AML Treatments and Clinical Trials

When it comes to treatment, AML patients and their care partners have much to consider. There are often many options available, each with advantages and disadvantages. Some people may seek clinical trials, others may have few feasible options. Understanding treatment options, goals, and what to expect are vital to achieving the best possible outcome for you.

More resources for AML Treatments and Clinical Trials from Patient Empowerment Network.

Treatment Approaches in AML: Key Testing for Personalized Care

Treatment Approaches in AML: Key Testing for Personalized Care from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When it comes to Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), genetic testing (or biomarker testing) is essential in helping to determine the best treatment approach for YOU. In this program, AML expert, Dr. Naval Daver reviews key decision-making factors, current AML treatments and emerging research for patients with AML.

Dr. Naval Daver is an Associate Professor in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. More about Dr. Daver here.

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See More From INSIST! AML

 

How is Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Treated?

 

Effective AML Combination Treatment: Pairing Old and New Therapies

 

Confused About AML Genetic Testing and Treatment? What You Need to Know

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Transcript:

Katherine:                   

Welcome to INSIST! AML. A program focused on empowering patients to insist on better care. Today we’ll discuss the latest advances in AML, including the role of genetic testing and how this may affect treatment options. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. And joining me is Dr. Naval Daver. Welcome, Dr. Daver. Thank you so much for being here. Would you introduce yourself?

Dr. Daver:                    

Hello. Yeah. Thank you very much, Katherine. It’s a pleasure to join this discussion and meeting. I’m the Associate Professor in the Department of Leukemia at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. I focus on the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia and MDS, including the development of a number of clinical trials that are using targeted therapies and immune therapies for this disease. And with the great and dramatic progress, we’re seeing in acute myeloid leukemia; I think it is now more important than ever for patients to be aware of the options and be able to select the most appropriate therapy with their physicians.

Katherine:                   

Before we get into the discussion about AML, a reminder that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your own healthcare team. Dr. Daver, I know the field of AML research is advancing rapidly. Would you give us an overview of the current treatment types in AML?

Dr. Daver:                    

There has been dramatic progress in the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia, especially in the last three years. We’ve had eight new drugs approved for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia. The most progress I think that has happened so far is in the identification of particular molecular mutations and targeting those mutations with targeted therapies.

The mutations that are most important right now and have target options for FLT3 mutations, F-L-T-3, and the drugs that have been USDA-approved for this are an agent called Midostaurin, which is a first-generation FLT3 inhibitor and combination chemotherapy.

And then, more recently, another agent called Gilteritinib, as a single agent in relapse refractory FLT3 AML. The other mutational group that is also very important, and therapeutically needs to be checked, is IDHN1 and IDH2. And there are now two IDH inhibitors, IDH1 inhibitor, Ivosidenib, and IDH2 inhibitor, Enasidenib, both of which have been approved by the United States FDA for relapse patients with IDH1, IDH2 mutations. So, I think it’s really critical now to check for particular molecular mutations and to appropriately add the particular targeted therapy or select the particular targeted therapy in patients who have the mutation.

The other major area of advancement, and probably, if not the most important breakthrough that has happened, is the development of a new drug called Venetoclax. This is a BCL2 inhibitor. It’s new in AML, but in fact, it has been used for many years in CLL, which is chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

And this drug, in combination with Azacitidine in the frontline setting in older patients with AML who are not good candidates for intensive induction, has shown very high response rates, almost 70 percent CR-CRi, which is more than double of the 20 to 25 percent we were getting with Azacitidine alone.

And it’s now been approved by the US FDA and, in my opinion, and many of the experts really is the new standard of care and should be used in all older patients who are not good candidates for intensive chemotherapy given both the very high response rates, as well as now mature data showing significantly improved overall survival and a good tolerability.

So, there are many other breakthroughs. But I think these targeted agents, and Venetoclax, probably are the most impactful today.

And we’re focusing a number of new combinations building around this.  

Katherine:                   

What are common mutations in AML?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. So, the most common mutation in AML is F-L-T-3, FLT3 mutation. This is both prognostically important mutation, presence of an FLT3 in a newly diagnosed AML, has been shown in many large publications by the German Cooperative Group, British Cooperative Group, our group, and others, is associated with an inferior survival.

Also, now, on top of that, it is also a therapeutically important mutation in addition to having negative prognostic value because the addition of FLT3 inhibitors seems to dilute, to a large extent, the negative prognostic value.

So, we believe that if we can identify FLT3 mutations at FLT3 inhibitors, we can definitely improve the outcome of those patients. The second most common is what we call NPM1 mutation, and that tends to occur with FLT3. About 55 percent of patients with an FLT3 mutation will have a coopering NPM1.

NPM1 is very interesting. With NPM1 mutation is present on it’s own without a FLT3, it’s actually associated with favorable outcome. It’s a favorable prognostic marker. However, if NPM1 is present with a FLT3, and especially if the FLT3 has a high quantity, high allelic load, then the NPM1 loses its favorable impact. So, now we’re kind of moving beyond just; do you have one mutation or not, which is what we thought 10 years ago, to; well, yes, you have this mutation, but what about the core-occurring mutation and even beyond. What about the burden, or what we call the variant allele frequency of that mutation?

So, for good or bad and I think it’s good in the end because it’s going to improve the patient outcomes, that we are getting more, more in-depth and there’s no longer quote, unquote, AML.

So, there’s a lot more granularity and analysis that is required even before starting treatment. And this is the thing that, in the community, we’re educating the doctors a lot, is that it’s okay to wait four to six days, especially if the patient does not have a very proliferative leukemia, to get the important bloodwork to identify the appropriate molecular and chromosome group.

So, that we can select the right treatment which will improve outcome rather than just rushing into standard treatment and missing a particular molecular chromosome group.

Katherine:                   

True. It might not be – the genetic testing might not be right for everyone.

Dr. Daver:                    

Right. Right.

Katherine:                   

What is genetic testing in AML?

Dr. Daver:                    

So, genetic testing in AML is basically what we call molecular profiling.

So, it’s looking at the presence of particular molecular mutations. For example, at MD Anderson, we do what we call 81 gene panel. So, this looks at 81 different genes for mutations in the bone marrow of newly diagnosed acute myeloid leukemia. Now, how did we come up with 81 genes? So, this was actually done by literature analysis and review of previously published preclinical and translational studies, and we basically selected all mutations that had been shown to occur in two percent or more of thousands of AML patients. And we found 81 such mutations. So, that any mutation that had a two percent or higher frequency in known published or public databases was included.

And that’s how we’re able to analyze for the mutation. So, it’s still possible that there may be some very rare mutations that are present, and those may be important for research. But they don’t change our treatment decision today. And so that’s what we call genetic profiling. Some people call it molecular mutation analysis. Some people call it next-generation sequencing.

But basically, this is looking for mutations in particular genes that are known to occur in AML. Now of those 81 genes; and some people do a 100 gene panel, some do 50, so those are variables; but among those, there are four or five that are most important: the FLT3, as we discussed, where we can use FLT3 inhibitors; IDH1 and two, because we can use IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors; TP53 is a very important mutation because it has very high risk and adverse prognosis.

And there are now new drugs coming that may be very effective in TP53. So, we are checking for that. Those drugs are in trials, but the trials are showing very promising data and could be a great option if a patient is known to have a TP53.

Those drugs are Magrolimab, CD47 antibody, and APR-246. So, these are the four most important therapeutic mutations.

There are also some mutations that have prognostic value even though we cannot target them. These include mutations like RUNX1, DNMP3A, ASXL1.

One does not need to know the list. But the point is that these mutations may help determine whether a patient falls into intermediate-risk group or high-risk group, which then impacts the decision as to whether we need a stem cell transplant or not. So, it really is important to get this molecular profiling. It’s actually available in the United States commercially. And any clinic or hospital is able to actually order it. And insurance will cover it in 100 percent of the cases.

Katherine:                   

Wow, that’s great. What should – when should patients be tested, and how is testing done?

Dr. Daver:                   

Yeah. So, the basic testing for any suspected new acute leukemia is to get a bone marrow biopsy. That has to be done.

That should be done very quickly because all of the information that will be generated to make the treatment decision will come off the bone marrow biopsy.

Katherine:

What about retesting, Dr. Daver? Is that necessary?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. So, retesting is necessary in – not for everything, I think.

But let’s say someone had treatment induction and relapsed a year later. So, we would definitely retest: 1) to confirm with the bone marrow’s relapsed AML, get the blast percentage because we need that before restarting treatment, so we know what was the starting point to know how the patients doing after treatment if he’s responding. 2) Molecular testing, for sure, should be repeated. We usually repeat the molecular testing such as FLT3, IDH1, IDH2, because there are drugs that can target these mutations in a relapse.

And more interestingly, we actually have published, and other groups have also published, that there are some patients who may not have those mutations at baseline but may actually acquire or have detectible mutations at relapse. So, if you don’t have FLT3 at baseline, your physician may assume that the FLT3 is not there, not do mutational testing. But in fact, that may not be true. So, it is important to retest about 15 percent, one five percent, in our publications can acquire a detectible FLT3. Which is critical because this could then change your treatment.

IDH1 and two are rarely lost or acquired, but we have seen a few five percent or so cases of that. So, it’s still better to check for that. And then TP53 we check for because now we have these new research clinical trials, phase one, two, that are showing some very encouraging activity in TP53. So, these are probably the main things to retest for.

