Is a clinical trial your best MPN treatment option? Dr. Ruben Mesa explains the clinical trial process and how patients may benefit from participating.
Dr. Ruben Mesa is an international expert in the research and care of patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). He serves as director of UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center in San Antonio, Texas. More about this expert here.
There is much exciting research in myeloproliferative neoplasms. First, research trying to understand, why do people develop MPNs, and why do they progress. This is crucial research, and that this basic research to better understand the diseases will help us asses whether our treatments are having an impact slowing down the progression of the disease, and help us better design therapies that, hopefully, can cure these diseases.
Be reassured that our goal as a scientific community is to cure the MPNs. Now, until we’re able to do that, we want to be able to best control them as best we can. So, the next level of research is really in new therapies; primarily drug-based therapies, but future therapies using the immune system; potentially using vaccine therapy to try to better control the disease to make the disease as neutral in your life as possible.
Our goal, short of curing the disease is to make the disease as invisible in your life as possible. Hopefully, minimal side effects, minimal symptoms, protected against risk of blood clots or bleeding, ideally, decreasing the risk of progression, and hopefully without any significant side effects from the medication your receiving.
So, that really is our goal.
Clinical trials are a crucial way for us to improve the treatments that we have for any diseases. And in particular, in areas like myeloproliferative neoplasms where we have therapies, but we don’t have cures, clinical trials are crucial. Clinical trials are a structured way for you to be able to receive a new treatment. That treatment is closely monitored, and starts with a strong belief that that treatment is going to be beneficial for you.
Being on a clinical trial has many steps, but you are in the driver seat in each of them. So, you’re able to enroll in a study, and you’re able to decide at any point whether or not you’d like to continue on in that study. You are made clearly aware of what you’re receiving; what dose; what to expect at each and every step of that therapy.
It’s a treatment just like any other, but we use them because we are hoping that it will be better than the treatments that we have, and we do it on a clinical trial so that we can learn from that experience. If that drug is better, then we should probably expand its use and give it to other people, and have it be approved and used around the world. Or for whatever reason that therapy is not as helpful as we would like, then we learn from that, as well.
Why was it not helpful? Was it the wrong therapy? Was it targeting the wrong aspect of the disease? Were there side effects that made the therapy not beneficial? So, we learn a lot about it in either direction. Hopefully, individuals who participate in clinical trials will have a direct benefit themselves by being able to experience a new therapy that is, hopefully, better. But also, they do have the ability to help other patients now and in the future that will be facing the same disease they have.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/Could-an-MPN-Clinical-Trial-Be-Right-for-You_-1.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2019-12-13 10:21:392019-12-13 10:21:39Could an MPN Clinical Trial Be Right for You?
Dr. Ruben Mesa provides an overview of available treatments and reviews important factors to consider when choosing a therapy for essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV) or myelofibrosis (MF).
Dr. Ruben Mesa is an international expert in the research and care of patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). He serves as director of UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center in San Antonio, Texas. More about this expert here.
The treatment landscape for myeloproliferative neoplasms is changing very rapidly. And in a good way, it’s increasingly having many more options for patients with Myeloproliferative Neoplasms. But I would separate it, really, into two groups. First, there are those individuals with essential thrombocythemia and polycythemia vera.
These individuals, we have newer therapies, such as interferons, we have, potentially, use of JAK inhibitors, we have some experimental therapies, as well as prior therapies we’ve used and become accustomed to, including hydroxyurea, phlebotomy, and aspirin.
But we’re learning much more about how to use these therapies; how to combine them; what constitutes success with these therapies; what should constitute a change in terms of therapy.
And there are new therapies being developed in the future that will impact this group of individuals with earlier MPNs: ET and PV.
For patients with myelofibrosis, the treatment is evolving. Patients with Myelofibrosis are affected in different ways. It is, in some ways, a more problematic disease.
There is evolution of our most impactful therapy, of stem cell transplantation. We have a better sense of in which patients we should consider that treatment, and how that can be applied in the safest way. We also have more medical treatments. We just saw in 2019 the approval of Fedratinib as the second specific JAK inhibitor approved for patients with myelofibrosis.
We, additionally, now have, truly dozens of clinical trials of new therapies in development that are in clinical trials right now that might be helpful for patients with myelofibrosis who have either had Ruxolitinib, or have a suboptimal response to Ruxolitinib, or sometimes even newly diagnosed patients. But I would say the future is very bright.
So, it is key with a treatment to first understand what is the treatment, what is the dose, and what is the goal? Each of the treatments have different goals. Some of the goals are to decrease the likelihood of blood clots or bleeding.
And frequently, we assess whether we’re protecting against the blood clots or bleeding by bringing down elevated counts. Is the plate account high, and we’re trying to bring it into the normal range? Is the hematocrit high, and we’re trying to bring that to under 45%? Is the white blood cell count high? Have we lowered each of those? First, it’s around controlling blood counts if that is the goal, as well as trying to decrease at risk of blood clots or bleeding.
Second, if patients have symptoms associated with their MPN, sometimes itching, sometimes symptoms associated with high courts, sometimes enlargement of the spleen, or symptoms associated with the spleen, have we reduced or nullified those symptoms? Have we shrunk the spleen if the spleen was enlarged?
And then, finally, we assess our goal by trying to be sure that patients are not progressing or getting worse on the disease. So, depending upon the treatment, we first asses what is our goal? Is it to improve counts? Is it to improve symptoms? Is it to shrink the spleen? And have we accomplished one, two, or all three of those goals? Or was only one those our goals to begin with?
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/MPN-Treatment-Decisions_-Which-Path-is-Best-for-You_-1.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2019-12-13 09:50:552019-12-13 09:50:55MPN Treatment Decisions: Which Path is Best for You?
Lindsey Lyle discusses the role of clinical trials as an MPN treatment option and how research is advancing the field.
Lindsey Lyle is a physician assistant at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, specializing in hematological malignancies with a subspecialty in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). More about this expert here.
When considering treatment, remembering that clinical trials are an option – and often, a very good choice – is something that I really try to communicate to my patients. Generally, there’s a stigma around clinical trials as patients feeling like a lab rat or some sort of a study subject, and there is a perception that they’re not receiving as good of care as they would if they were not on a clinical trial. However, in my patients, I really try to dismiss this thinking because at this point in time, we do have really fairly good options for treatments with MPNs.
However, we do not have a cure for MPNs outside of a transplant, and our treatments are not perfect, and so, enrolling in a clinical trial really should be considered by patients and their providers as a very viable option.
It’s generally introducing perhaps a new way of approaching the disease treatment. Oftentimes, clinical trials are using a combination of agents, which is not necessarily available outside of the clinical trial.
And so, with clinical trials, we’re always trying to make something better. We’re trying to learn something, we’re trying to, No. 1, help the patient – so, my No. 1 goal in enrolling one of my patients in a clinical trial is to, first of all, help them, help control their disease, help them to feel better, and to live a long and good life. No. 2, we learn as we go along. Clinical trials are critical for drug development and for the future of treatment in patients with MPNs.
So, not only are our patients helping themselves, but hopefully, they are helping the future MPN patients who may come along and need a treatment. So, I always like to keep this really in the conversation when discussing treatments, and it may be up front, and it also may be after a treatment has stopped working that we consider a clinical trial.
So, there are also a lot of things that kind of go into clinical trial management and different requirements, so if a patient lives very far away, it may be challenging for them to come back to the academic center on a regular basis for routine clinical trial monitoring that’s required by the study, but if they live close by, I generally do recommend this. They are also associated with clinical research coordinators or clinical trial nurses.
And, these patients are monitored really very closely, and it’s kind of nice to have that extra person in it with you in the clinical trial, just another point person to discuss, perhaps, how you’re feeling or different questions or concerns as the clinical trial proceeds. So, when talking about treatments, in my opinion, especially in MPNs, clinical trials really should be one of the options that is first discussed when thinking about starting treatment, and especially if a treatment has stopped working.
So, there are very many exciting possibilities in MPN research right now. We have a lot of combination therapies, which I think I am most excited about, because we have a decent backbone of therapy at this point, but building on that and trying to maybe enhance the way that the backbone therapy works, and also to perhaps change the microenvironment of the bone marrow – basically, trying to reverse fibrosis.
So, there is currently a drug in clinical trial that is looking at this, and we are proceeding with this trial, and really hoping for the best, but I think that to combination therapies where we can put two things together that we think work really well together to help produce good outcomes – I think I’m most excited about that at this point.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/Could-an-MPN-Clinical-Trial-Be-Your-Best-Treatment-Option_-1.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2019-12-11 13:13:392019-12-12 12:08:53Could an MPN Clinical Trial Be Your Best Treatment Option?
Lindsey Lyle discusses the factors that should be considered when choosing a therapy.
Lindsey Lyle is a physician assistant at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, specializing in hematological malignancies with a subspecialty in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). More about this expert here.
When deciding about a treatment, it’s really important for the healthcare professional and the patient to discuss the patient’s goals.
The patient really is the key player here, and we as medical professionals are here to support the patient’s goals. So, what might work for one patient is not going to be necessarily the same treatment I would choose for a different patient. So, right off the bat, identifying the patient’s goals – and really, what are we trying to fix in one specific patient is going to look different from the next patient I see in that day.
For example, there are certain clinical manifestations of MPNs that need specific treatment approaches and maybe honing in on trying to help one clinical issue.
So, first of all, identifying the disease process – that’s No. 1. What is the diagnosis? No. 2: Coming up with a goals of care plan with the patient. What is causing them the most difficulty in their everyday life, and how are we going to fix that? That’s generally where I start.
Then, I discuss with the patients the different options for treatment, which either include therapies that are FDA-approved or enrolling in a clinical trial. And then, we really talk about pluses and minuses for each of these therapeutic decisions.
Patients may have different comorbidities, so they may suffer from different chronic diseases that may impact the treatment that is chosen with the patient and their provider, as well as discussing stem cell transplant, which we haven’t talked much about, but stem cell transplant is an option, and at this point, the only curative therapy for patients with myelofibrosis. And so, determining whether or not transplant is in the patient’s best interest is also a topic of discussion when deciding on therapy approach.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/Ready-to-Start-an-MPN-Treatment_-What-You-Need-to-Consider.-1.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2019-12-11 12:25:222019-12-11 13:24:50Ready to Start an MPN Treatment? What You Need to Consider.
MPN expert, Lindsey Lyle, provides an overview of therapies used to treat myelofibrosis (MF), polycythemia vera (PV) and essential thrombocythemia (ET).
Lindsey Lyle is a physician assistant at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, specializing in hematological malignancies with a subspecialty in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). More about this expert here.
To overview the treatment types for MPNs, we have a variety of different mechanisms in which we use, and clumping these three main MPNs together, we can kind of break it down into, first of all, cytoreductive therapy, which is nonspecific, but really just reduces the amount of cells the bone marrow is producing. And so, it’s really to control the blood counts. And, different types of cytoreductive therapy generally are – hydroxyurea is used probably the most commonly.
There are some other sorts of chemotherapy that may be used in different instances. We also have biological agents, such as interferons, that may be used in patients with MPNs. We then have JAK inhibitors, which there are two FDA-approved JAK inhibitors at this point for myelofibrosis, and one approved for polycythemia vera.
We also have a variety of novel agents in clinical trials. These may be inhibiting different pathways of the cellular production or different signaling pathways at the level of the stem cell, so there are a variety of those. We also use hypomethylating agents in some patients who maybe have higher-risk disease, mainly myelofibrosis, that really changes the way that the stem cells are produced in the bone marrow in order to control the cell counts and also symptoms.
So, there are a variety of therapeutic measures that are taken. Additionally, not necessarily medication-related, but phlebotomy, which is considered a therapy for polycythemia vera, is generally used in order to reduce red blood cell volume, and then, aspirin is commonly used, especially in polycythemia vera and essential thrombocythemia as a supportive care medication to reduce risk of complications from the disease.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/An-Expert-Summary-of-Current-MPN-Treatment-Options-1.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2019-11-26 10:14:232020-01-24 08:50:47An Expert Summary of Current MPN Treatment Options
Three experts discuss the clinical trial process and the difficulty in participating in a trial. Our expert panel includes:
Ken Getz, MBA – Founder and Board Chair, CISCRP
Andy Lee – Senior Vice President and Head, Global Clinical Trial Operations, Merck
T.J. Sharpe – Melanoma Survivor and Patient Advocate
And greetings from Southern California. I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power. And welcome to this Patient Empowerment Network program, another in our series of Clinical Trials MythBusters. Our goal, of course, is to help you get the treatment for you or a loved one that you need and deserve. I want to thank the financial supporters for this program to the Patient Empowerment Network; AbbVie, Inc., Celgene Corporation. Daiichi Sankyo and Novartis for their support. They have no editorial control and we’re going to have a very freewheeling discussion today. And really what it’s about is how can a clinical trial be made easier for you to participate? Are there barriers? We’ve talked about it in previous programs. But specifically, what are the companies—the pharmaceutical industry mostly, who sponsor trials all around the world, what are they doing to make trial participation easier? For you to know about trials. For the people at your clinic to know about it and what to say and how to administer it. For you to have documents that are understandable for you and your family to know whether you want to participate. To keep you informed. And also related to the requirements of trials. How can they be relaxed a little so that there may be a trial that would benefit you, that you and your doctor agree on, and the requirements of it allow you to be in the trial. Okay, and the logistics of it are not so tough either. All right, I’ve been in two clinical trials, and I believe I’m alive today because of that. So, I’m very grateful. We have some wonderful panelists with us over the next hour. Now as you have questions, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. And some of you have. So, you’ll be able to interact with us as we go along. First, I want to go to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and T.J Sharpe. And T.J. has been on programs with me over the years. Stage four melanoma patient having been in trials. And T. J., you would agree, you’re alive today because you were in trials, right?
Absolutely, Andrew. I think both of us are very fortunate that we found a trial that was the right treatment for us and gave us the ability to combat our disease in areas may not have been available to us if we just waited for standard of care therapies.
Right. And here you are—we should say that you were diagnosed a number of years ago with melanoma, went through trials. And now you’ve had two years without treatment, right?
Yes. It’s been five years of treatment followed by now two good years of a clean bill of health.
Well, great. And I should mention for our audience, many people are familiar with T.J. T.J. goes around the country, gives speeches. He’s been at many events, consults with industry that are developing trials to try to bring the patient perspective forward. So, T.J., thank you for all you do. We really appreciate it.
You’re welcome. It’s my honor to be able to represent all these patients.
Well, most every family—certainly most have been touched by cancer. But our other guests are not cancer patients but are in national leadership programs. And so, let’s go up to Medford, Massachusetts at Tufts University outside Boston, Ken Getz. Ken, welcome to the program. Ken, ladies and gentlemen, is a true national leader when it comes to clinical trials and really helping us move forward with better processes, better understanding. Ken, tell us a little bit about your organization there, CISCRP. What does that stand for?
Thank you. And I have to say your pronunciation was nearly perfect. It’s hard to pronounce it. It’s an acronym and it stands for The Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation. It’s a non-profit organization. It was founded 18 years ago. And it’s really there to help patients and their families navigate the whole clinical research progress which for many is completely unfamiliar terrain until they’ve been diagnosed with an illness or when they have exhausted all other treatment options. So, CISCRP really helps people become more educated and informed so that they can really think of the clinical research process with more confidence. And they can navigate this unknown terrain.
All right. I’m going to come back to you in a minute because you have such an overview, and you’re also an Associate Professor at Tufts. And so, you study all this, and you’ve written books. But I want to introduce the third guest. And that is a leader from the pharmaceutical industry and one of our most respected and venerable companies in the field, and this is Merck. So, joining us in a senior vice president of clinical operations there around the world. And that’s Andy Lee. Andy, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us.
Andrew, thank you. And pleasure to be with some prestigious panelists, both of whom I know. And I’ve met you over the last two weeks. And thank you to T.J. and yourself who have been trial participants and who are representing that part of the organization.
Okay, and we should mention that both T.J. and Andy are working on a couple of levels. And Ken sounds off on this too. There is a group called TransCelerate where pharmaceutical industry is working together on some of the issues they face in having the proliferation of trials. More trials sites, more accessibility, procedures for that. And then, of course, Andy has helped lead that effort at Merck related to breakthrough therapies that they have been trying to develop there in supporting patients who might be in Merck trials. So, we are going to come back to that. But I want to go to you for a second, Ken. Ken, how low is the participation among adults in clinical trials, at least in the U.S. Now, I’ve heard really low percentages. Where are we now with that?
Right, it’s a great myth for us to start with, this notion that only three to five percent of patients—eligible patients, participate in clinical research. That’s actually a statistic that was published by the National Cancer Institute in the early 1990’s. The latest research really shows that it varies widely. For example, when we look at pediatric cancers, the participation rates are extremely high, 80 to 90 percent in same cases—pediatric leukemia. In part because those communities have very engaged healthcare providers, very engaged families that really share their information. It’s just an enabled community where all of the stakeholders support participation. And then there are other areas of course. Some cancers where we do see relatively low participation rates. But I want to point out that low participation is driven by so many factors, Andy, including the strict eligibility criteria. And the demanding protocol designs which are a real burden for some people, and they choose not to participate. As well as low awareness, very low accessibility to trials among minorities and underserved communities. So, there are many factors that contribute to this variation in the participation rates.
Yeah, you’ve ticked off some now. T.J., in your own experience, one of the breakthrough trials you were in you had to go from Ft. Lauderdale in South Florida and move your whole family to Tampa in central Florida, right. I mean that was a big deal.
Absolutely. When you have a young family and a stage four cancer diagnosis, relocating simply across the state during the holidays especially, is no big deal. We were fortunate because we had the means to be able to move there with work situation, with family. But too many people can barely go across the county, much less the state or the country to find a trial that might be the best match for them.
Andy, so we’ve ticked off some of the obstacles, and Ken touched on some about even the proliferation of trials. Is that a lot of what you do is how can we have trials be more accessible, be more widely distributed to a clinic near you?
Yes, let me just explain. When we look at a new cancer therapy, we look at the various cancers that may be affected. And what we do is we go for high probabilities of success. And the challenge is if you bring a new cancer agent. You normally start off in very advanced disease. So, patients would have failed multiple lines of therapy, and often it is a last gasp. And you have to show some sort of clinical efficacy. And then you move sort of backwards in the disease, and you go from sort of third-plus line, second line and first line.
And then you may work downwards into earlier stages of the disease into an adjuvant setting and maybe a neoadjuvant setting. So, as we sit down and design a trial, what we need to look at is what is the population that is most likely to show any benefit at all. And quite often when you are developing a new therapy, it’s difficult to show benefit because many of the patients are very ill. So, what we have to do is optimize the opportunity for success of a compound by going to the right target patients.
And quite often as we have learned a lot more about cancer, this does not mean we test a product broadly in anyone with cancer. We typically try and find a profile of a patient that is likely to respond. And many patients now will realize their predictor biomarkers or prognostic biomarkers. So, for example, with immunotherapies, those that work through the PD1 mechanism would probably want to have a PD1 ligand receptor positive patient who is likely to bind to the drug.
And that gives a higher probability of success. So, it sounds counterintuitive that while we want to develop therapies for all cancer patients, when we start clinical trial development, we have to show efficacy in a population that will benefit. And that’s normally predefined and makes the inclusion criteria fairly strict. As we show efficacy and as we can move into broader populations, it makes it a lot easier for us to design more liberal clinical trials. And then we can actually spread those in the geographic domains.
I could talk more about geographic allocation, but let’s hold that for the time being, and let’s see if there’s time later on.
Can I just add to what Andy said because I think it’s really important for your viewers to understand just how active drug development activity is today. We’re looking at over 4,000 pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, some of them very, very small. But in total, we’re looking at nearly 6,000 drugs that are in active clinical trials. And to Andy’s point, many are really targeting a patient with a very specific genetic profile or a specific biomarker. But it should give anyone who believes that a clinical trial may be an important care option for them, they should recognize that there may be many, many trials out there.
In total we estimate as many as 80,000 clinical trials, nearly 50 just conducted in the U.S. alone—50,000. So, it’s just important that we keep all this activity in perspective.
Right. So, T.J., that’s why all of us as patients need to ask about them, right? Go to different resources, whether it’s an advocacy group that you ultimately spoke with other patients, and obviously quizzing the doctors we go to. Is there something that may line up with my situation, right T.J.?
Absolutely. There is a both top down and bottom up approach here that patients as they become educated—and every patient should be the owner of their healthcare as they become educated. Hopefully they are coming across advocacy organizations, other informed patients, patient support groups—all of which will help inform them different options for disease treatment, including hopefully as Ken mentioned, clinical research as a care option. At the same time, there is certainly very much an opportunity from the top down from the sponsors who develop the trials and from the sites that execute them to educate patients as they come in.
Not just at their own site, but at any site, at any medical facility. That if you have a diagnosis and you are looking into your care options, that you should be asking the question. And we should be giving you more information on the possibility of clinical trials and where you may find clinical trials that are appropriate for you.
Right, the whole enchilada, if you will, of all your options. Andy, so you mentioned about trial requirements. So, first of all, what efforts either at Merck or are you aware in the industry are being made to really talk to patients early on as you are designing trials? Whether it’s the requirements—how many CT scans you’re going to have. How often you are going to have to go to the main trial site. All the different things that sometimes get in the way.
Well, firstly we start with design. And we believe in exquisite trial design, quality by design as well. So, what we want is to run the experiment once and not have a sloppy trial design. We want to make it really robust in terms of scientific integrity and operational execution. So, we have a lot of internal design committees and what we do is we co-op with many groups external to our company. So, we speak to people who run clinical trials at cancer institutes.
We speak to the doctors who manage this. We speak to the trial coordinators. We speak to people involved with the transporting and shipping of medicine how they would do that. And then we of course speak to people in the ecosystem. We quite often speak to investigational review boards before we start trials. We talk to them about our design and what would be best to protect the rights and well-being of patients. And then, of course, the patient-centric approach says that we need patient insights.
And I’ve chosen my words very carefully because the insights are really important. Not all patients—and I’m very respectful that some patients are very intelligent and actually may be involved in this. Some patients can contribute to design, not all can. And so, what we do is we take the insights and we impute those. We often have focus groups. We talk about this disease. We talk about the burden of the disease. And then we talk about how that disease is managed in an ecosystem. And quite often in different countries it’s managed differently.
And so, we have to appreciate the global clinical trials have to navigate a path that may not be a linear path as we’d see it at an exquisite elite cancer center in the United States. It’s community-based, it’s all the rest. So, we take that input, and what we try to do is unburden the trial for the patient. We say, “How can we design a trial that requires the least visits to the clinic—the hospital, the least burden for them. And how can we take some of that burden from the clinic and actually transfer that into an easier environment.
So, document reading and review. Perhaps filling in questionnaires about quality of life. These are things that don’t have to be done in the clinic itself. And then often when we work with clinics, we work with them to help them understand how we as sponsors can make their life easier. And some of those things might be simplifying the informed consent. But I want to stress just one point here is that we can do whatever we like in the design at a company.
One of the things is, the patients are not sponsor patients. Okay, we sponsor clinical trials. The patients are managed by a doctor and a professional. And underneath that principal investigator is a whole oncology team. And it involves radiology. It involves pharmacists. It revolves around a 360 multidisciplinary team. They’re exquisite. They help manage the patient, not the sponsor. We provide the enabling functions for them. And then also that the oversight of the patient’s right, safety and wellbeing is the responsibility of an institutional review board.
And while we may provide templates and simplify templates in text and language, we rely heavily on the institutional review boards to help us with things that may make things easier, such as reimbursement for parking, transport, all of these things. And by and large, the institutional review boards are very supportive of these things. But they are very difficult to quantify in exact terms because of different geographic regions and different norms in different places. So, we rely heavily on exquisitely well-trained 360 team who manages oncology patients with a great PI. They manage patients.
And we work collaboratively with the sites who work with patients on our behalf. So, I just wanted to say the myth is that sponsors interactive with patients. That’s a myth. And the truth is that we engage with clinical sites, and we try and make our design and all the elements—the enabling elements, simpler for the trial sites in order to manage the patients in a simpler way.
Okay. Thank you for that. So, Ken, I want your comment on that. Because okay, we are downstream patients. We have a doctor, healthcare team. And we know somewhere in the background there’s a sponsor that tried to enable good things to happen to get reliable data and hopefully a cure for us. So, how do we—what’s happening? Are we improving things there in that interaction between clinic and patient?
Yes, we absolutely are. And I’ll start by just echoing and acknowledging that Andy has really laid out just an incredible amount of input that goes into the design of a protocol. And that’s really for a really large company. We see many, many examples now of patient advocacy groups or smaller companies turning to a variety of approaches to solicit input from patients and healthcare providers. Some virtual approaches through a social media or digital community. So, there’s lots of ways that feedback is being channeled.
And that’s really important. The flip side, to really answer your question, is that our protocol designs are becoming more and more complex, more and more demanding. A much larger proportion of drugs are now targeting rare diseases that have been stricter inclusion and exclusion criteria. And the designs of the studies—the number of procedures and the number of visits. The number of investigators that are involved, all of that has also continued to grow. And as a result, we do see that our trials are taking longer.
We have yet to see a year when we actually witnessed a reduction in the cycle time to conduct a clinical trial. And we just have to figure out new ways of making the participation process less burdensome and more efficient.
Oh, my. So, T.J., you had been living with stage four melanoma, a life-threatening condition. We have people even on our team who are living with stage four disease. So, when Ken talks about things slowing, that’s not what we want to hear. We want to hear two things. One is, we can accelerate a development of new medicine. And ideally—because this is an issue certainly in the U.S., but I think worldwide, that by speeding the process, cutting through red tape, improving procedures and us participating, the cost can be less as well.
And when we talk about cancer, the costs are going through the roof as you know for people living with chronic cancer. And you know so well, Andy, people who are on some of the medicines that you’ve come out with at Merck. Where people used to die unfortunately in short order, are living a much longer life thanks to new medicines. We want it to happen faster and be financially achievable. Andy, any comment about the pace of science?
Yeah, I would like to make a couple of comments about that. We often hear the sort of story that 80 percent of clinical trials don’t recruit on time, et cetera. We do immense feasibility. Once we have designed a protocol, we send it out to all of the countries that could potentially work with us. We have staff in 47 countries. And they look at two areas of interest. One is the medical durability, is the comparator the one we use in our country. Is the protocol designed the way we practice clinical medicine, not clinical research medicine?
And will that enable us to recruit the patients? That’s the first level. The second level we look at is to ask the question, is this operationally feasible? Can we source the comparator? Do the clinical sites have the equipment? How would we have to ship the biological samples around the world? And based on medical durability and the operational durability, we do a site selection. And we run the indicators through a Monte Carlo simulation. And we simulate this trial. What if we took three countries out? What if we added this more sites? What if we changed this inclusion?
And we come up with a model of what the recruitment would look like. And recruit about 80 percent of our trials according to our model. So, about 80 percent of our trials recruit on our model time. And then if we look at the typical time for drug development, it has been from eight to 10 years for many years in the industry. And when we look at some of the development timelines now—the cycle times. Pembrolizumab (Keytruda), for example, from first study until first approval, was 60 percent reduction in time.
We were looking in the four-year time period. And we are looking at five or six years for many indications. And so, we’ve halved that cycle time for some of the newer oncology products. And there are a number of reasons we’ve done that. One is we have found operational efficiencies. Two is the trial design has enabled us to interim analysis with independent data monitoring committees to assist with that. I’d also like to put in a positive plug for the regulators.
I do believe—and I’ll talk specifically about the FDA, because they are the agency for the United States. They have revolutionized the way they approach the designs and the way they review the data. And they have breakthrough designation status they’ll give to compounds that are really looking like they have strong efficacy. And so, the approval process through the agency has improved remarkably. And they’re open to adaptive designs. And they are open to interim analysis. And they are open to all sorts of things.
So, I really wanted to give credit to our agency who has said, “Where there’s a need for breakthrough medications, we’ll try to find the path.” And so, I do believe there’s a real positive side to this. The challenge is the market is saturated. We have now more than 25 PD1s in development. And to put the 25th one in there, they are so far behind in development. I wonder what that does. It clogs up the system. So, when you look at how can we influence sites, at the top sites we only get one or two patients.
And we compete with 50, 60, 70, 80 other sponsors. And so, it becomes so saturated that, that site has to learn to do systems and process with 70 companies. And what they are doing is almost hedging. They are not focusing on certain things. So, in those cancer centers, they offer treatment for all lines of therapy and all types of cancer, the specialized and nonspecialized. And we are moving out of that sort of geography and moving it community-based oncology practices where it’s less saturated, and we can actually have more traction there and be able to engage more with the clinical trial enterprise for the good of the patients.
Ken, you write books about all kinds of issues around this. So, if we are getting—particularly in oncology to have trials offered at the community practice where those doctors work night and day—the nurses. They are really stretched. More and more cancers, genomic subtypes, most sophisticated testing. How—what would you say the patient can do. T.J. talked about it a little bit. What would you recommend to patients so that at that community oncology practice the patient and the family can kind of discover what may be available for them as Merck and other companies try to get these trials distributed?
Right, well you—talk about the whole enchilada, Andrew. You’re really touching on it. It’s also very exciting times for patients, not just cancer patients, but patients that are dealing with any chronic and severe illness today. And it’s really all about more of a partnership with the clinical care environment and clinical research. And of course, at the heart of it is the patients and their family being as informed as possible, sharing their electronic health and medical information so that they can be connected to trials that might be appropriate for them.
But it’s moving—as Andy said, away from the classic places where trials used to be conducted. And in many cases, they were at these dedicated centers that only conducted clinical trials. It’s a very competitive environment now for patients. So, many sponsor companies like Merck and others are looking at clinical care settings and moving into communities or, in some cases, large health systems where you can have clinical research professionals who will supplement and provide support to the healthcare providers, so they’re not stretched too thin.
But so that they have the clinical research capability onsite at the point of care. For patients it’s a great opportunity because now they have the opportunity to get their own healthcare or treating physician and treating nurse involved in a clinical trial as part of their overall care. And we expect to see more of that over time. We expect to see other virtual trials or opportunities for patients to participate in the comfort of their own home tied in with their clinical care setting.
And all of this is relatively new to the whole world of clinical trials and the investigation of experimental medications.
You touched on something I just want to follow up on. I’ve heard of this term site-less trials where you said you participate in your home. So, T.J. had to go from Ft. Lauderdale to Tampa. I had to go from Seattle to Houston. There are not—this is a big deal, especially if you have little kids as I did, he has. So—and away from work and whatever your situation is. So, is technology going to come in play so Andy can get the data he needs for the FDA, but that we can have technology help accrue that data in a more efficient way.
And I’ll say absolutely. And my colleagues here today I’m sure can comment on this as well. But absolutely. We are seeing wearable technologies and mobile applications that now have the ability measure vital signs and other important baseline information in a validated manner. There are ways that you can access a specific facility for a highly specialized test, specialized imaging for example where the technician can evaluate it remotely. Blood can be drawn at remote locations as well.
So, there are lots of places where we have sort of this more flexible environment that can cater more to the patients and less about a specific physical facility where you have to go to participate in a trial.
T.J., I want to talk to you about diversity. So, you and I are kind of middle-class white guys. But we want to know how new medicines work for a variety of populations, ethnically, economic groups, et cetera. And Andy needs that data. And he goes to the FDA, and the FDA says, “Well, do you have Hispanic people? Do you have Asian people? Do you have African American people?” or whatever the country is because he works globally. And they say, “We want to understand are there differences?”
How are we doing with that. How can we make a difference there so that we really know what medicines make a difference for broader and also distinct populations?
I’m sure Ken can back up some of these things with more hard data than I can. I know that different populations have different levels of trust with the medical system. One thing that you and I both experienced was a lack of options—a lack of good options. And when you get into dire straits, you tend to be a little more trustful of anything that comes along. But we have serious or chronic conditions that have proven treatments that might not be the most effective for certain populations.
And we’re not able to broad the scope to these minority populations or populations that don’t have access to NCI designated cancer centers or top-notch medical facilities. They are not able to get either in a trial that is looking for a drug that would help them or even get access to medicines that have been recently approved simply because their healthcare situation doesn’t allow it. Whether that’s a lack of insurance, a lack of healthcare literacy or simply a mistrust of—there’s a lot of generational mistrust I think in some communities of the clinical trial system.
So, as an advocate, I certainly push caretakers especially—and children caregivers for older populations who are maybe first or second-generation Americans to help facilitate a conversation between the medical professional who’s trusted and a patient that might not be able to get or rely on the information they’re given. Because it really will speak to populations that don’t get the opportunities that you and I have gotten simply because they are either not aware, or there is a barrier there to get to that medical professional.
I appreciate, T.J., you mentioned CISCRP. That’s one of the things that we’ve focused on for 18 years is bringing clinical research education into major metropolitan areas around the U.S. and parts of northern and western Europe where we plan for several months, and then we put on what we call an Aware for All events. And we really work very hard to encourage participation by—or from patients based within minority or underserved communities.
And I’m happy to say that we’ve had a lot of success with that. These are really difficult communities to reach through a lot of the traditional approaches. We have to rely on community centers and clergy and other approaches to really help these communities, for a lot of the reasons T.J. mentioned, trust the educational information, and come out to learn more. And I’m happy to say we’re seeing more and more people of diverse backgrounds that are curious and interested in learning more about clinical research, especially knowing that representative populations provide more information that can inform treatment for different types of patient sub-populations.
I want to go to Andy in a second. Andy, just one second. I wanted to mention and call out—and Andy’s company has been a leader in this. He was talking about PD1 and all of that. But drugs that have been breakthrough in immunotherapy for people like T.J. where—and it’s being explored in broader cancers where otherwise life was going to be short. And how to activate the immune system and really fight the cancer in people living long term. So, the people in those trials—and certainly there were people in the melanoma trials like yourself T.J.
Lung cancer trials and increasingly now others who did get tomorrow’s medicine today. Andy talked about accelerated approval which is great. So, that’s the impetus for the patient and the family. Is there the chance to get tomorrow’s medicine today? Now the obstacles may be distrust. You talked about that, Ken. And also, is maybe accessibility. Is it as a clinic near you? And Andy you talked about pushing that out. And then sometimes it’s related to cost.
Now is there anything that sponsors can do, Andy, related to the costs that people may have in being in certain trials? Where do we stand with that?
Yeah, so I’ll just touch on the distribution first and then get into the costs because they are linked. When we prosecute global trials—we’ve had a very U.S.-centric discussion so far. But cancers present differently in different geographic regions of the world. And so, when we want speed out of our trials. You want me to shorten that timeline and get drugs to market quickly. I do it internationally and in some cancers like esophageal cancer or some of the gastrointestinal cancers, Asia has a much higher prevalence of these cancers.
And we do a greater proportion of work there. We always include multi-country studies. And U.S. may have a greater proportion in other areas. So, we balance that out to optimize speed. Of course, with clinical trials the cost structure around the globe is very different. But let’s talk about U.S. We have spoken about a saturated core of clinical trial sites that we all go to. And I speak generally now for all sponsors. And we are all looking to optimize and get great efficiency.
At the same time, we realize we have many underrepresented geographies and ethnic groups—and not just ethnic groups, but under resourced populations. And so, what we’ve been thinking about is how can we support people, and support people at all levels. And so, we start off with thinking about the cost structure, and we obviously pay clinical sites for what they do. But we will support all sorts of things. We’ve been negotiating with Uber and Lyft, so we can build that into automated transport for patients.
Again, the IRB has to approve that. We are looking at ways to augment that they are not out-of-pocket for things. And we’ve been talking a lot with a group called Lazarex Foundation who has really expanded into under resourced communities and found ways to ensure that they have daycare and different access for those patients. We have worked extensively now to look at outreach programs into communities that typically wouldn’t be in trials. We are focusing in two areas right now as we speak.
One is next generation of HIV medicines, and the other one is in prostate cancer. And we’ve got a large program rolling out in prostate cancer. So, what we are doing is going into sites and we have put together training videos and training materials. And we are looking at cultural competency. So, it starts at the site. Are they culturally competent to engage a different community? And we’ve spoken about working with the community churches, community education systems.
And so that starts with cultural competency. I have a woman, Madelyn Goday, who works on this day and night in my organization. And she’s very strong at this. It’s early days, but if we can show that it works in one or two therapeutic areas and cancer types, we’d expand it further and further. But we can’t just have a shotgun approach and just go and do 100 sites and hope it works. Hope isn’t a good strategy. We are working systematically to engage different people. And as appropriate and approved by ethics committees, we will support all of these communities and help build infrastructure and capacity.
