Tag Archive for: biomarkers

PODCAST: Gastric Cancer: How to Access the Best Care and Treatment for YOU

Advances in gastric cancer research have led to more personalized therapy for patients. Dr. Yelena Janjigian discusses how biomarker testing can help guide a patient’s prognosis and treatment path, reviews currently available gastric cancer therapies, and shares tips for self-advocacy.

Dr. Yelena Janjigian is Chief of Gastrointestinal Oncology Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello and welcome. I’m your host, Katherine Banwell. Today’s program focuses on helping patients understand gastric cancer treatment options based on their individual disease. We’ll review the latest research and provide tips for self-advocacy to help patients access better care.  

Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email that you received about this webinar contains a link to a program resource guide. 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. Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Yelena Janjigian. Dr. Janjigian, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Janjigian:

Thank you so much, Katherine, for this opportunity. My name is Yelena Janjigian. I’m a medical oncologist. And I oversee the GI oncology service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. We’re a large group of doctors, over 40 physicians who treat everything from esophagus cancer to rectal cancer. And my research focus and my passion has been in developing new treatments for patients with stomach cancer, so I personally focus on this disease clinically and from research perspective.  

Katherine:

Okay. Lovely.  

Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I’d like to start by learning about the latest research news. Are there recent advances in gastric cancer that patients should know about? 

Dr. Janjigian:

That’s a great question. The field of gastric cancer research has accelerated and evolved immensely over the last three years. We’ve had several important approvals for treatment of metastatic disease both for biomarkers selected population and immunotherapy targeted therapies. So, there’s been a lot of research, a lot of effort and some positive data that the patients and clinicians should be aware of.  

Katherine:

And what excites you about the research you’re involved with? 

Dr. Janjigian:

I’ve been focused on gastric cancer for nearly two decades. So, my recent advances have really helped to understand how we can improve patient’s survival better, potentially cure more patients, and understand the different subsets of cancer treatments and patients with gastric cancer understanding that not all gastric cancer is the same.  

So, I think being able to zoom in on different subsets and target personalized approaches for each individual patient is why I stay in research, why I stay in gastric cancer research because we’ve been able to make some major breakthroughs.  

Katherine:

That’s excellent news. How can patients stay up to date with treatment options? 

Dr. Janjigian:

That’s a great question. And recently there’s been a lot of resources online through both the big pharma really educating patients with patient-friendly handouts. And many of my big recent papers when we publish them in big journals like Lancet or Lancet Oncology, for example, or JCO, there’s always a patient-friendly handout that comes with that data that helps patients understand some of the endpoints, how do we describe why this study is positive? 

Or why is the FDA decided to approve the drug? So, there are many patient handouts that come with some of these papers. And it’s interesting, a lot of my patients come in. When they see me, they say, “Oh, it’s so good to finally meet you. I’ve watched a lot of your videos.” So, because of COVID actually, a lot of the scientific content that used to be just in in-person meetings behind doors for doctors, now it’s all online because a lot of these scientific presentations are now made for virtual content as well. So, patients have access to it. That’s double-edged sometimes. It’s a little bit of an information overload, and it may actually make patients feel more anxious than reassure them, right? Because it’s a lot of jargon and not too – but some patients find it helpful.  

Katherine:

Yeah, I can see that. It can be a double-edged sword.   

Dr. Janjigian:

Yeah.   

Katherine:

Well, thank you for that advice. So, now that we’ve heard what’s happening in research, let’s review some more basic information about gastric cancer. First, gastric cancer is sometimes referred to as stomach cancer. Is that the same thing, or are both terms correct?  

Dr. Janjigian:

Yeah. So, stomach is really where the cancer starts. But we can talk about stomach or abdomen. But gastric and stomach are the same tumor location basically. What’s interesting actually, some patients also have tumors that start at the bottom of their esophagus and extend into the stomach. So, biologically a lot of these cancers behave similarly. In fact, in United States the most common location for these cancers actually is in between the gastric esophageal junction and the stomach.  

So, it’s in the location in of the cancer that’s at the very top of the stomach. But in short, stomach cancer and gastric cancer are interchangeable. And as I mentioned, for many of our viewers, actually gastro-esophageal junction is also part of the same disease.  

Katherine:

Could you tell us what tests are used to diagnose gastric cancer? 

Dr. Janjigian:

Most of our patients, when they come in to see me, by then the diagnosis of cancer has been made because I’m on oncologist.  

In clinical practice, patients often present with vague symptoms or no symptoms at all. And that’s an important point for our clinicians to understand. In patients who have chronic acid reflux or have, for example, other risk factors such as H. pylori infection, often they end up getting endoscopy at the time, for example, for their first colonoscopy. So, the age of colonoscopy, the first colonoscopy has is getting earlier and earlier with each update, because colon cancer is increasing in incidents in younger adults. So, sometimes patients present and get first endoscopy, for example, which is an upper test with a camera when they’re getting their colonoscopies. In other patients, unfortunately, they present with more progressive symptoms. Often, it’s difficulty swallowing, regurgitation of food, and weight loss, which is obviously very dramatic.  

And so they end up getting an endoscopy because of that and referred by their doctors.   

Katherine:

How is gastric cancer staged? And what do the stages mean? 

Dr. Janjigian:

Yeah. So, the most important part of the staging of gastric cancer and what patients ask me, “What is my risk of cancerous recurrence? What is my stage?” Really what it comes down to is the depth of invasion. So, it’s not only the size of the tumor, but how deep is it going into the muscle of the stomach, because stomach and your esophagus are basically a muscular bag, right? And so how deep is the invasion of the tumor into the wall? And also how likely are the lymph nodes to being involved? So, we assess it based on clinical symptoms such as swallowing difficulty and so forth. But in some patients, because the tumor is lower down in their stomach, they may not have very many symptoms, because there’s a lot more give in this muscular bag that our stomach is.  

And so we test the endoscopic ultrasound to look at the depth of an invasion and also other X-ray type imaging such as a PET scan, a P-E-T scan or a CAT scan, which gives us a sense of tumor location whether or not we think the lymph nodes may be involved. And ultimately the final way to assess, especially in patients who are undergoing surgery, is their microscopic involvement of the lymph nodes? Because that often drives the likelihood of cancer coming back after surgery.  

Katherine:

And how do the stages work for gastric cancer? 

Dr. Janjigian:

So, in gastric cancer it’s either early, intermediate, or late stage. And this goes from stage I to IV. So, stage IV  tumors is where most of the cancers are present. Over probably 50 percent of our patients present already at the time of diagnosis with more advanced stages. 

Biologically this cancer just tends to move quickly. So, even in between endoscopies in patients who get endoscopies frequently, often it goes from 0 to stage III or IV because of the lymph node involvement and also spread of microscopic cells, right? Tiny, tiny cells before we even see them, they spread through the bloodstream to other organs or lymph nodes outside of your abdomen. So, that’s considered to be stage IV. And then early, early stage disease is stage I. Those usually that we can just scoop them out using endoscopic procedures. They don’t even need to have full surgery. And then stage II and III is usually if there’s some involvement of the tumor through the muscle or into the muscle of the stomach and also some lymph node involvement. But that’s how we stage it.  

Katherine:

Okay. I’d like to move onto current gastric cancer treatment options. Can you provide an overview of what’s available now?  

Dr. Janjigian:

Right. So, in patients with intermediate or early-stage tumors, really surgery is the main way to cure patients. Occasionally when we have an amazing response to chemotherapy or chemotherapy with immunotherapy or just immunotherapy, we can avoid surgery. But in most patients, surgery in early-stage disease is a gold standard for cure. Of course, it can be a very jarring thing to say to someone. “We have to take out. your stomach.” But patients do live without either fully their stomach removed or partially removed. And that’s the gold standard. We do additionally other treatments to help maximize chances of cure, but surgery is the main state. As I mentioned earlier, most of our patients, however, present with later stages where surgery is not feasible.  

And when I say it’s not feasible, we would only attempt an operation if we thought there was a possibility of removing the cancer completely. Leaving some of the tumor behind, even if it’s only 1 percent of the cancer behind, makes patients unwell. They may not be able to tolerate additional chemo, so we do not recommend doing suboptimal surgery unless cancer can be completely removed. So, in those patients, we always explain the situation. And the disease is not potentially as curable, but it’s absolutely always treatable. And since the development of our immunotherapy options, really, we’ve changed the trajectory and the course of those cancers. We won’t know the stage or the final response to therapy until we’ve start it. But in those patients, usually a form of long-term therapy. Chronic treatment is very important.  

And usually it involves a combination of chemotherapy and some targeted agents, biologic agents, meaning that they were designed in the lab to target the cancer specifically. And usually, they involve some sort of immunotherapy.  

Katherine:

Excuse me. Can you go into some detail about the targeted therapies and immunotherapies that you use?  

Dr. Janjigian:

Sure. So, conventional chemotherapy works on any rapidly dividing cell. And these are chemotherapies that have been tried and true in the clinic for decades, right? And they work still in gastric. And in  particular they’re very important. And then over the last 10 years or so, we’ve started developing target agents in the lab that target the specific biologic tumor biomarkers. And when you think about tumor biomarkers, I would think about them as almost ZIP codes, right? How do you direct the cancer cell to die? 

And how do you inhibit the cancer cell for the thing that is uniquely what’s making it grow as opposed to normal cells, right? So, that’s the difference between chemotherapy because chemotherapy can affect any rapidly dividing normal cell and cancer cell, while biologic agents ideally only affect the target, cancer, the cell. So, that’s why it’s very appealing to do both to help maximize response and survival on treatment. So, the biologic therapies that are available in and already approved in our disease for stomach cancer are something called HER2 directed treatments. And that’s been my focus in the lab. And then in my group has really spearheaded a lot of this research for HER2-positive tumors. In gastric cancer it occurs in up to 20 to 30 percent of tumors, but we have drugs such as trastuzumab or Herceptin, T-DXd, trastuzumab deruxtecan-nxki (Enhertu) or in HER2 that target these agents.  

And furthermore, our work here at Memorial Sloan Kettering demonstrated the combination therapies really for HER2-positive disease has helped improve outcomes in those patients. So, that’s biologic therapy. Other biologic therapies that’s approved in gastric cancer is something called VEGFR-2 inhibitor. These are drugs that target blood vessel formation around the tumor to help the chemotherapy drugs work well and better. Those drugs are called ramucirumab or Cyramza. And that’s used in a combination of chemotherapy in second-line treatment. And there’s other drugs such as regorafenib (Stivarga) and other inhibitors that maybe have some targetable activity in our disease. And last but not the least is immunotherapy. So, immunotherapy’s a completely different class of drugs.  