There’s also some new clinical data emerging with a new drug called menin inhibitor that targets a particular chromosome abnormality, MLL rearrangement. This is again in a phase one setting, so the data may not be widely disseminated. But we’re seeing some very encouraging activity with menin inhibitors.  

And so, we are 100 percent checking for the MLL rearrangement chromosome, which can be done on FISH, or routine chromosome.

And if that is there then trying to get on one of the menin inhibitor trials, they’re opening about 25, 30 centers with different menin inhibitors, would be a very, very good option because we think these will be the next molecular or chromosome-targeted breakthrough in AML.

Katherine:                   

We’ve been discussing how molecular testing results lead to targeted therapy. How do targeted therapies work?

Dr. Daver:   

Targeted therapy means that we’re targeting a particular mutation. Now we may be targeting in different ways. So, some of the drugs, like FLT3 inhibitors, these are the most established and oldest targeted therapies in acute myeloid leukemia, been in development for about 18 to 20 years, work by blocking a particular receptor, the FLT3 receptor.

That receptor, when blocked, removes the growth and proliferation signal to the leukemia blast. And that receptor is much more preferentially and heavily expressed on the surface of the acute myeloid leukemia cell as compared to the normal, healthy myeloid or lymphoid cell. So, basically, we are shutting down the growth signals, resulting in eventual death of the leukemia blast and that’s how FLT3 inhibitors work. So, it’s a more of a direct activity resulting in cell death over a few days and quick action. On the other hand, we have what also is called targeted therapies but act very differently. These are IDH1, IDH2 inhibitors.

So, when you use an IDH1 or two inhibitor, they do go to the IDH1 and two receptor on the surface of the acute myeloid leukemia cell, but actually, they don’t result in the death of the cell. They actually cause what we call differentiation.

So, they promote that immature abnormal leukemia cell to undergo maturation and become a normal myeloid cell, which, over time, will die because normal cells have a finite lifespan, and they will die. As compared to leukemia blasts, which can live on much, much, much longer. And so, this process is called differentiation. So, FLT3 inhibitor, very different direct cell death. IDH inhibitor, very different from most maturation differentiation of immature cells to mature cells and takes longer. So, this is important clinically because with FLT3 inhibitors. We see responses quickly, one to two months. IDH inhibitors it takes longer, three to five months.

And so, targeted therapy is not one and all the same. You may be targeting a particular receptor, but the modality of action downstream may be very different.

Katherine:                   

What’s the treatment regimen for targeted therapies, and how long are patients treated with these types of therapies?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. I mean, that’s an area of big research. There’s no one field of answer yet for – and I don’t think there will be.

Of course, eventually. So, it really depends on; 1) What setting we’re using it in? Newly diagnosed, relapsed AML. In relapsed AML, with most targeted therapies, whether you’re use is a single agent, like FLT3, IDH1, IDH2, TP53, MLL-targeted agents, the goal is to get a patient to transplant.

Transplant, meaning allogeneic stem cell transplant using a sibling donor or a match-generated donor.

Because in relapsed AML without transplant, irrespective of the genetics and chromosomes, all relapsed AML have very poor outcome. The survival is only 20 percent or less without transplant.

If we can get a patient to transplant, we do have a good chance of long-term survival. So, the goal is transplant. And we usually use a targeted therapy for short, finite period, two to four months, to get a remission, get to transplant, hope that will cure the disease.

In front line, it’s quite different. We’re using induction chemotherapy with FLT3 inhibitors. In some research trials, we’re adding IDH1 and two inhibitors. We’re using Venetoclax, which is a kind of a targeted therapy.

Also, the BCL2 in combination with hypomethylating agents. And here, the targeted therapy is often used indefinitely. At least for one or two years. But in our approach and our guidelines, we continue the FLT3 inhibitor, IDH1 or two inhibitor or Venetoclax, as long as patient is tolerating it and does not have disease progression.

So, these are being used kind of similar to CML, chronic myeloid leukemia, where we use tyrosine kinase inhibitors or myelofibrosis, where you use jak inhibitors. They don’t cure the disease, but they continue to control the disease as long as you take them.

And in the end, we call this functional cure.

If somebody takes a FLT3 inhibitor and lives 20-plus years, semantically, he was never a cure, like an infection gets cured. But functionally, to me, he lived a normal life, and he was cured.

Dr. Daver:                    

And so, that’s how we’re using those inhibitors in the frontline setting different from the relapse setting.

Katherine:                   

How do these newer therapies differ from more traditional chemotherapy?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. Dramatically different. Completely different from traditional chemotherapy. So, to put it in more layman terms, traditional chemotherapy is like a nuclear bomb. Right? You – There’s a lot of things there in the marrow. You don’t know what’s good. You don’t know what’s bad. Blow it all up and hope that, when the new plants grow, the good ones grow and the bad ones were kill. And, in fact, this is true, to a large extent. Traditional chemotherapy, not to put it down, is actually been curative in a large population of AML for the last three decades. Our group and British MRC and Polish, and many groups have published up to 50 to 65 percent cure rates, especially in younger patients, below 65, with traditional chemotherapy.

So, this is not bad. People always get depressed with leukemia. But if you look at solid tumors, I mean, they have never achieved cure rates above 10 to 15 percent till the last decade or so. So, we were still getting 60, 65 percent cure rate. Two out of three.

So, traditional chemotherapy has done great work. But it was that approach. Just nuclear explosion. Take it all out, and hope good stuff comes.

Now the targeted therapy’s like a sniper. It’s actually looking for the particular leukemia cells and trying to take them out one by one with minimum collateral damage to your healthy bone marrow cells, which are important to produce red cells, platelets, white cells. So, guess what? There’s much less toxicity. You don’t see the hair loss with these agents. You don’t see the mouth sores and mucositis. GI complications are much less; infection risk is usually less.

Not to say they don’t have their own side effects. Unfortunately, even the targeted therapies have unique side effects. But, in general, those side effects are much less impactful in a negative quality-of-life way and much more manageable and tolerable. So – And, in the end of the day, they’re actually often more effective.

So, for example, with the FLT3 inhibitor, the study that was done with Gilterinib and Quizartinib, two very potent FLT3 inhibitors, was looking at a single-agent FLT3 inhibitor versus three-drug, high-intensity combination nuclear chemotherapy. And if I told this to any layperson, they would say, oh my God, that’s completely unfair comparison. You’re going to use three drugs, IV chemo, strong chemo, and compare it to one oral targeted pill. There’s no way the pill can be even equal, leave apart, win.

But guess what? The targeted therapy actually won. It not only was equal. It doubled the response rates, it reduced the toxicities and early mortality and led to improved overall survival, the gold standard. So, this shows that even though they are sniper, they can actually be much more effective with less toxicity. So, it’s a win-win. Better, tolerable, and more effective. Now the next stage within then decade, we think, it’s not one or the either, it’s really a combination. So, we’re reducing the dose of chemotherapy. So, we’re not making it as nuclear as it was. It’s still intense. But much more tolerable. And we’re compensating for that by adding the targeted therapy.

And, in fact, in the end, we expect much higher responses and survival with much better tolerability and lower early mortality. But I don’t think we’re at a stage where traditional chemotherapy is gone. Maybe 10, 12 years from now, as many more developments come, we’ll get there. But I think it still has a role, especially in the younger AML patients.

Katherine:                   

Dr. Daver, you mentioned the – some common side effects of chemotherapy. What about some of the newer therapies? Do they also have side effects?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, every therapy we have in leukemia has a side effect. There’s no drug I can mention that is just devoid of them. Of course, some are less, and some are more. So, to be more specific, I think, for example, IDH1, IDH2 inhibitors, these are probably one of the most tolerable treatments we have in all of leukemia treatment. In general, they don’t cause much myelosuppression. Meaning, drop in blood counts. They don’t cause hair loss. They don’t cause mouth sores and GI upset in majority of people.

They’re always some patients who may. But what they can cause are two things: Number one, is they can cause what we call the differentiation syndrome.

And differentiation syndrome means the blasts that are going from the immature state to the mature state; in that process, they can cause an inflammatory reaction. And this can manifest with fever and cough, and chest pain, hypoxia. It’s something that’s actually very, very easily treatable, giving steroids for three or four days will take care of it. But many times, people were not aware of this. And so, often, we saw this was missed in the community.

So, that’s one specific example. With the FLT3 inhibitors, sometimes we see that they can cause more prolonged drop in blood counts, and count recovery can be delayed. Or we can sometimes see that they may cause some cardiac signals; increase in cardiac intervals. Again, something that, with close monitoring, bloodwork, keeping the electrolytes normal, can be managed. But I don’t want to go through the whole list. But the point is that there are specific and unique side effects that can be seen with particular targeted therapies.

And again, this is a learning curve where we have done these trials for eight to 10 years. So, we became familiar. But when the drug is approved, it’s a – it’s kind of a night-and-day situation in the community. They didn’t have the drug yesterday. They have it today. But there may not be any learning curve there. So, I think that’s where a lot of education and interaction with our colleagues is now coming into play.