Those are important things for us. But as I said, where appropriate and where it’s sustainable. We can’t just throw money at something in the hopes something sticks. We have to have something sustainable and it goes to what Ken says, and that’s education and providing resources and materials. And we’ve used quite a lot of Ken’s materials in multiple clinical trials. Thank you for that, Ken. It’s been really helpful for us.
Great. I wanted to note for your audience. If you have a question, send it to email@example.com. We have expert panelists here. And this is really—we are all in this together. I think you hear the dedication from Andy at Merck and T.J. as a patient advocate and Ken as a professor and founder of organizations devoted to this. We want obviously accelerate medicines, but have the accurate data of how it affects different people, who is it right for so that the regulators—and thank you for what you said about the FDA here in the U.S., has the information to make a decision on should this medicine be available for people with that diagnosis.
Okay, so what about staying in the trial. So, T.J., how long—let’s take with the Keytruda trial or one of them. How long were you in to for?
Nearly four years. Three-and-a-half years.
Were there ever times when you said, “I’m done. I want to bail out.” You know.
I’ll be very careful how I answer this question for Andy’s sake.
It’s okay, T.J., we’re friends.
No, probably the biggest crossroads I ever came to was when one of my tumors started growing about a year into it. And we weren’t sure if the medicine stopped working or not. We didn’t know what to do. And as it turned out, it was still working. And I think was just one spot that wasn’t responding. But everything else had responded great. However, at the point, as a patient, you’re thinking about yourself first and your family first and the trial second. It’s easy to stay compliant on a trial when things are going well.
But when you’re ahead of the medicine in some ways, and I think patients with chronic illnesses or in some cases rare diseases, are almost more knowledgeable than some of their doctors or the trial protocols about when they’re stopping. They don’t have the luxury of finishing out a protocol and seeing where their disease journey takes them. And the best example I can give of this is a very passionate advocate by the name of Jack Wheelen who we unfortunately lost a couple of years ago, but whose influence has kind of dominated the patient advocacy world for the last decade or so.
And Jack was able to monitor his health almost better than a doctor. And he knew when his trials weren’t working. When we get to that point in a clinical trial setting where we know the medicine is not being effective or where a patient would be better served to move on to another treatment. That’s when we are going to take the next step in clinical research, because now we’re aligning the trial design and the trial goals with a patient and a patient’s family’s treatment goals. And as those two points merge, that’s where clinical research becomes that much more effective as a care option.
That was well said. And I think with all those trials, you’re right, the team—that care team, what’s right for you at that time. Obviously to get the data, but also not at all costs. In other words, if the data is showing something is no longer effective for you, is there another treatment or a trial? I’ll just share my story for a second. So, I was in a phase two trial of combination therapies—which are increasingly common certainly in oncology. And after three months—halfway in the trial, my blood was kind of cleaned up.
And I had nausea and some other side effects. And I said to the trial coordinator, “You know, I think I’d like to stop.” And she said, “You know, our belief is that you still have microscopic illness in your bone marrow—in this case with the blood cancer, and the additional three months in this protocol will make a long-term difference for you. That’s what we believe.” They didn’t have the answer, but that’s what they believed. You know what? I stuck it out. She was right. I had 17-year remission.
If I’d stopped after three months, would I have? So, it’s a dialogue with the care team Andy, right? It’s this ongoing discussion not just entering the trial, but remaining in the trial, correct?
Yes. Absolutely. And I just wanted to impress a really important thing. People talk about people dropping out of trials. In cancer trials we see extremely low drop out. I mean these are potentially lifesaving medicines for all of the companies. But what we do want to make sure about is that when there is progression of disease, and it’s shown that the drug—whichever it is, the control arm or the active arm or the new agent, where there is progression of disease that they get the best available therapy.
And so that often contaminates trials because we have the crossover effect that now they are getting maybe the experimental agent in the standard of care type of thing. But most important thing for us is to track the survival of the patient, regardless of whether they go on another therapy. And we have put a tremendous amount of effort into looking at the informed consent and making sure we work with IRB to track patients long term survival.
Because as you’ve said, you may have a short-term issue that shows that the drug may not be working short term, but long term it may have prolonged and profound effects. Positive or negative, we don’t know that. And so, what we like to do is get long term survival. And we ask patients to consider when they sign the consent for whatever trial and whichever sponsor is sponsoring this, is to consider that knowing their status throughout their treatment—whether it’s on a sponsor’s drug or another sponsor’s drug or x therapy. It is really important — and I ask people to think about that.
Because that really helps us get as much data out of the individual treatment as possible. And that may prevent nonrequired trials in the future or it may say, “Wow, that really informed.” And we’d like to inform all cancer patients. If data we generate can inform other therapies, we certainly want to do that. We do not want to do wasteful clinical trials. So, tracking patients long term or patients—the message to patients is being cognizant of letting the sponsor—and the sponsor could be an institution. Letting them know your status is really important. All they want to know is are you dead or alive.
In the end, just one thing is, are we partners. In the end, our viewers here, are we your partner? And can we feel that not just for their doctor but you guys behind the scenes with the labs and everything, that in the end we are partners. And unless we see it that way, we won’t get anywhere.
Absolutely. I’m glad you used the term partners. Because when we’ve done a prep for this people have said, “Are they investors in the thing?” So, yes, patients invest their time and everything, but they are partners in research. They are contributing so much. They are contributing—they are going into the absolute unknown. And there is an immense trust level that is there. And we owe that back as research professionals is to treat people with respect, dignity and as partners, to make information available, to publish our data to get it out there as quickly as possible. And to make sure we get that back into the participant’s sort of hands.
So, Ken, how are we doing on that because you go back over the years and people say, “I don’t want to be in a trial because I’ll be a guinea pig,” and respect was not seen as part of it.
Well, that’s also a bit of a myth, right? You had a few that claimed that they felt the process made them feel like a guinea pig. The vast majority of people, over 90% of people who participate in a trial, would do it again. So, once they get past that unfamiliar area where they’ve perhaps only heard a few case examples or a few very vocal people who had bad experiences. Once they’ve done it themselves or they’ve been able to work with a group of advocates that really help them think about this process, and they become more educated, generally they’re very impressed with the level of professionalism, the compassion that exists at all levels.
I work with so many professionals—science professionals and pharmaceutical companies and at the research centers, and they all share that kind of commitment that Andy just mentioned. There’s a real desire to partner with the patient to really inform them. I would say one place where we need to see much, much more however is in the return of clinical trial results in a plain language to people who’ve been in trials. That’s a place where as an enterprise—government, research sponsors as well as industry have not really made this a standard practice at this point. And that’s one thing that we’re really working on actively.
Right. Great. So, T.J., you and I are investors—and Ken used that term and Andy used it, and I’ve always believed it. We are investors of our tissue, our body, our future to help other people and hopefully help ourselves. And certainly, for profit companies that may greatly benefit if they have a blockbuster therapy. But we need to be kept informed in the long term, right T.J.? We want to know what a difference our participation made.
Certainly. And I think to echo what both Andy and Ken said is that patients do become partners. Patients who are involved in clinical research, a significant chunk become altruistically invested. I’ve heard more than once, “Even if this doesn’t help me, I’m glad I participated because it might help somebody else.” I know I’ve felt like that, and I’d venture that you’ve had some of that too, Andrew on your journey. So, it’s only—it’s at the very minimal fair, and it’s certainly very justified to expect as a co-participant in this.
And as kind of a co-creator of science with sites and sponsors that we understand what has come of our sacrifice and our time dedication to helping science out. We shouldn’t have to find it out through press releases from ASCO or hope that we hear about it on the nightly news. We deserve to hear what has happened. Not just because it can affect us as people and as patients, but that we put a lot into this too. And then we did our part to further medical research and we want to be part of the—whatever the end of the trial ends up being. We want to be aware of that. Not just for personal knowledge, but to know that it’s going to help this many other people.
Right, to be honored. So, Andy, at Merck you’ve established some internet platforms in particular related to keeping people informed, right?
Well, we’ve got an internet platform that people can log onto. I’m happy to share that with you; in which they can get access to a list of our trials. So, I didn’t prepare this but especially, but I did make a handmade note. And if anyone wants, it’s a very simple log on. Andrew Schorr:
You’re a great artist.
And it’s a simple one. What that will get you access to is two main important things. One is it gives access to information about clinical trials. We have a tab on there that tells everyone about the phases of clinical trials and what to expect in a trial. So, it’s an educational part. Then we have a lot of information about the Keytruda clinical trials were, are running, and they’re called keynote trials. And there you can look at the different indications. And you can look up and it has a telephone number you can call.
Now I must stress is that we run over 1,000 clinical trials in oncology. But many of them are not sponsored by us, they are investigator sponsored trials. So, you can go to clinics, and they run their own clinical trials that are not sponsor-related. And the NCI runs their clinical trials. So, there are a lot of different sources. And many companies will have clinical trials. We also have the website clinicaltrials.gov. I’ve had to use that in the last two days for a colleague.
And you can navigate that and look for different types of trials. And you can look at different products and everything. It’s not perfect. But at least it’s a place to go to. And I don’t want to sound as if I’m one sponsor centric. Many other companies have access to websites, and they really want to try and enhance and direct people to the clinical trials sites at which they are working.
Right, absolutely. And then you were working at the industry level with a group called TransCelerate, and I know T.J. is involved too, to try and establish common procedures as you establish trial sites, as you have communication, as you have training, right? So, that hopefully all boats will rise, right?
That’s correct. TransCelerate is a group that formed about eight or nine years ago. There were 10 initial member companies. I was a founder member of that. And we got together to say, “We have to improve operational efficiency.” So, we do not collaborate on molecular structures and those types—that’s competitive. We collaborate on what we call precompetitive, procompetitive aspects which says, “If we all work together to improve something, we’ll all get the benefit of this.” And we share it publicly.
There’s a website, you can look at it. But we’ve looked at standardizing protocols. We have a common protocol template. We’ve adopted that at our companies, so have other sponsors. The protocol can be developed in a standardized way. We’ve looked at standardizing ways where we can improve monitoring. We’re looking now at ways that we can work with investigative sites through i-platforms, shared investigative platforms. So, a clinical trial site has to provide the information for us as a sponsor and use the exact same standardized questionnaire and information for any other sponsor through a standard portal.
So, we are trying to reduce the burden on clinical trial sites. And we’ve plugged away for many years, and we are seeing greater traction there. We are seeing more efficiency, more standardization. We are seeing greater quality, less rework. And so, while it’s hard to quantify this, what we believe is that the sites are freed up of some of the more burdensome things, and they can direct their attention towards patients, patient safety, and access to clinical trials. So, the work may not be directly related to access for a cancer patient into a cancer trial, but there’s a lot of tangential spin-off of making a site more efficient so they can put their resources and energy in the right place.
Well, thank you for that effort and your leadership. So, Ken, you’ve been around this a long time. And you’ve deal with all the companies and the government and the various agencies. And as you know, in some quarters there’s a distrust for pharma. We mentioned cancer that you get the price tag of a drug, and it’s very expensive. And some people are struggling to pay for it. And there’s just frustration about it. And often in the news media they are the bad guys who are called out for unethical procedure or something that went awry.
So, how are we doing there in overcoming that because we talk to Andy, he seems very ethical, dedicated guy representing a company that’s been around I think well over 100 years. So, how are we doing to move clinical trials on in this area when people aren’t sure what to make of pharma.
Yeah. It’s a huge issue, Andrew. And I think part of the challenge is that all it takes is one questionable behavior, and it makes it difficult for the reputation of the entire industry. Right now, we are dealing with major pharma companies that are actually being fined for having contributed—a judgement, having contributed to the opioid crisis. And when you start looking at some companies aggressive marketing tactics, right? It really sort of sheds a darker light on a lot of the great work that companies do.
What we look at, at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development at the School of Medicine. We look at the overall output, the level of innovation that’s coming from the industry today. And we look at the number of complaints that have been filed with the FDA and other regulatory agencies around the world. And what we see is tremendous growth in the innovation and the quality of the innovation—drugs like Keytruda and other cancer immunotherapies. What an exciting area.
We see that the vast majority of companies really support and live by highly ethical, highly professional, highly compassionate approaches because they all know that it takes just one questionable issue that can really tarnish the reputation of every company operating in the industry. So—again, Andy also mentioned just how regulated we are as an industry, the fact that we have ethical review committees and data safety monitoring boards and so many other external agencies that help to oversee the work that’s done here.
So, I would say for patients who are thinking about clinical trials, it’s good to know the history. It’s good to know what you need to do to protect yourself. But the vast majority find that the people they deal with are ethical, they are professional, they are compassionate. And, as I mentioned, over 90% of people who get involved in trials say that they would do it again.
Thank you. That was a wonderful response. Andy, you mentioned earlier about starting research with the sickest people basically, where there are no options. But one of the questions that came in is, “Are trials only for the sickest people or are there of all those trials you talked about opportunities for people who maybe are newly diagnosed or could be their fairly initial therapy?
Yeah, great question. And thank you to the person who asked that. And the answer is that we start in people—because we don’t know if our experimental agent will work. And everyone assumes that new medicines are all going to succeed. And we work in research and researcher because of that many things fail very early on. They fail in phase one before anyone hears of it. It’s normally a code number at that point. And we may just not make the drug soluble enough, or it may not be distributed enough.
So, we may have a thing that works in a test tube or a petri dish. But to get that into humans and make sure that it’s safe at the dosage we use often fails. We just don’t progress far enough. So, what we want to make sure of is that firstly the drugs are safe. And there’s a trade-off between safety and efficacy. We’re constantly trading off. And so, what we do is we look at that and say when someone has no option and we want to get an option going, that’s where we start.
We’ve actually moved down the disease scale, and we’ve come into adjuvant treatment or secondary prevention. And we’ve gone into newer adjuvant is when you have a small tumor is we pre-treat to manage that tumor before surgery is done. And post-surgery we hope that there’s limited treatment or no treatment. And we actually have removed the cancer, and there would be no evidence of disease. But. of course, using the word cured is something we try not to do, because we prefer to use no evidence of disease.
But absolutely. And the next strategy is prevention of cancer. Our company does a lot of vaccinations in women’s health. We have a product that protects against human papilloma virus which is a precursor for cervical cancer. So, people who are vaccinated with this particular product—and I’m deliberately not using brand names for obvious reasons. But when you vaccinate for HPV, you essentially are preventing the likelihood of a cervical cancer. And there are now prospects in many disease areas where either vaccination or early treatment gives you a tremendous positive prognosis of not getting the disease later on in life.
The answer to your question is yes, we are absolutely looking at ways to prevent getting to a very advanced stage which is very costly to manage and very emotional and stressful and difficult.
I want to thank you. I just want to get a final comment on what you would say to patients or family member. And I want to start with you, Ken. What do you want patients right now to know so that—what tips would you give them so that they’d consider being part of clinical research or stay in clinical research and the benefit it could be for them.
I will say really two things. The first is there’s just a tremendous amount of information out there, and we recommend education before participation. So, do your homework and engage family and friends and people you meet and trust to help you make the decision. And the second point comes off of that. And that is this is not a decision you make alone. Really bring in your treating physician, your nurse. Bring in your support network. And chances are you will learn a lot, and you might even find a trial that is right for you.
Right. And Andy, what about you? A final point—what would you say to a friend or family member or colleague related to considering trials today.
We get this question every single day. And we get it from patients in need. And my answer is we are all patients. We are all going to face this as professionals in our job or professionals outside. And so, I say community of practice. And disease hits all of levels of society in all education professions, et cetera. And so, my thing is to encourage people to do what Ken has said. Work as a team. Get multiple inputs.
And I am sponsor agnostic. Get the best therapy that is available. And that may be the best care option—as I said, the ecosystem in which you get the care is really important as well as the medicines that you get. So, have the discussion. Trust the medical professionals, they are very skilled out there. They are extremely well educated. And I just urge people, “Don’t think on two clicks on Google you are going to solve what your treatment option is.” Really discuss it with people because not all the options are public, and there is not enough information available about how to manage the whole disease through the entire enterprise. Trust the professionals.
Well said. And T.J., you and I are alive today because of trials. What do you want—what’s the thing you want to leave our viewers with?
That they don’t have to be involved in clinical research. I think that’s an important distinction to make. And it’s going to pull together what Andy and Ken said that clinical research should not be considered a hail mary or last gasp option. If you are a patient—and we are all going to be patients as Andy mentioned. You want the best care for you. You want to be able to weigh all of your options. And if you are not considering clinical research, if you don’t know about it or aren’t able to get the information you need about it, then you are not going to be able to make the best healthcare decision long term for your health.
So, take that information that you can get. Find the trusted sources. Be able to reach out to advocates or colleagues or someone that you know that would have the disease or can connect you with good information. And be your own advocate—a little cliché, but really own that healthcare information. And once you are able to collect all of the different treatment options, then you consult with your professional medical team as to what the plan forward—the best plan forward for your individual situation would be.
Right. T.J., my friend, thank you. It’s a delight to see you again. Andy, with Merck, thank you so much for being with us and bringing your years of expertise. And, Ken, being at an independent non-profit center and also at Tufts University there, thank you for all the work you do. I want to thank the Patient Empowerment Network for pulling this all together. And the sponsors who supported us in this effort, AbbVie Inc., Celgene Corporation. Daiichi Sankyo and Novartis.
All these companies and I’m sure many more, working so that research can move forward. We can be true partners in it. And hopefully get tomorrow’s medicine today to make a difference for the community and live a long life, and hopefully a cure, right? I’m Andrew Schorr in California. Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.
Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or PEN. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/CT-Myths-1.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2019-09-17 10:30:152020-03-13 08:11:57Is It Difficult to Participate in a Clinical Trial?
Cancer patients are living longer as a result of clinical trials that test new treatments, therapies, procedures, or new ways of using known treatments.
Watch along as a panel of experts from the Diverse Cancer Communities Working Group (CWG) Sustainable Healthy Communities, LLC, Baptist Memorial Hospital–Memphis, and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) explore the questions:
What do patients and their support networks need to know about clinical trials as an option for cancer treatment if they are insured through Medicare or Medicaid?
What requirements differ from region to region and what is covered or not covered?
Hello, and welcome to this Patient Empowerment Network Clinical Trial MythBusters program on a very, very important topic, what impact does Medicaid or Medicare have on a patient’s ability to participate in a clinical trial. My name is Laura Levaas, and I’m the lung cancer community manager for Patient Power. I’m also a Stage 4 lung cancer survivor. I’m two years out from diagnosis, and I’m also on Medicaid. So, this is a topic that’s really important to me on a personal level.
This program is produced by Patient Power. We want to thank the following companies who provided financial support to make this possible. While they don’t have editorial control, we appreciate the support of AbbVie Inc., Celgene Corporation, Daiichi Sankyo, and Novartis for their support.
Today we are joined by some really amazing guests, the first being Mark Fleury from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network out of Washington DC, followed by Jeanne Regnante, also out of Washington DC, and Jeanne is with the Diverse Cancer Communities Working Group, Sustainable Healthy Communities, and last but not least, nurse navigator Laura McHugh from the Baptist Cancer Center in Memphis, Tennessee. Welcome to all of our guests today. Thank you for joining us.
So, Mark Fleury, Mark is interesting because he has an understanding, a very deep understanding, about this issue from a regulatory and research perspective. He’s going to share with us what he’s learned about barriers in clinical trial participation and solutions to overcome some of those options.
Jeanne is going to share her viewpoint as part of the Diverse Cancer Communities Working Group. She helps share information about access to care treatment and inclusion in clinical trials for underserved populations.
And Laura McHugh who is joining us by phone (she is a friend of a friend of mine, and she’s really amazing) is a nurse navigator who has worked in the cancer space for 24 years. And she helps guide people in underserved communities every day as part of her working life. She works with Medicare and Medicaid patients on the daily. So, we’re looking forward to hearing from her.
So, back to our program, patients are living longer as a result of clinical trials that test new treatments, therapies, and procedures, or new ways of using known treatments for new ways. The myth here behind Clinical Trial MythBusters today is that being in a clinical trial isn’t covered by medical insurance particularly for Medicaid or Medicare patients. I know for me personally I’m interested in being in a clinical trial and I’m on Medicaid but I don’t even know what that means. So, I definitely need some guidance.
So, as we’re talking about this today, if you have any questions about if you’re a patient yourself or you’re a support person for a patient that has cancer or any kind of disease wanting to know about clinical trials on Medicare or Medicaid, we’re here to help you. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. So, viewers who are joining us today thank you again. If you’re on Medicare or Medicaid, what do you even do if you’re presented with the option to participate in a clinical trial to treat your condition? Let’s talk with Mark Fleury. Hi Mark.
Hello Laura. Thanks for having me on.
Yeah. We’re so, so grateful to have you on our program today because you have such a deep knowledge in this industry and on this topic. Can you tell us real briefly what exactly you do for the Cancer Action Network? And then I’d like to talk to you about barriers around Medicare and Medicaid.
Sure. So, I work for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. We’re the policy and advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society, and we focus on public policy, so that’s regulation, laws that impact cancer patients. And specifically, my work deals with policies around research and drug and device development, so how can we get those findings that happen in the laboratory into the clinic. And specifically, that goes through clinical trials. So, I’ve spent the last couple of years with a large partnership of other stakeholders taking a really deep dive into looking at clinical trials and all of the challenges patients have in getting themselves enrolled as a part of those trials.
Good. We look forward to hearing more. Can you tell us a little bit about the current state of clinical trial participation in the US right now?
Sure. So, there’s not real solid numbers, but we believe somewhere between 6 to 7 percent of US cancer patients participate in a clinical trial right now. So, that’s a fairly low lumber overall, and it’s also a fairly low proportion of the patients who would be interested. Research has found that between 50 and 70 percent of patients would say yes to participating in a clinical trial if they were asked. But unfortunately, many are not asked. And some of those who are asked are unable to enroll for a variety of external reasons. One of the things that we do know is that the people who do enroll in clinical trials tend to be less diverse and better off financially than the overall population with cancer.
Okay. What are some of the barriers around Medicare and Medicaid patients who want to get involved in a clinical trial?
Sure. So, obviously, first of all, there has to be a clinical trial for the patient based on your clinical characteristics. But assuming that that is the case, for a patient to enroll in a clinical trial, it’s critical that their insurance cover the routine care costs of that clinical trial. In other words, there are costs in a clinical trial that a patient would see regardless if they were in a clinical trial not. Say, for example, the first step of any treatment is a surgery and then the second step in normal care would be one drug but in a clinical trial it’s a different drug.
Well, regardless, you’re always gonna get the surgery. It’s important that insurance cover that routine part of the clinical trial. And unfortunately, historically, that’s not always been the case. Fortunately, in Medicare, they have covered that since 2000. That is not the case universally for Medicaid. And we can talk a little bit more about that later if you’d like.
Okay. Perfect. I would definitely like to follow up on that topic seeing as I’m a Medicaid person myself. Can you touch briefly on what actually is different between the two programs in terms of clinical trial, the actual coverage? You mentioned routine care; is that for both programs?
Well, so what’s important to note is that Medicare is a federally administered program. And so, there is one universal federal policy, and if you’re in Medicare, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Florida or if you’re in Idaho, the policies are identical. Medicaid is an insurance program that while partially funded by federal dollars, it’s administered by each state. And as such, each state has quite different policies. So, if you’ve see one Medicare policy, it’s uniform. If you’ve seen one Medicaid policy, it’s only relevant in the state in which you happen to be. So, it could vary significantly from state to state.
Right. And so, depending on your state, you would need to follow up with your local maybe human services office to get specific questions answered.
That’s correct. Yeah. There are some resources (and I think we can provide those at the end of the webinar) where generally speaking some states have passed laws or signed agreements in which their Medicaid programs have to cover those routine care costs in Medicaid. And we can certainly make available those states. But even within those states, it’s important to look closely at the policies. For example, in Medicare, Medicare also covers any adverse events. So say, for example, while you’re being treated, you had to be admitted to an ICU for heaven forbid a heart attack or something like that. Medicare pays for all of those unexpected expenses. And that coverage may vary state by state in Medicaid.
Okay. Thank you, Mark. We’re looking forward to those resources. And for those of you watching, we will definitely be providing a downloadable guide with all sorts of resources to help you. Thanks Mark.
Okay. I can’t wait to talk to you about this. I have so many questions. I feel like we could talk for an hour. So, aside from the myth, I came into this thinking, “I’m on Medicaid; I probably can’t get into a clinical trial when and if I get to that point.” And then also, “If I am, it’s probably cost prohibitive because I’m on a fixed income.” So, is participating in a clinical trial expensive or cost prohibitive if you’re on Medicare or Medicaid like I thought? I mean, I know Mark touched on some of the issues, but what would you say? How would you answer that?
For low-income patients, the cost of routine care and logistic support needed during a clinical trial is certainly a barrier to participation. And Mark pointed out some of these costs. But specifically in patients in rural communities, remote communities, aging population, children, patients with cognitive disabilities or physical disabilities. These are the same patients who have low access to care in general.
And covering the cost for routine care in a clinical trial and also the logistic support is a clear barrier to participation. So, there are clear barriers there, travel, housing, parking, paying for food, on having access to clinical trials not only for routine care costs like Mark alluded to but also logistical support being included in the clinical trials. So, all of those things are barriers.
And would you say that seniors are also part of this underserved population?
Absolutely, especially seniors that live alone, that are in remote rural areas in the United States. And remember, that’s 20 percent of the population, aging population, in those areas. So, clearly, we need to do better to engage those patients in care and also clinical trials.
So, is it possible for us to draw any conclusions about how many people are on Medicare or Medicaid right now in the US? I did a little bit of internet sleuthing mainly through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, and it seems like there – the numbers that I came up with were pretty high, and it’s almost like 40 percent of the population is on Medicare or Medicaid. And so, has it –
That’s absolutely true. Look at by the numbers, there is 329 million people living in the United States, and that’s according to the last census, which is a hot topic these days. There is 60 million people on Medicare, beneficiaries, and about 66 million people Medicaid. So, together, that represents about 40 percent of the population. And we have to remember kids. So, there are 7 million patients on CHIP, which is part of the Medicaid program. So, if you include percentage of people on Medicaid plus kids on CHIP, that’s 22 percent of the population.
So, then circling it back around to clinical trial participation, how can we connect the dots here?
So, I think one of the main issues is clinical trial sponsors and the clinical trial operations folks in the sites working together to do a better job of reaching out to patients, ensuring that everybody is asked to participate, and not just selecting the ones who people think can participate but asking everybody to participate and understanding the eligibility of all patients and working together to help to cover their costs to keep them in chart.
Got it. Mark, I’m gonna pull you back into the conversation here for a minute. Can you touch briefly on what’s happening in the news right now around Medicare and Medicaid that could potentially impact clinical trials? Or maybe, Jeanne, you can speak better to that.
I’ll let Mark take that one.
Certainly, so, Medicaid traditionally has been a program that has served primarily children in many states, children and pregnant women. Starting close to 10 years ago with the passing of the Affordable Care Act, states had the ability to expand Medicaid eligibility beyond those kids and pregnant women. And now we see many states who have expanded the roles of Medicaid recipients to healthy adults who just happen to be lower income.
And so, what that really has changed is the number of people obtaining their insurance through Medicaid. Obviously, there has been a lot of – it’s a state-by-state decision whether or not Medicaid is expanded. The Affordable Care Act as a whole is hanging in the balance in a court case, and there’s obviously been a lot of discussion about whether it should continue or not. So, certainly, the number of people who are supported through Medicaid is a dynamic number, and that certainly is subject to changing policies that are still under active discussion.
I will say that Medicare, again, the coverage for routine care costs in clinical trials for Medicare, long-standing policy since 2000 that has been relatively stable. And I would expect that to continue unchanged.
Thank you, Mark. And Jeanne, I’m gonna come back to you in a minute. For viewers that are watching, thank you for hanging in there with us. If you have any questions that you would like us to address in the program, we’ll get to that at the very end after we’ve talked with all of our esteemed panelists. Send your questions to email@example.com. So, now I would like to talk with Laura McHugh. Are you with us, Laura?
I am. Thank you so much for having me.
Hi. I am so excited to have you. I met Laura McHugh because she is a nurse navigator for a friend of mine who is ALK positive, which is the type of lung cancer that I have. And she works very closely with my friend and speaks so highly of Laura. So, I’m excited to have her on the program today. I wonder, Laura, if you could tell us why you think that clinical trials are important.
I wanted to share why they’re important to me personally. The medication that I’m on right now of course went through a clinical trial process, and it wasn’t even around before the year 2011. I was Stage 4 when I got discovered, which happens often with non-small cell lung cancer because many folks are asymptomatic. So, for me, what that means is if I didn’t have people going through the clinical trial process ahead of me, I probably wouldn’t be here today. So, on that level, is there anything that you can say why you think that clinical trials are important especially for people on Medicare or Medicaid?
Absolutely. I believe that the clinical trials pave the way. All of the genetic testing that’s done now, all of the testing that’s been done all the way down to a molecular level. So, with these clinical trials and all of the things that have been tested, it’s opened up doors beyond what we ever thought we would have for lung cancer. There are so many opportunities and lines of therapy that you never had before.
And across the board, I think clinical trials and participation in clinical trials, all of the people that have done that, just opened the doors for all of the people in the future. We had a lady who was in her 90s, and she met all of the requirements, participated in a clinical trial. And all the way through, she said, “I want to stay on this. I want to do this. It may not help me, but it will help everybody after me.” And that’s just profound.
Right. And so, Laura, tell the audience who you work with. I know that you specialize in thoracic cancers, and I know that clinical trials don’t always just focus on cancer. They deal with multitudes of diseases and conditions. But can you let us know who you work for because he’s famous in a way, right?
Absolutely. I’m actually the physician nurse for Dr. Raymond Osarogiagbon. He is well known in the field of lung cancer. That’s our specialty. We have a multidisciplinary meeting every week and a conference. He sits on the board for NCCN and multiple, multiple other things as far as paving the way for lung cancer. I’ve been actually privileged to be his nurse since he came in 2005. We’ve built our practice together, and, oh, the changes are just – the changes that I’ve seen in the years that we’ve done this are amazing. And he is brilliant; he is. He’s known all over the world. And our focus is lung cancer.
That’s great. Can you shed some light on the role of the patient navigator or the nurse navigator in what you do on a daily basis with your patients especially around clinical trials and folks who are on those government-supported insurances like me?
Sure. So, we base all of our care – we – or I’m blessed to have a research department and two really dedicated research coordinators that I work with very closely. They’re not nurses like myself, but they do all of the coordinating for the care on the studies and all of the above from patients that are uninsured that are on Medicaid, Medicare, even private insurance. And what we do, we see primarily all of our new patients insurance allowing through our thoracic program.
So, I actually have a coordinator with me when I’m in clinic. And so, if we even think a patient is potentially eligible – not even just for a drug study. There are smoking cessation studies that we have, different protocols for that. So, it really starts at the beginning. There’s the surgical studies, different things like that. And every Wednesday is that clinic. And even during the week, if there’s anything going on, they come to our regular clinics as well and do follow up with the patient.
So, I hear chatters here and there – when I bring up the subject of clinical trials, I hear things like, “Oh, trials are only for young people,” or, “Trials are only for old people,” or, “Trials are only for this type of person.” Can you speak to that a little bit?
Wow. Yeah. Well, part of it is if you look at where we sit, there’s always – until now, in recent years, you heard about research but you didn’t really hear about research. So your older population, they were skeptical. It’s a different generation of, “Are you experimenting on me?” And part of your underserved communities, a lot of people didn’t know anything about it. They’re limited on getting to a physician in general much less being able to participate or being in a center that even focuses on clinical trials.
So, I think all of that in the past was very, very real. I believe now people are coming around and seeing, “Wow, anybody can do this.” I think people are still limited. Some people don’t have computer access. It’s hard in a day of electronics, we sit down and we can pull up all of this information, but not everyone can do that.
Right. We do make a lot of assumptions when it comes to those type of factors. So, being that you’re a nurse navigator, I imagine that when you’re seeing a patient, you’re thinking, “Okay, is there a trial that this person might be good for?” I don’t want to say convince, but how do you help people learn about clinical trials and the importance of it because when you and I spoke yesterday, you said you want to make it clear to patients it’s always voluntary, “We’re not dragging anybody into a study. We want to make sure that you want to be there”?
Absolutely. So, again, all of our patients are approved during a thoracic conference, and then all of the ones that we can bring to our clinic within our healthcare system we bring through that clinic, and if not, we bring them to our general oncology clinic. The physician will sit down with the patient. Of course, we’ve met with the coordinators, they’ve looked at everything. And they’ll come to us and say, yeah, they like this or this. The physician sits down and talks with them, and then I go in the room and talk with them as well. We tell them, “This is totally voluntary, something that’s open to you if you’re interested,” talk about it.
The coordinators go in and speak with them as well. We tell them to go home, “If you have any questions or concerns, call back.” And a lot of times they will. You have to be able to digest something. It’s a very overwhelming visit to walk in an oncologist office and be told all of this information and try to sort it all out on the spot. So, a lot of times they’ll go home, they’ll think about it, they’ll call back. Basically, communication, I just feel that’s the most important – it’s communication.
Absolutely. So, to circle back a little bit, do you feel like it’s realistic for patients that are on Medicare and Medicaid to be in a clinical trial?
Absolutely. I think it’s clinically appropriate for anyone that fits. If everything lines up the way it should and they’re able to participate, I think it would be wonderful if everyone would.
This may seem like a silly question, but do folks on those programs get the same care as somebody that has a private insurance?
Absolutely, absolutely from our standpoint. Of course, I’m answering from my institution and what I know that we do. And they do, absolutely. And sometimes there are challenges. I mean, we’ve had patients that were uninsured, underinsured. Again, Medicaid, you have to make sure – Medicare’s a little bit different again because all of the guidelines were set state to state. Medicaid’s different because each state has its own – and if you see someone in Mississippi, sometimes they can’t come across to Tennessee to go to the hospital or to do this. So, it’s a patient-by-patient basis, but overall, I think our patients are being treated, being offered clinical trials, and should participate if at all possible.
Wonderful. And again, just to underline that clear and open communication is important.
I think communication is No. 1 for everything. People are scared. They have questions. They don’t even know what to ask immediately. So, I think all of the support you can give – everybody has a knowledge base and everybody is empowered with that knowledge. Sometimes it’s all about just listening, communicating, and then answering any question they have no matter how simple it may be to us. To a patient, it’s a very profound thing. And it could be as simple as, “How am I going to get back and forth? Do you have a way to help me?”
Thank you, Laura.
Okay. I’m gonna circle back to the group and just ask some questions. I wanted to rewind with Mark and talk about Medicare Advantage. I am on Medicaid for about another year and I’m going to be rolled into Medicare, which under typical – I mean, I’m 44 years old, and so Medicare is typically for people that are 65 and older. And so, for me, it feels a little bit strange, and I’m like, “I just want to know how are they different.” And so, I have called my local CMS office, my local Social Security disability office. And I feel like I get different information. So, it’s sifting through everything. I just wanted to call out Medicare Advantage because you mentioned that. Can you expand on that and how it ties in with clinical trials?
Sure, sure, happy to. So, traditional Medicare has multiple parts. You have Medicare Part A, which is the hospitalization, and Medicare Part B, which is the physician portion, and then a Medicare Part D, which is the drug portion. A few years back (understand the complexities of all the pieces and parts of Medicare) there was a decision to allow private insurance companies to administer all the programs together on an optional basis.
So, if you qualify for Medicare, you can use the traditional what’s called fee-for-service Medicare or you can go through a private insurance company. So, this might be an Anthem or a Blue Cross or another private insurance company like that who has been authorized to bundle all of your Medicare benefits together under one program. Now because it is a privately run version of Medicare, they’re required to offer the minimum benefits, but they do have some flexibilities in how they administer that.
So, a traditional fee-for-service Medicare, as long as a physician advertises that they accept Medicare patients, you can go anywhere you want to. If you live in Florida and you go on vacation into Los Angeles and become ill and you want to go visit a physician there, as long as they accept Medicare patients, that’s fine. Medicare Advantage on the other hand looks a lot more like private insurance in that they sometimes build closed networks, so, you can only go to certain systems or only go to certain doctors. So, that’s an important difference between the two.
