Tag Archives: medicine

CAR-T and related immunotherapies


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One of your co-subscribers to this blog contacted me and asked if I would write a blog about CAR-T cells, and I have decided to include the closely related bi-specific antibody therapies. I am very intimidated by even attempting this, because the complexities of this field are daunting, so please do NOT show this post to your PhD immunologist cousin.

As most readers probably know, the immune system consists broadly of the “humoral” and “cellular” arms. When you get corona virus, (or any other virus) both arms are activated. Broadly speaking, your B-cells (lymphocytes that live in the lymph nodes and also circulate in your blood stream) make antibodies that attach to targets (“antigens” – in the case of corona virus, the spike protein you are tired of looking at on TV is the target antigen we hope a vaccine can be made from) and can inhibit the virus or can clear the antigen from your circulation. Antibodies consist of proteins (chains) that combine with each other and this is where things start getting VERY complex, but a single B-cell can make only one type of antibody (called a monoclonal antibody). Whether you know it or not, if you have an interest in prostate cancer, monoclonal antibody technology is “why you are here” – PSA detection was made possible by isolating a monoclonal antibody that would bind to Prostate Specific Antigen. But with modern recombinant DNA techniques, the chains that make up these antibodies can be combined in highly variable ways never found in nature. The history and complexity of the antibody story is illustrated here from this article. Screen Shot 2020-06-13 at 10.31.25 AM

The Y-shaped figure above is “an antibody” and the colored chains are the proteins in the antibody that can be extremely variable and give the antibody its ability to bind to any target. Note that the two arms of the antibody could be designed so that one arm would bind to one target and the other arm could bind to a different target. Voila! You could design one arm to bind to PSMA and another to a killer T-cell that would link a killer cell to your cancer cell.

Screen Shot 2020-06-13 at 10.42.33 AM

 This is the general idea behind an innovative cancer approach you may hear about called BiTE. In this figure, the working part of the tips of two “Y” antibodies have been linked and when injected into a patient, in theory the “killer” T-cell is forced to bind to the tumor cell via its “TAA” or tumor antigen. If you are a dedicated reader of this blog, you already are thinking about a great target antigen I previously introduced you to, PSMA

Now on to my VERY oversimplified description of CAR-T cells. The terminology refers to Chimeric Antigen Receptor – T cells. The science of these is related to the above description of antibodies in the following way: On the surface of the T-cells in your lymphocyte library is a completely different group of proteins that allow the T-cells to bind to and recognize antigens, much like the antibody system we discussed above. These proteins combine in chains on the surface of the cells to form “T-cell receptors”. Unlike the antibody system, their interactions with antigens are further modified by requiring recognition of “self”. Non “self” is why people who receive a kidney or heart transplant must receive drugs to suppress the immune system that will reject the transplant. Unfortunately cancer cells are mostly recognized as “self” so we don’t reject them. BUT… again using recombinant DNA technology, the T-cell receptors (TCR) can be re-designed so they DO recognize a tumor target, even though it is “self”. You can start with lazy, somewhat unresponsive T-cells that might be in the blood or even infiltrating a tumor, take them out, modify the receptor (dramatically as shown in the following figure), and force them to recognize a cancer, then re-infuse them into the patient like any blood transfusion.

Screen Shot 2020-06-13 at 11.02.34 AM

In the figure (taken from this article), the “antibody like” part of the receptor that controls “self” is CD3 and the “antibody like” part of the TCR receptor that binds to a tumor antigen or virus infected cell are the green proteins marked alpha and beta. The recombinant magic that is WAY beyond this blog is everything on the right. If you have the time and interest in really delving into CAR-T therapy for cancer, you really do have to read this article. But, for those who wonder “so why aren’t we doing this?”, the Cliff’s Notes answer is that (1) it is VERY expensive – each patient has to have his/her T-cells taken out and modified, expanded, then re-infused; (2) it has only worked well for blood cancers like leukemias so far; and (3) even though PSMA or some similar tumor target might be thought to be “tumor specific”, it turns out these targets are often expressed in low levels in places like your brain or lung. When the CAR-T cells begin attacking your normal tissues, you are in a world of hurt. If you have followed the COVID-19 story, you may have heard about the “cytokine storm” that is killing people by destroying their lungs. As you might imagine, combining these approaches with the other “hot” area of immunotherapy, the PD-1 inhibitors I have previously written about could make CAR-T treatment more effective but the toxicities even worse.

