Which CLL Treatment Approach Could be Right for You?

Which CLL Treatment Approach Could be Right for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Which CLL treatment approach might be best for your individual disease? This animated video walks through important considerations that help guide treatment decisions, including genetic testing results, lifestyle factors and patient preference. 

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


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CLL Treatment Decisions: What Path is Best for YOU?

 How to Be A Partner in Your CLL Care  Key CLL Treatment Decision-Making Factors

Transcript:

Hi, I’m Christy. I’m a nurse practitioner and I specialize in chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. With a variety of available treatment options, CLL patients often wonder which approach might be best for their individual disease.

Before we walk through the information that goes into choosing a treatment approach, I want to remind you that this video is intended to help educate CLL patients and their loved ones and shouldn’t be a replacement for advice from your doctor.

So, how is a treatment path determined?

CLL physicians will typically consider several key factors to help guide the decision.

When many CLL patients are first diagnosed, their medical team may use an approach called “watch and wait” or “active surveillance.” This means that treatment won’t begin immediately. Their healthcare team will monitor their CLL via in-person visits and lab testing. And, some patients may never even need treatment, depending on their individual situation.

But, if bloodwork indicates advanced disease, enlarged, bothersome lymph nodes develop, or, if symptoms like fatigue and night sweats are negatively affecting a patient’s daily life, then it may be time to treat the CLL.

Physicians typically consider a patient’s age, overall health, and existing conditions before they suggest an approach. There are also several tests on the CLL cells that may help guide treatment decisions.

Physicians use immune globulin heavy chain gene, also known as IGHV, mutational analysis to determine whether a patient is IGHV mutated or unmutated.

In IGHV mutation analysis testing, being “mutated” is a favorable finding. 

If a patient’s IGHV status is mutated, and, depending on other factors such as age and overall health, the physician may recommend a treatment called FCR. FCR stands for the drugs used in this approach, which are two chemotherapy drugs combined with a targeted treatment that is a monoclonal antibody.  

However, it is important to realize that due to side effects and other risks, chemotherapy is not for everybody. Non-chemotherapy treatments work very well for IGHV mutated patients as well as unmutated patients.

If a patient has unmutated IGHV, then a targeted treatment or a clinical trial might be more effective.

Molecular testing, also known as genetic testing, can identify specific genes, proteins, chromosome changes, and other factors unique to your CLL.

The results can provide your healthcare team with information related to prognosis, risk and which therapy may be most effective in treating your disease.  

One of the most widely used tests is call a FISH test and it looks for specific changes in the chromosomes of your CLL cells.  These specific changes can help understand how well certain treatments are likely to work for you. 

For example, patients with the chromosome abnormality “17p deletion” may have higher-risk disease and will not respond well to chemotherapies such as FCR. An oral targeted treatment approach or a clinical trial will be more effective in patients with 17p deletion.

There are several types of targeted treatments that are currently approved to treat CLL including:

  • Monoclonal Antibodies, which work by targeting specific proteins on cancer cells.
  • And, Kinase Inhibitors, which work by blocking proteins that tell the cancer cell to grow and survive.
  • A combination of treatment approaches may also be considered.

Before you start any treatment, it’s essential to ask your doctor if you have had relevant CLL genetic testing, including FISH testing, and what the results could mean for you.

Finally, one of the most important factors that your healthcare team will consider is YOUR treatment goals. 

It’s very important to consider a treatment’s course and potential side effects.

With the many options available today to treat CLL, you will be able to get effective treatment. How your treatment choice affects your other health conditions and your lifestyle is essential.

Remember, you are a partner in your care and have an active voice in finding the best treatment for you.

When treatment is discussed may be a good time to consider a second opinion or a consult with a specialist.  If you don’t feel supported or an active member of your team, then it is always best to get another opinion if you are able.

So, how can you put this information to work for you and help improve your care?

  • Talk to your physician about what you’ve learned.
  • Ask about testing mentioned in this video and whether you need to be retested over time.
  • Discuss clinical trials with your physician.
  • Visit credible resources to stay up to date on CLL information.

Visit powerfulpatients.org/cll to learn more about CLL.

Guide: How Can You Access the Latest CLL Treatment Options?

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How Can You Access the Latest CLL Treatment Options?

How Can You Access the Latest CLL Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Could a new or emerging chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment be right for you? In this 30-minute webinar, Dr. Anthony Mato will review current and emerging CLL treatment approaches, important decision-making considerations, and the ins and outs of clinical trials.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit

Download Program Resource Guide


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Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor?

 How to Be A Partner in Your CLL Care  Key CLL Treatment Decision-Making Factors

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello, and welcome to the webinar. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program.

Today we’re going to explore promising CLL research and what I could mean for you. Joining me is Dr. Anthony Mato. Welcome, Dr. Mato.                

Would you please introduce yourselves?

Dr. Mato:                   

Hi, I’m Anthony Mato, Director of the CLL Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Katherine:                  

Great. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team. Well, Dr. Mato, when it comes to CLL treatment there seems to be an abundance of new and developing options which, of course, is a great problem to have. To help patients understand more about the types of treatment currently available, let’s review the treatment classes and discuss how they work to fight CLL.

Well, and let’s start with chemo. Some patients are probably familiar with the term FCR. What does that stand for, and how does work?

Dr. Mato:                   

Sure. FCR is a name for three chemotherapies that are combined together.

So, this is fludarabine, cyclophosphamide which are two cytotoxic chemotherapies combined with the monoclonal anti-CD20 antibody rituximab, so two traditional chemos plus an immunotherapy called rituximab that have worked together synergistically and have been quite effective over a prolonged people of time for treating patients with CLL. FCR was originally developed at MD Anderson.

But a very important CLL trial called CLL8 confirmed that FC plus rituximab was better than FC by itself, so a trial that demonstrated improvement in progression-free survival but also in overall survival advantage. And so, this became the standard of care more than a decade, and it has been a very common chemotherapy combination for patients.

Katherine:                  

What about monoclonal antibodies? How do these treat CLL?

Dr. Mato:                   

Great question. So, right now, we have several monoclonal antibodies that are approved in CLL.

They all target the same cell surface marker called CD20. And so, the way antibodies work in general in these patients, in our patients is that we identify a cell surface marker. In this case, it’s the protein CD20, and these antibodies are able to target that specific cell surface marker, bind to it, and in a way act as a flag for the immune system to destroy these cells.

So, an antibody like rituximab may be able to destroy a cell directly, or it may flag the cell to be destroyed within the immune system within the spleen, for example. So, different mechanisms of action but it’s a targeted therapy because it focuses on a specific protein that’s largely expressed on the cancer cells relative to other cells within the body.

Katherine:                  

There are also a variety of inhibitor treatments. What are they, and what exactly are they inhibiting?

Dr. Mato:                   

Yeah, so the kinase inhibitors are probably some of the most important drugs developed for CLL to date.

And we have different classes. One group would be BTK inhibitors which stands for Bruton tyrosine kinase, another would be PI3K inhibitors. Another class would be a BCL-2 inhibitor which is a little bit different. Essentially, the way to think about inhibitors are that they identify key molecules within a cell that are very important for either cell survival or cell signaling. These are the molecules that tell cells to either migrate or to hone in on a particular area or to amplify signaling to allow them to survive.

So, a drug like ibrutinib or acalabrutinib which are BTK inhibitors block this BTK signal and interrupts a very important survival signal in the cell, kinda causes it to go haywire in many ways, and then allows those cells to slowly die over time. PI3K inhibitors like idelalisib or duvelisib do the same. They block a very important and parallel signaling pathway to BTK that cause a very similar effect.

And then venetoclax which is a BCL-2 inhibitor works a little bit differently. So, CLL cells are very primed to actually die except that there are signals in place that block that process called apoptosis, and so venetoclax blocks the blocker of that signal, sort of inhibits the inhibitor to cell death and allows that natural process of cell death to occur in CLL cells.

And so, they’re kinda targeting different pathways, but they’re able to stop the cell in a way. This is very different than cytotoxic chemotherapy like the FC which targets all dividing cells. Here we’re targeting cells where those particular enzymes are most important.

Katherine:                  

Do inhibitors need to be taken indefinitely?

Dr. Mato:                   

That’s a great question, and that’s something that we’re still working out. Right now, BTK inhibitors and PI3K inhibitors are all given as continuous therapies. That’s not to say that they couldn’t be stopped, but they haven’t been studied in a way that allows us to stop them. So, there’s not a lot of evidence to support that.

BCL-2 inhibitors, venetoclax, were studied as either as continuous therapies or as what we call a time-limited therapy, either 12 months in the frontline or 24 months in the relapsed/refractory setting. And so, they can be given for a fixed-duration period and then stopped.

Katherine:                  

Are there combination approaches that are effective?

