CLL Treatment: Finding the Best Option for YOU

CLL Treatment: Finding the Best Option for YOU from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How could genetic testing results impact your chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment options and overall care? Dr. Jennifer Woyach discusses essential molecular testing and provides tools for self-advocacy and decision making.

Dr. Jennifer Woyach is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Institute. Find out more about this expert here. 

Download Program Resource Guide

See More From INSIST! CLL


Related Resources

 
 

Which CLL Treatment Approach Could Be Right for You?

 

How Can You Access the Latest CLL Treatment Options?

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Welcome to Insist CLL, a program focused on empowering chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients to take an active role and insist on better care. Today, we’ll discuss the latest advances in CLL, including the role of genetic testing and how this may affect treatment options. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Joining me is Dr. Jennifer Woyach. Welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Woyach:               

Sure. My name is Jennifer Woyach. I’m a CLL specialist from the Ohio State University.

Katherine:                  

Thank you. A reminder, this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your own healthcare team. Well, Dr. Woyach, let’s start by understanding CLL. Would you briefly walk us through what CLL actually is?

Dr. Woyach:               

Sure. CLL is a cancer of the blood, the lymph nodes, and the bone marrow.

And it happens when a particular type of white blood cell called a B lymphocyte acquires genetic mutations and transforms into a cancer cell. And then, over time, those cancer cells continue to grow and divide. And they can cause symptoms such as enlarged lymph nodes if the cells get stuck in the lymph nodes and continue to grow there. It can cause a high white blood cell count, which usually doesn’t cause any symptoms but is one of the things that we see often in CLL. And then, it can also cause the bone marrow to not be able to produce normal cells because it can get so infiltrated or so full of CLL cells.

And this can cause things like anemia, which is lowering of the red blood cell count and thrombocytopenia, which is lowering of your platelet count.

Katherine:                  

What are the steps involved in reaching a diagnosis?

Dr. Woyach:               

CLL is an interesting disease because it’s one of the only cancers that does not require a biopsy of something for a diagnosis.

So, we can, actually, make the diagnosis of CLL based on the peripheral blood. So, just a blood draw in somebody’s doctor’s office. Usually, CLL is diagnosed in the asymptomatic stage. So, somebody goes to their primary care doctor, has blood drawn usually for another reason, and is found to have a high white blood cell count or sometimes even a fairly normal white blood cell count but a high percentage of lymphocytes. That certain type of cancerous white blood cell. So, the next step in the diagnosis then is something called peripheral blood flow cytometry, which is a specialized test where we look at the markers or antigens on the surface of white blood cells.

So, there is kind of a code of these markers on the surface of all of your blood cells that can tell what type of cells they are. So, for CLL in particular, we’ll see that the cells express some of the normal markers we would see on a normal B lymphocyte.

Things like CD19, CD20, CD23. But they also express a marker called CD5, which is found on normal T lymphocytes but shouldn’t be found on B lymphocytes. And so, this collection of surface markers can make the diagnosis of CLL. Sometimes, we do need to do extra studies like a bone marrow biopsy or a lymph node biopsy. But often times, those are not necessary at the time of diagnosis.

Katherine:                  

When you meet with patients, Dr. Woyach, what are some common misconceptions that you hear about?

Dr. Woyach:               

I think the biggest thing that I hear, and grant it I see a lot of patients after they’ve been diagnosed by someone, gone to see an oncologist and then, come to me after, but one of the common things that I hear is that somebody has told them along the way that they have the good type of cancer, which I think is not a very helpful thing to hear as a patient because, of course, no cancer is a good type of cancer.

I think it’s important to note that CLL is one that has a lot of treatment options and usually extended survival. But I think that’s one of the most common misconceptions that I hear.

Katherine:                  

Before we get deeper into our conversation about genetics, there are a few terms that patients are often confused by. As a primer, I thought we could start by defining some of these terms. First, what is genetic or molecular testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, all cancer cells will have a collection of mutations or abnormalities in the DNA that either make the cell a cancer cell or make it behave in a certain way. And so, these mutations are referred to as the genetic abnormalities of the CLL cells. So, when we talk about genetic testing in CLL, we use it to mean a number of things. We can use it to look specifically for types of mutations so types of genetic abnormalities.

We also sometimes use that as a kind of catch all term like genetic or molecular testing also to refer to looking at changes in the chromosomes inside of a CLL cell. That’s also called cytogenetic testing. And then, we also use a number of tests in CLL where we look at specific, not necessarily abnormalities, but just changes in the cell that can indicate a certain type of behavior.

Katherine:                  

How is this different from genomic testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, genetic and genomic testing, I think, are usually used interchangeably. But sometimes, we use them in different contexts but they really mean the same thing in this case.

Katherine:                  

Okay. And what is a chromosome change?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, as you might remember from biology class maybe a long time ago, as it was for me, inside a cell, so a normal cell or a cancer cell, you have the nucleus, which holds the DNA.

And the DNA is organized into chromosomes. And so, when a cell goes through division, it takes those chromosomes, copies them and then, breaks them apart into two different cells. So, changes can happen in the level of the DNA itself. So, a mutation where one base is changed to something different. So, that would be just like a single nucleotide change. And that’s something you’re not going to see as a change to a chromosome. Another thing that can happen in CLL and in other cancers, too, is that during that process of cell division, an entire chromosome could be duplicated. It could be absent.

More commonly, parts of chromosomes can change. This is all because cancer cells just do a very poor job of editing their division.

An in normal cells, there are multiple steps along the way from the process of copying the genes to copying the chromosomes to doing the division. And every step along the way, if something happens incorrectly, which happens a lot, the cell usually just dies. But a cancer cell is not going to do that because it has so many signals that keep telling it to stay alive that it can tolerate a lot of different abnormalities. And so, you end up with cells that are just very different from what you would see normally.

Katherine:                  

All right. Well, that’s a great way for us to start. Let’s go into the discussion of the relationship between testing and CLL. How is testing administered?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, almost all testing, in terms of molecular genomic testing in CLL, can be done on a blood sample. So, that’s one important thing.

The CLL guidelines recommend that testing for certain prognostic factors be done before the administration of therapy. So, at the very least, before somebody starts treatment, they should have these tests performed. In my practice and I think most CLL specialists find it really helpful to do these tests, not necessarily just at the time of treatment but really at the time of diagnosis or the time we first see the patient because CLL is a very heterogenous disease, which means that it behaves very differently in different people. So, there are some people that are diagnosed and will go 10 or 20 years before they need any treatment.

And many don’t need treatment at all. Whereas other people are very likely to need treatment within the first few years after diagnosis. Some of the genetic tests that we do can help counsel patients on where they’re likely to fall in that spectrum.

And so, I think that’s helpful for people to know early on in the disease course. But really, the tests can be performed at any time before treatment

Katherine:                  

Have there been advances in testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

Absolutely. I think in every cancer, we’ve learned so much more about the biology of the disease, specific mutations that cause specific behaviors of cells, and really much more in CLL about the common genetic changes and what those means to response to therapy.

Katherine:                  

The goal of this program, Dr. Woyach, is to provide the confidence and tools for patients to advocate for the essential tests to get the best care personalized to them. Are there specific tests that patients should make sure they have?

Dr. Woyach:               

Yeah. In CLL, I would say there are three that are very, very important before starting treatment. The first is something called the IGHV mutational status.

What that is defined as is the changes in the variable region of the immunoglobulin heavy chain. That’s a big mouthful that doesn’t mean a lot to most people. So, I’ll give you just a little background on what that really means biologically and then, what that means clinically. So, every B lymphocyte, so a normal B lymphocyte and a CLL cell, has receptors on the surface of the cell that allow it to interact with the environment. And in a normal B lymphocyte, this is really important for the immune system. So, bacteria, virus, something is in the body and the B cell surface receptor is going to be able to recognize that that’s not supposed to be there and then, do something about it.

In CLL, the surface receptors don’t do a lot of interacting with the outside environment but they’re still present there. And in a normal B cell development, the B cells are initially formed in the bone marrow.

And at the time that they’re formed, every one of those receptors is exactly the same. So, we can do DNA sequencing on those receptors and you’ll see that every one is identical. So, during a normal development of a B cell, it undergoes this process that’s called somatic hypermutation, which is where those receptors mutate or change. And that’s important because then, they can recognize different things. And so, you end up with this whole repertoire of thousands or millions of B cells that all are a little bit different and can recognize something different.

So, CLL cells, they’re all clonally related to each other. They’re all going to have the same receptor on their surface. And about 60% of the time that receptor is different than the newly born B cells. And so, this is probably a little bit more simplistic than it actually is. But the way we think about that is that those B cells or those CLL cells, which we call mutated because they underwent that mutational process, we think that that means that they come from a more mature initiating cell.

