Tag Archive for: biomarkers

Current Treatment Approaches for Bladder Cancer

Current Treatment Approaches for Bladder Cancer from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Shilpa Gupta provides an overview of available bladder cancer treatment approaches and discusses the factors that impact therapy decisions.

Dr. Shilpa Gupta is the Director of the Genitourinary Medical Oncology at Taussig Cancer Institute and Co-Leader of the Genitourinary Oncology Program at Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Gupta’s research interests are novel drug development and understanding biomarkers of response and resistance to therapies in bladder cancer. Learn more about Dr. Gupta, here.

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You’ve touched upon treatment options but let’s walk through the treatment approaches for bladder cancer and who they might be right for, and I’d like to start with surgery. Who would be a good candidate for surgery?

Dr. Gupta:                  

I think patients who are otherwise fit, that is, they have good performance status, don’t have a lot of cardiac or other comorbidities, are not very obese, and of course have to be fit for any major procedure are usually considered good surgical candidates. But, as far as – In terms of staging, the patients with stage I, if BCG does not work in them or immunotherapy doesn’t work, they are recommended surgery if they are good candidates.

If they are not good candidates, we then – our role as medical oncologists is to offer other systemic therapies. As far as stage II cancer is concerned, the gold standard has been chemotherapy, followed by surgery but that’s the gold standard.

It may not apply for every patient. Depending on how fit patients are. Are they – we don’t usually just go by their chronological age but how fit they are? What are their comorbidities? If surgery is going to be a big burden for them moving forward, then we do talk about radiation and chemotherapy and other bladder preservation approaches.


What about immunotherapy and targeted therapies? Who would you use those on?

Dr. Gupta:                  

Well, since the advent of immunotherapies back in 2016 they’ve really – we’ve made a lot of progress and changed the way treat bladder cancer and the overall survival has improved by leaps and bounds with all these drugs.

Immunotherapy now plays a role in different stages. It is approved for superficial or non-muscle invasive bladder cancer if, let’s say, BCG doesn’t work. In muscle invasive disease we have along with others shown that immunotherapy is safe and effective, although it is not yet FDA approved, so there is a lot of clinical trials going on to prove its superiority in combination and by itself.                                   

And, in metastatic disease or locally advanced disease immunotherapy plays a huge role for patients who have either disease recurrence after chemotherapy or are not good candidates for any chemotherapy.

I would say that immunotherapy is a very big – plays a very big role in the treatment. Unfortunately, not everybody responds to immunotherapy only about 20 to 25 percent of patients do.

 That’s why we have these other novel therapies that have been coming through, like antibody drug conjugates, namely enfortumab vedotin, sacituzumab govitecan, and targeted therapy in the form of an FGFR inhibitor was the first targeted therapy that was approved a couple of years ago for patients who have a mutation in their tumors.

That’s really personalized medicine for those patients.


Right. What about biomarker testing? Does the presence of certain biomarkers impact certain treatment options?

Dr. Gupta:                  

That’s a great question and we’re all striving to find the perfect biomarker in bladder cancer. In the past we thought that expression of PD-L1 in the tumor cells and immune cells is a marker of how well the immunotherapy will work, but we have learned over the past couple of years that biomarker has turned out to be quite useless.

We don’t really need that to guide our treatment. We’re still depending on clinical biomarkers for immunotherapy use or chemotherapy use. I would say that the biomarker question is still being looked at and eventually I would say it’s not going to be one biomarker, but a composite of several different biomarkers that we will be able to use comprehensively.

What Do Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients Need to Know About Genetic Testing?

What Do Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients Need to Know About Genetic Testing? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What do metastatic breast cancer patients need to learn about genetic testing? Expert Dr. Sarah Sammons explains the difference between germline testing versus somatic testing and defines key terms, including biomarker testing and genetic mutations.

Dr. Sarah Sammons is an oncologist at Duke Cancer Institute and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Sammons here.

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Many patients are confused by genetic testing. Let’s look at the difference between germline and somatic testing.

Dr. Sammons:

Yes, that’s a really good question and one that comes up in the clinic quite frequently. When I tell a patient that I want to get some sort of genetic testing, they often are confused, and say, “Well, I’ve already had genetic testing, maybe when I was first diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.” And so then, I do often times need to explain what the difference between germline and somatic genetic testing is.