And in terms of with clinical trials, how that’s affected, if you want to enroll in a clinical trial and you’re Medicaid Advantage, right now the current policy is for the portion of your care that is related to the clinical trial, you would revert back Medicare fee-for-service, traditional Medicare. That doesn’t mean that you are kicked off of Medicare Advantage, but anything related to that clinical trial would be handled from a payment and a billing standpoint through traditional Medicare.
So, if you’re on a cancer clinical trial, all those cancer clinical trial bills would go through traditional Medicare. But say, for example, you needed to get your flu shot or had a cold or something like that, that would still be handled under your traditional – or under your Medicare Advantage. You wouldn’t be kicked off of it. It’s just the treatment part of your clinical trial would go through traditional Medicare. So, a little confusing, but that’s where we are from a policy standpoint today.
Okay. Jeanne, I wanted to ask you – and again, if you want to defer this to one of our other panelists, that’s A-okay. I’m thinking of folks who have some barriers around those additional costs in a clinical trial. Is it typical or acceptable for the, for example, pharmaceutical company or the sponsor of the clinical trial to pick up some of the costs that may not be covered under Medicare or Medicaid?
The answer to that question is yes, it is appropriate for them to do so. And actually, there is an FDA guidance document (it’s Guidance for Industry) that actually reinforces their ability to do so because there has been some concern that covering costs like logistical costs or hotels or travel or giving people a gas card would create undue influence. So, I think the FDA put out a draft guidance that’s clearing that up and basically reinforcing the fact that pharmaceutical companies are able to do that.
I can tell you from our working group, we have 10 active major pharmaceutical company members in the Diverse Cancer Communities Working Group. And I asked them what they usually do in this space, and during the planning phase of the clinical trial, they go out to their sites to ask for a budget and ask them what they need in terms of routine care costs and also logistical costs. And the site sends that information in. And generally, the pharmaceutical companies cover those costs.
What I’ve found to be the case, which is interesting to me, is that the clinical trial operations team in the sites have a lot to do, they have a lot of work to do. And this was brought up to me by a couple of leaders in pharmaceutical companies, that what they’ve learned is that they also need to ask what capabilities do you need, do you need people support or FTE support to be able to adjudicate and track those costs at a site level and validate them and close them out and pay them. And a lot of times, the answer is yes and pharmaceutical companies are paying for those FTEs at the site. So, those costs are being covered when the site asks for support.
Got it. So, since we’re talking about this topic anyway, that draft to FDA guidance publication, I’m gonna say it. It’s a really long title. It’s a mouthful. But I’m hoping you can break down a little bit of that. So, it’s called Enhancing the Diversity of Clinical Trial Populations, Eligibility Criteria, Enrollment Practices, and Trial Designs Guidance for Industry. What is the meaning –?
So, I do want to paraphrase what the FDA says, but I’m gonna read the portions that I think are appropriate for this discussion. So, there’s a section in this guidance that was put out in June, and it’s a draft guidance, so, it’s open for public comment. And it focuses on study design and conduct considerations for improving enrollment in the industry. There’s a big section. I really would urge everybody on the call to read this section because I think it’s really great and progressive and quite empathetic of a major governmental agency to put out this guidance to industry.
It gives examples. It notes the burden for trial participants in remote and rural locations, for example, and also acknowledges the trial burden on the elderly, children, disabled, and cognitively impaired individuals who require caregiver assistance. So, what the FDA does in this guidance is they encourage industry to reduce No. 1 the number of study visits where possible and use electronic communications or mobile technology to monitor the patient for safety and efficacy because of the challenges of a number of folks in this patient population.
They also encourage industry to make sure that patients are aware of financial reimbursements, and that’s what Laura does. She manages their expectations in the recruiting stage and reinforces the fact – and the guidance also reinforces the fact that the FDA does not consider reimbursement of travel, lodging, parking, time, and other considerations to raise issues concerning undue influence. And they also reinforce that the amount of dollars that might be reimbursed should always be addressed with the local IRB. So, I think this is a very progressive guidance to give the industry so there are no questions on what they can and cannot do.
Okay. Thank you very much. Laura McHugh, quick question, and Mark touched on this earlier in the program, what if something goes wrong in a clinical trial and a patient has to be hospitalized or treated for an unexpected reason? That’s covered, right?
It has been for our patients. If it’s Medicare, what you always look at is standard of care. And the Medicaid patients that we’ve had, when they’ve been hospitalized, to my recollection, we’ve not had anyone that we’ve had difficulty substantiating why it should be covered. I mean, sometimes you have to go the extra step and go back and forth with the insurance companies or Medicaid. But we so far have been able to get it covered.
I have a couple of questions that have come in from the audience, and feel free, Mark, Jeanne, or Laura. I’m assuming that a nurse navigator or a doctor is going to have the best information on where to find out about a clinical trial. But where are the best resources for someone to go? And again, I’m cancer focused because I have lung cancer and I work for Patient Power. And we support all types of folks with cancer. But there are folks that are in clinical trials that are not cancer related. Mark, what would be a source where somebody can find a clinical trial?
Sure. So, in looking at the current cancer clinical trial landscape, we know that the overwhelming majority, probably 75 to 80 percent of patients, who end up on a clinical trial found that clinical trial because someone on their care team recommended it or someone from the clinical trial team approached them. So, it’s most common that someone from the medical system invites that patient. But we also know that a lot of patients get their cancer care at very small practices (they might be single-doc practices or things like that) where clinical research is not a normal part of what they do. And in that case, you would not necessarily hear about clinical trials from your nurse or from your physician.
In those cases, it’s up to an empowered patient to find the clinical trial on their own. And that’s obviously a little bit harder but certainly not impossible. And there are public-facing websites. Some of them are sponsored by the government, things like ClinicalTrials.gov where all clinical trials whether cancer or not are listed in the United States. And NCI has one, trials.cancer.gov, which is just NCI sponsored, which is the National Cancer Institute. So, it’s federally funded clinical trials.
But additionally, many patient organizations both have general educational materials about clinical trials – so, for example, the American Cancer Society at the website cancer.org has information about clinical trials. At the moment, we don’t have a matching window, if you will, but many patient-advocacy organizations also actively help patients one on one with matching. So, many of these are disease specific. So, there are lung cancer groups who you can call at the hotline, colorectal cancer, etc. Many patient-advocacy organizations will do the direct handholding and navigation if your own provider does not do that for you.
I just want to add to that great list that Mark gave in terms of finding clinical trial sites. So, just a shout out to Stand Up To Cancer, they have a clinical trial matching site for any type of cancer. You can contact them, and they will actually match you to a clinical trial site in your area so you can give that information to your provider so they can call them to see if you qualify. Sometimes it’s difficult for anybody, myself included, to understand what clinical trial I might be eligible for just by looking at a site. So, it’s nice to have somebody do that for you.
Also, all the major pharmaceutical companies have if you happen to know about a given therapy or that you might be looking to be on because you heard about it it’s good to ask for help from somebody to find out what company makes it go to their website. And they all have clinical trial information on their sites as well.
Thank you. And I’d like to share a little bit about my personal experience. When I was diagnosed, I was told about a Facebook group for my specific type of lung cancer mutation. And I learned about clinical trials from that group. And if I had never, like you said, Mark, been an empowered patient and been very curious in wanting the best care for myself, I probably would not have found out about those trials because some of them are just fly under the radar; they’re doing their work.
I think these are some great resources, and thank you for sharing those. One more question that I would like to ask the group before we – we have a couple of questions that came in from the audience, which is awesome. What is one solution (Mark, we’ll start with you) that you would like to put forth to address the issue of better clinical trial participation for Medicare and Medicaid patients which really, I mean, goes out to the larger group, I mean, really for anyone?
Yeah. Well, I think specifically within the population of Medicare and Medicaid, as I mentioned at the outset, Medicare has a uniform national policy. So, someone like Laura, if she became a clinical trial professional in a different state, the Medicare policy would be the same it doesn’t matter what state you’re in. Whereas Medicaid, it varies so much, and that can be quite a bit of hurdle.
As I mentioned, I work in the policy and advocacy portion of ACS, and so, we focus on legislation. And so, one of the public policies that we have been advocating for (and there’s actually a piece of legislation before Congress right now), it would harmonize all 50 states plus DC Medicaid policies such that standard of routine care costs in cancer clinical trials would be covered in all 50 states in the same way and there wouldn’t be this ambiguity or uncertainty from state to state in terms of how it’s covered. So, that would be my one wish within this question if I could wave my magic wand.
Yeah. That would very much clarify everything. Ms. McHugh, do you have a solution? What would you like to see happen to get more folks participating in clinical trials specifically those on the Medicares and Medicaids?
Again, from my nursing background, a lot of it’s communication. And I think it’s sitting down with patients and explaining what some of the benefits are, what the risks are but what the benefits are because truly the benefits outweigh the risks. People worry about money and they worry about all of these things. Well, if it’s Medicare, it’s standard of care. Anything above and beyond, if there’s a problem, then you appeal back to the drug company, the provider.
Opening doors, communicating with patients, telling them, “You have a more active role in your own healthcare when you’re on a clinical trial. You’re empowered. You’re educated. You’re the first to benefit from this drug. You have your health professionals close. You’ve got a research coordinator, your nurse, your doctor, access to new drugs that may not be available.” I just feel like communication and – we’re totally sitting down with someone and explaining and taking some of the fear away from what people think about being on a clinical trial.
I have a friend in the lung cancer community that was in a clinical trial. I don’t remember the specific drug, but she is still on it after it came out of trials. And she’s been on it for years, which is amazingly successful. And if not for that trial, she wouldn’t be where she is. And so, that’s just amazing. Okay. And then, Jeanne?
You know what, first of all, I agree with what Mark said and what Laura said. First of all, it needs to be legislated. And No. 2, there needs to be better communication amongst trusted providers, trusted community leaders, primary care physicians to talk to patients to have them understand that a lot of these trials now include placebo versus standard of care and also help them to manage their expectations in terms of what will be covered in terms of their cost. And the folks that need to do that are the closest to the healthcare systems and patient navigators and care coordinators who can talk to an individual specific situation.
I think in addition to all those things, I think that generally industry needs to do a better job of placing trials where the patients are. Although that seems quite trite, patients that are in underserved communities or in rural communities, they don’t often have access to these cancer centers which are big academic centers that do a lot of these trials with big innovations.
And I think that we need to get much more creative to make sure that either the reach out from those academic centers go out to community centers or we do a better job placing clinical trials in community research centers to ensure better accessibility because really, logistical support, even if you cover it, even if the industry covers it or cancer care covers it or the American Cancer Society cover it or a laser X organization covers it, it’s still a challenge and a barrier.
So, I think we need to do a better job overall. The infrastructure needs to place trails where the patients are because cancers are not homogeneous across the United States. They appear in different places with higher risk and higher prevalence. And we need to use that data to place trials where the patients are.
I agree. I’m actually located in Denver, Colorado, and I was doing some research for a blog post recently. And I went to American Cancer Society, Mark, just to look for what are the most recent statistics by state in terms of cancer. And obviously, it’s not lung cancer specific. But I was shocked to find out that Colorado has one of the highest percentages in the country of cancer occurrence. And I was surprised. So, Laura, would it be appropriate – this article that you sent me this morning from ASCO, would this be appropriate to include in our downloadable guide for our guests after the program? This was about the Affordable Care Act because we were talking about how people can get involved if they’re interested. What do you think, should we include this, Jeanne?
Oh, I heard you say Laura.
I think it’s a really well thought out piece to help folks understand how they can get involved with their legislators and understand that this act and this piece of legislation to advocate [inaudible] [00:50:28] specifically for patients that are on Medicaid in the United States so they can get the same benefit of routine care that Medicare patients get.
I do have a question from Steve, one of our audience members, and he says, “Can Medigap Plan F help with paying for clinical trials? If the clinical trial accepts Medicare, would my out-of-pocket expenses be covered? I’m worried that any extra testing would be my responsibility.”
Yeah. I’m happy to jump in with a quick answer on that.
Okay. Thanks Mark.
So, I mentioned a little bit before about what’s required to be covered. When you think about costs involved in a clinical trial, I’ll put them in three buckets. There is the normal routine medical care that you would get. So, for example, if you would normally get surgery and then followed up by some sort of chemotherapy, everybody’s gonna get the surgery regardless. And then say, for example, ordinarily routine care would be you would get a scan every six months after surgery, but the clinical trial because they want to collect more data wants to have a scan every three months instead of every six months. And the clinical trial is testing a new drug after surgery.
So, Medicare would pay for the routine costs, which would be the surgery and then a scan every six months. The clinical trial sponsor would pay for the drug, which is what you’re testing in the clinical trial. So, the patient doesn’t have any responsibilities for that. And since there’s basically twice the frequency of scans, the sponsor would pay for every other scan.
Now what’s important is that while Medicare covers the routine care costs, it covers them the same way it would cover any other cost. So, if you have a co-pay for a doctor’s visit that is routine, just because you’re on a clinical trial, that co-pay doesn’t disappear. So, if you have a Medigap plan that covers those co-pays, it should cover them the same way as if you were not on a clinical trial because the only responsibility for the patient is the co-pays of the routine care costs, and Medicare will pick those up.
So, anything that’s not normal from a medical standpoint will be paid for by the sponsor. Now as Jeanne aptly pointed out, if you’re coming in twice as often for tests, even if the test itself is paid for, you might be paying for the parking garage twice as often or gas to travel twice as often. And those are nonmedical costs that can add up, but they’re not really involved with insurance, but you can sometimes get money from the sponsor or other third-party support organizations like ACS.
We have one more. Annie B, “I’m on Medicare. Where do I find a clinical trial in my town?”
Typically, most of the ways that you find clinical trials, again, you can work directly with where you’re seeking care. So, if you have an oncologist, you can ask them about clinical trials. And if they conduct them, they will screen you for the trials that they have open at their site. If they don’t conduct clinical research, then you would either go to one of these public websites like a ClinicalTrials.gov, you could call an advocacy organization. There are several in the lung cancer space, and we can provide a number of different links to different matching engines or third-party organizations that could help match you. But clinical trials typically are not restricted based on insurance types. So, you would use the same search engines as anyone else would.
Okay. All right. Well, I want to say thank you so much to our esteemed guests for joining us today. We learned so much today about clinical trials, Medicare and Medicaid, the different options. So many takeaways here. We will have a downloadable guide available as well as a replay of the program in case you’d like to dig in a little bit deeper.
Really, I think my takeaway from the whole program is that there are options out there. Clinical trials can be a great solution for your medical care of your disease. I personally am all for it. I know it’s a very personal decision, whether you want to participate or not. But I decided early on that I would definitely enter a clinical trial because I’m willing to sacrifice myself for future generations because there are people that came before me that did the same and I would not be here today if not for that. So, thank you again for joining us Mark, Jeanne, Laura. We very much appreciate you.
We thank AbbVie, Celgene Corporation, Daiichi Sankyo, and Novartis for their support.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/CT-Mythbusters.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2019-07-30 16:51:452020-03-13 08:13:44Clinical Trial Mythbusters: How Does Medicare or Medicaid Impact My Ability to Participate in a Clinical Trial?
In this MythBusters program, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of ASCO, Dr. Robert Schilsky, and 20+ year CML survivor, Mel Mann along with Cecelia Mann, will unpack some of the issues that have led to the lack of diversity in clinical trials and initiatives in place that are changing all of this.
And greetings from near San Diego, Carlsbad, California. I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power. Welcome to this Patient Empowerment Network program, the next in our series Clinical Trial Mythbusters, and this program is so important, discussing what is the value of diversity in clinical trials. And, believe me, you’ll hear it is so critical. We have to do better, and we’re going to discuss that over the next hour.
I want to thank the companies that have provided educational support through grants to the Patient Empowerment Network. They have no editorial control, but their support is welcome. And that is AbbVie Incorporated, Astellas, Celgene and Novartis. All right.
We’ve got a lot to discuss today, and we welcome your questions along the way. I want to first introduce someone who, like me, has greatly benefited from a clinical trial and believes that they are alive today because of their participation. And so joining us from Atlanta is Mel Mann along with his wife and care partner Cecelia Mann. Mel, welcome to the Patient Empowerment Network program.
Thank you very much.
And we’re going to hear more of Mel’s story in just a minute. I want to introduce a very prominent medical expert who joins us. He is the senior vice president and chief medical officer at really the largest cancer organization, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and that is Dr. Richard Schilsky. Dr. Schilsky, welcome to our program.
Thank you, Andrew. Happy to join you.
Okay. And are you in the Washington, DC, Virginia area?
That’s where our organization is based, in Alexandria, Virginia, yes.
Thank you for being with us. I should mention that Dr. Schilsky has had a lot of experience related to trials. He was the head of hematology/oncology at the University of Chicago, which of course Chicago is a very diverse city, and the University of Chicago does a lot of research. And he also helped run a big research group that doctors from around the world are part of, and he did that for many years. So we’re going hear more from Dr. Schilsky in just a minute. But, first, Mel. So Mel, in the late ’90s you were dying, right, of chronic myeloid leukemia, correct?
Yes, I was.
Losing weight and being told that there wasn’t much to do, right?
Maybe a transplant. But you were in Atlanta and you went from doctor to doctor, but somehow you got to MD Anderson, a major research center in Houston. What did they offer you there?
When I first went out to MD Anderson they said they were going to put me on a clinical trial after clinical trial. And the first thing they did was increase my dose of interferon, and that was the medication, the standard therapy at the time, and then they tried different combinations of drugs, and eventually I started on different clinical trials.
Okay. And, Cecelia, you were there in Atlanta and he was scooting over to Houston, it’s not exactly around the corner. Why were you supportive of that?
I was supportive of that because that was the last chance that he had to a cure and for survival. So from the very beginning, whatever type of treatment he needed when he was flying around, whether he was going looking for bone marrow transplants, doing bone marrow drives, and therefore I was supportive of. We had a five‑year‑old daughter at the time, and so anything that Mel needed I was there to support him.
So, Mel, this is a happy story because here we are in 2018 as we do this program and you are with us when many people with CML at the time were not with us that long. Hopefully, a transplant could be curative, but a lot of people passed away. You were lucky enough to come back as they were rolling through different trials and there was a new one that opened up for a drug called Gleevec, a pill.
Okay. So in the summer of ’98 the Phase 1 Gleevec study opened up, and I went out to MD Anderson, and I was patient number two, and I started taking it at a low dose, and it was effective for me. And eventually they increased the dose and it started changing my leukemia around to eventually I reached what they call a major molecular response. And that was 20 years ago. This summer I went over 20 years.
Wow. Well, Dr. Schilsky, is that an example of a patient getting, if you will, tomorrow’s medicine today, what we hope for?
Absolutely. And, first of all, it’s such a wonderful story, Mel. It’s great to hear you tell it, and it’s exactly why we do research, exactly why we do clinical trials, to try to discover the new therapies that people need that will give them the kind of long‑term survival and quality of life that you’ve been experiencing. It’s just‑‑it’s wonderful.
So, Dr. Schilsky, let’s get into the problem. So, generally, there are many clinical trials that take longer than one would hope to fill, and the FDA and I know scientists have been seeing well, gee, how do we know what we’re testing applies to people maybe with different ethnic, gender backgrounds, a variety of situations, and often we can’t find people who fit those categories to be in. What is that‑‑how poorly have we been doing in the past with diversity in trials, and what does that mean for developing new medicines?
Well, we don’t do well in almost any dimension. We don’t get enough underrepresented minorities in clinical trials. We don’t get enough older people in clinical trials. You have to remember that 60 percent of cancers occur in people 65 years and older, and yet only about 10 percent of people participating in clinical trials are 65 and older. So we are having to treat the majority of older people, and I would say the majority of minority people, with data derived from participants in clinical trials who are not like them.
We need to change that for a whole host of reasons. It’s historically been very challenging, and the problems really sort of boil down into three big areas that I think we can discuss a little bit further.
First is awareness. Many people are not aware that clinical trials are even an option for them. Many people think that a clinical trial is a last resort, and I want to dispel that myth right out of the box. Clinical trials can be a very good option for patients right from the time of their cancer diagnosis even if it’s their very first treatment. So clinical trials may be a last resort, but they don’t have to be, and there are many clinical trials that are appropriate for people right following the initial diagnosis of their cancer.
So there’s the awareness issue, and sometimes, frankly, not even the doctors are aware of what clinical trial options are for their patients. And the one thing we know for sure is that the most influential person as to whether or not a patient goes into a clinical trial is their doctor. If the doctor does not recommend it, if the doctor is not aware of it, it’s not going to happen.
But then you get into the more technical issues. There are things, there are rules for clinical trials because they are research studies. They are experiments. There are very well defined rules, most of which are in place to protect the people who are participating in the study. Some of these rules are called eligibility criteria, and they specify the characteristics of people who can enroll in the study. Well, historically, they tend to be very rigid and very limiting, and you’ll often hear people talk about how the only people who can get into clinical trials are Olympic athletes. That may be the case, but it’s not Olympic athletes that we’re treating in the clinic every day, so we need to make our clinical trials more representative so that they’re more applicable to the typical person that a doctor sees in their office.
And then there are the logistical or operational issues of the clinical trial. The clinical trial can be very burdensome. Mel just described how he had to travel from his home in Atlanta to Houston to participate in a clinical trial. Not everybody can afford to do that. Not everybody can take time away from work, time away from home. And the clinical trial requires not only that you travel sometimes but that you travel on a specific schedule because of the requirements of the trial.
So all of these are issues that are‑‑can limit participation in trials, and many of them are magnified in minority populations or in populations that don’t have the economic resources to be able to meet the requirements of the trial.
Right. Let’s talk about that for a minute. So, Cecelia, you go out in the community and speak to people, and you probably meet some people who maybe are diagnosed with a blood cancer, like you’re active with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society so you may speak to them, and they say even if you brought up about a trial, they say, hey, Cecelia, I’m working two jobs. Or my husband or spouse is working two jobs, and we’ve got two kids, three kids. How could we ever participate? We just can’t get away or we don’t have the family support or whatever. Those are real issues, right?
True. True, those are real issues, and I try to direct them towards resources that Mel and I found out about along the way. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, they have resources to help with travel, and American Cancer Society has resources that help with the hotel and lodging. And there are a number of other different types of funds that can be assessed to make that a possibility.
But you’re right, Andrew. I had one young lady at a health fair and a second cancer had popped up, and she was coming there to get information, and she was saying that they were saying it wasn’t too much they could do, and I brought up MD Anderson. And she immediately said, I can’t go out there, I have to go to work, and she turned around rough. And so when they listen to me then always glad to tell them about it and let them know there is an option and that clinical trials work, and I point to Mel, my husband, as a success story also.
So, Dr. Schilsky, you talked about physician awareness. It’s also about more physicians participating in trials at I think what you call the community level. So, in other words, MD Anderson and where you work, at the University of Chicago, those are big city centers and where they are in Atlanta there’s Emory and some other mainly centers, but what about out in the hinterland, if you will? Can somebody who lives there diagnosed with a cancer, how do they have access to a trial that their doctor knows about and maybe that’s more close to home, if you will?
Right. So of course we know that anybody with cancer prefers to be treated in their community, and most are. So one of the goals is to be sure that oncologists practicing in all sorts of community settings have access to clinical trials. Now, one of the ways that happens is that for more than 50 years now the National Cancer Institute has actually been operating and funding a community‑based clinical trials network. It used to be called the CCOP program. That’s an acronym that we don’t have to go into. They’ve recently changed the name. It’s now called NCORP program, but‑‑that stands for, I think, the National Community Oncology Research Program.
But the point is that the program, which is in most but not all of the states in the United States, funds community oncologists to participate in NCI‑sponsored clinical trials, and there are at least 65 or 70 such clinical facilities around the country right now. So in those medical practices patients can find those clinical trials in their communities without having to travel.
There are also other community‑based networks that are active participants in cancer clinical trials. So I think at the end of the day the critical thing for patients, and this is sometimes easily forgotten because you’re so, you know, your thinking and your time and your emotion are all taken up in dealing with the cancer diagnosis. It’s really important, though, to ask the doctor, do they have access to clinical trials. Do they have a clinical trial that might be appropriate for you? And if not you might want to consider where else you could go, hopefully still relatively nearby to get access to a clinical trial.
Mel, so for you, you went around to some doctors who were not aware of anything new to do for you, right? And that’s still true in so many areas of cancer. Now, what do you say to patients about speaking up because Dr. Schilsky just referred to it, people are terrified. They really just want the doctor to have the answer. What do you tell people so that they maybe advocate for themselves?
Okay. So if you’re looking for a clinical trial and I’m out at, like you say, a health fair, we have a‑‑the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has something called the clinical trial support center, and they have nurses who work early in the morning till late at night. And you call them up and you tell them about your illness, and they check the availability for what clinical trials are out there, and then they narrow it down to what you actually qualify for, and then they take into consideration your finances and other issues.
And then you’re left with a number of possible clinical trials that you have, and you can take that back to the doctor and you can discuss that with him. So that’s one of the things I talk with them about.
I could mention, now this is really more broadly across cancer, too. So there are breast cancer groups, there are lung cancer groups, and I would just make a pitch to find out, is there a local chapter or national number for you, for the cancer you or a loved one been diagnosed with, and that’s the question.
Say, look, A, I don’t want to feel I’m alone, and, B, how do I get‑‑how do I get connected with what could be lifesaving or life‑extending treatments for me and that I could discuss with my doctor. And understanding‑‑and then, boy, if there are obstacles like financial issues, logistical issues, travel issue, is there support for that.
So let’s go back to the inclusion/exclusion or eligibility issue you spoke about, Dr. Schilsky, because, you know, somebody who has cancer may also have heart problems or diabetes or some other issue. Maybe they previously had another cancer, and so for the companies developing new drugs they may be happy with narrow inclusion criteria because they don’t want to have anything get in the way, some previous thing you’ve had, to affect their ability to have a new drug go on the market.
So what kind of work is going on between government and the drug manufacturers so that the criteria, not so tight, but you can still get legitimate scientific answers?
Right. So, as you alluded to, Andrew, there are good reasons that there are eligibility criteria. One of them is to protect the patients in the study from circumstances that would increase their risk of participating in the study. Another is because the companies or whoever is sponsoring the study wants to be able to isolate the specific effect of what they’re studying without having a lot of confounding factors that could muddy the water and makes it difficult to interpret the results. But that said, the bad thing about all that is that the results of the study might not be applicable to the majority of people who could benefit from the treatment because they weren’t included in the study to begin with.
So one of the things that my organizations has been working on very hard over the last couple of years now, and we’ve been doing this collaboratively with people from the Food and Drug Administration and the National Cancer Institute and a lot of clinical experts and a patient advocacy group, Friends of Cancer Research, is to try to expand or broaden or simplify some of these eligibility criteria that tend to keep people off of trials and in particular tend to keep minority populations off of clinical trials.
So, for example, it’s not unusual for someone who has a new diagnosis of cancer to have previously had some kind of cancer earlier in their lives. So we might see a patient who has lung cancer who 15 years ago had a diagnosis of prostate cancer. Well, for that lung cancer patient to go on a trial that has the typical inclusion and exclusion criteria that doesn’t allow for this previous malignancy, they would be excluded even if they had been cured of that prostate cancer 15 years ago.
We also see, and you mention what we call in the medical profession comorbidity. So if someone’s got cancer and they also have heart disease, they also have diabetes, high blood pressure, anything that affects the functioning of your normal organs, can also exclude people from participating in trials, and there are certain limits that we feel can be expanded and still allow the treatment to be given safely.
So just about a year ago now we came out with a set of recommendations for how eligibility criteria can be modified to make clinical trials more inclusive. And now just recently, I’m really pleased to say, the National Cancer Institute expanded their sort of template protocol document that many investigators follow to incorporate our recommendations, so now their standard protocol includes these broader inclusion and exclusion criteria. And the FDA now is working on what they call guidance documents to advise commercial companies that are running clinical trials to do just the same thing. So we are very optimistic now that we’ve got this ball rolling. We’re going to be removing these obstacles, and we’re going to be able to have more inclusive and diverse population of patients who participate in cancer clinical trials.
Great leadership. I hope it works great, and we’ll be happy to support you. So, Mel and Cecelia, let’s talk about the money part of it a little bit. So you were making trips to Houston, Mel, Cecelia was home with a five‑year‑old, and so admittedly there may be hardships, financial hardships, being away from family if you have to go to a trial somewhere else, checking back. What do you say to people when they say, well, I’m just going to go with the traditional stuff. It’s close to home. In other words, if there can be programs that can help them it still takes courage, if you will. So what would you say to people about investing in their life, if you will?
Well, you know what the standard, what the current treatment is and the outcome of that, so if you want to have a different outcome then you have to try something new which is probably going to be a new drug. So you have to weigh that with the cost and the travel. Some people may not have the support, the caregiver support to go a long distance, so you have to take that into consideration. As far as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society they do have certain funds where they can help with travel pay, co‑pay, insurance premiums, that could help alleviate some of it. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s involved, and it’s an individual decision.
So we’ll just make a comment, though. So, many people have a church or synagogue, friends, neighbors even if they’re living alone, but yet people are sometimes hesitant to ask for help. And I would say speak up. People do want to help you.
Dr. Schilsky, let’s talk about another reality of trials. There’s a history certainly and some fear still in the black community of whether they were tested on, without their knowledge even, going back years and the general thought, you’ve heard it through your career, I’m sure, people say, well, I don’t want to be a guinea pig for a couple reasons. One is we don’t know if it’s going to work. And second of all if there are different arms of a trial I don’t know if I’m going‑‑I’m going to go to all this trouble and expense, I don’t know if I’m going to get the good stuff. So maybe you could speak about that a little bit. First of all, the fears of being experimented on, and then also about whether you will get what could be a breakthrough.
Yeah. Well, for sure, you know, there is this sort of sordid history of inappropriate experimentation on people, and clinical trials are a form of experimentation. They are a form of research. There’s no doubt about that. But clinical trials these days are highly regulated, overseen by independent groups that include patients and clinical experts that come together in committees called IRBs, Institutional Review Boards, and they evaluate on both the risks and the benefits to patients who participate in clinical trials.
They make sure that the trial has an appropriate consent process associated with it, that it’s explained in plain language to patients, so I think these days a lot of those concerns no longer exist. And I hope that people can get beyond the history that led to some of those concerns. The‑‑sorry, I lost a train of thought on the rest of your question.
The issue about are you going to get the good stuff.
Oh, yes. So a couple points there. One point I want to make clearly is that in most cases cancer clinical trials do not include a placebo or an inactive treatment. That’s not always the case, but it’s true most of the time. So patients are always going to get at least the standard of care treatment, and of course the standard of care is what is at that time known to be the best available treatment.
The whole point of doing the research is to determine if the new thing is better, and of course we always hope it will be. It’s not always better, but sometimes it is, as in Mel’s experience. And I think this has to be clearly laid out to patients. They have to clearly understand why the research is being done. In many trials nowadays even if the patient is assigned to get the standard of care treatment there still may be an option to get the new treatment at a later point. So if the standard of care doesn’t work many times there’s still the opportunity to get the new treatment following the standard of care treatment.
So the trial really boils down to not standard versus new but new versus standard followed by new. So eventually everybody may have a chance to get the new treatment. That’s not always the case, but I think the key‑‑my key take‑home, in a sense, is that we’re doing the research because we think and we hope the new treatment is better, but we have to do the research to prove that. And everybody in a clinical trial I think can be assured that they’re going to get, at the very least, the best available standard treatment.
Mel, when you signed the papers to be in a trial, and you probably shared them with Cecelia, especially back in the late ’90s and I participated in one trial in 2000 and another in 2011, there’s a lot of paperwork, things in bold face written by lawyers. I didn’t always understand it. What propelled you beyond that? Was it just that, oh, my god, if I don’t get something I’m going to die? Or how did you two deal with the paperwork and feel comfortable signing on the dotted line?
Well, I saw a lot of hope in the paperwork. For example, one trial I was on was peginterferon, and I had been taking interferon every day, injecting myself, and I had to keep it refrigerated and when I travelled it made it difficult. So with peg I can take one shot a week, so that would make the cancer journey easier. It may not make me live longer, but it will improve my quality of life, so I saw my quality of life improving with that clinical trial. And I looked at the paperwork, and I went through it, and I felt comfortable with it.
And how about you, Cecelia? I mean, your husband says, well, I’m going to be in a trial and I’ve got to sign all these papers. Did you say at any point, wait a minute, that’s scary?
Well, no, I didn’t. I didn’t because with Mel, he had three years to find a marrow match, and he was at the end of year two and no match in sight. And so when he had the opportunity to go out to MD Anderson and be on a clinical trial or several, I was okay with that. I was okay with that. And I looked at it as actually being a blessing. And it turned out to be, and we’re grateful.
But I would say to anyone else who is contemplating a trial and that person and their caregiver, their spouse, to just educate yourself, and get as much information as you can, ask as many questions as you can, but please don’t just throw it away out of hand. It’s definitely worth considering.
Dr. Schilsky, so we have more than 50 million people with a Hispanic background in the United States, and even if many people are speaking English they may speak Spanish at home. And then when you are diagnosed with a cancer there’s a whole new language of stuff that comes into play that even if you’re fluent in English it may not be either what you easily understand or even aligns‑‑what’s being asked of you aligns with your cultural background. Okay? So how, beyond, let’s say, the African‑American community, when you look at the Hispanic community, how do we encourage participation there and get over some of these cultural or language nuances, if you will?
Yeah. So it’s much the same thing in the sense that the same information has to be conveyed but it may have different meaning and different interpretations in different ethnic and cultural groups. Most clinical trials now will have a consent form that is fully translated into Spanish. But, of course, there are many different languages on the globe. When I was practicing at the University of Chicago for many years on the south side of Chicago, we had Polish‑speaking people, we had Russian‑speaking people, we had people‑‑Chinese‑speaking people.
So the requirements actually are that there must be a consent form, at least some reversion of which is translated into the first language of the patient. So if you’re a native Spanish speaker, a native Chinese speaker, you have to have, be able to see a consent form written in that language, and generally speaking you have to have your native language interpreter present in the room to help you go through the consent form and respond to your questions. And that person has to be someone who is independent from the research team so they can give you the straight answer and not be influenced by any member of the research team. So I think all of that certainly helps.
But, again, what helps a lot more is to have members of the care team who look like the patient. So we have problems with diversity in our profession as well. We have very few African‑American oncologists. We have more Spanish‑speaking oncologists, but again we have few Asian oncologists. So we need to do a better job of improving the diversity of our profession, improving the diversity of the care teams. We need nursing staff and research staff and other people who work with our patients who represent them and gain their trust, who look like them, who talk their language. And I think that will go a long way toward making people feel more comfortable about participating in clinical trials.
I was at a conference last week and I heard some of the patient experience, people from different drug companies talking about how they were trying to simplify their forms because I know in 2000 when I entered a Phase 2 trial there were all kinds of black boxes, you could die, you could this, everything in the kitchen sink was in it. I’m still here, and I think because of the trial, and most of the side effects I didn’t have or they were definitely handled extremely well.
So right now, where are we, Dr. Schilsky, with participation? And why is it important? In other words, in this age of personalized medicine why do we need more black people in certain trials? Like, I know in multiple myeloma, one of the areas we cover, there’s a higher incidence in the black population, right, but yet few black people are in the trials for myeloma drugs. Or maybe there are differences with Asian populations or other populations. So is it that you can’t really get a clear scientific answer on the differences? Is that it?
That’s part of it. First of all, we want anybody who could potentially benefit from being in a trial to be able to be in the trial for their own personal benefit. Secondly, we need to learn about the performance of the drug or the intervention in all the diverse populations in which it might be used. And one of the things we have learned is that not all populations respond the same way. Some treatments are more toxic in certain racial or ethnic groups. Some are more effective in some racial or ethnic groups.
And, you know, since you brought up this whole new world of precision medicine, I’ll give you the example of the lung cancer drugs that are used to treat the specific mutations in a gene called EGFR. So that’s a gene which has mutated in about 15 percent of Caucasian patients with lung cancer, but it’s mutated much more commonly in Asian patients. And in fact one of the clues that there was even a gene mutation that was important in determining whether these drugs worked or not was because it was observed that the drugs worked better in the Asian patients in the clinical trials even before the genetic abnormality had been discovered. And the clue was what’s different about the Asian patients than the other patients in the trial.
So the diversity is critical to our learning and critical to our application of the therapy in all the diverse populations that we serve.
If you’re in our viewing community and you have a question, send your questions into firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. We’ll continue our discussion of course, but we invite you to join in.