And they tend to be less aggressive, more slow growing. The other 40% of patients, if you look at the receptor on their surface, it’s exactly the same as the new B cells in the bone marrow. And we call those IGHV unmutated because they haven’t done that mutational process. And they behave very differently. So, in mutated CLL, only about half of people will ever need therapy in their lives. An average time from diagnosis to first treatment is about 10 years. In contrast to those patients who have unmutated IGHV, basically, all of those people will need therapy at some point in their lives. And average time from diagnosis to first treatment is about three years.

So, you can see how it really breaks people up into two very different categories of disease.

So, that’s the first test and one that’s really important. That’s also one that doesn’t change during the course of the disease. So, if somebody is diagnosed with mutated CLL, it’s always mutated. So, the next marker that’s important is, actually, chromosome changes. So, we know that there are a few different recurrent chromosome abnormalities in CLL that are common and important prognostically. So, one of these is a deletion of part of chromosome 13. It’s called a 13q deletion. It indicates, again, very slow growing CLL. Patients how have normal chromosomes also are very good disease biology.

Some people have an extra copy of chromosome 12. That’s called trisomy 12 and that’s an intermediate marker. And then, there are two markers that are associated with a little bit more aggressive CLL. One is a deletion of proto chromosome 11. That’s called an 11q deletion.

And the other one is a deletion of proto chromosome 17 called a 17p deletion. These are all abnormalities that are important to test for. And the way that we test for these is something called FISH testing. And FISH stands for fluorescence in situ hybridization. And it’s a way to use an antibody to look for specific abnormalities in the CLL cells. So, that’s important. And another thing that can be done at specialized centers is something called stimulated cytogenetics. So, I mentioned to you with FISH testing, we’re looking for specific abnormalities with antibodies. But the things that we don’t test for we’re not going to see.

So, if they have a chromosome change that we don’t have an antibody looking at, we’ll never detect it. And we know that patients with CLL who have what’s called a complex karyotype, which is three or more chromosome abnormalities, they also have more aggressive disease.

So, like I said, at specialized centers, we can do what’s called a stimulated karyotype, which is where we look at all of the chromosomes. So, that’s FISH testing and karyotype. And then, the last thing is, actually, doing DNA sequencing for a specific mutation called a TP53 mutation. And TP53 is an important tumor suppressor protein. And it is mutated quite commonly in CLL. About eight to ten percent of patients at the time of first treatment and, actually, up to about forty percent of people later on in the course of the disease. Most of the time, we see TP53 mutations occur at the same time as 17p deletions. About 80% of the time, those occur together but they can occur on their own.

So, that’s the third test that’s often helpful, especially prior to starting treatment.

Katherine:                  

Do patients need to be retested over time?

Dr. Woyach:               

Yeah. So, for the TP53 mutation and for FISH, it’s important to test for those before each line of therapy. Because those are so important in indicating disease biology and, specifically, with the 17p deletion and TP53 mutation, those indicate patients that are likely to not have as good of a response to treatment. It’s always important to check for those prior to therapy.

Katherine:                  

We have a patient question. I have 17p deletion. Should I be worried?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, 17p deletion is usually associated with more aggressive disease biology almost always associated with that unmutated IGHV. The reason I bring that up is there are a very small subset of patients who have 17p deletion and mutated IGHV who, actually, have pretty indolent or slow growing disease.

People who don’t, which is the majority of them with 17p deletion, do have a shortened time to treatment and shortened survival with most of our current therapies. There have been a lot of advances though in the treatment of 17p deleted CLL. And may of our newer therapies can very much prolong the remission time in the lives of patients with 17p deletion.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Woyach, how do these chromosomal changes affect disease progression and prognosis?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, the markers that are associated with more aggressive disease biology usually are going to be associated with people that need treatment within the first few years after diagnosis, especially those people who have 17p deletion, 11q deletion, unmutated IGHV.

Katherine:                  

What exactly are prognostic factors? Would you define that?

Dr. Woyach:               

Sure. Prognostic factors, and I mentioned three of them, the IGHV, FISH, and the TP53 mutation, are ones that have been studied extensively and shown that the presence of this marker or some change in this marker is associated with a change in the biology of the disease or in the response to therapy.

Katherine:                  

How does the identification of these changes or mutations affect treatment options?

Dr. Woyach:               

Well, right now, we’re lucky in CLL because we have a lot of treatment options. I would say the most important changes when we’re talking about somebody with CLL that is about to start their first treatment is the decision of whether chemotherapy is ever appropriate. So, almost everybody with CLL now is treated exclusively with targeted therapies.

So, nonchemotherapeutic options. There are some people who are young, and in CLL terms that means under the age of 65, who have mutated IGHV and who otherwise have good genetic list disease. So, normal chromosomes of the 13q deletion, no TP53 mutation. That small subset of patients, actually, has the potential to be cured with a specific type of chemotherapy. It’s called FCR or fludarabine, cyclophosphamide, rituximab. So, for those young, healthy patients, it’s really important to know those risk factors to know if they are in that group that has that potential for cure.

The converse to that is if patients don’t fall in that group, they probably shouldn’t receive chemotherapy as their first treatment because it’s not as effective as our other therapies.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. It makes sense.

Dr. Woyach:               

And then, even in the future with first and other treatments with novel therapies, we know that patients with 17p deletion and TP53 mutation tend to have a shorter response time. And so, what I use that for in my practice is I know that those are people that I really have to be sure that we’re following them closely, taking any signs of progression seriously, and always have a back up plan for what we’re going to do if this treatment doesn’t work.

Katherine:                  

We have another question from a patient who wants to know if their children will inherit CLL. Is there any link between inherited mutations and CLL?

Dr. Woyach:               

That’s a very, very common and really important question. I would say of the hematologic cancers, CLL is one with higher linkage in families, which means that people with CLL are more likely to have another family member with CLL though it’s still not very common.

And it’s very different from breast cancer or the solid tumors where we know that these specific mutations indicate families that are going to have risk of disease. There has actually been a lot of study over the years of families that tend to have multiple people with CLL. Unfortunately, there really have not been genes identified that are the reason for those family linkages. I think there has been only one family that I know of where they’ve actually found a gene that was likely the cause of multiple family members’ illnesses. So, yeah, there is no indication to test family members.

I tell people do not worry that you’re going to pass this to your children or your grandchildren. CLL is not something that we should be using as like a marker of whether you should have kids or should have anything like that.

So, maybe a little more likely in family members but not enough to really be worried about that.

Katherine:                  

What are the differences or difference between inherited and acquired genetic mutations?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, inherited mutations are those that you get from your parents. And there are lots of inherited mutations that, actually, can predispose to cancer. Specifically, I mentioned the TP53 mutation and CLL cells. Well, there are also people who inherit a TP53  mutation have risk factors for multiple cancers. And CLL, specifically, every mutation that we talk about is an acquired mutation. So, that’s also known as a somatic mutation. So, they’re mutations in the cancer cells. But if you did DNA sequencing of the normal cells, they would not be there.

Katherine:                  

We have a question from a patient. If I have FCR, does that rule out me using a targeted therapy later on?

Dr. Woyach:               

Absolutely not. And, actually, all of the studies of the targeted therapies, all of the early studies were done in people who previously had had chemotherapy. Most of them had received FCR. So, certainly, receiving chemotherapy doesn’t mean that you can’t get a targeted therapy later on.

Katherine:                  

What are other factors that are important to consider when deciding on a treatment route?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, besides the genetic factors we talked about, other things are age and very closely related to age is fitness status. So, how active is somebody? How able are they to do all of their normal activities? Are there other health problems that we need to be concerned about when thinking of treatment?

As well, certain medications can influence treatment choices, specifically, with oral therapies where there might be drug interactions. And then, also a lot of the decision of frontline therapy is patient preference right now. So, do people prefer to have a time limited therapy? Do they prefer to have an indefinite therapy? Do they prefer an all p.o. regimen or a mix of p.o. and IV? So, there are definitely a lot of considerations when thinking about frontline treatment.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Woyach, what do you feel is the patient’s role in this conversation about treatment approaches?

Dr. Woyach:               

I think that, obviously, the patient is the most important part of the talk of treatment indications. Like I mentioned, sometimes we have the discussion of chemotherapy versus a targeted therapy. More often, the discussion is we have three approved frontline CLL therapies right now. We have two BTK inhibitors or Bruton’s tyrosine kinase inhibitors, ibrutinib, acalabrutinib.

And then, we have a BCL-2, venetoclax, that’s given in combination with an antibody called obinutuzumab. These are very different treatments in terms of side effects, [inaudible] [00:28:13] how they’re administered, how often they’re administered, just as an example. The BTK inhibitors are pills. And they’re meant to be given indefinitely. So, you start them with plans that you’re not going to stop them, unless the patient doesn’t tolerate them or they stop working. And so, with that type of regimen, you have the kind of burden of being on treatment for a long period of time.

But on the flipside, it’s very easy to start treatment. So, if you decide you want a BTK inhibitor, I write a prescription for it, it comes to your house, you start it. I usually see patients monthly for the first six months and then, we go to every three months. It’s very easy to start treatment.

