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Myeloproliferative Neoplasms Defined: What Are ET, PV, and MF?

Myeloproliferative Neoplasms Defined: What Are ET, PV, and MF? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are essential thrombocythemia (ET) , polycythemia vera (PV), and myelofibrosis (MF) exactly? Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju explains how each of these blood disorders manifests along with the symptoms observed in these MPN patients.

Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju is Director of the Blastic Plasmacytoid Dendritic Cell Neoplasm (BPDCN) Program in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Pemmaraju, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:    

Can you help us understand the differences between ET, PV, and MF?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah, this is very important because we toss these words around as if there’s some big definition that was given, and oftentimes, that never happens. So, let’s pause to do that. So, this goes back to the 1950s when William Damashek, who really postulated the modern MPDs at that time as they were known – myeloproliferative disorders – really thought that there were four diseases that were similar at some level and then presented differently. So, that’s polycythemia vera, essential thrombocytosis, myelofibrosis, and CML, chronic myeloid leukemia.

Then, as the modern era comes in, CML is divided off because of the Philadelphia chromosome, BCR-ABL, which is present in 100 percent of those patients.

So, now we know CML is its own thing. And now we have the big three, sort of non-Philadelphia chromosome MPNs, as they’re now known, because neoplasm – cancer – instead of disorder. Within the subtype, and this is important, the subtypes that you mentioned are the most common.

So, polycythemia vera – poly meaning many, cythemia, cells, vera is Latin for true.

This is the designation for the patient who has a higher than expected blood red cell mass or hematocrit. And it actually, interestingly, Katherine, most patients with P vera have an increase in all three of their blood lines, so the red cells, hemoglobin, hematocrit, platelets, and white count. Those patients with PV are especially at risk for both bleeding and clotting, transformation to myelofibrosis, and even transformation to acute leukemia in maybe 5 to 7 percent of patients.

So, the usual treatment there, Katherine, is to bring off the blood mass. That’s the phlebotomy.

And then in the patient who is above the age of 60 or has a prior blood clot, to give some form of chemotherapy, hydroxyurea (Hydrea), or interferon, for example.

Now, the second grouping is ET, essential thrombocytosis. Again, this word vera or essential, meaning not reactive, not benign, not from a regular cause like a surgery or a trauma or an inflammation. So, it means a cancerous cause, an autonomous cause, something that’s coming on its own.

Thrombocythemia or thrombocytosis, meaning too many platelets. So, usually, patients with ET have too many platelets as their predominant manifestation. But again, as with P vera, patients can get into problems with that. Very, very high platelets, usually a million-and-a-half or higher, can actually lead to bleeding. Not necessarily clotting, but extra bleeding. And then patients with any platelet levels, because the platelet level doesn’t exactly correlate, can have either bleeding or clotting. So, that’s usually the predominant factor. And again, the underlying problem with these MPNs is that they can transform to the other ones – PV, MF, even acute leukemia.

And then, finally, myelofibrosis, which we could spend the whole hour on just by itself, is the more advanced state out of these.

So, it can either arise out of the PV or ET or stand alone. And really here, this is an advanced bone marrow failure state with bone marrow scarring or fibrosis. And now, usually, most patients, their blood counts, rather than high are now low because the bone marrow is unable to produce enough cells. And then, therefore, the sequela of the disease – anemia, thrombocytopenia. So, low blood, low platelets.

Then you need transfusions. The liver and the spleen get larger because they remember how to make blood cells. People can have a wasting away appearance. And then here, more than the PV or ET, this is more of an acute disease for many where if you have intermediate to high stage, these patients can transform more readily to leukemia and have a decreased overall survival.

How to Make an Informed MPN Treatment Decision

How to Make an Informed MPN Treatment Decision from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When faced with several options, how can you decide on the best therapy for your essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF)? In this explainer video, Katrina and her doctor walk through important considerations when choosing treatment and provide advice for partnering with your healthcare team.

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Transcript:

Katrina:

Hi, I’m Katrina. Nice to meet you!

Several years ago, I started having headaches and felt very tired. After a trip to the doctor and undergoing bloodwork, I was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, or PV, which is a rare blood cancer that causes my body to produce too many blood cells. It was overwhelming at the time to learn that I had a blood cancer, but my hematologist, Dr. Liu, told me more about the condition and how it’s managed.

Here’s Dr. Liu–she can explain it further.

Dr. Liu:

Hi! I’m Dr. Liu, and I’m a hematologist specializing in the care and treatment of people with myeloproliferative neoplasms or MPNs. MPNs are a group of blood cancers that are characterized by the bone marrow overproducing a certain type of cell. Katrina was diagnosed with PV, which is one of the three MPNs. The three types of MPNs are:

Essential thrombocythemia, or ET, which means that the body is producing too many platelets. The second is polycythemia vera or PV. PV is characterized by the overproduction of red blood cells, and, in some cases, elevated white blood cells and platelets. And the third is myelofibrosis or MF, which causes scarring in the bone marrow that disrupts the normal production of blood cells.

When a patient is diagnosed with any of these conditions, there is a chance they could progress from one condition to the next.

Those that have been diagnosed with ET, PV or MF, should have regular visits with their hematologist to monitor their condition and find the most appropriate treatment to manage their MPN.

Katrina:

After I was diagnosed, I met with Dr. Liu and she walked me through the goals of treatment for PV.

Dr. Liu:

Right! First, we talked about the clinical goals of treatment for PV, which are to reduce the risk of a blood clot and ease or eliminate any symptoms.

And, it’s important to note that because each of the MPNs is different, they are treated differently – be sure to discuss the specific goals of YOUR MPN with your doctor.

Katrina and I reviewed the effectiveness of each treatment option, including how treatment would be administered, and took all of her test results into consideration to make sure we found the best, most personalized treatment option for her PV. Then, we went over what our next steps would be if the treatment plan needed to be adjusted.

Katrina:

Next, we talked about another key treatment goal: symptom management. Dr. Liu let me know that I should make her aware of any symptoms that I may be having, even if I don’t think it’s related to my PV.

Dr. Liu:

Exactly, Katrina. A significant change in symptoms can indicate that it may be time to switch treatments or that the disease might be changing. Those symptoms may include enlarged spleen, fever, itching, fatigue and anemia, among others. This is why it’s always important to not only have blood counts checked regularly, but it’s essential to tell your doctor or nurse about any symptoms you may be having, even if you don’t think it’s related to your MPN.

And, last but not least, we discussed the most important treatment goal: Katrina’s goals. Katrina let me know that she’s very social and enjoys playing golf and tennis with her friends – we wanted to make sure she could continue doing the activities she loves.

Katrina:

Dr. Liu reviewed each of the treatment approaches with me, including potential side effects for every therapy and how it could impact my lifestyle. We discussed the pros and cons of each option, together.

Dr. Liu:

Exactly! When deciding on therapy, you and your doctor may also consider:

Your age and overall health, any presence or history of other medical problems, and the financial impact of a treatment plan.

Katrina:

In addition to asking questions, my daughter, Sarah, took notes during our appointments, since it was often hard for me to absorb everything at once.

We also made sure to talk about the appointment on our way home, while the information was fresh on our minds. And we did our part by researching PV and bringing a list of questions to each appointment.

Sarah found an office visit planner on the Patient Empowerment Network website that helped me organize my health info and questions.

Dr. Liu:

As you can see, Katrina and her daughter were actively engaged in each care decision. It’s vital that patients feel empowered to speak up. If you can, bring a friend or loved one along to your appointment.

And, if you are able, it’s a good idea to seek a second opinion or a consultation with an MPN specialist to help you feel confident in your care decisions.

Katrina:

Dr. Liu let me know that she would monitor my condition through regular physical exams, blood work and frequent communication. She made Sarah and I feel included in the decision-making process, as if it were a collaboration.

Dr. Liu:

That’s right. This is a partnership. So, what steps can you take to be more engaged in your MPN care?

  • Bring a friend or loved one to your appointments.
  • Understand and articulate the goals of your treatment plan.
  • Learn about your options and weigh the pros and cons of each approach.
  • Consider a second opinion or a consult with a specialist.

Katrina:

That’s great advice, Dr. Liu. To learn more, visit powerfulpatients.org/MPN to access a library of tools.

Thanks for joining us!

How to Play an Active Role in Your MPN Treatment and Care Decisions

How to Play an Active Role in Your MPN Treatment and Care Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can you play a role in your MPN care and treatment decisions? Engaging with your healthcare team is essential and may lead to better overall outcomes. In this program, Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju provides tips for how best to advocate for yourself or a loved one, as well as tools for making treatment and care decisions.

Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju is Director of the Blastic Plasmacytoid Dendritic Cell Neoplasm (BPDCN) Program in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Pemmaraju, here.

Download Guide

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:    

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

Today, we’re going to explore how to engage with your healthcare team when diagnosed with a myeloproliferative neoplasm, and we’ll discuss the patient’s role in care decisions.

Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.

All right. Let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju. Dr. Pemmaraju, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Well, thank you for having me, Katherine and team. I’m Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju. Associate Professor of Leukemia and the Director of the Rare Disease Program with Blastic Neoplastic Cell Neoplasm (BPDCN) here at MD Anderson, and I’m happy to be here with you guys.

Katherine Banwell:    

Thank you so much. We’re glad to have you with us today. As we move through this conversation, we’ll talk about the classic myeloproliferative neoplasms: essential thrombocythemia, polycythemia vera, and myelofibrosis.

But before we get into our discussion, let’s start with the question that’s on the minds of many of our audience members. We’re all hearing that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe, but how effective is it for MPN patients?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Well, I believe that this is one of the most important issues of our time.

I think the way I would approach the COVID-19 question is, one, is we know that if our patients contract the virus, that can be deadly in actually many of our patients. So, I think it’s actually important to remember that the virus is still out there and that getting the virus is potentially very life-threatening, not only for the general population but for our patients.

For the vaccines, I kind of have two stories to tell you. So, one is my own anecdotal experience in the clinic where it has been surprisingly and remarkably well-tolerated in most of our patients. This is both the mRNA vaccines and as well as the J&J vaccine. And so, overall, we’ve seen a very minimal amount of allergic or other reactions.

I think the most important part, as you said at the top, is for specific medical advice, we need to be talking to our own providers. But I think for our MPN patients, we’re giving some caution, looking at the blood counts, what chemotherapy folks are on. But, in general, I’ve been happy with that rollout.

Now, for the effectiveness of them, sure. That’s a question of ongoing research. There are some data that’s coming out, particularly in CLL and other leukemias that – correct – maybe some of our immunocompromised patients, as you would expect, may not be able to mount the appropriate response. But all that data is moving and fluid, so we’ll see.

And then I think the other point here is with this question of the virus itself and maybe some of these vaccines having a signal for increased blood clots or coagulopathy.

This is something I think we have to follow in our MPN community only because our patients are already at a high risk for both bleeding and clotting. So, the virus itself, COVID-19, post-syndrome coagulopathy, possible side effects – idiosyncratic and rare, for sure, from these vaccines that can lead to a vaccine-induced thrombotic state. I think these are some of the factors that we have to watch out for. So, in general, we don’t yet know the exact answer for each patient, PV, ET, MF, how effective the vaccine may be. But we are encouraging everyone to go for it unless there’s an obvious contraindication. Katherine?

Katherine Banwell:    

Okay. Good. Thank you. Let’s learn a little bit more about the disease itself. Dr. Pemmaraju, do a level set with our audience. Can you help us understand the differences between ET, PV, and MF?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah, this is very important because we toss these words around as if there’s some big definition that was given, and oftentimes, that never happens. So, let’s pause to do that. So, this goes back to the 1950s when William Dameshek, who really postulated the modern MPDs at that time as they were known – myeloproliferative disorders – really thought that there were four diseases that were similar at some level and then presented differently. So, that’s polycythemia vera, essential thrombocytosis, myelofibrosis, and CML, chronic myeloid leukemia.

Then, as the modern era comes in, CML is divided off because of the Philadelphia chromosome, BCR-ABL, which is present in 100 percent of those patients.

So, now we know CML is its own thing. And now we have the big three, sort of non-Philadelphia chromosome MPNs, as they’re now known, because neoplasm – cancer – instead of disorder. Within the subtype, and this is important, the subtypes that you mentioned are the most common.

So, polycythemia vera – poly meaning many, cythemia, cells, vera is Latin for true. This is the designation for the patient who has a higher than expected blood red cell mass or hematocrit. And it actually, interestingly, Katherine, most patients with p. vera have an increase in all three of their blood lines, so the red cells, hemoglobin, hematocrit, platelets, and white count. Those patients with PV are especially at risk for both bleeding and clotting, transformation to myelofibrosis, and even transformation to acute leukemia in maybe 5 to 7 percent of patients.

So, the usual treatment there, Katherine, is to bring off the blood mass. That’s the phlebotomy.  And then in the patient who is above the age of 60 or has a prior blood clot, to give some form of chemotherapy, hydroxyurea (Hydrea) or interferon, for example.