So, Mel, when you get to talk to people, what do you say? Somebody is sick, diagnosed with a cancer, what do you say? Dr. Schilsky was talking about not seeing clinical trials as a last resort, and you weren’t seeing it that way (?) Inaudible, but today what would you say to people when you talk to them about it?
Well, I will say explore your possibilities because there are all different opportunities at each phase. You may not go into Phase 1 but you could do a Phase 2, 3, 4‑‑or Phase 3, and you don’t know what’s going to happen in each of those phases. So you just have to see what’s out there. And I’m exhibit A, so they look at me and they say, well, I can work, and then not as suspicious, you know. We have Tuskegee, and that was 1972, and it was that dark period of cancer history so that kind of rolls around in their mind, but you can’t let that jeopardize the opportunity such as Gleevec that I took advantage of. So we know that Gleevec worked, and there are other drugs that have improved the quality of life and the lifespan of cancer patients. So definitely research those drugs.
Did you lose heart when you were first in one trial and the medicine wasn’t working for very long? Some would say, well, all right, I tried a trial, forget about it, you know. But you then pursued other trials. What propelled you to do that?
Well, I was still in the game, so I saw that these trials took‑‑well, first of all, I could not find a bone marrow donor, but a bone marrow transplant was pretty drastic in itself so I was looking at these other opportunities as maybe not even having to take part in‑‑have a bone marrow transplant. So that was another incentive. So‑‑and I knew that if I didn’t find one‑‑there was a very small chance, there was only about 5 percent of Americas who are on the marrow registry, so basically I was helping to build a list, maybe not for myself but for people in the future who needed a transplant.
Dr. Schilsky, let’s talk about the pace of research. So, first of all, if we don’t get enough participation in trials how does that slow drug development?
Well, it slows it down enormously because we have to have a certain number of people in each trial to be able to get a reliable answer. And these days it’s becoming even more challenging because as we’re developing drugs that only target a specific genetic abnormality in the tumor which sometimes is very rare so we may be looking for a genetic abnormality that only occurs in 2 or 3 percent of all people with a certain kind of cancer. First you have to find the people who have that genetic abnormalities, then you have to be able to enroll them in a clinical trial. They have to be willing. They have to meet the enrollment criteria. So it can take a long time, and even a global effort to find enough people to fill out a clinical trial.
And most clinical trials in order to produce a reliable result are going to require a minimum of 50 to 100 patients. Some require many hundreds of patients or even many thousands of patients depending on the question being asked. So you can see if people are not participating it’s going to take long time to get those answers.
Now, Mel, you got Gleevec in a trial at least three years before it was approved, and it was approved fast because it was such a breakthrough, right? So you literally got tomorrow’s medicine today, and it saved your life in the process, right?
Yes, because I was past the three years. I was about three years and eight months in my diagnosis, so you add another three years onto that and I would not have been here.
Right. In my case I was in a trial related to chronic lymphocytic leukemia, three‑drug combination, and I received that in a Phase 2 trial 10 years before that was approved. So it was a long time.
So I have a question for you about personalized medicine, Dr. Schilsky. So for instance in chronic lymphocytic leukemia I’m not‑‑I’m Caucasian but I’m Ashkenazic Jewish, okay? So where we’re going with personalized medicine, are we beginning to find subsets among Caucasians, among African‑Americans, among Asians, where there are even more narrow slices to help us understand targeting of medicines and what’s effective for whom? Is that where we’re headed?
Absolutely. And, as I said earlier, we’re seeing that all the time. So almost every common cancer now is being broken down into a whole basketful of rare cancers under the broad umbrella of whatever the cancer type. So lung cancer, there’s probably six or eight different kinds of lung cancer now that each have a specific genetic abnormality, that each requires a specific treatment. And many of those treatments now are FDA approved, but the first thing you have to know is does the cancer have the genetic abnormality and then what is the appropriate treatment to use. We’re seeing that in breast cancer, in melanoma, in many other kinds of cancer types.
There’s another‑‑there’s a related issue here, though, of course, which is that not everybody metabolizes drugs the same way, and so another reason to have diverse populations in a clinical trial is to learn about side effect profile of the drug, learn about the right dose of the drug to use. And we know full well, for example, that African‑Americans metabolize some drugs differently from white people, and so, depending upon how the drug is working in the body, an African‑American person might require a higher dose or a lower dose of the same drug that a white person would require in order to get the same therapeutic effect.
So it just speaks to the point again where if you don’t have diverse populations in the trials you can’t learn this stuff so that doctors then have the information they need to be able to prescribe the drug in the best way for their particular patient.
Okay. Here’s some questions we’ve been getting in. Kaitlin wrote in, Mel, she wants to know, do you still participate in follow‑up activities related to the trial you were in? So tell us about your participation and sort of follow‑up.
My follow‑up is I go out to MD Anderson twice a year, and it’s just a one‑day, one‑hour doctor visit where they take the blood work and they check and see if everything’s stable. And then when I’m back home, twice a year I have my blood work checked back at home, and that’s the extent of the follow‑up. I still have to take medication, one pill a day.
Right. And is that still covered by the trial?
Well, it’s covered by the trial, but my insurance also covers it. I did Gleevec for life because of the trial.
Okay. Dr. Schilsky, let me just ask you, is that a benefit typically of trials? Like with these oral cancer medicines which you know can be so expensive, if you’re in a trial for one do you get it for life or an extended time or how does that work?
Depends a little bit on the trial and the sponsor for the trial, but the one thing for sure is when you’re on a trial whatever the investigational drug is, whatever is being researched, that’s provided for free. And any testing that would be considered to be for research purposes is provided by free‑‑for free. So that’s a benefit of participating in the trial.
Typically the drugs continue to be provided for free for as long as the patient continues to benefit. Now, sometimes if the drug ultimately gets FDA approved then it may be necessary at some time in the future for a patient to switch over from the research drug to the commercial drug, but of course at that time the drug is FDA approved and if the person has insurance it will generally be covered by their insurance.
Okay. We got a question in though for you, Dr. Schilsky, from Darrell. We were talking about genomic testing to understand what version of a disease we have either because of our ethnic background or some other thing that’s going on with us. As you know, insurance companies for a while have been balking at some of these more sophisticated tests, yet we and our doctor need that for us to get what may be right on target for us. So maybe you could talk about work that ASCO’s doing at all related to that. We want the testing done, but we also want to get it paid for so we can get that right, precise care.
Yeah. It’s a complicated question because the testing is done at different points in the person’s illness. And so typically a test on a tumor specimen that’s necessary to determine a standard of care treatment, and many of these tests are referred to as companion diagnostic tests. Those tests typically are covered by insurance because the treatments themselves are also covered by insurance and the only way to know if you can get the treatment is to have the test done.
Now, where it gets a little bit uncertain is when you get into this sort of large‑scale genomic testing where a patient’s tumor might be tested for many hundreds of genes not really knowing what you’re looking for and not really knowing what you’re going to do when you find it. And that is where you’re beginning to bump up a little bit against, research and that’s where the insurance companies, sometimes some are reluctant to pay for that kind of testing.
Now, at least one of those large genomic profiling tests earlier this year was approved by both the FDA and Medicare and now will be reimbursed. So that’s the good news, and I think that’s the direction that most insurance companies are heading in.
One of the things that my organization is doing to try to understand how best to use these tests and how best to use targeted cancer drugs is we’re doing our own clinical trial that’s available in 20 states around the country, so not the entire country yet, but has already enrolled more than 1200 people on the study over the last two and a half years. And we’re doing this study to understand how this kind of genomic testing is done, what kind of treatment is recommended based on the results of the genomic test and whether or not that treatment actually works.
Cecelia, you mentioned earlier about the lady walked into the health fair and when you started talking to her about trials she said I got to go to work, and she walked out. And Dr. Schilsky was talking about eligibility requirements, but there are other issues where the study may be asking you to come back to some place or have multiple tests with some frequency so it’s not just leaving work one time. It may be leaving work 20 times. Have you had people voice that concern to you, that it’s just‑‑what’s being requested is just too much?
Yes. I think the lack of convenience for people who don’t have the funds or don’t search out the funds would definitely hinder them being on a clinical trial or being open to hear about the clinical trial. So, yeah, convenience and awareness. We try to spread awareness that, yes, after we talk about the disease, the myeloma and the symptoms then we go into the resources. And, you know, I make sure I tell them about calling the information line and talking to the masters level oncologist professional there and finding out about the latest trials, the latest treatments in addition to what they’re doing currently with their doctors or their family members or friend that is diagnosed with one of the blood cancers.
Dr. Schilsky, she’s getting at helping people sort out what trials are available. So medical science is a moving forward, and I’m sure you as an oncologist say, hallelujah, there are more trials than ever, but it’s often not only daunting to understand any one of them but to go through a bunch of them to understand what might be right for you. So how can ASCO help that? Is it just simply educating your doctor, or what can we do for families affected by cancer so they can get at what could be a match for them?
Yeah, it’s a great question. So there are a lot of resources available, as Cecelia has mentioned. We can help patients understand and even begin to sort of, you know, wade through and winnow down the potential clinical trial options for them. One things that we’re working on and very interested in doing is sort of flipping the current paradigm by which trials are done. So right now, typically speaking, the patient has to travel to whatever site has the trial available. If they’re fortunate enough that that’s their own doctor’s office, that’s great, but, as in Mel’s case he had to travel to MD Anderson to get the trial.
The technology these days is at a point where we think we can flip that. Instead of making the patient go to the trial we’re going to work toward making the trial come to the patient. So if your doctor is aware that a trial exists somewhere in the world it should be possible for the doctor to basically just go to a website, find the research study, find the consent form, find the other documents that are necessary and present that to the patient. And if the patient qualifies just sign them up instead of making the patient travel hundreds of miles away to the one place that has the trial available.
Some trials have already gone down this road, and they’ve actually been recruiting very successfully, but it’s still not the usual way in which things are done, and we think we need to try to flip things around a little bit to make it easier for the trial to come to the patients. Let the trial travel. Let’s not make the patient travel.
That sounds great.
Can I add something to that, Andrew?
Okay. As a veteran, I was part of the VA system, and I had to go out to MD Anderson, but this summer they started something called Navigate, the VA had started something called Navigate, which partners with the NCI. And it’s at 12 sites around the country, and it’s to bring the clinical trials to the VA. It’s right there. So if it’s an NCI clinical trial then the veteran can get on that clinical trial. And there’s a lot of African‑American veterans who can take advantage of that.
For sure. That’s terrific. So we’re going in the right direction. One other thing I think that needs to change is we talked about the scientists, whether they’re federal government scientists or drug company scientists, and they want to get answers to a whole bunch of scientific questions. So they may say, as you write the protocol I think it is, well, you have to get so many CT scans and you have to get so many blood tests and stuff like that. And it can become onerous, Dr. Schilsky.
What’s happening in trial design so that, A, we talked about eligibility, you can get into the trial, but the things you’re asking of me may have logistical hurdles as well that you’re kind the lightening up on it to get to the key scientific question without all these other bells and whistles that make it tough on me.
Yes. I like to think of it as the need to know and the nice to know, right? There are certain things you need to know in the trial to be sure that the treatment is working, the patient is safe and not having any severe side effects and things of that sort. A lot of that stuff is the same stuff that doctors order every day on their patients as part of routine clinical care, and so much of what needs to be collected in clinical trials really aligns pretty well with standard of care.
Now, that said, because clinical trials are research and because there’s always new frontiers to explore, sometimes testing in a clinical trial extends beyond what the standard of care is. Sometimes patients are asked to give extra specimens of their blood, of their normal tissues, of their tumor tissues. Extra biopsies might be required, things of that sort. Patients need to understand why they’re being asked to do that, what those specimens are going to be used for, how is it going to advance research.
And, frankly, they’re very important to expanding the scope of the research. So, for example, oftentimes those specimens are used. If the treatment doesn’t work in a patient having those specimens can help the scientists understand why the treatment didn’t work, and that opens up a whole new horizon to explore to potentially make the treatment better in other patients.
Mel, do you recognize that by being in a trial and the work that you and Cecelia have been doing that you’ve probably helped thousands of patients by first being in a trial and then you and Cecelia talking about it?
Yeah. Yeah. I guess that’s kind of hard sometimes. You don’t see yourself in that role, but as I look back on it, yes.
Cecelia, you’ve probably talked to a lot of people. Have you seen a change where‑‑you’ve been doing this for a number of years where earlier on people said no, no, no. Are people more receptive? Do you see a change going on? Let’s say in the African‑American community, do you think people are a little more receptive?
Yes, I think so. I think they are more receptive, and this has a lot to do with education and awareness, and that’s what we are out there doing when we are out there in the community. And the more they hear about it and the more they read about it and the more they can see examples like Melvin, and we know one or two other people that we’ve met that were also on a clinical trial. One is in our church, and he had a type of leukemia, and we didn’t know why he was sick. But he is doing very well.
And so the more we can get those examples out there in the community of successful clinical trial patients, it really helps and goes a long way toward helping people of color relax and come aboard. And I just say, please, do your research, educate yourself and ask questions and please stay open and don’t dismiss clinical trials out of hand.
And, Andrew, if I could just add to that. I just want to make the point that it’s people like Mel who are creating the future. Everything we know about how to treat cancer we learned from the people who participated in the clinical trials. We’ve been doing clinical trials in cancer for at least 70 years, and all of the standard of care treatments that we have today came from the participation of people in clinical trials. And that’s how we make progress. That’s how we’ll continue to make progress.
So it’s the clinical trial participants who, sure, they’re in it for themselves. We understand that. They’re looking for a new treatment, a better outcome, but they are the heroes of oncology because they are paving the way, trying the course and ultimately making a better future for every cancer patient who follows them.
Amen. Let me just recap a couple of things, and correct me if I get anything wrong, either of you. So, first of all, Dr. Schilsky, I know there are more trials now than ever before, and they’re now looking at these rare subtypes as well, and so if we participate we may get the benefit of tomorrow’s benefit today. Cecelia was talking about assistance programs, people to help you sort it out, that you are noticing how there are difference among us about the ways that drugs are effective or not, and that’s so important to learn.
If we partner with you, Dr. Schilsky, and the many thousands of oncologists and researchers that you represent, can we get to the goal line faster? In other words, are you hopeful that if we really consider trials and participate in trials and stay in trials and the different groups that we can get closer to cancer cures?
Absolutely. I mean, we have more and better cancer treatments today than we’ve ever had before. We have all sorts of new and hopeful treatments on the horizon. We have to prove that they are safe and effective treatments to get them out there into routine clinical practice, and that’s where the clinical trials come in. So the more people who participate in trials the more quickly those trials can be completed and give us an answer, then the more quickly those drugs will make their way into standard clinical practice where everybody can benefit from them.
Okay. So a couple of to‑dos for our audience if you’re a patient or a loved one or however you hear this. Ask your doctor about whether trials apply to you or your loved one who is diagnosed with cancer even if it’s on day one. You don’t have to be at death’s door. You’ve been diagnosed or a diagnosis is suspected, what tests can we do, how do we know what we’re dealing with, and when we look at the treatment options is a trial a possibility if that makes sense, right?
Okay. Step two, are there resources to help me overcome any obstacles I may have to participation, first understanding the trial, understanding it in my first language, sorting out is it right for me, getting to where it is and then staying in the trial because many people, unfortunately, don’t stay in the trial and so how do be help the trial get to the goal line?
And then lastly, Dr. Schilsky, it sounds like you’re doing a lot at the community level to have more doctors have an easier time of the bureaucracy that we’ve had with trials before and the understanding of this flood of trials that’s happening, right?
Absolutely. And, you know, to be perfectly honest, the clinical trial community has‑‑we ourselves have created some of the bureaucracy, some of the excess regulation, some of the barriers to participation. It’s up to us to strip those away and solve the problem and make clinical trials more broadly available. We are working very hard now to make that happen.
Okay. So whatever community you’re in. I’m in the Ashkenazic Jewish community. Mel and Cecelia are in the African‑American community. We have people watching who are in the Hispanic community, the Asian community. If you have benefited from a trial, talk it up, right? Cecelia, people should talk it up, correct?
Exactly, yes. Please, talk it up.
Mel, thank you. I wish you really continued good health. How many years has it been since you were diagnosed?
Well, in about two months it will be 24 years.
Twenty‑four years, and for me it’s 22 years. And had there not been trials either that we were in or somebody else was in we wouldn’t be here.
So, thank you. And also, Cecelia, thank you for being a community activist when it comes to trials and being supportive of Mel as he’s been in a trial because some other people would say, you can’t go there, you can’t do this, and you’ve been supportive every step of the way. Thank you for that.
Oh, you’re so welcome. It was a pleasure to do it.
Mel and Cecelia Mann from Atlanta. And Dr. Richard Schilsky, you’ve devoted your life to this, Dr. Schilsky, and I just want to say on behalf of the cancer patient community thank you and thank you for the leadership that ASCO is trying to do, both with changing research requirements, working with government, working with industry, and you thank you personally for your devotion to us. I really appreciate you being with us.
It was my great pleasure. And, again, congratulations to Mel and Cecelia.
Okay. Thank you all. So this is what we do with our Clinical Trials Mythbusters program. Please tell others about it. The replay is available very shortly and all kinds of little highlights that we’ve done today. But what’s important is wherever you are is remember we can’t develop new medicines unless all of us work together to participate to get the scientific answers that apply to us, whatever our unique situation is, and then we can work with government to approve new medicines, get them on the market and so many people can benefit in the US and worldwide.
Thank you so much for being with us on this Patient Empowerment Network program. I’m gratified to be part of it. Thanks too to our financial supporters AbbVie, Astellas, Celgene and Novartis and their dedication to drug development and supporting and sponsoring clinical trials. I’m Andrew Schorr near San Diego. Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.
Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or PEN. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/What-Is-the-Value-of-Diversity-in-Clinical-Trials_-1.png600600PEN Editorial Staffhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngPEN Editorial Staff2018-12-05 19:48:512020-01-08 12:33:32What Is the Value of Diversity in Clinical Trials?
Clinical trials offer tomorrow’s medicine today, but more often than not, only a small fraction of patients ultimately enroll in a trial due to barriers posed by financial logistics, distrust and travel, to name a few. In this MythBusters program, we will examine the barriers to enrollment, evaluate patient needs and discuss resources to help guide people through the clinical trial process with the help from two experts, Dana Dornsife of Lazarex Foundation and Myeloma Survivor Reina Weiner.
Andrew: Hello from Carlsbad, California, near San Diego. I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power. Welcome to today’s Patient Empowerment Network program, clinical trials myth busters and actionable advice, resources for knocking down obstacles to trial participation. I wanna thank the companies that have provided financial support for this program. They have no editorial control, but we definitely thank them for their support. Those supporters are AbbVie Incorporated, Astellas, Celgene Corporation, and Novartis.
Okay. We have a lot to talk about. First of all, I’ll just say I’ve been in two clinical trials; one Phase 2 many years ago at MD Anderson for the leukemia I have, chronic lymphocytic leukemia. And that gave me tomorrow’s medicine today. It worked, but I had travel far to do it and there were costs involved.
And then I was in a second Phase 3 trial close to home, and that was good too, and discovered another cancer that I have, myelofibrosis, through the monitoring in the trial. So, I’m a believer, but there are obstacles, and let’s talk about some of these. And we’re gonna give you some very specific resources to overcome these obstacles, so that hopefully, if a clinical trial is right for you, you can participate, you can feel good about it, and you can move medical science along to help everyone who is dealing with that condition.
So, what are some of the issues? Financial, of course; logistical issues, of course; distrust, are they really gonna take care of you or are they gonna protect your safety? Is it really right? And are you being given the straight scoop? What about travel costs? I went from Seattle to Houston, Texas a few times. Costly, okay? Stay in a hotel. It’s costly. Get a babysitter, leave work; costly.
The guinea pig syndrome; you’ve heard about it so many times. Are they gonna experiment on you, and are they really protecting you, and are you a number, or you are a person with cancer, or your loved one? And then is your medical team that you’re talking to about your treatment, are they informed about clinical trials? Or are they pooh-poohing clinical trials because they don’t wanna do the paperwork, or it’s happening down the road and not at their clinic. Lots of issues; we’ll talk about that.
Okay, I got some great helpers. So, first let’s go to Asheville, North Carolina, and you are used to live in Charlotte. Reina Weiner joins us. Reina, welcome to our program today. There we go. Say that again, Reina, you were muted.
Reina: Thank you.
Andrew: Okay. Now we should tell you that last June, well, June of 2017, Reina had a autologous transplant for multiple myeloma. And along the way, leading up to that, over many years she was in four trials. So, first of all, Reina, let’s start with what’s most important. Post-transplant, how are you feeling today?
Reina: I’m feeling very well. Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew: Okay, and what’s coming up at the beginning of September?
Reina: What is coming up at the – oh, a big party is coming up. Our children are throwing us our 50th wedding anniversary party, so that’s been cool.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, congratulations. And you’ve been dealing with what became multiple myeloma since 1999. We’re gonna come back and track that in a minute, as far as the steps along the way, the concerns you had or not at different times about being in four clinical trials.
And now let’s go up near San Francisco in the East Bay of San Francisco Bay, Danville, California. Dana Dornsife. And Dana is the Chairman of the Lazarex Cancer Foundation. Dana, thank you so much for being with us.
Dana: Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew: Okay. Now ladies and gentlemen, I want you to know Dana and her husband and her family, overall, they’re incredibly philanthropic across a number of issues that are faced globally, and also in the US. But one of them is helping people with the financial issues that prevent them from being a clinical trial. So, Dana, this is a personal story for you, so maybe you could just tell us why did you start the foundation? It was a family issue.
Dana: It was a family issue, and that family issue really revealed to me a gap that exists in cancer care for advanced-stage patients who want to remain in their battle with cancer through clinical trial participation. My youngest sister’s husband, Mike, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in his early 40s. He was given one half of one percent chance to live, and at the time 35,000 people a year were diagnosed, and 35,000 people a year were dying from pancreatic cancer.
So, we decided as a family that if Mike wanted different results that we would need to do something different. And Mike and Erin went ahead and pursued standard of care, and I was tasked with identifying clinical trial opportunities for Mike. And, of course, that sounds very linear, but in fact, for a layperson it was a very difficult task to undertake. I did identify some trial opportunities for Mike. He did participate in a trial and responded well for a period of time, he had good quality of life.
And during that period of time he was meeting people who were asking him, “Hey, what are you doing? I wanna do what you’re doing.” And he would say to them, “Oh, just call my sister-in-law, Dana. She’ll help you.” And that’s literally how this organization began. Through those phone calls that I was receiving from other pancreatic cancer patients, I began to understand that Mike was able to take advantage of medical breakthroughs in clinical trials because he had a family who could afford to support him through the process. And all of these other families that I was talking to, they just didn’t have the financial wherewithal.
So, we started Lazarex in order to fill that gap and help people identify clinical trial opportunities, and then provide financial assistance to them to help cover the out-of-pocket expenses that create huge barriers for patients who are already experiencing financial toxicity due to their disease.
Andrew: Well, thank you for what you do. And we’re gonna talk a lot along the way about resources. There’s a downloadable guide that you’ll be provided with, along with a link to the replay of this program. And that’s gonna have specific resources that you can access, whether it’s financial issues, other issues you may be facing. So, look for that.
Today we’re really focused on actionable resources. So, let’s go to Reina for second. So, Reina, you had been in the pharmaceutical industry.
Reina: Yes, I had.
Andrew: So, you knew about drug development, and you understood about clinical trials. So, I’m willing to bet you were pretty proactive. People who weren’t in the field, they don’t know from clinical trials, and maybe they’d been worried about it. They’ve worried would they be experimented on, would they be a number and not name, would they get quality care. But you were probably, I have a feeling, pretty proactive. And you write about that. I know you have a book as well. So, is that Step 1 for people to speak up for themselves?
Reina: It is Step 1; absolutely, Step 1. And what I found is, first of all, people don’t know about trials. And if you go to a small community practice where they’re very busy, they don’t have the time, they don’t have the staff to really educate patients about trials, the best, best step for patients to take is to ask, “Is there a clinical trial that might be appropriate for me?” That’s huge.
Even when I went to a very well respected hospital and there was a researcher who was following me as I had smoldering myeloma and the numbers kept going up and up and up. I said is there – because I was living close to the NCI – is there a trial that would be appropriate to me at the NCI. And he said just a minute, turned around, went to his computer, found the trial and that’s how I got in.
Andrew: But it wasn’t at where you were receiving care or being monitored at that time. It was somewhere else.
Reina: It was not. It was at somewhere else.
Andrew: Okay. Dana, is one of the obstacles, not just financial, or maybe it’s even the business of cancer where if an oncology practice that you’re going to that’s maybe close to home is not doing the trial, maybe it’s not even in their financial interests to tell you. I mean, is there an awareness issue, do you feel?
Dana: There’s a huge awareness issue there, Andrew. And it all starts with knowledge is power, right, so I completely agreement with Reina’s comment about one of the first questions you need to ask is, is there a clinical trial out there for me because many doctors who are in community environments don’t offer that information. It’s not what they do every day. They’re there to administer standard of care. Only 6 percent of doctors actually engage in conversation with their patients about clinical trials, and that’s usually the 6 percent who are associated with research universities, right?
So, knowledge is power. If the patient doesn’t know about a clinical trial, they’re never going to participate. But once you find out and once you’ve identified an opportunity, the second biggest hurdle is that out-of-pocket expenses associated because most patients have been dealing with their disease for a longer period of time, and they’re basically broken in every way: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and, sadly, financially.
So, patients start to make decisions about the outcome of their care based on the size of their checkbook, and not focused on what’s best for them. And so, Lazarex eliminates that financial barrier as well to help patients say, “Yes, I can participate,” and we can get them where they need to be when they need to be there.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Andrew, because there are many other barriers that exist; socioeconomic barriers, language, culture, historical barriers. And we are tackling all of those barriers one at a time. But really, the biggest two barriers are knowledge and financial.
Andrew: Right. And you mentioned about the historical barriers. Some people know about the Tuskegee experiments with African-American people, so in the African-American community, there still is a distrust among some people. Yet if you think about it from the FDA’s point of view where a company that’s developing a drug, or the NIH, they say okay, how does it work on broader populations or different ethnic groups or different ages or genders, et cetera?
They want to understand that data, and so not just having a number of people participating in the trial, but having it reach people who are in different situations, if you will. And so –
Reina: And if I may – ooh, I’m sorry.
Andrew: Reina, please, go ahead.
Reina: Well, if I may say that because people don’t know about it and the trials, the best trials, are trials with a variety of patients, but they do try to accrue populations who are certain ages, certain genders, ethnic groups, whatever they can get. And only 3 to 5 percent of patients participate, cancer patients, participate in clinical trials, and so much is lost if people don’t participate.
Andrew: Here in San Diego it’s sort of a pocket of a lot of medical research. There’s a lot up in your area, Dana, in the Bay Area, San Francisco Bay Area. I mean, it’s in North Carolina in the research triangle where that’s home state for Reina. And not to disclude others, and then certainly up around Boston. There are like companies all over the place and many of them are in earlier drug developments.
So, when you talk about immuno-oncology now, can we harness our immune system with the help of some medicine to fight the cancer, and I know some people who’ve received it; lung cancer patients who are living, et cetera, melanoma patients who are living for an extended time. These companies can’t move forward unless there’re people who are in the trials. So, the FDA says where’s your data? And they’re saying well, we’re trying, but we haven’t been able to complete this trial. Right, Dana? So, we can’t move towards cures unless we all come together.
Dana: That’s exactly right. So, let me just throw a few statistics out at you that I found astounding when I learned of them. So, we have a 48 percent failure rate of clinical trials, and it’s not because the drug didn’t work. We will never know, quite frankly, if the drug would have worked or not. And we will never know because there weren’t enough patients enrolled in the trials to find out.
So, 11 percent of trials never enroll a single patient, if you can believe that. So, here we are with an almost 50 percent failure rate, and yet we have 600,000 patients a year in this country who are dying from cancer. So, there’s this incredible disconnect between the thousands of patients who would participate in clinical trials if they could, and the thousands of clinical trials that need patients to participate in order to succeed. And without successfully completing those trials, those drugs are never going to get market to help the cancer patients that they are intended to serve and help.
That’s why Lazarex Cancer Foundation exists, and that’s why removing the barriers to clinical trials is so important. Our process does not lend itself well to that. And I just want to take a step back, Andrew, to address the minority participation in clinical trials. We all understand because of epigenetics and, yeah, advances in medical science that we need to have the full spectrum of our population participating in clinical trials. But that doesn’t happen. When you look at the 5 percent of patients who actually participate and you break it down ethnically and racially, less than 5 percent are from minority communities combined.
So, in theory, though we say we understand the importance of that, we’re actually not in practice doing what needs to be done. And so a lot of our work is also focused on reaching out to those socioeconomically challenged and racial and ethnic minority communities to raise awareness and help people like you’re doing on this program dispel the myths around clinical trials, so that they’re more inclined to ask better questions.
Andrew: Right. So, so important, and I applaud for that work. We’re gonna talk about the financial process in a second. Reina, so you were involved in a National Institutes of Health or National Cancer Institute trial.
Andrew: A couple of them, I think, and one at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York’s premier resources. So, we talked about your tip was you gotta speak up and ask about trials, where they’re at that center, wherever you are, by XYZ oncology in a suburban area, whatever it is or not. So, what’s Step 2? So, for instance, now I understand there are people – and Dana, I’d like your comment on it too.
At some clinics now where there are clinical trial – there are nurse navigators, but often sometimes there are clinical trial navigators too, but often you gotta ask about that too, right, Reina? I mean, it’s speaking up and looking for the resources that are available to you there or wherever you choose to go, right?
Dana: Yes, and there are organizations like Dana’s who help people do clinical trial searches because that’s a bit overwhelming when you are already frightened, you already have the financial issues coming up. And like you mentioned, logistical issues. So, there is Dana’s organization; therefore, myeloma, the SparkCures. There’s the MMRF. There’s the International Myeloma Foundation. There is something called Cis Crypt. And so, they will help you find a trial.
And there are lots of regional trials groups, so you may not need to go to the big, big research center. They might be able to do it locally for you. But I always want to bring up the fact that there’s so much misinformation about trials and what it entails. There’s a tremendous amount of fear. And when I went on the first trial, as I wrote about a little blog recently, everybody said to my husband – well, not everybody, but an awful lot of people said why would you let your wife going in a clinical trial? She’s definitely gonna be a guinea pig.
And I can tell you very, very, very clearly that you get so much care. There’s so much documentation. And the patient’s health is never sacrificed for the research ever. And so, and you sign a consent form, so you’re very clear about what is going to happen. And yes, there’s more there’s more bloodwork. Yes, there are more biopsies. And it’s part of research. And when you sign up, you sign up. And I had more than I’d like to even talk about, but I feel very grateful and very humbled for the care that I received.
And I can tell you, too, that I talked to other people on the trial. And yes, they hope to gain better control of their cancer. But, in addition, they really hope to help the next group of patients who are coming up, so that these new treatments actually happen.
Andrew: I feel the same way. I was in a trial at MD Anderson in 2000, and the three-drug combination I got was not approved till ten years later, but they learned a lot. And you were on a three-drug combination, which I think still has not been approved for first line, but it’s is widely used, I think.
Andrew: So, in multiple myeloma. I wanted to mention some other resources, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society also has a resource center. You can call them. So, there’re these different groups that help you identify a trial, and doctors who specialize, so let’s say pancreatic cancer, you mentioned earlier Dana. I got a call from a friend in Miami, “How do I find a pancreatic cancer specialist?” And I connected them with PanCAN, Pancreatic Cancer Action Network in Los Angeles, who knows who are the doctors who have the most experience with that.
Now, Dana, so then the next thing comes up is alright, I’ve identified the trial, but it’s not where I am. So, now we talk about logistics and finance. So, let’s say somebody calls your foundation. Tell us how it works. So, I don’t have the resources. Maybe they live in Northern California and the trial is in Southern California or in Salt Lake City. What happens next?
Dana: So, Andrew, in some cases it’s not even that distance. In some cases it’s getting from Sacramento to San Francisco, which is literally a one hour, one-and-a-half hours without traffic, in your car. And sometimes it’s a tank of gas, a bridge toll, and parking. I mean, we’re not talking about thousands of dollars in some cases, but it’s still the difference between life and death.
When someone calls Lazarex Cancer Foundation, they can contact us directly. We have a financial application that we use to determine the degree of eligibility for patients to get their out-of-pocket expenses reimbursed. Or they can be referred to us by their social worker at the institution where they are receiving, or thinking about participating in a clinical trial.
We take a look at the household income of the patient, and I believe our guidelines are very generous. We go up to seven times the federal poverty guidelines for patients. And we arrived at that number through trial and error. Our goal is to help as many patients as possible participate in clinical trials, and turn away as few as possible. And then we reimburse on a sliding scale from 100 percent to 75 percent to 50 percent depending upon your household income.
And it’s a pretty easy process to go through in order to be enrolled and receive the reimbursement. And then we reimburse our patients monthly, on a monthly basis. And in some cases, we’ve been working with patients, we follow them, like Reina, through two, three, four clinical trials. And we’ve been supporting them in trials for years. And without doing what we do, they may not be here with us today.
Andrew: Well, I’m sure you’ve saved some lives and lengthened some lives. Reina, so you were in the pharmaceutical industry and in oncology, I believe, before all of this started happening to you. And you’ve continued teaching nurses and devoting yourself to education and your book and your blogs. Thank you for all that. Maybe that’s what life’s about.
But knowing on the inside there are pharmaceutical programs, in some cases, I think, particularly for rare cancers where they may provide assistance. They can’t pay you to be in the trial, but there are at times assistance and travel logistics, particularly for rare cancers where maybe the trial is not, not one hour away. Am I right, Reina? Are you familiar?
Reina: Oh, there are. And sometimes when I was working, there would be a patient who had a cancer that really was not aligned with a particular treatment that would be effective for them. And so, the doctor wanted to try an off-label use of a product, and so then they would come to me and asked me if I could get the pharmaceutical company to provide the drug for free.
And sometimes it takes a little doing, but I was concerned about the patient and hoping to get them a better quality of life, if not an extended period of life. And so, yeah, the company would do that. Not every day, not all the time, but if the company had evidence that this was a patient who would benefit from the off-label use of a product then they would help them out.
Andrew: Okay. So, Dana, related to other organizations providing assistance, and I recently interviewed someone from the Family Reach Foundation where they help with rent or things, groceries, things like that. So, somebody says, “Oh my God, I’m afraid of a trial, I can’t go there,” or if they hear about it and they say, “Hmm, well, maybe I could, but I’d have to leave work, or maybe my spouse would have to leave work, we’d have to find somebody to pick up the kids from school, oh my God.” There are organizations that can help with some of these family processes, aren’t there?
Dana: Absolutely. And I think we’ve provided the Patient Empowerment Network with a list of those. 21st Century C.A.R.E. is an organization that provides patients with immediate financial assistance for expenses related to active cancer treatments. Cancer Care provides assistance for cancer-related costs. There’s a Cancer Care Co-Payment Assistance Foundation. We get that question a lot.
We’ll help with the out-of-pocket travel expenses, and in fact, some of the medical and diagnostic expenses that aren’t covered by insurance. When you’re participating in a trial, sometimes you have to get more stems than insurance will cover or whatever. But co-pays are a big deal for people to be able to afford those, and so, that is another organization that can help. Patient Advocate Foundation, which is an underinsured resource directory.
So, there are a lot of you nonprofits out there who exist to support patients through the fifth process. It’s just a matter of helping patients really understand and put together all of those resources in a way that they can access them.
Andrew: Okay. So, Reina, you’ve been through it four times, and you’re a pretty savvy person. Not all of us know as much, so help us now. So, one of the questions in a trial is, and in cancer, am I gonna get what I describe as the good stuff, knowing that the good stuff that’s being tried may not be good. I mean, it may not work out. There are trials that go bust. Not just for not getting people, but they got people, but it wasn’t as effective as they hoped it would be.
But let’s say we’ve done our homework and we go to a certain clinic, but it’s some sorta controlled trial. We don’t know whether we’ll be in the arm. So, was a concern for you? Were you gonna get the good stuff, and why do it?
Reina: Well, no, really, Andrew, because I know that like if it’s a Phase 3 trial, so you’re comparing standard of care versus the newest and hopefully the latest and greatest. If it turns out that one arm of the trial really shows a significant improvement, patients are always switched to the more effective arm of the trial. They don’t leave you on this arm of the trial thinking well, what the heck, we’ll just leave you there and see how the research pans out. So, they are always switched over to the most effective.
So, I wasn’t really concerned about that. And in the Phase 2 trial, it’s just seeing if the product was effective. And so, that was obviously not a concern for me. So, it worked out, and I do think, though, like what Dana does is absolutely wonderful at totally, totally, totally past wonderful.
But I always try to let people know who have friends and family who are facing some chronic significant illness that don’t just call and say let me know, let me know if I can help you because that’s so ambiguous. And most people will not call because they have pride or they think they can do it all by themselves.
So, I always try to suggest to people that if you’re calling somebody who you think might need some help, be specific. Call and say, “Can I walk the dog? I’m going to the grocery store in an hour. Is there something I can pick up for you? Can I mow the grass?” Anything that will help, but make sure that you are specific in your offering.
Andrew: I want to talk about a related issue. You use the word pride. Some people, maybe in some cases it’s even shame. They developed a certain cancer. Where these are maybe middle-class people who’ve had some resources. They’ve been paying their mortgage. They’ve been paying their expenses, making do. But now they get hit with a cancer diagnosis, which is catastrophic, and there is help available, Dana, but they’re too proud to ask for it when this could happen to anybody. And maybe you’ve even countered that along the way or know there’re people out there. What would you say to people, to not be shamed and to speak up?
Dana: Yeah. Well, sadly, one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer, and one in two men. And so, this is not an uncommon scenario, right? The likelihood of knowing someone who will receive a cancer diagnosis is very likely. So, I think that patients have to understand that pride doesn’t help you in your process with battling this disease. You have to take advantage of every opportunity that’s out there in order to come out on the positive side of this experience. And if you don’t take advantage of every opportunity, you may not.
And so, it’s one of those things that we just have to deal with right from the beginning, and just say okay, again, knowledge is power. I’m going to surround myself or engage with the people that are around me who want to help me. And you have to put that team together because you will need your team with this disease.
Andrew: Okay, so great advice. Reina, part of your team maybe could be the first doctor you saw who gave you the diagnosis, but they might not be the one where a trial was offered. So, first step is you talked about speaking up, but it takes a lot of courage to say to the doctor in the white coat with all the letters after their name, you know, thank you so much, Doctor, and I’ve either found out about a trial, or your turned and typed it in somewhere else. I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to go over there. Maybe you can advise me along the way.
But that takes courage because people are terrified, and they may be bold in principal in that situation with the person in the white coat. What advice would you give?
Reina: Ooh, well, that’s a big one for a lot of people. And, really, you know what, I imagined that it would be people who are older, who come from a generation where the doctor has the final word. But what I found out when I was writing my third book is that there were younger people who also feel very uncomfortable speaking up, asking a doctor, and so forth. But really, what to really put in your little mind and in your heart is this your life.
This is not just kind of a trip to the mall. This is really important for you to either improve the quality of your life or extend the quality of life, so take a deep breath, be very polite, and I think most doctors who are professional and open-minded will hear what you have to say if you present it in a way that they can hear. And if they really don’t hear you then it might be time to have a look around to see who will.
And, really, the bottom line is you need to trust yourself. And if you feel that this is really right, that there is a clinical trial that you would be eligible for and you can participate in with Dana’s help, with the financial, with the logistics, and so forth. Like I said, you just take a deep breath. And most doctors, like I said, really want the best for you.
Andrew: Okay, let’s talk about something that comes up. One of the things for people is the criteria of different trials. Dana, I don’t know if this is in your area, too, related to financial, but people let’s say okay, I wanna be in a trial, but the criteria are so narrow that I really wanna be in the trial, but they say I can’t.
Dana: Yeah, so that is a sad reality in many cases. And I refer to this as Clinical Trial Nirvana Syndrome where as a drug sponsor for trial, you want to attract the healthiest patients you can to participate in your trial, so that you have the greatest chance of success. But, unfortunately, in many instances, in most instances, a cancer diagnosis is accompanied by other comorbidities like heart disease or diabetes or other maladies that would preclude a patient from being able to participate in a trial.
So, that is an area that we are looking into and trying to – we have several proposals out there with various aspects of our government to try and really take a closer look at that, to try and make the trial makeup in relation to patient participants better mirror the realities of our situation because the likelihood of someone, if the drug gets approved, taking that drug and having a comorbidity is pretty likely.
And yet we won’t know what will happen there, right. So, we have to drill down on these issues and it’s a great, great issue to bring up. So, we’ve got a lot of work to do ahead of us.
Andrew: Right. And another thing that comes up too, and Kevin sent in a question. Kevin, thank you for this, matching what’s available in clinical trials to where you are in your journey with an illness. So, on Day 1 you’re diagnosed. I know Esther and I, we were crying and almost on the floor. And I thought I would be dead the next day. And it really took a while to overcome the terror of the diagnosis. And so, we were not even – well, the doctor wasn’t talking about trials; we wouldn’t have been hearing it anyway.
And some of us, thank God, with some trials, with some cancers now, are blessed with living longer and we start to learn. And then we want to know, in our situation, what applies to us. So, I know there are a lot of efforts being made to match trial offerings to where you are and what you might need to know now, what might need to be offering.
And some of you have heard this term, artificial intelligence, where we in the Internet business are all trying to fine tune what we’re suggesting or putting in front of you based on who you are and where you are, recognizing privacy and all those kinda things to make it more manageable.
We still have a long way to go. I mean, we have clinicaltrials.gov, but it’s not tied to where I am, who I am, where I am in my journey. It’s just what’s being done in a certain illness, right, Reina?
Andrew: So, we have to refine our tools.
Andrew: We have to refine our tools. Well, we’ve been getting in a number of questions. So, here’s one. So, David; so, he says as the excessive use of CT scans in clinical practice moves away from being the norm, have they lessened their use in clinical trials? In other words, this is about testing, and maybe it’s about the requirements.
Dana, I don’t know if you have feelings about it, but the scientists who are doing these trials, they wanna know everything. They would like to test us. So, the CT scan, and I mean I’m gonna have one next week, but it has radiation, right?
Andrew: So, let’s do a bunch of CT scans. No, let’s do a bunch of bone marrow biopsies. No. So, I’m saying I’m sorry. Not just do I have to pay something for these tests, or is there a co-pay or whatever, but also am I gonna be radiated? Am I gonna be poked? So, what about those issues? Is there dialogue going on, not just to help us financially, but also make it less onerous, I guess?
Dana: Yes, in fact there is dialogue going on about that, and it’s good, heartfelt dialogue. And it’s coming from a myriad of stakeholders, right, not just from patient advocacy organizations, but also from within industry insurers. And the whole goal is to okay, let’s stop looking at patients as a chart or a number on a piece of paper, and let’s understand that these are living, breathing human beings who are voluntarily participating in this clinical trial process for the benefit of not only themselves, but future patients to come and our industry.
And let’s start treating patients as humans who are participating, and let’s see what we can do to lessen the number of visits or minimize the number of scans and blood work, et cetera. So, there is active dialogue around that, and I think there’s a much higher degree of sensitivity on behalf of the teams who are actually putting the protocols together now.
Andrew: All right, I think so. And I know in some cases they’re doing what’s called trial simulations with a panel of patients and saying okay, we’re trying to answer these scientific questions and see if this drug that’s in development can do better for patients and would require so many office visits. Or so many, you come to the site, but so many could be done, maybe with your local doctor if that’s closer to home. So many blood tests, so many CT scans, so many biopsies. Imagine lung cancer patients with another lung biopsy. Not fun, and often not available.
So, there are all these kind of questions. And I think that’s going on although it needs to happen more. Now Dana, do you talk to the pharmaceutical industry? We had a question from Vi Life wanting to know related to trial awareness. Beyond the financial, do you work with pharmaceutical companies at all, as you are now, today? I mean, what we’re doing here is just to raise awareness about trials or other programs that you may do.
Dana: So, we are engaging with pharma right now. We were very fortunate to work with the FDA earlier this year in securing language around reimbursement of patients’ out-of-pocket expenses associated with clinical trials. There was some very nebulous language out there that was really preventing pharma from being able to support programs like ours.
And what we’re doing now is, in addition to we’re bridging this gap for patients that exist every day by reimbursing patients, but that is not a sustainable business model. It’s noble, but we have to have our tin cup out every day. And the number of patients we can help is directly related to the amount of money that we have in our account, right?
So, in addition to that program, our Lazarex Care Program, what we are also doing is trying to fix this problem and do it in a sustainable way. And in order to do that, we actually have to shift the burden from the patient back into industry, right, and help industry understand why they should include these out-of-pocket expenses as part of the clinical trial protocol every time, right, so they can enroll trials on time, on budget, save R&D dollars, preserve patent years, right?
I mean, there are a lot of reasons why pharma would want to participate in a program like that, in addition to the fact that it’s the right thing to do, right? And then we get more drugs to market faster, and we provide a platform of equitable access for everyone. So, we are engaging pharma in discussions right now about funding this program, we call Lazarex our IMPACT Program, that’s being rolled out at comprehensive cancer centers across the country. And it stands for Improving Patient Access to Cancer Clinical Trials.
It has been received very well and I’m happy to say that Amgen actually stepped up and funded this, so we are rolling it out here in California, and we are hoping that we’ll have similar opportunities in a couple of other areas in the United States. So, they are interested, and they want to improve clinical trial enrollment retention, and especially minority participation.
Andrew: Right. Boy, that you. Again, I keep saying thank you for what you’re doing, but you’re a real leader in the field. I’m going back next month to the Biden Cancer Initiative Summit continued by Vice President, Biden, former Vice President Biden, and his wife who continue to do leadership in this. And there’ll be a lot of senior people there and I’m hoping we can talk. And I know this issue of how can we advance cancer care through research in partnership with patients is a big one. So, Dana, thank you for helping lead the way in getting this going. And thanks to Amgen just as an example.
Reina, so, we talked about the cultural differences of people being in trials. We talked about the pride people may have in asking for assistance, the fear people have maybe participating in trials. You still have a – not now. I mean, you’re doing so well and you’ve been through trials and it’s worked out well. But there must have been some bumps along the way. Were there any misgivings at different times? And if so, how did you overcome it?
Reina: Oh, yeah. Well, there were definitely misgivings, I am sure. The first trial was when I asked the doctor if there’s something going on at the NCI. And there was no misgivings about that because that was a very observational trial. The second trial was much more progressive and I felt kind of a little uncertain about it, and so I asked the researcher at this well-known institution if I should participate because the trial, I should back up a little bit, that was for either smoldering myeloma patients or active disease patients.
At the time I was smoldering, and most physicians didn’t believe that that was a good idea to treat smoldering and wait until it became active. So, I asked this one researcher and he said absolutely, not, do not participate in the trial. And then I called someone else also from a very respected institution where I had been, and he said well, if you join that trial you’ll be crossing the Rubicon, which I didn’t even know what the Rubicon was at the time. I had to go look it up.
But, basically, once you start treatment, you kind of go on that journey and there’s no way to step off. But then I thought about it, I thought about it, thought about it, and finally I decided to trust myself because I had been to the NCI. I felt very safe there. And I decided to move ahead with it.
So, yes, I had plenty of misgivings about that. The other trials, not really because that trial changed my life and it gave me a very reasonable complete response. And the other ones, like I said, they just kinda fell in with the collecting a good amount of stem cells for a transplant and so forth.
Andrew: I wanna talk about family issues. So, the decision to be in a trial affects the family, whether it’s somebody’s driving you to the doctor, somebody’s taking off work, their worry, how they feel about trials, their own view of it, family logistics, costs, et cetera. We’ve talked about that. So, you wrote this blog about people questioning your husband, I guess, was your wife gonna be in a trial? So, how did you overcome that, whether if not with your husband, just with your community that you weren’t like crazy?
Reina: Well, they already know I’m crazy, so that’s a total aside. But, really, trying to educate people about the misinformation about trials; say, look, I will never be a guinea pig because that’s not what trials are about. And it’s very well controlled and there’s a lot of data that follows you. The care that I got was excellent.
And I try to dispel, like I said, a lot of the myths; that you signed consent form, which clearly explains what the trial is about, what your commitment to it is, and you can also drop out for any reason. There was hope that you don’t because they would like to have some results that then will lead into future treatments for patients. But you can drop out, so, really, taking that opportunity to educate people about what a clinical trial is like and that there are no guinea pigs.
Andrew: I wanna just – oh, yes, please, Dana.
Dana: Yeah, if I could just offer something in that regard. For people who haven’t gone down this path, the journey with cancer, having a cancer diagnosis is not like other chronic diseases, right, like diabetes, for instance, that you can typically control with insulin or whatever, right? For a cancer patient who has failed standard of care, who’s gone through maybe second- or third-line treatment options, but still has progressive disease, that patient will die if they don’t do something, right?
And so, clinical trials offer tomorrow cures today in some instances, right, and we don’t always have positive results in clinical trials. But for a patient who’s at that crossroad where their doctor has delivered those words, “You need to get your affairs in order,” right, it’s not a matter of am I crazy if I participate in a clinical trial. What it is a matter of is do I wanna live? And if so, what clinical trial can I participate in? It’s a very different decision tree.
Andrew: Right. And I certainly say that all the time. I got a call, as I mentioned, from a friend in Miami. The mother has a very serious cancer. And I said part of the initial discussion, even the initial discussion, Dana, can also be are there clinical trials that we should consider along with standard therapy? So, certainly, if you’ve failed or they’ve failed you, the treatments no longer work, what is the 360 degree view? And if you don’t do it here, so they do it down the road, or do they do it across the country? And what are the issues for you participating?
So, a lot of thinking, but it’s gotta be part of the discussion. So, so sadly now, what are we seeing; 3 percent, 4 percent, 5 percent of adults participating in cancer clinical trials in the US. Not good at all. And are we hurting ourselves with the chance of future therapies that can be more effective, or even cures because some of these companies sometimes are venture-backed. They don’t have money forever, you know, and they’re trying to get to the goal line to go the FDA.
Look, here is another question we got in. Tamara, our producer, just sent in. She says well, what happens when you join a clinical trial and it doesn’t have a beneficial impact? So, Reina, they didn’t know that the trials would necessarily work out for you. So, what happens then? Do you go on another trial? What do you do?
Reina: Well, if it doesn’t and you don’t seem to be responding to the therapy on the trial, or you find it intolerable yourself, then they will always return you to your oncologist who you had been seeing previously. But, on the other hand, they may offer you another trial that’s available that you would be eligible for as well. So, I mean, I really try to stress to people that the researchers are looking out for you. They want the best income, in addition to accruing the data that they hope.
And I can tell you that when I was on a trial at the National Cancer Institute, when I had questions, especially about the trial with smoldering versus active disease for myeloma, they would spend a couple of hours for me, explained with me, can I say that, right? Yes, spent a couple hours with me explaining all of the aspects of the trial, so yeah.
Andrew: I wanna point up an example that some people have heard of a woman I’ve become friendly with in the myeloma community, Reina. Cherie Rineker. So, Cherie’s down in Houston, and she was dying of myeloma. And she’d been in trials and treatments. She was at MD Anderson. Bob Orlowski is one of the top doctors in the world, and her doctor. And she was in different trials and then things were not working.
And she was put in touch with another researcher doing this CAR T investigation for multiple myeloma, which is pretty new, pretty new. And they’re learning a lot. It’s not a slam dunk, but so far it’s worked for her. It saved her life. She went to Nashville, Tennessee from Houston where she lives, and maybe I’m not sure the financial issues, Dana, about going. But that’s where she’d been in successive trials. And some were not working or no longer were working. There was another approach.
I wanna ask about another concept I’ve heard called siteless trials. And I don’t know, Dana, you’re nodding your head. Maybe you are familiar with this. One is a siteless trial because we talked about these trials going on at these academic medical centers, but not much elsewhere.
Dana: So, I have tell you, I don’t have a lot of experience with siteless trials, but there is a lot of dialogue taking place around rather than having the patient go to the trial, bringing the trial to the patient, and I think that’s the impetus behind a siteless clinical trial.
I think cancer has some unique challenges, especially blood-based cancers in clinical trials, and the oversight of patients participating in those trials that make siteless trials a bit of a challenge. But I think the place to start is in other diseases, or perhaps where you have a cancer diagnosis that’s not a rare form of cancer, whatever that requires, a high degree of oversight.
But the whole goal in doing this is to understand how we can get more people into these trials and make it less obtrusive on their life, right, so that more patients would be inclined to participate, increase our enrollment retention, our minority participation, and, ultimately, reduce the burden on the patient to participate.
Andrew: Esther and I’ve given a lot of talks at different conferences, and we said you have to see patients who might be considering or are in a trial as investors. So, they’re gonna invest with their body, their time, sacrifices, and other things in their lives for the hope of being cured if they could, or doing better.
And there needs to be the communication, financial support, logistical support in really treating people with a lot of respect as a person. Reina, do you agree with that, that we have to get to that concept where we’re taken care of? And you felt that way, but we need to do it for more people and have more people feel confident that it’ll work out that way.
Reina: Oh, certainly. Certainly, I do. And the education is really essential. And after I was in the first trial, I talked to everybody who would listen to me. And even if they didn’t, I would talk anyway just to try to say this is a place where you can go where you will receive what is hopefully the newest and the best treatment that’s available. That you will be cared for as well as you can possibly be, and that everything is documented. You know all the options that you have staying on the trial, giving consent, making sure you have all the information that you need to feel comfortable.
And Dana’s organization, hopefully, helping people out financially and logistically. There are ways to get into trials that at times are very successful. For me personally, I don’t know that I would be alive now if I had been on that trial, and that’s really my claim to fame, what can I say?
Andrew: And, Reina, I would say the same thing. Had I not been in a Phase 2 trial for chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2000, I wouldn’t be around to have had retreatment last year, which has work quite well; 17-year remission. And I wouldn’t have been able to do this, and really have a purpose in life. So, I’m very grateful for being in the trial.
Dana, I can’t tell you – we were talking about gratitude, for you; came up in your family. You saw the gap for, not so much your family, but so many other families. The issues, financial issues, and you’ve been very philanthropic and, obviously, trying to have leadership in getting at some of these – we have a very imperfect system right now, so we have a long way to go. But for our viewers, if you’re living with cancer now, if your loved one is living with cancer, there are resources, people like Lazarex, people have been through it, like Reina.
We’re gonna give you this downloadable guide. And you’re gonna connect with these resources. Don’t… Put your pride away. Dana said it so well. There’s a very high likelihood we’re gonna be affected by cancer in our families, and there is help to navigate what’s kinda complicated right now, but is doable and can offer you the chance of doing better. Dana, did I say it right?
Dana: You did. You did. You did a great job, Andrew. Thanks.
Andrew: Okay. Well, thank you. And thanks to the Lazarex Cancer Foundation and, really, all you’re doing. And let’s hope that we can improve this process, increase participation, and have so many of these companies and the government that are trying to get scientific answers. We participate as respected patient investors. And we do better well. Reina, any final words from you with your 50th wedding anniversary coming up?
Reina: I’m very grateful. I’m very grateful to be here. I’m grateful for all the clinical trials, all the physicians who have taken care of me and who listened to all my concerns and fears. And I am super-duper grateful to my husband who has supported me, helped me, been there, been my caregiver, and washed the food for me when I had the transplant, and really, all the people who have been on the journey with me. So, if you are considering a clinical trial, if there is one that you might be eligible for, give it some thought. It’s a really important choice for you to make.
Andrew: Reina, thank you so much, all the best. Happy anniversary, early. Dana, best to you. Dana Dornsife, joining us from the Lazarex Cancer Foundation in the San Francisco Bay area. Dana, good health to your family, and thank you for all you do. Thanks for being with us, Dana.
Dana: Thank you.
Andrew: And, Reina, all the best, and thank you for those great words of wisdom. And we’ll meet in person sometime and I’ll give you a big hug, okay?
Reina: I hope so. I hope so. You take care of yourself, Andrew. Thank you so much.
Andrew: Thank you for joining us for this Patient Empowerment Network program Clinical Trials Mythbusters. We hope to do more. I wanna thank the companies that have helped provide funding for it; Abbvie Incorporated, Astellas, Celgene, and Novartis, for their support.
Thank you for joining us. I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power down near San Diego. Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/Clinical-Trial-MythBusters.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2018-09-18 17:13:312020-01-08 12:30:24Clinical Trial MythBusters: Actionable Advice for Knocking Down Obstacles to Trial Participation
Many cancer patients feel that the clinical trial process is in need of a serious makeover. One of them is Jim Omel. Jim, a retired oncologist living with multiple myeloma, turned patient advocate, makes it his business to understand myeloma from the inside out. He joins this program to share his experience in clinical trials and how he learned about his vulnerabilities as a cancer patient.
Also joining the discussion is, Dr. Michael Thompson, medical director for the Early Phase Cancer Research Program at the Aurora Research Institute and an active clinical researcher developing new treatments, particularly early phase (Phase I and II) molecular biomarker-driven clinical trials.
Join us for a meeting of the minds on debunking myths around clinical trials. How are patients protected within a trial? Will I as a patient be lost in the clinical trial system? Can I select my own arm in a trial? The questions are endless and, left unanswered, contribute to the barriers to trial enrollment.
Welcome to this Patient Empowerment Network program. I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power. I’m joining you from near San Diego, Carlsbad, California, and I’m so excited about this program, Does the Clinical Trial Process Need an Extreme Makeover? Having been in a clinical trial, and I’ll talk about my experience in a little while. I am a big fan, but I know that people have concerns, and I know that the percentage of cancer patients who are in clinical trials among adults is very low. How does that affect drug development and having the chance to get closer to cures for us?
I want to thank the financial sponsors for this program who provided assistance to the Patient Empowerment Network. They are Celgene Corporation, Astellas and Novartis. They have no editorial control, so what happens in the next hour is what we say, the questions you ask, what we hear from our experts who are joining us.
If you have a question, send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, if you have a question, send it in to email@example.com, and our wonderful producer Tamara will take a look at it, forward it to me, and as we can over the next hour we’ll be discussing questions you have already sent in. And we’ll have a very inspiring, I think, and provocative dialogue between our experts.
So let’s meet them. I want to take you to Grand Island, Nebraska, where my dear friend Jim Omel is there. He’s a retired now family practice physician. And, Jim, for years you’ve been a myeloma patient. When were you diagnosed with myeloma, and what’s happened along the way? You’re taking regular treatment now, I think, some treatment for the bone complications. How are you doing, and when were you diagnosed?
Andrew, I was diagnosed in 1997. It started off with a plasma cytoma at T10. I broke my back, I underwent a stem cell transplant in 2000 and had six years of remission. It came back in 2006, and I had radiation and lenalidomide (Revlimid), and it went away a while. Came back again in 2010, and I had radiation, bortezomib (Velcade), Revlimid, dex, and it went into remission. And since then, Andrew, I’ve been so fortunate that all I’ve been taking is bone-protective bisphosphonates.
Oh, good for you. Now, you were in a trial, but you decided not to continue, but yet you’re a believer in trials.
Oh, absolutely. Without trials our treatment wouldn’t change. When I had a full evaluation at Arkansas they suggested that I join their trial, and I did, and at the end of that trial was a tandem transplant. And I got to thinking and reading, and I didn’t really want to get that extent of treatment. I had a single transplant, and I dropped out of the trial. And that’s one of the things that I would certainly tell our listeners, that they can stop a trial at any time. They’re not bound to it. Ever since then, Andrew, I’ve had the good fortune of having fairly responsive myeloma, and when I had my treatments they responded to standard therapy. I certainly would have rejoined another trial if necessary, but I was fortunate that it responded the way it did.
Okay. And before we meet our next guest, I just wanted you to list some of the committees you’re on, because you’re very active locally and nationally on behalf of patients. So what are some of those activities you’re doing?
Well, I’ve been doing this since about 2000, so that involves a lot of activity. Peer review with the NCI was one of my main ways to get started.
National Cancer Institute.
Yes, and I progressed on to the Board of Scientific Advisors, which was a really good, important work with the director of the NCI. I’ve been an FDA patient representative for many years and was on the advisory board that brought Kyprolis or carfilzomib to us. I spend a lot of time each month for sure with the Alliance Cooperative Group working with Paul Richardson as we bring you new trials to patients. I’ve been with CINBR, Center for National Bone Marrow Transplant research for several years, several advisory boards. I’m on two pharma accompany advisory boards as they seek patient input.
Wow. All right. Well, the point of this, what I wanted our viewers to get, is that Jim is—trained as a physician, worked many years as a family physician, became a patient, eventually had to retire. He’s been through a lot of treatment and is very much an advocate for all of us, particularly in this process of trials. So we’re going to talk about the unvarnished truth about trials and see how we can make it better. Okay.
Let’s skip over to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where we’re joined by Dr. Mike Thomson, who is very involved in research, and Mike has been very involved in all sorts of programs related to education. So, Mike, first of all, welcome to the program, and tell us a little bit about your involvement both locally in research and in education of other physicians nationwide and worldwide.
Sure. So not as impressive as Jim, but he’s one of my heroes who has really dedicated himself to improving the clinical trials process. I have an MD, PhD. My PhD is in pharmacology, and I was interested in pharmacogenetics and how individuals vary in their response to drugs, especially cancer drugs. I did my fellowship at MD Anderson and worked with a lot of myeloma doctors there and have worked in the community setting seven years in one place and about five years now where I’m located at and Aurora Healthcare in Milwaukee. I have been on the NCI Myeloma Steering Committee. I’m currently on the NCI lymphoma steering committee. I helped organize the ASCO 2016 meeting. I was the Chair of Education. As of June, I’m one of the editors for cancer.net around myeloma, so taking over from Paul Richardson who did that. So I’ll have about three years doing that and probably asking people like Jim for help to provide educational materials for people. And in the world of myeloma, I’ve created the MMSM or Multiple Myeloma Social Media hashtag to have Twitter chats, which I know some people don’t think are the optimal form of communication, but it is a way to get information out from experts and some opportunity for patients to ask questions. So I’ve been highly involved in social media, highly involved in the NCI and NCORP for increasing access to clinical trials in the community. And right now I am in the middle of an NCI designated clinical trial called EAA172 for multiple myeloma, which has gone through ECOG Executive Committee, the NCI Myeloma Steering Committee, and now we’re discussing with the companies and with Ctap how to bring that forward. And I think that’s—one of the things is how much effort it takes to bring some of these trials from concept to activation.
Okay. Now, we’ve mentioned this more rare cancer, multiple myeloma, not rare if you have it, but Jim has it, Mike specializes in it a lot. But what we’re talking about applies to the clinical trial process about broadly. So we may have people with us living with lung cancer and hoping to live longer and better, prostate cancer, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, like me, are also myelofibrosis. I’m a two-fer, if you will. There may be many different cancers among our audience, and the process applies to all. So we’re going to talk about that. So whatever it is, ask your questions, firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m just going to share a little personal story for a second, because I’m very passionate about it, and I wanted to mention it. And this is part of our Clinical Trials MythBusters series, and we have previous programs on Patient Power with lung cancer experts, experts in other conditions about the clinical trial process, so look that up on patientpower.info. There will be a replay of today’s program and also a downloadable guide with highlights that you can share, talk about it with your doctor, with other patients, with people you know and for your review. Okay.
So now my own story. I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the most common adult leukemia, in 1996—terrified, had no idea what it was. Didn’t know anything about what a trial was, didn’t know what the treatments were. Quite frankly, thought I’d be dead like within a week. I didn’t know. And so you start getting educated, and eventually that led to me connecting with academic medicine specialists and ultimately suggestion at the appropriate time of being in a Phase II clinical trial. I didn’t know what the phases were, we may talk about that along the way, and it was 2,000 miles from my house. So I traveled a number of times to be in that trial, and I had my local oncologist collaborating on that. And the end result was I had a 17-year remission. I had treatment again for chronic lymphocytic leukemia. It wasn’t until last year, 17 years. And I got the combination of medicines 10 years before that combination was approved. So I’m a believer.
The second thing I’d say about trials was I was in a second trial along the way, and I had deep vein thrombosis, blockages in the veins in my legs, for a blood thinner trial. And by being observed in that trial, that led to them discovering a second cancer which was at work related to those clots, myelofibrosis, and I was observed, so I liked the attention. It had nothing to do with what they were testing. It had to do with the observation you get. So, again, I love the attention of being in a trial. It may give you access to tomorrow’s medicine today, but there are things that may be broken. So, Jim, let’s start with that. Jim, what has been some of the frustration points for you the way the process has been today?
Well, I think one of the main things, Andrew, is that clinical trials tend to be designed to answer scientific questions. I think what they should do is be patient friendly. I think they should be designed to help patients. If you ask any researcher, what is the purpose of the scientific trial, clinical trial, they will say, to answer a question. If you ask a patient, they’ll think the purpose of the trial is to help patients. The—it may seem like a minor point, but it’s not. Patients need to be the center of them. We need to help patients understand what their contribution is to a trial. For instance, hardly ever does a patient hear how their outcome, what they did during a trial improved the final outcome of a trial. The patient needs to be centered. If we get the trial to a point where some of the questions are pretty obviously answered, rather than continuing to recruit patients just to be statistically valid, I think trials should close sooner. I think they should be more focused on getting patient care without necessarily the scientific question. I’m not a radical. I’m certainly a fan of trials. We wouldn’t be where we’re at without trials, but I think they should just become more patient-centered and patient-friendly.
Okay. Now, Mike, Dr. Thomson, so we know we can’t have new drugs approved by the FDA unless there are trials, Phase I, Phase II for sure, and often, typically, Phase III and sometimes even monitoring after a drug has been approved. I think you call those Phase IV trials. But from where you sit having been around this a long time what are some of your frustrations? What would you like to see be improved?
I agree a lot with Jim. I think another word to put on it is pragmatic trials. So I’ve been on a number of advisory committees, NCI investigator-initiated studies and pharma-directed studies. And when you have an advisory group with a bunch of academics they often think about the theories, and they think about what would be interesting to know. And increasingly both the NCI and others are getting not only patients but community physicians who will say I don’t really care about this question here. And we don’t think that it will fly and won’t accrue, and we know a lot of trials don’t complete accrual, so therefore patients are wasted, if you will, because we won’t have the information, we won’t be able to answer questions. So I agree. There are so many things get to involved it’s hard to break them all down, but part of the issue is answering a clinically meaningful question. I think the meaning should be patient-centered. Within those questions you can ask scientific questions that are imbedded in what are sometimes called secondary imports or co-relative studies. But I just last week was talking to some pharmaceutical leaders, and I said, you have to design a trial to answer a question people care about, and that’s patients and physicians. Because sometimes the trials are designed to get FDA approval, and they’re comparator arm if it’s a randomized study, is an arm that we don’t think is the current standard of care, and we have to do them in countries where they don’t have as many therapies and they don’t have as much access, so they’ll get them done. But then when they’re approved in the U.S. we don’t know what to do with the trial, because it’s not a question we’re asking. So that’s important. And I think if more studies are done not to get FDA approval but to go on pathways and to ask, what are the clinical branch points for decision-making, I think that’s when you’ll start getting good trials.
There are a number of other issues around the pragmatics. So there’s this NCI Match study, tons of people screened, very few people on the matched drugs, and they switched over to a strategy more like an ASCO TAPUR, where they waited for people that already had testing and then the people that had already kind of pre-screened couldn’t get evaluated for the study. And many, many more people went on study. The imaging and other things in the middle were not as rigorous as a usual clinical trial. It rolled quickly, and I think the point is you’re looking for big end points. Where you have to sort of go back to the classical, randomized, Phase III large study is when you’re trying to make incremental improvements, so, for instance, breast cancer where the cure rate or progression-free survival rate may be in the 90-something percentile rate, or even CML or other things where we’re doing so well you’d need a lot of patients and probably a standard design. But in many other areas you can do a variety of different techniques—Bayesian analysis, continuous reassessment models.
And one thing Jim mentioned was stopping for futility or if there’s an obvious benefit, and that is done but probably not as often as it should be. And the designs using what are called interim analyses or futility analysis with data safety monitoring boards or DSMBs, probably could be more robust. There could be more of them. I think people are afraid to do them, because they do slow the trial down, they slow accrual, and that has to do with stuff both within the trial as well as extrinsic to it. So there are a number of barriers and issues, but I think Jim’s pinpointed them as well.
Okay. Well, folks, you can tell that Dr. Thomson is a scientist. We’re going to unpack this and get down to the nitty-gritty. So, okay. So, Jim, so first of all, we mentioned this term “randomization.” So people wonder in cancer am I going to get the good stuff? I know that I’m sick, maybe like in your area, multiple myeloma, there have been lots of new medicines, but in some other areas not, like pancreatic cancer, for example.
So, say, I understand the standard therapy, and you’re testing it maybe against that, but I want to get the good stuff, because I’m really hopeful. I want to be a believer. So could you just describe where we are with randomization, because that’s a concern people have?
Absolutely, Andrew, and thanks for asking that question. That’s a real red, red hot button item for me. I maintain that if the patient has gone through the effort of studying their cancer, studying the possible treatments, and they’ve learned of a trial that’s opened that they would qualify for, they’re excited, they go talk to the principal investigator, and they say I want to be in this trial. And the PI turns to them and they say, well, we’ll flip a coin. You may get the medicine we’re going to be using, or you may get standard therapy. Just imagine how disappointing that would be. And when it comes to randomization, Andrew, there’s many, there are many trials that absolutely lack equipoise. And I’m afraid that scientists often use equipoise.
Now, tell us what that means. You’ve got to define that for us.
Equipoise basically means equal, equal balance within the arms. In other words, technically, officially the principal investigator doesn’t know which arm is best. And yet look at it from the patient’s standpoint. Let me give you an example. There was a trial in which patients had the choice of three oral drugs in one arm versus a stem cell transplant in another arm. Now, think about that. Think of the insurance ramifications. Think of the fact that it takes almost a year to really totally recover from a stem cell transplant, versus taking three oral drugs. How can anyone say that there’s equipoise in a trial like that? So how can you pattern your life with the flip of the coin or a computer randomizing you into one of those arms?
Wow. That’s, that’s an important issue. Another one is, Mike, you know, people are—one of the ladies wrote in on Facebook I posted about this program, and she said, well, the trials are not really accessible to me because I live in a rural area, and they’re only in the big cities. You’re in one, Milwaukee. But Jim’s in Grand Island, Nebraska, and some people if you set requirements for the trial, well, you’ve got to come see me, you’ve got to come to the clinic for a variety of tests with some frequency and somebody has to drive four or five hours and take off work and get babysitters and all that, it just makes it impractical. Where are we with more trials being available or having an aspect of it, like testing, closer to home?
So I work at a community setting. I’m at our kind of flagship hospital but we cover most of the population centers of Wisconsin, so I think we cover about 70 or 80 percent of the population. So that’s a huge issue for our site is that we—when I talk to sponsors including as recently as last week I say if we can’t do it at all our sites I’m not really interested in doing your trial.
There are exceptions of course. We’re doing a surgical trial or a radiation trial that has to be at one site or sometimes a Phase I trial with just a lot of blood monitoring, very intensive, they can only be done at a few sites. But in general I completely agree that we should try to have the drugs available to people in the community they live in, because that’s where their social networks are, right? So that’s where their family is. They can stay at home. They don’t have to just go into a hotel. They don’t have to pay for travel, and I think it’s better for everyone. And for companies, I’ve been trying to tell them that it’s more generalizable to the reality of where cancer patients are. So
85 percent of cancer patients are in the community setting and are treated there, and drugs should be accessible to them there. So, you know, both the using the CCOP mechanism or NCCCP, and now we have the NCI Community and College Research Program or NCORP. The whole idea is to increase that access to community sites. So this has been going on a long time. I think there were budget cuts, and so the U.S. and the way we’ve established our cancer budgets has been to decrease access at least NCI trials and usually need some of those NCI trials to support the research infrastructure to do other studies. So I think part of that, you know, a lot of these things you follow the money. And if there was more money for community research sites, you could hire more research staff to get these things done.
But I think we need to get them done in the community, because we know if you do early phase studies and they look promising in highly selective patients, then when you expand them and put them in the community you go from efficacy to effectiveness, and the effectiveness isn’t there because the patients are different. So there are all these things with real-world data and comparative effectiveness research at ASCO’s cancer link trying to get at some of that not on study to just try to get the data.
But we need to have access to people, and the way to make drugs cheaper, make them develop faster and answer more questions, both scientific and patient-oriented, is to get more people on trial. There’s a big example for immunotherapy drugs where there are so many immunotherapy drugs and trials there are not enough patients to get it done. So we’re going to enrolling in trials which don’t complete, or we’re not going to be able to answer these questions, so it’s going to stall and move it out the process of moving faster. In myeloma, we move very fast, but we need to do this in other areas too.