The other type of treatment, the Venetoclax plus with the obinutuzumab regimen, that’s the BCL-2 inhibitor with an antibody, it’s a finite therapy. So, people are treated for a year and then, they go off treatment. The flipside of that is they’re a lot more time intensive in the beginning. So, you have the IV therapy with the obinutuzumab. Venetoclax you, actually, have to ramp up the dose so patients have to come in weekly for the first five weeks and they have to come in monthly for their infusions. So, it’s much more time intensive upfront but then, you get to stop treatment. And so, those are considerations that I can’t answer for somebody.

I don’t know which one people would prefer and people prefer different things. So, we spend a lot of time talking about all of the different scenarios and what’s going to make the therapy work best for the patient.

Katherine:                  

How can patients stay informed about CLL?

Dr. Woyach:               

There is a lot of good information about CLL that’s available online through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

They have a number of resources for lots of different cancers, including CLL. There are a number of different patient centered websites. One is called the CLL Society. There are others that are heavily moderated, provide a lot of good information, and tend to stay on topic with CLL current developments and don’t get into the weeds too much I would say.

Katherine:                  

If there are side effects, what would some of the side effects be for these targeted therapies?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, it depends on the drug. So, BTK inhibitors, specifically, ibrutinib can cause some joint and muscle pain, some rashes, diarrhea, heart burn. Those are things that tend to, if they’re going to happen, usually happen earlier on in treatment and tend to get better over time. It can also cause high blood pressure. It can cause an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation.

So, those are things we watch out for with ibrutinib. Acalabrutinib really has all of the same side effects but for many of them, they don’t occur as often. And then, the tradeoff there is ibrutinib is given once a day and acalabrutinib is given twice a day. With venetoclax plus obinutuzumab with that regimen, you get a lot more hematologic toxicity. So, you see more lowering of the good white blood cell count, which is, obviously, a risk for infections. That regimen comes with a risk of something called tumor lysis syndrome, which is where the cells can break down too quickly and cause damage to the kidneys, damage to the heart.

It can also cause some GI disturbance like some diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, things like that. I see there are a lot of side effects. And, of course, when I’m talking to a patient about treatment, we go over them in more detail than that. But I think the important thing is with all of these therapies, we do have ways to manage these side effects.

One thing I think is important for patients to remember is your doctor doesn’t know you’re having side effects unless you tell them. So, we know that people have these side effects. But if you don’t tell us that you’re having diarrhea or heart burn or things like that, we can’t help with it. And we have a lot of medicines that can help these things.

Katherine:                  

That’s a good point. Are there emerging treatments patients should know about?

Dr. Woyach:               

Yeah. There are a lot of really exciting things going on in CLL right now. And CLL is a disease that has been completely transformed in the last five to ten years and is poised to do so again. So, I mentioned these therapies that we use for frontline treatment and there are clinical trials now combining them together. So, these agents work so well on their own. Are they going to be even better if we add them together?

There are also newer target therapies, different targets that we are finding increasingly important in CLL, as well as a modality called CAR-T cells, which most people have heard of where we take patients’ own T cells, modify them in the lab and then, give them back with a goal of getting those cells engineered to kill CLL cells.

These are all things that are not ready for prime time in CLL yet but are available in clinical trials. And I think one other thing I’d really like to put a plug in for is clinical trials in CLL because right now, we’re at a point where our therapies are really very good. But if people just do those treatments, we are never going to figure out which one is the best or figure out, for specific types of patients, which treatment is the best. And so, I advocate that any of my patients that are eligible for clinical trials should consider them because that’s how we make progress in the disease from an altruistic sense.

That’s how we make things better for everybody. That’s one way a patient can think about it. But more personally than that, being in a clinical trial gives somebody the opportunity to get a treatment that they otherwise wouldn’t get that might be better than our standard of care therapies.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Woyach, as a researcher in the field, why are you hopeful?

Dr. Woyach:               

I am so hopeful in CLL because there is so much that we’re learning every day about the biology of the disease, about specific mutations and other genetic factors that are important and really can be targeted by new drugs. Paralleling our understanding of the disease, there also are many more techniques to make these targeted therapies that kill cancer cells selectively while sparing normal cells and making our drugs even more tolerable.

And I think both the targeted therapies like this and the potential of combining them, figuring out sequences that are best but then, also these newer modalities where we, actually, get the immune system involved like the CAR-T cells. They’re making CAR NK cells now. And just lots of other strategies that could be used together with targeted therapies to, hopefully, cure the disease.

Katherine:                  

Thank you for taking the time to join us today and sharing all of this information with the patients. We appreciate it.

Dr. Woyach:               

Of course. It’s my pleasure.

Katherine:                  

Please take a moment to fill out our survey. It helps us as we plan upcoming programs. And thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit Powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell.

Ask Your Doctor About These Essential Genetic Tests for CLL

Ask Your Doctor About These Essential Genetic Tests for CLL from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Genetic testing results can impact a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s treatment options and provide a deeper understanding into their disease. Dr. Steven Coutre, a CLL specialist, reviews essential tests and explains their role in CLL care.

Dr. Steven Coutre is a Professor of Medicine in the Hematology Department at Stanford University Medical Center. Learn more about this expert here.

See More From INSIST! CLL


Related Resources

 

Partnering With Your Doctor on CLL Treatment Decisions

 

CLL & COVID 19: What Do Patients Need to Know?

 

How Can CLL Patients Take Advantage of Telemedicine?

Transcript:

Dr. Steven Coutre:

In terms of testing for CLL, additional testing, of course, diagnostically, it’s generally not a challenge. It’s very straight-forward. A test that we call Flow Cytometry on a blood sample is usually sufficient to establish the diagnosis. Very, very uncommonly would a bone marrow exam be needed, for example. And in routine practice, also, we don’t necessarily give CT scans to establish a diagnosis or even to, as people say, stage the disease. It really isn’t necessary in most cases.

However, we do have a staging system that correlates with the extent of the disease and that’s simply based on our exam and blood counts, but people also want more information. They wanna know how they’re gonna do, specifically. So, we can add additional tests, genetic testing as people often call it, that can further subdivide individuals into groups that give you additional information on how you might do, meaning if you’re without symptoms, and an observation is recommended, you wanna know, “Well, how long is it gonna be before I need treatment?” Although our staging system gives that information, we can refine that further.

One test is the so-called FISH test, which looks at specific chromosome abnormalities, and the second test that’s generally used is called the IGHV Mutation Assay. That’s really looking at what’s called the mutational status of your immunoglobulin genes. So, it’s really those two broad categories that are most relevant.

Now, we don’t necessarily advocate doing that testing on everyone at the time of diagnosis. Certainly, not everyone who is without symptoms, where we’ve already decided that treatment is not indicated. So, as you can imagine, you can do that testing. You might come up with a profile that’s less favorable. And then, instead of the watch and wait approach, or as folks like to call it, “watch and worry approach,” you worry even more. But then, of course, if you have a favorable profile, then you’re happier. You’re more pleased.

However, we don’t do anything differently regardless of what those tests show, at least at current state. Compared to a decision that’s already been made about treat or not treat. We do, however, strongly advocate getting that testing at the time of treatment, and sometimes, repeating some of the testing with subsequent treatment, when you require treatment, say, a second time, in some cases. So, very important to have a discussion about these tests and what information you will get from them.

Well, we’ll often see patients who are coming for another opinion about their disease. Perhaps they’ve been recently diagnosed, and they have been advised for observation, so, it’s, of course, natural to ask whether that’s a reasonable approach. And in that context, other testing often comes up in the conversation. Perhaps they had the testing done, the FISH, and the mutational testing, and they wanna know what it means, or actually we see some results that have been obtained and we ask them about it. And there’s very often confusion, or really lack of information about what they mean.

So, we really try to discuss that issue. That issue of testing with each and every patient, whether or not they’ve had it done, really trying to let them know what it means. That way they’re fully informed, and in some cases, people feel very strongly that they would like to have it done, even through they realize that we’re not gonna act on it at that point. So, I think pretty much for all patients, it should be part of the initial discussion.

Again, in terms of genetic testing are these tests that I discussed. It’s important to understand what information they give you so you understand why your physician may be making a distinction between one therapy versus another. It is very, very important to get that testing, if somebody is talking about using chemotherapy, for example, hopefully. That’s quite uncommon. But with our newer agents, we know that they work broadly despite those other features.

Nevertheless, I think it’s important for a patient to at least expect the discussion about these tests. We’re not asking you to go to your physician and ask that they be done in all cases, but really understand perhaps why your physician recommended that they not be done at that particular time. 

Advocate for These CLL Genetic Tests

Advocate for These CLL Genetic Tests from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Genetic testing results can influence a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s treatment options and provide a more in-depth understanding into their disease. Dr. Philip Thompson, a CLL specialist, reviews key tests that CLL patients should advocate for.

Dr. Phillip Thompson is an Assistant Professor in Medicine in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about this expert here.

See More From INSIST! CLL


Related Resources

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL

 

How Does COVID Impact CLL Patients?

 

What Do Genetic Tests Reveal About My CLL Treatment Options?