Now, the second grouping is ET, essential thrombocytosis. Again, this word vera or essential, meaning not reactive, not benign, not from a regular cause like a surgery or a trauma or an inflammation. So, it means a cancerous cause, an autonomous cause, something that’s coming on its own.

Thrombocythemia or thrombocytosis, meaning too many platelets. So, usually, patients with ET have too many platelets as their predominant manifestation. But again, as with p. vera, patients can get into problems with that. Very, very high platelets, usually a million and a half or higher, can actually lead to bleeding. Not necessarily clotting, but extra bleeding. And then patients with any platelet levels, because the platelet level doesn’t exactly correlate, can have either bleeding or clotting. So, that’s usually the predominant factor. And again, the underlying problem with these MPNs is that they can transform to the other ones – PV, MF, even acute leukemia.

And then, finally, myelofibrosis, which we could spend the whole hour on just by itself, is the more advanced state out of these.  So, it can either arise out of the PV or ET or stand alone. And really here, this is an advanced bone marrow failure state with bone marrow scarring or fibrosis. And now, usually, most patients, their blood counts, rather than high are now low because the bone marrow is unable to produce enough cells. And then, therefore, the sequela of the disease – anemia, thrombocytopenia. So, low blood, low platelets.

Then you need transfusions. The liver and the spleen get larger because they remember how to make blood cells. People can have a wasting away appearance. And then here, more than the PV or ET, this is more of an acute disease for many where if you have intermediate to high stage, these patients can transform more readily to leukemia and have a decreased overall survival.

Katherine Banwell:    

When a person is diagnosed with an MPN, they have a whole healthcare team. Who is typically on that team?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Well, it’s interesting. Yeah, that’s evolved over time.

It used to just be patient and their local oncologist, right? And the oncologist office has become a very busy place with mostly solid tumors. So, breast, prostate, colon, and then maybe a few scattered patients in most practices with blood cancers. Obviously, blood abnormalities are common with platelets and anemia and all that, but to actually have an MPN patient in the general hem/onc practice is actually quite rare. Right? These diseases are 4 to 5 out of 100,000 people.

Now, fast-forward to the modern era. I think this is important. I think now, what I personally encourage – and obviously I’m biased because I’m here at the academic center. But I really think that patients with rare blood cancers such as MPNs should be co-managed. So, be seen by your local hematologist/oncologist, for sure. They know you the best. But also have a referral, if you’re able to and have the resources and ability to travel, to an academic center where you can see a blood cancer specialist such as me or my colleagues, as I only focus on blood cancer.

So, I’m not seeing patients with a solid tumor. So, local oncologist. If you can have a blood cancer expert as part of your care, it doesn’t have to replace the care. And then to have a member of the nursing allied professions – nursing and APP, advanced practice providers – is really becoming essential to help with acquiring the prescriptions from the specialty pharmacy, prior authorizations, teaching of the injectables, such as interferon, figuring out enrolling on clinical trials.

So – and then, if a patient, young and fit, with myelofibrosis, you’ll want to be consulted with a stem cell transplant doctor. And then, finally, as if that wasn’t enough, I think a good pharmacist team is important nowadays to go over the drug-to-drug interactions, side effects. It’s not just about the JAK inhibitors but all the other medicines – antibiotics and everything else – that may be a bit unique to the MPN patient compared to the general cancer patient.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. Lately, we’ve been hearing this term “shared decision-making,” which basically means the patients and clinicians collaborate to make healthcare decisions. And it can help patients to take a more active role in their care. So, I’d like to get your thoughts on how best to make this process work.

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

This is a passion area to me. I think this is so important that  you bring this out. I think a generation or two ago, Katherine, it may have been common for there to be more of a one-way monologue, if you will, doctor to patient, and that may have been the majority of the conversation before.

I don’t see it that way anymore, and most of my colleagues don’t either. I think it should be a dialogue, as you said. It should be a back-and-forth communication, one that learns and evolves over time as any real relationship would, right? Outside in the real world. So, I think that’s important. Number two, I think trust needs to be earned, not just given.

So, that means patient and physician, and really the physician team – so, all the other members of the team – building that trust over time through frequent communication, visits, all of this. And then, finally, I think the key here is that a lot of patients always ask, “Hey, what can I do on my own?” I’ll tell you what you can do. You can be involved and read and empower yourself if you’re able to, if you’re able to and you can. Many may not be able to due to their illness or for other reasons.

But if you are able to, I think it’s great to read online. There, I just said it. Let me repeat it to make sure everyone heard that. I want you to read. I think it’s fine. Consult Dr. Google. What’s the worst that happens? The worst that happens is you find misinformation. Well, don’t keep it to yourself. right? So, Google, look up things, go to social media, see what experts in your area are talking about, go to Facebook, go to the patient groups. But remember, everyone’s case is different. Someone else’s is different from yours, and yours is different from the next. So, gather information like a sponge.

Formulate it, synthesize it in the way that only you know how to do, bring some notes, and then talk about it with me at the next visit, “Hey, I saw this on the Internet.” “Okay, great, let’s talk about that.” Or, “Hey, this new formulation of interferon is coming.” “Great, let’s talk about it.” So, gather information, sort out signal from the noise with your healthcare team. Sort that out and then move on, move on, move on. So, I think these are some of the aspects of what’s called shared decision-making. No longer a monologue, one-way street. Let’s have a dialogue, let’s have a partnership, let’s figure out a way to empower each other in this journey.

Katherine Banwell:    

We’re going to talk in a few moments about online research and how well that works or how well it doesn’t. But let’s talk about treatment goals first for ET, PV, and MF. What are the goals of treatment from a clinical perspective?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Well, I think the goals are divided up into three factors. So, I think for the MPN patient, goal number one has to be what the patient themselves want to achieve.

Oftentimes, that’s different than what’s on the numbers with the labs and what the physician wants. So, I think a lot of our patients correctly are suffering from – or mentioning to us that they’re suffering from quality of life issues. So, fatigue is the most common manifestation of all the MPNs, followed by bone pain, night sweats, inability to concentrate, etcetera, etcetera.

So, I think quality of life is the goal of most people, and I think that’s an admirable goal. And some of the medicines can help that. Some can actually hurt that in the short term. So, let’s put that as bucket number one. What does the patient want to achieve? Usually, it’s the alleviation of fatigue, itching, bone pain, etcetera.

Number two, I think, is the sort of on-paper game, if you will, right? So, what do the labs show, what does the bone marrow biopsy show, what does the spleen show? I think all of that is good, too, in that bucket. And clearly, if someone has transfusion dependent anemia, two times a week needing blood transfusions, and whatever treatment you can do can alleviate that down to once a week, once a month never – okay, that’s a win for the patient.

And then I think, finally, our goals. You’re right. You asked me specifically “What are my goals for our patients?” Well, I want to see that your overall survival has improved if I can. So, your length of life, your quality of life has improved, minimization of side effects from whatever therapy we’re doing. If we’re going on a clinical trial or combining therapies in a novel way, that you’re not experiencing some brand new or idiosyncratic toxicity or side effect.

And then, finally, I think the key is to monitor for, let’s say, other things. Are you developing a second cancer, a second blood cancer? Are you having another problem that’s outside of your MPN, such as iron deficiency anemia or thyroid disease? Something that’s extremely common, has nothing to do with the MPN, but is also happening. And then do you have a healthcare team?

I failed to mention in your earlier question the primary care doctor, right? Let’s mention that person as well. If our patients have the general practitioner who they had already been seeing before the MPN diagnosis, or at least established one after, then some of these important aspects, like cancer screening, cholesterol checks, some of these other important things can be done in parallel to the MPN therapy and then, of course, combined at different points.

So, these are kind of my benchmarks for goals of therapy. They will vary from patient to patient and, of course, from case to case. The patient with advanced intermediate to high-risk myelofibrosis going to transplant, well, that’s markedly different from the patient who’s young with ET with no blood clots and relatively controlled blood counts. So, different goals there, Katherine.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. Right. So, you just mentioned a couple of factors that you take into consideration, but there are others as well, I think. What about the patient’s age and overall health, for instance?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Could not be more important. You’re right. I think age – and let’s use that as a surrogate for what we call ECOG performance data. So, the overall kind of fitness of a patient, as you said, may be the most important factor. And then followed by these other conditions, so-called co-morbidities. I’d like to talk about that for a second because that’s a lot of the program here. Depending on a patient’s age, performance status, fitness, and other organs that are involved, that actually leads to a couple of important points.

One, it may limit or reduce the number of treatment options that a person has based on their ability to even tolerate it in the first place. Both oral chemos that are available, some of these clinical trials that need to use an IV drug.

Number two, it may predict how your overall survival is going to be. So, perhaps your MPN, as we used in the other example, you have an earlier stage MPN that really doesn’t require treatment. It requires active observation.

But then on the other hand, you have advanced heart disease or kidney disease. That may actually do you more harm in the end. So, that’s actually very important that you bring that up.

And then, finally, right, is this concept that you have the co-morbidities and then you have the MPN, and then they kind of change and morph over time where one is the dominant issue, the other isn’t. And so, you do need that decision care team as you were mentioning earlier. So, let’s definitely say that out loud that that matters. And I think it also reminds us that nothing is in a vacuum. The MPN doesn’t exist in an isolated space, right? So, your MPN co-exists with your heart disease, your kidney disease, your lung disease, your past, your present habits, anything.

Katherine Banwell:    

Exactly.

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

So, I’m really glad you brought that up. And I think also, to your point with the shared decision-making model, I think sometimes, as physicians, we may not ask, and as patients, we forget to mention, “Oh, X, Y, Z in my history,” or “Oh, I’m taking this herbal supplement.” Sometimes these things are important to mention.

So, when in doubt, bring up everything to your care team so that you can make decisions together.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. It might help to make notes before you go in to talk to your doctor.

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Sure. Sure, absolutely. That doesn’t hurt, and it could help you at least organize your own thoughts even if you don’t use them in the visit.

Katherine Banwell:    

Exactly. Yeah. Dr. Pemmaraju, let’s talk about biomarker testing. Can you help us understand what biomarkers are and how they may affect treatments?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yes. Biomarkers – I think that word gets mentioned a lot with really no definition, because it’s one of those words that can be whatever someone wants it to be. So, you’re right. For us, it’s a very important word in MPN. Bio meaning of life, scientific, and then marker meaning some kind of a measuring stick that has a value.

Well, there are two ways to look at biomarkers. One is the obvious, which is we have the defined big three molecular mutations. So, that’s JAK2V617F, followed by CALR mutation, followed by MPL. Those are the big three. Those make up about 90 percent of all patients with MPNs. You’re technically not born with them, although new data suggests that you may acquire these mutations right after birth. So, those markers are important, because they can be used to diagnose the disease, right? Particularly in the challenging patient. They have high platelets, you can’t tell if it’s reactive or ET. Okay, so they’re helpful with diagnosis.

Maybe some studies have shown that some of these markers can be predictive, Katherine, of blood clots. Let that research be ongoing. And then, obviously, some of these may be helpful in terms of designing the future treatments, particularly targeted therapies. So, I think biomarkers are part of our field, if you look at it that way, at diagnosis and risk stratification prognosis. But there are other factors that are starting to come out. One is there are molecular mutations outside of these big three.

So, outside of JAK2, CALR, and MPL, that are very important actually. Not everyone is checking for them. They are ASXL1 mutations, EZH2, IDH1 and 2, so on and so forth.

So, these are extended molecular markers that can be checked at some doctors’ offices that now, in the latest scoring systems, if you have one of those or more than one or two, they can elevate your risk score. So, if you have low-risk or intermediate-risk myelofibrosis, they may make you intermediate or high risk.

So, that may be a bit more complicated than what most people are aware of. But just so you know, there are markers that can be readily checked that can tell if your disease may be a bit higher risk than we though, say, 10 years ago.

I think other biomarkers that we look at are some of the labs that are just the regular labs that are on almost every panel, but they can tell a lot about the disease. There’s the LDH, lactate dehydrogenase. There are several markers, such as CRP and sed rate.

So, anyway, there are a lot of labs that we can check depending on where you are in your disease state that can kind of tell us a lot about how inflamed you are, how active your disease is at the moment, and then that will lead to further confirmatory tests. So, I think, yeah, in general, this is an active, developing area of research in our MPN field.

Katherine Banwell:    

It seems like results could really influence therapy choices then. So, do you think patients should ask for these tests specifically?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

I’m a big fan of patients being empowered to ask anything that comes to mind. And again, that’s why I love this discussion because maybe there might be some people out there who are shocked, frankly, at what we’re talking about here. I think it’s great to do what you said. Yes. I think do your research, online or otherwise. Come up with a list of questions. Bring – if you’re able to, of course – if you have the ability to, bring one person with you. Or nowadays, on the telehealth, we put one person on through the phone during the pandemic time.

And then – yeah. I mean, yeah, sure, just you hear about something, ask about it. The worst thing that your doctor says is, “Hey, that’s only a research test. That’s not available.” It doesn’t hurt to ask. And it may help to lead to other discussions. I think it’s also a good idea to get a second or a third opinion if you need to. There, I said it. It’s your body, it’s your life, it’s your choice. I think, yes, advocate for yourself, because at the end of the day, who else is going to do that?