We think about immunotherapies, really the fundamental problem with cancer, right? The cancer issues that it started as a normal cell. So, at some point, it was a normal cell that then became and went awry and went rogue. And the body did not recognize that there was a problem. And the immune system did not eliminate that cancer cell. Before it started to metastasize and give us problems in their body, right? So, the fundamental question is why is the body’s immune system, why did it not recognize it as a abnormal cell? Well, because it really acts and looks like a normal cell from the immune perspective. Our immune system is trained not to hurt us, right? And that’s why in patients with rheumatoid arthritis or other autoimmune disorders, what happens is the immune system goes awry. So, what the immune checkpoint blockade or immunotherapy for cancer does, is it helps take some of those brakes off our immune system and help our immune system recognize the cancer and give it permission to say, “Hey, you know what?  

You thought it was a normal cell. It’s not. It’s a cancer cell. Please help us eliminate it.” And that’s worked well because I think in for some of our patients, the immune system actually knows how to target and suppress the cancer much better than any of the fancy drugs we can design in the lab. And that’s why in some patients, immune checkpoint blockade immunotherapy has been such a game changer if you do respond, your duration and durability of response is so much more better than anything that would go to just done on our own in the lab or with other chemotherapies. So, it really is a nice way to think about it. And the patients feel like they’re part of the solutions. It’s always nice for them to have that.  

But it’s been a real game changer for both HER2-positive and HER2-negative disease in combination with chemotherapy. I’ve had the pleasure of leading some of these studies. And it’s nice to be able to update the three or the four or the five-year survival rate from these studies in a disease where in the past most patients died within a year.   

Katherine:

Dr. Janjigian, I’d like to talk about what goes into deciding on a best treatment for a patient. Is there testing that helps you understand a patient’s individual disease? 

Dr. Janjigian:

One is an important factor about this disease, and when the patient comes in, the number one factor that helps us decide, what treatment to assign, is how well is the patient feeling? What are their nutritional deficits? How functional they are. Are they able to tolerate the treatment?

Because as an oncologist, the first rule is do no harm. Most patients come in when they’re first diagnosed are pretty well functional. They’re still able to eat. And so, they’re really up for the most aggressive. And that’s probably the number one wish I have from patients. I just want us to stay well and stay alive. So, we can be very aggressive with them, at least folks that come to see us in New York. And so, then the decision fork is really do you want only standard therapy, or are you interested in clinical trials? And I think what I am able to really explain to the patients, which is great, is that the benefit of trials – and, of course, you can never guarantee that a trial will be successful, right? Because that’s by definition – a clinical trial is experimental therapy. But for gastric cancer and stomach cancer where we need as many treatment options as possible, a clinical trial gives you an opportunity to try something different, and then go back to standard therapy, and then try experimental therapy, and then go back to standard therapy.  

So, it gives you as many options as possible. The way that I help our patients visualize this is you’re trying to cross a very wide and somewhat turbulent river. And you need as many stepping stones as possible. And a clinical trial, if it makes sense for you and if you’re able to do it physically, it gives you that other option. The most important other factor is to understand which subset of stomach cancer you have, right? Because biomarker testing has helped us tremendously to advance this disease. If you look at and if you watch any of my talks, I usually have this timeline of therapeutic development in stomach cancer until really this past year.  

We’re 2022, 2021. There was over a decade of negative trials, right? And the reason why I think is because the design of the trial really focused on targeting all the patients the same way. And now the trials are becoming more and more sophisticated. So, when we talk about the biomarker testing of the tumor, the patient’s specific tumor.  

It’s important for the patient to ask their physician. “What is the status of my tumor?” And the four critical biomarkers are microsatellite instability, HER2, PD-L1, and Claudin-18.2. So, those four biomarkers have really helped us transform this field especially in patients with metastatic disease. And in all of the tertiary cancer centers, certainly here at Memorial Sloan Kettering,  for each of the subsets we have a full research portfolio.  

So the patients have both standard and experimental options available to them.             

Katherine:

Well, how can test results like biomarker testing affect the patient’s prognosis and treatment options? 

Dr. Janjigian:

It will depend on the treatment and how it is paired to the biomarkers. So, for example, a certain subset of tumors such as microsatellite and stable tumors are patients with PD-L1 high tumors or even patients with HER2-positive tumors. Now in clinical trials, we see that those patients have an outstanding dramatic response to combination therapies often with chemotherapy or immunotherapy together or even HER2 directed therapy with immunity therapy. So, it really will impact how likely your tumor is to shrink. And if the tumor is shrinking, and if you’re feeling better, obviously that translates to better survival.  

Katherine:

Yeah. What questions should patients be asking about their test results? 

Dr. Janjigian:

I think it’s important for patients to be very clear with their providers about their willingness to undergo repeated biopsies if needed.  

I think the number one misunderstanding or misnomer that I see when patients come in to see me as a highly trained specialists, and they’re seeking me out for expertise and second and third and fourth opinions is that when the biomarker test is not done, often the answer in the community from the physician was, “Well, there was insufficient tissue or the tissue quality was not great, and that’s we’re going to do it. And it turns out the patient is perfectly willing and able to undergo a second biopsy. They really do not mind because a lot of times it’s just as simple as having a repeat endoscopy. Or even on treatment off and the problem is it’s a constantly evolving cancer. So, for example, if you receive first-line treatment and then you progressed and you need additional treatment, often it’s important to get a second biopsy to understand what your biomarkers are at that point. 

And I described this to my patients. We can’t get into a battle with outdated maps. We need to know. And sometimes when there’s a misunderstanding, the doctors think, “Maybe the patient wouldn’t be willing to do it. Or they are risk-averse.” And the patient’s more than willing to do it. So, I think communicating your wishes and your intent clearly with your doctors and not being shy to ask questions, and also not being shy to seek out clinical trials, right? So, yesterday I was in clinic. I see a lot of this disease. I often see 30 patients at clinic. I had an 80-year-old patient in my clinic, right? And before you meet the patient, most doctors would think, “Well, it’s an elderly patient. They wouldn’t even be interested in clinical trials. What are we trying to accomplish here?” 

Katherine:

Right.  

Dr. Janjigian:

But this patient clearly is – he exercises five days a week. He’s extremely active. He wants the best options for him.  

So, I am not an ageist, so I asked him. I said, “What are your sort of goals of this therapy? And how interested are you in clinical trials?” And him and the family were extremely enthusiastic. And, “We’re going to go for it, and we’re going to try.” So, I think having those conversations with your doctors – because you remember gastric cancer is very rare. In my clinic I see 30 patients, but in most normal sort of oncology practices, it’s lung, breast, and colon, the big three that sort of saturate the schedule of the oncologists. So, if they see one or two gastric cancers a month, they may not be thinking along the same lines of your disease. So, then you have to ask the questions of, “Are there any clinical trials? Should I see a specialist?” Did you do all of my biomarkers? 

Katherine:

Yeah, yeah. That’s really great information to have.  

Are there other decision factors involved in deciding on treatment options? You mentioned age, comorbidities. What else do you look at? 

Dr. Janjigian:

Yeah, the other important factor as I said is nutrition. Being able to stay fit and stay independent is very important. Some of my patients ask me, and then they feel like what they eat is so important that as soon as they get their diagnosis, they restrict their diet. And then they start losing weight. And that’s not good. The number one negative prognostic factor is if you lose more than 10 percent of your body weight within the first few months of the diagnosis – because you get really weak, and then you can’t tolerate the chemotherapy. So, I tell the patients, “Your body will take from you whatever it wants. The cancer will take from you, from your body. So, you need to support yourself nutritionally.” So, if you don’t feel like eating a salad, but you are craving a cookie, it’s okay.  

Have that cookie; just don’t lose weight. And I think that’s the number one. And also, the other factor is how do you communicate your diagnosis and your prognosis to your family and your friends? Because then everybody’s asking and making you in some ways anxious, your job. And what I tell patients is, “It’s on need-to-know basis.” If you find love and support, then you can tell people. Otherwise, you can just loosely kind of mention that you need some help, and you’re going through treatment without specific details. And the great part about these combination immunotherapies is that a lot of our functional patients actually continue to work through this. And so, we fill out whatever forms they need for their jobs and so forth. But we have lawyers that are continuing to work, teachers, and sometimes even construction workers. So, really, I would say make decisions as they come up.  

Don’t run too far ahead and sort of assume that you’re going to not be well. But if you want to take some time off, that’s okay too. And so, I think the treatment paradigm for this disease has evolved so much that there’s a lot of misconceptions. And I think the job of a good oncologist is to let the patient live their life in as normal a fashion as possible. So, we work the chemo schedules around their schedule. Some of these immunotherapies you can give once a month. So, I have patients who will fly into see me, for example, get the dose, and then go back home. So, I think don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.  

Katherine:

Yeah. Well, that leads us very smoothly into self-advocacy. And it’s really important that patients advocate for themselves. So, if a patient has a question or they’re unsure about a decision, why is it so important for them to speak up?  

Dr. Janjigian:

What I always tell my patients and I explain to them, that often the doctors know a lot of information. But there’s so much information that it’s almost impossible to – and we only have 15 to 20 minutes together. So, it’s almost impossible to communicate everything that we know to you. So, you need to drive a bit of what the focus is of priorities in each visit and get as much information as you can. But also in some ways, follow the doctor’s lead. So, it’s a balance of information exchange. Use the portal as much as possible as well. The patient portal is often for follow-up questions. Write questions down. We have our nurse practitioners, our nurses, our fellows that continue to educate the patients because as things come up, and the field is so complicated that there  are just so many things that you can ask at one single appointment.  

So, it’s okay to forget something, but just write it down. In the end like anything else, you only have one sort of chance to do this in a way that you want it to be done. And as treatment progresses and you’re not feeling well, and maybe you don’t want to keep coming in for appointments and would rather go spend time in Aruba or Florida or somewhere sunny as opposed to – that’s okay. I think a lot of times it’s your life. You only have one. And I strongly believe in anything to try to get as much out of every interaction as possible using all the resources that are available to you.  

Katherine:

Well, I’d like to close today with getting your thoughts on how you feel about the state of gastric cancer care. Are you hopeful about treatment options? 

Dr. Janjigian:

I’m extremely hopeful. And usually, I finish all of my scientific talks. I’m a physician scientist.  

I travel a lot to meetings. And my goal now in my career is to attract more and more young talent and scientists that will help us make the next wave of breakthroughs for this difficult disease. I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but the reality is: We’re still not curing enough patients. And so, our next wave is not just to stabilize and help people live longer but cure them definitively and permanently. And so, I finish every single presentation I have by how much the possibility and how fruitful this field has been. Personally, for my work and career of those that I’ve mentored throughout the years all over the world. So, I’m very hopeful for the next five, 10 years in this field. It will continue to get better.   

Katherine:

It sounds very promising. Dr. Janjigian, thank you so much for joining us today.  

Dr. Janjigian:

Thank you. Great question.  

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners.   

If you’d 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 gastric cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Kathrine Banwell. It’s good to have you with us today.  