Transcript:

Dr. Philip Thompson:

I would say that I see a lot of patients that have previously seen an oncologist closer to home and then traveled to MD Anderson for a second opinion. And so, I can say that over the last three or four years, there’s definitely a significant change in the awareness of physicians in general about doing genetic testing for CLL.

So, in particular, almost everybody will get a FISH test, which I didn’t always see three or four years ago. And more patients are now having IGHV mutation status analysis done. The thing that I see that is very rarely done, though, is what we call next-generation sequencing, or NGS, that looks for mutations in individual genes, and most importantly, in the TP-53 gene that I mentioned.

So, I would – and the other thing that often isn’t done is what we call a carrier tag, which is a routine analysis of the chromosomes of the CLL cells. And it requires some special techniques for the lab to get it to work in CLL. But that can actually provide additional information compared to just FISH.

So, I would suggest to a patient, particularly if they’re gonna do a bone marrow biopsy on you, which is an invasive procedure, that you really try to get some clarity around what tests are going to be ordered on that beforehand. And if you’ve just been diagnosed and you’ve got early-stage CLL, you can make an argument about how many of these tests are absolutely necessary to start with. Because the biggest utility in these tests is in determining what type of treatment you’re going to have.

If you’re not immediately going to have treatment, they don’t necessarily change what your oncologist is going to do. They’re going to monitor you over time and see if your disease is getting worse or not. But I still think they’re useful to have the – a lot of them are useful, particularly the IGHV mutation status and FISH are useful to have at initial diagnosis. Because they give you a really good idea of what the biology of this disease is – this patient’s disease is like and how quickly they’re likely to progress, and that may change how frequently you monitor the patient.

But anyway, I would say it’s important to ask them what genetic testing you are gonna get. And that you ask – have an understanding of what can be ordered.

 And in particular, if you’re going to get treatment, you must ask for TP-53 sequencing, FISH for 17-P deletion, and IGHV mutation status because those three things are essential to determine the optimal treatment that you have. And you shouldn’t feel shy about asking, are those things going to be done.   

What Do Genetic Tests Reveal About My CLL Treatment Options?

What Do Genetic Tests Reveal About My CLL Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 
Genetic testing results can influence a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s treatment options and provide a more in-depth understanding into their disease. Dr. Phillip Thompson, a CLL specialist, reviews three important testing results that can impact treatment timing and approaches.
 
Dr. Phillip Thompson is an Assistant Professor in Medicine in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about this expert here.

See More From INSIST! CLL


Related Resources

 

Advocate for These CLL Genetic Tests

 

CLL & COVID 19: What Do Patients Need to Know?

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Dr. Philip Thompson:

So, there are three main things we look at before initiating treatment in a patient.

One is what we call the IGHV mutational status of the patient. And this basically splits people into types of CLL. So-called mutated or unmutated. And this is a relatively complex concept. Basically, what happens in normal B-lymphocyte development, so B-lymphocytes are part of your immune system. Their job is they have a probe on the surface of the cell that looks for invading microorganisms. And when they find an invader, this probe binds to the organism. And then the cell actually undergoes, as part of its normal development, a process of mutation so that it makes the best possible antibody to fight that infection. So that’s a normal process that the B-lymphocyte undergoes when fighting infections.

So, CLL can arise from what we call a mature antigen-experienced mutated B-cell, or it can arise from a naive B-cell that has never gone through that process, in which case, it will have an unmutated IGHV. Now, it’s kind of counterintuitive, but the patients with a mutated IGHV generally have better outcomes. That type of CLL is less proliferative, it doesn’t grow as fast, and it also tends to respond better to certain types of treatment. Particularly, it responds better to chemotherapy than patients with unmutated IGHV.

However, the difference between those two is less important if you’re getting some of the newer therapies. Particularly, it seems like if you receive BTK inhibitors, it doesn’t really matter if you have mutated or unmutated IGHV, patients are responding very well. But I like to know whether they have a mutated or unmutated IGHV because it’s helpful for giving the patient an expectation of how their disease is likely to behave biologically.

But also, if they have a mutated they may be a candidate for chemotherapy-based treatment. Whereas if they have unmutated IGHV, I don’t use chemotherapy for those patients.

 

The second thing is a test called FISH. And FISH looks for chromosome abnormalities. So, we have 46 chromosomes, 23 from our mother and 23 from our father. They contain all of our genetic information. And in malignant diseases, you can have major abnormalities in the chromosomes of the cancer cells. Not in the rest of your body, just in the cancer cells. And they happen because of errors that are made when the cells are replicating their chromosomes.                                                                 

So, in CLL, there are four common abnormalities that we look for in a test called FISH, and they tell us a lot about the patient’s prognosis. And there’s one in particular that we look at that has a major impact on our decision making, and that’s a deletion on Chromosome 17.

So, a missing piece of Chromosome 17. And the reason that that’s important is it tends to be an aggressive form of CLL. It also does not respond to chemotherapy, or if it does, the responses are very, very short-lived. So basically, that’s a contrary indication to receiving chemotherapy for your CLL when you should receive another form of therapy if you have a 17-P deletion.

And then, finally, we look at a type of – we look for individual gene mutations in the cells. And that’s different from IGHV mutational status, although the names are kind of similar.

So, in CLL, there are numerous genes that can be affected by mutations that alter the function of the gene. In some cases, it makes the gene non-functional; in some cases, it changes the function in some way that perturbs the normal functioning of the cell and contributes to the malignant transformation of that cell.

So, the most important one, again, relates to a gene called TP-53. So that’s the gene that is deleted if you lose a piece of Chromosome 17. It’s located on the P arm of chromosome 17. If you mutate that gene, it has the same consequences essentially for the cell as if you delete it by deleting a piece of the chromosome. And the two often go together, so you’ll have a 17-P deletion and a mutation of the TP-53 gene on your other Chromosome 17. Because remember, you have two chromosome 17s. So, if you lose both, it may be even worse than only having one. However, it does seem that if you only have a mutation on the TP-53 gene, but you don’t have a deletion on Chromosome 17, that the responses of those patients to chemoimmunotherapy are still really poor.

So, it’s very important to find out, do you have a TP-53 mutation as well as do you have a deletion on Chromosome 17 before you embark on treatment, particularly if that treatment is going to be chemotherapy. So, those are the three things that we look for before    we start any patient on therapy.

Minimal Residual Disease (MRD): What Does it Mean for You?

Minimal Residual Disease (MRD): What Does it Mean for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Dr. Matthew Davids defines the term minimal residual disease (MRD) and explains its role in managing chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

Dr. Matthew Davids is the Associate Director of the CLL Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. More about this expert.

See More From The Path to CLL Empowerment

Related Resources

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients

Fact or Fiction? CLL Treatment & Side Effects

How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Dr. Matthew Davids

So, one term that patients often come across when they’re looking online that they might not know exactly what it means is so-called MRD. This stands for minimal residual disease.

And MRD is increasingly becoming an important endpoint in our trials, meaning that it’s a test that we rely on to try to make decisions about treatment in the trials. And we’re hoping that this will be a strategy that we can eventually use in regular clinical practice.

So, what is MRD? Basically, MRD is a way to look, at a very, very molecular level, at tiny, tiny amounts of the disease. And this a feature of the fact that we have very effective treatments for CLL, and so we can give various treatments, whether it’s chemoimmunotherapy or drugs like venetoclax, for example. And then we can look under the microscope in, for example, the bone marrow tissue, and we might not see any CLL cells. So, we might call that a complete remission.

But often, there’s still evidence of molecular disease left behind that we can’t see under the microscope, but we can use very sophisticated biological techniques to actually detect what we call MRD. And we find that, if there is MRD present, that patients don’t tend to have as durable of a remission compared to when MRD is so-called undetectable.

So, it’s a very important term to understand. When patients get to an undetectable MRD state, that’s a very good thing. It means that they’re likely to have a very long response to whatever therapy they had. But you also have to remember that MRD itself has its limits of what it can detect. And so, just being undetectable for MRD does not mean that you’re necessarily cured of the CLL.

And there are patients who have undetectable MRD who later do have a recurrence of the CLL. But it does help us guide the treatment in terms of knowing that patients are in a good remission, that they may be able to stop the treatment that they’re on and enjoy a long response without the need for ongoing treatment.

But eventually, for most CLL patients, the disease will come back. And we can detect that sometimes with this MRD test as well. And that’s an interesting research question ongoing as to whether we should intervene at that point to restart therapy when we first see the MRD test become positive again. And hopefully, that’s something that we’ll continue to learn about as we further explore that question in clinical trials.

CLL Treatment Advances: What Do You Need to Know?

CLL Treatment Advances: What Do You Need to Know? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Dr. Matthew Davids reviews promising chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) research and shares online resources for patients to stay informed as treatments develop.

Dr. Matthew Davids is the Associate Director of the CLL Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. More about this expert.

See More From The Path to CLL Empowerment

Related Resources

Fact or Fiction? CLL Treatment & Side Effects

CLL Genetic Tests: How Do Results Impact Treatment and Care?

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients


Transcript:

Dr. Matthew Davids

So, this remains a very exciting time for CLL research. The last several years have witnessed the development of a number of these novel agent-based approaches, these oral drugs that target the different pathways inside the CLL cell that the cell survives with.

And so, we’ve really kind of reached the end of the beginning, as I call it, because the first goal, of course, was developing each one of these novel agent drugs on its own. We had to show first that they were safe and figure out what the dose was for patients, and then figure out that they’re effective on their own. And we’ve kind of checked those boxes at this point and reached a point where we have now several different novel agents that are FDA approved already for CLL patients.

And so, I think the big research challenge now going forward is kind of twofold. One is identifying the best combinations of these drugs to put together. And No. 2, identifying which patients will benefit most from which specific combinations.

And so, there’s a number of different clinical trials going on right now looking at these questions.

And just kind of highlighting some of them, one of them is the study of venetoclax with obinutuzumab that I mentioned before. We just had a pretty early readout from this study. But I think it’s gonna be very important to see how patients do over time after they finish the one year of therapy, and both for this study as well as another study called MURANO, which looked at the patients who had already had prior chemotherapy-based regimens and then received venetoclax, in this case with rituximab.

In both cases, when there’s time-limited therapy, I think a key research question is gonna be, when those patients do have progression of the CLL – hopefully years later – do they respond again to that same treatment? Can you use venetoclax again? And do the patients respond nicely? And if they do, then that could be a very nice intermittent treatment strategy to allow patients to be off therapy for a period of time, and then only to receive additional treatment when they need it.

I think another important and exciting area is the combination approaches. And I’ve talked about both ibrutinib and venetoclax as probably two of our most promising new drugs. And so, there are now a number of different studies exploring the combination of ibrutinib plus venetoclax given at the same time. And some of the initial data that’s been published looks very promising. This is a very well tolerated and highly effective combination in the initial studies. It’s all oral, which is nice. So, it’s just pills without the need for any infusions. And again, it’s designed to, hopefully, be a time-limited regimen, and patients hopefully will have a nice durable response after an initial treatment with these two drugs.

There are certainly a number of other drugs that are very promising as well. There’s a whole class that we haven’t talked about yet called PI3 kinase inhibitor drugs. We have two such drugs currently approved now for CLL patients, idelalisib and duvelisib. These drugs also are very effective for treating CLL but tend to have more side effects when they’re given as the first therapy. So, most patients will start with a different therapy. But then the PI3 kinase drugs can be a great option for patients who are in the relapse setting after they’ve had prior treatments.

And there’s another one in development called umbralisib, which also looks very promising and seems to perhaps be even the safest of these PI3 kinase inhibitor drugs. And that’s not yet FDA approved. But we anticipate it’s likely gonna get an approval relatively soon.

And so, combining these new PI3 kinase drugs also with venetoclax is an area of research interest, and a number of other combinations. As you can imagine, the longer the list grows of drugs, the more different combinations we can explore. And we’re trying to use the science from the laboratory to try to determine ahead of time what we think are the most promising strategies because we can’t do clinical trials of every single combination. But those are some of the sort of novel agent studies that I’m excited about right now.

I think the other area that could prove to be very helpful for our CLL patients is CAR T-cell therapy, which stands for chimeric antigen receptor T-cells. CAR T-cell therapy is a way to harness the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

So, to do this, we would take cells out from a patient. And these are T lymphocyte cells. So, not the CLL cells, but a normal immune cell called a T lymphocyte. And then the cells get educated outside the body to recognize CLL cells more effectively. And they’re grown up and expanded and then reinfused into a patient, where they can go around and kill CLL cells. This can be a very effective treatment and can lead to complete remissions with durability.

And this approach is now in clinical trials. There are some risks to CAR T-cell based therapy. Something called cytokine release syndrome, where patients can get very sick, almost like they have a severe infection, but they don’t have an infection. There’s some neurologic risks to this as well that can be quite scary if they happen but in almost all cases are reversible. So, I think that this is an interesting area of research right now. It’s certainly not yet approved by the FDA for CLL. But we hope that, over time, as the CAR T-cell therapy becomes more effective and has fewer side effects, that eventually it will become a therapy option for patients who have had prior treatments for their CLL.

So, I think despite the fact that we’ve made a lot of advances in the last few years, we still have a lot of work to do in the research area to try to improve our treatments even further for our CLL patients.

So, in terms of how patients can stay informed about all these developments, it frankly is quite challenging, even for us in the field, to keep up with all of this. But there are some resources that can help. The first thing I would say is that the research tends to come along in fits and spurts, and one of the fits is generally the big research meetings where we all gather together to present our new data.

And probably the biggest highlight of the year is the ASH meeting, American Society of Hematology, which is usually in early December. That’s a good time to start looking on the internet for news about CLL, latest treatments, those sorts of things. Often, it’s kind of early December where we first hear about these breaking stories.

Another meeting that’s become big over the last few years is the European Hematology Association, which usually takes place in mid-June. And that’s, again, another time when we often see new data coming about. And one area where I would say this could be very helpful – or one website that I think is helpful – is the CLL Society website. This is led by Brian Koffman, who himself is a CLL patient.

And he kind of collates a lot of the information from these meetings and puts them in one place on his website. He’ll often interview CLL specialists to get their opinion about some of the newest developments. And so, I think Brian’s webpage, CLLSociety.org, can really be a great resource for getting up to date on the latest data.

There certainly are other websites out there now as well which are helpful. For example, another one that I’m working with closely is called VJHemOnc. And VJHemOnc comes to these big meetings, again, interviews a lot of the experts on their takes on the new data.

And I find that this platform in particular, the video-based platform, can be very engaging. It really forces us, as the investigators, to kind of hone down on what the most important key points are and give little snippets about that. And I would think that would be easier for our patients, in many cases, to digest, compared to some of the original papers themselves, which can be quite dense.

So, those would be my major resources that I’d recommend for CLL patients who are looking for additional information on the latest research.

CLL Treatment Options: What’s Available NOW?

CLL Treatment Options: What’s Available NOW? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Matthew Davids reviews current chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment approaches and discusses the role of watch and wait.

Dr. Matthew Davids is the Associate Director of the CLL Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. More about this expert.

See More From The Path to CLL Empowerment

Related Resources

Fact or Fiction? CLL Treatment & Side Effects

CLL Genetic Tests: How Do Results Impact Treatment and Care?

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients


Transcript:

Dr. Matthew Davids:   So, we’re very fortunate in CLL that we have a number of very effective treatment options. But I would like to start by highlighting the fact that, for the majority of CLL patients when they’re first diagnosed, a watch and wait or observation strategy is generally preferred.

And this goes back to many years of research showing that there’s no survival advantage to starting early with chemotherapy-based approaches.

And we have some recent data with the newer drugs that, even with these better agents in terms of the tolerability, that early intervention strategies still probably don’t make a difference for our patients and are associated still with side effects and risks. So, the first important thing is to understand that it’s okay to be observed and go on to this watch and wait strategy, and that many patients can stay on this type of approach for many years.

However, once treatment is indicated, we do have a number of therapy options for CLL patients. And these go back to chemotherapy-based approaches, which have been around for quite a while now and now include some newer drugs that we call novel agents that are really transforming how we manage the disease. So, for younger, fitter patients, we can still think about chemoimmunotherapy, and in particular a regimen called FCR, which includes two chemotherapy drugs, fludarabine and cyclophosphamide, and a third drug which is an antibody called rituximab.

And this combination works very well, in particular for patients who are very fit and can tolerate it and remains a viable option. An advantage of this approach is that it’s time limited. It’s a six-month course. But there are some significant side effects from chemotherapy and some longer-term risks. And so, it’s something that we think carefully about before we recommend.

We really think about the novel agents now as being a good option for most of our patients with CLL. And these novel agents are typically pills that, in general, tend to be well tolerated, although each one has its unique risks and potential side effects. We’ve been using the drug ibrutinib now for a few years for the initial treatment of CLL. And this drug targets one of the pathways in the CLL that the cell relies on for its survival. And it’s a drug that patients take once per day. And once they start on it, they usually continue on it for a long period of time. We’ve had patients on this drug up to seven or eight years now who continue to do well.

Ibrutinib doesn’t tend to completely eradicate the CLL. But it often gets patients into very good remissions. And if they tolerate the drug well, then they can stay on it long term and control the disease. But typically, the drug is given as a continuous therapy. So, we don’t have as much experience with stopping it at this point. And so, that’s typically how we recommend giving it, is as a continuous drug.

Now, another new option for the initial therapy of CLL patients is called venetoclax, which is another pill that we have had a lot of experience with over the last few years in clinical trials. It was approved for patients who had previously had treatment for CLL for the last three years or so. And then just recently, the FDA gave approval to venetoclax as a first therapy for CLL patients. And we typically give this in combination with a different antibody drug called obinutuzumab, which is given intravenously.