But also, patients, I think, need to take this a little bit into their own hands, and also read about the label, read about the drug. So that, if they have side effects, if they actually ask their doctor and say, do you think this could be differentiation? I read about it. Yeah, most people will at least think about it. And I think this could be helpful to make sure that things are not missed. So, we do want patients to be more interactive and kind of  take things into their own hand. Because there are so many new drugs out there that their doctors may not be fully familiar yet.

Katherine:                   

Well, let’s talk about patient advocacy. What are some of the key tests that patients should ask for after they’ve been diagnosed?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. Absolutely. So, I think the key things that patients should want to get the information is: 1) Knowing the bone marrow blasts.

I mean, that’s really basic. Just knowing what leukemia it is. What are the blast percentage? 2) Is, I think, chromosome analysis is very critical to get that information and to make sure we’re not missing acute promyelocytic leukemia, or core-binding factor leukemia, which have different treatments and very favorable outcomes, and would never, in general, never require a allogenic transplant. At least in majority of cases.

And 3), which is the one where we still see that it may sometimes not be available or be missed, is molecular testing.

I think it’s very critical to request molecular testing. And among molecular testing, especially FLT3, maybe IDH1 and IDH2, and TP53.

So, I think these are the most important data sets. Cytogenetics, key molecular mutations, bone marrow blasts, and confirmation of the type of leukemia before we embark on any treatment.

Katherine:                   

How can patients feel confident, do you think, in speaking up, and becoming a partner in their care?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. I mean, this is always a touchy area because physicians may feel that this is kind of encroaching on their territory or telling them what to do. And this is always a major challenge. I think when you go for the clinic visits, just to have a list of your questions written down and having them prepared and prioritizing them.

I always say, have your top-three questions ready.

We’ll try to do the others. But we’ll do the top three. And I think, when you have a new diagnosis of AML, the top three should be: what is the type of leukemia I have, and what are the bone marrow blasts? Number one. Do we have any chromosome and molecular information? Number two. And number three: Are there any specific treatments for my specific AML based on that chromosome molecular information? Or do we need additional information, and can we wait for that safely? I think these are the three very reasonable questions which, I think again, most leukemia experts will automatically be discussing this.

But, I think, for a patient, I think that’s important information to make sure they get before proceeding. If there’s time, the fourth question will be: Is – Are – Do we have a choice between high intensity, low intensity? And if we do, what are the pros and cons? In some cases, there may be a choice. In some cases, it may very clear that high intensity is the way to go, or low intensity is the way to go. But still, I think it’s often good to discuss that with your physician.

So, these are probably the four things one can bring up reasonably without the physician feeling that this is going to take forever, and I cannot discuss this. And then a lot of the AML treatment happens in-patient. So, there will be a lot of time for additional discussion. I tell my patients that, look, once we get the basics and the treatment decided, which is what we do in clinic, then you’ll be in the hospital most of the time. If it’s induction chemo for four weeks. Even if it’s Venetoclax, often they’re admitted for five to seven days, they will have more time then to discuss with the physician, the nurses, on a daily basis, and get more of the nitty-gritty.

Things like diet, exercise, lifestyle. Can I meet friends? I think you should not try to bring those things up right in the first visit. Because that may dilute the key information. So, I think staggering it, keeping in mind that many physicians are extremely busy, and getting that information in pieces over time, is probably productive for you and for the doctor.

Katherine:                   

With Covid-19 affecting all our lives right now, what should AML patients be considering at this time?

Dr. Daver:   

There’s a lot of guidelines on general approaches to managing things in COVID. And all of those guidelines heavily center, as we would think intuitively, on precautions.

Hand washing, minimizing contact, avoiding crowded places, trying to get treatment, potentially locally, if there are equivalent options available. We have not changed any of our frontline – we discuss this a lot every week in our faculty meeting.

This is discussed especially, as you know, because Houston currently is a major center affected heavily by COVID, and so, we have discussed whether we should move in a universal way to lower-intensity therapy for all patients. And we haven’t. And there’s pros and cons to that. When we do induction chemotherapy higher intensity, we, in fact, admit our patients for 28 days.

o, actually, even though it’s high intensity, the patient is more protected because they are in the room. Isolation rooms, sometimes. And they have minimum contact with outsiders. So, with COVID, actually, there’s very little opportunities or chances for them to get it. But the chemo is intensive. So, if they did get COVID, then it could be much more difficult or risky, or even fatal. On the other hand, low-intensity therapy is good because it’s low intensity and the risk of COVID, the frequency may or may not be changed; we don’t know. But the intensity we think could be lower because the immune system has not been suppressed.

However, low-intensity therapy very often is given outpatient. And so, then you have the benefit of lower intensity but the risk that you are going to be driving back and forth to the medical center, getting bloodwork, exposed to people in the waiting room, this and that. So, what we decided, after a lot of discussion among a big leukemia expert faculty in our group, was that we will still decide the optimum treatment based on the leukemia chromosome, molecular, age, fitness of the patient like we’ve always done.

And then we just have to try to encourage the patients to do as much precautions as possible. The other thing with the COVID, I think is very important is that, even though you may not be able to travel to your academic institution nearby because it’s harder to travel now, it’s still a good idea to try to get a consultation. We are doing a number of phone or email consultation, either directly with the patient, and even more frequently with their community doctor.

So, I get every day, four or five emails from academic even, and community physicians just saying, I have this patient, new AML, relapsed AML, whatever the case may be, here’s the mutation chromosome information, and I was going to do this. But the patient asked that I run this by one of my top academic colleagues. So, maybe MD Anderson. Some, I’m sure, are talking to Sloan. Some are, I know, are talking to Dana Farber. Cornell, whatever it may be. So, you can always request that. And maybe 100 percent of physicians may or may not do that.

And we’re seeing this collaboration actually. One of the positive things of COVID is we’re seeing these collaborations becoming better and better over time.

Katherine:                   

Oh, excellent. If a patient does need to go to clinic for a visit, what safety measures are in place?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. So, there’s a few things we’re doing in clinic is; one is we have staggered our clinics. So, instead of having everybody come at 9:00 or 10:00 a.m., and having 30 people in the waiting room, we really have more time slots.

And we ask people to come three of them at a time in the waiting room. We’re minimizing it three to five patients at most

Of course, there’s a lot of sanitization, dispensation units everywhere, encouraged to use those. The other important thing which, unfortunately, is a double-edged sword, is that we have had to minimize the number of friends, relatives, spouses, that can come with patients.

In fact, the policy at MD Anderson, like most cancer centers, is that nobody is allowed with the patient unless the patient is physically really impaired, as in wheelchair-bound or cannot go to the restroom. Of course, there are exceptions. But generally, I know, and I actually benefit a lot from it too, when patients have their family because the emotional support also helps our medical team to get information across. The patient may be sometimes stressed and forget things. So, what we’re doing more and more is doing phone calls.

So, what I would recommend is, as soon as doctor comes in, say, hey, doctor, can I call my daughter or my wife? I want her to listen to everything. Perfect. I don’t mind. There’s a speaker on. Good.

So, that helps with communication. But those are the big changes we have done from the clinic perspective. Still seems to be working relatively smoothly. We’re still seeing almost about the same number of patients in clinic that we were before COVID. And we have, fortunately, and knock on wood, not seen big numbers of leukemia patients with COVID. And we think the primary reason is because leukemia patients are just very cautious from the beginning. Even before COVID, they knew the risks, and we want them to continue that as much as possible.  

Katherine:

Dr. Daver, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Daver:   

Thank you very much. Always a pleasure.

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners.

To learn more about AML and to access tools to help you become a more proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell – Thank you, Dr. Daver.

On Recovering After a Stem Cell Transplant

As a transplant survivor and peer volunteer, I have met with over 150 transplant patients. The most common question I hear concerns what recovery looks like. People want to know about timelines, precautions, complications, medications, benchmarks, and much more.

I can only answer these questions from my experience, and no two outcomes are the same. But I’ve read and heard enough other stories to know where mine is typical or exceptional, so I can also place my story in a broader context.

In June of 2016, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. I underwent induction chemotherapy and achieved a temporary remission. In October of 2016, I received a double cord blood stem cell transplant. I fully recovered and have returned to all my prior activities, so mine is a very positive story. Along the way, however, there were several memorable challenges.

Prelude to a transplant

My initial treatment required a five-and-a-half-week hospital stay. It was one week for the traditional “7+3” chemotherapy regimen, and another four and a half weeks to monitor and treat the inevitable infections that followed in the wake of chemotherapy-induced immunosuppression.

My diagnosis was routine for my providers but shocking for me. I was asymptomatic and feeling perfectly healthy at my annual physical. But low white blood cell counts triggered a bone marrow biopsy that established my diagnosis. I was hospitalized the next day and started chemotherapy the day after that. My treatment was underway before I even understood my disease and its bleak prognosis.

When they told me to expect a 5-6-week hospital stay, I was dumbfounded. I quickly realized that I needed ways to cope with how my world had suddenly become very small and quite precarious. Over the ensuing weeks, I developed and honed several crucial strategies.

First, I relied upon mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. It helped me banish thoughts about the past and anxieties about the future, and to non-judgmentally accept and live in each moment as it unfolded.

Second, I did as much physical exercise as my circumstances would allow. My routines included stretching, isometric exercises, extensive hall walking, squats, lunges and pushups. I did it mindfully, and these routines structured my days, increased my energy, and lifted my spirits.