How Do Biomarker Test Results Impact Gastric Cancer Treatment Options?

How Do Biomarker Test Results Impact Gastric Cancer Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Biomarker test results comprise one of several factors that impact gastric cancer treatment options. Dr. Yelena Janjigian explains biomarker testing, key gastric cancer biomarkers that affect care, and other factors that may impact treatment decisions. 

Dr. Yelena Janjigian is Chief of Gastrointestinal Oncology Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

See More From INSIST! Gastric Cancer

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Dr. Janjigian, I’d like to talk about what goes into deciding on a best treatment for a patient. Is there testing that helps you understand a patient’s individual disease? 

Dr. Janjigian:

One is an important factor about this disease, and when the patient comes in, the number one factor that helps us decide, what treatment to assign, is how well is the patient feeling? What are their nutritional deficits? How functional they are. Are they able to tolerate the treatment? 

Because as an oncologist, the first rule is do no harm. Most patients come in when they’re first diagnosed are pretty well functional. They’re still able to eat. And so, they’re really up for the most aggressive. And that’s probably the number one wish I have from patients. I just want us to stay well and stay alive. So, we can be very aggressive with them, at least folks that come to see us in New York. And so, then the decision fork is really do you want only standard therapy, or are you interested in clinical trials? And I think what I am able to really explain to the patients, which is great, is that the benefit of trials – and, of course, you can never guarantee that a trial will be successful, right? Because that’s by definition – a clinical trial is experimental therapy.

But for gastric cancer and stomach cancer where we need as many treatment options as possible, a clinical trial gives you an opportunity to try something different, and then go back to standard therapy, and then try experimental therapy, and then go back to standard therapy.  

So, it gives you as many options as possible. The way that I help our patients visualize this is you’re trying to cross a very wide and somewhat turbulent river. And you need as many stepping stones as possible. And a clinical trial, if it makes sense for you and if you’re able to do it physically, it gives you that other option. The most important other factor is to understand which subset of stomach cancer you have, right? Because biomarker testing has helped us tremendously to advance this disease. If you look at and if you watch any of my talks, I usually have this timeline of therapeutic development in stomach cancer until really this past year.   

We’re 2022, 2021. There was over a decade of negative trials, right? And the reason why I think is because the design of the trial really focused on targeting all the patients the same way. And now the trials are becoming more and more sophisticated. So, when we talk about the biomarker testing of the tumor, the patient’s specific tumor.  

It’s important for the patient to ask their physician. “What is the status of my tumor?” And the four critical biomarkers are microsatellite instability, HER2, PD-L1, and Claudin-18.2. So, those four biomarkers have really helped us transform this field especially in patients with metastatic disease. And in all of the tertiary cancer centers, certainly here at Memorial Sloan Kettering,  for each of the subsets we have a full research portfolio.  

So the patients have both standard and experimental options available to them.             

Katherine:

Well, how can test results like biomarker testing affect the patient’s prognosis and treatment options? 

Dr. Janjigian:

It will depend on the treatment and how it is paired to the biomarkers. So, for example, a certain subset of tumors such as microsatellite and stable tumors are patients with PD-L1 high tumors or even patients with HER2-positive tumors. Now in clinical trials, we see that those patients have an outstanding dramatic response to combination therapies often with chemotherapy or immunotherapy together or even HER2 directed therapy with immunity therapy. So, it really will impact how likely your tumor is to shrink. And if the tumor is shrinking, and if you’re feeling better, obviously that translates to better survival.  

Katherine:

Yeah. What questions should patients be asking about their test results? 

Dr. Janjigian:

I think it’s important for patients to be very clear with their providers about their willingness to undergo repeated biopsies if needed.  

I think the number one misunderstanding or misnomer that I see when patients come in to see me as a highly trained specialists, and they’re seeking me out for expertise and second and third and fourth opinions is that when the biomarker test is not done, often the answer in the community from the physician was, “Well, there was insufficient tissue or the tissue quality was not great, and that’s we’re going to do it.

And it turns out the patient is perfectly willing and able to undergo a second biopsy. They really do not mind because a lot of times it’s just as simple as having a repeat endoscopy. Or even on treatment off and the problem is it’s a constantly evolving cancer. So, for example, if you receive first-line treatment and then you progressed and you need additional treatment, often it’s important to get a second biopsy to understand what your biomarkers are at that point. 

And I described this to my patients. We can’t get into a battle with outdated maps. We need to know. And sometimes when there’s a misunderstanding, the doctors think, “Maybe the patient wouldn’t be willing to do it. Or they are risk-averse.” And the patient’s more than willing to do it. So, I think communicating your wishes and your intent clearly with your doctors and not being shy to ask questions, and also not being shy to seek out clinical trials, right?

So, yesterday I was in clinic. I see a lot of this disease. I often see 30 patients at clinic. I had an 80-year-old patient in my clinic, right? And before you meet the patient, most doctors would think, “Well, it’s an elderly patient. They wouldn’t even be interested in clinical trials. What are we trying to accomplish here?” 

Katherine:

Right.  

Dr. Janjigian:

But this patient clearly is – he exercises five days a week. He’s extremely active. He wants the best options for him.  

So, I am not an ageist, so I asked him. I said, “What are your sort of goals of this therapy? And how interested are you in clinical trials?” And him and the family were extremely enthusiastic. And, “We’re going to go for it, and we’re going to try.” So, I think having those conversations with your doctors – because you remember gastric cancer is very rare.

In my clinic I see 30 patients, but in most normal sort of oncology practices, it’s lung, breast, and colon, the big three that sort of saturate the schedule of the oncologists. So, if they see one or two gastric cancers a month, they may not be thinking along the same lines of your disease. So, then you have to ask the questions of, “Are there any clinical trials? Should I see a specialist?” Did you do all of my biomarkers? 

An Overview of Current Gastric Cancer Treatment Options

An Overview of Current Gastric Cancer Treatment Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Treatments for gastric cancer have expanded in recent years, providing new options for patients. Dr. Yelena Janjigian, a specialist and researcher, shares an overview of available gastric cancer therapies and outlines the different treatment classes.

Dr. Yelena Janjigian is Chief of Gastrointestinal Oncology Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

See More From INSIST! Gastric Cancer

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How Do Biomarker Test Results Impact Gastric Cancer Treatment Options?

How Do Biomarker Test Results Impact Gastric Cancer Treatment Options?


Transcript:

Katherine:

Okay. I’d like to move onto current gastric cancer treatment options. Can you provide an overview of what’s available now?  

Dr. Janjigian:

Right. So, in patients with intermediate or early-stage tumors, really surgery is the main way to cure patients. Occasionally when we have an amazing response to chemotherapy or chemotherapy with immunotherapy or just immunotherapy, we can avoid surgery. But in most patients, surgery in early-stage disease is a gold standard for cure. Of course, it can be a very jarring thing to say to someone. “We have to take out. your stomach.” But patients do live without either fully their stomach removed or partially removed. And that’s the gold standard. We do additionally other treatments to help maximize chances of cure, but surgery is the main state. As I mentioned earlier, most of our patients, however, present with later stages where surgery is not feasible.  

And when I say it’s not feasible, we would only attempt an operation if we thought there was a possibility of removing the cancer completely. Leaving some of the tumor behind, even if it’s only 1 percent of the cancer behind, makes patients unwell. They may not be able to tolerate additional chemo, so we do not recommend doing suboptimal surgery unless cancer can be completely removed. So, in those patients, we always explain the situation.

And the disease is not potentially as curable, but it’s absolutely always treatable. And since the development of our immunotherapy options, really, we’ve changed the trajectory and the course of those cancers. We won’t know the stage or the final response to therapy until we’ve start it. But in those patients, usually a form of long-term therapy. Chronic treatment is very important.  

And usually it involves a combination of chemotherapy and some targeted agents, biologic agents, meaning that they were designed in the lab to target the cancer specifically. And usually, they involve some sort of immunotherapy.   

Katherine:

Excuse me. Can you go into some detail about the targeted therapies and immunotherapies that you use?  

Dr. Janjigian:

Sure. So, conventional chemotherapy works on any rapidly dividing cell. And these are chemotherapies that have been tried and true in the clinic for decades, right? And they work still in gastric. And in  particular they’re very important. And then over the last 10 years or so, we’ve started developing target agents in the lab that target the specific biologic tumor biomarkers. And when you think about tumor biomarkers, I would think about them as almost ZIP codes, right? How do you direct the cancer cell to die? 

And how do you inhibit the cancer cell for the thing that is uniquely what’s making it grow as opposed to normal cells, right? So, that’s the difference between chemotherapy because chemotherapy can affect any rapidly dividing normal cell and cancer cell, while biologic agents ideally only affect the target, cancer, the cell. So, that’s why it’s very appealing to do both to help maximize response and survival on treatment. So, the biologic therapies that are available in and already approved in our disease for stomach cancer are something called HER2 directed treatments.

And that’s been my focus in the lab. And then in my group has really spearheaded a lot of this research for HER2-positive tumors. In gastric cancer it occurs in up to 20 to 30 percent of tumors, but we have drugs such as trastuzumab or Herceptin, T-DXd, trastuzumab deruxtecan-nxki (Enhertu) or in HER2 that target these agents.  

And furthermore, our work here at Memorial Sloan Kettering demonstrated the combination therapies really for HER2-positive disease has helped improve outcomes in those patients. So, that’s biologic therapy. Other biologic therapies that’s approved in gastric cancer is something called VEGFR-2 inhibitor. These are drugs that target blood vessel formation around the tumor to help the chemotherapy drugs work well and better. Those drugs are called ramucirumab or Cyramza. And that’s used in a combination of chemotherapy in second-line treatment. And there’s other drugs such as regorafenib (Stivarga) and other inhibitors that maybe have some targetable activity in our disease. And last but not the least is immunotherapy. So, immunotherapy’s a completely different class of drugs.  

We think about immunotherapies, really the fundamental problem with cancer, right? The cancer issues that it started as a normal cell. So, at some point, it was a normal cell that then became and went awry and went rogue. And the body did not recognize that there was a problem. And the immune system did not eliminate that cancer cell. Before it started to metastasize and give us problems in their body, right? So, the fundamental question is why is the body’s immune system, why did it not recognize it as a abnormal cell?

Well, because it really acts and looks like a normal cell from the immune perspective. Our immune system is trained not to hurt us, right? And that’s why in patients with rheumatoid arthritis or other autoimmune disorders, what happens is the immune system goes awry. So, what the immune checkpoint blockade or immunotherapy for cancer does, is it helps take some of those brakes off our immune system and help our immune system recognize the cancer and give it permission to say, “Hey, you know what?  

You thought it was a normal cell. It’s not. It’s a cancer cell. Please help us eliminate it.” And that’s worked well because I think in for some of our patients, the immune system actually knows how to target and suppress the cancer much better than any of the fancy drugs we can design in the lab.

