Tag Archives: prostate cancer

Nex Gen Diagnostics and Treatment

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When I was a fellow in Dr. David Livingston’s lab 40+ years ago, DNA sequencing had just become “widely” available, developed by Maxam and Gilbert. There was a brilliant MIT student, 16 years old as I recall, who visited the lab that summer and brought his TI calculator to the lab, assigning a number (1,2,3,4) to each of the bases and would go into David’s office with a string of numbers to look at. The evolution of that technology to what goes on today when you send in a saliva sample to 23 and Me is shown in the following video:

This video explains next generation DNA sequencing

With what seems (to an old guy like me) shocking speed, the human genome was unraveled and with it, all (most?) of the genes that control cellular processes including cancer. As I have recommended before in this blog, for a fabulous review of the story, I recommend you read “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Due to the power of DNA sequencing it is now possible to obtain DNA that originates in tumors and do sequencing of cancer causing genes directly from the blood stream or from the urine or other body fluids. This is a so-called “liquid biopsy“.

The entry of this technology into caring for cancer patients has also been incredibly rapid. At the present time, for prostate cancer, the NCCN patient guidelines are a great place to start learning about pca in general if you are new to the topic, but the physician NCCN guidelines are much more specific regarding what you need to know about your genetics. Here are the recommendations for “germline” testing, i.e. what you have inherited that may have pre-disposed you to develop prostate cancer and what might affect other members of your family including children or siblings:

The guidelines are also very informative about this testing being done with the help of professional genetic counsellors:

Genetic testing in the absence of family history or clinical features (eg, high- or very-high-risk prostate cancer) may be of low yield.
• The prevalence of inherited (germline) DNA repair gene mutations in men with metastatic prostate cancer, unselected for family history (n = 692), was found to be 11.8% (BRCA2 5.3%, ATM 1.6%, CHEK2 1.9%, BRCA1 0.9%, RAD51D 0.4%, and PALB2 0.4%). The prevalence was 6% in the localized high-risk population in the TCGA cohort (Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network. The molecular taxonomy of primary prostate cancer. Cell 2015;163:1011-1025; Pritchard CC,Mateo J, Walsh MF, et al. Inherited DNA-repair gene mutations in men with metastatic prostate cancer. N Engl J Med 2016;375:443- 453).

• Genetic counseling resources and support is critical and pre-test counseling is preferred when feasible, especially if family history is positive.

• Post-test genetic counseling is recommended if a germline mutation (pathogenic variant) is identified. Cascade testing for relatives is critical to inform the risk for familial cancers in male and female relatives.


However, as noted above, we can also sequence the tumor itself or look for mutations in tumor DNA that is circulating. The most important thing that may show up in these analyses is a mutation that can be specifically targeted with one of the newer drugs. Examples include the finding of a DNA repair gene mutation such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 in which case the use of a category of drugs called PARP inhibitors or platinum based chemotherapy might be an important consideration for patients who have failed hormone therapy. Thus, we now utilize DNA sequencing both in patients who have family histories for certain cancers, patients with metastatic disease, high risk disease, and again when there is progression of the cancer after hormone treatment stops working. Beyond these impacts of DNA sequencing are the many gene-based tests that have evolved that can help determine risk for finding prostate cancer on a biopsy, or predicting whether someone is at high or low risk for metastatic disease after a positive biopsy and Gleason score is known.

I tried to help understand the complexities of integrating all of these new tests and therapies in this blog. Although it may be difficult to keep up with this rapidly evolving landscape for both patients and physicians, there is no doubt that we have entered the “next gen” era of prostate cancer management. Finding an expert who focuses on pca and discussing some of the issues raised in this blog is key to taking advantage of what is being learned. Hopefully this blog will help you become a better informed member of your team in terms of the underlying technology. For a more erudite discussion of cancer precision medicine, you might read this newly posted discussion.


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Why can’t we cure this???

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A frustration for patients and physicians alike is the incurability of metastatic prostate cancer in spite of the great response that many/most patients have to initial hormonal treatment. As most readers of this blog know, almost all prostate cancer cells depend on stimulation from testosterone to grow and to get outside the prostate, moving to lymph nodes or bones (the most common place for metastases in pca). Testosterone is normally made by the testes and adrenal gland, circulates in the blood stream, and enters the cancer cells where it binds to the AR (androgen receptor). The AR then translocates to the nucleus where it binds to specific locations “upstream” from various genes (including PSA, and interestingly TMPRSS2 which has implications for COVID-19) leading to the gene being “activated”. Many of the activated genes lead to cell division and invasion that characterize/lead to metastases we detect with bone, CT, or PET scans.

