ASH 2018 AML Roundtable

Latest Research in AML


AML experts Dr. Sangmin Lee, Assistant Professor Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine Weill Cornell Medicine, and Dr. Tapan M. Kadia, Associate Professor Department of Leukemia The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, join this roundtable to discuss all the new drugs to treat AML.


Transcript:

Andrew:

Hello. I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power. Welcome to our program, from San Diego and the American Society of Hematology meeting, where the people from around the world discussing the latest in blood related conditions. And there is a lot of discussion given new drug approvals and lots of research in acute myeloid leukemia. And it gives new hope to patients and their families dealing with this acute condition. So, joining me is Esther Schorr. And Esther, you’ve been talking to people. And we have a wonderful panel we’re going to meet, in a second.

 

Esther:

I have. And, especially with the more acute conditions that these wonderful researchers and clinicians are working with, I think that we need to discuss how family members, care partners, caregivers, what active role they need to play in sort of the rapid fire beginning of getting treatment.

 

Andrew:

How you want the best yourself for a loved one. Let’s meet our panel. So, I’m going to have you introduce yourself, so we get your titles right and your institution, please. 

Go right ahead.

 

Dr. Lee:

So, I’m Sangmin Lee from Weill Cornell Medicine. And I’m part of the leukemia program. And I’m an assistant professor there. And I focus on myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloid leukemia.

 

Andrew:

Okay. And next to you is a colleague of yours.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

My name is Ellen Ritchie. I’m an associate professor of clinical medicine and the assistant director of the leukemia program at Weill Cornell Medical College. I treat all myeloid malignancies. And I also treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

 

Andrew:

Okay. And both, two New Yorkers. And now, let’s go to Texas.

 

Dr. Kadia:

I’m a Texan but a former New Yorker. My name is Tapan Kadia. I’m currently associate professor in the Department of Leukemia at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston Texas. My practice is based on research and clinical work in acute myeloid leukemia, MDS. I also look at bone marrow failure syndromes. And I’m glad to be here, so thank you.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

Thank you for having us.

 

Andrew:

So, Dr. Ritchie, I’m going to start with you for a second. So, are we right? It seems like someone’s head can spin, with all of the new drug approvals, and then, also trying to make sense of what’s right for what patient. So, how much have things changed in AML?

 

Dr. Ritchie:

Well, AML used to be a really simple disease because we had two drugs, and that’s how we treated patients. Now, it’s a more complicated disease, partially, because we’re learning a lot more about this disease molecularly. And there are new targeted agents, which have been recently approved, in the last year, for the treatment of AML. Many of them, just recently, in the past few days. Gilteritinib, which is a second FLT3 inhibitor was in there last week. A lot of these drugs are drugs that fall into two categories. Some which target mutations that may be relatively infrequent like IDH1, IDH2, FLT3.

And these are for those specific populations who have those particular mutations.

There are also drugs that are more blanket that cover patients who have really any abnormality, which are added to standard therapy like Venetoclax. Venetoclax was initially approved for the treatment of CLL and has recently had a new label to add to low dose ARA-C or to hypomethylating agents, for the treatment of AML. And that’s an exciting new development where the response rate with hypomethylating agents goes from about 40% to 70%. So, it’s a real advance, for those particular patients.

Also, in the really older and frail population, I always have problems saying it, Glasdegib, which is really a drug, which is directed at the leukemic stem cell together with low dose ARA-C. These have been approved really for patients who are a little bit more frail and older. And it’s a regimen that is more easily tolerated by that age group.

 

Andrew:

So, just a follow up. So, how much of a difference – the FDA approves effective therapies effective therapies, which, hopefully, make people’s life better and longer. So, is that the hope for our viewers watching that whether it’s themselves or an adult parent or grandparents that they can have a better, longer life?

 

Dr. Ritchie:

Well, there are a lot of aspects to leukemic care. It’s not only having a longer life but having a higher quality of life. So, it’s the quality of life that you have, as well as the length of life that you have. So, just to put it in reference, standard induction chemotherapy, where we use two drugs, Daunorubicin and Cytarabine, which my father used to use when he practiced medicine, and those days are – it’s an old combination. But it really requires the patient be in the hospital for 30 days. And these patients are sick. And they require transfusions.

And most of them require antibiotics. And they don’t feel very well, and it’s a difficult time. So, for older patients, are you really willing to spend a month of your life or maybe two months of your life where you really feel terrible in the hospital? That’s not necessarily something that you want to do. So, part of the breakthrough is not just that we may improve overall survival, which we don’t really know, until it’s out in the community, and we see how it works. But whether we can improve the overall quality of life of older patients who have AML. So, and rather than being in hospital, you can have your therapy, in an outpatient setting.

And rather than it being all intravenous, you might have an oral medical that you could take at home, like you do your hypertension pill, really, for your AML. So, these are really important advances because it enhances the quality of life of patients who have acute leukemia.

 

Esther:

Well, and it also sounds like you referenced that a lot of the patients are older with this. And I just can’t imagine what it must be like, if you have two much older people, and one person is, as you mentioned when we were talking earlier, one is out of commission.

The other is not only going to need support from family, but if their partner doesn’t have to be in the hospital to be able to at least be home, there’s some level of support there.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

Right. Well, you guys can chime in. But a typical situation, really, is two older people who are living together where they’re doing just fine as a symbiotic couple. But they both have their illnesses or both have their problems. But once you take one person out of the picture, and that person is very, very sick, it can be very difficult for the other elderly person to actually handle all of the stress of taking care of themselves and all of the stress of taking care of another person. So, one of the key factors, I think, in overall survival and quality of life in patients who are older who have AML is having a caretaker who is reliable for them.

And that may be your child. It may be your sister. It may be a good friend. But there has to be someone in your life, beyond just your spouse, who can be a caretaker for you for a successful therapeutic result.

 

Dr. Lee:

And one thing that is great about the medicines that are coming out are that they’re very well tolerated, especially the IDH drugs and Venetoclax. They’re very well tolerated. You can do it outpatient. So, for a lot of older patients, as you know, if you stay in the hospital more, you’re exposed to infections. Your performance status may decline. So, patients actually do better with an outpatient therapy. I think that’s beneficial

 

Esther:

And also older people. I have two aging parents, thank goodness doing well. But they’re in their 80s. And just driving to the clinic is a big event. But if you’re having to do that every day for treatment or going to visit.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

Right. And we don’t want sick people driving necessarily to our clinic because, if your hemoglobin is 7, and your platelets are low, you’re not in the best situation to be reactive to the problems of traffic and cars.

So, transportation is also a real issue, I think, when patients are older and coming in for treatment.

 

Andrew:

Dr. Kadia, so we’ve mentioned a couple of these cancer genes. IDH, FLT3, I think. So, these are oncogenes, right?

 

Dr. Kadia:

Right. So, what’s been great, and I think this has been greatly summarized by my colleagues, but we’ve had sort of a revolution in how we treat AML and many cancers, but particularly AML and the liquid tumors. With the advent of what we call next generation sequencing, we’re able to really get the mutations and the data from the leukemia cells. We find that there are recurrent mutations. Mutations are changes in the DNA that happen over and over and over again, in different people with leukemia. So, it made us realize that, if these mutations keep happening in AML, they must drive the AML.

There must be something about them that makes the AML happen. And, in fact, that’s the case. So, in a handful of those mutations, things that people have really studied, we now know that things like FLT3 or “flit 3” is a mutation that really drives proliferative AML. And so, people said, well, if that drives it, can we develop a drug target inhibitor of that mutation to shut the leukemia down? And indeed we can. We used to use a drug call Sorafenib last year, over a year ago. A drug called Midostaurin was approved with chemotherapy in the front line. And just recently, as was describe, just a week ago, Gilteritinib was approved in patients who have the FLT3 mutation, but they’ve had relapsed disease.

So, that’s just one example. The second you said IDH, right, isocitrate dehydrogenase, another mutation. We didn’t know what it meant. But people worked and worked and figured it out. And they found out there’s two mutations, an IDH1 and an IDH2 mutation. Each of those drives that particular subset of leukemia. And it turns out you can make inhibitors to each of those, and they work. An oral medication you take once a day for people with relapsed disease actually works.

And it doesn’t work like regular chemotherapy. We describe intensive chemotherapy. You put them in the hospital, their hair falls out. They have mouth sores and diarrhea and nausea and vomiting. We don’t see that, with these pills. We do see some side effects. And, certainly, the patient and the family member need to recognize those side effects. So, there are side effects. But they’re different. They’re more tolerable. They’re more manageable. And so, that’s what we’ve been able to do, get people home, take these medications, and target these specific mutations.

So, among the many mutations we’ve discovered, we found drugs for probably two to three of those targets. But we also found that some of these mutations will predict for responses to other drugs like Venetoclax.

 

Andrew:

Let’s talk about testing. How do you know?

 

Esther:

I was just going to say it really sounds like you have to be tested.

 

Dr. Lee:

Yes.

 

Esther:

To know where you fall.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

And I think that’s one of the big barriers right now that I feel the insurance industry has not really caught up to what it is that we’re doing in AML. So, every patient who is getting or has a suspicion that patient has AML, that patient, when they have a bone marrow biopsy and they see a doctor should have a next generation sequencing sent.

The problem is this costs thousands of dollars. Now, some insurance companies are not – they don’t really care or aren’t really cognizant of the quality of the different NGS panels. And they make deals to cover with one or not cover at all. So, it can be a hassle for the patient. And it can be thousands of dollars expense. So, that’s something that I think the whole industry is working on to try and enlighten insurance companies and to make them pay for this particular sequencing. MD Anderson has their own in house. And you probably have worked out a deal with insurance companies.

 

Dr. Kadia:

No, we have. So, I think more and more, insurance companies are beginning to realize that this is a part of the disease treatment. If you have pneumonia, you’re going to get a chest x-ray. If you have AML, it’s becoming standard.

It has for years. We do FLT3 mutations. We do something called NPM1 mutations. For years, we’ve been doing this in AML. Now, what they need to realize is that we need to expand that to what we call a sequencing panel, which are 80 different genes, which are commonly mutated. Why? Not just because we’re interested and we’re curious, but because these mutations play an important role in telling the patient this is your prognosis. And this is the drug that we’re going to treat it with.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

Or even, if this patient – and just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re not a candidate to be a bone marrow transplant candidate, there are some mutations that we find that really propel us to wanting to have that patient –

 

Andrew:

It’s all about getting what’s right for you or your loved one. So, let’s back up for a second, Dr. Lee, just so we understand AML. So, first of all, how old is the typical patient? What are the symptoms that present? For somebody who is watching us, maybe somebody said this could be AML.

 So, what is AML? And how does it typically show up and for who?

 

Dr. Lee:

So, AML stands for acute myeloid leukemia. So, in your bone marrow, bone marrow’s job is to make blood cells, including your white blood cell, which is your immune system, hemoglobin, which are the red cells, and platelets. And they all are manufactured in the bone marrow. So, what we’re talking about here is that, basically, the factory, the stem cells that make the blood cells, have gone wrong, basically. And there are abnormal myeloid stem cells that proliferate. And your bone marrow is full of these abnormal stem cells that are not able to make normal kinds of immune system and hemoglobin and platelets.

So, it’s an acute leukemia meaning that, sometimes, people are doing – a lot of times, people are doing well. And then, all of a sudden, their bone marrow develops a leukemia. And all of a sudden, you become symptomatic.

So, symptomatic means that, if your bone marrow is not making red cells or platelets, you might be more tired. You might see some easy bruising or see these little dots pop up on your skin.

 

Andrew:

Petechiae.

 

Dr. Lee:

Petechiae in your skin. Or you might have an infection that doesn’t go away because your immune system is affected. So, there are various ways that people are diagnosed, based on how they feel. Sometimes, people just get a routine blood work by the primary physician, and they are just discovered to have leukemia, even though they don’t have symptoms. So, it kind of varies.

 

Esther:

But there’s different paths with leukemia, obviously, that there’s AML, which is do not pass go, something needs to happen right now. And some of the more chronic forms where you have a little more time to kind of figure out what’s going on.

 

Dr. Lee:

And a lot of times, you can differentiate because, if you see a primary care physician or Emergency Room, they can actually look at the blood cells and do what’s called a manual differential.

Basically, some person looks at the blood cells under a microscope, and you are able to see abnormal leukemic looking cells that you wouldn’t see in any other condition. So, that’s how you know that you have leukemia.

 

Andrew:

So, a family is saying, okay, did we do something, did the patient do something, did something happen to them that caused this. So, you sort of fall off of this leukemia cliff into this acute I call five alarm fire situation.

 

Dr. Kadia:

No, you’re absolutely right. And I completely agree with that. Leukemia, at least AML, acute leukemia, is a very rapidly progressing disease, in most cases. And it’s, usually, a medical urgency, if not a medical emergency, like you said. Most of the time, no one has done anything to cause leukemia. And many people are doing fine, until they actually have the diagnosis, and they get very, very sick very rapidly. Patients tell me all of the time, I was just traveling. I was on a cruise. I was playing golf. I felt fine. Why do I have AML? It comes on very acutely, hence the name acute, so very quickly.

The risk factors for AML, first, is age. The older you are, the higher the risk of developing AML. The average of developing AML is around 68 years of age. We know that there are younger people who get AML as well. But we know that that AML is a little bit different than people who have older AML. The younger AML’s tend to be more rapidly proliferative. They have high white counts. The older AML is often associated with a disease called myelodysplastic syndrome, which is related. So, they have low counts, feeling kind of icky. Their counts are not great. And then, they develop this surge.

And so, age is certainly a risk factor. Prior exposure to chemotherapy or radiation for another cancer predisposes you to AML. If you are exposed to things like benzine or if you’re a heavy smoker that can sometimes predispose people to AML. But, certainly, it’s not anyone’s fault. And no one knows. And why couldn’t I have detected this earlier? Nine times out of ten, you could not have detected it earlier. It happened two weeks, three weeks prior to what just happened.

 

Esther:

And is the treatment for a younger patient different than for an older patient?

 

Dr. Kadia:

It can be. It can be. And often, what we look at, and age is not the only thing. We don’t look at age as a number but more of a fit and unfit person. So, if an older patient, they tend to have more comorbidities, history of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease just because they’ve lived longer. They have 60, 70-year-old organs. And they may not be as fit as a 25, 30, 40-year-old. And so, then, you base your treatment paradigm on whether you think they can tolerate some intensive chemotherapy versus not.

But a point that I wanted to expand on, when you present in the Emergency Room with acute leukemia, it’s a rare folks, 19,000 cases a year, compared to something like breast cancer or lung cancer, which is very, very common. And so, typically, someone will come to the Emergency Room. They’ll be seen by the Emergency Room. They’ll consult the local hematologist oncologist. They’ll come to see that patient. Or they may know a local hematologist oncologist.

While community physicians can treat the disease, sometimes, in the acute setting, and for reasons we described earlier, it’s nice to go to an academic center or larger center who can do some of the initial work up, the mutation screening, it will be easier.

Maybe not have problems with getting the insurance. Get the diagnosis right. Get the pre-treatment data right, so that you can really formulate a treatment plan. And once that treatment plan is in place, then, you can decide can I get some of this treatment here, can I go back to my local doctor?

 

Andrew:

Well, I think that’s really critical. So, you are both in really big cities. Our largest, New York, Houston. And there are choices of what hospital you go to or what clinic you go to. Some may be in a more suburban or rural area. But it seems like, if this is suspected, if you can get with this changing landscape, at least a consultation or even your community doctor calling one of these folks to have a plan, an architect plan, even if the community doctor is sort of the general contractor, if you will. But there’s a lot –

 

Dr. Ritchie:

But I want to say something about that a little bit.

 

Andrew:

Sure, please.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

These are all very new drugs. And leukemia patients need a lot of care.

And we don’t really know what we need to know about a drug, until a drug is approved, and it’s being used widely. So, it is something that community doctors should confer with people who have used the drugs. And probably the most impressive abstract that I have seen at ASH this week involves really our ability to develop these sorts of drugs where there was an abstract looking at patients who had FLT3 mutations and how many leukemia patients we have every year in the United States who have FLT3 mutations. Looking at the number of trials that we have open for FLT3 inhibitors and now combinations of FLT3 inhibitors with some of these other drugs.

And looking as to whether or not we have enough patients. It’s very sad, in this country, that only five percent of adults are participating in clinical trials.

So, the ability of our leukemic world to develop drugs that are actually going to improve the quality of life and improve the treatment of these diseases has depended on that very generous five percent of the adult population who is enrolled on clinical trials. This contrasts greatly with children. The Children’s Oncology Group manages to enroll about 50% of children in this country on Children’s Oncology Group studies. And the overall survival of children, in every single malignancy where the COG trials are open are superior to adults’ overall survival.

So, now that we have these drugs, we want to hone in and find ways to make these drugs even more effective. The IDH2 inhibitors are about 40% effective CRs. But it would be nice, if we could figure out a way to combine it with something else and make it 80%.

 

Andrew:

CR, complete remission.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

To make it 80% effective. And the way we are going to do that is by enrolling people on clinical trials.

 

Esther:

But it sounds like the onus is really on patient and their care partners to say hey, if I’m in a rural setting, and I’m not near one of these major centers that I want to have a consultation. I want you, doctor, in my city, and consider a trial. It’s a big responsibility.

 

Dr. Kadia:

Absolutely. I think you have to be an advocate for yourself. And I’ve seen patients, when they’re first diagnosed, their head is spinning. It’s a scary, scary thing. You Google AML, and it’s not a fun thing to read.

 

Esther:

No.

 

Dr. Kadia:

So, their heads are spinning. So, this is a really good time for the family, the caregiver, the friend to come and support that patient and say, look, I got you. I’ll go with you to the doctor’s appointment, and I will advocate on your behalf. And you will advocate on your behalf to say, look, you’re my doctor. You’ve been my dad’s doctor.

 You’ve been my cousin’s doctor, and I love you. But I think that I really want to get a specialty opinion from a disease specialist who treats this really, really rare disease that happens to be really aggressive. And where there’s been so much development, just in the last two to three years where things that we used to do before, we don’t do anymore. It’s just not the case. And people get afraid of clinical trials. Well, I don’t want to be a guinea pig. But it’s not necessarily a guinea pig. I think, you can really ask the doctor that you’re seeing what does this clinical trial entail. Am I going to get a placebo?

Am I going to get standard treatment? And what you’ll see, as far as I know, is many of the trials, most of the trials in AML and leukemia these days, are full treatment trials where they’re studying potential combinations and things like that. And really, get to know your risks, before you sign the consent.

 

Andrew:

You referred to people Googling it and whatever. So, Dr. Lee, given what you know and what you’ve been hearing at this meeting like at the convention center next door, would you say that this is changing so much that, probably, what you’d see in a general write up from last year or the year before on AML, is out of date?

 

Dr. Ritchie:

Then, maybe don’t Google.

 

Dr. Lee:

Absolutely. I think Google is very dangerous because a lot of times, your information is based on how updated it is. So, if you have so many drugs that are approved, and whatever you look up is not updated, according to that, then, it’s very outdated. So, I think Google can be very dangerous.

 

Esther:

So, what should a patient do? So, God forbid, something happened with AML, in our family, Andrew or somebody else. What’s the first thing that family should do, in terms of trying to get enough information?

 

Dr. Lee:

I think, for AML, what’s very important to know is that there are two general behaviors of AML. One is something that needs to be treated right away, as in the same day. Typically, those kinds of patients have a very high white blood cell count, and they’re more symptomatic. So, in those cases, I would advocate that you do not have a lot of time to shop around.

So, if you are really far away, you need to do what you can to treat the disease first. Assuming you’re pretty stable, if your blood counts are not proliferative and changing, you do have time to ask for an opinion. And I would, like anything else in medicine, I would go to a person who treats a lot of the condition. AML is not a common disease. And treating an AML patient requires not only giving drugs but a lot of supportive care. So, you need to go to someone who sees more AML patients. So, that’s what the patient needs to advocate.

So, the first question the patient should probably ask a doctor is how many patients of AML have you treated. And is there someone who you know who has expertise in treating AML? And given the acute nature of things, for us, when patients call, we often squeeze them in same day.

Unlike other kinds of cancers that move slowly, we often see patients on a very short notice because it’s an acute leukemia.

 

Andrew:

Decisions have to be made fast. So, we’ve talked a lot about the family role, whether it’s somebody your same age, and you’re an older person, or the adult child, you can play role the terror, as you referred to, that comes with the diagnosis. So, it sounds like it’s important to sort of pick yourself off the floor, identify a team or consulting healthcare team members who have expertise in the field, to make sense of this IDH and FLT3 and all of the different stuff, and, hopefully, have insurance support, so you can get the testing that’s right for you.

Now, with all of these different drugs, if you find that one is not working or no longer working, with this whole array of treatments, is there something else that probably you can switch to, Dr. Kadia?

 In other words, you’re not out of choices.

 

Dr. Kadia:

No, you’re not. And one of the great things about having these trials and having these new drugs approved is now, we have so much more in our toolbox than we used. Before, like we said earlier, we had two drugs. We had a anthracycline and cytarabine, there’s two types of drugs. And we just used those. We combined it with other things. But it was really the same kind of backbone. But now, you have IDH inhibitors. You have FLT3 inhibitors. You have this drug, Venetoclax, which has shown remarkable response rates, with a low intensity chemotherapy that’s tolerable to people who are 60, 70, 80 years of age.

And so, even if you did not respond, or if you responded and relapsed after your first AML treatment, there’s not a significant loss of hope. You say no, there are other things available. There are many drugs in development. There are many clinical trials. And very often, some of the best care you receive is on a clinical trial because you’ll have a research team and research nurse, in addition to your doctor, who is constantly monitoring, following every single side effect that you have, trying to address every question you have because it is regulated very closely.

So, there are many options. And, certainly, many of the academic centers and even certain other organizations now are offering these trials.

 

Dr. Lee:

One thing that is extremely important for patients to realize, actually, for clinical studies, is that each individual patient is not a statistic. So, let’s say a drug only has 20 or 30% response rate. You don’t actually know, a lot of times, if you’re going to respond or not until you take the medicine. But if you happen to fall under that 20 or 30% that works, it doesn’t matter what that success rate is. But you have to make the steps to try. And that’s what’s the most important thing about treating AML patients.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

I want to mention a couple of other drugs, which have been approved that we haven’t talked about. One is Vyxeos, which is a drug, which is the anthracycline or cytarabine, and Daunorubicin that’s enclosed in a fat globule.

 

[00:36:05]

 

And it’s given differently. It can be given twice a week, for example, or three times a week, depending on what the decision is of the clinician. And it can be given on an outpatient basis. You usually do have to come into the hospital, at some point in time. But unlike normal 3+7 chemotherapy, you may even keep your hair with this. But that’s an option for someone who fails some of the upfront drugs, potentially, or has myelodysplastic syndrome, which is a type of pre-leukemia that develops into acute leukemia.

And it looks like, in these pre-leukemia patients who develop acute leukemia who have myelodysplastic syndrome, it may be a very effective drug. We also have, back in the tool box, Gemtuzumab, Ozogamicin, which is also known as Mylotarg, which was a drug originally approved for older patients who fail standard chemotherapy.

 And it’s an antibody, which binds to an antigen on the leukemia cell called CD33. And it’s connected to an antibiotic called Calicheamicin, which can be enclosed into the leukemia cell and kill the cell. This drug was taken off the market for a period of time because of certain liver abnormalities and has been brought back onto the market. The dosing schedule has changed somewhat. But it’s another option. And it’s an immunotherapy option, which we can use for patients who may fail original therapy.

We also are combining it, in younger patients, with standard chemotherapy who may have a better sort of favorable karyotype or their chromosomes have a more favorable response to chemotherapy that we combine that antibody with regular chemotherapy for a better outcome.

 So, the tool box is really expanded. And I think we’ve talked now about all of the agents.

 

Andrew:

We’ve left one area out though, and that is transplant. So, first of all, I’m living with myelofibrosis and know that there’s a percentage of people who progress to secondary AML. And before, you didn’t have much for us, maybe transplant. And also, other primary AML people who would go to transplant. So, where does transplant fit in, whether it’s primary AML or secondary AML or other drugs for secondary AML? Why don’t you take the transplant first? Where does it fit in?

 

Dr. Ritchie:

Well, we look at a lot of things, when we look at an AML patient. We’re looking at their age and their fitness, what their comorbid illnesses are. We look at their disease. We look and see what are the chromosomal abnormalities that we see, in this particular leukemia.

 And we group them according to favorable risk, people that might respond well to chemotherapy alone, people with intermediate risk where they may or may not have a good response to conventional chemotherapies, and poor risk. We are now also doing the molecular testing. So, we do that 50 gene or 80 gene test where we see what mutations there are, in the person’s leukemia. And we put all of that information together to see what we think the prognosis of the patient is.

So, if the patient has already had heart failure and has had bypass surgery, and they have diabetes that’s not on good control, and they have an unfavorable AML that we would transplant, we may not refer that patient to a transplant consultation because we don’t think that they’re strong enough or fit enough to get through a transplant.

 But my 79-year-old tennis player who has been playing tennis every single day, and the only comorbid illness is hypothyroidism, and they have an unfavorable mutational panel or an unfavorable chromosomal karyotype, then, that patient I would refer to a transplant consultation for cure.

 

Andrew:

Okay. And then, secondary AML where my understanding is some of these drugs may help someone like me, if I progressed, from myelofibrosis. I don’t know whether –

 

Dr. Ritchie:

Secondary AML, if you were a fit person, I think most of us would send you for a transplant consultation.

 

Dr. Kadia:

I think the bottom line is we look at two things. We look at the risk of the leukemia and the risk for the patient. So, we look at the disease and the patient. If the disease is high risk or even intermediate to high risk, we consider them candidates for transplant. Then, the next step is fine, we think you should get a transplant.

Would you do well with a transplant? Is the morbidity and mortality rate going to be high, in your case, or is it going to be low? If it’s going to be high or even intermediate to high, then, we can’t do a transplant. We shouldn’t do a transplant, unless we mitigate some of those factors. If the risk is low, then, that patient should try to get a transplant. Then, there’s the whole thing of do we have a donor available. A donor is, typically, a sibling who is a match. We also have national marrow donor program, which you can get an unrelated match. Occasionally, we do something called a haploidentical where you can get a son or daughter or mother or father to be a match.

Those are probably less likely in older patients because they’re a little bit tougher. And we do those more in younger patients. But there are many options for transplant. I don’t think it’s off the table.

 

Dr. Lee:

One thing to be very clear about transplant is that it’s usually an option, once you get rid of the disease. So, it’s not something you go into, when you are first diagnosed.

 

Andrew:

You’re going to knock it back with the drugs we’ve been talking about.

 

Dr. Lee:

Correct. So, transplant is a modality to really keep the disease from recurring.

So, one thing that is very important that is coming out these days, with ASH and other meetings, is importance of how we measure disease, after treatment, before we go to transplant. And increasingly, there’s a way we’re getting more sophisticated into measuring how much disease you have left over, after induction therapy. And it’s called measurable residual disease, MRD. And you can go deeper and deeper and look, and there’s actually data showing that less disease you have, or if you don’t have any disease, you better after transplant. So, one important thing the patients should remember is that it’s very important to try to eradicate your disease, before you go proceed to transplant.

 

Andrew:

Let me see if I’ve got this right then. So, if you can, you’re going to do this testing to see what version of AML do you have, by these panels of genomic testing.

 

 

Dr. Ritchie:

And the karyotype, the chromosomes that are inside of your leukemia cells.

 

Andrew:

Chromosomes, okay. And then, you’re going to see are there drugs that line up with that that can knock it down to minimal measurable disease? Are you a candidate for transplant that can take it further and maybe give you a longer life? Is there a donor? But for people who are not candidates for transplant, Dr. Ritchie, are we just saying there’s not as much hope for them?

 

Dr. Ritchie:

I like to tell my patients that there is always hope. The issue will be, for these patients, that they will, eventually, need to enroll in clinical trials of new drugs and new combinations, to try and keep their leukemia in remission or to treat a relapse of their leukemia. Although we have all of these new combinations, one of the things that we haven’t really established is, when you fail one of these, and you have a relapse of your disease, what is the next best step?

We don’t really know it for any of these drugs. So, clinical trials become very, very important and really the key to a longer life for those people who are not transplant candidates.

 

Andrew:

That’s for ASH –

 

Dr. Lee:

I definitely agree with Dr. Ritchie. I have one example. I have a patient in her mid-80s. She was diagnosed more than three years ago. And she had a very aggressive leukemia that did not respond to the Decitabine. And she was actually very sick and had a lot of heart issues. She happened to have an IDH2 mutation, and we had a trial. So, we gave her the drug. And more than three years later, she’s still taking the drug, has a completely normal blood count, and going about her business. And she remains in remission and ongoing.

So, back then, we didn’t know how good the drug would be, of course. And we had a clinical study, and she enrolled. And you don’t know, when you have clinical study, how well it’s going to work. So, it’s very important to keep an open mind and be proactive about it.

 

Esther:

If one relapses with AML, in that scenario, do they need to be then retested to the –

 

Dr. Ritchie:

Yes.

 

Esther:

Because I know, in some of the other leukemias, that’s the case.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

The NCCN guidelines really recommend that there is a mutational panel done at diagnosis. But if we’re going to send someone to transplant, there’s a lot of sort of disagreement about how you measure minimal residual disease. But one of the things I think most people are beginning to have a consensus about is repeating the molecular panel to see whether or not we still see those molecular abnormalities, in addition to other things.

 

Andrew:

It’s the driver gene.

 

Dr. Kadia:

Exactly.

So, I think, what we realize is that this is a disease that’s constantly evolving. So, we hit it with chemotherapy. It evolves to progress. We hit it again with something else, it evolves. So, the evolution happens either through chromosome abnormalities or to mutations. So, it’s important to recheck some of these mutations to see now, hey, they didn’t have the FLT3 before, but now they do. Now, we can target it with something else.

 

Esther:

It’s kind of wily, isn’t it?

 

Dr. Kadia:

Exactly. It just continues to –

 

Andrew:

So, I just want to ask you, just poll you really quickly. So, for our patients and family members who are watching, you’re their barometer on how things are changing in AML and what it could mean for themselves or loved one. Are you especially hopeful now?

 

Dr. Kadia:

I am hopeful. I am optimistic. I’m excited. I think these are great times at AML. We talk about the new drugs that have been up front for patients who are in upfront setting, people who have relapse disease. There’s hope for them. We talked about what do you do if you’re not a candidate for transplant. We’re looking now at things called maintenance therapy where we give induction, we give consolidation.

We can give you something that’s low intensity for a very long period of time to maintain the remission and not let you relapse because, sometimes, when you relapse, you say now, we’re kind of behind the eight ball. But what if we just don’t let you relapse? We give you a maintenance therapy. So, these are trials that we’re doing. I think they’re exciting times. I’m very hopeful and excited.

 

Andrew:

You’re positive. You two?

 

Dr. Ritchie:

I feel that I’m living in a period of a revolution. And I think it’s not just a revolution in acute leukemia. It’s going to be a revolution in all of medicine that, as we learn about these mutations in the blood, we learn things about not only treating acute leukemia but maybe even about other medical conditions. I’m going to give you an example of that. We have learned that patients who have certain of these mutations, if they don’t have acute leukemia and have myelodysplastic syndrome, some of these mutations make for a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

 So, that, as a physician, I now am really worried about the cardiovascular risk factors of my patients who fall into that category, in addition to their disease. They’re also finding that some of the mutations that we are finding in blood diseases, they’re finding in the brain. So, some of the drugs that we are using for hematologic cancers may be useful for pretty terrible cancer in the brain called glioblastoma. So, as we start to make these kinds of connections, this is revolutionary. This is unbelievable.

 

Esther:

Well, it’s forcing a more holistic approach, too.

 

Dr. Ritchie:

We’re filling in little pieces of the one million piece jigsaw puzzle that really confers the health of a human.

 

Andrew:

And you grew up with it, right? Your father is a physician?

 

Dr. Ritchie:

My father and my grandfather and my brother are all physicians. My grandfather was the first pediatrician in the state of Iowa.

 

Esther:

Wow. That’s quite a legacy.

 

Andrew:

How about you, Dr. Lee?

 

Dr. Lee:

I’m very excited, and I’m very optimistic. We have spent a lot of time talking about mutations. But one area that is emerging and, hopefully, in the next [Crosstalk] few years, that will be powerful in AML is, of course, immunotherapy. The immunotherapy has transformed solid tumors. Every solid tumor, there is some sort of immunotherapy. And we’re not there yet, but there’s a lot of clinical studies looking at how to harness your immune system into treating leukemia. So, we haven’t even hit that yet. But a few years from now, I’m sure there will be new immunity therapies that will be very relevant in leukemia. So, it’s very exciting.

 

Andrew:

So, for the family members –

 

Esther:

We just have to be hopeful and stay on top of it.

 

Andrew:

But I think connect with the specialist. You have your community doctor, if you haven’t gone to the big, academic medical center, with their specialists in this field. Make that connection because you hear the change.

 You hear the need for testing to know what is your specific situation that you’re dealing with. Or if you are coming out of a remission, do you need to be tested again? Yes, to know what’s going on then. What are your options? But thank you so much to our panel. It’s been a great discussion. And thank you for helping, in the research you do, because you’re helping lead the way. And if that helps with brain cancer and some of these other areas, put the pieces of the puzzle together, Dr. Ritchie, as you said, for you’ll be very pleased. And your father and your grandfather and all of your medical people in your family will be so pleased.

Esther, I’m really delighted that we can tell this story. Serious illness, acute illness, but there’s stuff to talk about with your healthcare team. Thank you for watching. We wish you and your family the best. And remember, from Esther Schorr and Andrew Schorr –

 

Esther:

Knowledge can be the best medicine of all.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or PEN. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.


We thank Daiichi Sankyo and Jazz Pharmaceuticals  for their support.