And that’s why in some patients, immune checkpoint blockade immunotherapy has been such a game changer if you do respond, your duration and durability of response is so much more better than anything that would go to just done on our own in the lab or with other chemotherapies. So, it really is a nice way to think about it. And the patients feel like they’re part of the solutions. It’s always nice for them to have that.  

But it’s been a real game changer for both HER2-positive and HER2-negative disease in combination with chemotherapy. I’ve had the pleasure of leading some of these studies. And it’s nice to be able to update the three or the four or the five-year survival rate from these studies in a disease where in the past most patients died within a year.   

Gastric Cancer Treatment and Research Highlights

Gastric Cancer Treatment and Research Highlights from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the latest advances in gastric cancer treatment and research? Dr. Yelena Janjigian discusses how biomarker testing has advanced gastric cancer treatment and explains research she’s been involved with to improve care.

Dr. Yelena Janjigian is Chief of Gastrointestinal Oncology Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

See More From INSIST! Gastric Cancer

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How Do Biomarker Test Results Impact Gastric Cancer Treatment Options?

How Do Biomarker Test Results Impact Gastric Cancer Treatment Options?


Transcript:

Katherine:

I’d like to start by learning about the latest research news. Are there recent advances in gastric cancer that patients should know about? 

Dr. Janjigian:

That’s a great question. The field of gastric cancer research has accelerated and evolved immensely over the last three years. We’ve had several important approvals for treatment of metastatic disease both for biomarkers selected population and immunotherapy targeted therapies. So, there’s been a lot of research, a lot of effort and some positive data that the patients and clinicians should be aware of.  

Katherine:

And what excites you about the research you’re involved with? 

Dr. Janjigian:

I’ve been focused on gastric cancer for nearly two decades. So, my recent advances have really helped to understand how we can improve patient’s survival better, potentially cure more patients, and understand the different subsets of cancer treatments and patients with gastric cancer understanding that not all gastric cancer is the same.  

So, I think being able to zoom in on different subsets and target personalized approaches for each individual patient is why I stay in research, why I stay in gastric cancer research because we’ve been able to make some major breakthroughs.  

Katherine:

That’s excellent news. How can patients stay up to date with treatment options? 

Dr. Janjigian:

That’s a great question. And recently there’s been a lot of resources online through both the big pharma really educating patients with patient-friendly handouts. And many of my big recent papers when we publish them in big journals like Lancet or Lancet Oncology, for example, or JCO, there’s always a patient-friendly handout that comes with that data that helps patients understand some of the endpoints, how do we describe why this study is positive? 

Or why is the FDA decided to approve the drug? So, there are many patient handouts that come with some of these papers. And it’s interesting, a lot of my patients come in. When they see me, they say, “Oh, it’s so good to finally meet you. I’ve watched a lot of your videos.” So, because of COVID actually, a lot of the scientific content that used to be just in in-person meetings behind doors for doctors, now it’s all online because a lot of these scientific presentations are now made for virtual content as well.

So, patients have access to it. That’s double-edged sometimes. It’s a little bit of an information overload, and it may actually make patients feel more anxious than reassure them, right? Because it’s a lot of jargon and not too – but some patients find it helpful.  

Katherine:

Yeah, I can see that. It can be a double-edged sword.  

Dr. Janjigian:

Yeah.  

Gastric Cancer: How to Access the Best Care and Treatment for YOU

Gastric Cancer: How to Access the Best Care and Treatment for YOU from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Advances in gastric cancer research have led to more personalized therapy for patients. Dr. Yelena Janjigian discusses how biomarker testing can help guide a patient’s prognosis and treatment path, reviews currently available gastric cancer therapies, and shares tips for self-advocacy.

Dr. Yelena Janjigian is Chief of Gastrointestinal Oncology Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

See More From INSIST! Gastric Cancer

Download Resource Guide

Related Programs:

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How Can You Access Personalized Medicine for Gastric Cancer? 

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How Do Biomarker Test Results Impact a Gastric Cancer Treatment Plan?

How Do Biomarker Test Results Impact a Gastric Cancer Treatment Plan?


Transcript:

 Katherine:

Hello and welcome. I’m your host, Katherine Banwell. Today’s program focuses on helping patients understand gastric cancer treatment options based on their individual disease. We’ll review the latest research and provide tips for self-advocacy to help patients access better care.  

Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email that you received about this webinar contains a link to a program resource guide. 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. Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Yelena Janjigian. Dr. Janjigian, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Janjigian:

Thank you so much, Katherine, for this opportunity. My name is Yelena Janjigian. I’m a medical oncologist. And I oversee the GI oncology service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. We’re a large group of doctors, over 40 physicians who treat everything from esophagus cancer to rectal cancer. And my research focus and my passion has been in developing new treatments for patients with stomach cancer, so I personally focus on this disease clinically and from research perspective.  

Katherine:

Okay. Lovely.  

Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I’d like to start by learning about the latest research news. Are there recent advances in gastric cancer that patients should know about? 

Dr. Janjigian:

That’s a great question. The field of gastric cancer research has accelerated and evolved immensely over the last three years. We’ve had several important approvals for treatment of metastatic disease both for biomarkers selected population and immunotherapy targeted therapies. So, there’s been a lot of research, a lot of effort and some positive data that the patients and clinicians should be aware of.  

Katherine:

And what excites you about the research you’re involved with? 

Dr. Janjigian:

I’ve been focused on gastric cancer for nearly two decades. So, my recent advances have really helped to understand how we can improve patient’s survival better, potentially cure more patients, and understand the different subsets of cancer treatments and patients with gastric cancer understanding that not all gastric cancer is the same.  

So, I think being able to zoom in on different subsets and target personalized approaches for each individual patient is why I stay in research, why I stay in gastric cancer research because we’ve been able to make some major breakthroughs.  

Katherine:

That’s excellent news. How can patients stay up to date with treatment options? 

Dr. Janjigian:

That’s a great question. And recently there’s been a lot of resources online through both the big pharma really educating patients with patient-friendly handouts. And many of my big recent papers when we publish them in big journals like Lancet or Lancet Oncology, for example, or JCO, there’s always a patient-friendly handout that comes with that data that helps patients understand some of the endpoints, how do we describe why this study is positive? 

Or why is the FDA decided to approve the drug? So, there are many patient handouts that come with some of these papers. And it’s interesting, a lot of my patients come in. When they see me, they say, “Oh, it’s so good to finally meet you. I’ve watched a lot of your videos.” So, because of COVID actually, a lot of the scientific content that used to be just in in-person meetings behind doors for doctors, now it’s all online because a lot of these scientific presentations are now made for virtual content as well. So, patients have access to it. That’s double-edged sometimes. It’s a little bit of an information overload, and it may actually make patients feel more anxious than reassure them, right? Because it’s a lot of jargon and not too – but some patients find it helpful.  

Katherine:

Yeah, I can see that. It can be a double-edged sword.   

Dr. Janjigian:

Yeah.   

Katherine:

Well, thank you for that advice. So, now that we’ve heard what’s happening in research, let’s review some more basic information about gastric cancer. First, gastric cancer is sometimes referred to as stomach cancer. Is that the same thing, or are both terms correct?  

Dr. Janjigian:

Yeah. So, stomach is really where the cancer starts. But we can talk about stomach or abdomen. But gastric and stomach are the same tumor location basically. What’s interesting actually, some patients also have tumors that start at the bottom of their esophagus and extend into the stomach. So, biologically a lot of these cancers behave similarly. In fact, in United States the most common location for these cancers actually is in between the gastric esophageal junction and the stomach.  

So, it’s in the location in of the cancer that’s at the very top of the stomach. But in short, stomach cancer and gastric cancer are interchangeable. And as I mentioned, for many of our viewers, actually gastro-esophageal junction is also part of the same disease.  

Katherine:

Could you tell us what tests are used to diagnose gastric cancer? 

Dr. Janjigian:

Most of our patients, when they come in to see me, by then the diagnosis of cancer has been made because I’m on oncologist.  

In clinical practice, patients often present with vague symptoms or no symptoms at all. And that’s an important point for our clinicians to understand. In patients who have chronic acid reflux or have, for example, other risk factors such as H. pylori infection, often they end up getting endoscopy at the time, for example, for their first colonoscopy. So, the age of colonoscopy, the first colonoscopy has is getting earlier and earlier with each update, because colon cancer is increasing in incidents in younger adults. So, sometimes patients present and get first endoscopy, for example, which is an upper test with a camera when they’re getting their colonoscopies. In other patients, unfortunately, they present with more progressive symptoms. Often, it’s difficulty swallowing, regurgitation of food, and weight loss, which is obviously very dramatic.  

And so they end up getting an endoscopy because of that and referred by their doctors.   

Katherine:

How is gastric cancer staged? And what do the stages mean? 

Dr. Janjigian:

Yeah. So, the most important part of the staging of gastric cancer and what patients ask me, “What is my risk of cancerous recurrence? What is my stage?” Really what it comes down to is the depth of invasion. So, it’s not only the size of the tumor, but how deep is it going into the muscle of the stomach, because stomach and your esophagus are basically a muscular bag, right? And so how deep is the invasion of the tumor into the wall? And also how likely are the lymph nodes to being involved? So, we assess it based on clinical symptoms such as swallowing difficulty and so forth. But in some patients, because the tumor is lower down in their stomach, they may not have very many symptoms, because there’s a lot more give in this muscular bag that our stomach is.  

And so we test the endoscopic ultrasound to look at the depth of an invasion and also other X-ray type imaging such as a PET scan, a P-E-T scan or a CAT scan, which gives us a sense of tumor location whether or not we think the lymph nodes may be involved. And ultimately the final way to assess, especially in patients who are undergoing surgery, is their microscopic involvement of the lymph nodes? Because that often drives the likelihood of cancer coming back after surgery.  

Katherine:

And how do the stages work for gastric cancer? 

Dr. Janjigian:

So, in gastric cancer it’s either early, intermediate, or late stage. And this goes from stage I to IV. So, stage IV  tumors is where most of the cancers are present. Over probably 50 percent of our patients present already at the time of diagnosis with more advanced stages. 

Biologically this cancer just tends to move quickly. So, even in between endoscopies in patients who get endoscopies frequently, often it goes from 0 to stage III or IV because of the lymph node involvement and also spread of microscopic cells, right? Tiny, tiny cells before we even see them, they spread through the bloodstream to other organs or lymph nodes outside of your abdomen. So, that’s considered to be stage IV. And then early, early stage disease is stage I. Those usually that we can just scoop them out using endoscopic procedures. They don’t even need to have full surgery. And then stage II and III is usually if there’s some involvement of the tumor through the muscle or into the muscle of the stomach and also some lymph node involvement. But that’s how we stage it.  

Katherine:

Okay. I’d like to move onto current gastric cancer treatment options. Can you provide an overview of what’s available now?  

Dr. Janjigian:

Right. So, in patients with intermediate or early-stage tumors, really surgery is the main way to cure patients. Occasionally when we have an amazing response to chemotherapy or chemotherapy with immunotherapy or just immunotherapy, we can avoid surgery. But in most patients, surgery in early-stage disease is a gold standard for cure. Of course, it can be a very jarring thing to say to someone. “We have to take out. your stomach.” But patients do live without either fully their stomach removed or partially removed. And that’s the gold standard. We do additionally other treatments to help maximize chances of cure, but surgery is the main state. As I mentioned earlier, most of our patients, however, present with later stages where surgery is not feasible.  

And when I say it’s not feasible, we would only attempt an operation if we thought there was a possibility of removing the cancer completely. Leaving some of the tumor behind, even if it’s only 1 percent of the cancer behind, makes patients unwell. They may not be able to tolerate additional chemo, so we do not recommend doing suboptimal surgery unless cancer can be completely removed. So, in those patients, we always explain the situation. And the disease is not potentially as curable, but it’s absolutely always treatable. And since the development of our immunotherapy options, really, we’ve changed the trajectory and the course of those cancers. We won’t know the stage or the final response to therapy until we’ve start it. But in those patients, usually a form of long-term therapy. Chronic treatment is very important.  

And usually it involves a combination of chemotherapy and some targeted agents, biologic agents, meaning that they were designed in the lab to target the cancer specifically. And usually, they involve some sort of immunotherapy.  

Katherine:

Excuse me. Can you go into some detail about the targeted therapies and immunotherapies that you use?  

Dr. Janjigian:

Sure. So, conventional chemotherapy works on any rapidly dividing cell. And these are chemotherapies that have been tried and true in the clinic for decades, right? And they work still in gastric. And in  particular they’re very important. And then over the last 10 years or so, we’ve started developing target agents in the lab that target the specific biologic tumor biomarkers. And when you think about tumor biomarkers, I would think about them as almost ZIP codes, right? How do you direct the cancer cell to die? 

And how do you inhibit the cancer cell for the thing that is uniquely what’s making it grow as opposed to normal cells, right? So, that’s the difference between chemotherapy because chemotherapy can affect any rapidly dividing normal cell and cancer cell, while biologic agents ideally only affect the target, cancer, the cell. So, that’s why it’s very appealing to do both to help maximize response and survival on treatment. So, the biologic therapies that are available in and already approved in our disease for stomach cancer are something called HER2 directed treatments. And that’s been my focus in the lab. And then in my group has really spearheaded a lot of this research for HER2-positive tumors. In gastric cancer it occurs in up to 20 to 30 percent of tumors, but we have drugs such as trastuzumab or Herceptin, T-DXd, trastuzumab deruxtecan-nxki (Enhertu) or in HER2 that target these agents.  

And furthermore, our work here at Memorial Sloan Kettering demonstrated the combination therapies really for HER2-positive disease has helped improve outcomes in those patients. So, that’s biologic therapy. Other biologic therapies that’s approved in gastric cancer is something called VEGFR-2 inhibitor. These are drugs that target blood vessel formation around the tumor to help the chemotherapy drugs work well and better. Those drugs are called ramucirumab or Cyramza. And that’s used in a combination of chemotherapy in second-line treatment. And there’s other drugs such as regorafenib (Stivarga) and other inhibitors that maybe have some targetable activity in our disease. And last but not the least is immunotherapy. So, immunotherapy’s a completely different class of drugs.  

We think about immunotherapies, really the fundamental problem with cancer, right? The cancer issues that it started as a normal cell. So, at some point, it was a normal cell that then became and went awry and went rogue. And the body did not recognize that there was a problem. And the immune system did not eliminate that cancer cell. Before it started to metastasize and give us problems in their body, right? So, the fundamental question is why is the body’s immune system, why did it not recognize it as a abnormal cell? Well, because it really acts and looks like a normal cell from the immune perspective. Our immune system is trained not to hurt us, right? And that’s why in patients with rheumatoid arthritis or other autoimmune disorders, what happens is the immune system goes awry. So, what the immune checkpoint blockade or immunotherapy for cancer does, is it helps take some of those brakes off our immune system and help our immune system recognize the cancer and give it permission to say, “Hey, you know what?  

You thought it was a normal cell. It’s not. It’s a cancer cell. Please help us eliminate it.” And that’s worked well because I think in for some of our patients, the immune system actually knows how to target and suppress the cancer much better than any of the fancy drugs we can design in the lab. And that’s why in some patients, immune checkpoint blockade immunotherapy has been such a game changer if you do respond, your duration and durability of response is so much more better than anything that would go to just done on our own in the lab or with other chemotherapies. So, it really is a nice way to think about it. And the patients feel like they’re part of the solutions. It’s always nice for them to have that.  

But it’s been a real game changer for both HER2-positive and HER2-negative disease in combination with chemotherapy. I’ve had the pleasure of leading some of these studies. And it’s nice to be able to update the three or the four or the five-year survival rate from these studies in a disease where in the past most patients died within a year.   

Katherine:

Dr. Janjigian, I’d like to talk about what goes into deciding on a best treatment for a patient. Is there testing that helps you understand a patient’s individual disease? 

Dr. Janjigian:

One is an important factor about this disease, and when the patient comes in, the number one factor that helps us decide, what treatment to assign, is how well is the patient feeling? What are their nutritional deficits? How functional they are. Are they able to tolerate the treatment?

Because as an oncologist, the first rule is do no harm. Most patients come in when they’re first diagnosed are pretty well functional. They’re still able to eat. And so, they’re really up for the most aggressive. And that’s probably the number one wish I have from patients. I just want us to stay well and stay alive. So, we can be very aggressive with them, at least folks that come to see us in New York. And so, then the decision fork is really do you want only standard therapy, or are you interested in clinical trials? And I think what I am able to really explain to the patients, which is great, is that the benefit of trials – and, of course, you can never guarantee that a trial will be successful, right? Because that’s by definition – a clinical trial is experimental therapy. But for gastric cancer and stomach cancer where we need as many treatment options as possible, a clinical trial gives you an opportunity to try something different, and then go back to standard therapy, and then try experimental therapy, and then go back to standard therapy.  

So, it gives you as many options as possible. The way that I help our patients visualize this is you’re trying to cross a very wide and somewhat turbulent river. And you need as many stepping stones as possible. And a clinical trial, if it makes sense for you and if you’re able to do it physically, it gives you that other option. The most important other factor is to understand which subset of stomach cancer you have, right? Because biomarker testing has helped us tremendously to advance this disease. If you look at and if you watch any of my talks, I usually have this timeline of therapeutic development in stomach cancer until really this past year.  

We’re 2022, 2021. There was over a decade of negative trials, right? And the reason why I think is because the design of the trial really focused on targeting all the patients the same way. And now the trials are becoming more and more sophisticated. So, when we talk about the biomarker testing of the tumor, the patient’s specific tumor.  

It’s important for the patient to ask their physician. “What is the status of my tumor?” And the four critical biomarkers are microsatellite instability, HER2, PD-L1, and Claudin-18.2. So, those four biomarkers have really helped us transform this field especially in patients with metastatic disease. And in all of the tertiary cancer centers, certainly here at Memorial Sloan Kettering,  for each of the subsets we have a full research portfolio.  

So the patients have both standard and experimental options available to them.             

Katherine:

Well, how can test results like biomarker testing affect the patient’s prognosis and treatment options? 

Dr. Janjigian:

It will depend on the treatment and how it is paired to the biomarkers. So, for example, a certain subset of tumors such as microsatellite and stable tumors are patients with PD-L1 high tumors or even patients with HER2-positive tumors. Now in clinical trials, we see that those patients have an outstanding dramatic response to combination therapies often with chemotherapy or immunotherapy together or even HER2 directed therapy with immunity therapy. So, it really will impact how likely your tumor is to shrink. And if the tumor is shrinking, and if you’re feeling better, obviously that translates to better survival.  

Katherine:

Yeah. What questions should patients be asking about their test results? 

Dr. Janjigian:

I think it’s important for patients to be very clear with their providers about their willingness to undergo repeated biopsies if needed.  

I think the number one misunderstanding or misnomer that I see when patients come in to see me as a highly trained specialists, and they’re seeking me out for expertise and second and third and fourth opinions is that when the biomarker test is not done, often the answer in the community from the physician was, “Well, there was insufficient tissue or the tissue quality was not great, and that’s we’re going to do it. And it turns out the patient is perfectly willing and able to undergo a second biopsy. They really do not mind because a lot of times it’s just as simple as having a repeat endoscopy. Or even on treatment off and the problem is it’s a constantly evolving cancer. So, for example, if you receive first-line treatment and then you progressed and you need additional treatment, often it’s important to get a second biopsy to understand what your biomarkers are at that point. 

And I described this to my patients. We can’t get into a battle with outdated maps. We need to know. And sometimes when there’s a misunderstanding, the doctors think, “Maybe the patient wouldn’t be willing to do it. Or they are risk-averse.” And the patient’s more than willing to do it. So, I think communicating your wishes and your intent clearly with your doctors and not being shy to ask questions, and also not being shy to seek out clinical trials, right? So, yesterday I was in clinic. I see a lot of this disease. I often see 30 patients at clinic. I had an 80-year-old patient in my clinic, right? And before you meet the patient, most doctors would think, “Well, it’s an elderly patient. They wouldn’t even be interested in clinical trials. What are we trying to accomplish here?” 

Katherine:

Right.  

Dr. Janjigian:

But this patient clearly is – he exercises five days a week. He’s extremely active. He wants the best options for him.  

So, I am not an ageist, so I asked him. I said, “What are your sort of goals of this therapy? And how interested are you in clinical trials?” And him and the family were extremely enthusiastic. And, “We’re going to go for it, and we’re going to try.” So, I think having those conversations with your doctors – because you remember gastric cancer is very rare. In my clinic I see 30 patients, but in most normal sort of oncology practices, it’s lung, breast, and colon, the big three that sort of saturate the schedule of the oncologists. So, if they see one or two gastric cancers a month, they may not be thinking along the same lines of your disease. So, then you have to ask the questions of, “Are there any clinical trials? Should I see a specialist?” Did you do all of my biomarkers? 

Katherine:

Yeah, yeah. That’s really great information to have.  

Are there other decision factors involved in deciding on treatment options? You mentioned age, comorbidities. What else do you look at? 

Dr. Janjigian:

Yeah, the other important factor as I said is nutrition. Being able to stay fit and stay independent is very important. Some of my patients ask me, and then they feel like what they eat is so important that as soon as they get their diagnosis, they restrict their diet. And then they start losing weight. And that’s not good. The number one negative prognostic factor is if you lose more than 10 percent of your body weight within the first few months of the diagnosis – because you get really weak, and then you can’t tolerate the chemotherapy. So, I tell the patients, “Your body will take from you whatever it wants. The cancer will take from you, from your body. So, you need to support yourself nutritionally.” So, if you don’t feel like eating a salad, but you are craving a cookie, it’s okay.  

Have that cookie; just don’t lose weight. And I think that’s the number one. And also, the other factor is how do you communicate your diagnosis and your prognosis to your family and your friends? Because then everybody’s asking and making you in some ways anxious, your job. And what I tell patients is, “It’s on need-to-know basis.” If you find love and support, then you can tell people. Otherwise, you can just loosely kind of mention that you need some help, and you’re going through treatment without specific details. And the great part about these combination immunotherapies is that a lot of our functional patients actually continue to work through this. And so, we fill out whatever forms they need for their jobs and so forth. But we have lawyers that are continuing to work, teachers, and sometimes even construction workers. So, really, I would say make decisions as they come up.  

Don’t run too far ahead and sort of assume that you’re going to not be well. But if you want to take some time off, that’s okay too. And so, I think the treatment paradigm for this disease has evolved so much that there’s a lot of misconceptions. And I think the job of a good oncologist is to let the patient live their life in as normal a fashion as possible. So, we work the chemo schedules around their schedule. Some of these immunotherapies you can give once a month. So, I have patients who will fly into see me, for example, get the dose, and then go back home. So, I think don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.  

Katherine:

Yeah. Well, that leads us very smoothly into self-advocacy. And it’s really important that patients advocate for themselves. So, if a patient has a question or they’re unsure about a decision, why is it so important for them to speak up?  

Dr. Janjigian:

What I always tell my patients and I explain to them, that often the doctors know a lot of information. But there’s so much information that it’s almost impossible to – and we only have 15 to 20 minutes together. So, it’s almost impossible to communicate everything that we know to you. So, you need to drive a bit of what the focus is of priorities in each visit and get as much information as you can. But also in some ways, follow the doctor’s lead. So, it’s a balance of information exchange. Use the portal as much as possible as well. The patient portal is often for follow-up questions. Write questions down. We have our nurse practitioners, our nurses, our fellows that continue to educate the patients because as things come up, and the field is so complicated that there  are just so many things that you can ask at one single appointment.  

So, it’s okay to forget something, but just write it down. In the end like anything else, you only have one sort of chance to do this in a way that you want it to be done. And as treatment progresses and you’re not feeling well, and maybe you don’t want to keep coming in for appointments and would rather go spend time in Aruba or Florida or somewhere sunny as opposed to – that’s okay. I think a lot of times it’s your life. You only have one. And I strongly believe in anything to try to get as much out of every interaction as possible using all the resources that are available to you.  

Katherine:

Well, I’d like to close today with getting your thoughts on how you feel about the state of gastric cancer care. Are you hopeful about treatment options? 

Dr. Janjigian:

I’m extremely hopeful. And usually, I finish all of my scientific talks. I’m a physician scientist.  

I travel a lot to meetings. And my goal now in my career is to attract more and more young talent and scientists that will help us make the next wave of breakthroughs for this difficult disease. I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but the reality is: We’re still not curing enough patients. And so, our next wave is not just to stabilize and help people live longer but cure them definitively and permanently. And so, I finish every single presentation I have by how much the possibility and how fruitful this field has been. Personally, for my work and career of those that I’ve mentored throughout the years all over the world. So, I’m very hopeful for the next five, 10 years in this field. It will continue to get better.   

Katherine:

It sounds very promising. Dr. Janjigian, thank you so much for joining us today.  

Dr. Janjigian:

Thank you. Great question.  

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners.   

If you’d 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 gastric cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Kathrine Banwell. It’s good to have you with us today.  

Thriving With AML | Advice for Setting Goals and Making Treatment Decisions

Thriving With AML | Advice for Setting Goals and Making Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When facing an acute myeloid leukemia (AML) diagnosis, treatment decisions may feel overwhelming. AML specialist Dr. Alice Mims shares expert guidance for setting treatment goals with your team, advice for making care decisions, and explains how tests results may impact choices.

Dr. Alice Mims is a hematologist specializing in acute and chronic myeloid conditions. Dr. Mims serves as the Acute Leukemia Clinical Research Director at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James. Learn more about Dr. Mims.

See More from Thrive AML

Related Resources:

Phases of AML Therapy | Understanding Treatment Options

Expert Advice | Managing AML Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects

Stem Cell Transplant for AML | What Patients Should Know


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

One part of thriving with AML is finding a treatment approach that manages your disease and fits with your lifestyle. Before we talk about therapy, can you tell us how treatment goals are established for an individual patient? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, for individual patients, I think it’s very important that there is an initial discussion that doesn’t feel too shortened that you can have time with your care team to really go into depth about the diagnosis, about the specifics of your particular subtype of acute myeloid leukemia, understanding the treatment options, and then being given time allowed to reflect on all of that information. So, then you can come back and have your questions better answered that may come from that initial discussion. 

And then help you with your team make a decision based on that information that works best for you.  

Katherine Banwell:

Outside of patient preference, what other factors do you take into account when working with a patient to decide on a treatment plan? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, there are multiple different factors that we try to take into account. Again, yeah, most importantly what patients’ goals are like you mentioned, but those include overall health, including different comorbidities, so what other healthcare diagnoses, medications are you taking, what are the patients’ age, thinking about that for long-term goals, overall support from loved ones, family to — just because care can be really involved. And then in particular, thinking about specific features of that individual patient’s AML, including molecular, genetic features of the leukemia. 

Katherine Banwell:

Well, let’s talk more in depth about the test results you just mentioned. 

What is the test for genetic markers? And how is it conducted? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, there are a few different tests that we use under that scope of genetic markers. So, those include looking at chromosomal abnormalities of the DNA. So, with cytogenetics, and then also more specific prose where we call FISH testing. And then also we look for specific gene mutations through next-generation sequencing, or PCR testing. And so, we use all of those results together to give us the most information we can about that individual’s leukemia. 

Katherine Banwell:

How has molecular testing revolutionized AML care? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Oh gracious. It’s really done such – so much for leukemia. And just things are so different even where they were five years ago because of having molecular mutations, that information available. 

So, it helps with discussing prognosis. So, we know that different molecular features can tell us about curative intent and what are the treatment steps we would need to take to give the best chance long-term. And then also now, we’ve evolved to where we have directed therapies that can target mutations or the proteins that arise from those mutations with therapeutic options. 

Katherine Banwell:

Is this testing standard following an AML diagnosis? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

It is standard following an AML diagnosis. That’s recommended within all of the guidelines with patients and really should be done for all patients at initial diagnosis. 

Katherine Banwell:

Can genetic markers or mutations change over time? For example, if a patient relapses, should molecular testing be done again? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yes, absolutely. Mutations can evolve. It’s something we call clonal evolution of the leukemia. 

And so you can have mutations that could be present at diagnosis that may no longer be present. Or the opposite can occur where you have new mutations that can appear. And that can lead to different options for treatment. So, it’s very important to retest at time of relapse.  

Katherine Banwell:

What advice do you have for patients who want to ensure that they’ve actually undergone molecular testing? What questions should they be asking their healthcare team? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

I think it’s definitely important to bring this up with the healthcare team. And it should be something at diagnosis and relapse to ask, what are the cytogenetics, what do they look like now, what do the gene mutations, and really as mentioned before, it’s so crucial in talking about prognosis, talking about treatment options that if it doesn’t come up, it’s really something that you should take a pause and try to go back to readdress with your team.  

PODCAST: Managing Life With AML | What You Should Know About Care and Treatment

 

What do you need to know when it comes to managing life with acute myeloid leukemia (AML)? In this webinar, Dr. Alice Mims, an AML specialist and researcher, discusses how treatment decisions are made and how test results may impact therapy. Dr. Mims will shares the latest advances in research and key advice for living well with AML.

Dr. Alice Mims is a hematologist specializing in acute and chronic myeloid conditions. Dr. Mims serves as the Acute Leukemia Clinical Research Director at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James. Learn more about Dr. Mims.

Download Resource Guide

See More from Thrive AML


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today. Today’s program is a continuation of our Thrive series. And we’re going to discuss navigating life with AML, and how you can engage in your care. 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. Well, joining us today is Dr. Alice Mims.  

Dr. Mims, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yeah, sure. Thank you, Katherine. I’m Alice Mims. I’m a physician and associate professor at Ohio State University. And also, the section head for the myeloid and acute leukemia program within our division of hematology. 

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today, Dr. Mims. We start all of our webinars in our thrive series with the same question; in your experience, what does it mean to thrive with AML? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure, I think that’s a great question. So, really for me, I think thriving with AML is very patient- or person-dependent. It really depends on making sure that your treatment goals align with your care. And so that means really being an active participant in your diagnosis, understanding the disease process, and making sure that your care team really understands what your overall goals are for your treatment. 

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you for that because it helps us to understand as we move through the program today. One part of thriving with AML is finding a treatment approach that manages your disease and fits with your lifestyle. Before we talk about therapy, can you tell us how treatment goals are established for an individual patient? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, for individual patients I think it’s very important that there is an initial discussion that doesn’t feel too shortened that you can have time with your care team to really go into depth about the diagnosis, about the specifics of your particular subtype of acute myeloid leukemia, understanding the treatment options, and then being given time allowed to reflect on all of that information. So, then you can come back and have your questions better answered that may come from that initial discussion. 

And then help you with your team make a decision based on that information that works best for you. 

Katherine Banwell:

Outside of patient preference, what other factors do you take into account when working with a patient to decide on a treatment plan?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, there are multiple different factors that we try to take into account. Again, yeah most importantly what patients’ goals are like you mentioned, but those include overall health, including different comorbidities, so what other healthcare diagnoses, medications are you taking, what are the patient’s age, thinking about that for long-term goals, overall support from loved ones, family to — just because care can be really involved. And then in particular, thinking about specific features of that individual patient’s AML, including molecular, genetic features of the leukemia. 

Katherine Banwell:

Well, let’s talk more in depth about the test results you just mentioned. 

What is the test for genetic markers? And how is it conducted? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, there are a few different tests that we use under that scope of genetic markers. So, those include looking at chromosomal abnormalities of the DNA. So, with cytogenetics, and then also more specific prose where we call FISH testing. And then also we look for specific gene mutations through next generation sequencing, or PCR testing. And so, we use all of those results together to give us the most information we can about that individual’s leukemia. 

Katherine Banwell:

How has molecular testing revolutionized AML care?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Oh gracious. It’s really done such – so much for leukemia. And just things are so different even where they were five years ago because of having molecular mutations, that information available. 

So, it helps with discussing prognosis. So, we know that different molecular features can tell us about curative intent and what are the treatment steps we would need to take to give the best chance long-term. And then also now, we’ve evolved to where we have directed therapies that can target mutations or the proteins that arise from those mutations with therapeutic options. 

Katherine Banwell:

Is this testing standard following an AML diagnosis? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

It is standard following an AML diagnosis. That’s recommended within all of the guidelines with patients and really should be done for all patients at initial diagnosis. 

Katherine Banwell:

Can genetic markers or mutations change over time? For example, if a patient relapses, should molecular testing be done again? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yes, absolutely. Mutations can evolve. It’s something we call clonal evolution of the leukemia. 

And so you can have mutations that could be present at diagnosis that may no longer be present. Or the opposite can occur where you have new mutations that can appear. And that can lead to different options for treatment. So, it’s very important to retest at time of relapse. 

Katherine Banwell:

What advice do you have for patients who want to ensure that they’ve actually undergone molecular testing? What questions should they be asking their healthcare team? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

I think it’s definitely important to bring this up with the healthcare team. And it should be something at diagnosis and relapse to ask, what are the cytogenetics, what do they look like now, what do the gene mutations, and really as mentioned before, it’s so crucial in talking about prognosis, talking about treatment options that if it doesn’t come up, it’s really something that you should take a pause and try to go back to readdress with your team. 

Katherine Banwell:

I’d like to move on to treatment now, Dr. Mims. And, of course, treatment takes place in phases for AML. The first is induction therapy. Can you start by defining induction therapy for our audience? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, induction therapy is really terminology that we use to talk about initial therapy for someone with a new diagnosis. So, we can have intensive induction therapies, and non-intensive induction therapies. But the goal for either of those types of treatment is to get the leukemia into remission. 

So, to talk about that in a little bit more detail, for intensive induction regimens, those typically involve cytotoxic chemotherapy. So, you may hear terminology like, “7 + 3 induction,” or “high-dose cytarabine regimens,” but those are typically more intensive regimens that we use that can have increased side effects but may be very important based off the type of acute leukemia. 

And then for non-intensive based regimens, one of the standards has really evolved to be venetoclax (Venclexta) and azacitidine (Vidaza) as a non-intensive regimen that can work very well for a majority of patients. And there are some off shoots of that as well. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. And when does stem cell transplant come into play? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, stem cell transplant is something that we all think about at the beginning for anyone with a new diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia where as we’re working to get back genomic information about the individual’s acute leukemia, we may go ahead and start looking for different donors, doing typing, just in case that’s something that we need as far as someone’s therapy. 

But typically we reserve stem cell transplant for patients who have either intermediate or high-risk features of their AML. Or who may have even favorable respite are not responding as well as we would like when looking at the depth of remission. And so, we always want  to be prepared in case that’s something we need to move forward with as part of their care, if the goal of their treatment is for curative intent. 

Katherine Banwell:

Let’s talk about what happens after the initial phase of treatment. What’s the purpose of consolidation therapy? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, there are a few different purposes we can use consolidation therapy for. So, for patients – consolidation therapy is used for patients who have achieved remission. And then it’s either to try to hopefully get them cure of their AML. The patients have more favorable risk features of their AML and cure is an option through just chemotherapy alone. 

Or it can be used to try to keep people in remission while we’re working to get towards stem cell transplant as that can sometimes take a few months to get a donor ready, have things ready to move forward with transplant. 

Katherine Banwell:

And what are the options for consolidation therapy?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, options for consolidated chemotherapy are typically based off of what you had initially for induction chemotherapy. So, if it’s more intensive-based regimens, it typically is consolidation with intensive consolidation, cytarabine based regimens.  

For lower intensity regimens, typically consolidation is more continuing therapy on what you started but may have adjustments of the treatment based off of trying to decrease the toxicity now that the patients are in remission. 

Katherine Banwell:

And how are patients monitored in consolidation therapy? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, it definitely is based off of the individual’s type of consolidation chemotherapy or treatment. But most patients, if we feel like the treatment is going to lower blood counts, they have bloodwork twice a week, and we’re watching for things, for side effects for treatment, looking out for risk of infection, giving transfusion support, and then if something happens that we feel like we can’t support patients in an outpatient setting, then we’ll get them back into the hospital if they need to for care. 

Katherine Banwell:

What side effects are you looking for?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, most of the side effects with any of the treatments that we give are what we call myelosuppressives. So, it lowers the different types of blood counts.   

So, white blood cell count which increases risk of infection, red blood cells, so, side effects or symptoms from anemia. And then risk of bleeding from low platelet counts.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Maintenance therapy has become more common in other blood cancers particularly in multiple myeloma. Is there a role for maintenance therapy in AML? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

There actually is now, which is something that’s newer that has evolved for acute myeloma leukemia. So, in the context of intensive therapy, we now have oral azacitidine (Onureg), which is a little bit different than some of the IV formulations that we give.  

But for patients who receive intensive induction therapy, get into remission and may receive consolidation but are not able to go onto transplant if they have that immediate or higher risk features, there’s FDA approval for oral azacytidine, which has been shown to improve overall survival and keep people in those remissions for longer. 

More recently, specifically for patients who have a particular type of mutation called FLT3, if they also receive intensive induction therapy with a FLT3 inhibitor added onto that, then their quizartinib was just recently approved as a maintenance therapy for patients with that particular type of AML.  

Katherine Banwell:

Are there emerging AML therapies that patients should know about other than what you just mentioned? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, I think there are a lot of exciting treatments that are up and coming based off of many small molecule inhibitors that are being studied. 

One in particular I would mention that everyone’s very excited about is a class of agents called menin inhibitors.  

And so that’s an oral agent that has been shown to have responses for patients with relapse or refractory AML who have NMP-1 mutations or have something called KNT2A rearrangements. And seeing responses with just a single agent in the relapse refractory setting, it’s been really exciting. And so, I think we’re hopeful that that may become FDA-approved in the near future. And it’s also now being explored in combination with intensive chemotherapies as well as less intensive induction regimens. And so, maybe we can do a better job without brunt treatment by adding these therapies on. 

Katherine Banwell:

That’s exciting news. When it comes to living and thriving with AML, Dr. Mims, managing disease symptoms and treatment side effects is a big part of that. 

Would you talk about how symptoms and side effects can impact life with AML?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, I think from my perspective, what we are always trying to do when we’re moving forward with a treatment plan is of course, get patients into remission, but the purpose of getting into remission is not just to achieve that, but for patients to have quality of life. And so, there needs to be continued dialogue between the patient and the treatment team about how you’re feeling during treatment. Because they’re definitely based off of therapy, different side effects, things that could be not necessarily due to active leukemia anymore. And so there may need to be dose adjustments and other things that we do to the regimens in order to make you feel as good as possible while continuing on treatment. 

Katherine Banwell:

Why is it so important for patients to speak up about any issues they may be having? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

I think it’s important because you’re your own best advocate. Being the patient, being the person who’s living with having this diagnosis and going through the treatment, myself, or other colleagues as physicians, we can have a sense of what may be going on based off of numbers. But we’re not truly going to know how you’re feeling unless you speak up and let us know. And there may be things we could do with supportive medications, dosing adjustments as mentioned, that could help in making you hopefully feel better and less side effects and toxicities from treatment. 

Katherine Banwell:

What are some common symptoms and side effects that you hear about?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Okay. Sure. So, different side effects that I would say that people can have, people can feel fatigued just from treatment in general. Some of our therapies can cause neuropathy, skin rashes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. And so, all of those are important along as mentioned with symptoms you may have from decreased blood counts that we do have interventions that we could implement to help the – make the therapy more tolerable. 

Katherine Banwell:

So, for the side effects like fatigue for example, what do you do about that? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, I think it depends on the level of fatigue. Of course, we don’t have – I wish we had a pill that could just make fatigue improve. But if it’s really that the treatment is deriving it, and it’s impeding your quality of life there are dose reductions or things we can do that may help with the level of fatigue you’re experiencing.  

Katherine Banwell:

And what about some of the other side effects. You mentioned diarrhea. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure.  

Katherine Banwell:

How is that handled? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yeah. So, for issues from GI complications such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, we have really lots of choices for anti-nausea medicines and different combinations we can use or newer antiemetics that can help with that. And from a diarrhea perspective it depends on the treatment. But of course, we want to make sure first and foremost there’s no infection. And if not, then there are good antidiarrheals we could add on to the regiment to help with that as well. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. That’s great advice. Thank you. I want to make sure that we get to some of the audience questions. These were sent to us in advance of the program today. Let’s start with this one; Janet wants to know what factors enable a patient to achieve and continue in remission if they are not able to achieve stem cell transplant due to age restrictions.  

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, I think first and foremost, I think it’s very important that there — that patients are aware that there shouldn’t be just strict, stringent cutoffs of age as a requirement for stem cell transplant. And really, there’s a lot of research going on that we should take into account. Physiological age, and there’s ways to measure that just to be sure that stem cell transplant really is not an option. And for patients who stem cell transplant is not an option, I think as we talked about earlier, so there can still be really great treatments that can get patients into remission and ongoing therapies with dosing adjustments again to decrease toxicity and improve quality of life and thinking about things like maintenance therapy as appropriate. 

Katherine Banwell:

What are the age restrictions, and why are they there? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, sometimes you will hear age 75.

Really, no one above age 75 should move forward with transplant. And that’s based off of past data where they’ve explored transplant and seen increased toxicity. And from transplant in itself, increased side effects, increased risk of early mortality. And so, I do think it’s important to take the patient as a whole into consideration because again, you could have someone who’s 77 who may be running marathons, and in great shape, and not a lot of other healthcare issues, who may still do really well with treatment. And so, I think that’s – really needs to be taken in account, really the overall picture of health for the patient before making… 

Katherine Banwell:

So, the… 

Dr. Alice Mims:

…just a firm cutoff. 

Katherine Banwell:

Right. Okay. So, it’s not cut and dry. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Exactly. 

Katherine Banwell:

If you’re 75 or older, then you definitely can’t have stem cell transplant. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

That’s correct. 

Katherine Banwell:

Then you’re looking at everyone individually. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yeah. So, it really should be looked at.  

And I still have some patients who will come to me and say, “Oh, I was told I’m 68 years old, I’m not a candidate.” And that always makes me take a step back. And then we kind of have to have that discussion again. And they may still not be a good candidate based off of other comorbidities or healthcare issues, but it shouldn’t just be a number rules you out for having that as an option. 

Katherine Banwell:

Good to know. We received this question from Carl, “What does treatment look like following transplant? And what are doctors looking for when monitoring through blood tests?” 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, after transplant, the first three months is pretty intensive of being seen very frequently at your transplant center twice to once a week. You’re also on immunosuppressive medications to try to help prevent issues like graft vs host disease, which can be a complication from transplant. 