Dr. Mato:                   

Depends on what you mean as a combination, so right now, BTK inhibitors, ibrutinib, for example, is approved either to be given by itself or with CD20 antibodies, either rituximab or obinutuzumab, another antibody that’s like rituximab in the frontline setting. So, that is a combination of drug plus antibody.

Acalabrutinib is either approved to be given by itself or with the CD20 antibody obinutuzumab. In either case, whether the antibody is present or not, the drug is given continuously. Venetoclax is given either by itself or with a CD20 antibody either obinutuzumab in the frontline setting or rituximab in the relapsed/refractory setting.

There are no approved combinations of kinase inhibitor and kinase inhibitor together or inhibitor/inhibitor. So, there are studies that are exciting about ibrutinib plus venetoclax for example, but there is no one who should be receiving those combinations as a standard of care at this time.

Katherine:                  

Are there any other approaches that we haven’t discussed?

Dr. Mato:                   

Yeah, well, there are other exciting approaches from the spectrum of very experimental to closer-to-market for patients. So, there are other PI3K inhibitors that are in development which may or may not have better toxicity profiles from the current ones. There are noncovalent BTK inhibitors. These are drugs that work like ibrutinib or acalabrutinib, but they may actually overcome resistance to those molecules. So, you’re on ibrutinib; you’re progressing. You develop a resistance mutation. There are drugs that are being studied that might be able to overcome that and recapture the response.

And then there are drugs like CAR-T cells or cellular therapies, using your immune system, actually, genetically engineering your own immune system outside the body to be focused on killing CLL and then putting it back inside the body through a transfusion to allow it to fight cancer more effectively. So, those are some of the more up-and-coming strategies that are closer to being available for patients at this time.

Katherine:                  

All right, and we’ll discuss more about that later on. So, with all of these options, how do you then decide which class might be right for an individual patient?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, you think about the patient. You think about their medical history, their comorbidities, their preferences, and then you try to focus on their disease biology, their genetic factors, their molecular factors, and also what therapies they’ve had. So, if I had a patient who had ibrutinib previously, I’m not going to give them acalabrutinib if they were resistant, for example. So, it’s not just one thing. It’s multiple things that have to be taken into account in order to make a decision.

And of course, for me as an oncologist, the hardest part is that there have not been many trials comparing the newest therapies to one another. So, I can’t tell you what’s better ibrutinib or acalabrutinib by a head-to-head comparison. I can’t tell you whether you should start with ibrutinib before venetoclax or venetoclax before ibrutinib not because we’re not very interested in having those studies performed. But they have not been performed at this point in time.

The only thing I can tell you based on prospective data from a head-to-head comparison is that we do have direct data comparing acalabrutinib which is a BTK inhibitor to idelalisib in the relapsed/refractory setting. And by all measures, acalabrutinib was better tolerated and more effective. So, we have some very early head-to-head data but not as much as we need in order to make these decisions for patients.

Katherine:

How are side effects taken into consideration?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, all of these drugs although they are targeted, and they’re oral, and they’re relatively easy compared to chemotherapy are not without side effects. And so, each of these classes have their own unique side effects. BTK inhibitors can be associated with increased bleeding risk or atrial fibrillation or infection. PI3K inhibitors can be associated with lung or liver or colon damage. BCL-2 inhibitors might be associated with lowering of the blood counts and infection risk or something called tumor lysis syndrome.

So, we try to, if you had a side effect to one, not pick a drug with the exact same side effect profile, for example. And we also think about medical history for patients. So, if I had a patient who was on blood thinners and has poorly-controlled atrial arrhythmia like AFib, I might not start them on a BTK inhibitor. If I patient who has active Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis that’s poorly controlled, I might not start them on a PI3K inhibitor. And if I have a patient who’s near dialysis because of chronic kidney disease, and I’m worried about further tumor lysis syndrome, I might not start them on a BCL-2 inhibitor.

So, you kinda weigh a patient’s medical history, their prior therapies, and their response and toxicities, and then make a decision on what’s the best fit for patients.

Katherine:                  

Well, what kind of testing is involved to make sure you have the best approach?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, there’s several tests that we think about using or we do use, and they’re mostly genetic and prognostic tests. And so, what we like to do is look at the CLL cells beyond looking at them under a microscope to try to identify the genetic markers that drive the biology of CLL. So, for example, if I have a patient who has deletion 17p which is one of the more feared chromosome abnormalities, I know right off the bat chemotherapy’s not a good fit for that patient. But I can do quite well with a BTK inhibitor like ibrutinib.

So, we’re starting to use the molecular features of the disease in order to pick therapies that are the best fit for patients. So, we have a board panel at our center that we use. At this point, some of the information isn’t helpful yet.

But some of the information is quite helpful in to make a decision about the best therapy for patients. So, this is truly what we call targeted therapies for individual patients or personalized or individualized approaches based on the disease itself.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Mato, we have some questions from the audience. Let’s start with this one. How high does the white blood count have to be in order to start treatment, and which are the best treatments available at this time?

Dr. Mato:                   

That’s a great question, and it’s a common question we hear in the clinic. So, there is no white blood cell count that defines the need to start therapy. Some patients are treated with relatively low white blood cell count. Some are treated with very high white blood cell counts.

What defines the need for treatment or therapy for CLL are the symptoms of the disease, extreme fatigue, soaking night sweats, fevers that are unexplained by infection, the need for transfusion, bleeding, bruising, growing lymph nodes, growing spleen causing symptoms, frequent infections.

Those are the things that define the need for therapy. A rising white blood cell count by itself or a cutoff at some arbitrary number should never be a reason to start treatment without some of those other factors.

Katherine:                  

Here’s another question for you. How do you monitor to see if a treatment is working, and what if the patient doesn’t respond to any of the treatments?

Dr. Mato:                   

Yeah, so, we response criteria, and so, they’re largely very simple measures. We perform a physical examination before and after treatment to see if the lymph nodes and spleen are decreasing in size. We measure the white blood cell count to verify that it’s going down. We look for normal parameters of normal functioning bone marrow like improvement in the hemoglobin or the platelet count.

So, those are some of the measures we use, and we put them together. And of course, just asking a patient how do they feel, do they feel better, are the symptoms that were associated with the CLL improving, and if the answer is yes, that would be considered responding disease. We also sometimes do measures like CAT scans to measure internal masses or internal lymph nodes and a bone marrow biopsy to verify that all the CLL cells are gone.

So, that’s the basics of a response assessment, and we also venture now into a new territory called MRD or minimal residual disease where we’ll be able to look beyond the traditional response assessment. Sometimes, it measures at a measurement of one in a million cells to verify that there’s no evidence of CLL present. If a therapy’s not working, fortunately – well, first I’ll say that with the modern therapies that we’ve already mentioned, response rates exceeded 90%.

So, it very, very infrequent that we have a patient where we pick the appropriate therapy where it doesn’t work for them. But if one is not working, then we do have measurements of resistance, and we can try to tell why a therapy maybe not working and switch them to an alternate class. And oftentimes, that will solve the problem.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Mato, you mentioned the term MRD. What does that mean?

Dr. Mato:                   

It stands for minimal residual disease. That’s using technology like flow cytometry or PCR or sequencing to take a deep look in the bone marrow and the blood for the presence or absence of CLL.

So, when I perform a bone marrow biopsy, a pathologist with their eyes might count one hundred cells. With MRD testing we could look at 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 cells to see if there’s any CLL present, much more than the human eye or the human brain could process.

Katherine:                  

Well, this leads us to our next topic, Dr. Mato, and that is emerging treatments for CLL. For people who don’t understand how treatment approvals work, which would you give us an overview of the stages of clinical trials?

Dr. Mato:                   

Sure. I’m very involved in clinical trials at my center. There are different phases of clinical trials. And so, the way that I think about them would be – let’s focus on phase one thru three because those are probably the most relevant ones for patients. The purpose of a Phase One trial is really to define the dose of the drug and confirm that it’s safe or not. We get very, very preliminary data about activity of the drug, but the major question that’s being asked is, “Is this drug safe?”

Phase Two is – and I should also add that Phase One trials are relatively small. So, it’s a small number of patients where we’re trying to find the right dose. By the time we get to Phase Two, we know the drug is likely safe. We have a lot of information about its side effect profile. We might have a hint that it’s active. And so, the purpose of a Phase Two trial is to expand the size of the trial, have more patients recruited, get more information about safety but then get more information about activity.

Of course, there’s no comparator generally in a Phase Two trial. So, it’s not like I’m asking this drug versus another drug. And the end of a Phase Two trial, we know the drug is active, we know it’s safe. And if it appears to be active, we’re feeling confident that it may be better than a standard of care which leads to Phase Three where the drug is compared directly in oftentimes what we call a randomized study to a standard of care.

So, the trial that I mentioned earlier, FCR versus FC would be a great example of a randomized, controlled trial where a new therapy would, in that case, the FCR, was compared to the old therapy, the FC.