Third, I was a pro-active patient. I cultivated good communication with my doctors and nurses. I asked lots of questions about my treatment and became a collaborator in decisions about medications, dosing, and deciphering and treating the many infections and side effects that came my way.

Fourth, I maintained my robust sense of humor. Sharing jokes and witty banter with my medical providers broke the ice, resolved the tension, and humanized our consults. It also gave friends and family a way to relate to me as the person I’d always been rather than the patient I’d recently become.

Fifth, I relied on a supportive belief system. For some, that’s religion. For me, it was a secular worldview based on my social science background. It encouraged me to learn about my condition and fostered a practical, problem-solving orientation to all the challenges it posed.

Finally, I wrote my story from the very first week. I sent detailed reports about my status and reflections as a cancer patient to a large group of email correspondents. Writing for others forced me to understand my journey so I could articulate it for them. This writing became a psychic survival mechanism (and a subsequent memoir).

When the time for transplant arrived, I packed a bag, grabbed my laptop, and took these coping strategies with me. As doctors cured my body, these strategies sustained me throughout everything that was to come.

The Transplant and Hospitalization

Like many patients, I was admitted to my transplant hospital one week before the actual procedure (day -7). I underwent conditioning chemotherapy and full body radiation. Upon my transplant (day 0), I was told to expect another three to five weeks in the hospital before I could be safely discharged.

Days 1-7 were uneventful except for some moderate nausea due my prior chemotherapy and radiation. I got some relief from a drug called marinol that allowed me to eat regular meals during this time. As my counts hit bottom, I was closely monitored for fevers and infections. Even so, I felt good enough to do daily exercise, walk on a treadmill, do yoga, and be as active as possible while confined to my room.

On day 8, my doctors said I was doing so well they were thinking of discharging me in a couple more days – much earlier than expected. But then I developed an infection and a recurring fever that spiked every twelve hours for several days and delayed my discharge.

By day 19, my infection and fevers had resolved, and I went home under the watchful eye of my caregivers. I thus left the hospital in just under three weeks since transplant – much quicker than the 3-5-week hospitalization I had been told to expect.

A Memorable Month at Home

From day 20 to 50, the plan was for daily clinic visits to monitor counts, treat symptoms, and assess progress. On day 21, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that one of my donors was 99% engrafted, which was an unusually early and complete success for a cord blood transplant. With engraftment underway, we then watched for signs of graft-vs.-host disease.

During this month (day 20-50), my caregivers were essential. They drove me to daily clinic visits for blood draws, provider consultations and needed treatments. From day 20-26, I received daily transfusions of platelets and several transfusions of red blood cells. Several more transfusions as well as injections of growth factor medications to spur new white blood cells followed throughout this month. After the second week, however, they reduced my clinic visits to fewer and fewer days each succeeding week.

That first month at home (day 20-50) was also when I felt the side-effects from my treatment most keenly. The lingering impacts of chemotherapy and radiation, the engraftment process, and multiple medications produced several memorable symptoms. There were aches and pains from the engraftment itself that I treated with ibuprofen, and ongoing bouts of nausea that I managed with marinol. I was also taking about 20 scheduled pills a day, including prophylactic antibiotics, anti-viral and anti-fungal medications, anti-rejection medications, and several pills to manage side effects of these medications.

My most memorable symptom during this period was a staggering level of fatigue as my body underwent this transformation. I was sleeping eight to nine hours a night but still required lengthy naps in the late morning and late afternoon. I couldn’t stay awake for more than four hours at a time and was totally exhausted by nightfall.

On day 39, routine blood work detected a cytomegalovirus infection. It’s one of many critters that can reside in our gut our whole lives unbeknownst to us. But with immunosuppression, the virus can become active and pose serious danger. It is usually well controlled if detected early and treated quickly, so I was immediately put on a more powerful antiviral drug to address the infection.

The virus drastically reduced my white blood cell count while the antiviral medication added further immunosuppressive effects. For a few days, I had additional fatigue, aches, chills, and nausea. When the virus and anti-viral forces fought to a standstill, they contemplated admitting me back into the hospital for several days of IV, antiviral treatments. Instead of re-hospitalization, however, the compromise treatment was an outpatient infusion of IV immunoglobulin to boost my white blood cell count while the antiviral medication gradually tamed the virus. With that, I continued my recovery at home.

Through the First 100 Days

From day 50 to day 100, I experienced gradual if uneven improvement. Clinic visits tapered to once a week or less. Bone aches ceased and nausea all but disappeared. Fatigue also decreased, and when I did feel tired, I could usually trace it to increased activity levels compared to my first 30 days at home. As I was able to reduce doses or eliminate some medications, my mind cleared and my energy increased. While I experienced minor rashes, dry eyes, and sinus headaches, there was nothing that required major medical treatment or raised suspicions of graft-vs.-host disease.

By day 58, I began experiencing neuropathy in my feet. This is a common side-effect of chemotherapy, but in my case, it has been blessedly mild. It mainly presents as numbness and tingling under the balls of both feet. I was told it might resolve within a year, but it remains the only side effect that has persisted and which I now regard as permanent. It has not responded to acupuncture or cortisone injections. My best adaptation has been specially designed shoes and custom insoles that take pressure off the sensitive areas and make the condition quite tolerable.

By day 60, I was having trouble lining up caregivers but still needed to get to weekly clinic visits. I had been prohibited from driving or being without a caregiver for the first 100 days, but that was no longer practical. I carefully began driving myself to clinic visits. By then, I knew how my medications affected me and so I delayed my antifungal medication and the blurry vision it caused until I safely returned from my outings.

On day 78, my oncologist recommended removing the “Power Hickman” central line that had served me well for almost seven months. It had been with me since the beginning of my treatment and had facilitated painless blood draws and countless infusions of blood, platelets, IV medications, and chemotherapy. But with the reduction in all these procedures, the risk of an infected line was becoming greater than the benefits of keeping it in place. An added benefit was being able to take a shower without wrapping my entire upper torso in Saran Wrap to protect the gizmo.

Day 100 was a significant benchmark for several reasons. I had another bone marrow biopsy that confirmed full engraftment and no residual leukemia. Reviewing my biopsy results, blood tests, and overall progress, my oncologist said my recovery to date was “as good as it gets.”

At this time, I was able to eliminate or reduce many of my medications. More importantly, I began to gradually taper my anti-rejection medication (cyclosporine) over the next three-month period. The gradual pace of this taper was meant to allow my old body and my new immune system to learn to get along with each other, restore full immunity, and avoid GVHD

By this time, I was feeling much better and was eager to return to my regular activities. Since my blood counts were all good, I asked my oncologist her advice. She provided a rather technical explanation of why I was still at considerable risk and needed to avoid crowds, continue wearing my mask in public, and follow other precautions.

My layman’s interpretation of her explanation was that even though I had sufficient white blood cells and neutrophils, my anti-rejection medication would still prevent them from fully activating in case of infection. So despite feeling better and having good counts, I needed to maintain precautions until my anti-rejection medication had run its course and my immune system was more functional and able to protect me in a germ-filled world.

Completing the Marathon

From day 100 to day 180, I continued gradual improvement and weathered some minor bumps in the road. My clinic visits were now spaced out every couple weeks, and I began to see other practitioners to assess some peripheral issues arising from my diagnosis and treatment.

Since my leukemia put me at risk for skin cancer, I saw a dermatologist who detected a small, basal cell carcinoma that was easily excised. I continue to see her every six months for full body skin checks with no further issues. My leukemia had also caused some retinal hemorrhaging that was diagnosed before transplant. A follow up visit during this period showed that all retinal issues had completely resolved with the eradication of my leukemia.

Even though I was now tapering my anti-rejection medication, its cumulative impact produced numerous unpleasant side effects. While I avoided the most serious ones, I nonetheless experienced flushing, hypertension, nausea, altered kidney function, neuropathy, weight loss, leg cramps, sinus irritation, abdominal swelling, and night sweats. I began a temporary regimen of blood pressure medication and rode out the other issues. To top it off, I also had a flare up of the cytomegalovirus, which once again was quickly detected and effectively treated with specialized antiviral medication.

On day 180, I had my 6-month biopsy which reconfirmed full engraftment and no residual leukemia. At this time, I stopped my anti-rejection medication and its unwanted side effects began to dissipate. I was also able to stop virtually all of my remaining pills with the exception of an antiviral medication which continued until day 365. With adequate immunity restored, I was cleared to do any activity I wanted with one exception: I had to avoid fungal sources of infection (yard work, turning over soil, fresh mushrooms, etc.) for the next six months because such infections are easy to contract and difficult to eradicate.

For me, this was a major psychological turning point. I accepted that I was actually better, resumed my “normal” life, and let go of lingering anxieties about my status. When my transplant oncologist said she didn’t need to see me for another six months, it was initially unnerving after such intensive monitoring. At the same time, it reinforced my sense that I had reached a major milestone in my recovery.

“As Good As It Gets” (and Some Cheap Advice)

After day 180, my care shifted back to my initial oncologist at my induction hospital. Monthly blood draws and bimonthly consultations gradually became less frequent. Four years out from my initial diagnosis, I now have blood draws four times a year and see this oncologist twice a year.

At year one and two (days 365 and 730), I returned to my transplant oncologist for my final two biopsies which found no residual disease.  At year one, they re-did my childhood vaccinations from dead viral sources; at year two, I received my remaining vaccinations from live viral sources.