So, germline testing is testing that’s done on cells in your body that actually don’t have cancer. And the purpose of germline testing, which we often do in early-state breast cancer or in metastatic breast cancer, is to understand if you have inherited genes that could pre-dispose you to developing breast cancer. But also, in the metastatic setting, it’s important to do germline testing because we do have drugs that are approved for patients that have germline mutations in the BRCA genes. And research is evolving, but there are other germline genes of interest that could be biomarkers for other therapies.

Somatic testing is basically genetic testing on the breast cancer cells themselves. So, most often we will get a biopsy, usually of a metastatic area, like the liver, or bone, or lung. Really the safest, most accessible place. If we’re able to safely get a biopsy, oftentimes we’ll send somatic testing – that’s also referred to as usually next generation sequencing – is all somatic testing. And that tests mutations that have developed in the breast cancer itself. It could potentially be biomarkers for optimizing and tailoring personalized treatment approaches to the patient’s cancer.


I’d like to define a few terms. First of all, what is biomarker testing?

Dr. Sammons:

That’s a really good question. So, a biomarker is really anything – it could be a gene; it could be a protein – that is expressed on a patient’s cancer, that makes them a good candidate for a certain drug, essentially.

So, one of the earliest biomarkers that we’ve had in breast cancer – and still, I would argue, the most important biomarkers – are estrogen receptor and HER2.

Now, we test all breast cancers for estrogen receptor and HER2 because we know for estrogen receptor – if a patient has estrogen receptor high positivity at their initial diagnosis, that is the best biomarker for endocrine therapies, whereas HER2 present on a breast cancer cell – patients that overexpress HER2, they are great candidates for drugs that specifically target HER2.

So, it simply means that we found something on their breast cancer cell that makes them a good candidate for a treatment.


What is a genetic mutation?

Dr. Sammons:

So, genetic mutations are a permanent change in the DNA of a gene, in either a cancer cell or a cell that somebody was born with. So, it’s a change in the DNA sequence. And some gene mutations drive cancers to grow. Some mutations do not drive cancers to grow. Generally, in the treatment of all advanced cancers, we only target with drugs those gene mutations that we know are what we call “driver mutations.” So, mutations that actually cause the cancer to grow.

What Are Biomarkers and How Do They Impact Lung Cancer Treatment Options?

What Are Biomarkers and How Do They Impact Lung Cancer Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are lung cancer biomarkers, and how do they impact treatment options? Dr. Isabel Preeshagul defines biomarkers and explains how different biomarkers may help determine treatment options and aid in predicting treatment response. 

Dr. Isabel Preeshagul is a thoracic medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Preeshagul here.

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Katherine Banwell:

Well, let’s define a few terms that are often confusing for patients. What are biomarkers?

Dr. Preeshagul:

Those are somatic alterations in the tumor just like EGFR, or ALK fusions, or MET exon 14, or MET amplification, or KRAS G12C.

These are all genes that are altered in the tumor. And these are genes that drive the tumor to grow. There are also other markers like PD-L1, which is a marker for response to immunotherapy. And there are various markers.

I could go on and talk about it for hours, but those are the more common ones that we know how to treat and how to handle and prognosticate.

Katherine Banwell:

And another term that’s sometimes confusing, what is a genetic mutation?

Dr. Preeshagul:

So, for genetic mutations, you have germline, and you have somatic. So, a germline mutation may be something like a BRCA1 or a BRCA2 that we see in patients with breast cancer or prostate cancer versus a somatic mutation which would be EGFR that I had mentioned or ALK fusion. So, germline mutations are the ones that we worry about being heritable.

And somatic mutations are those that are not thought to be heritable but thought to happen spontaneously within the tumor itself and cause the tumor to grow. We are constantly learning more about these though, however. But it’s really important to talk with your doctor to see if you have a germline mutation or a somatic mutation or if you have both.

And it is never wrong to seek an opinion with a genetic counselor to make sure that everyone in your family is safe, that you’re up to date on age-appropriate cancer screening, and that your family gets screened appropriately as well if indicated.

Katherine Banwell:

Are there specific biomarkers that affect lung cancer treatment choices?