Right. So let’s talk about that. So, Jim, you know, the president had a big kick-off, HHS Secretary Azar I think just yesterday as we do this program, was before Congress and part of it was the discussion of can we lower the cost of drugs ultimately? And one aspect of it is can we speed drug development. So instead of all these trials languishing at the cost of millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars, how do we speed it up?
So one is participation, certainly, but can the process be simplified as well, Jim? What work is going on there, so we can try to get these answers and get to the FDA and present the data quicker, and hopefully there’s been lower cost in getting to that point?
Well, as we’re learning more and more about each individual patient, personalized medicine and targeted therapy, we certainly should start relying more on biomarkers. Biomarkers can be a way to select patients that would particularly fit a given treatment.
We need to lower costs. We need to make trials slicker and faster. Single-arm trials are those in which a patient just get—all the patients get the therapy. They all get the same treatment. And FDA has actually approved drugs based on single-arm trials, a much faster and efficient way to get an answer.
The problem is that the costs are going to be there. When I think about Mike and all the work that he does in developing his venetoclax (Venclexta) trial that he mentioned, Mike has put in months or years, and it’s all above and beyond his normal time. I mean his day job is to take care of patients, so all of the work that he does to develop a trial is just remarkable in the extra hours it takes and the consistency that Mike gives to doing his work. We need to make the trials more efficient.
We need to use biomarkers. We need to make them shorter. We need biostatisticians to come up with ways to give us an answer without having to approve so many hundreds or thousands of patients to all these potential new treatments.
So, Mike, let’s talk about that. And, Mike, first of all, I want to thank you for your—well, both of you, but, Mike, certainly in the clinic, thanks for your devotion to this.
But continuing on that, so this was brought up by Jim, biomarkers, and I know in some of the blood cancers now we’re talking about more and more minimal residual disease testing, and we’re doing genomic testing to see what genes have gone awry, what’s our version of lung cancer or a breast cancer or a myelofibrosis or whatever it is.
And then do we qualify for a trial? What’s our specific situation? Do you feel that that sort of precision medicine testing and analysis can help refine this, so we know which trial is right for which person at which time and also some analysis along the way of how is it going?
Yeah, so at my site I’m the director for precision medicine, and I gave a talk at ASCO on precision medicine and barriers in the community setting, so I’m very passionate about that. And I think that is one of the ways you can try to get things done with smaller numbers of patients and things done faster. And part of this is alignment, right? So there’s different perspectives, a patient perspective, a payer perspective, a pharma sponsor perspective, the physician. There’s all these different perspectives, and I think it’s trying to get them all aligned and trying to get things done faster.
So, you know, there are some areas where we don’t know enough, and we can’t use biomarkers. But there are other areas where we have a biomarker, and there’s feasibility, and we can test that quickly. And if we are looking for a large effect size—here I am in jargon mode—but if you’re looking for a big, big hit, a home run, is to look for an alteration that is very specific and we think is—a drug can target. So-called targeted therapy—it’s a little bit of a misnomer.
So—and lung cancer has been one of the hottest places for this. So there’s ALK inhibitors, ROS1 inhibitors, EGFR inhibitors, and now BRAF inhibitors, HER2 targets. So lung cancer has exploded with precision medicine therapy, and the same with melanoma and BRAF. So, you know, I think even skeptics will say you don’t really need statistics if the prior therapies, nothing worked, and you give something, and 80 percent of people respond.
There are issues with precision medicines, but the main thing is not response rate but durability. And I think that’s going to be the next iteration of the NCI Match study, which is a large precision medicine study, is stop doing just these small groups of people who are showing activity, but then they relapse quickly. And I think it’s going to look at systems analysis, and how do we overcome resistance.
But one way to get at this and another different take on it is inclusion and exclusion criteria. So this has to do with access and individualizing and being patient-centric. Many of the inclusion and exclusion criteria, when somebody says, oh, I have lung cancer, oh, here’s a lung cancer trial, and they say, oh, you can’t go on the trial. And much of that is because there’s language that’s been cut and pasted from a previous trial which is not really pertinent.
So if the new drug is metabolized by the kidney, you don’t necessarily need to look at the liver studies. And we did a small study or I was aware of a small study done by Kaiser where if we improve the inclusion-exclusion criteria, accrual rate can go up 30 percent—so no cost to that.
And Ed Kim led a publication about six journal articles in JCO about different aspects of inclusion-exclusion criteria including function, HIV status, age, etc.
Well, yeah. We had Ed Kim on the program just a week ago, as a matter of fact.
So, Jim, inclusion, exclusion, so first of all, we’re in this age where electronic medical records, it would seem that at your fingertips there could be some analysis of your record and some matching or offering of trials that could come out of an analysis of your results, genomic results. Do you have ALK or ROS or whatever, if it’s lung cancer, whatever it may be maybe JAK2 positive in myelofibrosis, what is various status for us?
And also broader inclusion criteria, and Mike was getting at that, saying some was just—excluding was just cut and pasted. And a lot of us patients would feel, well, that’s just unfair. So what’s your comment on all that, about inclusion and exclusion and analysis so we can be matched with trials more easily, can be offered to us?
Inclusion and exclusion criteria are really important parts of trials. They’re what get people into trials, they’re what keep people from being in trials. And, unfortunately, Andrew, many times the criteria are very defined, very narrowed, and drug companies especially want to do it this way to get the best effective appearance of their drug. They want to get approval. And yet in the real world, in fact most times, patients who would not even need inclusion criteria are the very patients that are going to be taking these drugs.
And Mike’s right. There’s too much cut and paste. If a trial takes a thousand patients to write a proposal or protocol, too many times researchers will just take the exclusion criteria that might have been from a previous trial and, like Mike said, cut and paste it when perhaps it’s not even necessary to have creatinine values or kidney values measured so precisely on this particular drug compared to the other one.
So those are the criteria that let people in or keep people out of trials, and they absolutely need to be widened. To make a drug more applicable to the general population we need to reflect the general population more in trials.
Right. Right. It’s sort of a Catch-22. So if somebody is at a drug company and they’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars maybe to develop a drug, and then that trial is languishing or taking longer to get there, somebody ought to go back and say, well, can I loosen up this criteria, get the big answer and do benefit to patients who may be very willing to be into a trial that doesn’t have all of these requirements that are not really necessary? And we get the answer and get it quicker, and help people along the way. I mean, it’s pretty obvious to me, and I hope they’re watching, folks.
So, Mike, here’s a question for you, though, and you work with people in the community setting. So we have patients who have written in and said, you know what, where I go to the cancer clinic they never mentioned trials to me, and Jim alluded to the extra time it may take for physicians and their teams is when there are trials. You have just treating people with current therapies, and then you’ve got research layered on top of that. It’s very time consuming.
But what about just awareness at the community level? What can we do about that so that wherever I go into a clinic they have a clear picture of what I’m dealing with, and if there is important research going on that relates to me I hear about it? Now, maybe they say, you’ve got to go to a university center, you’ve got to go to Milwaukee, wherever you have to go, but there’s that discussion.
Yeah, so with all of these, you know this has been analyzed in multiple different papers. We were on one looking at a trial log, trying to look at some of these issues, and what seems to be clear is when people are offered trials they tend to go on them at about the same rate, and that has to do—seems to be somewhat independent of socioeconomic status, race, etc., or geographic area.
So one of my colleagues, Dr. Verani, told us about—about this, about rural settings how do you get people on trial. So there are different barriers. So one is the trial, and like Jim said, if you can only do some therapy that you have to come in quite a bit for that limits the geographic area you can accrue to for most people.
There are site issues where if you don’t have enough research staff to be there enough the doctor doesn’t feel supported to spend time on it. There are physician issues where they may not care about trials, or they have too much people scheduled in clinic, they’re an hour behind, and they can’t stop to spend time on it.
Also in the community setting you may be seeing every type of cancer, and you can’t remember everything, versus at many academic settings you may only see one or a cluster of types of cancer. So if you’re seeing lung cancer all day and you have 10 trials open, you probably know those trials very well for lung cancer, because you don’t care about the CLL or myeloma trials, you only care about lung.
And then there are patient factors. So patients that are in rural Wisconsin may have different characteristics, and the reason they’re in rural areas, you know, the motivations is about, you know, going in for things and stuff like that may be different than people who have the capabilities to fly to Boston or Houston or New York, and they can do that. So all of those areas are important.
Now, one potential way to help mitigate some of those things is we have got a clinical decisions support tool, which is an IT product, which our physicians have to enter in what they’re going to do with the patient. So it could be observe, no treatment, hospice or various therapies. And when they put in the cancer and the stage it pops up with the clinical trials, the first thing that pops up. And so the physician doesn’t have to do the trial, but they have to say why they’re not doing it. And so we can track over time. It doesn’t necessarily help that individual patient, but that doctor has been aware of the trial, and we kind of get an idea of why people are not going on studies, and so that’s one way to do it.
Something we just did the last week is we had a different IT product where the NCI-matched precision study opened up five new arms with different targets for different drugs. So we looked back at the number of patients that had those targets identified within our entire system, and then we screened those to see how many people were still alive, and were their organ functions still good enough to go on these trials because of the inclusion-exclusion criteria, and we found several. So we’re now able to contact the physicians and the research staff to go back for these patients that had screened for molecular testing and now they have new options.
So I think there are IT issues that you can do systemically to try to take some of those barriers away, and then each of those points does have barriers which probably have different solutions and different ways of tackling. But one reason, you know, the accrual rate hasn’t gone up a lot is it’s not easy. It’s a complex problem, so there’s not going to be one single thing you do. There’s going to be many different ways to try to improve things, including patient education.
Yes, well, okay. To let’s flip that over. Jim, you and I are patients. So what do we want to say, and from your perspective?
So back at the clinic and from group has, so Mike is working on IT to identify trials and have it pop up on the screen for the doctor. Okay. Great. But we’re the ones living with the condition. What can we do so that promising research that we may learn about is available to us? We can see whether it matches up with us. Maybe we have to go down the road. Maybe we have to have a discussion with our doctor to even encourage them to have you us be in a trial. How do we make it happen, okay?
Well, of course, we all need to educate ourselves about our cancer. When I was in medicine school I had heard about myeloma, but I certainly wasn’t any expert in it. I had two patients in my practice that had myeloma. I knew sort of how to take care of them. But since I developed my myeloma, I have become my own expert. And as I lead my support group, Andrew, I make them experts. I teach this cancer to them so that they can make educated decisions.
Patients are very likely to go on the Internet, watching Patient Power. In my particular cancer, they’re going to go to the IMF and MMRF to look at myeloma trials and see what’s available. And they will take that information to their doctors, many times making their doctor aware of trials that perhaps they aren’t each advocating or aware of.
So, Mike’s right. There are many factors that keep patients from trials, but one of the things that patients really do themselves is educate themselves and perhaps even to the extent of bringing or educating their doctor about what can be available for their treatment.
Mike, I want to ask you about cost. So you mentioned different inclusion, exclusion, or what’s your liver function or this or that. So there is a problem where maybe certain drugs or certain aspects of a trial are covered, but then your insurance company, you know, that you have or Medicare or whatever, they say, oh, no, we don’t pay for that, but yet it’s part of the trial or it goes along.
So people have a concern about cost. I want to ask you about two aspects of cost related to testing sometimes. And then also are there programs that can assist with the logistical costs for patients as well?
So when I trained at Mayo Clinic and MD Anderson, and when I got—first went into practice I prided myself in not caring about cost. And then I realized you have to think about these things because you can bank—you know, we bankrupt, about 40 percent of people with cancer get bankrupted. So these are huge issues for people who want to keep their houses, that want to hand something down to their kids, and cost is huge, right? So that can either be throughout the whole course of standard treatment, or it can be trying to meet the cost of going places, trying to find clinical trials.
So the Affordable Care Act and various other national and state legislative initiatives have tried to make insurance companies pay for the standard costs in clinical trials. There are some carve-outs for smaller companies and things like that, and so this is, you know, not perfect, but in general insurance companies should pay for the standard cost of clinical trials. They should pay for standard imaging stuff too, and they try to get out of that. So it’s not a perfect world, but that should be covered. And any research-associated costs should be covered by the company. Even in some NCI trials some people disagree with what should be covered and isn’t, and it’s complicated. But in general, a patient, the research cost should be covered.
Now, that does not include travel, lodging and a lot of incidentals. So there are a variety of foundations, that could be The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, that could be other organizations which could help with that. Individual hospitals or health systems might have ways of approaching that. And sometimes there are things you can do within the various companies. So there’s a new target called Entrek, and the company Loxo, I’ve heard will fly people who wherever there’s a site and pay for them to go on the study, which I think is amazing. That’s not true for every company and every drug being developed. But that’s one way to do it.
One of the issues that comes up with IRBs if you’re giving people money, are you coercing them? And, you know, if you’re just recovering the cost to travel, I don’t think you are, right? But those are one of the things that come up. But certainly there are lots of disparities. And just like in different countries, they don’t have access to the drugs we have as standard drugs here, and not all of these disparities are going to be fixed because we have—outside of cancer we have lots of disparities in the United States, but cost is a big issue.
And then value, which we’ve been increasingly talking about in the oncology community, which is utility over cost. And that’s more for once we’ve done the trial figuring out even if shows like it works, how do we figure out how to use it based on those characteristics?
Thanks. And also I wanted to mention that Mike Snyder is sending that question, answering why it cost so much. I hope that answers it.
We have—you know, some people wrote in as we were preparing for this program and they were bitter because they thought they had a spouse, let’s say, that had died in a clinical trial. And that relates to a couple of things. One is transparency. Is the data from a trial and any dangers that show up, is that reported and analyzed in public, Jim? And also what are the risks being in a trial, and what is the monitoring to try to have trials be at safe as possible. So, Jim, maybe you could talk about that from a patient perspective.
I want to make sure I know what I’m getting, I know what the risks are, and if any have come up along the way I want it to be reported, and I want to know that there’s a team looking out for me.
You have every right to expect that, Andrew. If you’re in a trial you have the right to get that knowledge if there’s new things that come up that we’ve learned about. And part of every trial as it’s being written, there has to be a data safety monitoring board. These are the experts who will do what you’ve asked be done. They will monitor the trial as it goes along. They will look for any safety issues. If there are patients who are developing liver toxicities, they will find this. They will point this out and perhaps see if the trial needs to continue or if something needs to be revised.
The presence of institutional review boards review whether trials should go forward or not. Patients who are in trials actually get very, very good medical care and medical coverage. In fact, I would maintain, Andrew, that they get better care than just standard care. They have experts that are watching them even more carefully than would be in a general routine care setting because they’re looking for these concerns and problems.
The person who mentioned the bad outcome, we can’t ever say that every trial is going to be perfect. There are going to be concerns. That’s why trials are done. But they’re relatively rare, and we do have boards and review organizations during the trial, not afterwards, but during the trial to be looking out for your benefit, Andrew, so that you’re not hurt by the trial.
All right. But let’s say this—and, Mike, for you. So, first of all, admittedly a lot of these trial start, and people are sick people, and they’re feeling maybe the trial is their last hope. We had a friend, Lisa Minkove, who died in the CAR-T trial for CLL not long ago. She had been very sick with CLL, so we’d hoped that it would work. It didn’t work for her, whether CLL won. And we know other people whereas the learning is going on about often powerful new medicines they didn’t benefit. Or in one case, there was a drug, venetoclax we know about, there were some deaths early on when the drug was far more powerful than was originally understood. So what do we do? I mean that’s the real world I guess of scientific study, but that’s a concern, you know, Mike, of people saying, oh, my God, I’m worried about being a guinea pig the unknowns on the subject of dangers.
So there are a couple of things. So whenever people say—it doesn’t come up as much recently about being a guinea pig, I say, well, guinea pigs don’t have choices, so. And so like Jim has said you can drop off a trial if you want to drop off it. But—so I think for adverse events and things that can happen, one reason to randomize people is that you do understand then if you treat someone with one thing and then another and the death rate the same in both, the drug is not causing it. That’s just the disease. And a couple years ago, there was a presentation from the group at Dana-Farber on the precision medicine program, and the issue was they were taking so long to get people evaluated that their performance status or how well they felt was good, and by the time they got through the evaluation many of them had died. Because the disease, you know, when you get to fifth, sixth, seventh-line therapy it can often progress very rapidly.
And so I think that’s one of the issues, that people can feel the drug did it, and it’s hard to know. And we get these—doctors get these things called adverse events reporting forms, and we have to try to come up with is this probably related, possibly related, and we also get these forms that say you have a patient on the study. The study is open in three countries, thousands of people on it. One person died of a heart attack, and you have no idea as the physician, well, is that the same rate as—you know they’re 70 years old. Is that the same rate as this other 70-year-old. So you need the enumerator and the denominator, and that’s what the DSMB or the Data Safety Monitoring Board is supposed to do, which is look at the data and say, is this beyond what we would expect? And they can stop the trial. They can do expanded cohorts. They can do things to try and figure that out. Now, we know from like even car companies lying about their exhaust systems that if the Data Safety Monitoring Board gets false data, well, you can’t fix that. But that’s pretty nefarious. Like that I think is not something that’s commonly happening and would be a very serious thing to happen.
Now, one thing for transparency is that almost all studies I’m aware of get registered on clinicaltrials.gov or maybe some other sites but usually that site, and they’re supposed to report out the outcomes. It’s not also a perfect process, but you should be able to see how long the study has been open, are there any complications related to it and those types of things. So this whole process is not perfect, but I would say in general the people at the companies are trying to develop something they think is going to work. They’re trying to do it safely, both to help develop their drug well as well as to avoid a bunch of regulatory issues, and the people on the Data Safety Monitoring Board are trying to do their best to answer these questions. But the smaller the number of patients which increasingly will take the trials we are doing and almost are aiming for, it’s harder to be definitive about when these things happen and what caused it.
Right. Right. It’s imperfect, as we said. So, Jim, Mike Thompson mentioned earlier, gave lung cancer as an example and, of course, across immunotherapy, there are so many companies endeavoring to move this research along. So let’s say you had lung cancer or one of these others where this is big, although it’s going on in the hematology area too, so a patient says, oh, my god, there are all these trials, and I might qualify for one, two, three, four. How do I prioritize? What do I bet on? And maybe my own doctor is doing more than one. So what do you say to patients if they become receptive to being in a trial and there’s more than one trial that they qualify for?
That’s a very good question, and it’s a nice kind of problem to have, to have choices of trials. I think, Andrew, the best answer is the patient needs to look at what they are looking for. Are they looking for longevity? Are they looking for something that’s going to expend their life? Are they looking for a trial that maybe will greatly improve their quality of life? Perhaps they’re looking for a trial that gives them one pill per week versus two injections a week. So there are certainly effectiveness end points. There are different things that patients find of value.
But to answer your question it really comes down to each patient needs to ask themselves, what is it I’m looking for in a trial? Do I want something that makes my burden lighter? Do I want something that’s going to extend my life? How much am I willing it accept as far as potential problems versus the standard of care that I know what the problems exist with if I don’t go on a trial?
Right. So that’s a question we got in, is they’re trying to assess that. One was about how do I prioritize? The other is, by being in a trial, Mike, is it going to make me sicker? Like, to do I have to go through the valley of the shadow of death to get, hopefully, to a better place, and how do you discuss that with your doctor when not everything is known?
Yeah, maybe I’ll kind of step back and say for phases of trials, Phase I, the intent—both ASCO and NCI say the intent of a Phase I trial is therapeutic. But the statistical design is to evaluate safety. A Phase II is to look at initial efficacy or how well it works, and Phase III is to compare versus standard of care the efficacy. So there’s other types of designs, phase 0, Phase IV and other things, but it used to be, I think, you know, I—we would say don’t go on a Phase I unless that’s the last option because you’ve already gone through the safety initial efficacy if it’s a Phase III trial. It costs a lot of money to do Phase III trials so fewer are being done now, and we’re kind of finding that in this era of precision medicine people are going on trials, and there’s no one rule, but I look at it as if it’s a study involving a lot of different groups of patients, a lot of—you know, it’s not individualized to you, I don’t know, but I think it will have less of a benefit probably than if it’s something like a study designed for BRAF melanoma back when that was a study and you have BRAF. Well, it’s targeted for you. It doesn’t mean it will work, but even if it’s an early phase, a Phase I or II trial, it’s really aimed at your disease.
And we’re finding this with venetoclax, with T1114, and there’s other markers, FLT3 in AML, all these things, and sometimes we find that the drug doesn’t work like we think it’s going to work. The ALK and ROS story in lung cancer, it may benefit other people that we didn’t recognize before, and that’s part of–we’re trying to find people besides T1114 that respond to venetoclax in myeloma because it looks like some people will. But I think as we’re getting more targeted therapy it doesn’t mean there’s no toxicity, but it at least has the suggestion that we’re targeted more at your specific cancer. And some of these pills can have as much toxicity as IV chemo s, but our aim is to decrease toxicity and increase efficacy. And I think, like Jim said, you’ve got to look at different trials and hopefully with a physician who has time to sit down and run through several scenarios. And some people will take the most aggressive therapy because that’s what they’re after, and some people will try something that’s easier and closer to home. So everyone’s values are a little bit different, and you have to try to individualize as a patients.
One thing about trial matching is besides clinicaltrials.gov, there’s myeloma and other groups that are doing these matching, so you can put in characteristics of your cancer and you can try to filter out and get a closer approximation, including at clinicaltrials.gov you can click on the states in the surrounding area or how many miles you’re willing to travel.
Right. I would mention, put in a plug for our advocacy group friends, whether it’s Lung Cancer Alliance, Bonnie Addaria Lung Cancer or the International Myeloma Foundation with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, you can be in contact with them directly and talk about your situation, and they will often be very aware of trials and how it’s starting to line up with these sub groups, subtypes of illness. Here’s a question we got it in with Jack. I just want to get in a couple more before we have to go. This relates to what you were talking about the National Cancer Institute’s Match trial, as I understand it, Mike. He said, regarding precision medicine I thought I heard that initial results have been disappointing for the NCI trial which treats patients with a specific mutation with a specific drug for that mutation. How does this impact precision medicine? You want to talk on that? Mike?
Yeah, so the people who are opponents of precision medicine would say that the SHIVA trial in Europe and the NCI Match trials were failures. I think you need to look at it a little more carefully. And if you do a huge screening and you don’t have many drugs you don’t have many matches and not many people are going to benefit. So there are some arms in match that match the accrued the number they wanted, and the drugs didn’t work well. So those were truly we think negative studies. But I think the things about Match are there is a huge interest in the community, and they had thousands or several hundred people screened when they only had a few arms opened, and those people weren’t matches, and it basically overwhelmed the system. And then they had to rejigger it to open up more arms. So I think we could—you know, pick holes in the design of the initial study, but I think it took everyone by surprise how much interest there was in trying to personalize these molecular therapies. And other iterations such as ASCO TAPUR, there’s company versions of it like Novartis Signature, and I think the new design of Match do allow for better match rates, and we’ll see how after they’ve adjusted how well they can hit their targets.
Okay. So that’s an example, where we’re going through a makeover there. Before we go, Jim, we have people watching from all over the world, and Mike alluded to sometimes trials done in other countries. Certainly they are. So we have somebody from New Zealand, we have people from other countries now. How do I access trials? Does it have to be in my country? Or what would you say to an international audience as far as finding out what’s available to them?
That’s a difficult question because every country has their own standards. Each country has their own boards that review. What is allowed in some countries are not even allowed. Observational trials can have more importance in some countries than others. Again, it’s a tough question. I think perhaps the person who asked it really needs to be again their own advocate and go online, go with their physician, go to their local support groups, go to their national groups, because they’re the ones that can give that local person their answer. There’s no one set answer for every country because there are some many variances.
Right. I do want to tell one of my favorite stories. I had a friend Jan Rin in Dublin, Ireland. She had a tremendous problem with more advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia, one of the conditions I have, no trial for her there. She heard about Imbruvica being studied in Leeds, England, different health system, national health system. She was in Ireland, didn’t have it. She got permission from the Irish government to go over to Leeds and be in Dr. Hellmann’s trial there, and I think it saved her life. She would tell you that. So she had to be pushy. There were newspaper articles. She had to do lots of things to make it happen. It’s going to be varied by country but it starts with…
…drug like the one you mention, and it’s not available in the country, and there’s so much of that in myeloma. We have many, many drugs in the US that they don’t have in other parts of the world, and it would be so sad to be a patient in those countries, know that a treatment like that is available but not have access to it. So we all need to work to get these drugs available to patients wherever they’re at.
Right. Amen. I want to just get some final comments from you. We may just go a couple minutes over. So, Mike, the process is improving, I hope, you’re working on it. Can we feel confident that these gaps, if you will, improving it for prevision medicine, more awareness among the doctors wherever we may go, financial assistance, working with the insurance companies, are you working on it so that this process, we can have some improvement and hopefully have higher levels of enrollment and can get drugs approved quicker?
Yeah, I think we’re all very concerned about it. We should all be aligned in having more patients on trial, moving things faster and getting it done more cheaply. And I think we’re making progress. It’s not as fast as any of us want, but we’re all trying to move the ball forward.
Okay. So, Mike, it comes—excuse me. Jim, it comes down to us then as patients. We have to push, right? We have to see what’s within ourselves, what are we willing to do, understand our clinical situation and what’s going on for our cancer, and we’ve got to push, right?
And one of the things we need to push for are more interesting trials. We need to make pharma companies put up their drug against another pharma company’s drug. I think it’s so troubling when they’re afraid to take big steps. They just take little, incremental steps with their trials. If we can put drug A of one company versus drug A of another company—pharma companies are really reluctant to do those kinds went trials, and yet those are the kind that would be exciting to patients. I could give certain names of myeloma drugs, but we won’t get into that. It just needs—we need to get better, more interesting trials, and that will attract patients.
Okay. So I want to just put in a plug for something. We started something at Patient Power called the Patient Power Ambassador Program, and you can see it listed on our site, where you can share your voice. So we can all work with Jim, work with Dr. Thompson, and we cannot just be getting what’s right for us, but we can push on this process. So please consider doing that. Because I want to thank you, Jim Omel, for not just getting what’s right for you as a myeloma patient, but working on these government panels and with advocacy groups to try to advance it for all of us. Jim Omel, thank you for doing this.
Thank you, Andrew. It’s a pleasure to do this, and I’ll keep doing it.
Yes. And long life, Jim. Thank you.
And, Dr. Mike Thompson, thank you, Mike, for your leadership too and those extra hours put in, not just for programs like this but all the clinical research speaking to industry and the government to try to improve this process. Thanks for being with us, Dr. Mike Thompson.
Thanks for having me on, and I think this is the some of the most powerful patient educational material that people can get, this type of program.
All right. Thank you so much. So, folks, we’re all in this together. So you have your own issues about whether you know about trials, whether you want to be in a trial, that’s right for you or a loved one, whether it’s close to home, not close to home, so—but we have these discussions. So please look ongoing at the clinical trials mythbuster series. The let us know how we did today. You can always write to me, andrew@patientpower. Our producer, Tamara, T-A-M-A-R-A, at patientpower.info. And talk to your own doctor and your own healthcare team about clinical trials and where they line up, what are the obstacles, for you participating. And let’s see if we can improve this process and ultimately have more medicine that can lead to a cure for us be available sooner. Thank you for watching. We’ve done our best today, but this is an ongoing discussion. In Carlsbad, California, I’m Andrew Schorr. Jim joined us from Nebraska, Dr. Mike Thompson joined us from Wisconsin. Worldwide, we’re here for you. Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all. Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.
Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Empowerment Network are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/CT-Myths.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2018-07-09 17:44:042020-01-08 12:30:59Clinical Trial Mythbusters: Does the Clinical Trial Process Need an Extreme Makeover?
An audience of MPN patients and their caregivers joined us online or on the phone as experts discussed what patients can do to advance research and to raise awareness for MPNs.
It is Blood Cancer Awareness Month so our webinar is what YOU can do to advance MPN research. I’m Beth Probert. I am a polycythemia vera patient and advocate.
I was diagnosed with PV in April, 2016 and I had about 12 months of treatment which included a few phlebotomies and interferon, Pegasys. I reacted very well to Pegasys and I am now in remission. I get my care at the University of Southern California Norris Cancer Research Center in Los Angeles. I’m coming to you live from Oxnard, California, which is just north of Los Angeles on the central coast.
I would like to start off by thanking our Patient Empowerment Network for their support, and the MPN Research Foundation for their continued partnership.
I’d like to welcome our guests today. We’ll start off with Dr. Verstovsek, who is a renowned MPN expert from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Thank you for joining us today, Doctor.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me on the program.
And I’d also like to introduce you to Lindsey Whyte, from the MPN Research Foundation. Lindsey, thank you for taking the time to join us today.
Thank you so much for having me. I look forward to enjoying this esteemed panel.
Thank you. We have two patient panelists today joining us. Both have been in clinical trials and both run support groups in their area. Our first patient panelist is Nick, and he’s coming to us from central Florida. Thanks for joining us, Nick.
Thank you very much, Beth. Appreciate it, glad to be here.
Great. And I’d love to introduce Andrea, our other patient panelist. And she’s coming to us today from Dallas, Texas. Thanks for joining us, Andrea.
Hi everybody, it’s great to be here. Thank you.
Great. I’d like to start off our program today just getting to know a little bit more about Nick and Andrea. Nick, I’m going to start off with you. You were diagnosed with myelofibrosis in February, 2016. Let’s talk about when you were first diagnosed. What was your first move after diagnosis?
Definitely I was quite shocked. I was asymptomatic, and the doctor who presented me with the diagnosis really didn’t give me a whole lot of information; basically a Google printout that said I had one to three years to live. So, I traveled throughout the country, hooked up fortunately with Patient Power and MPN advocacy; went to a seminar in Stanford, outside of San Francisco with a wonderful group of doctors there to really learn about the disease.
Ultimately went to May Clinic, Dr. Tefari; Hutchinson Clinic, Dr. Mesa in Scottsdale, Arizona; and finally spent time with Dr. Pemmaraju who works with Dr. V. at MD Anderson. I felt it was important to try to learn as much as we can about the disease to try to help other people behind us, so I signed up for a trial with azacitidine and Jakafi at the MD Anderson hospital, which was phenomenal. They did a wonderful job but unfortunately my blasts had spiked up and I had to go to transplant, which I did a transplant on January 15 of this year.
Wow, you have really been through quite a lot in such a short period of time. We’re definitely going to come back to you and talk about some of those details you gave us more specifically. Thank you.
Andrea, I’d like to go to you, now. You were initially diagnosed with essential thrombocythemia about 19 years ago, and then you were later diagnosed with myelofibrosis about nine years ago. So, you’ve certainly had quite the journey. I’d like to hear a little bit about how you reacted when you were first diagnosed.
Sure. My primary care doctor was really great in seeing that my platelets were rising. And while they weren’t that high, she still sent me to a hematologist just in case; a local person here. He did know about it but wasn’t too versed in the MPN world, and we worked together and I was on anagrelide and a couple of drugs and I was doing great, no problems. My platelets were good; everything was great for ten years. And then, things started to change. I started getting tired. And the first thing he said to me was, I think we ought to send you to MD Anderson.
When I had essential thrombocytosis, I felt fine. Emotionally I was fine because I had no symptoms. But when it started to convert, when things started to change and my lifestyle changed and I got much more tired and of course anemic, that was emotionally difficult. But then I went to see Dr. Kantarjian, and soon Dr. Verstovsek, who started me on different trials, I said I am not going to sit here and die. Because I got the same thing; five to seven years, not from any of the doctors at MD Anderson, let me clarify. But I knew that it was at that point kind of a death sentence, not to be dramatic about it.
But I was not going to sit back and let that happen. So I said, what can we do? And was told let’s start you on a trial. I’ve been on five. Three of them didn’t work. One emotionally almost killed me; it was not fun at all.
But the last two, I guess I could say I was in remission. I never heard the word from Dr. V, but I felt great. My life was going along fine. The last maybe six or eight months, the drug seems to not be working as well and we’re looking for something else, possibly stem cell transplant.
You’ve had quite a journey over about 19 years, so I’m guessing you’re really a guru to a lot of us; myself, being newly diagnosed compared to you. And I know that both you and Nick run support groups. And if I can ask you, since we’re talking right now, can you tell me a little bit about your support group and then Nick, I’ll go to you in just a few minutes. Your support group is in the Dallas area. Can you give me a little feedback about it?
Sure. It was actually started by someone, Karen Stern, a good while ago; I don’t remember exactly when. Unfortunately, Karen got very sick very suddenly and is no longer with us.
She had asked when she was ill if I could take it over for her. I said absolutely, I’d be happy to do that. So, we meet quarterly. We have anywhere from 15 to maybe 30 people that come. We talk about what’s new with us, what’s new with our symptoms, what reading we’ve done, how we have learned, what we’ve seen in all the different conferences, and we share a lot of information. We eat, we have a glass of wine, and it’s great fun.
It’s wonderful to be hooked up because as much as I think I try to keep up with the diseases, I learn something from people at our support group. What’s hard is when people don’t come anymore for reasons that they’re sick or other reasons, and that’s tough on the group. But it’s all part of the process, I believe.
We have a lot of communication; we talk to each other. We use Facebook and we learn.
Wow, and it sounds like you guys have a really personal group there and happy; that in-person connection sounds wonderful. Thank you. Nick, tell us a little bit about your support group in central Florida.
It’s definitely a little looser organization. We have probably an email list of about 15 people. We keep adding just about one person every other month or so. Unfortunately for me, we got the group together and I started just doing the emails, sharing information with people, guiding them to Patient Power, guiding them to MPN. A lot of them are trying to find doctors in smaller towns in Florida where they don’t have access to people like Dr. V, and so trying to steer them to some of the better doctors in the area.
Unfortunately then I was going through a transplant so I was kind of out of pocket. So we’ve not had a chance to physically meet. We are kind of spread out; we have people in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Naples.
So just with my regrouping here after the transplant, we’re hoping to probably in the next month or two have our first face-to-face meeting and get some folks together, probably in Orlando, and try to get the group together. But so far, it’s just been a matter of emails; folks emailing each other back and forth. We do have a lot of it seems like mostly PV patients, and they will share different techniques and just like Andre was sharing, some of the things she’s been through. I definitely feel that being around other people who are in the same boat is so much more powerful because it’s hard sometimes to talk to your family members or friends or people at work because they just don’t get it.
They don’t understand what you’re going through and how scary it is. They can’t really give advice. So we’ve found that the support group has really been – it helps me as much as being a part of it is feeling better about what’s going on. It is kind of sad, too, as Andrea said as you see some of the folks take a turn, and you’ve got to kind of rally everybody together because it is – unfortunately, this group, it’s folks who are sick and they’re all going to have their ups and downs and we have to kind of be there for each other. So, it is one of the tougher parts of being a part of a support group as well; I agree with Andrea.
I can definitely imagine. Just hearing from both of you and my own experience being in a support group, whether it’s in person or whether it’s online or through email, they’re just all equally effective and really sometimes the best medicine for us; a certain part of our care. I’d like to shift gears a little bit, and Lindsey I’d like to talk to you a little bit with your expertise in the field. Patients are newly diagnosed and you know, how do you convey to them the importance of educating themselves and their family and their friends? What would your message be?
The MPN Research Foundation has extensive information on our website, and also when somebody registers through our online system.
And I’m not talking about the registry; just contacts us initially, we send out packets with information and we will customize those packets according to a specific patient’s need. We also do or best to hook people up with local support groups or many times people come to us looking for a doctor or a specialist, and we’ll point them in the direction of online resources or others who may be able to help them locally. We have lots of resources available to patients through our organization, and also on our website and to the extent that we can help with a specific question, then we usually try and point someone in the direction of someone else who can.
I have to say that that’s exactly what I did. I found your website when I was newly diagnosed and I registered. I got my packet. I was so excited, it had a lot of great information for me. I also got some wrist bands, and I just felt connected.
It was one of the first organizations I found and it just really gave me a sense of really being connected. So, Dr. Verstovsek, I would like to talk to you a little bit about how do you advise your new patients about identifying trustworthy info as far as… we could all go on the internet and go willy-nilly. I was convinced I was dying after two minutes on the internet. But you must get a lot of that. You must get patients asking you what do I do, how do I get information; how do you guide them?
Just towards my endorsement of what we have discussed so far in terms of education and the patients’ engagement, I have seen some of you in my own clinic and you know very well that to every new patient, because this is a chronic disease or diseases, the patients have to be engaged.