There’s good reason to say my story is “as good as it gets.” First, I got into remission on the first round of induction chemotherapy. This does not happen for a significant minority of AML patients who require multiple rounds of chemotherapy or other treatments to attain remission.

Second, I had full donor engraftment in three weeks. Most patients achieve engraftment, but it typically takes longer or doesn’t happen as completely as it did in my case. In the worst-case scenario, a small percentage of patients never experience engraftment and face a very poor prognosis.

Third, I have had no graft-vs.-host disease. I had been told there was a 60-70% chance of acute (within the first 100 days) GVHD in cases like mine, but I had no symptoms that could be attributed to this cause. That reduced my chances of chronic (after the first 100 days) GVHD to 20%. Although it can appear years after transplant, I’ve had no symptoms as of this writing.

What is typical about my story are the various infections, unpleasant side-effects, and minor complications documented here. They are simply part and parcel of the disease, treatment, and transplant; few if any patients escape them altogether. But in my case, they were quite manageable with the excellent support I received from my medical practitioners and caregiver team. Thanks to them, I left my transplant hospital on day 19 and never returned.

Advice is cheap, so here’s my two cent’s worth. Even in the best-case scenario, recovery is so gradual that it’s hard to realize when you are actually making progress (especially when there are periodic setbacks). I learned to pay attention to even small steps of improvement and took heart when they occurred.

Here’s one example. Around day 40, I ran up a flight of stairs at home and became short of breath. I initially found this discouraging, but then I realized I hadn’t even run up a flight of stairs since my diagnosis, and that this was progress not regress. Recovery happens through small, incremental changes that eventually culminate in qualitative improvement. It helps to be aware of these small steps as they occur; you may even want to record them in a weekly journal to fully appreciate them.

Finally, some clichés bear repeating. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Moreover, it’s a marathon on an obstacle course of potential complications. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from your doctors or accept assistance from your caregivers. It’s not a burden; it actually makes them feel better when they can help you out. Finally, cultivate patience, resilience, and fortitude as you go the distance. It will serve you well.

Confused About AML Genetic Testing and Treatment? What You Need to Know

Confused About AML Genetic Testing and Treatment? What You Need to Know. from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is AML genetic testing? Dr. Alice Mims explains genetic testing in AML, including the necessity of testing, the effect on treatment decisions, and why patients should be retested over the course of their disease.
 
Dr. Alice Mims is a hematologist specializing in acute and chronic myeloid conditions. She serves as the Acute Leukemia Clinical Research Director at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James.

See More From INSIST! AML

Related Resources

 

How is Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Treated?

 

Effective AML Combination Treatment: Pairing Old and New Therapies

 

AML Genetic Testing Explained

Transcript:

Dr. Mims:

So, in regards to older treatments and being effective, seven plus three, which is an intensive chemotherapy, is still the standard of care treatment for patients with favorable risk AML, if they’re candidates for intensive treatments because it is potentially curative. And 7 + 3 is also the backbone for newly diagnosis for patients with FLT3 mutations, we add a FLT3 inhibitor called Midostaurin onto that, as it’s shows to improve overall survival with the addition of that compared to just the chemotherapy alone.  

And also, hypomethylating agents, which are a less intensive treatment, were the standard of care for patients who couldn’t tolerate intensive chemotherapy.  

And now we’re seeing the addition of other agents being added to this, like the BCL2 inhibitor of Venetoclax 

And recent data in phase 3 trial comparing the hypomethylating agent alone versus adding that agent did show an overall survival advantage. And so, these are definitely evolving, and I think as we are learning more about targeted therapies and how they can best be used in combination with chemotherapy other than single. Agent. But you give two targeted therapies together and having even better outcomes. We hope we continue to make improvements from where we were even just five years ago and do a better job for. 

How is Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Treated?

How is Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Treated? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 When diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), understanding available treatment options can be overwhelming. Dr. Alice Mims, an AML specialist, provides an overview of AML therapies and discusses factors to consider when deciding on an appropriate therapy with your healthcare team.

Dr. Alice Mims is a hematologist specializing in acute and chronic myeloid conditions. She serves as the Acute Leukemia Clinical Research Director at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James.

See More From The Pro-Active AML Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

Facing a Cancer Diagnosis: Advice From An Expert

 

Effective AML Combination Treatment: Pairing Old and New Therapies

 

AML Treatment Options: What’s Available?


Transcript:

For the past 30 years, we’ve had the same treatment options, which have been standard intensive induction chemotherapy that weren’t really tailored to individual patients and had significant toxicity. And not necessarily effective for all AML genomic subtypes.

Now we have quite a bit added to the treatment arsenal for AML, including continuing intensive induction chemotherapy for patients who are appropriate. There’s also been the addition for newly diagnosed patients for hypomethylating agents and a new BCL-2 inhibitor called Venetoclax. IDH inhibitors for patients with IDH1 and IDH2 mutations. The addition of FLT3 inhibitors for patients either newly diagnosed or with relapse or refractory disease.

And liposomal daunorubicin and cytarabine in for patients with AML with MDS related changes or therapy related AML that are newly diagnosed. Lastly, there’s also a hedgehog inhibitor, glasdegib, that’s been approved for newly diagnosed AML patients in combination with low dose cytarabine.  

So, when working with patients, there are multiple factors that we take into consideration when coming up with a treatment decision together and it really should be a team approach. But one of the most important things is trying to understand the patient’s goals of care.

Because different treatments have different expectations, side effects, toxicities that we want to be sure we’re all aligned when we’re making a treatment decision together. Also, other features that we take into account can be age. Other comorbidities, including other diagnosis such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other medical issues patients may have.

So, for roles that patients have in making these decisions, they should know that they’re their own best advocate. And so, as you’re getting to learn your oncologist who’s helping you make these treatment decisions, it’s very important that you talk about things that are important to you in regards to quality of life, overall goals for your life. Ask questions in regard to side effects and expectations for outcomes for potential treatment. Whether they’re curative or more palliative, which can extend life. And for quality of life, it may not be curative for AML.  

So, AML really was considered a single disease 30, 20 years ago. Now we really know it’s likely dozens of diseases based off of looking at molecular features of an individual patient’s AML. So, it’s very important to try to understand what genomic features your AML may have, meaning DNA mutations that are just present in the leukemia cells. Chromosomal changes as well. And then understanding if, based off that information, that that may afford you additional treatment options other than the current standards of care.  

Effective AML Combination Treatment

Pairing Old and New Therapies

Effective AML Combination Treatment: Pairing Old and New Therapies from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

With advances in AML research and a number of new treatments, can older therapy types still play a role in care? Dr. Alice Mims discusses pairing early AML treatments with new agents to boost their effectiveness.

Dr. Alice Mims is a hematologist specializing in acute and chronic myeloid conditions. She serves as the Acute Leukemia Clinical Research Director at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James.

See More From The Pro-Active AML Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

Key Genetic Testing After an AML Diagnosis

 

How is Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Treated?

 

AML Treatment Advances: What’s  New for YOU?


Transcript:

So, in regards to older treatments and being effective, seven plus three, which is an intensive chemotherapy, is still the standard of care treatment for patients with favorable risk AML, if they’re candidates for intensive treatments because it is potentially curative. And 7 + 3 is also the backbone for newly diagnosis for patients with FLT3 mutations, we add a FLT3 inhibitor called Midostaurin onto that, as it’s shows to improve overall survival with the addition of that compared to just the chemotherapy alone.

And also, hypomethylating agents, which are a less intensive treatment, were the standard of care for patients who couldn’t tolerate intensive chemotherapy.

And now we’re seeing the addition of other agents being added to this, like the BCL2 inhibitor of Venetoclax.

And recent data in phase 3 trial comparing the hypomethylating agent alone versus adding that agent did show an overall survival advantage. And so, these are definitely evolving, and I think as we are learning more about targeted therapies and how they can best be used in combination with chemotherapy other than single. Agent. But you give two targeted therapies together and having even better outcomes. We hope we continue to make improvements from where we were even just five years ago and do a better job for.

Confused About Immunotherapy and Its Side Effects? You Aren’t Alone

“You don’t look like you have cancer.”

More than one patient undergoing immunotherapy to treat cancer has reported hearing statements like that. Immunotherapy is one of the recent advances in cancer treatment that belie the stereotypes about the effects of cancer treatment. 

The side effects of immunotherapy are different from those associated with chemotherapy and radiation. However, that does not mean immunotherapy does not have side effects. Patients and care partners need to be aware of these potential side effects and to be vigilant in addressing them with their oncologists because they can signal more serious complications if left untreated.

What is Immunotherapy?

Despite the increase of immunotherapy treatment options in recent years and considerable media attention paid to advancements in this field, there remains confusion about immunotherapy and its side effects. Many cancer patients are unaware of whether immunotherapy treatments are available for their specific diagnosis. Others don’t know that genetic profiling of their tumors is usually required to determine if immunotherapy is an option and not all treatment centers routinely conduct genetic profiles of tumors. A  survey by The Cancer Support Community found that the majority of patients who received immunotherapy knew little to nothing about it prior to treatment and were unfamiliar with what to expect.

Immunotherapy works by manipulating the patient’s immune system to attack cancer cells. It is perceived as gentler and more natural than chemotherapy and radiation, without the same destructive effect on the body’s healthy tissues.  This, combined with a lack of prior understanding of immunotherapy, can lead patients and care partners ill-prepared for possible side effects.