I hope this has been helpful and that your immunologist cousin or highly informed oncologist will forgive the effort to simplify a very promising but challenging field. I’m also grateful to the myriad of incredible researchers who have put this all together for us “cancer fighters” and their dedication is equally as worthy of honor as other warriors on front lines.

 

 

 

 

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

COVID-19 and “the news”


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This won’t be a long blog, but since I anticipate lots of news this week regarding an article that was published a few days ago, I thought I would provide a “heads up” to my prostate cancer “groupies”. What makes the news and becomes “viral” is interesting and I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the sequence up close personally before. My wife is a pediatric infectious disease expert with specific interest in Kawasaki Disease. As you most likely have seen in the news over the past few days, SARS CoV2 now seems to trigger a KD type of illness in children. This became apparent a little over a week ago with calls flying back and forth from around the world among her friends, notably because Michael Levin, from London had seen some cases and sounded the alarm among the international colleagues. So, from “insider info” to public alarm seems to take about a week.

As you know from faithfully reading this blog, I predicted that men on androgen deprivation therapy might be protected from SARS CoV2 about 6 weeks ago and that physicians/scientists with access to large databases would be able to show this. And, true to the prediction, this past week an article appeared showing just that. I have summarized the data for you on this slide:

Screen Shot 2020-05-10 at 8.33.47 AM

It will be interesting to see this get picked up and “sensationalized” by the media over the coming days. And it is already underway. I am aware of a conference call with the CDC and another being hosted by the Prostate Cancer Foundation this coming week. So consider yourselves forewarned! CNN, FOX, ABC, etc. etc. will be all over it…

Now, as I also predicted, I would bet that there will be prospective studies looking at ADT as a form of therapy for COVID19 starting soon (if not already underway). My favorite design would be with the approved agent, remdesivir in a randomized prosepective trial. Male patients sick enough to be admitted to a hospital would all receive remdesivir, and 1/2 would receive ADT in the form of an anti-androgen (e.g. enzalutamide, apalutamide or darolutamide) or a single injection of a month of a GnRH analog like degarelix (Firmagon), or the androgen synthesis blocker abiraterone/prednisone (Zytiga). I would hope that this kind of approach could help men (and maybe even women) fight the virus by blocking TMPRSS2 as I previously showed you in the graphic on the original blog. Now YOU are the insiders!

PS, I think that another approach could be starting everyone in a nursing home “under attack” could be starting all the occupants on finasteride. Blocks DHT production from T and is very well tolerated in the  pcpt trial. Lower DHT -> lower TMPRSS2 -> lower viral replication.

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

PSMA PET-CT scans for Prostate Cancer


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PSMA stands for Prostate Specific Membrane Antigen, which is a protein (enzyme) that is expressed on the surface of prostate cancer cells (and on a few other cell types). As with many cell surface proteins, you can find ligands that will bind to the protein, and then label these with radioactive isotopes that allow imaging. PET stands for Positron Emission Tomography, and of course, CT stands for Computerized Tomography. When you put these technologies together, you obtain a powerful way to look for prostate cancer that has spread outside the prostate gland. The physics of this (how a positron interacts with an electron, releasing gamma photons at 180 degrees) is very cool, but probably of interest only to the most nerdy. (I made a cloud chamber for my 7th grade science project and my hiking buddy is a nuclear medicine doc who wrote a definitive text on the math/science of his craft…so go figure).

Prior to developing PET agents for prostate cancer, we had standard CT scans and bone scans and we used these to determine whether someone with, for example, a very high PSA or high Gleason score had cancer deposits that had escaped (metastasized) from the prostate. If so, it was felt that putting them through surgery or radiation treatments in an attempt to cure was fruitless and exposed the patient to the unnecessary toxicity risks (impotence, incontinence, rectal damage, etc.) Especially if they had symptoms (e.g. bone pain), hormone treatment reducing testosterone was the best approach. If you had a rising PSA several years after local treatment, the question was always, “Where is the cancer?” but the sensitivity of routine bone and CT scans was quite limited not showing anything until the PSA reached 10 or so at which time ~1/2 of scans would be positive. Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 7.26.14 AMThis figure illustrates the difference in sensitivity. A normal sized lymph node on CT scan (left) is revealed to  contain prostate cancer with the PET isotope technique (right). At present, the only approved PET scan in the U.S. is fluciclovine, the “Axumin” scan, which the FDA approved for detecting cancer in patients with rising PSA, but not in newly diagnosed patients. In several studies PSMA-PET CT scans are even more sensitive (about 3x) than Axumin. At the risk of calling up an overused phrase, “this changes everything”.