Katherine Banwell:    

Absolutely. Dr. Pemmaraju, are there other questions that patients should consider asking about their proposed treatment plan?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

You know, I think the biggest thing that I think is getting left out in the rare blood cancers that I spend all my time in is the ability and access to clinical trials. And that’s one thing I wanted to discuss with you this morning, which is you’re seen in your local doctor’s office. They’re doing the heroic work, and I really think it is, of seeing breast cancer patients, prostate, lung, colon, PV.

It’s just the difference between the frequent, common tumors that get chapters dedicated to them in the board review testing and whole months dedicated in the oncology fellowship compared to the patient with the rare blood cancer that, really, you may only encounter once or twice in your career. As compared to, say, me, where I’m a specialist in only that area.

I think that we – look, here’s the deal. Even today, only 5 to 7 percent of all oncology patients are ever referred to – are ever enrolled on a clinical trial. Clinical trials oftentimes are seen as last resort, last ditch. And I understand that. In fact, I even thought that before I went into medical school.

Then once you get to this point where I am, you realize, wait a second, clinical trial, oftentimes, are frontline programs. Yes, sometimes they’re randomized, sometimes they’re not. Very few times does anyone get placebo, right? Which is what a lot of people are worried about. Or if they do, it’s two drugs versus one plus placebo. Anyway, so there are a lot of different things that are clinical trials.

But we realize now that oncology has so little known information still in 2021 and beyond. So the ability to enroll in a clinical trial, be referred to it, travel to it, know about it, get on it, you’re contributing so much information to not only yourself and patients in your cohort but possibly for the future. So, that’s my only plug, is I wish that we would all ask each other more about “What clinical trials are available, how do I look them up, do you recommend this for me, or can I figure out with you how to travel and do all that stuff?”

So, I think clinical trials in rare blood cancers such as MPNs are underutilized, under-referred to, under-thought of. And then even when we are able to get people there, Katherine, it’s difficult to keep people traveling, particularly vulnerable people.

Katherine Banwell:      

Yeah. We have a question from a newly diagnosed PD patient. Sharon says, “I’m just about to begin Jakafi. What can I expect?”

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah, great question, right? So, with ruxolitinib or Jakafi, I think the biggest couple of points here is, for what’s known, this is the first-in-class JAK inhibitor that we have the most experience with.

So, now we have over a decade-plus of experience. I guess general things are general, right? This is not specific medical advice. That’s not the intention of this program. But, in general, I would stick with what’s on the package label insert, and there are a couple things we know.

One is this is a highly effective drug. This drug, which we have tested now in multiple, multiple, multiple different trials in myelofibrosis, polycythemia vera, now approved in a form of graft-versus-host disease, different doses. So, I would say check the dose for your particular disease and indication. Double-check it with your pharmacist. Make sure there are no drug-to-drug interactions.

Number two, I think what’s important is that some patients on this drug can experience immunosuppression. So, that means that you may be at risk for some infections, and there’s some nice literature about that.

So, check with your doctor about that, particularly reactivation of old infections, looking out for viral infections, such as herpes zoster or shingles. And then I think the other key here is to watch out for the modulation of your disease. So, a lot of folks have big spleens, Katherine. Those shrink down. Then patients get their appetite back, they’re able to eat, and so some people can have weight gain that then goes the other way. So, these are some of the things you want to watch out for.

But, in general, read the package insert. If you have the ability to, it’s worth reading the – if you can, read the paper, right? Go read the New England Journal paper or – if you can look at that. And then make sure you talk to your local pharmacist and ask the same question there. You might be surprised at some tidbits and pearls you can pick up.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. Once on therapy, how is the disease monitored, and how do you know if the treatment is working?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah. So, it differs from each disease, but let’s take polycythemia vera for a good example. So, let’s suppose you have polycythemia vera. I think there are three markers here that you can check. One is the blood counts, right?

So, you want to make sure that the blood counts are controlled. New England Journal, five or six years ago now, our Italian colleagues published a very seminal paper which shows that the goal of therapy should be that the hematocrit should be below 45. So, that’s actually a very nice number to have. So, not just waiting for symptoms of the disease but keep the number low. And if you do that, that correlates with decreased cardiac events, thromboembolic events.

Number two, I think that, besides the blood count, the spleen. The spleen and liver size also is a nice surrogate for how the disease is doing. So, if that’s enlarging or getting out of control, that may be time to stop what you’re doing, reassess. The disease may be progressing to myelofibrosis, for example.

And then I think, lastly, the absence of stuff actually helps, too. So, the absence of major bleeding, the absence of blood clots, the absence of transformation to MF. I think if the quality of life is good, you’re decreasing blood clots and bleeding, you’re not going to a more advanced disease state, these are all wins for us with p. vera.

Katherine Banwell:    

You touched on this briefly, but I’m wondering when a patient should consider changing treatments.

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah, changing treatments is more art than science, I would say. So, it does – that’s one of those that is kind of specific from patient to patient. In general, what we just talked about gives you that guidance. So, in polycythemia vera, since we brought that up earlier, uncontrolled blood counts despite maximum medication intervention, the phlebotomy requirement being untoward and impossible to keep up with, the spleen size growing out of control, the quality of life being impossible – these are some aspects to look into changing therapy and/or clinical trial.

But remember, it’s not a one-size-fits-all, right? So, some patients, the counts – some of these things may or may not actually play out. So, it has to be more of a gestalt, more of a total picture there.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Why is it so important for patients to speak up when it comes to symptoms or treatment side effects?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Well, I’m going to be that magician who you watch the TV show, they give away all the secrets. So, this is the big secret. Your doctor cannot read your mind. I hate to say that, Katherine. I just said it here, and it’s going to surprise some people. No, I mean, seriously. Right. So, I think the problem with the MPNs – not the problem, the caveat, the difficulty – is if you are a patient, you have this war that’s suffering inside of you. I know that as an expert person. You know that as a patient. But whoever you’re sitting in front of is not going to know that.

And there are two reasons for that. One is you don’t look like that. Most of our patients – whatever this is, I’m going to put this in big air quotes, so in case someone’s not watching this and they’re only hearing, I’m putting air quotes. People say to my patients, “Wow, you don’t look like a cancer patient.” Whatever that means, right? So, most of our patients don’t have their hair falling out, etcetera, etcetera. So, there’s that aspect of it, the visual education part of it.

Then there’s also the part, which is a lot of these symptoms burdens are not obvious on the physical exam. You cannot tell by talking to someone or looking at them if they have night sweats, bone pain, even itching, any of these things. Fatigue. You can’t tell if someone has fatigue most of the time unless you ask them. So, this is one of those where shared partnership in decision-making is not just a generic phrase. This is important.

I would say that for a patient with an MPN, the MPN symptom burden – the questionnaire, the 10 questions that we now have settled on – that can tell so much more or as much as the physical exam or the blood counts.

So, it’s imperative. It’s not just a luxury. It’s imperative. And if the patient themselves is unable to speak up, then if the advocate or caregiver or loved one can, if that person is available.

The other point I would say to this is that oftentimes the symptoms can precede – they can come before laboratory changes, physical exam changes, all these things. So, a constant, constant communication, “Hey, I was playing 18 holes of golf last year.”

“Now I can’t even get out of bed.” Hello? That tells you more than almost anything you can read on a piece of paper. So, you, as always, are spot-on with what you said. And this is the case where people say, “What can I do to help my care?” This is it. Speak up, speak out. It’s your body, it’s your life, make sure you feel empowered to do that.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. It’s important to have that dialogue. Dr. Pemmaraju, you’re very active on social media, and patients often share information with one another. So, what advice do you have for patients to ensure online sources are actually credible?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Wow, great question. First thing I would say is I encourage everyone to get out there, so that’s key opinion leaders, local physicians, nurses, pharmacists, patients, caregivers, everyone. But Part two is what you said is true. Most everything out there is noise. It could be garbage. It could be background. It could be misinformation. So, you do have to have some way to filter it.

I call it signal from the noise. That’s a common phrase that a lot of people on social media use. I guess three things that I would give as tips. One is don’t be afraid to read and get on there, but I would just say whatever you read, take it with a grain of salt, as you said, and just write everything down where you have it organized.

Number two, tend to gravitate towards known experts and known sources. So, for example, you mentioned that I’m on there. That’s great. Ruben Mesa, our great friend and colleague, etcetera, etcetera. So, if you know who the 10 or 15 thought leaders are on Twitter or social media, see what they’re saying directly. That’s nice, because it’s straight from them to the public.

And then three is stick with the organizations and entities that are trusted sources. New England Journal of Medicine, ASCO, ASH, programs such as yourself, etcetera, etcetera, who are trying to put out there the latest and honest information.

Okay. So, now the fourth part, though, I think is the most important, which is what we said earlier, which is whatever you look up, discuss it with your doctor and your physician team. Period. Because no matter what research you did, no matter what patients groups you join, there might be something that either doesn’t apply to you, or worse, as you said, it could be actual misinformation, and it’s a red herring.

So, maybe find information, figure out a way to filter it, cross-check it, and then bring it up to your doctor team. I think that’s a winning way for success with information nowadays.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. That’s really helpful information. Well, we have another audience question. This one is from Richard. He wants to know, what advice do you have for caregivers, and how can he be supportive during appointments?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah. Richard’s question really is so important. Really, before the pandemic and now with the pandemic this extended time, this is the most important question that’s coming up. This is a challenge. I think a lot of our patients who are older, frail, live alone, they don’t even have the option to do that. That may be 25 percent of our patients right there,

And that’s very heartbreaking and difficult, and clearly, their care – it may not be compromised, but it’s certainly limited in some ways without getting that other perspective, right? So, I think that’s important.

Now, out of the 75 percent of the people who may have someone that can be a part of their life, a lot of these folks, Katherine, are limited because of the pandemic. Most hospitals, smartly, I think, still have restrictions on not allowing every single person in the building just for health and safety protocols. So, telehealth has had to be a substitute, I would say, for that, and in a lot of cases, has been helpful. In some cases, frustrating, obviously, with technical difficulties, etcetera, etcetera.

I would say that the key is – and I really want this to be very specific. It would be easy to just say, “Yep, bring a loved one to your visit.” No, it’s not that easy, right? So, now, during the pandemic, I think two things are very important and what I’ve noticed. One is, if the patient is able to, if their health allows them to, prime the loved one or caregiver, “Hey, I’m going to be in the doctor’s office from this time.”

And I always say make it like the cable person visit, right? From 8:00 to 5:00. So, “Hey, today, on Tuesday, if you can have your cell phone on you, that would be nice, because I’m going to patch you in, and you can listen in the background.” This is actually a key pearl I can give to people. You’d be surprised how helpful that is. Because most people, if they’re not living in the same household or whatever – “Oh, I didn’t even know you were going to be,” – okay.

Number two, when the loved one or caregiver is involved, which I encourage for everyone, try to discuss with them the night before, if your health allows you to, to go over some of the key questions. Say, “Hey, guess what? I only understand about 7 to 10 percent of what goes on in these visits, but I need you to ask this.” So, you can kind of prime your loved one to do that.

And then, lastly, you had mentioned earlier to have this list of questions. Well, that’s a great thing to give to the caregiver, right? So, if you’re able to use email and your family member is in California and you’re in Texas, maybe a quick email the night before.

“Hey, here’s what I’m thinking. In case I forget, will you ask this to the doctor?” A lot of these visits may only be five or 10 minutes, but you’d be surprised, if you have a list of two or three questions – boom, boom, boom – and then it’ll alleviate those worries there.

Lastly, I would also say don’t feel – I want to tell this to the viewers out there. Don’t feel pressured when you’re in the visit with us that you have to get every single thing out. And what I mean by that is now with email and the electronic medical record portal systems, there is some ability to contact people during – I’m sorry, after and between visits. So, maybe that might help you to not feel so much pressure in the visit.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Very good advice. Thank you. Before we end the program, have there been any recent developments in MPN treatment and research that make you hopeful?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

I have a lot of optimism and hope. It really blossomed over the last two years. I’m happy to report to our viewers – and this is incredible, I never would have predicted this. There are over 10, maybe 13, Phase 3 clinical trials that are in the clinic now or opening soon.

Phase 3 meaning sort of the latest – one of the latest stages of clinical trial development for new drugs. And a lot of these drugs are combinations. So, a lot of them, you’re on your ruxolitinib, for example, you’re on your JAK inhibitor, and then you add in the second agent. This is very exciting. I, myself, am leading or a part of several of these. I mean, we could have never envisioned this five years ago. So, not only these drugs have shown encouraging activity in the Phase 1 and 2 – so, the earlier stages – so, now we have to confirm and test them in larger trials. So, stay tuned for that, whether you can participate directly or at least follow along with the information.

And then the other piece of excitement is that there’s a lot of beyond JAK inhibitor drugs. So, that means novel pathways, new drugs that have nothing to do with JAK that can either stand alone by themselves or be combined. That’s another exciting area. We have multiple classes of drugs emerging from the lab into the clinic now that I hope will have a lot of benefit for our patients.