Furthermore, immunotherapy is a category of therapies, not a single type of treatment. There are a variety of immunotherapy drugs, most of which are administered via infusion.  Side effects will vary by drug, the cancer and its location, treatment dose, and the patient’s overall health.

The following are the most common types of immunotherapy.

  • Checkpoint inhibitors use drugs to block proteins in the patient’s immune system that would otherwise restrain the immune system, often referred to as taking the “brakes” off the immune system.
  • CAR-T therapy modifies the patient’s T-cells in a lab to enhance their ability to bind to cancer cells and attack and kill them.
  • Oncolytic virus therapy uses genetically modified viruses to kill cancer cells.
  • Another therapy uses cytokines (small proteins that carry messages between cells) to stimulate the immune cells to attack cancer.

Immunotherapy can be part of combination therapy. It might be combined with chemotherapy. It might be used to shrink a tumor that is then surgically removed.  Or multiple immunotherapy drugs might be used simultaneously.

What Are The Side Effects?

With immunotherapies, side effects typically occur when the immune system gets too revved up from the treatment. The most common side effects for immunotherapy treatments are fatigue, headache, and fever with flu-like symptoms. Some people also experience general inflammation often in the form of a rash. Many melanoma patients report blotchy skin discoloration, called vitiligo, during treatment. These milder side effects can usually be managed with over-the-counter remedies and adjustments to daily activities.

For checkpoint inhibitors, the fastest growing segment of immunotherapy treatments, mild side effects occur in 30% – 50% of patients. Serious side effects typically occur in less than 5% of patients. (See “Understanding Immunotherapy Side Effects” from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.)

Less common side effects are blisters, joint pain, thyroid inflammation, and colitis (inflamed colon resulting in diarrhea with cramping). Some patients who receive CAR T-cell therapy develop a condition known as cytokine release syndrome, which causes fever, elevated heart rate, low blood pressure, and rash. 

In rare cases, immunotherapy has resulted in lung inflammation, hepatitis, inflammation of the pituitary, and detrimental effects on the nervous and endocrine systems. In most cases, the conditions clear up when treatment ends.  However, there have been outcomes in which immunotherapy caused diabetes or tuberculosis.

“Overall there are fewer side effects [with immunotherapy],” explained Dr. Justin Gainor, a lung and esophageal cancer specialist at Mass General during an Immunotherapy Patient Summit hosted by the Cancer Research Institute. “But the immune system can affect anything from the top of the head down to the toes. Any organ has the potential to be affected.”

As the application of immunotherapy has expanded, so has our understanding of the potential side effects. Like most medical treatments, how one person responds to immunotherapy can be different from another even when the cancer diagnosis and drug therapy are the same.

The essential thing patients and care partners need to know about side effects is they should always be reported to their oncologist or nurse oncologist.

Why Patients Should Talk to Their Provider About Immunotherapy Side Effects

Because immunotherapy has created newer therapy options, there isn’t the volume of experiences as with older treatments. The infinite number of variables that patients provide once a treatment moves beyond clinical trials and into the general patient population generate more diverse outcomes.  And, as most therapies are less than 10 years old, there hasn’t been an opportunity to study the long-term effect of these therapies. This is why oncologists advise patients and their caregivers to be extra vigilant in noting any changes experienced during and after treatment.

Many side effects are easy to treat but medical providers want patients to be forthcoming in discussing any and all side effects. This is in part to improve understanding of side effects, but also because a mild cough or a case of diarrhea might be harbingers of a more systemic issue that will grow worse if left untreated.

Patients should not be hesitant to discuss side effects because they fear they will be taken off immunotherapy.  Sometimes a pause in treatment might be necessary, but the earlier the oncologist is made aware of a side effect, the less likely that will be necessary.

In addition, patients undergoing immunotherapy should always take the name(s) of their immunotherapy drugs and the name of their oncologist when seeing medical professionals outside of their cancer treatment team. This is especially important when visiting the ER.  Because immunotherapy drugs are newer and highly targeted to certain cancers, many medical professionals remain unfamiliar with drug interactions and treating related side effects.

Immunotherapy On The Rise

Immunotherapy treatments have resulted in reports of remission in cases that would’ve been deemed hopeless just five or 10 years ago.  The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved various immunotherapy treatments for melanoma, lung cancer, head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, cervical cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, lymphoma, breast cancer, and most recently bladder cancer.  (Here is a list of  immunotherapies by cancer type from the Cancer Research Institute.)

“It’s revolutionized how we treat our patients,” says Dr. Gainor of Mass General about immunotherapy’s impact on lung and esophageal cancer.

Advances in immunotherapy research and trials continue to generate optimism and excitement. A clinical study in Houston is looking at using immunotherapy to prevent a recurrence. Researchers in Britain recently announced a discovery that might lead to advances in immunotherapy treatments to a much broader array of cancers.

While there is excitement around the field of immunotherapy and it has resulted in unprecedented success in treating some previously hard-to-treat cancers, it remains an option for a minority of cancer diagnoses.  It works best on solid tumors with more mutations, often referred to as having a high-mutational load or microsatellite instability (MSI) high. And it is not universally successful for every patient.

With hundreds of clinical trials involving immunotherapy alone or in combination with other therapies, it is certain more treatment options are on the horizon. As more therapies are developed and more patients with a greater variety of conditions undergo immunotherapy, we will also increase our understanding of potential side effects.

Side effects should not dissuade patients and care partners from considering immunotherapy if it is available or from advocating for genetic tests to deteimine if it is an option. Many patients undergoing immunotherapy have previously undergone chemotherapy and report that the side effects are fewer and milder by comparison.  The important thing is that patients and their partners know what to expect and communicate with their treatment team.

If the next 10 years in immunotherapy research and development are anything link eth elast 10, we can expect more exciting advancements in the battle against cancer. For more perspective on what’s ahead for immunotherapy see the Cancer Research Institute’s article: Cancer Immunotherapy in 2020 and Beyond.

Understanding Clinical Trials: A Jargon Buster Guide

When it comes to cancer treatment you or a loved one may be considering participating in a clinical trial as a treatment option.  Clinical trials are designed to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of a treatment. They may involve researchers administering drugs, taking blood or tissue samples, or checking the progress of patients as they take a treatment according to a study’s protocol.

Learning about clinical trials can be a steep learning curve – not least because the process comes with a lot of new terms, acronyms and jargon.  To help you, I’ve put together this list of the most common terms you will find when you are researching clinical trial information. This is not an exhaustive list but it is a helpful starting point. At the end of this article you will see links to find more information.

Adverse Effects (AE)

Also called Adverse Events, or Adverse Drug Reaction, AEs are any harmful event experienced by a person while they are having a drug or any other treatment or intervention. In clinical trials, researchers must always report adverse events, regardless of whether or not the event is suspected to be related to or caused by the drug, treatment or intervention.

Arm

Subsection of people within a study who have a particular intervention.

Bias

Bias is an error that distorts the objectivity of a study. It can arise if a researcher doesn’t adhere to rigorous standards in designing the study, selecting the subjects, administering the treatments, analysing the data, or reporting and interpreting the study results. It can also result from circumstances beyond a researcher’s control, as when there is an uneven distribution of some characteristic between groups as a result of randomization.

Blinding

Blinding is a method of controlling for bias in a study by ensuring that those involved are unable to tell if they are in an intervention or control group so they cannot influence the results. In a single-blind study, patients do not know whether they are receiving the active drug or a placebo. In a double-blind study, neither the patients nor the persons administering the treatments know which patients are receiving the active drug. In a triple-blind study, the patients, clinicians/researchers and the persons evaluating the results do not know which treatment patients had. Whenever blinding is used, there will always be a method in which the treatment can be unblinded in the event that information is required for safety.

Comparator

When a treatment for a specific medical condition already exists, it would be unethical to do a randomized controlled trial that would require some participants to be given an ineffective substitute. In this case, new treatments are tested against the best existing treatment, (i.e. a comparator). The comparator can also be no intervention (for example, best supportive care).

Completed

A trial is considered completed when trial participants are no longer being examined or treated (i.e. no longer in follow-up); the database has been ‘locked’ and records have been archived.

Control

A group of people in a study who do not have the intervention or test being studied. Instead, they may have the standard intervention (sometimes called ‘usual care’) or a dummy intervention (placebo). The results for the control group are compared with those for a group having the intervention being tested. The aim is to check for any differences. The people in the control group should be as similar as possible to those in the intervention group, to make it as easy as possible to detect any effects due to the intervention.

Efficacy

How beneficial a treatment is under ideal conditions (for example, in a laboratory), compared with doing nothing or opting for another type of care. A drug passes efficacy trials if it is effective at the dose tested and against the illness for which it is prescribed.

Eligibility Criteria/ Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

Eligibility criteria ensures patients enrolling in a clinical trial share similar characteristics (e.g. gender, age, medications, disease type and status) so that the results of the study are more likely due to the treatment received rather than other factors.

Follow-up

Observation over a period of time of participants enrolled in a trial to observe changes in health status.

Informed Consent

A process (by means of a written informed consent form) by which a participant voluntarily agrees to take part in a trial, having been informed of the possible benefits, risks and side effects associated with participating in the study.