First, it is clear that many high risk patients we would previously have treated with surgery or radiation to the prostate hoping to cure them might now be found to have prostate cancer deposits outside of the treatment target (prostate or prostate + pelvic lymph nodes). A superb study in this month’s Lancet found that PSMA PET-CT scans provided higher sensitivity (85% vs 38%) and specificity (98% vs 91%) than routine bone and CT scans in high risk patients (PSA >20, Gleason 4+3 or worse). Does this mean we shouldn’t treat the prostate in high risk patients with positive scans? In the study, conventional imaging changed the management in 15% of men, while PSMA PET-CT imaging changed the plans in 28% (p=0.008). Should all high risk patients have a PSMA PET-CT before deciding on treatment? Should the FDA approve this scan quickly? (It is currently available only in research centers and not covered by insurance…read my blog on how to search for such studies or click here).

Second, what about treating a small number of prostate metastases (oligometastatic prostate cancer) in a patient who was treated years ago and now has a rising PSA? Ongoing investigations suggest this might delay the need for hormone therapy in such patients or potentially even cure some of them. But the PSMA PET-CT isn’t perfect. How high do you let the PSA go up before ordering such a scan? – the farther it rises, the more likely the scan will show something, but that gives the cancer more time to spread. A negative scan is no guarantee there aren’t many more foci of a few prostate cancer cells that will eventually show up elsewhere in the body. Is this some version of Whack-a-mole? And how do we define “cure” anyway?? (My personal definition is that you die from something else, regardless of your PSA or scan results).

Finally, since even at research centers the PSMA PET-CT scan may cost you $3,000 or so, is it worth it? It is “free” in the European health care systems, but we all know nothing is free – even if Medicare pays for something it costs society and ultimately must be accounted for in terms of value. Medicare covered PSMA PET-CT’s vs fixing pot holes and bridges? How about finding a treatment for SARS Co-V2 instead? No easy answers, but if you are like me, homebound as a “high risk” senior citizen, plenty to think about. Wash your hands, wear your mask, and enjoy your grandkids on Zoom!

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

(Love) Advice in the time of (Cholera) Coronavirus


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I wanted the title to look like this, but the software wouldn’t let me: Love Advice in the time of Cholera Coronavirus. In any case, if you are a patient or in the patient age range of prostate cancer you are automatically at some increased risk. There isn’t much evidence that cancer patients in general who aren’t on chemotherapy or an immunosuppressive agent have much increased risk. In fact, patients on ADT may actually do a little better based on reactivation of thymic function. Here is a quote from this complex article by James Gulley and colleagues:

Analyses of these data suggest that AR expressed by thymic epithelium play an important role in thymocyte development, and could explain why androgens induce apoptosis of thymocytes in vivo but not in vitro (31). In subsequent studies, androgen withdrawal led to increased thymopoiesis and reversal of thymic atrophy in post-pubertal male mice (32) and even in aged mice (33, 34). Furthermore, thymopoiesis decreased with the administration of testosterone (35, 36). Castration also results in increased T- cell export in aged mice and increased naive splenic T cells compared to aged controls (34).

Although persistent thymic function is evident in older individuals, it is decreased, as demonstrated by lower TREC [T-cell receptor rearrangement excision circles] levels (37). However, studies show that ADT can induce thymic renewal in older individuals (38). In one study, elderly prostate cancer patients given GnRH-A experienced a notable increase in TRECs in 6 out of 10 cases, indicating renewed thymopoiesis (34). These studies suggest that the effects of androgen ablation are not limited to the young, as evidenced by restoration of thymic function and export of naïve T cells after surgical (orchiectomy) or medical (GnRH-A) castration.

 

The enhanced thymopoiesis associated with ADT has important clinical implications for the treatment of immunocompromised patients and for immunotherapy for prostate cancer (see Figure 3 for a summary of ADT’s effects on the T-cell compartment). Thymic renewal in these patients may increase the diversity of the T-cell repertoire, increasing the pool of antigens recognized by the immune system. In the setting of vaccine therapy, an increased naïve T-cell compartment may enhance the response to immunotherapy.

