spread have never looked better.

 

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Prostate Cancer and “the art of aging”


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As all of us septuagenarians (and probably octogenarians) know, and as Gilda Radner entitled her book, “It’s always something.” In it, she goes on to say, ‚ÄúI wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.¬†Delicious Ambiguity.‚ÄĚ

For most prostate cancer patients, the challenges presented by that diagnosis occur at a time of life when one is forced to admit that the sprained ankle doesn’t heal as fast, gray hairs are appearing, and/or your hairline is receding (or the bald patch growing), and there may indeed be as much life stretching out behind you in the rear view mirror as lies ahead. While one can choose to fight the cancer with every possible modern intervention, it is also true that there will be other challenges awaiting just around the corner, and it is impossible to handicap the inevitable threats to your health, of which prostate cancer is but one.

Recognizing this, and realizing that we spent two decades over-treating many patients, gave rise to the current option of “active surveillance” for men with low grade disease (Gleason 3+3, some 3+4). One of the most mature studies of this approach was published in the NEJM just last month. Peter Albertson, writing in F1000, nicely summarized the key findings from the article:

“First, the most powerful predictor of long-term outcome remains the Gleason score. Following surgery, men with Gleason 4+3 disease have an almost six times greater risk of dying from prostate cancer and men with Gleason 8 or 9 disease have an almost eleven times risk of dying from prostate cancer compared with men with lower grade Gleason 3+3 or 3+4 disease. Second, radical prostatectomy can provide improved outcomes, lowering the absolute risk of dying from prostate cancer by 11.7% and extending life by almost 3 years. Third, younger men less than 65 years of age at diagnosis are much more likely to benefit from surgery when compared to older men. Fourth, men with low grade cancer (Gleason 3+3 or 3+4) appear to have comparable outcomes and rarely died following surgery. The article was silent concerning the relative clinical outcomes of surgery and watchful waiting in this group of men. An important caveat to remember is that most men participating in this trial were diagnosed based upon clinical findings, not from testing for prostate-specific antigen. As suggested by data from the PROTECT trial, screen detected prostate cancer appears to introduce a lead time that could be as great as 10 years. This confounds estimates of the efficacy of surgical treatment especially among older men.”

I just submitted my own take on the active surveillance vs prostatectomy trial as follows:

“There is little to add to Dr. Albertsen’s excellent review although there are a few issues I would add as important perspectives in these kinds of long term followups. First, as a disease of aging, prostate cancer has many competitors in terms of cause of death. 261/347 (71.9%) men in the radical prostatectomy group and 292/348 (83.8%) men in the watchful waiting group have died from any cause. Of the 261 men in the prostatectomy group, 71(27.2%) died from prostate cancer while in the watchful waiting group, there were 110 deaths from prostate cancer (37.7%). From this perspective, prostate cancer is important, but far from the “most” important cause of death with ~2/3 of men dying from other causes regardless of what we do. Second, one needs to consider the quality of life (QOL), and this paper clearly indicates that many men develop metastases, requiring ADT with its side effects and this is reduced by prostatectomy, while the side effects of prostatectomy itself also take a very high toll on sexual function and a lesser, but significant risk of incontinence. If our goal is to “first do no harm”, the challenges of caring for men as they age remain with us, even as our technology for discovering earlier disease (in prostate cancer) and treating late disease (from any cause) advances.”

But there is something we can do to combat both prostate cancer and aging! Vigorous exercise. In a study performed at two hospitals in Canada and the UK, total and vigorous physical activity resulted in fewer men having worsening prostate cancer while on active surveillance. Further, retrospective studies demonstrate similar advantages even for men with metastatic disease. And if you don’t have prostate cancer, feel free to look at the 100’s of articles showing improved quality and length of life you can achieve with exercise (compared to minimal/no benefit from supplements). I’m also a fan of Fred Bartlit’s book, “Choosing the Strong Path” and his crusade to age gracefully by pumping iron. So the message is clear, even though “it’s always something” as we age or fight our cancers, we have it in our power to do something. Enjoy your time on the treadmill folks!!

 

 

 

 

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It’s MO time – please help!


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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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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.

 

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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!

 

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Of Prostates and Teslas


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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:

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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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