Dr. Preeshagul:

Oh, definitely. One that I had mentioned is PD-L1. And this is a marker that we look for expression. So, based on FDA approval for pembrolizumab, if you have an expression of 50 percent or more, you are able to get immunotherapy alone in the upfront setting. If you have less than 50 percent, we often give you chemotherapy plus immunotherapy. And that’s based on a clinical trial known as KEYNOTE-189.

Other markers such as EGFR, as I had mentioned, ALK fusions, RET, NTRK, MET exon 14, ROS1, KRAS, HER2, you name it, those are alterations that we look for ideally in the upfront setting as well and can really affect treatment planning.

And those patients that harbor mutations like EGFR and ALK and ROS1 or MET exon 14, we know that these patients do better with targeted therapy upfront, not standard-of-care chemo. So, it’s really important to know about the presence of these alterations before you start treatment if possible.

What Is a CLL Biomarker?

What Is a CLL Biomarker? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) biomarker? Dr. Paul Barr provides the definition of a biomarker and explains how they may assist in determining a CLL patient’s prognosis and treatment approach.

Dr. Paul Barr is Professor of Hematology/Oncology at University of Rochester Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Barr, here.

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Often patients are confused with the term biomarker or biomarker testing. Would you define that for us?

Dr. Barr:

Sure. Biomarkers, I think of them as surrogates to understand the bigger picture. A lot of times what we really want to know when we’re meeting a patient is what’s going to happen in the future? What’s going to happen in five and 10 years from now? Or maybe we want to know as we’re getting closer to treatment, how well is this going to work and how long is it going to work for?

So, we do a lot of research in developing surrogate tests to try to give us an idea of what the future might hold. And so, we have developed a number of molecular genetic tests that we test for, and they give us an estimate of what to expect in terms of the patient’s prognosis.

Or perhaps they help predict for which treatment might work best. So, we often, will look at some molecular aberrations or some genetic tests that tell us about abnormalities just within the CLL cells in the leukemia cell. And they can predict for more slowly or rapidly growing disease. And other tests, might predict for, which drug might serve a patient best in terms of efficacy or how long would it work or for safety.

So, think of that as useful tools to help us give the patients an idea of what to expect over time.

MPN Treatment: What Is the Role of Biomarkers?

MPN Treatment: What Is the Role of Biomarkers? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What role do biomarkers take in myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) treatment? Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju defines biomarkers and explains how molecular mutations play into MPN disease risk levels and treatment options.

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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Katherine Banwell:

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.

Identifying Biomarkers Gives Doctors Known Targets to Treat Many Cancers

This blog was originally published by Cancer Treatments Centers of America on August 21, 2019, here.

Doctors are increasingly relying on biomarkers, which help determine a patient’s overall health and/or the presence of disease. Learn what biomarkers are and why they are increasingly important in cancer care.

When faced with opposition, it’s beneficial to learn as much as possible about the opponent. A pitcher reads a scouting report before facing a lineup. An army consults intelligence before engaging the enemy in battle.

The same principles apply to the treatment of some cancers. When treating a tumor, it’s important for a doctor to know as much as possible about that cancer—specifically, what is driving the tumor’s growth.

To get the inside information on a tumor, doctors are increasingly relying on biomarkers, short for biological markers, measurable signs or substances in the body that may indicate a patient’s overall health and/or the presence or progression of disease.

The discovery of biomarkers in cancer drastically changed the course of cancer treatment. For decades, many cancers were treated similarly, with surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Identifying biomarkers in cancer cells has led to the development of new precision medicine drugs, such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy, designed to target specific features in cancer cells, potentially reducing the damage to healthy cells. “The routine use of a variety of biomarkers has substantially changed the way in which cancer medicine is practiced,” says Maurie Markman, MD, President of Medicine & Science at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), “from providing more accurate prognostic information to assisting in the prediction of specific therapeutic strategies that are more likely to result in a favorable outcome for an individual patient.”

What are biomarkers?