 A few patients have asked me about whether to postpone surgery. In general, for patients with “average” (Gleason 3+4) tumors, this would probably be OK. It is a harder decision for those with Gleason 4+3, or any component of Gleason 5. It will have to be an individual decision (as are all decisions of this sort) with your doctor. The same would apply to radiation therapy treatment which can have some immunosuppressive effects, but certainly has never been studied in this situation.

In general, I would also recommend that you put aside your political biases and listen to the scientific experts. I was disturbed by a poll presented this morning on Face the Nation that indicated a significant difference in the perceptions of risk between Republicans and Democrats. This virus does not know or care about your party or politics. Practice the social isolation being recommended by Fauci and the other experts: “We should be over-reacting to this…” It would be just fine to look back and say we did that.

If you want to delve further into the science of this (which also dispels a lot of misinformation about where the virus comes from and how it arose), you should certainly look at this presentation: http://www.croiconference.org/

And in case you haven’t been thoroughly inundated with advice or just came out from under a rock, here is the succinct list of expert recommendations:

  • Social Distancing to flatten the curve of the pandemic (reduce infectivity rate from >2 to <1):
    • Wash/sanitize hands frequently
    • If sick, do not go to work
    • Work from home if at all possible
    • Maintain your personal space when around others
    • Eliminate travel (don’t be fooled by cheap flights or hotels)
    • Reduce exposure to groups of people
    • COVID-19 can persist on hard surfaces for several days so wipe down frequent contact surfaces repeatedly
    • Recognize that social distancing will have some mental health implications so be especially compassionate

Stay home. Stay well. Here is a list of things to do:  Fun Free Time Activities_

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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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Immuno-Fighting Cancer Like Wildfires


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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-11-11 at 8.13.35 AM

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

 

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[How to] Choose Your Own Adventure


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Back when Al Gore and I invented the internet (just kidding…but it does seem like a long time ago – before twitter, instagram, and all the rest), I had the privilege of helping my professional society create its first website, ASCO Online. As part of that effort, I wrote an introductory article to assist my colleagues in understanding what I felt lay in the future. In addition to trying to explain how browsers and the internet worked (as an amateur early adopter), I stated, “Oncologists will increasingly act as information guides rather than information resources for patients and their families with cancer.”

Herein, I will attempt to make that easier for you if you have a personal interest in prostate cancer. There are now more than 103 million “hits” in a google search for “prostate cancer”. Therefore, first understand your condition. If you are thinking about screening, put that in your search term, or read this article I selected for you.

Next, be familiar with the myriad of terms that have evolved to describe different situations (“states”, “stages”, “conditions” etc.) to describe the disease. “Localized” means you have prostate cancer that is felt to be (or even proven to be after surgery) confined to the prostate. If localized, is it high risk, intermediate risk, or low risk? Your physician should be able to help you understand this based on the Gleason score, pathology findings, and PSA, but there are now multiple molecular tests that can be done to help further characterize what has been found. There is an excellent article to help you understand these here. If you haven’t had surgery or radiation, and are just deciding what to do, some of these tests can be done on your biopsy. I once wrote a blog about the challenging decision of choosing a method of primary treatment that is still relevant here.

However to be really up to date, you may wish to look at the research going on for any of the more advanced prostate cancer conditions. For this, you should become familiar with and use the NIH website, Clinicaltrials.gov. To help you with this, I have done some preliminary searches for different conditions, but recognize that the terms you enter change what you see, so regard this as just a start. Pick your condition, and click on it and you will find some trials that are ongoing (I preselected “recruiting”) for some common situations. If you don’t see your situation, play with the search terms yourself.

High risk after surgery based on pathology
Rising PSA (biochemical failure) after surgery or radiation
Known metastatic disease (spread to bones or nodes on scans) never previously treated
Rising PSA or new metastases on scans while on hormone therapy

Now, taking the last example which gave links to 160 studies, you can narrow the search results by using the pull down menu on the search screen, starting with country. Note that limiting to the U.S. drops the available trials from 160 to 93. Adding the state, Colorado, drops it to 14 studies, etc. Maybe you have a relative in a certain city or state you could visit if a trial fits your situation. If you would like to look only at immunotherapy trials, try entering the term, “immunotherapy”.