In the more modern era, there have been several trials. I example I might mention is the RESONATE trial where ibrutinib was compared head-to-head to an antibody called ofatumumab. Patients who were enrolled were either randomized by a coin flip through a computer to one arm or the other. And then those arms are compared directly to help define a standard of care.

So, that’s kinda the basics of clinical trials, and at our center and many centers around the country, we participate in Phase One, Two, and Three trials trying to ask different questions that are important to our patients.

Katherine:                  

Well, speaking of patients, they’re very often fearful of participating in a clinical trial. What do you say to them to make them feel more comfortable with the idea?

Dr. Mato:                   

I mean, I think the most important thing to highlight is all of the standards of care that we’re using today, ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, idelalisib, duvelisib, venetoclax, these were all just drugs a few years ago that were studied in the context of clinical trials.

And so, our current standards of care are very new on the scene from clinical research. It’s very important to have a conversation with your doctor about the intent of a particular clinical trial. I think most patients are fearful of placebos or blinding where they don’t know what they’re getting, or it’s possible that they’re not getting any treatment at all.

In oncology and particularly CLL, the chances of a clinical trial having a placebo or blinding are very low. We very rarely ever participate in such studies. And so, that should provide reassurance to the patient that they know what they’re getting, they know their dose, their oncologist knows what they’re getting, and oftentimes, many clinical trials have mechanisms called crossover built into them. Meaning, that if you’re getting A versus B, and you get B, and it doesn’t work, you often have opportunity to crossover to A.

Clinical trials in CLL are the reason why there’s been so much innovation over the last several years, the reason why we can talk about six and seven approvals of drugs within half a decade.

And many of the drugs that we have at our centers will likely become standard of care in the near future. So, it gives us access to important drugs a little bit in advance of when they might be available for patients through FDA approval. So, it a lot of hope; it’s a lot of innovation. And the major message I would say to patients is don’t think of a clinical trial is for when all options have run out, but oftentimes there are great trial options that are aiming to improve the current standard of care in the frontline and also the relapsed/refractory settings.

Katherine:                  

What’s involved in patient participation in clinical trials?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, the process is called informed consent, and so, if you’re interested in a clinical trial, you have a conversation with your oncologist to review the study, the schedule, the screening procedures. If you’re interested, you sign an informed consent and then begin a process of doing some testing, oftentimes scan, blood work, EKGs, bone marrow biopsy, to try to identify whether or not you’re a good candidate for the study.

Clinical trials are often more rigid than standard of care meaning you have to follow a strict schedule. You have to report everything, side effects, or successes related to the clinical trial. And oftentimes, a clinical trial is performed at the particular center that you signed the consent. And so, if you came to our center at MSK, odds are you would have to have treatment at our center in order to participate in that trial.

Once you’re enrolled on the trial, you’re on a strict schedule. You work with the physician and a research team, often a nurse directly who specializes in clinical trials to help ensure that you’re monitored appropriately and that the trial is successful for the patient.

Katherine:                  

Now that we understand how trials work, let’s get into developing research. Let’s get into developing research and what it can mean for patients. What new approaches are showing promise?

Dr. Mato:                   

Wow, that’s a loaded question because there’s so many possible answers. There are new versions of the current standards of care, different classes like BTK inhibitors or PI3K inhibitors which have the potential to be very active but better tolerated

So, that’s one big group of new agents in development. There are several agents in development that appear to be effective in the setting of resistance to the current standards of care. There are classes of immunotherapies that allow us in different ways to use the immune system of the patient to fight cancer directly, so not necessarily targeting the cancer cell but targeting the immune system to make it do its job to filter out the cancer.

There are new antibodies in development. And that’s just a little slice of what’s in development for CLL and new combinations of course of the current standards of care which when put together could be even more effective. So, –

Katherine:                  

What about – oh, go –

Dr. Mato:                   

Sorry. I was just gonna add that so many different possibilities available that not every center can participate in all of these types of research, but it’s amazing for patients to know how many different new options are in development that maybe even better than the current approaches.

Katherine:                  

Right. What kind of side effects might be involved with the emerging treatments? What might people expect?

Dr. Mato:                   

That’s a hard question to answer because the purpose of the clinical research is to help define the side effects associated with these newer drugs. And so, while we have a hint from early data or from Phase One data what a side effect profile might look like for a new drug, part of the consenting process is to help gather information not only about a drug’s activity but also about its side effect profile.

So, when we consent a patient, there is a little bit of an unknown about side effects, and we have sometimes very limited information that we can share about the activity. So, it’s not easy to just group these together and say these are the newest side effects to worry about. That’s really the purpose of the studies that I’m mentioning and the general idea of clinical research.

Katherine:                  

And that makes sense. How is research into the genetics of CLL providing a better understanding of how a patient’s individual disease may behave?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, just a few years ago, the basic genetic studies for CLL included just a few chromosomal markers that we could easily or sometimes not so easily test. At our center for example, and it’s not unique, we’ll be able to look at the over 400 different mutations associated with hematologic malignancies. The more information we get, the more we realize that although under the microscope a CLL cell may look like another CLL cell, biologically, they’re very different.

They’re driven by different genetic mutations, and knowledge of those pathways that are important for an individual CLL will oftentimes, will hopefully in the future guide how therapy is selected for patients.

Katherine:                  

It sounds like there is a lot of very interesting research going on as more is being learned from the molecular – as more is being learned from molecular or genetic testing in CLL. And that leads us to our next topic. Why is it important to stay informed as new treatments become available?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, the field is moving at such a rapid, and I would say up until very recently, every six to eight months we’ve had a new drug approved for CLL for a long period of time. So, it’s important to stay informed because in a good way, the standard of care and the pace of research is very quick and that maybe not all oncologists are as up-to-date about what’s going on in the field.

And so, through patient organizations and through webinars like this and through working closely with patient and professional societies and also with CLL experts, it’s very important to stay up-to-date not only about new therapies but about prognostic markers and about emerging clinical trials which be a benefit to an individual patient.

Katherine:                  

What are some of the credible sources that can help patients stay informed and up-to-date?

Dr. Mato:                   

I think there are several societies which I just kind of at the top of my mind I can think of which there’s credible information.

I hate to create and list and say it’s exhaustive because I’m sure I’m forgetting somebody, but Lymphoma Research Foundation has great information, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the CLL Society, Patient Power, there’re just many organizations that are patient-focused that have educational materials, support groups, webinars, access to CLL experts, and interviews available that are very useful, and there are several that I’m omitting.

Katherine:                  

That’s fine. We’ll go into that with our slides probably.

Dr. Mato:                   

Not intentionally by the way, just because I can’t remember every single organization, but there’s a lot of resources available for patients. I guess the one thing I would advise against is getting too mired into chat rooms or conversations that are a little bit unfiltered because it’s very hard to translate one patient’s experience to another. And I think sometimes that a chat room without a moderator or a patient support group that doesn’t have a filter in it somehow to try to understand where the questions are or concerns are coming from can sometimes lead to a lot of anxiety for patients.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. That’s really good advice. If a patient’s physician doesn’t seem really knowledgeable about research and the latest treatments, do you recommend a patient consider a second opinion or even ultimately consult a specialist?

Dr. Mato:                   

Yeah, I think even for my own patients as a CLL expert, I never discourage a second opinion. There’s always something that can be learned for the patient and the physician from that experience. Anybody who has a physician who is very resistant to allow them to get a second opinion, I think that that’s probably a tell-tale sign that they’re not the best fit for the patient.

So, I don’t like to say that every patient has to have a CLL expert. But if a patient has questions that aren’t being answered, they certainly should seek advice. There are many community oncologists who are wonderful doctors. They’re very caring. They’re very good at taking care of patients. And a CLL expert is not always needed. But if you do have a community oncologist, and they come to see me for example, we work very happily with the local doctor to partner together.

And I view it as the need – I view it as a partnership where we can work with the doctor, and it doesn’t have to be a choice. And so, if a patient ever feels they’re put in a situation where they have to choose one doctor over another, there’s probably too many egos involved, and they should think long and hard about finding new help.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Let’s take one last audience question, Dr. Mato. I am IGHV mutated, young, and healthy, and I wanna participate in a clinical trial. How do I find one that’s right for me?

Dr. Mato:                   

That’s a great question. So, IGHV mutational status is a prognostic factor that largely defines prognosis in the setting in the need for chemotherapy. So, IGHV mutated patients typically do better when they receive chemotherapy versus IGHV unmutated patients. In the modern area where we’re talking about BTK inhibitors and some of the other drugs, for example, the outcomes are quite similar whether you’re mutated or unmutated.

I think the search for a clinical trial probably should not be based on the IGHV mutational status, but the fact that you’re a young patient and you’re looking for a clinical trial that may have a little bit of a different focus intent in terms of depth of remission or ability to stop therapy rather than just a specific focus on the IGHV status driving that decision.

What I would advise for a young person is that it’s probably very reasonable to be seen in a major academic center where there are more patients who are younger and therefore clinical trials which may have a focus on a younger patient population. And in the world of CLL where the average age is 70 or 71 at diagnosis, younger maybe 60 or 65 or 55. I’m not necessarily talking about a 25-year-old when I say younger. I don’t know this particular patient’s age.

Katherine:

Right. I’m not sure either. Many of these newer therapies are pills or oral therapies.

How do you ensure that the patient is taking the medicine as prescribed, and with COVID now in our lives on a daily basis, how has this been affected by COVID?

Dr. Mato:                   

So, how do we ensure patients are taking their medicines? That’s a good question. It’s not an exact science. So, part of it is we rely on the patient to tell us that they’re taking the medications. We can guestimate that they’re taking patients based on their requests for refills. So, if we give a 30-day supply and they request a refill in 60 days, they’re probably not taking it appropriately.

Sometimes, patient diaries are used. We have a whole team who sees our patients including a nurse, a nurse practitioner, a clinical pharmacist who can help gauge whether or not a patient is adherent to a schedule. And then if you’re on a clinical trial, then you often have to keep a pill diary, and a research nurse will do drug accountability assessments with patients when they’re seen in the office, so lots of different ways to answer the same question.

Has COVID affected things? A little bit during the height of the pandemic in the New York area. There might’ve been some slight delays to starting CLL-based therapy because of concerns for risk of infection, sort of risk/benefit. Currently, based on my region at least, we are treating patients. We’re not withholding therapy or delaying therapy based on the theoretical risk for COVID infection, but we’re making decisions that we think are in the best interest of the patients based on their CLL and their need for therapy.

That may be different in other areas of the country right now. We always have to weigh the risk/benefit of infection and other circumstances versus the need for CLL-directed therapy.

Katherine:                  

Before we close, Dr. Mato, how do you feel about the future of CLL treatment? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Mato:                   

I’m extremely hopeful and optimistic. I think for me, I trained as an oncologist with the hope of being able to take care of patients with CLL.

I always liked taking care of patients with CLL. It’s a passion to provide great care to help provide development or to participate in research that changes the standard of care, and every day I’m amazed with some of the molecules we work with and how much or how they’ll be able to help patients in the future and of course, taking care of patients and seeing this is in the clinic is really the best and most gratifying experience for anybody who’s involved in CLL research to see our patients who are very sick become well and go back to work or resume their normal life is really the most rewarding part of being part of the specialty.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Mato, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Dr. Mato:

Thank you for having me, and I’m really, really thankful for participating in this program.

Katherine:

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.

Thanks for joining us today, and please make sure to fill out the survey that you receive after the program. It helps us as we develop more webinars like this one.

What Should You Know About the Future of CLL Treatment?

What Should You Know About the Future of CLL Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

As chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) research continues to expand, more treatment options for patients with CLL are emerging. Dr. Susan O’Brien, a hematology-oncology specialist, discusses recent CLL treatment developments.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor?

 How to Be A Partner in Your CLL Care  Key CLL Treatment Decision-Making Factors

Transcript:

Katherine:

All right. How do you feel – how do you feel about the future of CLL treatment? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Susan O’Brien:

Absolutely. I think we’ve had something like six drugs approved in the last seven years, which is mindboggling. I think in the 30 years before that, we didn’t even have six drugs approved. That’s how rapidly – it’s mindboggling, really. That’s how rapidly the field is moving forward. And not just CLL, but other cancer fields also are moving at a very dizzying pace.

Which is great because that – anything that gives us more options is wonderful. So, I am very, very optimistic about CLL going forward. And I’m also very hopeful that some of these combination regimens might actually be – small molecules might actually be curative in the long run. But I will say it’s way too early to know that.

Katherine:                  

Are there emerging treatments that patients should know about?

Dr. Susan O’Brien:     

So, one of the categories we haven’t talked about, where there actually are two FDA approved drugs, are PI3K inhibitors – that’s another oral small molecule. They’re not approved for frontline therapy. So, that’s kind of why we weren’t talking about them so much today where we’re talking about making a choice for the first therapy. But they are approved for patients where the disease reoccurs.

And there’s two of those as we mentioned. We have antibodies, which we really haven’t talked about very much, and then there’s new classes of drugs that are being explored in clinical trials. So, for example, there are interesting drugs which are antibodies that bind to the patient’s own T-cells and they also mind the CLL cells and they redirect the T-cells towards the CLL cells.   

Kind of like CAR-T but inside the body without having to take out the T-cells. So, those are really interesting class of drugs. None have been yet approved in CLL or lymphoma, but I think those are on the horizon and looking very promising.

What Are Common CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What Are Common CLL Treatment Side Effects?  from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are common chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment side effects? Dr. Susan O’Brien, a Hematology-Oncology specialist, provides insight into common CLL treatment side effects and how they influence a treatment plan.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor?

 How Do You Know If Your CLL Treatment is Working?  Key CLL Treatment Decision-Making Factors

Transcript:

Katherine:

One last question from Jen. “What should be considered related to side effects when choosing a treatment plan?”

Dr. Susan O’Brien:     

Well, the BTK inhibitors have some side effects. They can cause diarrhea, but that’s usually mild and self-limited. They can sometimes cause joint aches or arthrology. They – the two probably most serious side effects are atrial fibrillations, which is an irregular heart rate. But that generally is not frequent and tends to occur mainly in older men with heart disease.

Katherine:

Hmm.

Dr. Susan O’Brien:     

They also are more likely – they impact the platelet function. So, they can more likely cause bleeding, but it’s typically minor bleeding like a bruise. Major bleeding is quite rare. In general, I’m outlining a lot of side effects, but remember not all side effects occur in everybody and there’s some people who don’t have any.

For the BCL-2 inhibitor, Venetoclax, one of the things we have to be very careful of when a person first goes on that and this would be particularly true if they have a very high lymphocyte count or a bulky lymph nodes, it that drug can cause something called tumor lysis. Tumor lysis, lysis is just a fancy word for breakdown, is where the disease responds so rapidly that their lymph nodes shrink very quickly. Lymphocyte comes down, which sound really good.

But what can happen is that breakdown of the cells can release potassium which can cause heart arrythmias. The cells can clog the kidneys and cause kidney failure. So, we have to be very careful about that when we start. And the way that drug is started is it comes with a starter pack actually to help make it easy where you go up, you start at a low dose, and go up weekly until we get to the target dose.

But we have to monitor very carefully during that escalation phase. The other thing that the Venetoclax can cause is neutropenia, meaning low neutrophil counts. What – that’s important because neutrophils are what we use to fight infection. So, if we get low neutrophil counts, the options are either to add a growth factor transiently, in other words a shot to – the subcutaneous injection that stimulates the bone marrow to release neutrophils. Or if it’s really a persistent problem, then we can go down on the dose of Venetoclax.

Key CLL Treatment Decision-Making Factors

Key CLL Treatment Decision-Making Factors from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What should a patient consider when deciding on a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment approach? Dr. Susan O’Brien, a Hematology-Oncology specialist, provides key factors that help guide treatment choices for patients with CLL.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor?

What Are Common CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What Should You Know About the Future of CLL Treatment?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Dr. O’Brien, once it’s determined that it’s time to move forward with treatment, what do you take into consideration to help guide the treatment choice?

Dr. Susan O’Brien:     

Well, the good news and the bad news are kind of the same. The bad news is it’s a very complicated decision, but the good news is the reason it’s complicated is because we have a lot of good options. So, as I said, there are some people for whom chemotherapy would still be an option. One of the benefits of that is that it’s intravenous, i.e. there’s no copays for the patient. It’s administered over a finite period of time. Generally, six months.

And then, most patients will get several years of remission after that where they don’t have to be on any treatment. However, we now have what we call the small molecules or the targeted therapies and those come in two major categories. One is called BTK inhibitors. And there we have two drugs available in the same family, if you will. One is ibrutinib. One is acalabrutinib.

And then we have a different category of oral treatment where we only have one drug, which is a BCL-2 Inhibitor, which is Venetoclax. So, what these drugs do, they’re not chemotherapy, but they interfere with certain proteins in the CLL cell. And by doing that, cause the cell to die off.

Katherine:                  

Okay. What do you feel is the patient’s role in this decision?

Dr.Susan O’Brien:      

Well, I think the patient plays a key role, which they usually do when there’s options because then you have – you with your doctor have to make a choice. So, for example, we talked about chemotherapy is time limited and you generally will be done after six months in contrast, with the BTK inhibitors, those are given indefinitely. They’re pills but given indefinitely for several years.

With Venetoclax it’s given with an antibody, which is given intravenously but the Venetoclax can be stopped after 12 months. So, the side effect profiles are different also. So, we have to take into consideration the duration of the therapy as well as the side effect profiles in determining what might be best for that patient.

How to Be A Partner in Your CLL Care

How to Be A Partner in Your CLL Care from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Staying updated about chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) can help patients become partners in their own CLL care. Dr. Susan O’Brien, a Hematology-Oncology specialist, explains how self-advocacy and credible web sites can be useful tools to help patients be active in their care.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor?

 How Do You Know If Your CLL Treatment is Working?  What Should You Know About the Future of CLL Treatment?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Let’s turn to patient self-advocacy. How can patients feel confident in speaking up and becoming a partner in their own care?

Dr. Susan O’Brien:     

Yes, obviously for some people that’s going to be a lot harder than others. What I generally advice people is if you’re going in for your physician and you’re diagnosed with CLL, I would say this for any cancer because cancer is obviously a potentially life changing diagnosis, is you probably want to get an opinion with an expert. I would talk to my doctor first, ask them what they’re plan is so I know, and then see an expert in the field.

Then if the expert in the field says, “I think your doctor’s plan is great.” 1.) you’re now comfortable because you’ve got a second opinion, and 2.) that’s also a way, in my experience, to know if your doctor’s really gonna allow you to have an easy time participating. What I mean by that is that if your doctor is upset or finds it offensive, quite frankly you probably need a new doctor. That’s my take on that. Because that means they’re not going to be too open to your comments or you’re saying, “Well, I would prefer to do this.”

That’s just my quick take on how you can tell if it’s going to be easy or hard. But I think the relationship between the doctor and the patient is very important and you have to establish that relationship early on. If you go to a doctor who – where you start to ask questions and they’re in a hurry or they’re looking at their watch, you know that’s probably not the doctor that you want. I think most doctors realize that if they’re diagnosing a patient with a cancer, that’s going to be a pretty long clinic visit, because any patient is going to have a lot of questions to ask.

I also tell patients when you go to see a specialist or get a second opinion, bring somebody with you. It’s very well known that when patients have just been diagnosed with a cancer, they’re overwhelmed. Their emotional system is overwhelmed. Even if it’s “not a bad cancer”. Maybe early stage CLL. And that makes it very hard to process what a doctor is saying.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Yeah. That’s really good advice. Are there resources to help patients stay informed and educated?

Dr. Susan O’Brien:      Oh, yes. Our Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is great at that. Lymphoma Research Foundation were two of the big ones. And then there’s patient spots. CLL Society is a very well-known one run by a physician who’s also a CLL patient. I know him very well. And they have online support meetings now.

They used to have them in person, but now they have them online. And those can be really helpful because that allows a patient to talk to another patient who has their same disease. So, there are quite a lot of resources for patients nowadays. Especially in our technology enabled world.

Katherine:                  

That’s great. We have a couple of questions from patients. Patrick asks, “I’ve discussed a treatment plan with my doctor, but I’d like to get a second opinion. What are your thoughts on that?”

Dr. Susan O’Brien:

I think it’s a great idea. That’s exactly what I would do if I had a cancer. And again, I think Patrick made an important point that I’d like to emphasize. See what your doctor’s plan is first. Because then when you go to see the specialist or the second opinion, you can say, “This is what my doctor’s suggesting.” And then if the specialist says, “Exactly what I would do.” But if you don’t know what your doctor is going to do – was suggesting to do when you go in to see the second opinion, it’s going to be really hard to make sure –put together that feeling of confidence that you’re on the right track.

How Do You Know If Your CLL Treatment Is Working?

How Do You Know If Your CLL Treatment is Working? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How do you know if a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment approach is effective? Dr. Susan O’Brien, a Hematology-Oncology specialist, explains how CLL treatment response is monitored.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor?

What Are Common CLL Treatment Side Effects?  How to Be A Partner in Your CLL Care

Transcript:

Katherine:

But how is that treatment monitored to evaluate its effectiveness?

Dr. Susan O’Brien:

Well, generally the things we’re – the same things we’re look – the same things we’re looking at when we treat. Right? So, we’re looking at abnormal blood counts. We’re looking at enlarged lymph nodes or spleen. We have symptoms. So, those three things are looked at when the patient is on the therapy. Are the lymph nodes shrinking? Are the blood counts improving? Are their symptoms getting better?

So, the same way pretty much that we would follow a patient who’s not on a clinical trial is the way we follow them on a clinical trial. Now, if it’s a very new drug which has never been given to humans before, let’s say, those trials probably have more frequent surveillance than we might do with a drug that we are familiar with and know what to expect with it. So, sometimes the trials might have more surveillance, more visits, more tests.

But generally, if those tests or visits are required – are not considered standard of care, the companies pay for them. So, usually what’s billed to the insurance is only what we would do treating any CLL patient with an already available drug.

So, it doesn’t wind up costing the insurance or the patient any more to be on a clinical trial. And they might get actually – there is some data the patients on clinical trials get better care because they’re being monitored very carefully as part of the trial.

Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor?

Should You Discuss a CLL Clinical Trial with Your Doctor? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Susan O’Brien, a Hematology-Oncology specialist, explains why patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) should consider a clinical trial and the role trials play in treatment and care.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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What Should You Know About the Future of CLL Treatment?

What Are Common CLL Treatment Side Effects?  How Do You Know If Your CLL Treatment is Working?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Dr. O’Brien, where do clinical trials fit in in all of this? Should patients discuss clinical trials with their physicians?

Dr. Susan O’Brien:

Absolutely. If we think of these great drugs that we have now, and I’ve mentioned ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, Venetoclax. Before those drugs were available, the only options were chemo. So, that means that people that went on the clinical trial, so let’s say with ibrutinib, have access to a really treatment changing revolutionary drug in CLL years before it was commercially available.

So, clinical trials can be a great way to have access to drugs or combinations. So, for example, right now there are some clinical trials looking at combinations of a BTK inhibitor and a BCL-2 inhibitor. So, the patient might say, “Well, why can’t you give me that combination, doctor?” “Well, technically I could.” If the drug is approved by the FDA, a physician can prescribe it really pretty much anywhere they see fit.

However, does insurance pay for it? That’s the trick. And these are very, very expensive drugs. And so, outside of an FDA approved combination, it probably wouldn’t – I wouldn’t be able to prescribe that combination because it wouldn’t get paid for and it would cost thousands and thousands of dollars. But on a clinical trial in general, the drugs are paid for.

Katherine:                  

Mm-hmm.

Dr. Susan O’Brien:     

And so, clinical trials are testing, for example, combinations now, which are not standard and there are some preliminary data from some of these trials that look really promising, i.e. two drugs may be better than one. There are also patients who, perhaps we’re talking about younger patients now, who have kind of worked their way through the available therapies. And so, they might not have a standard therapy that’s really gonna work for them. And for whatever reason they might not be a good candidate for stem cell transplant.

And so, innovative or totally novel drugs that we don’t have that class of drugs available at all are also being tested in clinical trials and allow people access to them. So, sometimes it’s – I think some people think of it as, well, a last resort if the drugs that are out there don’t work. But don’t think of it that way, because as I mentioned, these combination trials are for people who’ve never had prior therapy, but their disease has progressed enough to need treatment and could potentially offer, at least at a preliminary level, looks like a dynamite combination of drugs.

So, it’s not just for people who failed other drugs or whose disease has failed other drugs. That could be one group that is particularly important for, but even patients who’ve never had treatment, there may be clinical trials that they would be highly interested in participating. And again, it generally has a big financial benefit too, because remember oral drugs have copays for cancer patients.

Is It Time to Treat Your CLL? What You Need to Know

Is It Time to Treat Your CLL? What You Need to Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When it’s time to move forward with a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment plan, what determines the best therapy for YOU? In this webinar, Dr. Susan O’Brien, reviews key decision-making factors, current CLL treatments and emerging research.

Dr. Susan O’Brien is the Associate Director for Clinical Science, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Download Program Resource Guide

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Advocate for These CLL Genetic Tests
 

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

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello and welcome to the webinar. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’ll discuss how you could work with your physician to find the best CLL treatment path for you. Joining me is Dr. Susan O’Brien. Welcome Dr. O’Brien. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Sure. I’m Susan O’Brien. I’m the Associate Director for Clinical Sciences at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center in Orange, California.

Katherine:                  

Excellent. Thank you. And a note before we begin. This program is not a substitute for medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team. Many CLL patients start in a period called watch and wait. Would you give us a brief overview of this approach?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Sure. The reason that we do watch and wait, or as some patients like to call it, watch and worry, is because many people present asymptomatically. So, for example, it’s very common that a patient might be found to have CLL because they go in for a routine physical and they have a slightly elevated lymphocyte count. So, many people have no symptoms at all. The average age of the disease is about 71.

So, people at the age of 71 often have what we call comorbidities. So, what does that mean? High blood pressure, high lipids, coronary artery disease. So, they also have a lot of comorbidities and even though right now we have great treatments for CLL that are generally well tolerated, all drugs do have side effects. So, if a person feels fine and the disease is not causing any problem in their life, why give them a treatment for it?

Particularly if we think that we don’t have a curative strategy. There may be a cure fraction for a small subset of patients with CLL who are young and have what we call a mutated immunoglobulin gene. But they’re a minority of most patients with CLL. So, what we want to do is keep people alive as long as we can with CLL until they likely die of other causes that people die of as they age. Heart disease, et cetera.

So, if they don’t need any treatment, we don’t want to expose them to the side effects. And some people, if you take all comers, everybody diagnosed with CLL, about a third of people will actually never need treatment for their disease. And so, that’s the idea behind it. That we’re sparing people side effects from treatments when they feel fine and their quality of life is perfectly good.

Katherine:                  

How do you decide when it’s time to treat?

Dr. O’Brien:                

So, it’s very variable because there are different indications from treatment in CLL. When I’m teaching my fellows, what I say to them is you basically treat the disease when it’s causing a problem. There are published guidelines, but they’re guidelines. They’re suggestions about when you might need to treat. But we take into account a number of different things. And in two different people the indications for treatment could be completely different. So, let me give you two examples.

 We could have a patient where they have big lymph nodes maybe in their neck, under their arms, in the groin, in the abdomen. And those nodes are getting bigger and bulkier to the point where they’re really problematic. That could be an indication for treatment. Other people might have very small lymph nodes but have very abnormal blood counts. So, their lymphocyte count could be really high. They could be starting to get anemic where their hemoglobin is dropping.

If you get too anemic, what’s going to happen? You’re gonna be symptomatic with fatigue and shortness of breath. So, we want to intervene not at a time when the disease is not causing any problems, but we also have to kind of find a happy medium. We don’t want to intervene – and wait until the patient is sort of bedridden and then start to do anything about the disease.

So, it’s a little bit of a judgement call. We also take into account the symptoms that the patient might be having. Like, are they having really terrible night sweats and fatigue that’s impacting their daily activities? So, we look at symptoms, we look at blood counts, and we look at lymph nodes or bulk of disease.

Katherine:                  

Where does genetic testing fit into the plan to treat?

Dr. O’Brien:                

There are certain tests that we definitely want to do before treatment. And some people have these tests done at diagnosis. So, the two main tests I would say are FISH, which just stands for fluorescence in situ hybridization, which is a fancy word for looking at chromosome abnormalities inside the CLL cell. The other thing we look at is the immunoglobulin mutation status. So, a patient’s immunoglobulin can be mutated or unmutated.

The immunoglobulin mutation status never changes. So, if a patient has had that test done once, they don’t have to have it repeated. However, the FISH, or the chromosome test, can change. So, it’s very important even if it was done at diagnosis that we repeat it at a time when a patient needs therapy. And why that’s so important is there is a particular chromosome abnormality called a 17p deletion where we know that those patients respond very poorly to chemotherapy.

And so, really should never receive chemotherapy and should receive a targeted therapy if that’s the case. There are other people that still could benefit potentially from chemotherapy, but not if they’re in that 17p deletion group.

Katherine:                  

All right. Dr. O’Brien, once it’s determined that it’s time to move forward with treatment, what do you take into consideration to help guide the treatment choice?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Well, the good news and the bad news are kind of the same. The bad news is it’s a very complicated decision, but the good news is the reason it’s complicated is because we have a lot of good options. So, as I said, there are some people for whom chemotherapy would still be an option. One of the benefits of that is that it’s intravenous, i.e. there’s no copays for the patient. It’s administered over a finite period of time. Generally, six months.

And then, most patients will get several years of remission after that where they don’t have to be on any treatment. However, we now have what we call the small molecules or the targeted therapies and those come in two major categories. One is called BTK inhibitors. And there we have two drugs available in the same family, if you will. One is ibrutinib. One is acalabrutinib

And then we have a different category of oral treatment where we only have one drug, which is a BCL-2 Inhibitor, which is Venetoclax. So, what these drugs do, they’re not chemotherapy, but they interfere with certain proteins in the CLL cell. And by doing that, cause the cell to die off.

Katherine:                  

Okay. What do you feel is the patient’s role in this decision?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Well, I think the patient plays a key role, which they usually do when there’s options because then you have – you with your doctor have to make a choice. So, for example, we talked about chemotherapy is time limited and you generally will be done after six months in contrast, with the BTK inhibitors, those are given indefinitely. They’re pills but given indefinitely for several years.

With Venetoclax it’s given with an antibody, which is given intravenously but the Venetoclax can be stopped after 12 months. So, the side effect profiles are different also. So, we have to take into consideration the duration of the therapy as well as the side effect profiles in determining what might be best for that patient.

Katherine:                  

Well, you talked about chemo and targeted therapies, but where – where’s stem cell treatment fit? Where does – where does stem cell treatment fit in and when is it considered?

Dr. O’Brien:                

So, stem cell treatment – if we’re talking about stem cell transplant, allergenic stem cell transplant is a transplant where you need a donor and you receive stem cells from the donor. And that can be a curative therapy, but it can also be associated with significant risks including risk of dying from the transplant. Because we have so many effective therapies nowadays, we’re generally not needing to use allogenic transplant.

And what I mean by that is if these targeted therapies don’t cure people, and the jury is still out on that I would say, if we can sequence them such that we get five years from one, six years from another, et cetera, we’re going to be able to keep the patient alive long enough until they die of something else. So, where the stem cell transplant comes in is generally much younger patients with CLL.

I mentioned the average age is 71, but we have – all of us int eh field have seen patients, for example, in their 30’s. Well, yes, a sequence of therapies might not get that patient to a normal lifespan, because they’re so young to start. So, really the consideration is pretty much reserved for younger patients where we might need a curative strategy that we might not have otherwise.

But for older patients, we probably have enough active drugs now. We have other categories of drugs that we can use if the disease reoccurs. So, we have enough categories of drugs that I think we can keep most people who are the average at CLL alive for quite a long time.

Katherine:                  

What about CAR-T therapy? Where do we stand on that with that research?

Dr. O’Brien:                

So, my answer is a little bit like allogenic stem cell transplant. CAR-T therapy is also associated with significant risks, but also significant benefit. Up until now, it’s pretty much been reserved because of the risks for patients who, to be frank, their disease has now kind of escaped everything. We don’t feel like we have great options that are similar and easier to use.

So, it can be effective, but it’s not something we do very early on because of the associated risks. If you take patients who go for CAR-T therapy, about 25 to 40% of them will wind up with some stay in the ICU. So, I’m really talking about some serious complications from these therapies.

It’s possible that as we learn how to minimize the toxicities of CAR-Ts, that they might become a more attractive strategy. And so, that could change with time. But the counterpoint to that is we’re having new drugs approved all the time for CLL. So, that gives us also more options before we would need to move to a CAR-T.

Katherine:

Dr. O’Brien, where do clinical trials fit in in all of this? Should patients discuss clinical trials with their physicians?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Absolutely. If we think of these great drugs that we have now, and I’ve mentioned ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, Venetoclax. Before those drugs were available, the only options were chemo. So, that means that people that went on the clinical trial, so let’s say with ibrutinib, have access to a really treatment changing revolutionary drug in CLL years before it was commercially available.

So, clinical trials can be a great way to have access to drugs or combinations. So, for example, right now there are some clinical trials looking at combinations of a BTK inhibitor and a BCL-2 inhibitor. So, the patient might say, “Well, why can’t you give me that combination, doctor?” “Well, technically I could.” If the drug is approved by the FDA, a physician can prescribe it really pretty much anywhere they see fit.

However, does insurance pay for it? That’s the trick. And these are very, very expensive drugs. And so, outside of an FDA approved combination, it probably wouldn’t – I wouldn’t be able to prescribe that combination because it wouldn’t get paid for and it would cost thousands and thousands of dollars. But on a clinical trial in general, the drugs are paid for.

Katherine:                  

Mm-hmm.

Dr. O’Brien:                

And so, clinical trials are testing, for example, combinations now, which are not standard and there are some preliminary data from some of these trials that look really promising, i.e. two drugs may be better than one. There are also patients who, perhaps we’re talking about younger patients now, who have kind of worked their way through the available therapies. And so, they might not have a standard therapy that’s really gonna work for them. And for whatever reason they might not be a good candidate for stem cell transplant.

And so, innovative or totally novel drugs that we don’t have that class of drugs available at all are also being tested in clinical trials and allow people access to them. So, sometimes it’s – I think some people think of it as, well, a last resort if the drugs that are out there don’t work. But don’t think of it that way, because as I mentioned, these combination trials are for people who’ve never had prior therapy, but their disease has progressed enough to need treatment and could potentially offer, at least at a preliminary level, looks like a dynamite combination of drugs.

So, it’s not just for people who failed other drugs or whose disease has failed other drugs. That could be one group that is particularly important for, but even patients who’ve never had treatment, there may be clinical trials that they would be highly interested in participating. And again, it generally has a big financial benefit too, because remember oral drugs have copays for cancer patients.

Katherine:                  

Right. But how is that treatment monitored to evaluate its effectiveness?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Well, generally the things we’re – the same things we’re look – the same things we’re looking at when we treat. Right? So, we’re looking at abnormal blood counts. We’re looking at enlarged lymph nodes or spleen. We have symptoms. So, those three things are looked at when the patient is on the therapy. Are the lymph nodes shrinking? Are the blood counts improving? Are their symptoms getting better?

So, the same way pretty much that we would follow a patient who’s not on a clinical trial is the way we follow them on a clinical trial. Now, if it’s a very new drug which has never been given to humans before, let’s say, those trials probably have more frequent surveillance than we might do with a drug that we are familiar with and know what to expect with it. So, sometimes the trials might have more surveillance, more visits, more tests.

But generally, if those tests or visits are required – are not considered standard of care, the companies pay for them. So, usually what’s billed to the insurance is only what we would do treating any CLL patient with an already available drug.

So, it doesn’t wind up costing the insurance or the patient any more to be on a clinical trial. And they might get actually – there is some data the patients on clinical trials get better care because they’re being monitored very carefully as part of the trial.

Katherine:                  

Let’s turn to patient self-advocacy. How can patients feel confident in speaking up and becoming a partner in their own care?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Yes, obviously for some people that’s going to be a lot harder than others. What I generally advice people is if you’re going in for your physician and you’re diagnosed with CLL, I would say this for any cancer because cancer is obviously a potentially life changing diagnosis, is you probably want to get an opinion with an expert. I would talk to my doctor first, ask them what their plan is so I know, and then see an expert in the field.

Then if the expert in the field says, “I think your doctor’s plan is great.” 1.) you’re now comfortable because you’ve got a second opinion, and 2.) that’s also a way, in my experience, to know if your doctor’s really gonna allow you to have an easy time participating. What I mean by that is that if your doctor is upset or finds it offensive, quite frankly you probably need a new doctor. That’s my take on that. Because that means they’re not going to be too open to your comments or you’re saying, “Well, I would prefer to do this.”

That’s just my quick take on how you can tell if it’s going to be easy or hard. But I think the relationship between the doctor and the patient is very important and you have to establish that relationship early on. If you go to a doctor who – where you start to ask questions and they’re in a hurry or they’re looking at their watch, you know that’s probably not the doctor that you want. I think most doctors realize that if they’re diagnosing a patient with a cancer, that’s going to be a pretty long clinic visit, because any patient is going to have a lot of questions to ask.

I also tell patients when you go to see a specialist or get a second opinion, bring somebody with you. It’s very well known that when patients have just been diagnosed with a cancer, they’re overwhelmed. Their emotional system is overwhelmed. Even if it’s “not a bad cancer”. Maybe early stage CLL. And that makes it very hard to process what a doctor is saying.

Particularly if they’re trying to give you quite a bit of information, which you need because you’ve just been diagnosed, and you need to know what to expect from the disease. So, having a friend or a spouse or a significant other there is really, really helpful.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Yeah. That’s really good advice. Are there resources to help patients stay informed and educated?

Dr. O’Brien:             

Oh, yes. Our Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is great at that. Lymphoma Research Foundation were two of the big ones. And then there’s patient spots. CLL Society is a very well-known one run by a physician who’s also a CLL patient. I know him very well. And they have online support meetings now.

They used to have them in person, but now they have them online. And those can be really helpful because that allows a patient to talk to another patient who has their same disease. So, there are quite a lot of resources for patients nowadays. Especially in our technology enabled world.

Katherine:                  

That’s great. We have a couple of questions from patients. Patrick asks, “I’ve discussed a treatment plan with my doctor, but I’d like to get a second opinion. What are your thoughts on that?”

Dr. O’Brien:             

I think it’s a great idea. That’s exactly what I would do if I had a cancer. And again, I think Patrick made an important point that I’d like to emphasize. See what your doctor’s plan is first. Because then when you go to see the specialist or the second opinion, you can say, “This is what my doctor’s suggesting.”

And then if the specialist says, “Exactly what I would do.” But if you don’t know what your doctor is going to do – was suggesting to do when you go in to see the second opinion, it’s going to be really hard to make sure –put together that feeling of confidence that you’re on the right track.

Katherine:                  

Right. Right. To judge. A question from Julie. “How do you approach treating a relapse?”

Dr. O’Brien:

So, treating relapse we do the same thing that we do upfront. Namely “watch and wait”. So, for example, if a patient had a treatment on – let’s say they had some chemotherapy. And three or four years alter the lymphocyte count starts to go up, well, that technically would be indicating relapse.

But let’s say for the sake of discussion the person is asymptomatic, they feel fine, and their lymphocyte count is 20,000. Well, why do we need to do anything? So, in most cases we take the same approach of watch and wait when the disease comes back. And the first point at which it comes back is not always the time at which we need to initiate therapy.

Katherine:                  

Right. Right. Another question. Will is wondering, “If inhibitor treatments have to be taken forever?”

Dr. O’Brien:                

Well, it depend on the group – the class. So, for the BTK inhibitors, all the trials so far have given those drugs indefinitely. For the BCL-2 inhibitor, Venetoclax, there are time limited regimens both in the frontline setting and in relapse. But realistically, I have talked to my patients who are going on a BTK inhibitor who say to me, “Do I really have to be on this forever?”

And so, my answer is, “I don’t know what life is forever, so I would never use that word. We generally use the word indefinite.” But what I’ve said to those patients is, “If you’re on the drug for a while – and I’m not talking months. I’m talking say two, three years. And you’re in a really good remission and you think you want to stop treatment. I’m not necessarily opposed to that.”

Because if you’re in a very good remission, even if it’s not complete, but most people who are not in complete remission, meaning they still have a bit of disease left, have very little disease if they’ve been on the BTK inhibitors for a while. So, maybe only some enlarged lymph node on a CAT scan or a little bit of disease in the bone marrow.

But basically, most people after a couple years, they’re blood counts are normal, they feel fine, unless they’re having side effects from the drug and their physical exam is normal. So, I’ve told my patients if you want to go off, I expect you’d probably be off for even a couple years. And then we could always restart therapy potentially with that drug again or with one of the other drugs.

So, I think it’s important to let people know that they have options. But I will say that all of the clinical trials with the BTK inhibitors have given those drugs basically until the patient loses their response or there’s a toxicity where they just don’t want to take the drug anymore.

Katherine:                  

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. One last question from Jen. “What should be considered related to side effects when choosing a treatment plan?”

Dr. O’Brien:                

Well, the BTK inhibitors have some side effects. They can cause diarrhea, but that’s usually mild and self-limited. They can sometimes cause joint aches or arthrology. They – the two probably most serious side effects are atrial fibrillations, which is an irregular heart rate. But that generally is not frequent and tends to occur mainly in older men with heart disease.

Katherine:                  

Hmm.

Dr. O’Brien:                

They also are more likely – they impact the platelet function. So, they can more likely cause bleeding, but it’s typically minor bleeding like a bruise. Major bleeding is quite rare. In general, I’m outlining a lot of side effects, but remember not all side effects occur in everybody and there’s some people who don’t have any.

For the BCL-2 inhibitor, Venetoclax, one of the things we have to be very careful of when a person first goes on that and this would be particularly true if they have a very high lymphocyte count or a bulky lymph nodes, it that drug can cause something called tumor lysis. Tumor lysis, lysis is just a fancy word for breakdown, is where the disease responds so rapidly that their lymph nodes shrink very quickly. Lymphocyte comes down, which sound really good.

But what can happen is that breakdown of the cells can release potassium which can cause heart arrythmias. The cells can clog the kidneys and cause kidney failure. So, we have to be very careful about that when we start. And the way that drug is started is it comes with a starter pack actually to help make it easy where you go up, you start at a low dose, and go up weekly until we get to the target dose.

But we have to monitor very carefully during that escalation phase. The other thing that the Venetoclax can cause is neutropenia, meaning low neutrophil counts. What – that’s important because neutrophils are what we use to fight infection. So, if we get low neutrophil counts, the options are either to add a growth factor transiently, in other words a shot to – the subcutaneous injection that stimulates the bone marrow to release neutrophils. Or if it’s really a persistent problem, then we can go down on the dose of Venetoclax.

Katherine:                  

All right. How do you feel – how do you feel about the future of CLL treatment? Are you hopeful?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Absolutely. I think we’ve had something like six drugs approved in the last seven years, which is mindboggling. I think in the 30 years before that, we didn’t even have six drugs approved. That’s how rapidly – it’s mindboggling, really. That’s how rapidly the field is moving forward. And not just CLL, but other cancer fields also are moving at a very dizzying pace.

Which is great because that – anything that gives us more options is wonderful. So, I am very, very optimistic about CLL going forward. And I’m also very hopeful that some of these combination regimens might actually be – small molecules might actually be curative in the long run. But I will say it’s way too early to know that.

Katherine:                  

Are there emerging treatments that patients should know about?

Dr. O’Brien:                

So, one of the categories we haven’t talked about, where there actually are two FDA approved drugs, are PI3K inhibitors – that’s another oral small molecule. They’re not approved for frontline therapy. So, that’s kind of why we weren’t talking about them so much today where we’re talking about making a choice for the first therapy. But they are approved for patients where the disease reoccurs.

And there’s two of those as we mentioned. We have antibodies, which we really haven’t talked about very much, and then there’s new classes of drugs that are being explored in clinical trials. So, for example, there are interesting drugs which are antibodies that bind to the patient’s own T-cells and they also mind the CLL cells and they redirect the T-cells towards the CLL cells.

Kind of like CAR-T but inside the body without having to take out the T-cells. So, those are really interesting class of drugs. None have been yet approved in CLL or lymphoma, but I think those are on the horizon and looking very promising.

Katherine:

Hmm. One last question, Dr. O’Brien. In this uncertain time, do you have any advice related to COVID-19 for CLL patients?

Dr. O’Brien:                

It’s a hard time for everybody and particularly CLL patients because we know that they’re immunocompromised by – and even if you’ve never been treated and you probably never get any infections, which is quite a number of people with CLL, unfortunately you do have to think about yourself as being a high-risk patient.

So, masks are very important. Washing hands. Avoid – social distancing. Avoiding crows. It’s really important for patients with CLL to follow those same guidelines that we’re giving to everybody. But very important for them because they are in a higher risk group.

Katherine:

How do you feel telemedicine is working for CLL patients?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Telemedicine works I’d say better for CLL patients than some other patients, particularly watch and wait patients. Obviously the one thing that we can’t do in telemedicine is a physical exam. But in patient we can get – have patients get their blood counts done and then talk to them and see how symptomatic they are and know what their blood counts indicate anything is changing.

And then what I’ve been doing is, say I have a watch and wait patient – or it also applies let’s say to a patient who’s been on ibrutinib for years now and they’re in remission. There’s probably nothing to exam anyway. Right? So, those patients are good. I think it’s not going to work very well if you’re starting a new treatment. But for people who are watch and wait or have been on established treatments that are doing well, it works really well.

And then you can use the video visit if the patient says, “This is going on.” Whatever it is. “And I think I’m worried about this or I have this pain here.” Or whatever. If that’s an issue, you can always then schedule a regular visit. Right?

But I think that it – because it’s a chronic disease as opposed to acute leukemia where you really can’t do video visits, I think it lends itself to it very well. And my expectation is that moving forward, even after hopefully COVID has died down or we have a vaccine, that video visits are definitely here to stay.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Yeah. I agree with you. What about patients who are fearful going into a medical center? Do you have any advice for them?

Dr. O’Brien:                

Usually – and it does vary. I also would be nervous if it was a hospital-based place where I had to go for my visit. But for example, where we are in the cancer center, it’s a completely separate building. Everybody is temperature checked before they get in. Everybody has to fill out a questionnaire about their symptoms. If they do have a low-grade temperature, we immediately triage them to another area.

So, actually I think the cancer center is probably a pretty safe place to be. Probably safer than the grocery store in that sense, because of the screening and the testing of the temperature of everybody who comes in there. And, of course, everybody has a mask on.

So, I would be probably a little bit weary in a hospital setting where they may be many sick patients hospitalized with COVID. But I think in a lot of clinic buildings or freestanding buildings, I probably would not be that worried.  

Katherine:                  

Well, Dr. Susan O’Brien, thank you so much for joining us today. 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. Thank you so much for joining us.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

How Does COVID Impact CLL Patients?

How Does COVID Impact CLL Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

How has chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) care been impacted in the age of COVID-19? Dr. Phillip Thompson explains how COVID affects CLL patients and the importance of not delaying CLL treatment.
 
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.

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Transcript:

Dr. Philip Thompson:

There was a large ISH study published, I think, in Lancet Oncology, recently,  from the UK, where they looked at outcomes for patients with cancer. And of course, it was all patients with cancer, not specifically CLL, specifically blood cancers. But I think there were roughly 200 patients with hematologic malignancies.

And the interesting thing that I noticed, there were that patients who had recent chemotherapy, which I might have expected to be a really high-risk feature for a poor outcome, actually didn’t do any worse than patients who hadn’t recently been treated.

By far, the most important predictors of outcome for patients were whether their cancer was controlled or not, number one. And then other co-morbidities that patients had, like lung disease, advanced age, that sort of thing. So, actually, we need to see more data from more – from datasets that have more patients with CLL. But it seemed like the type of treatment mattered less than whether the disease was controlled and what other problems the patient had in terms of predicting their outcome from COVID.

So, I am taking that information with a – we have to, as I said, see more data. But I’m not going to use COVID as a reason not to patients who need treatment.

We may stretch things out somewhat in people where the decision is really well, and maybe you don’t definitely need to treat. But I don’t want to see people get into really severe trouble from their CLL because we’re trying to delay treatment because of COVID. Because that might actually be counterproductive. Because people with very uncontrolled CLL, if they were to get the infection, may actually have inferior outcomes to people whose disease is controlled.

Partnering With Your Doctor on CLL Treatment Decisions

Partnering With Your Doctor on CLL Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Which CLL treatment could be right for you? Dr. Steven Coutre, a CLL specialist, reviews current approaches and explains why patients should stay informed about emerging options.

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

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Transcript:

Dr. Steven Coutre:

Well, any decision about treatment is, of course, a joint decision between the physician and the patient. It’s our job to really educate each individual patient about their options and also, I think, very importantly, determine what their goals are. You don’t really follow a strict algorithm. It’s really making a decision for each individual patient.

So, of course that takes into account other medical conditions they may have, the nature of their disease, why it is that we’re treating that individual, what we’re trying to accomplish, and very importantly, what the goals of therapy are for that individual. That may be very different, for example, for somebody who’s quite young versus somebody who’s older or who might have significant medical comorbidities.

I think patients are always well served by asking questions about the treatment, side effects of treatment, of course, these days, cost comes into play, so I think we have an obligation to let patients know the differences between the therapies because often we have choices about a therapy. There isn’t any one best therapy, for example. It’s often a number of choices, and sometimes that can be very, in some ways, confusing for patients, because they wanna know, “Well, what’s the best therapy?” and as I mentioned, it’s not so much what’s the best. It’s what’s the best for that patient, and many times that’s choices of treatment.

Some are time limited, for example. Some are continuous therapies. So, there’s plusses and minuses, and again, it all goes back to what’s your goal for that individual patient, what are their preferences in terms of the treatment that they want to receive.

The drugs that I mentioned earlier are Bruton Acalabrutinib, Venetoclax, for example. These are really the first of our new really transformative drugs for CLL. Drugs, along sometimes, with our antibodies, Rituximab and Obinutuzumab, which are really replacing the use of chemotherapy in treating the disease. So, moving forward, we’re looking at combinations of these drugs. Can we drive responses deeper? That would lend itself to stopping therapy, in some case, instead of using continuous daily therapy as we currently do with drugs like Ibrutinib or Acalabrutinib.

So, that’s the major focus right now. There, of course, will be other new drugs. There’s a third drug, Zanubrutinib, which is another BTK inhibitor, so that’ll probably play a role in treating CLL. There may be differences in side effect profiles between these drugs. There isn’t any new drug that we’re looking at currently that’s far enough along to say that it’s gonna be yet another fundamentally different, revolutionary therapy for CLL. But those, of course, can come along as we learn more about the biology of the disease.

You may have heard about CAR T-Cell Therapy, where you’re using your body’s own immune system to try to target the cancer. This has been very successful and is actually approved for use in other diseases, like large cell lymphoma, for example, but it remains very much investigational in CLL. There are also other clever ways of trying to achieve the same, endpoint, that is, using your own immune system to target the cells, that are simpler than CAR T-Cell Therapy and those kinds of approaches are also in clinical trials.

So, when you’re having the discussion about treatment, it’s always good to learn about what the latest therapies may be, even if they are investigational. I think that’s how we move the field forward and, of course, the newer drugs that we have brought forward came from clinical trials that patients greatly benefitted from. So, always ask your physician about clinical trials. Another great source for that, I think, is the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. They’re very patient-focused, they’re very up to date on the latest therapies and the latest trial results. They have a very robust presence, both online, and also, generally locally. There’s local chapters. So, I would encourage you to reach out to them for information.