A biomarker is any measurable indicator of a person’s health. Blood pressure is a biomarker, as are body temperature, blood sugar and cholesterol measurements. In cancer, biomarkers also include proteins, hormones, gene aberrations, such as mutations or rearranged genes, and other molecules found in or on cancer cells. Cancer biomarkers may be found in routine blood, urine or stool tests. Others may require a biopsy and/or advanced genomic testing to uncover. “Genomics has made it so much easier to find gene mutations,” says Arturo Loaiza-Bonilla, MD, MSEd, FACP, Vice Chair for the CTCA® Department of Medical Oncology. “Now we may be able to target a mutation and potentially get the cancer to stop growing.”

Biomarkers play multiple roles in the treatment of diseases, such as cancer, including:

Diagnostic: Helping confirm the presence of disease, sometimes before symptoms develop

Prognostic: Helping forecast the progression and aggressiveness of the disease and the risk of recurrence

Predictive: Helping doctors identify how patients may respond to certain drugs

Biomarkers may play any or all these roles and more. Some biomarkers may be used to assess a patient’s risk of developing disease, the effectiveness of a treatment or whether a treatment is safe or toxic.

Common cancer biomarkers include:

  • BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes: Mutations in these genes may increase a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer. In men, it may increase the risk of prostate cancer.
  • PSA: Prostate specific antigen may indicate prostate cancer. This biomarker may be used not just to diagnose the disease, but to measure its progression and how the treatment is performing.
  • HER2: Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 is found in many cancers, especially breast cancer. The targeted therapy drug trastuzumab and other similar monoclonal antibodies may be a treatment option for patients with HER2-positive cancers.
  • BCR-ABL: This gene, known as the Philadelphia chromosome, is found in patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Presence of the gene may indicate the patient may respond well to treatment with a tyrosine kinase inhibitor drug such as imatinib.
  • PD-L1: Programmed death ligand 1 is the companion receptor to PD-1. It may indicate a cancer’s ability to evade the immune system. Immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors may be an option to treat cancers high in PD-L1.
  • CA-125: High levels of cancer antigen-125 are found in many cancers as well as other diseases. Treatment options for cancers with CA-125 vary depending on where the cancer originated.
  • MSI-H: Microsatellite instability-high is a mutation in the DNA of cells found in many cancers, especially colorectal cancer. Checkpoint inhibitor drugs have been approved for cancers with MSI-H.

Difficult targets

Biomarkers don’t always tell the full story. Discovery of a biomarker that might indicate an increased cancer risk doesn’t mean a patient will get cancer. Not all cancers have identifiable biomarkers. And identifying a driving biomarker in a cancer does not necessarily lead to a treatment option. Some biomarkers for cancer have no corresponding targeted therapy or immunotherapy drug. For example:

  • TP53: Tumor protein 53 is a tumor suppressor gene designed to help stop cancer cells from growing. TP53 mutations are the most common found in cancer cells and may be found in most types of cancer.
  • RAS: About 30 percent of all cancers, including 95 percent of all pancreatic cancers, have known mutations in the RAS family of genes that control cell death and growth.

No targeted therapy drugs have been approved specifically to treat cancers with these mutations. “A number of recognized critical signaling pathways in cancer development, progression and resistance remain very difficult to ‘target’ to influence clinical outcomes,” Dr. Markman says. “The ability to successfully and safely target either or both of these pathways has the potential to be an important advancement in cancer management.”

Many cancers, especially solid tumors, have multiple biomarkers, any one of which may be able to drive a cancer’s growth. Target one biomarker, and another may take over as the driving mutation. And not all the same biomarkers are found in every cancer cell. “As cancer cells grow, they start to develop new abnormalities, mistakes made while the cells are multiplying,” Dr. Bonilla says. These new mutations may make the cancer more resistant to treatment.

Also, doctors need to take steps to prevent the patient from being harmed by the process of targeting a specific biomarker. For instance, patients on a checkpoint inhibitor that targets cancers high in PD-L1 may develop symptoms of autoimmune diseases, such as colitis. “The goal is to find the specific biomarker that every single cell expresses without compromising the normal cells,” Dr. Bonilla says, “because once you tell the immune system to kill a population of cells, it is going to kill all those cells, whether they are good or bad. But if you are able to find the specific biomarker that is the hallmark of this disease and needs to be eliminated, then it’s much easier to find a therapy.”