Next, let’s go further into one trial. Let’s say we are interested in the NIH immunotherapy trial being conducted at the NCI. If you scroll down, you can see what will be involved:

Screen Shot 2019-10-05 at 12.48.14 PM

Next, since the devil is in the details, you need to know if you are eligible for this trial. Continue to scroll down to the Eligibility Criteria section. Here you find what clinical conditions you MUST have (Inclusion Criteria) or MUST NOT have (Exclusion Criteria).

At this point, you should understand how it would be almost impossible for your physician to stay up on all of the trials. YOU are now the “information guide” and if you are interested in whether a certain trial (or even an approach you have found that might be something you could do outside of a trial) could be useful in your case, you should make an appointment to speak with your doctor about the trial/approach. Recognize that this will probably take more time than your “usual visit” and notify the clinic you will want extra time to discuss this. Print out the relative parts of the trial so you can show it to her/him, and ideally have your meeting in an exam room with an internet-connected computer so you can search through details together. If there are questions, each trial has the phone number for a contact person (typically a research nurse), and since your physician may be able to answer questions you would have trouble finding in your record, this phone call is best made together from the exam room.

In our fast-moving, internet-enabled era of medicine, this is how I think medicine should be practiced. The shared burden of “keeping up” means the patient has to do his (no women have prostate cancer) or her (if you are a supportive spouse or similar) own research, help the doctor, and work on approaches as a team. Being respectful of the time involved is critical, but it CAN work. And it is much more rewarding than keeping up with tweet storms!! And if this is “not for you”, find a grandchild and choose some different adventures here. (disclaimer: I have never done this, but looks like it could be fun)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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What we see and what YOU get.


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Will Rogers is said to have stated, “When the Oakies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the IQ of both states.” This story has given rise to the concept of the “Will Rogers phenomenon” in medicine that is very well explained in this essay. Basically, it provides a cautionary message when evaluating new therapies in cancer medicine, because if a new study has taken advantage of newer diagnostic techniques to eliminate some of the patients with higher risk (say those with metastases), then it could easily be that an improved result is not from the new therapy, but from the ability to throw out the higher risk patients from a study cohort.

We are certainly at risk of this now in prostate cancer. In the last 5-10 years, a number of more sensitive scans have been introduced that can reveal metastatic deposits previously missed by standard technetium-99m bone scans or CT scans. Most of these rely on the technology known as PET (positron emission tomography) scanning. The first clinical PET scans mostly utilized glucose to which a positron emitter, Fluorine-18, was attached. For bone metastases, it is easy to see how much more sensitive F-18 scans are as shown in this image: (Same patient – A. “Regular” Tc-99m bone scan  B. NaF-18 PET scan)

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Suppose you have a new treatment that is for patients “with 10 or fewer” bone metastases. If you are comparing the new treatment with one that was used in the past, and you now use the PET scan (on the right), this patient would not be eligible, whereas in the past (old scanning technique) he would have been. He clearly has a higher tumor burden than 10 metastases. Hence, he is now eliminated from the new study, and therefore the new study will automatically look better in terms of outcome than previous treatments. This is called “stage migration” or the “Will Rogers phenomenon”.

For “soft tissue” metastases (lymph nodes, liver, lung, etc.) the regular Fluorodeoxyglucose FDG-PET scans were approved decades ago for lung cancer, colon cancer, lymphomas and breast cancer but they never worked well for prostate cancer. A simplistic explanation may have to do with the different metabolism of prostate cancer which tends to utilize lipid rather than glucose for energy. (see our study here). Therefore researchers looked for other metabolites that would light up prostate cancer. Acetate and choline could be labelled with Carbon-11 and worked well. However, C-11 has a half life of only 20 minutes, so making the label in a cyclotron had to be done essentially in the room next door to the scanner and injected immediately into the patient. Another metabolite taken up by prostate cancer, an artificial amino acid (fluciclovine), could be labeled with F-18, worked well and has now been approved, called the Axumin scan.  Potentially even better will be the PSMA scan, now in research mode.