So, this regimen, which we call venetoclax plus obinutuzumab, is typically given for a six-month combination course, followed by about six additional months of venetoclax pills. And then patients stop therapy at that point.

So, one of the advantages of this approach is that, like the chemotherapy, it’s a time-limited approach for one year. And we can often see very deep remissions that allow patients to remain off therapy for a period of time afterwards.

One of the issues so far is just that we don’t have as long-term follow up as we do with ibrutinib. So, we don’t know what’s gonna happen to these patients seven or eight years after they’ve started venetoclax plus obinutuzumab. We certainly hope that this one year of therapy provides a durable response for patients, and it certainly looks promising in that regard so far. But we currently have more long-term experience with ibrutinib as an initial treatment.

So, these are kind of the main options that we think about for patients who need their first therapy for CLL. We always think about observation first. But when patients do need treatment, we move toward either a chemoimmunotherapy-based approach with a regimen like FCR, or ibrutinib, or venetoclax plus obinutuzumab. And so, it’s great to have all these very valuable and effective options for our patients.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) Defined

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) Defined from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is CLL? Dr. Brian Hill defines chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and explains how it differs from small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL).

Dr. Brian Hill is the Director of the Lymphoid Malignancies Program at Cleveland Clinic. More about this expert.

See More From the Path to CLL Empowerment

Related Resources

Overwhelmed By a CLL Diagnosis? Key Steps to Take

How to Learn More About Your CLL

Fact or Fiction? CLL Causes and Symptoms


Transcript:

Dr. Brian Hill:

So, chronic lymphocytic leukemia is a term that refers to a cancerous condition in which the abnormal or cancerous white blood cells are a type of B-cells with certain characteristics that are present above a certain threshold in the blood. Those same cancer cells can also grow and divide and set up shop in other organs besides the blood and bone marrow.

And that can be a lymph node, spleen and sometimes we find the exact same type of cell in a lymph node or other parts of the body. And we don’t find it in large quantities enough in the blood. And when that happens, we call it small lymphocytic lymphoma or SLL. So, people get very confused by the terminology, “Do I have leukemia, or do I have lymphoma.” And so, a lot of times there’s a reference to a condition called CLL-SLL. CLL-SLL really is one disease.

And the term leukemia or lymphoma really just refers to where is the predominant location for the abnormal cancer B-cells. Are they in the blood or are they in the tissue?

If it’s in the blood, mostly above 5,000 cells per microliter, that’s the cut off. If it’s in the blood predominantly, it’s CLL. But if those same cells are in the lymph nodes or the spleen but not above that threshold of 5,000 in the blood, then the term is small lymphocytic lymphoma. And often times that diagnosis made from a tissue biopsy or a lymph node biopsy rather through a blood test or a bone marrow biopsy. Really, these are the same disease. And even physicians who don’t practice in this area get confused about it.

And it’s important to know that they can be treated exactly the same and are interchangeable. Rarely I’ve seen a mistake be made that someone who has a diagnosis of SLL or small lymphocytic lymphoma is treated with the types of chemotherapy drugs that we would typically use for indolent forms of lymphoma.

And some of those therapies overlap. So, there are biologic similarities and clinical similarities between B-cell lymphomas and CLL-SLL for sure. But there is a lot of nuance in B-cell lymphomas, and not every single treatment that works really well for B-cell lymphoma should be used in CLL or SLL.

You’re Not a Guinea Pig: Understanding Clinical Trial Participation

You’re Not a Guinea Pig: Understanding Clinical Trial Participation from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

“Will I be a guinea pig if I participate in a clinical trial?” CLL expert Dr. Brian Hill explains the clinical trial process and addresses common patient fears and misconceptions.

Dr. Brian Hill is the Director of the Lymphoid Malignancies Program at Cleveland Clinic. More about this expert.

See More From the Path to CLL Empowerment

Related Resources

What You Need to Know About Developing CLL Research

The Truth About CLL Treatment Options

Tips for Determining the Best CLL Treatment for You


Transcript:

Dr. Brian Hill:

So, one of the first questions many people ask about being a clinical trial participant is, “Am I a guinea pig?” And what I would say is we’re always practicing medicine. Anything we do, we’re practicing.

But we are always trying to get better whether it’s formally on a trial or not. In terms of side effects of treatment, no matter what – if we have the treatment available, any medication can potentially cause side effects. And it’s very difficult to predict. So, even if you are not on a clinical trial, you could be treated with a standard therapy and potentially have problems or difficulty with it. In terms of clinical trials, it depends where in the sort of journey you are in. If you have never been treated before and now you need to be treated, there are trials that are appropriate for people who are at their first line of treatment.

And this is not typically where we are experimenting with new drugs. So, this is typically where we have established treatments or just sort of trying to compare which one is better. Sometimes these are randomized.

So, there’s a flip of a coin, and you can be assigned to one or another. And I understand why many patients may not want to have their treatment determined by chance. But I would keep in mind that usually if this is being done, it’s been vetted through not just the institution where they are being treated, but often times through review boards throughout the country who basically say, “We think it’s okay to have a flip of a coin decision here because if we have a great treatment which is A and a great treatment which is B and we really don’t know if A or B is better, it’s okay to sort of have a randomization where you may get A or B.”

Sometimes A is the standard and B is likely to be better, but we don’t really know that B is better. And the only way to get the second option would be to be on the clinical trial. So, in that case if you are enrolled, the “worst” option would be the standard.

But it may give you the option of being even better than the standard. And again, if we knew that the second option was better then it wouldn’t be a clinical trial, it would be our standard.  This is sort of how we make progress. And it requires a buy in from the medical community and physicians, but also, it’s important that patients feel comfortable with it. So, that’s kind of for front line treatment. In terms of subsequent therapies, again there are a lot of very good standard treatments available.

And sometimes there are new drugs that are being developed. If the new drug has never been given before to a human, that’s called a Phase One trial. And typically, those are given or offered to people who have had many other lines of therapy and may not have other good options. But sometimes we know that the new drug has been given to people, it’s safe.

The side effect profile is already known even if it hasn’t been given to large numbers of people. And in those cases that would be something around something often called a Phase Two trial where we know it’s safe, but we’d love to see how well it works. And that’s an option for patients as well.

Right. So, outside of talking with your hematologist/oncologist or CLL specialist, there are many other resources for getting information about CLL. The Lymphoma Research Foundation, The Leukemia Lymphoma Society and the CLL Society are all great organizations that have useful websites.

They have 1-800 numbers you can call into. Many of these groups have – I know the CLL Society has a support group in many cities that’s held on a regular basis. And often times there are patient meetings organized through LLS or LRF, the two groups that I mentioned, that allow patients to come and learn from each other and also ask questions of specialists who may be speaking at those events.

An Overview of New CLL Treatments

An Overview of New CLL Treatments from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Are there new CLL treatment approaches that patients should know about? Dr. Brian Hill reviews the “explosion of new treatments” in the past few years.

Dr. Brian Hill is the Director of the Lymphoid Malignancies Program at Cleveland Clinic. More about this expert.

See More From the Path to CLL Empowerment

Related Resources

Tips for Determining the Best CLL Treatment for You

Fact or Fiction? CLL Treatment & Side Effects

CLL Genetic Tests: How Do Results Impact Treatment and Care?

 


Transcript:

Dr. Brian Hill:

So, there’s been an explosion of new treatments for CLL just in the past five years. As of before 2014, most of the treatment we had involved both traditional chemotherapy drugs with antibodies.

Those antibodies include Rituximab and more recently other antibodies such as obinutuzumab. The explosion that I’m referring to is really in the development of very effective and generally well tolerated targeted agents. The most well known in the first one of these was Ibrutinib which inhibits a protein that tells the CLL cells to grow and divide called BTK. There are other blockers or inhibitors of BTK that are now approved include Acalabrutinib. The side effect of these are slightly different, and there are reasons why you might choose one or the other.

There’s also a very potent medication called Venetoclax which is now used – which has a different mechanism of action than BTK blockers.

Many of these work better when you combine them with the antibodies I mentioned. And so right now a lot of the research that’s ongoing is examining the utility of combining these agents or how to best sequence them. So, much of the decision about how we can best treat patients is derived from really well done, well designed clinical trials. And sometimes clinical trials can give patients an option that’s not yet a standard but is likely to become a standard.

Or it can give you access to a drug that is promising and not yet widely available. So, there are definitely times to seek – at least ask the question whether a clinical trial is a good option or the best option.

And there may be times where it is not appropriate, and the standard treatments are very reasonable and may require fewer visits to a referral center to be treated. So, I think it’s worth having that conversation both with the primary hematologist/oncologist as well as the CLL specialist.

Not to Worry! Your Guide to Watch and Wait

Not to Worry! Your Guide to Watch and Wait from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Watch and wait, or active surveillance, often feels like watch and worry to CLL patients. Dr. Brian Hill provides a comprehensive guide to the period of time before CLL treatment begins and shares approaches for managing anxiety.