So, tons of optimism and excitement, frankly, that just wasn’t there five years ago.

Katherine Banwell:    

That’s wonderful. Dr. Pemmaraju, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Thank you, Katherine. I just love the chance to spend time with you guys. I hope to do this soon one day.

Katherine Banwell:    

And thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about MPNs and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell, thanks for joining us.

Is MGUS More Prevalent in BIPOC Communities?

Is MGUS More Prevalent in BIPOC Communities? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Does the multiple myeloma precursor of monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) occur more frequently in minority (BIPOC) patients? Expert Dr. Sarah Holstein from the University of Nebraska Medical Center shares information that myeloma studies are researching on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color patients and how to improve myeloma awareness and care.

See More From the Myeloma TelemEDucation Empowerment Resource Center

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Will Telemedicine Mitigate Financial Toxicity for Myeloma Patients?

What Are the Benefits of Telemedicine for Myeloma Patients?

 

Transcript:

Dr. Sarah Holstein:

:  When we look at data sources like the SEER (The Surveillance Epidemiology, and End Results) data source, it’s not necessarily so granular that we can always distinguish whether the population is Black/Hispanic, Black/non-Hispanic, but really where I’ve seen the increased risk is whenever there are population-based studies and they describe the population at least in the U.S. as Black. I will admit I don’t know the details as to further sub-division amongst the category of Black and whether or not it’s appropriate to use the term BIPOC in this setting with respect to why do Black Americans have higher risk of plasma cell disorders than white Americans? I think that’s still a question that we can’t completely answer. There are a lot of really good research teams in this country and really worldwide that are trying to understand the different genetic-based risks, and it’s clear based on some studies that there’s some differential with respect to for example, what the frequency is of particular genetic abnormalities that happen in the plasma cells as they go from normal to abnormal. So, one example that I’ve seen is a higher frequency of translocation 11;14 in patients who are Black compared to patients who are white, but ultimately, I don’t think there’s an easy, easily understood answer to that very complex question right now with respect to why the risk is two to three-fold higher in Black individuals compared to white individuals. 

And then that’s a little bit of a separate—I mean it’s related, but in some ways, and that’s somewhat separate from the issue of when Black individuals actually get diagnosed with myeloma, whether that’s at a more advanced state of the disease than in white people that I think is a little bit more dependent on access to care as well, as knowledge of the disease. I would say that in general, myeloma is not a cancer that most Americans are actually that familiar with, and that’s regardless of white, Black, race or ethnicity, it’s still a relatively rare cancer and most people have never heard of it and don’t know other people who’ve had it. But I think what is key in the Black community is to really increase awareness of not only myeloma, but the precursor condition MGUS just like there have been enormous efforts to increase awareness of the risks of high blood pressure and diabetes, and how that can affect health later on, there’s also… I think sometimes a decreased frequency of access to primary care, sometimes myeloma is picked up just because of routine blood work, and that can be done sometimes on an annual basis by a primary care provider. And if individuals aren’t getting their annual physical and annual labs drawn, then by the time myeloma presents itself, sometimes it’s at the point where it’s presenting, because bad things have happened, like bones are breaking, or patients are very anemic, or there are serious infections, etcetera, as opposed to being found in a more asymptomatic stage when abnormalities such as high protein levels in the blood are noted that patients are otherwise feeling well. So I think you raise some really excellent questions, and I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in this country for not only improving the research so that we understand what the genetic bases are for developing plasma cell disorders, but also increasing education throughout this country, but specifically in the Black population, and then making sure that everybody has access to care.

Which CLL Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know

Which CLL Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What do you need to know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR CLL? Dr. Lindsey Roeker discusses the role of key CLL tests, including biomarker testing, reviews emerging research, and provides tips for partnering with your care team to advocate for the best care. 

Download Guide

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized CLL treatment for your individual disease, and why it’s essential to insist on key testing. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information, to follow along during the webinar.

At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link to a program survey. Please take a moment to provide feedback about your experience today, in order to help us plan future webinars. And finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Joining me today is Dr. Lindsay Roeker. Dr. Roker, thank you so much for joining us. Would you introduce yourself?

Dr. Roeker:                 

Absolutely. So, my name is Lindsey Roeker, and I am a member of the CLL program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Katherine:                  

Excellent, thank you. Let’s start at the beginning. How is CLL diagnosed?

Dr. Roeker:                 

Absolutely. So, for most patients, CLL is diagnosed after a routine blood test shows a high white blood cell count. That’s kinda the most common way that we find people entering into our clinic. Other things that people can notice is they have lumps or bumps that they’ve felt in their neck or under their armpits. Those are some other symptoms that can lead to the diagnosis, but often once a patient finds that their white blood cell count is high, some additional testing is done, and the diagnosis of CLL is made.

Katherine:                  

What are some common symptoms of CLL? You mentioned the lumps and bumps.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Yeah. So, often in early stages, the lumps and bumps in the neck are the most common that people recognize, but fevers or chills, night sweats, where patients are waking up drenched, having to change their pajamas, or weight loss without trying, are some other symptoms that can raise some alarm bells and make people start looking for something.

 And CLL can be a diagnosis that can be found through that, as well.

Katherine:                  

What is watch and wait?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, after diagnosis, about two-thirds of patients enter this period of watch and wait, and what that means is we have good data to say that treating CLL before it’s causing symptoms doesn’t help people live better or live longer. And for that reason, we use the approach of watch and wait, and what that really means is you see your doctor a few times a year. I see people every three to four months. And you have your labs checked, have a physical exam, and through that process, just ensure that there are no symptoms that the CLL is causing that warrant therapy.

Katherine:                  

That’s very helpful. Thank you for that. Now, what tests are necessary to help understand a patient-specific disease, both at diagnosis and prior to treatment?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, a diagnosis flow cytometry is the first test done, and what that means is, you take all of your white blood cells in your blood, and you run them through a fancy machine that puts them into buckets. So, you have a bucket of your normal neutrophils, a bucket of your normal lymphocytes, and then you find this bucket of cells that look somewhat unusual. And those have a specific look, if you will, and if they look like CLL cells, that’s how we make the diagnosis.

As you start reading, you’ll find that people talk about monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis, which is MVL, CLL, and SLL, and a lot of times, it’s confusing because you start reading, and there are all of these – kind of lingo around it. So, what we’re looking for with flow cytometry is how many cells are in the peripheral blood? If it’s fewer than 5,000 per microliter – so, your doctor will talk to you; they’ll either say five or 5,000, depending on what units they’re using.

If it’s lower than that, and you don’t have any lumps or bumps or lymphadenopathy, meaning enlarged lymph nodes, that’s when we make the diagnosis of monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis.

So, that’s kind of a pre-cancer diagnosis. Then, CLL, the diagnosis, is made in any patient who has greater than 5,000 cells per microliter, or five, if you’re using that unit, and that’s when the diagnosis of CLL is made. If people have lymph nodes that are enlarged, and there are CLL or SLL cells inside of them, but not a lot of involvement in the blood, that’s when we make the diagnosis of SLL, which is small lymphocytic lymphoma. So, CLL and SLL are really the same disease; it’s just where they manifest, primarily. So, whether it’s mostly in the blood, that’s CLL, or mostly in the lymph nodes, and that’s SLL.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Nope. So, that’s the flow cytometry test, and that’s kind of the test that leads to the diagnosis.

Katherine:                  

Got it. What about FISH and TP53 mutation?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, at diagnosis, I often do this testing. Depending on which provider you go to, you may do it at diagnosis or closer to the time of needing treatment. But FISH is basically a test that looks for big changes in the chromosomes. So, if you remember back to high school biology and you see all of those chromosomes laid out, what FISH is looking for is big changes in those chromosomes. So, is there an entire arm of one of the chromosomes missing? And that’s what FISH does.

There’s also something called karyotyping, or in some institutions, they use something called SNP array. These are more refined tests that look for additional changes in the DNA. So, FISH is kind of a targeted look at a few different chromosomes, whereas karyotype or SNP array looks at all of the chromosomes. Then, there is TP53 mutational testing, and that is done through a bunch of different testing, often next-generation sequencing is what we use.

And we basically use a fancy spellcheck to see if there’s any misspellings, if you will, in TP53.

And TP53 is a gene that we use. It’s called the guardian of the genome. So, its job is basically to make sure that our cells are reproducing. They keep all the genes in working order. If TP53 is missing or misspelled, it doesn’t work as well, and that’s when people can get more issues with their CLL. It tends to be CLL that behaves a little more aggressively.

Katherine:                  

What about IGHV mutation status?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutation status is a really important feature because it really is, of all of the things, what helps us understand the best way to go about therapy. And IGHV mutational status is basically a signature of the CLL that helps you understand how mature or immature the CLL cells are.

In general, mature cells tend to behave a little bit more predictively, and in ways that behave a bit better with therapy. So, the more mature cells are actually mutated IGHV, and I know that’s backward, because usually we think of mutated as being back. But in this case, mutated is actually those cells that are a bit more mature, and that just has to do with how white blood cells develop in our body. If it’s IGHV-unmutated, those tend to be the more immature cells that can behave a little more erratically.

Katherine:                  

Which tests need to be repeated over time?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutational status never changes, so that one does not need to be repeated. TP53 mutational status, FISH, and karyotype or SNP array, are ones that I tend to repeat before we start any therapy. So, at the time that you’re going to start your frontline therapy, and then if you have the disease come back and need to be treated again, I usually repeat those tests because those can change over time.

So, that’s both FISH, karyotype or SNP array, and the TP53 mutational testing.

Katherine:                  

Okay. So, it sounds like it’s important for patients to make sure they’ve had this testing. What do the test results reveal about a patient’s prognosis?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutational status, like I said, really helps us understand how to approach therapy. In general, CLL is a disease that we are increasingly managing with targeted medicines, so drugs that really manipulate the cell biology to either stop the growth of cells or kill the cells so that they pop open. And that has been a trend that has taken place over the last six or seven years, and definitely has revolutionized the treatment of CLL. There is still a small minority of patients, the patients who have IGHV-mutated disease, and are younger, and have fewer other medical problems, that can still be good candidates for chemotherapy.

And the reason that I say that is because in general, chemotherapy for those young, mutated patients cures a subset of patients, so when we look at long-term studies of FCR, which is a combination of chemo and immunotherapy, there are a subset of patients who have a really long period where their disease doesn’t come back, to the point that we call them cured or functionally cured. That’s obviously a word that has a lot of emotional charge around it, and it’s hard because there’s always the possibility of the disease coming back in the future.

But because of those long-term outcomes, we know that there’s some patients that can really have long-term benefit from chemoimmunotherapy.

For IGHV-unmutated patients, and especially for patients with TP53 mutations or deletion of 17p, chemoimmunotherapy really is not the right answer, with all of the medications that we have available to us now.

Katherine:                  

We have an audience question. Mike wants to know, “What does it mean to have high-risk CLL?”

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, great question, and the interesting thing is that I think the answer to that question is evolving. So, deletion of 17p, deletion of 11q, and TP53 mutation have historically been markers of more aggressive disease or unfavorable CLL. In the era where we only had chemo and immunotherapy, we know that patients had less great outcomes. We know that the treatments tended to not work as well, and patients had disease that tended to come back faster, and things like that.

 That’s all evolving in the era of targeted agents. We have some indication that probably patients who have more aggressive underlying disease biology, meaning disease that’s going to behave less well, kind of regardless of what we treat it with, certainly may derive less benefit, meaning that the treatment will work for less long. That being said, these treatments are still really effective for our patients who have traditionally high-risk disease. So, I think it still remains to be seen, in terms of long-term outcomes and what to expect for patients that have these traditionally high-risk characteristics.

Katherine:                  

So, now that we understand how these tests affect prognosis, let’s discuss how they can affect treatment options. Let’s run through a few potential results so we can understand how you might approach each patient type. If someone has deletion 17p, what is the approach?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, there are two totally reasonable frontline treatment options.

So, BTK inhibitors, which are – the current approved ones are ibrutinib and acalabrutinib, are completely a reasonable approach in the frontline setting, meaning the first treatment that someone gets, and those are pills that you take daily. For ibrutinib, it’s once a day. For acalabrutinib, it’s twice a day, for as long as they’re working. And the idea is, with this approach, you keep on those medicines, and they keep the disease suppressed. So, that’s the first option.

The second totally reasonable option is a combination of venetoclax and obinutuzumab. So, venetoclax is a pill and obinutuzumab is an IV medicine, and the way that this was studied was a total of one year of therapy. So, from the time you start until you’re done with all of your treatments, that’s a one-year course. And the drugs have different side effect profiles, and depending on other medical problems, patient preference about, let’s just take a pill and that’s easy, versus the combination of pill and IV medicines, either can be a completely reasonable choice.

It just depends a lot on patient and doctor preference.

Katherine:                  

What about the TP53 mutation?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, both of those treatment options seem to work very well for TP53-mutated patients. We had that discussion about the possibility of chemoimmunotherapy for a small minority of patients, and for patients with a TP53 mutation, using chemoimmunotherapy up front is probably not the correct answer. It’s better to go with one of the targeted drug approaches.