The net result of these new scans is to allow physicians to answer the frequent question patients ask, “Where is the PSA coming from?” The problem then becomes the title of this essay – What we see and what You get. There are numerous scenarios. For example, a patient who comes in with a very aggressive Gleason 9 cancer and a PSA of 12.3. Should we go immediately to a routine bone and CT scan, or just order an Axumin scan? And if we find 2 positive spots, one in a rib and the other in a lymph node, does that mean the patient can’t be cured?? Five years ago, we would have never known about the metastases and we would have operated or used radiation therapy in a curative attempt. Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 9.56.43 PMWhat about the patient with a rising PSA 5 years after he had surgery. We do a PSMA scan and find a solitary node near the left iliac artery. Should we irradiate the node? What about operating and removing it – remember, it may not look any different from all the other nodes to the surgeon. Which one should he/she take out? And what is accomplished by these efforts? Should the PSA go down (yes if that’s the only metastasis) and what to do if it doesn’t go down. Are we playing “whack a node”? How many times do we go after spots that keep showing up, versus starting some sort of hormone therapy?

There is an excellent article addressing some of these questions written by my good friend Chris Sweeney and colleagues that you can read here. A summary quote from their article states, “Given the current limited understanding of how reliable these scans are in predicting the need for appropriate management change, data-driven guidelines and standardized consensus approaches are more critical than ever.” A review of some of the early attempts to treat a small number of metastases (called oligometastatic disease) has just appeared here. One example of a paper reporting interesting results is summarized as follows: “Of the retrospective reports, the largest includes 119 treatment‐naive patients who had ≤3 sites of oligorecurrence and received SBRT to all involved sites, with 92 of 119 (77%) undergoing pretreatment choline PET. The 3‐year distant PFS [progression free survival] rate of 31% and the 3‐year OS rate of 95% are favorable and suggest a subset of patients likely benefitted from aggressive local therapy; however, conclusions from these data are limited in the absence of a comparative control arm.”

Maybe we simply have to refer back to another quote from Will Rogers, “America is a nation that conceives many odd inventions for getting somewhere but it can think of nothing to do once it gets there.” Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

 

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

Black holes and genetic laws


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I just finished reading Stephen Hawking’s last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, which I found more accessible than A Brief History of Time, written more than 30 years ago. Hawking’s abilities to explain the very (for me) abstract concepts of how no information can flow out of black holes and that the amount in there is somehow directly related to the cross sectional area of the hole was satisfying. As a very math challenged individual, I’m also a fan of Heisenberg and the perplexing issue that in the quantum/wave world of particle physics, you just can’t be certain about position and momentum. Yet, there are certain laws, like the speed of light, that are never violated, at least in the universe we live in.

So what does this have to do with genetics and prostate (or other) cancers? Here is a law: A always pairs with T, and C always pairs with G. In our biologic universe, without this law, no life as we know it could exist (prions may be an exception, but that gets too far into the definition of “life”). Yet, just as with the uncertainty of Heisenberg, the base pairing in DNA/RNA is not completely inviolable. Mistakes are made…and this can result in cancer. Cancer is a genetic disease and for anyone who hasn’t read it, I still recommend you avail yourself of the incredibly well written book, The Emperor of All Maladies. In the short time since that book was written, the explosion in our understanding of how genetic errors and cancer are related has been difficult to keep up with. The Cancer Genome Atlas (clever name, eh?) is but one example, and its use by scientists skilled in math (ugh) continues to help classify cancers based on how their mutations drive them rather than just how they look under the microscope or which organ they started in. Here is the math and the results one such analysis has on predicting survival for stomach cancer:

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As you can see, the prognosis and potentially the treatment for one subtype of “stomach cancer” might be very different for one patient than for another. Bringing this technology to prostate cancer, we already know the mutational landscape is vast. For example, this article looked at 1,013 different prostate cancers and found 97 significantly mutated genes, including 70 not previously recognized, and many present in <3% of cases. There is hidden good news in this story, in that the same mutational uncertainties that can give rise to cancer (breaking the law of AT-CG) also allows our immune systems to react to the novel mutated proteins that cancers now display. For an interview from this week’s NEJM on gene editing, click here.

Keeping up with this world of laws, broken laws, and “black holes” will be a remarkable challenge for patients and oncologists alike. My final recommendation for reading about this is a terrific article you can find here by George Sledge, one of the outstanding leaders in our field. He notes that even the most skilled oncologist, paired with the smartest of patients, will be unable to keep up. But remember this, you can’t go faster than the speed of light. That’s the law!

 

 

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