The discovery of biomarkers has led to game-changing developments in the cancer treatment. Women who learn they have BRCA mutations are now empowered to make potentially life-saving decisions to prevent breast and ovarian cancer. Men with slow-developing prostate cancer can now actively monitor their disease, in part, because their PSA levels can be measured. And research is ongoing to find new biomarkers to help in the treatment of other cancers and diseases, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease.

“Biomarkers offer an opportunity to apply genomics to population health and see what diseases or conditions people may be predisposed to,” says Pamela Crilley, DO, Chair of the CTCA Department of Medical Oncology. “Am I going to get diabetes? Am I going to get elevated cholesterol? Is there anything I can do about it? Look at hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. The science has led to being able to prevent disease in patients with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Now we may be able to significantly reduce your risk of disease.”

A Conversation With Dr. Jo-Anne Vergilio

A new year means new programs! We’d like to introduce to A Conversation With, which is a collection of conversations with healthcare leaders, including patient advocates and various healthcare professionals, to take a closer look at the topics and issues important to empowered patients, care givers, and their families.

In our first segment of A Conversation With, we spoke with Dr. Jo-Anne Vergilio the Senior Director in Pathology; Senior Associate Medical Director in Laboratory Operations, and Senior Hematopathologist at Foundation Medicine, Inc. Dr. Vergilio discusses what patients should know about biomarker testing and answers the following questions:

  1. How does biomarker testing work?
  2. How does biomarker testing help a cancer patient’s doctor with determining next steps in treatment?
  3. When in a patient’s course of treatment would they want to get biomarker testing?
  4. What is the difference between different kinds of biomarker tests?
    • Single marker vs. comprehensive
    • Tumor vs. liquid
  5. What does it mean for a biomarker test to be FDA-approved?
  6. If a doctor isn’t offering biomarker testing, what are some things that patients might say to their doctor?

Targeted Therapies: What does it all mean?

When my kids were little, I loved reading to them Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books including “The Corner” in Frog and Toad All Year. In it, Frog assures Toad on a cold, rainy day that spring is just around the corner. Frog says that when he was younger, on a similar cold, rainy day, he searched for spring around many corners until he eventually found it-sunshine and flowers-around the corner of his house.

And so it is with us cancer patients, constantly peering around every corner for the still elusive cure. Researchers at ASCO 2015 offered the most encouraging, hopeful news yet that we won’t have to look around the corner much longer.

Or will we?

Cancer is a tricky disease, in fact many tricky diseases, constantly morphing and exploiting loopholes to outwit us. The buzzwords at this year’s annual meeting in Chicago included “immunotherapy,” combination therapy and “biomarkers.” Immunotherapy has become the fourth arm to battle cancer, after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. On the upside, scientists are making great strides to develop ways for the body’s immune system to fight the cancer. These are called checkpoint inhibitors. Inhibitors basically release the brakes in cells to allow our immune systems to charge and attack the bad guys, e.g. cancer cells. And since the cancer is being attacked at a molecular level, this should work for everyone. But it doesn’t. And that has proved vexing to researchers. Every specialist with whom PEN spoke at ASCO – from melanoma to lung and prostate cancer to colorectal disease – acknowledges that they don’t yet know why the inhibitors aren’t working for all of us.

That’s where the biomarkers come in. Researchers are working to identify specific markers on an individual’s cell to determine if a specific anti-PD1 or

PD-L1 inhibitor will work on a patient. Or why it won’t work.

For my cancer Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, CLL, combination therapy made headline news at ASCO. Through clinical trials, scientists have found that combining a checkpoint inhibitor, Ibrutinib, with a standard chemotherapy called bendamustine along with the monoclonal antibody Rituxan yielded an 80% response rate. That’s a “wow,” but it still isn’t 100%. What is it about the 20% that their bodies resisted the combo therapy?

Maybe the key to unlock the mystery lies with genetics. On the last day of the conference, ASCO announced a joint effort with the NCI, National Cancer Institute, to conduct basket trials. These trials group patients together with specific genetic mutations in a patient’s tumor rather than the location of the tumor. So a prostate cancer patient may achieve complete remission or, dare we say, cure by being treated with a drug developed for breast cancer because of the same genetic mutation found in both.

Will that be the magic bullet that cures cancer? I am optimistic that the answer is just around the corner.