Katherine:                  

You mentioned, Dr. Roeker, the IGHV mutated and unmutated. How would you approach each patient type, if a patient is IGHV unmutated?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV-unmutated is the same discussion. Chemoimmunotherapy is probably not going to provide a durable, meaning it’s not going to last for a long time. We’re not going to achieve that potential cure. So, for those patients, either the BTK inhibitor approach, or the venetoclax/Obinutuzumab approach is completely a reasonable one to take.

Katherine:                  

And if they’re IGHV-mutated?

Dr. Roeker:                 

IGHV-mutated patients who are young and don’t have a lot of other medical problems, that’s when we add in the third option of chemoimmunotherapy. For many patients, it’s not wrong to choose either a BTK inhibitor or venetoclax/Obinutuzumab, but it does add in that third potential option of chemoimmunotherapy.

Katherine:                  

Are there other markers that patients should know about?

Dr. Roeker:                 

I think those are the big ones.

So, TP53 mutation status, FISH, and karyotype kind of gets you most of them. Some centers do additional next-generation sequencing of other genes that have been associated with higher-risk disease, though really understanding how to interpret those results still remains somewhat unclear, and that’s still an area of research that people are doing, to really understand what those other mutations really mean for people.

Katherine:                  

What about the impact of testing, overall? Why is it so important?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, as we’ve moved from a disease that was really only treated with chemoimmunotherapy, to one that has targeted drugs available, knowing your IGHV mutational status really impacts what your frontline treatment options are. That’s the major therapy-defining risk factor. The other mutations help you know what to expect. So, for patients who have deletion of 17p or TP53 mutation, it’s possible that the treatments are going to, overall, work for a shorter period of time.

All that being said, every person is an individual, and it’s hard to predict exactly how long someone’s going to respond, from an individual basis. So, what I tell my patients is, “I could tell you what 100 of people with exactly your same disease would do, on average, but I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen for you. And that’s a journey that we’re going to take together and really understand over time.”

Katherine:                  

These are really great points, Dr. Roeker. Now, we’ve talked about this a little bit. What are other important factors to consider, like a patient’s age, that can help them access the best treatment for their CLL?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, age is important. Other medical problems is actually a very important consideration.

So, these medications have different side effect profiles and behave differently in different people. So, the BTK inhibitors, specifically ibrutinib is the one that we have the most data on, has cardiovascular side effects, so it can cause atrial fibrillation. It can cause high blood pressure. So, for patients who have preexisting heart disease, or preexisting atrial fibrillation that has been hard to control, or blood pressure that has been hard to control, for those people, I think adding in a BTK inhibitor can be a bit more of a higher risk situation than in somebody without those preexisting problems.

Venetoclax is a pill that causes the cell to burst open rapidly, and it kills cells very quickly. Because of that, the major side effect is called tumor lysis syndrome, and tumor lysis syndrome is basically the cell opens up and all of the salt inside of it goes into the bloodstream.

And that salt can actually be really hard on the kidneys. So, for people who have kidney problems, venetoclax can be somewhat more challenging to use and just requires a higher level of vigilance. So, for patients who have preexisting kidney disease or the idea of a lot of monitoring and things like that, is more challenging. Then maybe the BTK inhibitors are a better choice.

Katherine:                  

How do you monitor whether a treatment is working?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, a lot of it has to do with the CBC, so your normal blood count, and what we’re looking for is improvement in hemoglobin and improvement or normalization of platelet count. And for many people, those, either anemia or low platelets, are the symptoms that drive people to be treated in the first place, so we’re looking for those parameters to get better.

With a lot of people with CLL, totally understandably, because it’s the number that’s the most abnormal, really focused on white blood cell count. 100% understandable.

I always tell people that that’s actually the part of the CBC that I care least about, and the reason is that, for patients on BTK inhibitors, we expect to see the white blood count actually get higher before it gets less high. That’s actually just a sign that the drug is working and it’s pulling CLL cells from the lymph nodes into the bloodstream. So, that’s actually a good sign that it’s working, and that lymphocyte count, at least in the beginning, isn’t a great marker of how well the drug is working.

The other thing that’s important is the physical exam, so looking for whether any lymph nodes that were enlarged have normalized or gone away, and also feeling the sides of the spleen, because the spleen can become enlarged with CLL, and it’s important to make sure that’s normalizing, as well.

And then the last piece is talking to people, so making sure that if they were having fatigue, or fevers, or night sweats before they started treatment, to make sure that those symptoms have gone away. And that’s kind of the three things that I use. I use the blood counts, the physical exam, and the interview with a patient to really understand how their disease is responding.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Roeker, why is it important for patients to speak up if they’re experiencing side effects? I know that they sometimes feel like they’re bothering their healthcare team.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Thank you for that question, because it’s really important point. Side effects are easiest to manage when you catch them early. So, when people have, for instance, muscle pain or joint aches, I have lots of tricks up my sleeve to help people, but I need to know about it. So, if people don’t tell me until they have joint pain that’s so bad that they’re not able to exercise or not able to get out of bed easily in the morning, that’s taking it – it’s gone on for a while at that point, and it’s pretty far down the line.

First of all, you wouldn’t have had to suffer for that long because we have ways of fixing it, and second, it’s always harder to fix a problem once it’s further down the line than earlier on. So, I talk to people about what side effects they might experience and what to expect, and then we talk about different management strategies to really nip it early so that we’re not dealing with a really huge problem down the line.

Katherine:                  

We have a question from our audience. Maria asks, “I just found out that I will need to undergo treatment again. I was previously treated with FCR. Does that impact my options now, going forward?”

Dr. Roeker:                 

Great question. So, FCR was a really common treatment strategy before we had all of the drugs that we have available now. We have good data to say that both BTK inhibitors and venetoclax-based treatments work after chemoimmunotherapy. In fact, those were the patients in whom these drugs were really initially studied, so we actually know better in that group of patients how they’re going to work, than in the patients who have never been treated with them, in terms of the amount of data and the long-term follow-up that we have.

So, most likely, your provider will still talk to you about kind of the two therapeutic option being a BTK inhibitor-based approach versus a venetoclax-based approach, and either are completely appropriate in that setting.

Katherine:                  

We have another question from our audience. Eileen is currently in active treatment for her CLL, and she wants to know, “Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for her?”

Dr. Roeker:                 

Great question. So, here is my take on COVID vaccines. We have great data on the safety of these vaccines, so the risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction is very, very low, less than one in a thousand. We know that it can cause some irritation at the injection site, so pain in your arm. We know that it can cause some kinda flu-like, blah symptoms for a couple of days, totally fine to take ibuprofen and kinda get yourself through that period.

But from a safety perspective, I don’t have concerns about these vaccines. There’s a lot of social media coverage on long-term implications that are either not based on data, at all, and just speculation, and people who are trying to raise alarm, or people who are really bringing up bad things that are happening to people really far out from the vaccine. And I think it’s really hard to attribute that to the vaccine. Obviously, any time there is a new technology, there’s the possibility of things happening, and we’re going to know more with time, but I think, overall, from a scientific perspective, there is no data that makes me worried about the safety of this vaccine.

The efficacy question, I think, is more of an open question, and the reason I say that is two-fold. The first is, we know that patients with CLL who get other vaccines, some get 100% coverage, some get zero percent coverage, and some are somewhere in between.

And it’s hard to predict who is going to fall where. So, that’s the first piece. The second piece is, we’ve looked at patients who had CLL and got COVID, and we saw if they made antibodies, which is kind of a marker of an immune response, and it’s not consistent that every patient who got COVID makes antibodies.

So, the combination of those two pieces of data makes me question exactly how well they’re going to work. So, what I’m telling my patients is, “Definitely go ahead and get it. I think it’s safe. And then pretend that you didn’t get it.” So, I know that’s hard advice to hear, but continue wearing a mask, continue social distancing, and continue to wash your hands. And then, every interaction you have is a risk-benefit discussion or decision. So, that’s different for every person, but in general, I recommend that people continue being cautious.

Once the whole population around you is vaccinated and we have less virus circulating in the community, that’s when it’s going to be substantially safer. So, definitely, I recommend that people get it, regardless of whether you are on watch and wait, getting treatment, have just finished treatment, whatever it is, but I do think there’s reason to be cautious even after getting vaccinated.

Katherine:                  

Are there symptoms or issues CLL patients should be looking out for, post-vaccine?

Dr. Roeker:                 

Not particularly, beyond what people are getting in kind of the general population. If you’re having a lot of those kind of flu-like symptoms, just talk to your provider to make sure that ibuprofen is safe, because if your platelets are really low, that can cause bleeding. But Tylenol is typically pretty safe, and talk to your doctor about which medicines are kinda best for you to take in that situation, but no particular concerns in patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

Okay. Thank you for the clarification. As I mentioned at the start of this program, patients should insist on essential CLL testing. As we conclude, I think it’s important to point out that some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests, so how can they take action?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, the next time you’re at your doctor, ask, “I just want to know more about the prognosis of my CLL, and can we talk through the genetic markers of my disease, to help me understand what to expect?” That’s kind of code for, “Let’s go through all of these test results,” and it also – if you have a provider who doesn’t routinely test them at diagnosis, and for instance, just tests before treatment, they can also kind of give you their sense of when they do the testing, so you know what to expect. And I think that’s an important discussion to have with your provider, for sure.

Katherine:                  

Are there key questions that patients should ask their physicians?

Dr. Roeker:                 

I’m always impressed with the questions that people come up with. I think one of the best is, what should I expect, based on what we’re doing now? It’s always a hard question to answer because, obviously, for any patient, it’s so individualized, but I think understanding what to expect, as a general sense, is a good way to approach both treatment and prognosis, and all of those kinds of things.

Katherine:                  

I’d like to close by asking about developments in CLL research and treatment. What’s new that you feel patients should know about?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, there are a lot of exciting drugs coming up in CLL. We have the BTK inhibitors, ibrutinib and acalabrutinib approved. We have more BTK inhibitors with different side effect profiles that are in development.

And there’s also a new class of drugs called noncovalent BTK inhibitors, which seem to work well, even when prior BTK inhibitors have stopped working. So, that’s a really exciting development. There is also just lots of studies about how we combine drugs to maximize efficacy while minimizing side effects, and all of these studies that are underway are really looking at refining how we approach treatment so that we can treat people very effectively but also minimize their side effects.

And as we have more results available, the treatment paradigm for CLL is going to continue to shift and evolve, and I think there are a lot of exciting things coming, and there’s definitely a lot of reason to be hopeful, that the future of CLL is even brighter than the present.

Katherine:                  

It all sounds very promising, Dr. Roeker. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Katherine:                  

And thank you to all of our partners. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. And don’t forget to take the survey, immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan future programs. To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us.

How Does CLL Progress? Understanding the Stages of CLL

How Does CLL Progress? Understanding the Stages of CLL from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the specific stages of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and how does CLL progress? Dr. Matthew Davids details the stages of CLL and indications for when it’s time to treat the condition.

Dr. Matthew Davids is Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Davids here.

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An Overview of CLL Treatment Types

Transcript:

Katherine:

Okay. So, how does CLL progress? When do you know when it’s time to treat?

Dr. Davids:

The stages of CLL involve the progression of the disease. When we first meet patients, often they only have cells circulating in the blood, and that’s called stage 0 disease. It’s one of the few cancers where there’s actually a Stage 0 before even Stage I, and the reason for that is that many patients can go for years on Stage 0 disease. But as the burden of the CLL cells begin to accumulate in the body they can start to collect in their lymph nodes, and the lymph nodes can start to swell up whether it’s in the neck or the armpits or elsewhere. That’s stage I disease.

They can accumulate in the spleen, which is an organ in the abdomen. It’s kind of a big filter for your bloodstream, and as the filter traps more of these lymphocytes the spleen can slowly enlarge over time. That’s stage II disease.

And then finally, the CLL cells can get into the bone marrow, which is like the factory for making your blood cells. And if the factory floor gets all gummed up with CLL cells it can’t make the normal red cells, that’s called anemia. Or it can’t make the normal platelet cells, that’s called thrombocytopenia. And when we start to see those more advanced stages III and IV of CLL, that usually does require treatment. And what the treatment does is it clears out the factory floor and it allows for the normal machinery to make the normal blood cells again. So, that’s one of the more common reasons why treatment is needed is due to anemia and low platelets. Second reason can be if the lymph nodes or spleen get so bulky that they’re uncomfortable or threatening organs internally. We want to treat before that becomes a real threat.

And then, the third thing that usually happens as the disease progresses, patients can develop some symptoms, what we call constitutional symptoms. These can be things like unintentional weight loss, drenching night sweats that are happening on a consistent basis, and those sorts of things. So, if that’s happening at the same time as these other factors are progressing, those would be reasons to treat.

And notice that one thing I did not say is the white blood cell count itself.

That’s a common misconception. Some people think that as the white blood cell count goes higher – and people use all different thresholds, 100, 200 – that by crossing that threshold you need to start treatment. And in fact, that’s not the case. We have many patients whose white blood cell count can get very high but then it can kind of level off and plateau for a period of several years, and as long as they don’t meet those other treatment indications, they don’t need to be treated just based on the white count alone.