Normally, the way we detect that cancer cells are “turned off” or dying is by the PSA falling. PSA in general is far more sensitive than scans, but it really tells us about the “big picture”, not what is going on with individual collections of metastatic cancer cells. Measuring PSA every 3 months is a very common way to monitor the response to drugs that stop testosterone synthesis (abiraterone – Zytiga) or block testosterone from binding to the AR (bicalutamide-Casodex, enzalutamide-Xtandi, apalutamide-Erleda, darolutamide-Nubeqa)

Although much more expensive, monitoring response by repeating scans can begin to answer the question posed for the title of this blog. Why doesn’t hormone therapy lead to cures? The reason lies in a single word, heterogeneity. As I reviewed previously, when we look at different sites of cancer metastases, the tumor deposits in one area may have a very different genetic mutation profile than those in a different area. I was very struck by how well this is illustrated in a recent article using quantitative PET scans. In patients treated with enzalutamide, the different sensitivity is graphic as shown in this figure from the article:

Compare PET1 taken at the start of treatment with enzalutamide to PET3 when disease was progressing indicated by a rising PSA. Green spots indicate partial or complete response to the antiandrogen while red ones are new or progressive locations. This is a graphic example of the result of tumors having genetic changes that make them more or less sensitive to the drug. Finding a combination of chemotherapy or hormone therapy that can attack all of the genetically different deposits is impossible at this time. However, the immune system may be able to keep up with all the changes in some patients, and this provides hope for the expanding trials of immunotherapy in prostate cancer you can find here. Glass half full or half empty? You choose!


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Prostate Theranostics

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Sometimes a great new word evokes curiosity, so I have used it to title this post and see if a few of you thought it would be worth looking at rather than sending to your “junk” email. You can’t find it in the dictionary, interestingly enough, but it’s related in derivation to Theranos, the bizarre company started by Elizabeth Holmes and if you haven’t read “Bad Blood” or seen the video you can find that story here:

For us prostate cancer followers, however, theranostics represent a “new” field in which the same/similar drugs can potentially be used for both diagnosis and therapy. There is a nice review of an ASCO educational presentation on the topic here. The main idea is that a radioisotope can be specifically directed to a target for either diagnosis or therapy. One of the oldest examples of this is radioiodine which is taken up by the thyroid gland. If you have thyroid cancer, the metastases will also take up the radioactive iodine and with nuclear medicine detectors you can see them, or if you inject even more, it will be “hot” enough to kill them.

223Ra is an isotope that seeks bone, just like calcium, and where there is more bone turnover/remodeling, more of it accumulates. As a drug, it was given the name Xofigo, and was approved for treating prostate cancer in men with bone dominant disease in 2013. It emits alpha particles, which are known as “high Linear Energy Transfer” radiation because they go only a very short distance before interacting with cancer cells and killing them. This is important since you would not want the radiation to kill the normal bone marrow cells that live in the same neighborhood. In the study leading to approval of 223Ra, men with symptomatic bone metastases and no visceral (e.g. liver or lung) metastases who received the isotope as a monthly injection for 6 months lived 14.9 months as compared to 11.3 months for placebo (P<0.001) and had fewer skeletal events and less bone pain. I always loved alpha emitters because I had the fun of making a cloud chamber for a science fair when I was in 6th grade. You might want to help a grandchild do that!

177Lutetium (177Lu) is an isotope that allows both diagnosis and therapy because it emits gamma radiation for detection, and high energy beta radiation that can kill cancer cells. When bound to PSMA (see these posts)

177Lu becomes a theranostic that shows considerable promise for treating prostate cancer. There are a number of completed trials of 177Lu-PSMA that have been summarized in this table:

For more details on 177Lu-PSMA treatment, this is an excellent recent review from the European Society of Radiology:


There are a number of ongoing trials of 177Lu-PSMA that you can find here.

Keep wearing your masks to protect your fellow prostate cancer groupies, be patriotic, and if you want to pay homage to one of the great scientists whose research led to these advances, look no farther than Radioactive, the recent Amazon Prime movie about Marie Curie. As one of the commentators on the trailer posted, “In a world full of Kardashian’s… be Madam Curie.”


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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!


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

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!


Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy

(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_


Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy

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.


Filed under Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment

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!




Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Movember

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.



Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Targeted treatment

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…



Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy