Prostate cancer expert Dr. Channing Paller shares an overview of what occurs in each clinical trial phase and discusses the role of surgery and radiation in patient care.
Channing Paller, MD is the Director of Prostate Cancer Clinical Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Learn more about this Dr. Paller.
Dr. Paller, let’s talk about what goes into deciding on a treatment path. First, what testing helps you understand the patient’s individual disease?
When I meet a patient, we talked about a few variables. First is, how do they feel? Are they in pain? Are they losing weight? Are they fatigued all the time? Are they able to do things that they enjoy, or not? So, that’s the most important, in terms of, how do they feel, and what are their symptoms?
The next thing we looked at is, what are their labs, right? We look at PSA, but we also look at, is the prostate cancer affecting their organs? Is it affecting their red blood cells, their platelets, their white blood cells? And very importantly, it tells us, by looking at their alkaline phosphatase, if it’s in their bones or not. And we also can look at their labs to see, is it affecting their liver or not. Another thing we monitor is their creatinine or kidney function. Is there a blockage of their important organs down there because the prostate cancer has grown? So, the labs tell me a lot about their body function, and making sure their body is still functioning well.
After we do how they feel, and what their labs are, we also look at imaging. And then, the previous years, we’ve always looked at a standard nuclear medicine bone scan, and also, a CAT scan. And nowadays, we’re really moving towards PSMA, or prostate specific membrane antigen, to help us really identify, at a much more sensitive level, where prostate cancer cells are expressed.
And after we do those main three key things, we start to look at diagnostic tests. We look at different ways of assessing what are their genes. So, one of the first things we do is looking at germline genetic testing to see, what were the genes they were born with? And can those genes help us learn more about their cancer, and how it might progress? And also, how we might treat it better if they have certain genes like BRCA.
The other nice thing about genetic testing, or germline genetic testing, is looking at, if they do have a genetic mutation, or a pathologic variant like BRCA, we are always, always telling families that they should get cascade testing for their family, right? So, if they have a mutation, we recommend that their family members get tested to make sure that they’re not at risk for a cancer. And so, we have them meet with a genetic counselor.
So, in addition to what you’re born with, we also want to know what your cancer has developed, because cancer cells are growing quickly, and they can develop a mutation. And so, we also test the cancer, get genomic testing of the cancer, to look for mutations that we can target with our multiple drugs that we’ve approved to target cancers in certain mutations. So, you have something called MSII, we have immunotherapy for you. If you have DNA repair mutations, we have PARP inhibitors for you, or even carboplatin (Paraplatin) can be added to target patients with DNA repair mutations as well.
And so, there’s a whole variety of tests out there by a multitude of providers, that help us really better understand your cancer.
And the treatment options, by the sounds of it.
And the treatment options. Yes, there is. There’s a whole variety of it. Yeah.
So, what is personalized medicine, Dr. Paller? And how is it achieved?
Personalized medicine means many things to many different people. I find the most important thing is not forgetting the patient. The patient needs to be their own advocate, and have an advocate there with them, right? Because maybe the best treatment is chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation, etc., etc., but maybe you’re 92, and you’ve lived a good life, and you have heart disease, and you might not die of your prostate cancer. And so, overtreating people is just as dangerous as undertreating people.
And so, precision medicine is a whole variety of things, of looking at the whole person, looking at their genes, looking at biomarkers their cancers produce, and looking at what comorbidities they have, right? If you have really bad diabetes, maybe you don’t want me to add steroids to your regimen. If you have a seizure disorder, maybe you don’t want me to add insulin. I wouldn’t, because there’s a seizure risk. If you have various problems, we just need to take those into account and find the best therapy for each individual.
I think you’ve covered this, in a sense, but I’m going to ask you the question anyway. Why is it important that patients have a role in making decisions about their care?
Patients are different, just like everybody – let me start over.
It is essential that patients have a role in their care so that they are taking ownership and being part of the team, to care for themselves, not to put extra weight or work on the patient, but really, so that they know they’ve made the right choice for them.
Understanding a patient’s priorities are essential. Some patients may not want the side effects of hormone therapy, and they may say, “Hey, I have oligometastatic disease, meaning I just have one spot to my bones, and I’m 80 years old. And Dr. Paller told me that the sub analysis of this triple therapy, new trial, showed that, I’m over 75, I may not benefit as much. And you know what? I don’t want to have the side effects of hormone therapy. I don’t want to lose muscle mass. I don’t want to have hot flashes. I don’t want to have erectile dysfunction.”
“I want to enjoy my life, even if it’s slightly shorter, and it might not be slightly shorter.” And so, I find, having a partnership with a patient to really understand their priorities makes life worth living more, right? So, maybe a patient’s priority is finding time with their grandchildren. Maybe a patient’s priority is getting a PhD. Whatever their patient’s priority is, it is important that we put that to the context of their whole being and helping them really find the best therapy for them, to help them do as well as they can, as long as they can.