How to Play an Active Role in Your CLL Treatment Decisions

How to Play an Active Role in Your CLL Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can you partner with your healthcare team to feel confident in your CLL decisions? In this webinar replay, Dr. Matthew Davids discusses CLL treatment approaches, developing research and tools for partnering with your healthcare team. Dr. Matthew Davids is the Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Download Guide

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Which CLL Treatment Approach Could be Right for You?

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to explore the factors that guide CLL treatment decisions, including your role in making those decisions. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. And at the end of this program, you will receive a link to a program survey. This will allow you to provide feedback about your experience today, and it will help us plan future webinars.

Finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Refer to your own healthcare team. All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Matthew Davids. Dr. Davids, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Davids:                  

Hi, Katherine. Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be with everyone today. I’m Matt Davids. I’m a CLL-focused physician based at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and I’m also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. And I get to wear many hats here. First and foremost, I take care of patients, particularly patients with CLL, but I also have some administrative roles. I direct our clinical research program in the lymphoma division. I also run a research laboratory focused on CLL and other lymphoid cancers, and I run about a dozen clinical trials mostly focused on developing new treatment options for patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

Wow. Sounds like you’re a busy guy. I’m glad you have the time to join us today.

Dr. Davids:                  

My pleasure.

Katherine:                  

Let’s start with a question that’s on the mind of many of our audience members. Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for CLL patients?

Dr. Davids:                 

Very timely question. The simple answer is yes. There are now actually three different vaccines that have been granted emergency use authorization by the FDA.

And I would say that so far, we’ve seen clinical trial evidence suggesting these are very safe vaccines in the general population.

Our own experience with our own CLL patients so far has also suggested safety, so I think it’s very important that our CLL patients get vaccinated as soon as they can. I think the bigger concern more than safety is on the efficacy side of the vaccine, meaning how effective are these vaccines going to be for CLL patients? That’s not something that we know yet from the larger clinical trials that have been done. So, those numbers you see quoted, 95 percent protective, that’s in the general populations.

We do worry a bit based on our experience with other vaccines in CLL patients that they may not be quite as effective, but we don’t know that yet. Fortunately, that’s something that we’re studying now, both at our center and in some nationwide efforts, to look for example at the antibody production that CLL patients can make before and after vaccination. I’m hopeful that over the next few months we’ll start to learn about how effective these vaccines are specifically for CLL patients.

We certainly expect they will have some benefit, so that’s why we recommend vaccination for all of our CLL patients. But once patients are vaccinated, it doesn’t give them a free pass to then take their masks off and go back to normal life. Particularly CLL patients I think need to be careful even after vaccination to continue to do social distancing, hand hygiene, and all these things.

Katherine:                  

Is there one type of vaccine that’s more suited for CLL patients?

Dr. Davids:                 

Nope. As far as we can tell, all three of the approved vaccines so far are safe and should have some good effects for CLL patients.

There’s no benefit of one versus the others, so the best one to get is the one that’s in your muscle and injected. Whatever you can get access to, that’s the best one for you.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Davids, have there been any recent developments in CLL treatment and research that patients should know about?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah. We could spend a few hours on this, but I’ll try to summarize it. There’s a lot of exciting developments in the field. and I think we’re going to get into some of the specific treatments in a few minutes, but I would say at a high level obviously, over the last decade the entire field of CLL treatment has been transformed. Whereas we only had chemotherapy-based approaches before, now we have a whole number of different drugs that we call novel agents. And the reason why they’re novel is that they target the CLL cells, but they spare the other cells in the body, so there’s less collateral damage there. What that means is that they have fewer side effects, and they’re more effective, so it’s really a win-win situation for patients.

There’s kind of been two main approaches for this.

One is to start a novel agent drug and to continue it for as long as it’s helping, which fortunately for most patients is a long time, many years. And then, a newer approach is actually to do what’s called time-limited therapy where you start usually at least a couple of these different novel drugs together but hopefully achieve what we call a very deep remission, meaning excellent shrinkage of lymph nodes and improvement of blood counts and bone marrow disease. And by getting these very deep remissions the idea is we can do a finite period of treatment, whether it’s one year or two years, it kind of depends on the regimen. And then, stop therapy and hope that patients can then enjoy many years of remission while off therapy, which can be nice in terms of reducing side effects and costs and all these other things.

So, those are the biggest developments in the field right now, the continuous novel agent therapy and time-limited novel agent therapy. And a lot of the clinical trials that are getting off the ground now are starting to compare these two strategies to figure out really what’s the optimal way to treat CLL patients.

Katherine:                  

How can patients stay up-do-date on developments like these?

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s definitely challenging. It’s challenging even for us who are in the field to keep up with things on the academic side. I think for patients, seeking out patient-friendly sources of information on the web are helpful, but sometimes it can be hard to know what’s reliable information on the web. So websites like this and programs like this I think can be very helpful. Another resource that a lot of my patients find helpful is the CLL Society, so www.cllsociety.org. Brian Koffman really curates a lot of the new developments in the field on that website nicely. He interviews a lot of different CLL experts in this short format that can be very digestible for patients. Patient Power is another great website. So, there are a bunch of them out there, and I think those can be a great resource for our patients.

Katherine:                  

When a person is diagnosed with CLL they have a whole healthcare team. Who’s typically on that team?

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s definitely a multidisciplinary team.

Usually there’s an oncologist-hematologist who’s leading the team as a physician, but there’s a very large team of other people who are involved, whether it’s an advanced practice person such as a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant. They’re often very closely involved with the day-to-day patient care. There’s nurse navigators in some places that can help with getting access to these novel agents and with looking into clinical trial opportunities. There’s pharmacy folks who are very helpful sometimes in checking in on side effects, and advising on dosing, and so forth.

That’s more on the provider side of things. But, of course, the care team really includes the caregivers for the patient, whether it’s family members or friends, who are really a crucial part of this. The field is very complicated, and one of the challenges with COVID recently is that I’ve always invited family members and friends to come to visits with patients, because I do think it’s helpful to have many people listening. And that’s been hard because we’ve had to restrict visitors usually to either no visitors or one visitor because of COVID precautions.

Even if that’s the case, you can still have people dial in by phone or use technologies like FaceTime to try to have them there with you, because I think having that extra set of ears can be helpful as you hear all this information coming at you from your oncologist.

Katherine:                  

Yeah, absolutely. So, it really does sound like it’s a whole team approach. We have a question from the audience. Linda writes, “I’ve heard that CLL doesn’t need to be treated right away. Is that true?” 

Dr. Davids:                 

That is true for the majority of CLL patients, and it’s actually a very counterintuitive thing. We’re conditioned that if you have cancer that it’s important to be proactive and get rid of it as quickly as possible, the sooner the better, and that is actually not the case in CLL. And we didn’t just take a guess that that’s the best approach. This is actually something that’s been studied in clinical trials. There were several clinical trials launched in the ‘70s and ‘80s looking at an early intervention strategy using a chemotherapy-based approach to see if treating at the time of diagnosis would be better than waiting until patients developed more significant symptoms.

And all of those studies did not show a benefit to early intervention.

Now, more recently those studies have been challenged as somewhat out of date, which is a fair criticism because they used an older chemotherapy drug. And so, there is a newer study now going on in Europe that is looking at early intervention with the drug ibrutinib, which is one of our novel agents for CLL, looking to see if early intervention with ibrutinib, particularly for patients who have a higher risk form of CLL, may be beneficial.

But we have seen some data now already presented from this study that do not show any improvement in how long the patients live by treating with ibrutinib early, and we do see some of the typical side effects that we’re accustomed to seeing with ibrutinib. So, even with the newer data that we’re seeing, we still do not recommend early intervention for patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

I’ve heard this term “watch and wait.” What does that mean?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah, it’s not the best term because it’s very passive. That refers to this observation strategy. I like to think of it more as “active surveillance.” It seems more proactive because you’re doing something about it.

You’re really checking the blood counts, you’re getting your physical exam, you’re checking in on symptoms, these sorts of things, and really keeping a close eye on the disease. And that’s the approach that we like to take with our patients to really keep them engaged, making sure they’re staying up-to-date on their screenings for other cancers, making sure they’re getting vaccinations, these sorts of things are all the things we do with active surveillance.

Katherine:                  

How is someone monitored during this watch-and-wait period?

Dr. Davids:                 

It varies depending on individual patients. We’ve alluded to the fact that there’s different genetic subgroups of CLL already, so there are some patients that have higher-risk disease. The example of that usually is deletion 17p that people may have heard of on the FISH test. For those patients I usually am seeing them every three months or so, physical exam, checking on their history, checking their bloodwork. But there’s quite a few CLL patients who have lower-risk disease. If they have for example mutated IGHV, if they do not have the 17p for example, those patients may be able to be seen once every six months or so with a similar setup.

 I don’t routinely get CAT scans on a regular basis for most patients. Most patients don’t need bone marrow biopsy tests unless they’re starting treatment. So, it’s mostly it’s exam, talking to patients, and checking the bloodwork.

Katherine:                  

Okay. So, how does CLL progress? When do you know when it’s time to treat?

Dr. Davids:                 

The stages of CLL involve the progression of the disease. When we first meet patients, often they only have cells circulating in the blood, and that’s called stage 0 disease. It’s one of the few cancers where there’s actually a Stage 0 before even Stage I, and the reason for that is that many patients can go for years on Stage 0 disease. But as the burden of the CLL cells begin to accumulate in the body they can start to collect in their lymph nodes, and the lymph nodes can start to swell up whether it’s in the neck or the armpits or elsewhere. That’s stage I disease.

They can accumulate in the spleen, which is an organ in the abdomen. It’s kind of a big filter for your bloodstream, and as the filter traps more of these lymphocytes the spleen can slowly enlarge over time. That’s stage II disease.

And then finally, the CLL cells can get into the bone marrow, which is like the factory for making your blood cells. And if the factory floor gets all gummed up with CLL cells it can’t make the normal red cells, that’s called anemia. Or it can’t make the normal platelet cells, that’s called thrombocytopenia. And when we start to see those more advanced stages III and IV of CLL, that usually does require treatment. And what the treatment does is it clears out the factory floor and it allows for the normal machinery to make the normal blood cells again. So, that’s one of the more common reasons why treatment is needed is due to anemia and low platelets. Second reason can be if the lymph nodes or spleen get so bulky that they’re uncomfortable or threatening organs internally. We want to treat before that becomes a real threat.

And then, the third thing that usually happens as the disease progresses, patients can develop some symptoms, what we call constitutional symptoms. These can be things like unintentional weight loss, drenching night sweats that are happening on a consistent basis, and those sorts of things. So, if that’s happening at the same time as these other factors are progressing, those would be reasons to treat.

And notice that one thing I did not say is the white blood cell count itself.

That’s a common misconception. Some people think that as the white blood cell count goes higher – and people use all different thresholds, 100, 200 – that by crossing that threshold you need to start treatment. And in fact, that’s not the case. We have many patients whose white blood cell count can get very high but then it can kind of level off and plateau for a period of several years, and as long as they don’t meet those other treatment indications, they don’t need to be treated just based on the white count alone.

Katherine:                  

Hmm, okay. Well, once it’s time to treat, of course then it’s time to think about treatment options. Let’s walk through the types of treatments that are used today to treat CLL.

Dr. Davids:                 

As I alluded to before, we historically have had chemotherapy-based approaches to treat CLL. And that was an effective way to temporarily put the disease into remission, but it had a lot of side effects and inevitably the CLL would come back. And the challenge particularly with chemotherapy-based approaches it that when the CLL does come back after chemotherapy, it tends to behave more aggressively and be harder to treat.

So, there have been quite a few studies over the last few years trying to figure out ways that we can avoid using chemotherapy as the first treatment, and this can involve treatments such as monoclonal antibodies. People may have heard of rituximab or a newer drug, obinutuzumab. There are the inhibitors of the B-cell receptor pathway, and this is for example ibrutinib, which targets a protein called BTK, also a newer one called acalabrutinib, which targets BTK. And then, I mentioned at the beginning these fixed-duration therapies that stop after a period of time. Many of those are based on a newer oral drug called venetoclax, which when we give it as a first therapy, we give in combination with that antibody obinutuzumab.

So, a bit of an alphabet soup. I know it gets confusing with all the different treatments, but the good news for CLL patients is, 1.) we have a lot of options, which is great, 2.) we don’t necessarily need to use chemotherapy anymore, and in fact I use it pretty rarely these days. One situation where I do still consider chemotherapy is for younger patients – which in the CLL world is sort of under age 60 or so – if they have very favorable biology to the disease, in particular this mutated IGHV.

That’s a scenario where the older chemotherapy regimen, FCR, can be very effective. It’s a six-month treatment, and we have patients with those molecular characteristics who are now 12, almost 15 years out from their initial six months, and they’re still in a complete remission. So, many of those patients have been functionally cured of their CLL from the six months of treatment. But again, there are some risks to that approach. We worry about other cancers that may be more likely after receiving FCR. We worry about infections, and particularly in the COVID situation, we worry about COVID infection in patients on chemotherapy.