Intervention

The treatment (e.g., a drug, surgical procedure, or diagnostic test) being researched. The intervention group consists of the study participants that have been randomly assigned to receive the treatment.

Investigator

A person responsible for the conduct of the clinical trial at a trial site. If a trial is conducted by a team of individuals at a trial site, the investigator is the responsible leader of the team and may be called the principal investigator (PI).

Multicentre Trial

A clinical trial conducted according to a single protocol but at more than one site, and therefore, carried out by more than one investigator.

Number needed to treat (NNT)

The average number of patients who need to receive the treatment or other intervention for one of them to get the positive outcome in the time specified.

Outcome Measures

The impact that a test, treatment, or other intervention has on a person, group or population.

Phase I, II, III and IV Studies

Once the safety of a new drug has been demonstrated in tests on animals, it goes through a multi-phase testing process to determine its safety and efficacy in treating human patients. If a drug shows success in one phase, the evaluation moves to the next phase

  • Phase 1 tests a drug on a very small number of healthy volunteers to establish overall safety, identify side effects, and determine the dose levels that are safe and tolerable for humans.
  • Phase II trials test a drug on a small number of people who have the condition the drug is designed to treat. These trials are done to establish what dose range is most effective, and to observe any safety concerns that might arise.
  • Phase III trials test a drug on a large number of people who have the condition the drug is designed to treat. Successful completion of Phase III is the point where the drug is considered ready to be marketed.
  • Phase IV trials can investigate uses of the drug for other conditions, on a broader patient base or for longer term use.

Placebo

A fake (or dummy) treatment given to patients in the control group of a clinical trial.  Placebos are indistinguishable from the actual treatment and used so that the subjects in the control group are unable to tell who is receiving the active drug or treatment. Using placebos prevents bias in judging the effects of the medical intervention being tested.

Population

A group of people with a common link, such as the same medical condition or living in the same area or sharing the same characteristics. The population for a clinical trial is all the people the test or treatment is designed to help.

Protocol

A plan or set of steps that defines how something will be done. Before carrying out a research study, for example, the research protocol sets out what question is to be answered and how information will be collected and analysed.

Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT)

A study in which a number of similar people are randomly assigned to 2 (or more) groups to test a specific drug, treatment or other intervention. One group has the intervention being tested; the other (the comparison or control group) has an alternative intervention, a placebo, or no intervention at all. Participants are assigned to different groups without taking any similarities or differences between them into account. For example, it could involve using a computer-generated random sequence. RCTs are considered the most unbiased way of assessing the outcome of an intervention because each individual has the same chance of having the intervention.

Reliability

The ability to get the same or similar result each time a study is repeated with a different population or group.

Sample

People in a study recruited from part of the study’s target population. If they are recruited in an unbiased way, the results from the sample can be generalised to the target population as a whole.

Subjects

In clinical trials, the people selected to take part are called subjects. The term applies to both those participants receiving the treatment being investigated and to those receiving a placebo or alternate treatment.

Trial Site

The location where trial-related activities are conducted.


References

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

TROG Cancer Research

ICH.org

NICE

Further Resources

American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Cancer.Net trials site

National Cancer Institute (NCI) Clinical Trials lists open and closed cancer clinical trials sponsored or supported by NCI. 

ClinicalTrials.gov database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies

CenterWatch Clinical Trials Listing

Does Cannabis Oil Have a Role in Cancer Treatment?

Does Cannabis Oil Have a Role in Cancer Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is it just a trend or could cannabis oil truly have a role in cancer care and treatment? Dr. Sangmin Lee share his perspective.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

The use of cannabis oil is becoming prevalent. Does this have a role in cancer care and treatment?

Dr. Lee:

Absolutely. So, we use it for a lot of side effect management. So, cannabis can be helpful, in terms of appetite and nausea, for example. So, we often use it in conjunction to manage some of the side effects that patients can have throughout their treatment.

You should consult with your medical team, and of course, I should say that laws differ state by state, so it doesn’t apply to every state. But when it’s available, it can be a valuable addition.

Patricia:

Sure. Discuss that with your physician.

Are Clinical Trial Participants Monitored More Closely?

Are Clinical Trial Participants Monitored More Closely? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Sangmin Lee discusses the monitoring of clinical trial participants and the measures taken for patient safety.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

How about this next one? I am monitored more closely in a clinical trial.

Dr. Lee:

In some cases, it’s true. Clinical trials do have certain monitoring visits, in terms of doctor’s visits, laboratory tests, and physical exams.

The purpose of that is to make sure that it is safe. So, the purpose of monitoring closely, in a lot of cases, is for the patient’s safety. We are testing drugs in a lot of clinical trials, for which the complete safety profile, as well as efficacy profile, is not known. So, the purpose of closer monitoring is to make sure whatever we’re doing is safe, and if there are any unexpected side effects, then it allows us to address the side effects, as well. So, it’s mainly for patients’ safety.

Will Clinical Trials Cost You? The Facts.

Will Clinical Trials Cost You? The Facts. from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Sangmin Lee reviews the financial impact associated with clinical trials, including a discussion of what expenses are covered for participants.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

All right, how about this one: I may have unexpected costs if I join a clinical trial.

Dr. Lee:

So, typically, that’s actually, usually not true, because how it works is that the clinical trial drugs, and that there may be extra procedures or visits associated with clinical trials.

And what usually happens is that the sponsor of the clinical trial provides the cost of the drug, intervention, and anything extra that are required for the clinical trial. So, in the end, the cost of participating in a clinical trial should not be any more than receiving standard care treatment.

In some rare cases, there may be stipends associated with the clinical trial, especially with travel. So, if you participate in a clinical trial, and you live far away, then you should ask to see if there is any stipends available, especially for travel.

The Truth About Clinical Trials in AML

The Truth About Clinical Trials in AML from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Sangmin Lee reviews common misconceptions about clinical trials and shares examples of how these studies are changing the landscape of AML treatment. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:                      

I’ll tell you a few things that we’ve heard from AML patients, and you tell me if this is fact or fiction. Okay, Dr. Lee?

Dr. Lee:

Yeah.

Patricia:

Clinical trials are the last resort treatment option.

Dr. Lee:

That’s actually not true in a lot of cases, because, yes, there are a lot of clinical trials after you have tried all of the standard therapy. But then, standard therapy in AML, like any other condition, are not perfect. So, there are many clinical trials where, even if you’re diagnosed with new AML, because standard care is not perfect, there are trials to try to improve upon the standard of care.

So, there may be clinical trials when you’re first diagnosed with AML, as well.

Patricia:

Yeah. How about this one: I feel like a guinea pig.

Dr. Lee:

Well, the clinical trial is to test drugs in humans. So, in a way, you are a test subject. But then, you have to remember that all of the drugs that we are testing have a rationale.

They all show promise, in terms of laboratory testing to kill leukemia cells in the test tube. And the problem is that, just because they are killed leukemia cells in the test tube, or in an animal model, doesn’t actually mean that it works in humans, or we know the safety profile. So, we need to do these testings to demonstrate that these drugs, which seem promising, actually work in humans.

Patricia:

Right. Well, then, that’s a good segue to this thing we’ve heard: Treatments being studied today may be the future standard of care.

Dr. Lee:

That is absolutely true, because all of the new developments that have come out, including Venetoclax, or IDH inhibitors, or other inhibitors, that are approved today, came through the clinical trial process. One example I like to include is a patient of mine, who, five years ago, had very, very aggressive leukemia, and she happened to have an IDH2 mutation.

It was four or five years ago. And she has a very refractory, aggressive leukemia, and it was life-threatening. And she had an IDH2 mutation. And we enrolled her in a clinical trial involving ivosidenib, which was in clinical trial at the time.

Ever since then, she became – she went into remission, and she has a normal blood count. And, to this day, she’s on this medicine, which is now approved, and she remains healthy with a normal blood count, in remission. So, yes. Clinical trials do include promising drugs, and if they show really good efficacy and promise, they will become standard of care down the road.

The advantage of clinical trial is that you may get early access to drugs that may become standard care down the road. So, it’s a way to get early access to potentially promising drugs.

Patricia:                      

How do you counsel your patients about joining clinical trials? What are you thinking about when you’re talking with them?

Dr. Lee:                       

So, in terms of clinical trials, we all look at clinical trials, and they exist for a reason, because we think that an intervention or drug can do better than standard of care. So, how I approach it is that, depending on the situation, if we can improve upon what is available, or if there are no other options, then it definitely is a great option to improve upon what would otherwise be standard.

Patricia:                      

I’ve got one more. Once I enroll, I am locked into the trial, and I can’t change course.

Dr. Lee: 

Absolutely not true. So, clinical trial participation is always voluntary. So, if you sign a clinical – So, what happens is you typically sign a consent to participate in a clinical trial.

And if you change your mind at any time, you can decide not to participate in a clinical trial. It’s not a binding agreement, so you can decide not to participate at any time.

Patricia:

Great. And that’s obviously a decision you should make with your healthcare provider before withdrawing.

Dr. Lee: 

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. But you should always remember that just because you sign up for a clinical trial, it’s not a binding requirement to stay on it.

Patricia:                      

Okay, okay. And let’s talk for just one moment, if you have a second again, about why patients – why it’s important for patients to participate in clinical trials.

Dr. Lee:                       

Why it’s important? It’s because the drugs we test could become the standard care in a few years. And you might have early access to a promising drug that may change treatment of AML. One prime example is Venetoclax. Venetoclax, when it was in clinical trial, was very promising, but before we started treatment, we had no idea how well it was going to work.

So, the patients receiving Venetoclax obviously benefitted from it, and they had early access to a drug that would have become standard of care a few years down the road.

Is It Safe? Breaking Down the Clinical Trial Process

Is It Safe? Breaking Down the Clinical Trial Process from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

The idea of a clinical trial can be intimidating and confusing for many patients. Dr. Sangmin Lee explains the phases of clinical trials, including the safety protocols in place to protect patients.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

What is the process for getting medicine to patients during clinical trials?

Dr. Lee:

So, clinical trials are basically what’s needed to prove that drugs work. So, a lot of times, we test drugs in a test tube in AML cell lines, and they show great promise. But just because a drug works in a test tube setting, doesn’t actually mean that it will work in humans, because human bodies are much more complicated. So, we need to test promising drugs in humans to make sure they are safe and effective.

And that’s what the purpose of clinical trials are. Once they demonstrate safety and efficacy, then a drug then gets to be approved, and is available commercially. So, that’s the purpose of clinical trials.

To be involved in clinical trials, what it involves is, basically, you have to meet a sort of criteria, called eligibility, because different clinical trials have different criteria for selection. So, we have to look into that. And then, once you fit an eligibility or selection criteria, then you typically undergo certain diagnostic tests to enroll on a clinical study. And then, you get whatever drug or intervention that is designed to test in that setting.

So, there are numerous steps to actually enroll in a clinical study.

Patricia:

And like you mentioned, there’s a long way between rat studies and human trials. What are the phases of clinical trials?

Dr. Lee:

So, there are three phases for clinical trials, commonly. There’s phase one, and phase two, and phase three. Phase one is the earliest part of the clinical trial process. So, goal of a phase one study is to make sure a drug is safe in a human. So, phase one studies are usually the first time that you are testing the drug in humans, and the main purpose is to demonstrate that it’s safe. So, typically, in a phase one study, typically, you test a drug at a lower dose or dose levels to demonstrate safety. What it means is that you’re enrolling a few patients at a time.

Once a drug is proven to be safe, then you move on to phase two, which is basically testing the drug in more patients. And the purpose of phase two is to get a preliminary assessment of how effective a treatment would be.

So, typically, a phase two study involves many more patients in that setting. And then, if a phase two study shows that a drug is very promising, then the drug may move on to phase three, where, basically, in phrase three, you are comparing one intervention or a drug compared to the standard of care. And, typically, in a phase three setting, a computer decides randomly which intervention you get, whether it’s an intervention or new drug versus standard of care. And standard of care may include either placebo or chemotherapy intervention, that is standard of care. So, it’s not always placebo in phase three.

AML Treatment Advances: What’s New for YOU?

AML Treatment Advances: What’s New for YOU? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 AML specialist and researcher, Dr. Sangmin Lee, breaks down the recent advances in AML treatment and how targeted therapies are improving patient care.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

Dr. Lee, thanks so much for joining us, again. Can you please give us an overview of the field of AML research?

Dr. Lee:

So, AML research is evolving very rapidly, and there’s a lot of promising new drugs that have come out in AML. As with any other cancers, we’re getting more sophisticated in characterizing AML in terms of molecular mutations, and characterizing AML stem cells, so –

The field is moving very rapidly in that regard. There have been a number of promising and effective drugs that have been approved in the last few years, as well. For example, Venetoclax has been a game changer in treatment of AML, especially in the elderly population. And there are several targeted agents that have been FDA approved in the recent years, as well. So, definitely since about three to five years ago, there have been new drugs that have come out for AML that is very exciting for treatment of AML.

Patricia:

Let’s talk a little bit about genetic testing. How is that changing the landscape for AML patients?

Dr. Lee:

So, genetic testing has become standard in AML patients, in terms of – at their diagnosis and relapse. And part of that is, we can use that information to guide prognosis, how well or not well a patient is expected to do.

But more importantly, there are actually drugs that can target specific mutations. For example, there are new drugs that target a mutation called IDH1 and 2 that have been approved recently for patients with AML, as well as new drugs that target mutation called FLT-3, or FLT3 mutation, as well. So, genetic testing has become standard, not only to tell you prognostic information, but also used in therapy for AML patients.

Patricia:

You mentioned a few treatments that were advancing. What other therapies are showing promise for AML?

Dr. Lee:

So, there are a number of treatments that are ongoing. Venetoclax has been game-changing, and now, although Venetoclax has improved outlook, in terms of AML treatment, compared to conventional therapy, there’s still resistance to Venetoclax and the response is not durable.

So, there is research looking at resistance mechanisms to Venetoclax, for example. The other exciting field is, there are some advances in immunotherapy, with clinical trials underway. Like in other malignancies, there are clinical trials involving CAR T-cell, or other ways of engaging your own T cell immune system to approach and attack the AML.

AML Research: What’s New in Treatment?

AML Research: What’s New in Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, discusses the future of AML research, and new learnings that continue to improve current treatment approaches.

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about Dr. Altman here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:            

Are there any new treatments on the horizon that you can talk about, Dr. Altman?

Dr. Altman: 

Absolutely. So, I love to talk about new therapies in AML. Until the last couple of years – it had been 40 years since we approved a sustained treatment in the marketplace in AML. We had been treating the disease the same. And over the last couple of years there have been a growth of therapies. We’re now trying to sort out exactly when we’re using one over another. We also have clinical trials where we’re combining novel therapies for adults with either newly diagnosed disease or relapsed and refractory disease. 

We are in an era of looking out at antibody therapy in AML – that’s one of the new waves of treatment. We are still exploring targeting therapies in the sense of inhibition of FLT3, IDH, and other mutations. So, it’s an era where there’s lots of excitement, and I’m hopeful for our patients.

Patricia:     

Yeah. Tell me what makes you most hopeful about the future of research in this area, and treatment?

Dr. Altman: 

So, I think that’s a great question. I think the fact that we now – the deeper the understanding we have of the biology of the AML, why AML happens, what mutations drive the disease, and then how to target those mutations with individual therapies is what excites me the most. So, our basic science research has exploded, and that occurs at a very quick pace, and that’s allowing us to develop therapies at a much faster rate than I would have anticipated before.

Patricia:

What a wonderful way to end our chat. Thank you so much, Dr. Altman, for taking the time to join us today.

Dr. Altman: 

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

Misconceptions in Clinical Trials: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction?

Misconceptions in Clinical Trials: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, addresses common misconceptions patients have about clinical trials regarding treatments, regulations, and standards of care. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about Dr. Altman here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:            

What about clinical trials? What common misconceptions do patients have about enrolling in trials?

Dr. Altman: 

So, I think the misconceptions regarding clinical trials can be very masked. And I think it really depends on the intent of a clinical trial and the phase of the clinical trial. I think that a well-designed clinical trial is almost always the right choice for a patient with acute leukemia at any stage in their therapy. 

That is a bias as a clinical trialist. I think it’s the right bias, but it is still my bias. I think patients frequently worry that they’re being treated as a guinea pig, or they’re not getting an appropriate treatment. What I can tell you is the clinical trials that we and my colleagues across the country and across the world participate in are clinical trials where the patients are getting at least what we consider a standard of care for that phase of their disease, and they may be getting something in addition to that or something that is slightly different, but expected to have a similar response rate. 

We have this phrase in clinical trials, something called equipoise, that if there’s a randomization between options that we need to feel, as the practitioner and as the clinical trialist, that each option is at least as good as the other.  

Patricia:

That kind of goes back to the vetting of treatments before they go to a clinical trial. Tell me a little bit about history. How can we make patients feel more comfortable?

Dr. Altman: 

I want to make sure that I understand the question.

Patricia:

So, how thoroughly are treatments vetted before they go to a clinical trial?

Dr. Altman: 

Great. So, the way that agents get into early phase clinical trials and then later phase studies are these are compounds that have been studied in the laboratory, then studied in small animals, then larger animals. And then, frequently, a drug is started in a patient with relapsed and refractory Acute Myeloid Leukemia and found to be safe – that’s what we call a Phase I study. 

Once we know the right dose and the associated side effects from an early phase clinical trial, later phase studies – i.e. Phase II, where the goal is to determine the efficacy and response rate is conducted. And then, if that appears and looks like it’s promising, a larger, randomized, three-phase study is frequently conducted, where we compare a standard of care to the new approach. 

Patricia:

So, patients should be comfortable that the clinical trial that they’re going through has been thoroughly vetted, has gone through multiple stages before human trials occur?

Dr. Altman: 

That is accurate in terms of compounds get through animal studies, and then depending on the way that the trial is being connected, will then be studied in patients either with relapsed or refractory disease or very high-risk disease. But it’s also very important to mention that these pharmaceutical companies and physicians are not making these decisions alone. 

The clinical trials are all reviewed by scientific review committees through the cancer centers, which are other investigators making sure that everything appears appropriate. In addition, there are institutional review boards at every university whose goal it is to keep patients and research subjects in well-done clinical trials safe. That is their primary goal. And the IRBs – institutional review boards – are very involved with making sure that clinical trials are appropriate and that the conduct of clinical trials is appropriate.