And I always endorse them to become a partner in what we are trying to do together to control the disease and eliminate the problems, and make people enjoy life fully for as long as possible with a good control in signs and symptoms. And therefore, engagement and partnership with your doctor and self education through support groups, through symposia, through pamphlets through web is increasingly important. Because the decision-maker is the patient, after all. The doctors are here to support.
And if they can partner together throughout their lives and become good friends, and I always seem to joke about it; we become good friends for the rest of the time. We actually do, and we engage together and we try to educate each other. I learn from the patients, patients learn from me and we go through life together. And so an educated patient is the one who is the best patient because we can participate together. And the sources are increasingly available to all of us.
What we are doing her today, Patient Power on the web, MPN Research Foundation through the web, through symposia, through pamphlets, through educational material, participating in patient symposia through educational foundations; those are also available apart from MPN Foundation. And then going to the academic centers and their websites; MD Anderson, Mayo Clinic, University of New York City. There are a number of very well established academic centers that have very nice academically-driven websites for education of the patients.
It’s not necessarily to engage at the professional level where the doctors would go and educate themselves about these rare conditions, but also the patient side of the academic sites are very well informative for the patients. This is where you get up-to-date information from very well established professionals that are engaging in education of the patients.
Plus, what you have described, Nick and Andrea, engagement at the personal patient level; support groups aerospace increasingly important for the understanding of the complexities that we are facing and understanding the diseases, and understanding the therapies and the different outcomes. Look at yourselves in this panel. We have a patient, Beth, who is an example of an extraordinarily response to a therapy in complete remission.
Nick had a progressive disease, ended up having a transplant; and Andrea has lived so many years with the condition and went through the different therapies with different outcomes and is living now way more than what her first doctor said about myelofibrosis; nine years and going very well. So, people are different. Things are improving markedly and we need to work together, and education is the primary source of that effort.
That is fabulous. I could really see how your really personal approach to caring and educating your patients really allays their fears. I wore those shoes where I was scared, and I really admire the way that you help your patients understand what is out there for them and to see the positive approach. Dr. Verstovsek, why do you feel an MPN specialist is so important when we have patients like Nick and Andrea and myself and others out there, as opposed to just kind of avoiding the specialists? What are the things that we should be really aware of and why we should go to an MPN specialist?
MPN diseases are rare diseases. And in many circles in academia, particularly essential thrombocythemia, polycythemia vera, ET, MPV are considered benign. Yet, we know that patients can change. Andrea has changed. There might be complications that can affect not just the quality of life, but the life duration as well.
Myelofibrosis is certainly much more aggressive and progressive, and can shorten life a lot but is the rarest of the free. So, myelofibrosis being so rare, people in a community setting, in smaller academic centers don’t have much experience. ET and PV, so-called benign conditions but not to me so benign, there is a need for education not just at the patient level but also at the level of physicians. There is much effort to educate professionals about the new developments in diagnosis, in therapy, and in prognosis of these conditions.
And therefore, a second opinion is always good to get. Wherever you are, even if you come to me as a first doctor, I encourage people, patients who come to me as a first doctor to seek a second opinion if it’s necessary to fulfill that educational potential that professionals can give so the patient is fully aware of what’s happening, and to live with that condition for the duration of time that there is.
The professional impact on the patient’s life is enormous because these are conditions that people live with. And therefore, proper indication and seeking a second opinion, and perhaps visiting an MPN specialist is highly encouraged
Doctor, how do you coordinate care from afar? If it’s just not geographically… someone doesn’t have an MPN specialist near them, can you tell us a little bit about how you would coordinate that?
This is an excellent question because the specialists are around the United States and as you aid, not everybody can be local or come very often. And therefore, communication with the local doctor and education through the email or the phone is vital. We try to form a team. Patients at my center know that we are not here just to provide one-time opinion; it is continuous engagement with the local doctor.
And the patients are always encouraged to come back at the frequency that can be absorbed by their social and financial status; every six months, every 12 months if possible with more benign conditions. Or, with more aggressive conditions more often; engage in what they do, developing new medications or advising on the proper use of standard therapies. Because it is not easy even for a patient in a community setting to apply standard medications properly because of the rarity of these conditions, particularly myelofibrosis.
So, a team effort with the specialist, with the local doctor, and the third most important is the patient themselves; fully engaged in these three triangular here will provide the most benefit for the patient’s outcome overall. And that can be done as necessary. But one thing is that sometimes I should say expectations from the MPN specialist perhaps are overshadowing what actually the expert may do.
For example, myself, I am not able to monitor patients from a distance; it’s not advisable. Therefore, the local doctor must be part of the team with the interaction through the ways that I described for the best outcome of the patients. But not one doctor that can be supervising patients wherever they are.
And that’s wonderful to know that this option is there for them. Because we do hear from patients who are in more remote areas and feel that perhaps are not getting the care for someone that’s really more renowned in their field. So it’s so wonderful to hear about those types of patient’s and how it can really benefit the patients. Thank you.
Lindsey, I’d like to ask you a few questions about the goal of raising awareness. Why is raising awareness essential to move forward, to really move research forward?
That’s a great question. You know, as most people on the phone are probably already aware, the MPN Research Foundation is very involved in funding research and trying to help direct research for MPNs. One of the things that we really need to try and understand is the course of the disease and how we can help to affect the quickest results for the patients to help them to feel better. I don’t know if that answers your question, but that’s one of the things that we focus the most on, and that’s where our projects are directed.
That’s great information. You know, I think people tend to forget that if we are such a rare group of diseases, the MPNs, and if we’re not raising awareness, we’re missing out. And we’re missing out in moving that research forward.
Nick and Andrea, Andrea I’ll start with you; could you just give me some ideas, maybe? Has your support group or you, yourself personally, thought of different ways to get involved to raise awareness?
Well, one of the things we’re trying to do is invite speakers to the meeting. And my hematologist came once, and it was on a Sunday; I thought that was a very noble thing to do. People got great information. No holds barred, he answered questions and it was great. And hopefully we’re going to have someone from Cancer Care so that questions can arise, and then people can go and ask about them and check. How to raise awareness, I think it’s talking to people, I think it’s participating in maybe the LISTSERVs. It’s participating in things like this where they tune in and hear things and ask their questions.
I think it’s part of it on Facebook, encouraging people to go to meetings and to get more educated.
Those are all great ideas. Nick, do you have a few ways or things that you’ve done either individually or through your support group that you try to raise awareness?
Yes. I was kind of fortunate in that several years ago I was president of a company headquartered here in Tampa called Beef ‘O’ Brady’s. We had 270 sports pubs, kind of like a Buffalo Wild Wings. And then more recently I have a company called Little Greek, and we have 33 restaurants. We have five or six in Dallas and 17 here in Tampa. So fortunately the local media kind of got behind me and they did several articles about my disease, talking about myelofibrosis, trying to help us find – we signed up 700 Be the Match folks. Because I was trying to talk about the importance of getting people in this Be the Match database.
And then my wife did a blog going through the transplant process; she had over 10,000 hits and we actually set it up where it’s in book form where you can order it on Amazon and we’ve given it out to folks as well. So, we’ve definitely been pretty proactive here in the Tampa market with the Tampa Bay Times and Tampa Bay Business Journal and the Gulf Course Business Journal. They’ve been very nice about covering my experience and some of the ups and downs, and going into transplant when you don’t know if you’re going to make it, and how do you set up your business.
So we’ve been pretty fortunate. But it is such a rare disease, I have to explain myelofibrosis. They say what’s that, and I say it’s kind of like leukemia but red blood cells. I know my primary doctor said Nick, in 17 years you’re my only myelofibrosis patient and probably before I retire, you’ll still be my only myelofibrosis patient.
Fortunately, people like Dr. V. out there, his videos were so helpful for me early on, and I really do appreciate the senior physicians in this field. They’ve been so gracious with their time to get out there and help educate us. It really blew me away to have access to those types of materials because there’s so many questions.
I really appreciate him even being on here today; it’s so impressive.
Great. Wow, Nick, that’s so encouraging to hear about how you and your wife got the community involved and really brought awareness to such a rare disease. Dr. Verstovsek, how broadly within the oncology community, how aware are they of MPNs? There seems to be other cancers and such that have a lot more attention.
Over the last ten years, much has been done on the awareness of these conditions for the physicians themselves. You may know that for example, one of the major meetings, the professional meetings in the United States is American Society of Hematology meeting that is always done at the beginning of December. And I tell you that ten years ago, there was no session on myeloproliferative neoplasms or MPN.
No educational sessions, no scientific sessions of significance of all; it was neglected completely. We changed the field completely from 2004 on by the discovery about what is problematic, the JAK-Stat pathway abnormalities, these biological abnormalities in all the patients and all the associated genetic abnormalities that leads to progressive disease. We changed the understanding of the disease. That led to development of new medications, developing new prognosis coding systems, improvements in our ability to manage patients. And now, I should be proud probably that it is not as fast as we would like, the MPN is at the same level as any other more serious conditions like acute myeloid leukemia. We have full fledged scientific sessions on MPN on its own, presentations, oral presentations.
I would say that people in the field, because this is relatively new, still, are hungry for information; the education sessions are full. Much more can be done on education of the physicians. So it is coming there, but it is a slow process, educational process on the patient side is in parallel being done to educational professionals.
Wow, that is great. And it’s encouraging to know that the MPNs are getting the attention that they should be getting. Lindsey, I wanted to ask you, do you feel that focus on MPNs are being overlooked because of more prominent advocacy with these other conditions?
I would say that it’s similar to what Dr. Verstovsek was saying. I’ve personally been at the American Society of Hematology meeting myself, and I’ve been at a lot of other – participated in some other meetings recently.
I’ve started to look more – obviously, given what I’m doing now with the registry project in the media, there’s definitely a lot more focus on MPNs than there probably once was. I also participate in some activities in Washington, D.C. having to do with the rare disease organizations there; there’s a few different rare disease organizations. So the MPN Research Foundation is trying to participate in activities like that to make sure there’s continued focus on MPNs there.
But you know, I think that we can never do enough, really, when it comes to a rare disease. We all have to play our part and keep it at the forefront of people’s radar because until there are better therapies out there, we can never stop.
Wow, and that is great to know that the MPN Foundation is really getting more focus with the rare diseases and the work you’re doing in Washington. In fact now, I’d like to show a quick little video. There are a lot of people in the MPN community around the world that support MPN awareness and they’re doing great things. This short video will give you an idea of who those people are out there. So, I hope you enjoy this video for a few moments.
Alright, so did you guys catch Nick in there? We’re hoping to hear from now we’re going to run out of slides because there are so many folks out in the community doing such great things, and that was real cool, Nick. Lindsey, I’m dying to ask you this question. myMPN Registry; we are all really super excited about this from the MPN Research Foundation. Can you talk a little bit and tell us what it is and what the goal is?
Sure, I’d love to, thank you. So, as we’ve talked about on this webinar, there’s a lot of different experiences by each patient with an MPN.
Some people live with it for a long time, some people get a diagnosis that comes out of nowhere and it advances quickly. There’s lots of different paths that can be followed by an MPN patient. And one of the things that we’re most focused on, as I’ve stated previously, is to try and get some therapies that can help the patients regardless of where they are on that pathway. We said to ourselves, how can we better understand the pathway itself because each person’s experience is different.
People have different symptoms, they have… some of their symptoms are in their blood counts, some symptoms are more depression or they may have itching, they may have some other brain fogginess; different things. Everyone has different combinations.
So we wanted to understand that, and what we decided to do was put together what’s called myMPN. It’s a registry for patients to go in and share their experience. And in doing so, they can help to change the prognosis of all patients. Actually in the slides that you ran, there was a quote from Helen Keller and it talked about it’s not just one major mover or shaker; it’s actually everybody in the process along the way. That really encapsulates what is going on with myMPN.
We need patients each to go in and share their individual experience. We would love it if they would not do it just once but many times; keep coming back to the registry. So, the registry is structured so that we gather the information in a primary survey that has some history, background about an individual, their diagnosis, a little bit about their history and treatment, the drugs or therapies that they’re using.
But then there are additional surveys that we invite the patients to come back and fill out again and again, which collect information about what’s changing. So, there might be an event that has affected their health. Maybe they had some sort of a thrombosis, or a pregnancy, or it could be something related to their MPN or something unrelated. Then there’s another third survey called How Do You Feel Today, and that’s where we really want to understand the patient’s whole experience with the disease; how did they feel today versus how will they feel next week. Are they getting sleep, are they eating? Are they having a lot of fatigue, are they itching?
The idea is that for the many patients that we gather this information over a long period of time, then that will start to help us to understand the diseases better and over time, hopefully we can figure out if there are triggers to the disease advancing from one stage to another; trying to help to put together some of the pieces of the puzzle that currently aren’t available to researchers in the labs and in the hospitals.
We’re hoping to augment the research that’s already going on by helping to provide those researchers and doctors with day-to-day experiences of patients. So it’s a really great way to involve the patients directly in the direction that research is having.
I think this is fabulous. Is this up and running now? Is it accessible?
Yes. We launched actually earlier this month in connection with Blood Cancer Awareness Month. I’m humbled by the response; it’s just been fantastic to see how many people have really been involved and engaged and coming back to the registry.
That is wonderful. How does someone get involved? How do they sign onto this?
We have a dedicated website for the registry; it’s www.mympn.org. And on that web page they will see the link through to begin the registry process. The first thing that a user would do is set up their privacy settings. We liked the platform for this particular registry setup because it enables each patient to customize their privacy settings.
Some patients are very comfortable sharing the information about their health history and background, helping to contribute that information toward the scientific process. Some people just want to record it for their own future reference, and that’s perfectly fine.
Either way, we’re just glad that people are getting engaged. The system, myMPN system, actually does have that flexibility so the patients can determine what information, if any, they’d like to share with the researchers and the research process. That’s the first step; you set up your profile for your privacy settings, and then as I said, you start to go into the survey where you talk about your history with the disease. And then we encourage you to come back and fill out the other surveys on an ongoing basis.
Great. Well, I signed up so I’m really excited that I can be a part. Dr. Verstovsek, I wanted to ask you, you’re on the steering committee of myMPN, one of the doctor’s registry.
What kind of impact do you think this is going to have for you and the way you practice medicine and make decisions and deal with patients over the next few years?
This is a very significant step forward. Look, what we know about the current conditions, like for example polycythemia vera. Let’s talk about polycythemia vera. You have in the literature assessment of the outcome of the patients that were referred to tertiary centers in the consultations. So they would come to Mayo Clinic, or to MD Anderson, or Moffitt or any other large academic centers. And there would be possibly let’s say 500 patients with polycythemia vera that were seen over the last 20 years.
Academicians would analyze them from the time they arrived and what happened with them with therapies, and you would come up with some knowledge. But that is such a small, small part of the larger community of polycythemia vera patients. There are possibly about 100-150,000 polycythemia vera patients living with the condition here in the United States.
And what does it mean to analyze the outcome of the 500 patients that were referred to you in academic centers? It means a lot, but not too much in the larger picture. So if we have a way of having a registry where multiple, multiple people, patients from – many patients from a larger group of patients, not just those that are seen in academic centers, can participate. And we can learn how they were diagnosed in a community setting; what did the local doctor do?
What symptoms did they acquire during their lives? What therapies did they receive, and why and what happened with those therapies? Any complications with the thrombosis? Any complications through the pregnancy? Those are the issues that are mentioned already. What led them to be referred to academic centers?
We can enlarge our knowledge, better our knowledge about the disease conditions; time to diagnosis, time to progression, management in community setting and the relevant new interventions and new ways of assessing needs of the patients, and understanding life with PV, or life with ET, or life with myelofibrosis on a larger scale and see where to intervene and how in the future.
And in some ways, this really seems to overlap personalized medicine. We’re now not looking at the one scenario for PV or myelofibrosis or ET. We are looking at hopefully a huge group of MPN patients and putting those pieces in the puzzle, as we said Lindsey.
And let me add – this is really good. This is an excellent comment. Because we these days think a lot about the genetic complexity. There are patients with myelofibrosis or any other conditions that differ based on genetics, as I mentioned earlier on. But there are patients with myelofibrosis that present with anemia only, patients that prevent with very big spleen and poor quality of life.
There are different ways of people progressing or presenting with a condition not only based on genetics. What is the experience of patients that have only low blood cell count versus those that have a very big spleen; how did they fare? It’s clinical assessment and quality of life assessment and blood cell count assessment. We don’t really need to engage in extraordinary tools to learn. Genetic is one part of it, but it is much more we can learn from our on practice on the larger scale.
Dr. Verstovsek, is there really a difference between this and an observational study?
There is some difference in that observational studies are usually much more focused in a shorter time period in a selective group of patients, in academic centers usually, with much more scrutiny of the detail. So, if you have an observational study in polycythemia vera, since we’re talking about polycythemia vera, there is such a study; it’s called the REVEAL study. There is also observational study for patients with essential thrombocythemia and early stage myelofibrosis called the MOSS Study.
So, a limited number of patients with very dedicated focus to see patients periodically, collect all the data of what happens to them all the time, because they are followed by clinicians and the researchers and nurses; this is a full fledged clinical study. Without intervention, just to see what happens with them; what symptoms develop, what complications they may have with other medical problems, what happens when they’re hospitalized and why, what the reasons are for intervention for their disease.
What is the effect on their work, ability to communicate with the family, engagement in social encounters. So it’s much more focused, perhaps more in detail and in a short period of time. But it does very well complement the registry, which is much broader and for a much longer period of time. So, I encourage patients to participate in both efforts.
There is complementation between the two, and certainly encouragement from the academic and local doctors to learn from these efforts.
Doctor, what is the criteria to participate in an observational study?
Unlike the registry where really we are trying to include everybody who has the disease at different stages to see what is happening with them, registries are usually focused on the patients like the Moss Study; I mentioned it’s for patients who have essential thrombocythemia that requires therapy; and for patients with myelofibrosis that do not require therapy. So it’s a concerted effort to understand much better in detail particular groups of the patients. So there is eligibility criteria for participation in some of these observational studies, unlike the registry where we really like to have everybody.
Alright. And of course now this leads me to clinical trial. We hear a lot about clinical trials. Could you briefly describe for us the difference between a clinical trial and an observational study?
Absolutely. And see, while I was giving an example of an historical analysis of patients in academic centers that leads to information how to manage patients and what to do about them. But these are the patients who are referred to academic centers, usually – most of the time – because they are not doing well and there is a need for intervention. And most of the time, we talk about treating patients that need to have something corrected.
They suffer from anemia, they suffer from a blood clot and this is where we intervene, and this is where most of the work in academia is focused on. This is where we do clinical studies. Clinical studies in MPN, most of the time and in the United States in particular, are focused on correcting something that is wrong; improving quality of life, decreasing the spleen, improving the anemia in ET or PV.
We would like to treat people for what they suffer from; high platelets, high red blood cell count, big spleen, symptoms. Intervention studies in myelofibrosis for example are needed as we try to prevent another clot in patients with ET and PV. So we are moving from interventional studies to prevention studies. And to get proper assessment of those patients in need, observational studies are needed to learn about the experiences.
A registry is needed to learn about a wide spectrum of patient experiences for us to identify groups that would, for example, benefit from prevention rather than waiting for them to suffer and then prescribe something to correct it. So prevention studies will be major developments, in my view, from observational studies to see where we need to intervene once we observe.
Very interesting. I had not even heard of that. That is fabulous.
Both Nick and Andrea, you have both participated in trials. And Andrea, I would like to go to you first. You’ve been in several clinical trials. What was your journey, and what was beneficial in participating in those?
Well, frankly the whole point of my participation was not only to feel better and maybe arrest the disease to an extent, but I felt since it was such a rare disease I had an obligation to try to advance research by using me as a live guinea pig. Instead of donating my body to science later; let’s try to do something now. Of course I had selfish reasons, as well. What happened with the early studies which were done nine years ago or so, several of them just were very toxic for me, and for different reasons.
But different things happened; a couple landed me in the hospital. But I knew there was something out there, working with Dr. Verstovsek, working with my local hematologist; I knew that if I didn’t try and didn’t do things, that I certainly wasn’t going to get any better. So, when we hit on CYT387, which I bugged Dr. Verstovsek about because I read about it, and I said it sounds right for me; he said yeah, I’m gonna get it, I’m gonna get it.
He finally did. It worked for five years. The company was bought out by another company. I have a similar drug; it doesn’t seemed to have worked as well but for five years I’ve been transfusion independent, which is huge.
While my anemia has not been anywhere near normal, it’s certainly functional and I’ve been great. Now we’re looking for something else. I’m a perseverant person, and the first couple of trials didn’t work but I didn’t die, and I didn’t get any worse. And the fourth and fifth trial did work, so I think I have to encourage people to not give up. We’re all different, and we talk about that in our support group. Everybody is different. We are so individualistic in this disease that we can listen to other people, but we have to really listen to our bodies and ourselves.
So now, it’s that period of kind of treading water; what do we do next? There are some things that Dr. V has mentioned, there are some things that I’ve been reading about that I’m going to quiz on him when I see him next. And so it’s a little discomforting right now because something has to happen.
But I’m confident and positive that there will be something out there, but if I don’t try, we’ll never know and a patient behind me – we have people in our group who are 20 years old and 30 years old. They’re panic-stricken. So hopefully I can help them, maybe; if I don’t someone else does.
You know, Andrea, you’re very inspiring. Me kind of being new to the game, too, it’s very inspirational to hear about your perseverance and your attitude. I love the idea that you’re also there for the younger people in your group to show that this is the journey but it’s working, and there’s hope on the horizon. Nick, if you could tell us a few things, a few thoughts about your journey through your clinical trial and if there was a benefit?
Yeah, sure. It’s kind of interesting for me initially when I was diagnosed, the local doctor said well, you’re so lucky; you have Moffitt right here in your backyard. So I went to Moffitt Cancer Center, and they’re very good but the hematologist said basically the same thing that the initial doctor who did the diagnosis; well, you’re a good candidate for transplant, just wait a year, watch and wait a year and then go to transplant and so be it. But you do the research, and transplant is a pretty tough deal.
When I went to Moffitt, basically that’s what the doctor said, is we’ll see you once a month or every other month and sometime next year you’ll go to transplant. I said doctor, I can’t just sit around and wait and just sit back and placidly have this ticking time bomb hanging over me without trying to do something. And like Andrea, I also felt I owed it to the other patients that maybe being part of a trial that we’ll learn something.
I was hoping – my goal was to try to postpone my transplant for several years. But I said being part of the trial, maybe they’ll learn something good or bad that will help other patients as well. And that’s where I was very fortunate to land at MD Anderson with Dr. Pemmaraju.
They set me up on azacitidine and Jakafi. Moffit’s pharmacy doesn’t even carry Jakafi. So, the No. 1 tool in the toolbox for MPN patients, they don’t even have it there. That’s where we did the trial, and I think with the trial the one thing that people need to know, you’re under a much higher level of scrutiny. Dr. Pemmaraju at Moffitt, they’re having me come in every 30 days for blood work, 60 days to visit with the doctor. Pemmaraju, he’s seeing my stuff every week; they’re looking at my numbers. I go fly out there once a month to meet with them.
And so you have an extra layer of coverage. And ultimately, it was Dr. Pemmaraju who said hey, Nick – by the way, CAL-R, JAK2 was my mutation, which also people need to know who’s doing what. But in October, Dr. Pemmaraju noticed my BLAST had spiked from 1 to 5. He said Nick, you’ve got to go for transplant because if it turns into AML, your prognosis really gets a lot worse.
And I’ll always remember the look on his face. He just looked at me and said, time to go. That’s why I think his higher level of watching me gave me that sense because there is some controversy out there as to when to go to transplant. When do you go? Do you wait? Is there a certain number you have to hit?
I felt that his advice, based on all the doctors I had met with, was very right on point and I appreciated their – there’s a great group of folks there, and I certainly think that my success – and I don’t know if Dr. V. agrees, but me being on Jakafi, actually they kept me on it through the transplant; I think that helped me because I’ve had a fairly good transition through the transplant process. And I think it was based on the work that Dr. Pemmaraju did.
Great. Nick, you’re very encouraging. Dr. V, since Nick brought that up, how do you feel about that, that he was kept on Jakafi?
I would say that both Andrea and Nick have amazing stories to say and to tell us their experience and to learn, and really inspiring stories. I’m glad that there was a time period to enjoy some good quality of life and control of the disease for Nick. But in this tough disease, myelofibrosis, it can be controlled for a long period of time but it does change as the medications really don’t work forever. And sometimes it is necessary to go to transplant and we treat patients up to the transplant with Jakafi to maintain the benefit that might still be there.
After the transplant it’s not necessary anymore, of course. But that is one of the experiences that people need to understand that there is a potential for medications to control the disease, either through clinical studies and the first option may not work, the second may not work and there are always – and we try to have those here – multiple other options through conventional medications or through investigation medications to help patients. And if the transplant is necessary, we will do it when the time comes and it is a personal decision most of the time.
It’s not really one number; it has to be between the physician and the patient.
Absolutely, absolutely. Lindsey, I’d like to ask you the last question, and we do have a few questions from our viewers. We’re talking so much about clinical trials and raising awareness, how do we do that, and how does raising awareness affect the clinical trials? I know like barely anything about clinical trials.
Sure, that’s a great question. In fact, one of the things that we try to do at the MPN Research Foundation is to let people know about clinical trials that are going on so that to the extent that someone is looking for something better, kind of like Andrea was or has been. Maybe they haven’t been made aware by their own doctor of an ongoing clinical trial.
And by using our social media and our website, etc., we can make people aware of that. I think that’s – it’s a great way for people who are patients but also I think that it’s important for patients to understand the message that Andrea delivered that I think was so eloquent. Which is unfortunately, drugs don’t come onto the market without brave patients like Andrea and Nick who are willing to put themselves out there and take something that is yet to be approved by the FDA. Because the FDA has very specific standards and they scrutinize the trials very carefully. But at the end of the day, we need patients to volunteer for these trials.
I think it’s wonderful when patients do that, and it’s even better when the results are great, obviously. But I think from an educational standpoint, we as an organization and I know others try and help people to understand what their options are, what the process of a trial is. We’ve actually in the past put together graphics to help people understand how trials progress. We actually have been involved ourselves in discussions with the FDA on how trials can be more focused on the patient experience.
So I think that things are definitely going to improve, and hopefully we’ll see more drugs that are available for patients that will provide more relief very soon.
That’s very encouraging. I absolutely agree with both of you how people like Nick and Andrea, and could be myself as well one day in the future; we can’t move forward. We don’t want to be stuck and not be able to have those results. I’m going to shift gears a little bit. We’re ready to take a question. Dr. Verstovsek, this question I believe is geared for you, and I’m going to go ahead and read it. Dolf from Holland is watching.
How is research internationally organized? Dolf goes on to say lots of trials with MPN hematologist around the world, and we can find them on clinicaltrials.gov. But is there also some specific research in some countries that’s not registered at that site? Is that something you can address?
That’s a very good question. There is an attempt by clinicaltrials.gov, which is actually the federal site, to collect all the clinical trials that are being conducted not just in MPN, obviously, but in any other condition. And the effort is really significant with the prospect of utilizing that for patients as well to identify the sources, if not only for the physicians. It is really the professional side but the patients can search that as well. Perhaps it’s too cumbersome sometimes to find information, but underlying the attempt is very well received at least in the professional circles.
If there are any other studies in other countries that are not registered, of course it’s a possibility this is the Federal Government of the United States. I am not aware, didn’t really look into that, whether other governments in Europe – and I would say some they do, maintain something similar for their own countries like in Germany or France.
This is, after all, one of the best sources of information, clinicaltrials.gov, for clinical studies.
Great, thank you so much. We’re going to take one more question; unfortunately we’re almost out of time. But we have another event coming up October 7, and we will definitely answer many of these questions that have come through tonight. And in fact, Dr. Verstovsek will be on that panel as well, on the upcoming one. I do have another question for you, Dr. V. It’s from Julie. Do you have any tips for patients to educate their primary care provider about MPNs? And she said more specifically, PV.
The information that is available to the patients through the MPN Educational Foundation or through the information that can be gathered from the academic websites for the patients typically is organized very well for anybody to understand it.
I have patients that are engaged with us together, as we said, in that educational effort for all participants to be at the same level. That means not just us in a referral center or patients, but also referring doctors. So the best information to a primary care doctor, and I assume that was what the question was about, the local oncologist; that is delivered by us as experts in MPN and by the patients.
By bringing that information to the attention to a local doctor is valuable. There is rarely any doctor that would not appreciate so much the involvement of the patients on the part of education, and bringing the new information to the doctor. Look, the local hematologists and oncologists, that’s a hero for me.
That doctor, a female or a male, has to take care of not just the PV; it has to take care of patients in brain cancer and kidney cancer and lung cancer; both of the perspective of life and professional commitment in front of you for that particular doctor. That is the doctor that is doing all of this at the same time, and has to catch up. So we have to also realize that it’s really difficult to follow all the updates and all new developments in the field for PV or any other MPN. So, I know that doctors appreciate when the patient is engaged and brings information to them.
Excellent advice. Julie, when you asked about their primary care providers as well, I’m sure Dr. V. feels the same way; we can take a look at Andrew Schorr and his wife Esther who created and head up Patient Power. Esther is very vocal about being a very educated care provider.
And through everything we’ve talked about today with myMPN registry or the MPN Research Foundation, or all the things that Dr. Verstovsek brought up about how he educates his patients, the primary care providers definitely should be in that conversation. Those things are all welcome.
Well, we are just about to wrap up. We’ve had a really great discussion here today, and I would like to get some final thoughts before we say goodbye. We are a little pressed for time. Nick, if you can give us a few quick, final thoughts and we’ll just go around after that.
Well first, Beth, great job on the hosting. It was very impressive, and glad to be able to participate. And certainly want to thank all the panelists to try to keep moving folks forward. And hopefully some day the people behind us won’t have to worry about the same issues we’re dealing with today. And appreciate Dr. V. taking the time especially, and all the great work that his team is doing, too. So, wish everybody the very best, and thanks, and great job, Beth.
Thank you, Nick, and right back at you; it’s been a pleasure having you. Andrea, some final thoughts from you?
Yes, thank you everyone for participating, it’s been great. It’s my first time. I would like to say that one thing I found successful was to print some pamphlets up and to distribute to my doctor and leave them out so people are aware of our meetings. And also, to really encourage people to look very seriously into clinical trials and going to an institution like MD Anderson that specializes in their disease so that they can get the best care and educate themselves the best.
Thank you, Andrea. Those are great words of wisdom and we appreciate all of your feedback, having been in this journey for almost 20 years. Lindsey, can you give us a few final thoughts?
Sure. Thank you very much for including me in this conversation; it’s been wonderful to join Dr. Verstovsek and Andrea and Nick.
I encourage anyone who has not yet visited myMPN to please visit us at www.mympn.org. If you have any concerns or questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I encourage everyone, like Andrea said, to try and get involved in your care, whether that’s through myMPN, through joining a clinical trial, and certainly just being an advocate for your own health and going to go visit those doctors armed with the information that you can.
Thank you. Great words of wisdom. And again, we are very excited about the myMPN registry, so thank you for sharing that today. Dr. Verstovsek, we appreciate you being here. Some final words that you can give to our audience?
I really appreciate you having me on the panel; it was a wonderful experience.
And certainly what we have achieved together, I’m sure for many patients is to engage, engage and be educated, learn about what you have, learn about the abilities to help you if you are not already. Be an active participant because these conditions are there to stay with you; we don’t have a cure yet. We are working toward it. But life can be good, life can be controlled well. We have means and we are trying to do our best. So be an active participant with the local doctor, with expert. Make the most out of it and if you need a second opinion, search for it. Basically, do not give up. Be your own advocate, if you like.
Wonderful, and I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s just very inspirational and those words will resonate with many of our viewers, I know.
Thank you, I’ve enjoyed speaking with such experts on this panel today, and thank you for the words of wisdom and best of good luck and health to all of our viewers, and Nick and Andrea. Thank you.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/research.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2017-09-20 14:56:442019-09-02 12:26:29Living Well with MPNs – What YOU Can Do to Advance MPN Research
For survivors Roberta Alberle and T.J. Sharpe and so many others, cancer was an unwelcome intruder that suddenly demanded their attention. Both became proactive and engaged, vocal patients, doing research about their treatment options and gaining access to clinical trials that made a HUGE difference.
Watch to learn:
Do patients still have a voice during the clinical trial process?
What is a clinical trial navigator?
How can patients help their healthcare team be more effective in locating trials for them?
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/Do-Patients-Have-A-Voice-While-Participating-in-a-Clinical-Trial_.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2017-09-18 11:55:042020-01-29 11:05:35Clinical Trial Mythbusters: Do Patients Have A Voice While Participating in a Clinical Trial?
What new treatments are in development for myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs)? What are the considerations when choosing a treatment plan? In this LIVE webinar, Dr. Bart Scott from Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and Dr. David Snyder from City of Hope will help viewers to understand the various treatment options for those living with polycythemia vera (PV), essential thrombocythemia (ET) and myelofibrosis (MF).
Hello and welcome to our Patient Power webinar today. Our topic is “Understanding Treatments for MPNs; are there new or emerging treatments that could be right for me?”
I’m Beth Probert, and I’m coming to you from Oxnard, California which is just northwest of Los Angeles. I am a polycythemia vera patient and patient advocate. I was diagnosed in April, 2016 by my specialist at the University of Southern California Norris Cancer Center. I was treated with Pegasys, which is pegylated interferon and a few phlebotomies for about 12 months. And I am happy to say that I am in remission.
But like many of our patients and caregivers in the Patient Power community, I am very concerned about the future of my condition and very interested to hear today about some of these new and emerging treatments and clinical trials that will give us hope for our future and for all of is in the MPN community.
Before I introduce our panel today, I do want to remind everyone that you can submit your questions and we will try to address every question in today’s show. If we don’t get to it, we certainly will address those questions in future webinars. You can submit those questions to MPN@Patientpower.info.
All right, I’d like to introduce our panel today. Joining us today from Seattle we have Dr. Bart Scott. Dr. Scott is a medical oncologist at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and a research associate in the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Scott.
Thank you for having me. Hello, everyone.
Great. And I’d like to introduce our other doctor on the panel today, Dr. David Snyder. He is joining us from Duarte, California which is in Los Angeles County. Dr. Snyder is an Associate Chair in the Department of Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope. Dr. Snyder, I hope I said that correctly. Welcome.
Thank you, I’m happy to be here.
Thank you. Now I’d like to introduce you to our patient panelist. Today we have James from Lubbock, Texas and James was diagnosed quite a few nears ago with the central thrombocythemia. James, welcome to our show today.
Hello and thank you.
James, I’d like to start with you. How long ago were you diagnosed with ET?
In October of 1994, I was 47 years old. I had a heart attack. If it had not been Monday morning and I was in the hospital visiting my mother, I would be dead. I had a blockage right at the aorta. But they pulled me out of it.
I’ve been active all my life. Even back then, I was running more than I do now. It just happened to me, and so eventually we got around to essential thrombocythemia, whatever that meant.
Well James, that’s such an interesting story because you’ve been dealing with this for several years. And in 1994, if I’m correct, we didn’t really have too much internet access. How did you and your family deal with this? How did you get information and educate yourself?
Well, just so you know, I’m 545 miles from Houston, 325 miles from Dallas, in a town of 250,000. But luckily, we have a medical school. And so I went to the library at the medical school and I befriended one of the librarians whose husband was an oncologist, or is, and she was very helpful in trying to guide me. But back then, there really was very little information.
It wasn’t current. It was from the polycythemia vera study group, and that’s real old data and things like that. But when the internet came on, I started playing around on Yahoo, came across MPN – or back then it was MPD – Digest, and read that franticly every night.
I can certainly imagine what a revelation that was to all of a sudden have information at your fingertips. If I’m not mistaken, when we were speaking earlier you mentioned that you also through the years have attended conferences. Can you speak a little bit about that?
Yes, it’s literally empowering to go – and my first one was in 1999, but to go into a room and find other people who are dealing with some kind of MPN. I was like wow; I really am not quite so alone. And over the years the quality of the information has increased tremendously, as it has in the whole field.
It’s still empowering. I have friends I’ve made by going to the Scottsdale conferences; you just learn a lot. It’s just good.
That’s very inspirational. I kind of want to shift gears a little bit here and ask you a couple questions. Do you see a specialist?