Dr. Brian Hill is the Director of the Lymphoid Malignancies Program at Cleveland Clinic. More about this expert.

See More From the Path to CLL Empowerment

Related Resources

Overwhelmed By a CLL Diagnosis? Key Steps to Take

How to Learn More About Your CLL

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients


Transcript:

Dr. Brian Hill:

So, watch and wait is the term that’s referred to for not actively treating a patient with CLL after the diagnosis. As many people probably out there watching know, the diagnosis of CLL is often made incidentally or accidentally through routine laboratory tests that are done for some other reason.

Maybe they are going to have surgery. Or maybe they are going to have just a primary care checkup. And blood count shows too many white blood cells. And everything else is fine. The patient feels normal. There’s no symptom. But it leads to a referral usually to a hematologist who then does more testing and makes a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The word leukemia is very scary because it often conjures up images of acute leukemia which is a disease that can make people very sick very quickly.

We’re taught in much of medicine and in much of cancer that early diagnosis and early treatment is very important. And it is very important for many conditions – breast cancer or we’re taught let’s get our mammograms.

And have an early detection and immediate treatment to cure the breast cancer. Similarly, colon cancer – get your colonoscopy, get your diagnosis sooner rather than later. And have surgery so you can have a higher likelihood of a cure. In the case of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, it’s never been shown despite multiple attempts over many decades, that treating someone with CLL is – earlier, is going to impact the outcomes and the big picture. But we do know that treating CLL earlier can lead to more side effects earlier.

So, in other words, if you feel fine and your blood counts are just a little abnormal, and there’s not compelling indication to treat, we can safely observe patients until an indication for treatment exists. And what I tell patients is that if we treat today, the treatment will work.

If we treat tomorrow, the treatment will work. And if we treat in five years, the treatment will work. So, there’s – we have very good evidence that delaying treatment until you need it does not compromise the likelihood of the treatment working. So, it’s a little bit of a different mindset from other types of cancer where we are taught to treat early and immediately. So, a lot of times people will call it watch and worry instead of watch and wait, and there’s a lot of anxiety about that.

Again, their diagnosis has the word leukemia in it. It can be a very scary time. And it takes a little bit of trust to be convinced that you don’t need to be treated just because you have it. And that’s often times when we do get second opinions if the first hematologist/oncologist says it’s okay to watch it and wait. We don’t need to treat. A lot of the time people then seek another opinion to confirm that’s accurate. And in most cases – I would say 90% of the time when I’ve had a second opinion for a patient who’s been recommended to watch and wait, I typically concur with that recommendation.

So, during watchful waiting or – I like to call it active surveillance because it’s not that we aren’t doing anything, we are surveilling or monitoring. And the two things that we monitor are symptoms and blood counts. So, it sort of begs the question that many people ask which is, “If you are not going to treat me now, when will you treat me? When will I need to be treated?” And the first indication – the first thing we look at is symptoms. So, if you have symptoms of significant fatigue to the point where you are really having a difficult time functioning.

Or if you have drenching night sweats that wake you up from night and make you change your nightclothes. Those type of symptoms would push us to treat. So, those are the things that are being asked of patients at their regular follow up which is usually every two or three months initially.

And sometimes can be spaced out to every four to six months if things are stable. But usually during the first year you want to be checking on folks every two to three months. Weight loss would be another symptom to look out for – sort of unintentional weight loss. The other thing we monitor is the blood counts. So, with a simple CBC or complete blood count, we can see what is happening with the white blood cell count which may and often goes up.

And a lot of folks focus on the white blood cell count and its trajectory and how that is rising. Some people’s white blood cell count can fluctuate. Others can stay relatively flat. And some people do have a continued rise on the white blood cell count. The white blood cell count in and of itself is not the final reason to recommend treatment.

But with time, as the white blood cell count goes up, we sometimes see the other numbers going down. And actually, the other numbers going down are the ones that are more important. Those numbers are – the red blood cell count measurement which is usually measured by hemoglobin concentration or hematocrit. And then the other is the platelet number. So, if either the hemoglobin or the platelet number gets below threshold, those are typically indications for treatment.

So, during this period of observation or active surveillance – watchful waiting, whatever term you choose. This can go on for years.

And it can be associated with anxiety. So, trying to do things to cope with managing anxiety is important. Other things that many people are interested in are – is diet. So, do we know of a particular food or food group that we should focus on? Or is there something we should avoid? And the short answer to that is that many – it’s a difficult topic to study. As you might imagine, diet can be so varied around people. And in a typical week the average person eats so many different types of foods that it’s difficult to focus in on one particular thing.

What we can say is that in general for health, clearly fresh fruits and vegetables are the best source of nutrition. And also, are best for your health.

Avoiding processed foods and processed meats and other foods that are high in saturated fats is probably important in general for your health. Although we can’t say specifically that it’s definitely going to make an impact in the white blood cell count or the trajectory of the CLL. In terms of supplements and natural products, many people are interested in this topic. And again, it is a difficult one to study. Some of the natural products out there are purified forms of things from plants and other ingestible herbs and so forth.

But the problem is, is that if you take any component – even if it’s natural occurring, take it in large quantities it can lead to other problems. There was a well-known study from – that studied the impact of green tea extract on the white blood cell count.

And if you took large quantities of green tea extract, it seemed as if it did sort of lower the white blood cell count a little bit. But some people also had abnormalities of their liver function as a result. So, I don’t recommend green tea extract. And I instead say, “If you like tea and you want to drink green tea, I think that’s probably fine.” But I wouldn’t do it in excess. And just maybe try to incorporate it into a balance diet otherwise.

Overwhelmed By a CLL Diagnosis? Key Steps to Take

Overwhelmed By a CLL Diagnosis? Key Steps to Take from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

CLL advocate Dr. Brian Koffman, outlines key steps to take following a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) diagnosis.

Dr. Brian Koffman is the cofounder, chief medical officer, and executive vice president of The CLL Society.

See More From The Path to CLL Empowerment


Related Resources

How Can Patients Advocate for Genetic Testing

Expert Advice for Newly Diagnosed CLL Patients

CLL Office Visit Planner


Transcript:

Dr. Koffman:             

When somebody’s starting their CLL journey, there is some advice that I’d like to give people. The first is take your time. CLL rarely needs to be treated as soon as it’s diagnosed. You have time to learn about the disease, to familiarize yourself with the disease, and that learning is an iterative process.

You go over and over stuff, and eventually, this incredibly foreign language full of acronyms and medical talk becomes more familiar to you, and you feel more comfortable with it. But, it’s very overwhelming at first, but it’s not like some acute leukemias and other kinds of cancer, where they’re gonna see you on Tuesday and book the start of therapy on Friday. In CLL, that almost never happens. So, the first thing I would say is take a deep breath, under-react, and accept that you’ve got some time to make that decision.

The second strong piece of advice I would give people is to get an expert on your team. I can’t emphasize that enough. CLL is a rare cancer that the treatment paradigms have shifted radically in the last couple years, and they’re continuing to shift. And, if you’re not taking advantage of those changes – and, the research shows that in the community, patients are still too often getting inappropriate or less-than-optimum care compared to what’s happening in academic research centers.

You wanna get into their Rolodex file. You wanna be in their system so if a crisis happens three years down the line, you’re not a new patient trying to get an appointment. You have them in your system.

A third point that I’d make is to insist that you get appropriate testing before each and every treatment of your CLL. “Test before treat” is one of our mantras at the CLL Society because CLL tends to evolve over time, and not some – most, but not all of the prognostic and predictive factors can change over time, and those factors can be very influential in terms of saying, “This therapy will work, that therapy won’t work.” It’s critical that you know that, and if you knew it a year ago, it may be different now, so it’s critical to insist that your doctor do the appropriate predictive and prognostic testing.

We outline that on our website in our “test before treat” section in terms of what tests you need to have done. Take your time, get an expert, and get tested before treatment.

So, one of the questions I get asked is how can people learn more about CLL?

So, you can – some people like to learn online. CLLSociety.org has highly curated, medically reviewed articles that can help people from the beginning move forward. Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has useful resources on their website and has pamphlets that can help. Lymphoma Research Foundation is another. The Patient Empowerment Network offers you resources, listening to CLL experts and other CLL patients.

Going to support groups – you can often learn from other patients’ experiences. There’s nothing like meeting another patient and finding out what they’re like in that journey, especially if you’re two months into the journey and they’re 15-20 years into the journey. That can be incredibly helpful for you to see what their personal experience was in doing that. So, and also, there’s educational forums – for example, at the CLL Society, we have a dozen educational forums across the country every year – that give people an opportunity to learn from experts at places like the National Institutes of Health, Dana-Farber, MD Anderson, UCSD, and the Mayo Clinic.

So, we usually have one that isn’t far away from people to be able to go to if you wanna do your learning live.

How Can Patients Learn About Developing CLL Research?

How Can Patients Learn About Developing CLL Research? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Dr. Danielle Brander explains why it’s important for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients to stay up-to-date on developing research and treatment news. Dr. Brander also shares resources for learning more about clinical studies.