So, it’s been pretty rare that I’ve been using that approach these days. I’ve been opting more for the novel agent-based approaches. So, often now the conversation as an initial therapy comes down to, “Do you prefer more of a continuous treatment strategy with a BTK inhibitor drug like ibrutinib or acalabrutinib, or do you like the idea of a time-limited therapy with one year of venetoclax in combination with obinutuzumab?” And I would say there’s pros and cons to both approaches, and we don’t know which one is the optimal one for CLL patients to start with, but probably I think most patients at some point in their lifetime are going to need one therapy or the other.

So, maybe in the end it doesn’t matter too much which one you start with if you’re going to get both eventually anyway. But we don’t know that yet.

Katherine:                  

Right. Where do clinical trials fit in with the treatment approaches?

Dr. Davids:                 

So, clinical trials are really how we’ve made all these advances in CLL over the last decade. It’s how we learn about new treatments. It’s how we learn about how to optimize the treatments that we have. I think sometimes patients have a misconception that clinical trials are a last resort, the idea that you’ve exhausted all the standard options and then you go to a clinical trial as your last hope. But I actually like to kind of turn that on its head and say that clinical trials are actually the first resort, the first best option for patients. Whenever patients can get access to a clinical trial at any stage of their disease, I would really encourage them to consider it.

We have quite a few clinical trials now in the frontline setting, meaning as an initial treatment for CLL, including some that are in development and will open soon. And these are the studies that are going to really help us define what the optimal regimens are. What’s the optimal sequence of these different novel agents?

And in CLL, really, we’re at a point where the research on the disease is so mature that when you’re in a clinical trial you’re either going to be on one regimen that you know you’re getting and you know it’s going to be an effective regimen, or you might be in a comparative trial where you could be randomized to one of two or three different regiments, but you know that each one of those regimens is one that we think is a great regimen. We just don’t know which one is optimal for individual patients. So, this is not a situation where there’s placebo-controlled trials where you don’t know if you’re going to get an active treatment or not. CLL is an area where we design our clinical trials so that all patients are going to be benefiting from cutting-edge approaches.

And so, not all patients have access to trials, and that’s okay. Again, we’re fortunate that we have many good options that can be given locally, but I do encourage patients even if they’re only able to travel to a CLL specialist once to have an initial consultation to think about doing that to get a CLL specialist on your team, so to speak. That way they can identify clinical trial options that may be a good fit, and even if not, they can advise on what the optimal treatment options are to receive locally with your own oncologist.

Katherine:                  

How do patients find out about these clinical trials?

Dr. Davids:                 

I do think the best way is through a CLL specialist because certainly they would have a great pulse on the trials, they have available at their own center. They should also have a sense for what trials are available maybe at other centers. Some of that can also be, there’s a great resource through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society where they can help navigate patients toward specific trials that may be applicable to them.

There’s also a website called clinicaltrials.gov. It can be a little challenging if you’re not familiar with it to navigate the site, but it is actually pretty straightforward. You can put in the disease and look at different options for trials based on different drugs, for example. They’ll list the eligibility criteria for the trial. That’s often I find a way that patients can begin to identify whether they may be a candidate. You can’t tell from the website whether you’re definitely a candidate or not. You really need to partner with an investigator who’s on the trial to learn that, but it certainly can be a good starting point to figure out what’s out there.

Katherine:                  

With CLL, what are the goals of treatment?

Dr. Davids:                 

I like to say to patients, “The goals are to make you live longer and live better.” You want to obviously have treatments that prolong life, but you also want to have treatments that are helping with symptoms, and giving patients more energy, and making them feel better, and protecting them from some of the risks of the disease. And so, I think the goals do vary a bit based on the stage of life that patients are at.

I see a lot of patients in their 70s and 80s, and in those patient’s symptom control, having the disease be in a good remission, allowing them to live their life is a good goal. I sometimes see patients in their 40s and 50s, and some of those patients want to be a bit more aggressive and try to do a strategy that will get them a very long-term remission, and even potentially explore potentially curative strategies.

If I have a higher-risk patient with deletion 17p who’s young and fit, and they’ve already had some of the novel treatments, that’s where we start thinking about clinical trials of some of the cellular therapies like CAR-T cells that people may have heard of where you use the T cells from the patient to try to use that as a therapy to kill off the disease. Or even a bone marrow transplant is something that we have used historically in CLL. We don’t use it as often now, but for younger patients with high-risk disease it’s still a consideration to try to achieve a cure of the CLL even though the risks of that are significant.

It sounds like there are several factors to weigh then in making this decision. Lately we’ve been hearing the term “shared decision-making,” which basically means that patients and clinicians collaborate to make healthcare decisions.

And it can help patients take a more active role in their care. What are your thoughts, Dr. Davids, on how best to make this process work?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah, I fully support that model. I think for most patients it’s very helpful to be an important decision maker. Really the patient is the ultimate decision maker to say what they want for their own treatment. And sometimes it’s hard for me to predict what a patient will want for themselves, so I see my role for most patients as providing the information that they need to make the best decision possible for themselves.

I do try to steer patients a bit in the directions that I think they should be thinking. I’m not going to necessarily present a laundry list of things to patients. I’m going to try to narrow it down to what I think are the most reasonable choices for a patient to make.

I feel that’s part of my job. I do still have patients who just say, “Just tell me what to do,” and I respect that, too. Not all patients want to be part of shared decision making, and they just want me to decide, and that’s fine. But I do find that most patients like the idea of having a voice and being the one to decide, and that way I can help to guide them, but ultimately, it’s up to them.

Katherine:                  

Well, speaking of patients having a voice, are there questions that patients should consider asking when they’re thinking about a proposed treatment plan?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah. I think some of the key ones revolve around basic stuff, but sometimes it’s hard to think of it in the moment. But thinking about, what are the risks of this therapy? What are the specific side effects that are most common? When you look at a package insert or you look at a clinical trial consent form, you’re going to see 100 different side effects listed. I always promise patients, “You won’t have every single side effect that’s listed here, but you may have a couple of them.” And again, my role often is to identify which are the more common side effects that we see and how can those be managed?

And then, I think often you’re just asking simply about what are the potential benefits of this therapy? What are the odds that I’m going to get into remission? How long is this remission likely to last?

And then, something that is often challenging for patients to think about – it can be challenging for me as well – is to think about what’s the next step? So, I think a good question to ask is, “If I choose Therapy A, what happens if I need therapy again in a few years? What are the options at that point?” because we’ve been talking so far mostly about what we call frontline therapy, making that initial choice of treatment. But then, once you get into what we call the relapse setting, a lot of the decision of what to receive at that point depends on what you got as the first therapy. And so, trying to think at least one step ahead as to what the next options are I think can be helpful, certainly for the physicians but also for the patients.

Katherine:                  

Do you have any advice to help patients speak up when they’re feeling like their voice isn’t being heard?

Dr. Davids:                 

That’s always a challenging situation, but I encourage patients not to be shy about asking questions.

There’s often an imbalance in terms of the information where the oncologist may know more than the patient about a particular condition. And so, I think reading up and trying to educate yourself as much as you can. Whenever possible, including a family member or friend as part of the visit to also help advocate for you. And then, if you’re not being heard the way that you think you should be, thinking about seeking out another provider who may be able to listen more.

And sometimes that can be again helpful to have a touchpoint with a CLL specialist who may be able to reinforce some of what you’re thinking. If what you’re reading online or seeing online is different from what your oncologist is telling you, that may be a sign that it’s good to get a second opinion and just make sure you’re on the right track.

Katherine:                  

All really helpful advice, Dr. Davids. Before we end the program, what are your thoughts about the future of CLL treatment and research?

Dr. Davids:                 

I’m very optimistic about where things are right now. We’ve gotten to this point where we have so many different effective options, so it’s fun for us to now design this next wave of clinical trials to really try to optimize the outcomes for patients.

One area I’m particularly interested in is a concept called MRD, which we haven’t talked about yet, but minimal residual disease is a way to look even at a molecular level for tiny amounts of CLL that may be left behind after treatments. And so, one of the things I’m particularly excited about is the idea eventually of using what we call MRD-guided therapy.

So, we talked before about continuous treatment. We talked about what we call fixed-duration treatment where everyone gets a year or everyone gets two years. MRD-guided therapy would actually allow us to vary the length of therapy depending on how a particular patient responds. So, some patients may need one year of a particular combination, but other patients may need two years. This could be a way to really individualize therapy for particular patients. It’s also a way to monitor patients who are in remission after they’ve stopped therapy.

And so, there’s another wave of trials looking at, should we be intervening early when patients develop recurrence of their MRD rather than waiting until they’re having progression of the disease? There’s still a lot of unanswered questions about these sorts of approaches, but I think it’s going to help us get even better at treating CLL.

All of this is contingent though upon the fact that patients continue to be interested in clinical trials and enrolling in trials so that we can really push the boundaries and learn even more about the disease. So, again, if no other message comes through, it’s really to think about clinical trials as a way to continue to improve outcomes for all patients with CLL. I think it’s a great situation where both the individual patient who’s participating in the trial can stand to benefit, but then also you can really be giving back and helping others.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much.

And thank you to all of our partners. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. Don’t forget to take the survey immed – don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan programs for the future. To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us.

What’s YOUR Role in Making Myelofibrosis Treatment Decisions?

What’s YOUR Role in Making Myelofibrosis Treatment Decisions? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can you play a role in your myelofibrosis care? Dr. Joseph Scandura shares his personal philosophy on patient care and the important role of shared decision-making.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Scandura, what is the role of the patient in making treatment decisions? 

Dr. Scandura:

My personal philosophy is I view myself and my interactions with patients as a partnership. And I have and I bring to this partnership medical knowledge, some scientific knowledge, experience treating patients, understanding the diseases and the biology of the diseases. 

What patients bring is their personal histories, what they want and need from therapy, what their expectations are, where their fears and concerns might be. And as we share our information, I think that provides the opportunity to come to an understanding where the patient can make an informed decision and I can support that decision, that we know what the groundwork has been between us. And so, I spend, often, a lot of time in the beginning with patients kind of trying to understand who they are as people and what they need and expect. And everybody, as you might imagine, is an individual.  

And I present to them the information, and I try to encourage questions so that I know that they understand the information that I’m giving so that they can make a decision in their best interest. And so, I think shared decision-making is the only model I practice.  

Now, patients have different needs, particularly some of my older patients. And, culturally, there are some differences where they don’t want to take that role of being the decision-maker. And so, then my role changes a little bit, and it becomes more to make sure they’re comfortable and understand the direction that we’re going in and, again, always trying to encourage people to take ownership. 

I think, in New York City, that’s not so common. People are pretty well-informed and interested and more than willing to express their opinions.  

And so, I would say it can be very rewarding to come to a decision where patients feel their needs are being met.  

Expert Perspective: Promising Myelofibrosis Treatment Research

Expert Perspective: Promising Myelofibrosis Treatment Research from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Joseph Scandura shares optimism about myelofibrosis therapy in clinical trials, including excitement about anti-fibrotic agents and how they work.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Scandura, you mentioned promising research in myelofibrosis treatment. What are you most excited about right now? 

Dr. Scandura:

I think there are a couple drugs that have been in clinical trials that have had activity in a significant subset. So, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of patients where the bone marrow fibrosis is actually reversed. 

And this is really something that we haven’t seen with other agents. And the approved agents, when that does happen, it’s really in a vast, vast minority of patients. And so, these newer drugs and, often, they’re used in combination with other approved drugs, can reverse the fibrosis in the marrow. And that is what I find most intriguing and exciting. They seem to be well-tolerated medications with predictable and reversible side effects when they do exist. And I think that time will tell if the promise is long-lived or if it’s short-lived. I mean, obviously, new drugs we don’t have the experience with that we really need. 

The clinical trials that are available now with some of these agents are in the last stages before the companies go to the FDA seeking approval for use. 

And so, we don’t have their results from those studies yet. They’re just opening, so sometimes the excitement doesn’t bear out when we do the rigorous clinical trials. But I’m actually quite optimistic about some of these agents, and I think that there is going to really be a sea change in how we treat patients and some of the outcomes we can expect from our therapies.  

COVID-19 Vaccination: What Do Myelofibrosis Patients Need to Know?

COVID-19 Vaccination: What Do Myelofibrosis Patients Need to Know? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Should myelofibrosis patients get the COVID-19 vaccine? Dr. Joseph Scandura discusses the risks and benefits of vaccination.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for patients with myelofibrosis, and how does the vaccine affect treatment? 

Dr. Scandura:

So, I will flip that question around a little bit. I live in New York City.  

If I cross the street, the decision to cross the street is potentially a life-or-death decision. And whatever minor decision you’re making, there are always risks and there are always potential benefits. So, I might get home, I might get run over by a cab. And so, I try to mitigate those risks as I can by crossing in certain streets, looking both ways. So, when we talk about vaccine, we also have to talk about the other part of it. What is the risk of not being vaccinated? And so, we know COVID-19 is a severe illness in a subset of patients, we know that if you take all people, about 1 percent of people die from COVID. 

 If we take all people from the vaccine who have been vaccinated, the number of serious side effects is very, very, very, very small, so, like .000, you know, something percent. 

So, very low. It doesn’t mean it’s zero, but it’s very, very low. So, just looking at those numbers, I say for virtually everybody, the risk/benefit is in favor of vaccination. In patients with myelofibrosis, we’ve had the opportunity collectively across the world to gather experience and look at patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms and how they responded to COVID when they were infected with COVID. And worldwide, the toxicity of COVID in patients seems to be quite high. And so, patients with myelofibrosis may be at higher risk from COVID. 

I can’t say that they absolutely are because this is imperfect data, but that’s the experience that has been published so far.  

We really don’t know anything about the experience of patients to the vaccine. Actually, at my center, we have a myeloproliferative diseases center, and we are trying to collect that information because patients often ask, and I don’t have any results from that. But I think that, all told, there is no reason to expect higher symptoms in patients with myelofibrosis from vaccination. And what we do know is that the risk of not being vaccinated is probably higher than the risk of being vaccinated.   

What Are the Considerations When Choosing Myelofibrosis Therapy?

What Are the Considerations When Choosing Myelofibrosis Therapy? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 When choosing a myelofibrosis treatment, how do you determine what might be best for you? Dr. Joseph Scandura shares expert advice, including a review of inhibitor therapy and stem cell transplant.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

What are the considerations when choosing treatment for myelofibrosis?  

Dr. Scandura:

I would say in broad strokes, the primary considerations are the patient, what they want, the disease, what our options are, and the overall condition in terms of what are our possibilities for therapy and what is the risk/benefit of some of these different therapies. So, in myelofibrosis, although there’s been a huge amount of research over the past 10 years, really blossoming and are very impressive in, I think, an exciting way, there really are only two therapies that are approved by the FDA in the treatment of myelofibrosis, and those both affect one class of agents. These are JAK2 inhibitors, and those can be ruxolitinib (Jakafi) and fedratinib (Inrebicare the two drugs that are approved. 

Now, we have a number of therapies that have been used off-label, meaning without FDA approval, so often and for so long that they’re considered alternative standards of therapy. These can be growth factors; these can be biological agents in certain situations. And then, clinical trials is really increasingly a common therapeutic option for patients.  

And then, on the most aggressive side, is hematopoietic stem cell transplant and allogeneic transplant getting blood-forming cells from another person and replacing the entire blood system through transplant. 

Katherine Banwell:

So, who is right for a stem cell transplant? 

Dr. Scandura:

I would say, first and foremost, an informed patient about the risks of transplant and a patient for whom a donor exists, and a good quality donor. Transplant is not an option for some people or if a donor can’t be identified, obviously. 

And it’s a patient for whom the risk balance, the risk/benefit balance is tipped so that the potential toxicity, frankly, of transplant is warranted. Transplant is our most aggressive therapy. Virtually every patient will have significant side effects from transplant. Some of them are short-lived, some of them can be chronic. People die from the consequences of transplant. And so, it’s not something that is considered in patients who are necessarily doing well or are frail. The risk of transplant versus the benefit may not be in favor of transplant at that time.  

My approach for transplant is to get advice from transplant physicians. I’m not a transplant physician, but I have colleagues who I refer to. 

And I refer in myelofibrosis fairly universally fairly early, with the rationale being that this is information. It is not a plan; it is to speak to a transplant, what kind of donor exists. If no donor exists, then transplant is not on the table. If we have a very good, high-quality donor, then this is something that wouldn’t make the decision in itself, but it’s kind of something we can keep in our hip pocket in case we need it. And I think it’s important for patients to understand and have a full and complete discussion with a transplant physician so they understand what that means. You know, it is a significant commitment of time and morbidity, and it comes with risks. 

It is also our only curative therapy. And so, it’s a double-edged sword, and I think informed patients and understanding what the options are are the gateway to any consideration of transplant.   

Primary vs. Secondary Myelofibrosis: What’s the Difference?

Primary vs. Secondary Myelofibrosis: What’s the Difference? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Are primary and secondary myelofibrosis different? Dr. Joseph Scandura, a specialist in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), explains the diagnoses and shares insight into each type.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Scandura, would you start by introducing yourself?  

Dr. Scandura:

Sure. My name’s Joe ScanduraI’m an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. I’m a physician scientist. My laboratory studies blood formation, normal and malignant, and clinically I treat people with  myeloid neoplasms, particularly, and myeloproliferative neoplasms.  

Katherine Banwell:

Would you define myelofibrosis for us, and also provide an explanation of primary versus secondary myelofibrosis? 

Dr. Scandura:

Sure. Myelofibrosis is in the class of diseases called myeloproliferative neoplasms. And, really, its sort of marker feature is scarring in the bone marrow.  

Clinically, this comes along most commonly and fairly universally with anemia, and there can be abnormalities of both the white blood cell count and the platelet count, sometimes, often in the beginning, being too high. And then they can also become too low. 

It tends to be a progressive disease, or on the face on which it progresses is different in different people and there are a variety of different features that can go along with risk. But every individual, of course, is individual.  

A primary myelofibrosis is what we refer to when the diagnosis is made and there’s no antecedent, there’s no precursor malignancy. And so, you come in and the diagnosis is myelofibrosis, and we can’t find anything that came before it.  

Secondary myelofibrosis is what we refer to when somebody has another blood disorder, usually essential thrombocythemia or polycythemia vera, and in a small subset of these patients, the disease can change, what we call evolve or progress into a fibrotic phenotype or associated with the marrow scarring, and a lot of the features of myelofibrosis. Although there are some subtle differences between primary and secondary, they’re more similar than different in terms of their clinical features and how we treat them. 

How Does Inhibitor Therapy Work to Treat Myelofibrosis?

How Does Inhibitor Therapy Work to Treat Myelofibrosis? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is inhibitor therapy? Dr. Joseph Scandura reviews approved JAK inhibitor therapies and explains how they work to treat myelofibrosis.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

How does inhibitor therapy work to treat myelofibrosis? 

Dr. Scandura:

So, the therapies that we have now that are approved therapies that are in this class are  ruxolitinib (Jakafi) and fedratinib (Inrebic) 

Both of these agents act to block signaling through a protein called JAK2. You can think of JAK2 as being part of the antennae system that a cell uses to communicate with the rest of the body. And so, our blood-forming cells have a lot of input from the body saying, “Okay, we need some of these kinds of cells, we need some of those kinds of cells,” and it’s a very adaptive system. And JAK2 is involved in a lot of the signaling in this as part of the antennae system.  

And what happens in the myeloproliferative neoplasms is that signaling is a bit excessive. 

And so, it’s like the volume is turned up too loud and the signaling is causing the cells to do things, make too many cells, make the wrong kinds of cells, and JAK2 is part of that signaling system. So, these inhibitors kind of help turn down the volume of the signaling in these blood-forming cells. They are drugs that have good activity in improving symptoms, they have great success in reducing the size of the spleen, they can be useful for a few years to many years. They are not curative therapies. We don’t think of them as therapies that change the course of disease, but they certainly have an important role in helping people feel better. There are other inhibitor therapies that are in clinical development. 

So, clinical trials of some of these drugs have really impressive activity, but none is approved yet by the FDA.  

I hope and expect we’ll have a couple more drugs available in the coming years. And there’s a lot of excitement in clinical trials in terms of some of the activities that are being seen, and really quite tolerable therapies, so not a lot of side effects for patients. And so, I think it’s kind of an exciting time for physicians and for patients and a lot more options now and, I think, a lot more options coming down the line.

Which Gene Mutations Impact Myelofibrosis Treatment Options?

Which Gene Mutations Impact Myelofibrosis Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Are there specific mutations that may affect myelofibrosis treatment choices? Dr. Joseph Scandura explains the factors that are considered when deciding a myelofibrosis therapy, including a discussion of high-risk and low-risk disease.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Are there gene mutations that affect myelofibrosis treatment choices? 

Dr. Scandura:

Yeah. So, you know, the primary mutations in JAK2 or CALR or MPL in myelofibrosis aren’t that helpful in guiding therapy.  

And we look at the other genes for co-ocurrent mutations and those, as I was mentioning before, can come into one of two categories. So, there are a number of genes that we know tend to confer a higher risk, and so we call those high molecular risk mutations. And people who have higher molecular risk tend to have a more aggressive disease. 

Now, I want to add a word of caution because when we talk about patients and risk, we’re talking about groups of patients. For any individual, everything kind of boils down to it happens, or it doesn’t happen. And so, there’s nobody is 50 percent dead in five years, right. You either are or you’re not. And so, when we talk about risk, then we’re talking about risk of bad things happening like death or other complications of the disease, we’re trying to guide treatment decision-making and guided discussion based on a chance.  

But all of those things, for any individual, there are people who have high risk who do quite well for a long period of time, and people who don’t have high risk who don’t do as well as you think they should. And so, it’s a part of a conversation, it helps guide discussion, but it is not something carved into stone, and nobody has a perfect ability to predict anybody’s future. 

And all of these things are our best tools to estimate, but they are not a future; they are a possibility. And so, people who have higher molecular risk, we might think about more aggressive treatments than people who have lower molecular risk.  

Have You Had These Essential Myelofibrosis Tests?

Have You Had These Essential Myelofibrosis Tests? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the essential tests that should follow a myelofibrosis diagnosis? Dr. Joseph Scandura reviews the necessary laboratory testing, along with a discussion of next generation sequencing, and explains how often bone marrow biopsies should take place.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

Related Programs

Which Gene Mutations Impact Myelofibrosis Treatment Options?

What Are the Considerations When Choosing Myelofibrosis Therapy?

How Does Inhibitor Therapy Work to Treat Myelofibrosis?


Transcript

Katherine Banwell: 

What testing should take place following a myelofibrosis diagnosis? 

Dr. Scandura:  

So, a diagnosis of myelofibrosis always comes after a bone marrow exam and a physical examination. Often, patients have an enlarged spleen and blood count testing and a variety of other laboratory tests. So, after that and a diagnosis is made of myelofibrosis and, sort of, coincident with the diagnosis, we often look for molecular markers of myelofibrosis. So, these are malignancies of the bone marrow, cancers, if you will, on the bone marrow, although the term is scarier than or is different than what we think of for many malignancies in how it acts. But the myelofibrosis, this is a disease that’s characterized by, really, mutations in the malignant cells, the abnormal cells. 

They’re really just one of three genes. And so, JAK2 being one of the genes, calreticulin or CALR being another one, and MPL one.  

And more than 90 percent are people having mutation in just one of those three genes. And so, often at the time of diagnosis, tests for those mutations are done, and they help eliminate the possibilities of other causes of myelofibrosis – infections, rheumatological diseases. Sometimes, you can have marrow fibrosis but they don’t go along with mutations and the same clinical situation. And so, at the time of diagnosis, we usually know something about a mutation in JAK2, CALR, or MPL.    

More commonly now, and it’s increasingly common over the past 10 years in, I would say, in New York City and many places across the country, we also look more broadly for other common mutations in the MPN cells. And these are what we refer in the batch as next generation sequencing or NGS panels, and we use the term panels because we’re looking at from a few tens to even 100 or a couple hundred genes for mutations that occur far less frequently than in JAK2 or MPL or CALR.  

But they occur often enough that some of them we use to help guide treatment decision-making or approach to therapy. The reality of it is that that the technology to sequence and identify mutations has really outstripped our knowledge of what to do with all of that information. 

And, for the vast majority of people, it comes down to do you have a marker, a genetic marker that tends to go along with higher risk, meaning a higher likelihood of something that we don’t want to have happen. And in that instance, although it may be looking at a hundred or so genes, it comes down to a binary thing – either you have or you don’t have. 

Katherine Banwell:

Is there any other testing that you usually want to do? 

Dr. Scandura:

Laboratory testing, for sure and, as I mentioned before, a bone marrow exam. But physical examination, some people might do imaging of the spleen size. Honestly, I don’t routinely do that outside of the setting of the clinical trial. I don’t really think it dictates therapy very often. 

And if the spleen is so small that you can’t feel it on physical exam, it probably isn’t clinically meaningful anyway in terms of something to treat. It might be there, but it doesn’t really change things too much.   

Katherine Banwell:

How often should patients have a bone marrow biopsy? 

Dr. Scandura:

So, I’ll answer there is no standard in terms of monitoring for myelofibrosis with the marrow or otherwise. My personal approach is I do a marrow when I think it’s going to help medical decision-making. And so, for a patient who’s got early myelofibrosis, who’s been very stable, responding well to therapy, that could be three, five years between marrow exams. 

For somebody who’s being considered for a clinical trial, oftentimes, a marrow exam is required before they start on the clinical trial and at various intervals afterwards. If there’s somebody who had been stable and something is changing, like the blood counts are changing or his symptoms are changing, or any of a number of clinical features, then I might look in the marrow to see what’s happening there, to see if explains and can help guide a treatment approach to help people feel better. So, there is no single standard, but my personal approach is to do a bone marrow exam when I think it’s going to help make a decision.