I see a hematologist/oncologist in Lubbock and I have right from the start. He started me on hydrea and soon to be 23 years, I’m still on it. I’ve varied my dosages from time to time, but I’ve seen no need to see what you would consider an MPN specialist. While hydrea is working, I’m goin to stick with it and when it doesn’t, I’ll start looking around and doing other things. There’s no one I would consider an MPN specialist in Lubbock. I’ve talked to some oncologists and I had to alert them about anagrelide. I would say they don’t quite understand Pegasys versus the normal interferon and things like that.
But that’s really kind of been immaterial to me so far because hydrea is working.
And you do have that challenge of being a little bit more remote, and I can certainly see how that makes a difference. I want to ask you one last question. You’ve been on hydrea a very long time. Do you have any side effects?
None really. My wife says I’m just not quite as wired as I used to be. But the things I read about, the possibilities that could be occurring, I don’t have to. I don’t know why; I just don’t.
That is fabulous news.
As a matter of fact, the doctors don’t know why either. They’d like to know; I would too.
Sometimes there’s just no explanation. James, I really appreciate getting to understand your story and we’re certainly going to come back to you and learn a little bit more about your journey. I’d like to go over to our doctor panel now.
I’m going to start off with Dr. Scott. We’ve heard a little bit about James’ story, and for our viewers could you explain a bit about ET; just help us understand really what it is and more importantly, what are we treating it with and what are the goals of treatment for ET?
ET stands for central thrombocytosis or essential thrombocythemia, so it’s been called both of those names but the principle issue is overproduction of platelets. When you see the blood counts of the patient with essential thrombocytosis, their platelet counts are elevated. There can be a wide range of how elevated we’re talking about; it could be anywhere from 650 to even greater than 2 million.
When you have a platelet count that’s really high, like above a million, paradoxically there’s an increased risk of bleeding. That’s because the platelets have, on their cell surface, what’s called a von Willebrand factor cleaning protein. It actually cleans a portion of the blood that helps in clotting. So even though they have all of these platelets, and we associate platelets with preventing bleeding and bruising; when the platelets are extremely high like that, patients can have bleeding like nose bleeding, gum bleeding.
But the real problem with essential thrombocytosis is clotting. The No. 1 cause of death in people with ET is due to blood clots. And so James was just saying, he presented with this basically heart attack that he probably wouldn’t have survived if he hadn’t been in the hospital already. That can be a common presentation that you see with essential thrombocytosis blood clots.
So the reason to treat patients with essential thrombocytosis when they are treated is to lower their risk for blood clots; to lower the risk for thrombosis. The standard therapy for ET would be aspirin, a baby aspirin a day, and then you look at different types of risk factors to determine whether or not they need cytoreductive therapy. Cytoreductive therapy is basically given to lower the blood counts.
The risk factors that we would look at age, would be history of prior thrombosis, also white count is another risk factor that’s come out recently that can predispose people for risk of blood counts. But there is a prediction model; it’s called an IPSET prediction model and it’s an international prognostic model to determine the risk of thrombosis in patients with ET. You can look at that and you can see what risk factors this patient has.
Interestingly, JAK2 mutations, so having ET with a JAK2 mutation is another risk factor for thrombosis. But if they are high risk for thrombosis, either due to age or history of thrombosis, other risk factors like cardiovascular risk factors or due to the IPSET model, these are patients that are treated with cytoreductive therapy. There are many choices for cytoreductive therapy and two of them have already – actually, three of them have already mentioned.
That would be hydroxyurea, which is a common agenda that is used; another choice would be pegylated interferon or Pegasys; and then another choice would be anagrelide. There have been two randomized trials that I’m aware of comparing hydroxyurea to anagrelide. One showed a benefit with hydroxyurea over anagrelide; the other one was basically equivalent. But for me, my preference is hydrea unless they are a younger patient.
And in those patients I typically prefer Pegasys. I think there’s more data that’s needed to determine whether hydroxyurea or Pegasys would be the best first choice. There is a randomized trial that either has completed accrual or will soon complete accrual where they compared hydroxyurea to pegylated interferon; it’s frontline cytoreductive therapy for people with PV and ET. That will help us to answer the question which is better between hydroxyurea or pegylated interferon. But both of those would be choices for initial cytoreductive therapy.
Recently one of the big things that we’ve learned about with all myleoproliferative neoplasms is the underlying driver mutations. All of the myeloproliferative neoplasms share in common up regulation of the JAK-STAT pathway. And the same thing of course is true with ET.
And so there are three common mutations seen in ET: JAK2V617F would be the most common, and then calreticulin and then what’s called the MPL mutation. So you would test your patients for those mutations if you suspect a myeloproliferative neoplasm. They’re helpful not only from the standpoint of diagnosis but also prognosis. In regards to what’s coming out in the future, there’s a lot of understanding of other things that determine risks.
So as James was mentioning, he’s done well for such a long period of time. And then there are other patients who have more rapid progression to myelofibrosis, for instance, with a diagnosis of ET. We are looking at that and we’re starting to understand more about why that is the case. One of the things that have come out is what’s called secondary mutation that can develop in patients that potentially increases their risk of going into leukemia or myelofibrosis.
Wow, that’s been really helpful to understand. When you hear James has done so well for 23 years, the same medication, some fluctuation in his dosing, do you see that often? Do you have in your patient group; have you seen people have that same success as James? He kind of joked like nobody knows why I’m not having so many side effects and I’m doing well; what’s your take on that? Is that an anomaly or do you see that?
We do see it, for sure and I will admit I’m what we call a tertiary referral center, which means I tend to be referred cases that are more recalcitrant that have failed other types of therapies. Among the patients that I see, I do have somewhat of a swayed pool of patients that typically have more severe presentations, more severe problems, that don’t respond as well to initial treatments and have more of a prolonged course with side effects and things like that.
But that just has to do with the nature of my referral base. But certainly among MPNs itself, there are many patients who do quite well with hydrea for many years.
Great feedback; thank you, thank you. Dr. Snyder, I want to talk to you a little bit about myelofibrosis. As I mentioned earlier, I have polycythemia vera and I do from time to time get a little concerned about progression. We’ll talk a little bit more about progression in a bit, but could you talk to us about myelofibrosis and give our viewers a summary of it, and also address the treatments and the goals of the treatments through the different therapies?
Sure. So we’re talking about the family of myeloproliferative neoplasms, and we started with ET; P vera of course is the other.
The third type is myelofibrosis. What we call primary myelofibrosis is patients who are diagnosed right from the beginning with myelofibrosis. But we know that both P vera and ET have the potential to transform over time to what we would call secondary myelofibrosis, meaning that they started with one condition and over time it transformed into myelofibrosis.
We see certain changes when that happens. As the name implies, there’s increased scarring, scar tissue in the bone marrow; that’s what myelofibrosis means. We tend to see decrease in some of the blood counts, particularly the hemoglobin with anemia and often the platelet count. And at the same time, often the white count is normal or it can be very elevated.
One of the clues for a patient with P vera for example, is say a patient was requiring a certain frequency of phlebotomies to maintain control of hematocrit or a certain dose of hydroxyurea and after awhile the doctor notices gee, we haven’t done phlebotomy in about five, six months and still the hematocrit hasn’t gone up.
Or, we’ve been on a certain dose of hydrea for a long time and everything has been stable, but now it looks like the hemoglobin is starting to drop. That’s the kind of clue that maybe it’s beginning to transform towards myelofibrosis and the bone marrow no longer is over producing red cells, but instead there’s a decreased production of red cells.
So along with that comes a number of other features. The spleen often enlarges around that same time and people may become aware of that enlarging organ in their abdomen. It may impact their ability to eat. There are also a variety of systemic symptoms that can occur. Sometimes we see this in patients with P vera and less so with ET/, but most commonly in patients with myelofibrosis.
Those are things like fevers, weight loss, night seats, fatigue, itching, and others. That’s kind of the clinical picture that you see when a patient either starts right off at the beginning or is progressing. So in terms of goals of therapy, there are a few issues. One, just like with the discussion about ET, patients with myelofibrosis are at increased risk for blood clotting and sometimes bleeding, as well. But our main focus is to help prevent blood clots from occurring. And so the same kind of baby aspirin is needed, is used.
In addition, there is a treatment called ruxolitinib or Jakafi is another name, that is FDA approved for treatment of patients with myelofibrosis. I’ll say that’s the only drug currently that is approved by the FDA for myelofibrosis, despite the fact that there have been many clinical trials that we may talk about with other drugs. But ruxolitinib was approved based on two main endpoints. One was a significant reduction in the size of the spleen for patients whose spleen is enlarged, with relief of symptoms from that big spleen. And second was control of some of these systemic symptoms that I mentioned. Those are the two main benefits that people can achieve.
There may be some other benefits such as gain in weight for people who have maybe lost weight. There may be some prolongation in survival; that’s a little bit of a soft call but some patients may benefit that way.
So that’s the main treatment that we think about for patients with myelofibrosis.
It sounds like from what you’ve described and of course what Dr. Scott described is the symptom burden is a big driver in how you’re going to treat patients and the symptoms are also a big indication of if it’s progressing, if it’s doing what it should be doing. You’ve both mentioned a little bit about some of the mutation. In previous programming, you’ve both talked about genetic testing. My next question is when someone is diagnosed, and I know when I was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, one of the first things that was done is that I was sent to the lab to get some genetic testing.
How important is genetic testing in both of your views? I’ll hop over to Dr. Scott real quickly. At what point are you suggesting genetic testing? Is it something you regularly do?
Thanks for asking. So, it is part of the recommend workup now for myeloproliferative neoplasms; that all patients have this testing done. It’s important to realize that we’re talking about acquired mutations that occur in the vast majority of people. When the word “genetic testing” is thrown out, there’s this automatic misunderstanding that it means that it’s something that was inherited.
The reason why that’s important is because we don’t necessarily want to convey the false message that having a diagnosis of MPN means that your kids are going to get it, because that’s not what we’re talking about with this genetic testing.
These are acquired abnormalities in the vast majority of patients with MPN. There are very rare inherited cases of MPN that have been recorded, and in the vast majority it’s something that you acquire; it’s not something that you were born with. These mutations up regulate expression of a particular pathway in your body that’s called the JAK-STAT pathway.
There are three defied mutations to date, and they are JAK2. There are two different types; there’s the exon VC617F mutation, which most people with PV have, most people with MF have and most people with ET have. But there’s another mutation called the JAK2 exon 12, which is primarily only seen in PV.
That accounts for the small proportion of PV patients that don’t have the JAK2V617F. Those are the two mutations in JAK2. And then there’s an MPL mutation which can be seen in myelofibrosis, and in ET. Then the third mutation is what’s called the Calreticulin mutation, which is the newest one that’s been described. That’s seen in about a quarter of ET patients and about a quarter of myelofibrosis patients. Those are the three driver mutations that people acquire that’s been associated with myeloproliferative neoplasms. It is now part of the diagnostic workup for these diseases according to the revised World Health Organization criteria.
So that’s part of what we mean when we say genetic testing. That’s actually not the whole picture, because there are new types of mutations that have been described that I was talking about earlier that we believe are secondary events.
They have been associated with worst prognosis, higher risk of going into leukemia, and higher risk of going into myelofibrosis. One of those that has a negative prognosis connotation is what’s called the ASXL1 mutation. If you have that mutation, there’s data showing that these patients are at higher risk of complication like progression of myelofibrosis and like progression to leukemia.
So, I think that all patients should have mutational testing, what I’ll call mutational testing instead of genetic testing. And I think it’s important not only from the perspective of making the diagnosis but also in regards to prognosis. And honestly, it also helps a little bit with therapeutic decision-making. Because we know that ASXL1 mutations have a very bad prognosis, and that might be a patient that you would consider more aggressive interventions in, like stem cell transplant, for instance.
Thank you. Dr. Snyder, PV; we’ve talked about ET, we’ve talked about myelofibrosis and kind of flipping back to PV, when you find out that someone is positive and has a mutation, and let’s backtrack just a little bit. I realize I really didn’t delve into what PV is. Could you give our viewers a little background on PV, and then we’ll talk a little further about how the mutation plays a role with that and what we look for in that.
PV is polycythemia vera. It’s an over production of red blood cells. It shares the properties with its cousins, ET and myelofibrosis, the JAK-STAT pathway is over activated, usually because of the JAK2V617F mutation. So the cells in the bone marrow produce red blood cells become autonomous, if you will; they’re always turned on.
Normally the body regulates very well how many red cells are produced by the bone marrow. If the tissues in the body sense that there’s not enough oxygen coming and the message gets sent through a hormone called erythropoietin goes back to the bone marrow, stimulates more red cell production. More red cells bring more hemoglobin, brings more oxygen to the tissues and then erythropoietin production is turned off.
In P vera, that production of red blood cells becomes independent of the erythropoietin signal so those precursors are always churning out red blood cells, even though the body doesn’t need them. So the hemoglobin hematocrit can go very high, and that gets people into problems with risk of thrombosis as the main issue. Also, there are systemic symptoms that we talked about in myelofibrosis can also be seen in polycythemia vera.
So the treatment goals there are to again control the risk of thrombosis by keeping the hematocrit at a safe level, and there have been some well designed trials now showing that keeping the hematocrit under 45 percent is the desired goal. Some hematologists would even be a little more blasé about it and say well, it’s under 50 percent; that’s okay. But there are now clear data to show that you’re doing a disservice to your patient by allowing hematocrits to get over 45 percent. And frankly for women, it may even be better to shoot for 42 percent as the target.
And so the question is how do you get there, and phlebotomy is certainly the most direct mechanical way, if you will, of doing that. But cytoreduction with interferon is one option; hydroxyurea is probably the most common drug used in that setting.
And now for the last few years, ruxolitinib is also FDA approved as a treatment for patients with polycythemia vera who have become intolerant to hydroxyurea or resistant to it.
Great. A couple of questions here, Dr. Snyder; how do you decide who gets what? For polycythemia vera, and I myself have seen this; I’m a member on so many different focus groups and such, and I see that there are people, one is getting Pegasys, one’s getting ruxolitinib, one’s getting hydrea; how do you decide who gets what?
The first question is does the patient need any of those drugs? We stratify patients with P vera into risk groups depending on age and the presence of other traditional cardiovascular risk factors or history of stroke.
But for a young person, say someone under 60 without risk factors, they can be maintained with baby aspirin and an occasional phlebotomy from time to time to maintain hematocrit under 45 percent. And they could go potentially for many years with that approach very comfortably.
The times that we say the cytoreduction is needed, there are a few things. One if it’s a higher risk patient, say over 60 with history of a stroke, other cardiovascular risk factors for example, or a patient who has other change sin their blood, not just the high hemoglobin but now maybe the white blood cells and the platelets are going higher, and also maybe the spleen is starting to get big. Phlebotomy is not going to help those features. That’s the time where you would start considering cytoreductive therapy.
We mentioned interferon, and Pegasys is the form of it that we now use. I do consider that more in younger patients because it’s a drug that may be harder for older patients to tolerate, so that’s the starting population. As Dr. Scott mentioned, there are trials going on to kind of compare head to head hydrea and interferon to see is one maybe better than the other. There are some suggestions that interferon may accomplish more than hydrea could in terms of some of the disease parameters. That’s not clear yet from the studies.
So that’s an option in a younger person. Hydrea really still is the main go-to drug for most patients who need cytoreduction. And then ruxolitinib, as I mentioned, it’s only FDA approved or indicated for patients who have already been on hydrea and have been either resistant to it or intolerant to that drug. So you can’t use ruxolitinib as frontline therapy.
The insurance companies won’t pay for it, and as we all know it’s a very expensive drug.
That’s a very, very common thing that we do here. We talked a few minutes ago about the mutations and doing some testing. Dr. Scott, I want to go back to you. How often do you suggest that patients have the initial genetic testing? I have found out that I’m a little unique compared to some of the other people I’ve been talking to about the frequency of genetic testing. So, how often do you suggest your patients get the genetic testing, Dr. Scott?
I’m going to be honest with you; that’s a very difficult question to answer in a definitive way, because there’s really a lack of data to address the question that you ask.
And so, I think it’s a personal decision that I assist my patients in making in conversations with them. There are a lot of different factors that go into answering that question. So, first I’ll say that everyone should have it at diagnosis, and I think most people would agree everybody should have an extensive panel sent at diagnosis to not only include the three driver mutations, but also the associated mutational changes that can be seen like ASXL1 and EVH2.
Almost all patients now are having that done at diagnosis. In regards to how frequently, it depends on a lot of factors. One of the biggest ones would be what’s the underlying health of the patient? So, would there be a utility in knowing are things changing? One of the reasons why you would want to know that, for instance, would be maybe their disease is bad enough at this time to say okay, a transplant is warranted, but you’re going to follow the patient closely
And if there’s new mutational changes or there are other signs or symptoms, then you might consider transplant at a later time. So when those patients are candidates for stem cell transplant, then I think one could argue that more frequent monitoring would be warranted. And so I might monitor those patients every six months to a year with mutational profiles.
I do think it should be done if there’s a change in symptomatology; if it looks like the disease is changing. So let’s say for instance you have an ET patient who’s been doing well on treatment for a long period of time, but they come in and they have low blood count now. And for the first time, they maybe need a red cell transfusion or maybe even a platelet transfusion. You’ve decreased their hydrea doses and their spleen has started to increase. You see immature cells in their blood smear. All of these are signs that maybe they’re going into myelofibrosis.
So if that were happening, that would be another reason that I would say okay, maybe we should do this mutational testing. So, I think it’s hard to be definitive; I think it’s an individual decision made after a consultation with the patient. And I think there’s a lack of data that we have to address your question, and that’s why you’re going to hear a lot of different opinions about when they should be done.
Absolutely. And James, I just want to go back to you for a few moments. Have you had genetic testing?
I think we all had it just to be sure about the Philadelphia chromosome. And I’m JAK2 positive, but other than that, no. I would like to interject sometimes the conversation has been once we find the right treatment; you’re going to stay on it. But if you get around a lot of patients, you’ll find that this drug works great for me for three years and now, for whatever reason I’m transforming; it isn’t working. Maybe I’m not transforming but it doesn’t work. But that’s the only thing I’ve had done.
Clinical trials and CALR and MPL I’m not sure right now what I’d change about my treatment. I haven’t gotten excited about that yet. But I’m aware of them through the conferences and through the Listserv.
Very, very interesting. You’re very connected and I know that when you and I talked before and we got to know each other, that you are very connected to what is out there and still kind of figuring out what do I need; things are going well. But James, you brought up a very good point. I’d like to ask Dr. Snyder; resistance. We hear the word so often, but could you talk to our viewers a little bit about what is drug resistance and what happens at that point?
Usually if you’re talking about resistance, say to hydroxyurea, a patient with P vera resistant to ruxolitinib, it usually implies – often implies that there is something new that’s occurred within those abnormal cells. We were talking about mutations, and that’s probably the main mechanism for the development of resistance; that a patient had a certain profile, let’s say they had the JAK2 mutation but no other secondary mutations.
Sometimes another mutation will develop in the course of the disease, and now even though for example with ruxolitinib, you may be inhibiting the JAK2 pathway pretty effectively; if a mutation has occurred that activates another pathway inside the cell, it may be able to bypass that blockade that the ruxolitinib was establishing and now the patient clinically becomes resistant. So it’s a time to wonder what’s happening at the molecular level and should we be looking at that.
If this fits into resistance and the whole issue, and we heard earlier from Dr. Scott talking about stem cell transplantation and I know that’s something that’s your area of focus. When you see resistance happening and you’re not finding another therapy that’s working, is that when stem cell transplantation is a viable option?
That’s a very good question, and not an easy one to answer.
I’m on a roll!
That’s the biggest question, really; well there are two. Who is the right candidate for stem cell translation, and when; when is the right time? We don’t want to compromise or jeopardize good quality of life that a patient may be experiencing with their current situation.
Stem cell transplantation, yes on the one hand it is a curative treatment potentially; that’s the goal of therapy with stem cell transplantation. But on the other hand, it’s a high risk approach as well, and there are risks of early death after transplant and if not death, then significant morbidity of complications that may affect the quality of life. So we certainly don’t want to rush into that approach. That’s the nuance of when is that right time.
I’ll just step back for a minute. We haven’t talked about DIPS or DIPS Plus, which I’m sure people are familiar with. That’s the Dynamic International Prognostic Scoring System for myelofibrosis that stratifies patients into low, intermediate one, intermediate two, and high risk. It helps to predict expected survival or average survival for a large group of patients with that category.
Generally speaking, once you get to intermediate two, the average predicted survival is under five years. That is to me sort of the minimum criteria to say we should be thinking about a transplant. But it’s not sufficient, because many people may be in intermediate two or even high risk and still have good quality of life. So I look for additional factors. One would be that a patient starts increasingly requiring red cell transfusion because of severe anemia; that’s one trigger. Because that would indicate that survival may be shorter.
The other is to look at the blasts in the blood. Patients may have none, or they may have a low number, say 1 to 3 or 4 percent; that hovers in that range. And then over time, something happens and now it’s 8 to 10 or 8 to 12 percent. Again, it may be one of those mutations that’s come along.
That gives you a sense that the patient is on the way towards transformation, so that’s another trigger to say this is the time to think about a transplant.
So definitely not a decision that is taken lightly; it is sort of a last sort of therapy, so to speak, a strategy to take because of the serious effects it could have on the quality of life, if I understand you correctly?
Again, in a sense it is. I like to say that I don’t like to take patients too early, nor too late to transplant. Because we want patients who are potentially going to benefit from it to have that chance. So too early means that a patient is doing well in their current therapy, they have a good quality of life, they’re doing the things that they need to do, that they want to do; we don’t want to interfere. Too late, that’s a relevant term because it’s hard to say that it’s ever absolutely too late.
But someone who’s transformed to leukemia, that’s a much more difficult situation. It’s not that we can’t transplant a patient in that situation; you need to go through treatments first to get the leukemia back into the more chronic stage. It complicates the whole picture; outcomes are not quite as good.
The other besides leukemia is the general organ function of patients as they get older and they have other issues. Their heart function, their kidneys, their liver, their lungs; those need to be in pretty good shape to be able to withstand the impact of a transplant.
So it’s a very intricate decision making process and highly specific, is what I hear you’re saying.
It is. I’d just like to get back a minute to what we’ve been talking about mutations.
As we’re learning more about what secondary mutations can be found and what their clinical impact is, they’re being incorporated into prognostic scoring systems so not just DIPSS, but there are things like MIPSS, molecular scoring.
So, incorporating those data along with the clinical parameters. We’re not ready yet, but there may be a time where we can define a patient’s risk through the genetic profile and allow us to say okay, this patient, even though clinically they’re doing well, we know that their risk for not doing well in the short term is X or it’s a much shorter timeframe, and we better not wait – or it would be better not to wait – to move to transplant since we had said that this patient is a candidate and they have a donor.
So we’re not going to wait and risk the chance that they would lose the benefit. We’re not there yet, but I think that’s the direction we’re hoping to head to in the coming years.
That’s great to hear about where we’re going with this; what we can expect in the coming years. It sounds like it’s going to get highly specific and very useful. Now I’d like to take the time to talk about some clinical trials. Dr. Scott, I’d like to have you start off with us. What’s new and promising? If you could talk about a few clinical trials that maybe are going on at SCCA, or that you’d like to share with us and then Dr. Snyder, we’ll go back to you and you can give us your feedback. So Dr. Scott, can you lead us into that subject?
Sure. We have a trial with a drug called imetelstat for patients with myelofibrosis. The accrual is currently on hold. A single center phase II result was published in the New England Journal of Medicine showing there were some patients who were able to retain a remission] of their myelofibrosis with treatment with imetelstat.
This includes both molecular remission and morphologic remission. Molecular remission would mean that their abnormal mutations went away and it responded, and morphologic remission would mean that visually the fibrosis had improved significantly. The phase II trial is currently on hold and they’re evaluating data. I’m helpful that the drug will continue to be explored in clinical settings. It does have a novel mechanism of action; it’s what’s called a telomerase inhibitor.
As I said, the drug is known as imetelstat. There are many centers that were participating in that phase II study. We just opened a trial with pactritinib. Pactritinib is also a JAK inhibitor, and actually I think it’s probably better to call these drugs JAK-STAT pathway inhibitors, because not all of them actually work directly on the JAK receptor, so I think that’s important to know.
These basically inhibit the JAK-STAT signally cascade. This drug, pactritinib, is in clinical testing. It is not yet FDA approved. It’s somewhat similar to ruxolitinib but it does appear to cause less cytopenias, so less toxicities with lowering of the blood count. It could be potentially useful in patients with low platelets. That’s one of the chief toxicities that can be seen with ruxolitinib are Jakafi is lowering of the platelet counts.
So, I’m hopefully that this drug will be approved in the near future. It was put on hold for the FDA for a brief period of time, but as I said the drug is now being studied again in a phase II trial, looking at different dosings. There are many centers participating in that study.
And then we also have a transplant study that’s looking at giving JAK inhibitors before transplant in an effort to improve the overall condition of patients before they go into transplant.
This is specifically for myelofibrosis patients. Patients with myelofibrosis can have a higher treatment-related mortality with transplantation because of other things that are going on with their body like malnutrition, the fact that they have a very big spleen, and other factors such as organ involvement with fibrosis can lead to a higher treatment-related mortality. They also have a slightly higher risk of graft failure in comparison to patients with other types of myeloid malignancies.
So, we’re hopeful that giving a JAK inhibitor before transplant can help improve the post transplant outcomes. So those are the three major trials that we currently have open. Of course there are other centers with really exciting drugs in development, as well.
Wow, that sounds very exciting. I know that I can say just hearing that there’s such a focus with MPNs and these trials.
And Dr. Snyder, what is going on in your neck of the woods at City of Hope and other trials that you’d like to tell us about?
Yes, we have a number of trials. We have the pacritinib and the imetelstat trial as well. We have two other trials that are for patients who have failed or progressed on ruxolitinib that have totally different mechanisms of action sort of outside of the pathways we’re talking about. One is called SL401, Stem Line 401. It’s an interesting sort of an immuno toxin; it’s a dual functional molecule that has an IL3, interleukin 3 portion that’s linked to a diphtheria toxin. It’s somewhat like a Trojan horse type of thing.
The cells in myelofibrosis and other hematological malignancies have an interleukin 3 receptor on their surface, and this IL3 molecule will bind to that interleukin receptor. That complex is taken inside the cells and then the diphtheria toxin is released and is able to kill the cell from the inside. So that’s one mechanism.
There’s another approach; there’s a molecule called CD47 which has been referred to as the “don’t eat me” signal. So, macrophages which are big cells in the body and in the blood and tissues, their name means big eaters. They like to eat foreign cells, tumor cells, bacteria, etc.
But some of the tumor cells or the malignancies become very clever and they have this protein called CD47 on their surface that sends a signal to the macrophage: don’t eat me, stay away and helps the cells to survive. So there is an antibody against the CD47 that binds to the CD47 and interrupts that pathway and then allows the macrophages to do their jobs, which is to eat these abnormal cells.
So that’s another approach that’s being tested not just in myelofibrosis but in other conditions as well. There is some data, sort of preclinical, that this approach may actually reverse fibrosis in some models, so it’s kind of intriguing particularly for patients with myelofibrosis.
The thing I will mention, we know that ruxolitinib is the only FDA approved drug so far; there have been several others unfortunately that have gotten just so far and then because of toxicities have been taken off of the table. But to me, I think another approach is combination therapy that is taking ruxolitinib as the base and then combining it with the second drug that has a totally different mechanism of action, and the two of them then perhaps can synergize and kill off the cells.
Those are trials, a quite a few of them going on around the country and I think those have a lot of promise.
And when you mention combination therapy, you both have mentioned it; are we looking at more of a personalized medicine? What’s your feeling on that, Dr. Snyder? Is it at that point we’re getting more personalized and we’re looking at that one person and saying this is going to work more specifically for you?
I think that’s a very good point, and I think as we learn more about mechanisms of action of some of these drugs and we talk about targeted therapy, it is something that can be very individualized potentially.
We talked about the genetic profile of what mutation someone might have. And so there may be a second drug beyond ruxolitinib that targets one of these secondary mutations that a patient might have. And so for that person with that particular combination of mutations, ruxolitinib plus this second targeted therapy may be just the right thing for them.
Even a drug like imetelstat, at least on data based on small numbers from Dr. Tefferi’s work suggested that there may be a mutational profile that defines the best responder type of patient, and conversely, patients who are unlikely to respond at all to that drug. That would be terrific to be able to say okay, don’t waste your time with this drug for this patient, but go in this direction because this is much more likely to be effective.
It could be life saving; it could get to the result much quicker than going through another therapy that just is not going to do it.
Very interesting. So, quick question for you James, before we move one. We’ve talked about a little bit about clinical trials. James, have you considered a clinical trial? Or you’ve been stable; would you consider one in the future if your condition changed?
Very definitely. But you know one thing we haven’t touched on and what drives the doctors crazy, probably, is the psychology of the diagnosis. We as patients quite often tend to think if I just took thing X or had therapy Y, I would be okay. And as these doctors know, it’s not that simple. But yeah, if I thought I would benefit from it and I needed to, of course.
You bring up an excellence point, James, because it is the psychology behind really how we… you’ve been doing this for 23 years and you obviously have educated yourself which helps you to understand what’s going on, which balances everything out. I know that I, as I mentioned, I’m in some support groups and I see people doing combination therapy. And it’s the old adage: he’s doing two things and I’m doing one, and I’m sure doctors don’t want to hear that.
There are other patients; the last thing they want to know is anything about the technical side. Just: I’ll go to the doctor and the doctor says this, and I do that.
There is, indeed.
I think even I’m on one extreme and they’re on the other.
Definitely. We have a little bit of time, and Dr. Scott, I’d like to go to you.
We have a question from Pauline, and she asks: is there any way to determine declining blood counts such as anemia and thrombocytopenias are due to drug side effects or the disease process? And she goes on to say: my husband has been on Jakafi for just over a year, and these declining cell counts began a couple of months ago. So let me know if you need to repeat that. Could you comment?
No, I’ve got it. There are things that are helpful to distinguish between drug toxicity and to these progressions, and one is timing. The cytopenias that are experienced with ruxolitinib, as long as the dose has remained the same are usually early side effects. So, most of the cytopenias are during the first eight weeks of therapy. So if you see early cytopenias, it’s more likely to be a drug effect. If you see later cytopenias, it makes you more concerned about disease progression. And to know definitively of course, you could repeat a marrow aspirate or a biopsy and that can be helpful.
And then other co-associated symptoms or size like increasing spleen size, or return of puritis can all be signs that the ruxolitinib is no longer working. But as I said, the side effects of drug-related are usually early events within the first eight weeks when treated with ruxolitinib.
Great. I think that’s going to be some good feedback for Pauline and some talking points that she can bring back to her specialist. We are coming to a close, and what I’d like to do now is ask each of our panelists just for some final thoughts or comments. You know, I’m feeling very optimistic from this discussion this evening to know that there’s just constant thought on these rare diseases, and there are clinical trials and research. But Dr. Snyder, let me start with you and if you could just give us some thoughts you’d like to share with us that you think would be meaningful?
Sure. These are obviously difficult diseases because they’re hard to cure. But I will focus first on the role of stem cell transplantation as the only current only curative approach. We are trying to improve both the efficacy and the safety of that approach, and Dr. Scott mentioned studying the role of JAK2 inhibitors in the peritransplant time, for example, as one. It turns out that ruxolitinib also is an effective drug to treat one of the main complications, which is graft versus host disease. We have a trial actually looking at it as a prophylactic way to prevent graft versus host disease.
So just to say that there’s a lot of work being done on that front to try to improve outcome for patients with the transplant approach. But of course we’d all love to have – we all think about CML, that was mentioned; the Philadelphia chromosome. The Gleevec story is kind of the model that we wish we could duplicate with many of the diseases that we treat, recognizing at the same time that it’s very unlikely.
Because in a way, patients and doctors were lucky with CML because it’s a very simple biology. And if you come up with a drug like Gleevec that targets really the definitive driver of that disease, you can have dramatic clinical benefit.
Not quite the case with the myeloproliferative neoplasms; more complicated. Ruxolitinib, we all hoped this is going to target the JAK-STAT pathway; it’s going to shut it down and restore normal hematopoiesis. It’s not quite that simple.
But we certainly have hope and optimism that with many of these trials that are going on, particularly as I said clinical trials with combination therapy, that that is going to get us closer to that point. I’m a transplanter but I would love to be put out of business because we have drugs or a drug that is so effective, transplant is just a thing of the past. Hopefully, one day that will be the case.
Wow, and that is very powerful. I will always remember those words; that’s really great. Dr. Scott, can you give us some final thoughts on just anything to let us know again what we should be looking for, what’s in the future, some optimism; whatever you feel is meaningful?
I think there is a lot of hope. When you compare what we know about myeloproliferative neoplasms now with what we knew about them six years ago, it is really remarkable. It was in 2005 that the first publications were published about JAK2, and we began our understanding of the underlying mechanisms of myeloproliferative neoplasms.
And over those 11 years there have been a lot of advances. So, I’m very encouraged by not only the clinical trial work that has been done, but also the basic science and the expansion of our understanding of these diseases. So when you compare what we have now with what we had ten years ago, it is really remarkable. I also do transplants but I do non transplant as well and I hope to be driven out of business. I would be okay with that.
That’s wonderful to hear; again very optimistic. James, you and I were chatting a little bit before our show started. James was commenting how even from 2014 to 2017, that there have been so many changes in progression and therapies. And James, I’ve got to say you’re like an MPN warrior.
You’ve been dealing with this for 23 years, you’ve been not only optimistic; you’ve been so resourceful, you are a born researcher. I would love to turn the stage over to you right now. And if you could give us some of your thoughts, some things you’d like us to know and help us feel more optimistic as we go forward.
Well, I’m very optimistic; I mean it’s just amazing compared to 1994. Actually, I was one of the data points in some of those 2005 studies. But there’s the MPN Research Foundation – let me throw in a plug for them, patients; they have funded some really specific studies. If you can’t go to conferences nearby or Scottsdale or New York – Dr. Silver runs one in New York; I know they’re in Seattle and all over now, get involved in a focus group. I drive to Dallas just to be around a focus group of those people. It’s tremendously empowering to talk to other people. Because your friends are like, you don’t really have a problem; you don’t look sick or anything, you know?
That is something that MPN patients hear quite a lot. But go ahead, James.
I’m just excited. When I have to get more knowledgeable and detailed about these things, I will but I’m not there yet. My goal is like the physicians here; I intend to die of something else. It didn’t get me the first time; I’m planning on no second time.
I think that is wonderful. You know, I would like to say that optimism is what is going to get us through this condition. I don’t tell too many people because I’m very optimistic, but I do agree with you James; I really connect well with people in focus groups. I drive sometimes about two hours each way into Los Angeles to see my specialist because that’s of value to me. If I ever could give advice, it would be make sure you’re connecting well with your specialist.
And that they are, like Dr. Scott and Dr. Snyder, very well versed in their field and in their clinical trials and things like that. So, wrapping up, a big thank you to our panel; I really believe that this webinar this evening gave us a great deal of information. Dr. Scott, Dr. Snyder, you both have very busy schedules so appreciate it. And James, you too took time out tonight so thank you all.
We have an upcoming webinar I’d just like to talk about really quickly on September 20th, and it’s what you can do to advance MPN research so I hope everyone will join us then. We will also be showing this video again and again. So thank you for our panel and thank you all for taking the time to watch Patient Power. Good night.
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/understand-new-treatment.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2017-08-29 14:47:582019-09-02 12:26:27Living Well with MPNs – Are There New or Emerging Treatments That Could Be Right For Me?
Is a clinical trial right for me or is it a gamble with my health? How will my loved one be affected? Do the risks outweigh the benefits? Watch as a panel of experts, including an oncologist, trial coordinator, and patient advocate as they debunk some of the myths around clinical trials. Listen to hear the patient voice and perspective for getting the best care-making decisions about clinical trials.
Watch to learn:
What are common clinical trial myths?
Why should patients participate?
How can patients navigate the system?
How can I or my care partner work with my medical team?
https://powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/Are-Clinical-Trials-a-Gamble-for-Me-or-My-Loved-One_.png600600Kara Rayburnhttps://www.powerfulpatients.org/pen/wp-content/uploads/New-Logo-300x126.pngKara Rayburn2017-06-30 11:47:152020-01-29 11:06:08Clinical Trial Mythbusters: Are Clinical Trials a Gamble for Me or My Loved One?