Dr. Danielle Brander is Director of the CLL and Lymphoma Clinical Research Program at Duke Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Brander here.

See More From the Path to CLL Empowerment


Related Programs

CLL Genetic Tests: How Do Results Impact Treatment and Care?

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients

How Can Patients Advocate for Genetic Testing?


Transcript:

Dr. Brander:

I think it’s very important that patients and their caregivers stay informed and advised of opportunities to participate in ongoing research. I think there’s a misconception that with all the favorable progress in treatment options available for CLL, that there’s no longer the need for clinical research participation.

Though, there are a lot of novel options available for CLL, there’s still a lot of ways that we can improve care for patients. That is, there are trials with the next-generation inhibitors or for patients traditionally with harder to treat CLL or may become resistant to the novel agents, there’s a lot of trials looking into how do you combine the novel agents to give patients the best options. And then a lot of the research, too, are not just in the treatments.

But as our science advances into looking at other markers of the CLL cells, or what we call the depth of response, how much CLL you kill with the treatments and how low of a level we can get in terms of detection. This may result in a situation where patients have the opportunity to receive novel treatments, have a really good response, and then potentially stop the treatments and be followed off of therapies, so have the benefit of novel treatment but not with having to go on an ongoing drug forever and ever.

When I talk to a patient about opportunities for clinical trials, I’m really focused on the patient in front of me. That is, I wouldn’t offer or talk about a trial if I didn’t think it potentially could benefit the patient in front of me.

And again, though we’ve had a lot of advances in treatment options, there are certainly a lot of ways that we can engage and hopefully help patients moving forward. There’s been recent studies across all cancers showing that unfortunately a very low percent of patients are offered and enrolled and participating in clinical research studies, and I think it’s really important that patients know there’s a lot of opportunities out there that potentially could benefit them.

The different ways to be advised and informed, again, are some of the resources online educationally for CLL and lymphoma that often post about different sites for clinical trials. There’s a clinical trials.gov web site that all sites in the United States that are enrolling trials with patients have to log clinical trials, and though that has to be updated, it often can be a good beginning site.

But in the end, hopefully the best resource is your treatment team, your oncologist, and your other team that can help point you to what trials might be eligible for you, either at the location where you are or close by.

The last part I’ll point out is though we focus a lot on the treatment clinical trials, in CLL, where patients don’t always need treatment right away or may have treatment and have a response and then have a long period of time afterward, is that many centers are helping to engage patients in research that is not necessarily done during the time of their treatment. Again, to try to understand why some patients have a longer course until they require treatment, or why they might have responded differently, or other ways we can improve their care.

How is a CLL Treatment Path Determined?

How is a CLL Treatment Path Determined? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Danielle Brander explains the patient-specific factors and disease-specific factors that are taken into consideration when determining a treatment approach for people with CLL.

Dr. Danielle Brander is Director of the CLL and Lymphoma Clinical Research Program at Duke Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Brander See More From the Path to CLL Empowerment


Transcript:

Dr. Brander:

There are several factors to take in consideration when discussing individualized treatment approaches or options for patients.

Broadly, this can be divided into patient-specific factors, and then CLL-specific factors. And what I mean by that is patient’s age, even for patients very fit, we know from clinical trials that there’s a different processing, tolerability, and benefit of certain chemotherapies and a higher risk of certain side effects, even with the novel therapies as patients advance in age.

There are other patient-specific factors such as there are other medical problems. We often call these comorbidities. These are things like cardiovascular or a heart problem history, diabetes, kidney function differences. A lot of those factors play into individualizing when you know different treatment side effects what might be the best option for patients.

In the CLL-specific factors, these are some of the markers and characteristics that we have talked about in terms of FISH testing, TP53 mutation status, and IGHV mutation status. Based on recent clinical trials for patients receiving first treatment, if there are any changes, which historically chemotherapy didn’t treat the CLL for as long as we would have liked, we tend to err towards the novel agents for sure. And even across all markers, there can be a benefit of the newer drugs such as ibrutinib or venetoclax, or many of the other next-generation inhibitors that are in development. But for sure, patients with deletion 17p or TP53 mutation should never receive chemoimmunotherapy.

There’s a lot of research going into understanding what other CLL-specific markers may benefit for one treatment type versus the next. And we hope that all patients could potentially benefit from clinical trials both in the options that are offered as well as some of this other testing, which is how do you determine which markers are important for patients in the era of the drugs that we have today.

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

See More From The Path to CLL Empowerment

Dr. Danielle Brander provides an overview of essential lab testing for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients and discusses which tests should be repeated over time.

Dr. Danielle Brander is Director of the CLL and Lymphoma Clinical Research Program at Duke Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Brander here.

Related Resources

CLL Genetic Tests: How Do Results Impact Treatment and Care?

What is Personalized Medicine?

How Can Patients Advocate for Genetic Testing?

 


Transcript:

Dr. Brander:               

So, there are additional laboratory tests besides the genomic or the prognostic markers that patients should have at the time of diagnosis. One that all patients have is a test called the flow cytometry, and that is done often for CLL patients on the peripheral blood. It may also be done on the lymph node or the bone marrow. And this is a profile of the surface of the cells that help your pathologist and your oncologist to confirm that this looks like CLL.

So most patients when they’re told of the diagnosis will have this either from the blood or it’s found on the lymph node. Notably, it’s not required in all patients, and most patients, in fact, to have a bone marrow biopsy at the time of diagnosis unless there’s a concern about other blood counts being low, and it’s not clear why that is going on.

Most of the other tests besides the prognostic genomic genetic markers that we talked about such as FISH, or IGHV, or TP53 are routine tests. So patients will have a repeat blood count, and this should be a blood count with a differential of the white blood count. CLL is a problem of a type of white cells called lymphocytes. So on the differential of the types of white cells you’ll see the lymphocytes are usually marked clearly elevated. But the differential also makes sure that there’s no low other white blood cells such as neutrophils, which are important in fighting bacterial infection.

It’s also a good idea to have at the time – and most patients will – a baseline chemistry, which include the kidney and the liver function. Though definitely not common, some patients can have involvement of CLL of the liver or kidneys.

This is pretty rare, especially around the time of diagnosis. It’s helpful to have those baseline tests. It’s also helpful because the median age of diagnosis of CLL is usually the early 70s, and so a repeat of the baseline kidney and liver function might find other chronic health problems that are important to know moving forward.

Some of the other tests, baseline labs, are more patient specific, and might need follow-up. For example, if the blood count revealed anemia, which is a low hemoglobin or hematocrit, the cells that carry oxygen, your treating team might want to order additional tests for anemia and make sure that the anemia isn’t due to something totally unrelated to the CLL such as iron deficiency or B12 deficiency, etc. So, there might be additional lab tests depending on the additional screening tests that are obtained at that time.

One other test that I’ll – or two other tests that I’ll mention at diagnosis, 1.) Is immunoglobulins, mostly for patients that have had a problem with recurrent infections because patients can have low antibody levels associated with CLL, even if it’s not been treated. So, your team – if recurrent infections have been a problem – may check for those antibody levels, those immunoglobulin levels. A second test that can be helpful at baseline is a test called SPEP or serum protein electrophoresis, which looks for extra proteins in the blood. And again, this can be seen with CLL and other lymphomas, and especially depending on patient’s symptoms, your physician, and treating team might want to obtain those labs.

Again, there are good resources online including the NCCN, CLL and leukemia patient-specific sites that might give a better outline beyond what we can cover today of tests that might be helpful in your specific case.

There are labs and tests in CLL that are repeated over time. Two of the common ones obtained at baseline, the complete blood count and the chemistry, will usually be repeated at every visit after diagnosis for patients not being treated at the time of diagnosis. They’re part of the monitoring, so every three or four months after you’re diagnosed when you see your oncologist and you have an exam, your history of how you’ve been doing, and labs taken, the white count and the chemistries are all to be followed with time.

At the time of treatment, there’s often additional tests that might be done depending on the type of treatment you’re receiving to make sure you don’t have a specific risk for recurrent reactivation of infections, for example. So the testing might change at the time of treatment. And specific to the prognostic biomarkers, the genomic or genetic testing of the CLL that we mentioned, some of them are repeated with time and some aren’t. The FISH, which is obtained at the time of diagnosis is recommended to be repeated. If patients have treatment, the CLL goes into response, and then relapses because the FISH testing can change with time.

The IGHV mutation status, however, as long as it was felt to be an adequate appropriate sample, is a characteristic of the leukemia that doesn’t change with time and would not be repeated. Similar to FISH, it’s a good idea to test the TP53 at the – not always at the time of diagnosis, but before treatment to make sure there’s not TP53 mutation.

But then similar to FISH, if the CLL goes into response and relapses, it’s advisable to repeat the TP53 as that can change as patients have different treatment options and they both help to, as mentioned, inform the first treatment. They’re also helpful to have in mind as patients are being followed on treatments because some patients have a higher risk of the treatment to stop working, for example, if there are higher-risk genomic changes.