And then over time if you’re doing well, we try to start tapering off those immunosuppressive regimens to see if you can tolerate that. And what I say to most of my patients for – who are undergoing transplant, it can take some time to really feel back to being yourself. It can take six months, it can take a year or longer. And sometimes your normal is a new normal based off of how you do and the side effects of the transplant in itself. So, you may not go back to if you’re here before transplant and before your diagnosis, it may be that this is your new normal. Just so people can be prepared and know what they’re signing up for.  

Katherine Banwell:

And with the blood testing, what are you looking for when you’re monitoring a patient?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. There are a few different things that we’re looking for when monitoring patients. So, one, making sure that the stem cells or the graft from the donor are recovering. 

You want to see that blood counts, levels of white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets are getting to normal levels. You’re also assessing and making sure you’re not seeing signs of relapse. You’re checking levels of donor cells versus the patient cells within the stem cell — sorry, within the stem cell compartments. And so, we’re taking all of those into account as well as checking organ function and making sure there’s no signs of potential graft versus host disease as well. 

Katherine Banwell:

Katrina sent in this question; do you have any advice for dealing with a general oncologist who does not exactly follow my AML doctor’s recommendations? I see a local oncologist and an AML specialist guides my care. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

I think that’s a tough question. And so, I think I’ll answer that if – maybe two different ways. 

So, one, I think sometimes it’s hard when you’re the local community oncologist, and you’re there for the day-to-day care. And so there may need to be treatment adjustments and other things that you need to do in that moment or time to help make sure that toxicities are not too severe or are helping the patient as you’re seeing them day-to-day. And it may not be easy to involve the specialist right there in the moment. But I think if there are bigger issues as far as overall goals, overall communication, it should be that both are able to communicate well with each other. They should be able to communicate via email, via text message. That’s what I do with a lot of my community partners. And it’s always important that you as a patient feel confident in your care. And so, if that trust is not there that things are being followed, then it may be important to look and see if there’s another physician who you do feel comfortable with proceeding with your care with. 

Katherine Banwell:

And what do you tell patients when they’re not feeling comfortable with their care team or their oncologist or their general oncologist? What do you say to them to give them some confidence to find somebody else who they feel more comfortable with? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, I’ll just say from my perspective. So, if I’m seeing a patient and they may have questions, they may not feel comfortable, they may need more time. And I always think it’s important if you want a second opinion, whether it’s at a specialist level, whether it’s in a community oncology private setting, that should not be offensive to the physician.  

If that makes the patient feel more comfortable in what they’re doing with their care, that’s how they should move forward. And it should be what they feel like is best. If a physician takes that personally or is offended by it, I think that’s more of their problem as opposed to anything that you’re doing wrong.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Thank you for that. Ryan wants to know; I’m a year and a half post-transplant, how can you tell if the aches and pains in your joints are normal aging, host vs graft disease, the AML returning, or even something else? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, I think that’s also a difficult question to answer because it really is patient dependent. And so, I think if you’re having new joint aches or pains, it’s always important to reach out to your transplant team to make sure that – it could be any of the above.. 

And so you’re doing the appropriate workup with lab work, imaging, things that would be appropriate or seeing certain specialists. Maybe orthopedist if needed because it could be I’d say less likely leukemic relapse, but still want to be sure. But it could be definitely complications from GVHD or there’s some joint issues that can evolve post-transplant, especially for people who are on long-term immunosuppressant medications. Or it could be the normal effects of aging. So, it’s always good to have that reassurance. 

Katherine Banwell:

Let’s talk a little bit about mental health resources. Managing the worry associated with a diagnosis or concerns about relapse, or even various side effects can lead to emotional symptoms like anxiety and fear.  

Why is it important for people with AML to share how they’re feeling with their healthcare team? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, I think it’s very important because, one, all of those feelings are normal feelings. I think they’re sometimes that from going through such a rapid diagnosis and then having to start treatment pretty quickly and going through all the ups and downs with these types of diagnosis can really lead to for some patients PTSD-type symptoms. And then there are also things that can evolve over time where their anxiety or even survivorship guilt as you go if you move forward and are doing well where you may have some friends or people you met along the way who may not have had as good outcomes. And so, there are resources available based off of where you are.  

But for survivorship, oncology specific counseling to deal with some of these feelings that are understandable and normal for what patients have been through. 

Katherine Banwell:

Can a social worker help? And are there other people on the healthcare team who can support a patient’s emotional needs? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Oh, absolutely. So, I think it’s really place-dependent on where you are but yes, absolutely. Social workers are a great resource for patients. There may be other collaborative teams based off of where you’re receiving your treatment that may be available that are maybe patient support groups where you can go and be with other patients or Facebook, social media support groups. And I think all those can be very helpful. And I know at least at our center, we also have patient mentors who have been through and gotten through to the other side of transplant or whatnot who are great resources because they’ve lived and experienced it. 

And I think that’s just as a physician, I can talk about things that I don’t have that personal experience having lived through it. And I think that’s very important — 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. It’s a… 

Dr. Alice Mims:

…to be able to have somebody to talk to. Yeah. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. What about the financial aspect of treatments? There are many people who would find it difficult to find and maybe they don’t have insurance, or their insurance doesn’t cover a lot. How do you help patients who are dealing with financial restrictions?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, I think that we’re fortunate here because we have a lot of support staff to help patients with our financial counseling team. We also have people within the medication assistance programs who can help find foundation grants to help with medication support, travel support. 

I think for patients who may not have those things available at their individual center, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is a great place to reach out for.  

And there are other foundations as well who at least may have navigators to help patients figure out other resources or funding available. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. Okay. That’s really good information, Dr. Mims. Thank you. And please continue to send in your questions to question@powerfulpatients.org and we’ll work to get them answered on future programs. Well, Dr. Mims as we close out our program, I wanted to get your thoughts on where we stand with progress in AML care. Are there advances in research treatment that you’re hopeful about? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yes. I would say from even when I finished fellowship 10 years ago, not to state my age, but we had essentially about three treatments at that time. 

Now in the past five years there have been I think maybe 11 different new drugs that have been approved for a acute myeloma leukemia. And so, I think we’re just on the precipice of really evolving to have individualized care. Hopefully have more curative options for patients. So, I’m really excited for the time we’re in right now where I even hope we’ll be in the next five years for patients. 

Katherine Banwell:

That’s an encouraging message to leave the audience with, Dr. Mims. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Thank you so much for letting me be here with you today. 

Katherine Banwell:

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

Managing Life With AML | What You Should Know About Care and Treatment

Managing Life With AML | What You Should Know About Care and Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What do you need to know when it comes to managing life with acute myeloid leukemia (AML)? In this webinar, Dr. Alice Mims, an AML specialist and researcher, discusses how treatment decisions are made and how test results may impact therapy. Dr. Mims will shares the latest advances in research and key advice for living well with AML.

Dr. Alice Mims is a hematologist specializing in acute and chronic myeloid conditions. Dr. Mims serves as the Acute Leukemia Clinical Research Director at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James. Learn more about Dr. Mims.

Download Resource Guide

See More from Thrive AML

Related Resources:

AML Treatment Decisions | Understanding Factors That Impact Your Options

AML Specialists and Second Opinions Expert Advice to Patients

How Can You Thrive With AML Advice for Navigating Care.


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today. Today’s program is a continuation of our Thrive series. And we’re going to discuss navigating life with AML, and how you can engage in your care. 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. Well, joining us today is Dr. Alice Mims.  

Dr. Mims, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yeah, sure. Thank you, Katherine. I’m Alice Mims. I’m a physician and associate professor at Ohio State University. And also, the section head for the myeloid and acute leukemia program within our division of hematology. 

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today, Dr. Mims. We start all of our webinars in our thrive series with the same question; in your experience, what does it mean to thrive with AML? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure, I think that’s a great question. So, really for me, I think thriving with AML is very patient- or person-dependent. It really depends on making sure that your treatment goals align with your care. And so that means really being an active participant in your diagnosis, understanding the disease process, and making sure that your care team really understands what your overall goals are for your treatment. 

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you for that because it helps us to understand as we move through the program today. One part of thriving with AML is finding a treatment approach that manages your disease and fits with your lifestyle. Before we talk about therapy, can you tell us how treatment goals are established for an individual patient? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, for individual patients I think it’s very important that there is an initial discussion that doesn’t feel too shortened that you can have time with your care team to really go into depth about the diagnosis, about the specifics of your particular subtype of acute myeloid leukemia, understanding the treatment options, and then being given time allowed to reflect on all of that information. So, then you can come back and have your questions better answered that may come from that initial discussion. 

And then help you with your team make a decision based on that information that works best for you. 

Katherine Banwell:

Outside of patient preference, what other factors do you take into account when working with a patient to decide on a treatment plan?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, there are multiple different factors that we try to take into account. Again, yeah most importantly what patients’ goals are like you mentioned, but those include overall health, including different comorbidities, so what other healthcare diagnoses, medications are you taking, what are the patient’s age, thinking about that for long-term goals, overall support from loved ones, family to — just because care can be really involved. And then in particular, thinking about specific features of that individual patient’s AML, including molecular, genetic features of the leukemia. 

Katherine Banwell:

Well, let’s talk more in depth about the test results you just mentioned. 

What is the test for genetic markers? And how is it conducted? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, there are a few different tests that we use under that scope of genetic markers. So, those include looking at chromosomal abnormalities of the DNA. So, with cytogenetics, and then also more specific prose where we call FISH testing. And then also we look for specific gene mutations through next generation sequencing, or PCR testing. And so, we use all of those results together to give us the most information we can about that individual’s leukemia. 

Katherine Banwell:

How has molecular testing revolutionized AML care?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Oh gracious. It’s really done such – so much for leukemia. And just things are so different even where they were five years ago because of having molecular mutations, that information available. 

So, it helps with discussing prognosis. So, we know that different molecular features can tell us about curative intent and what are the treatment steps we would need to take to give the best chance long-term. And then also now, we’ve evolved to where we have directed therapies that can target mutations or the proteins that arise from those mutations with therapeutic options. 

Katherine Banwell:

Is this testing standard following an AML diagnosis? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

It is standard following an AML diagnosis. That’s recommended within all of the guidelines with patients and really should be done for all patients at initial diagnosis. 

Katherine Banwell:

Can genetic markers or mutations change over time? For example, if a patient relapses, should molecular testing be done again? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yes, absolutely. Mutations can evolve. It’s something we call clonal evolution of the leukemia. 

And so you can have mutations that could be present at diagnosis that may no longer be present. Or the opposite can occur where you have new mutations that can appear. And that can lead to different options for treatment. So, it’s very important to retest at time of relapse. 

Katherine Banwell:

What advice do you have for patients who want to ensure that they’ve actually undergone molecular testing? What questions should they be asking their healthcare team? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

I think it’s definitely important to bring this up with the healthcare team. And it should be something at diagnosis and relapse to ask, what are the cytogenetics, what do they look like now, what do the gene mutations, and really as mentioned before, it’s so crucial in talking about prognosis, talking about treatment options that if it doesn’t come up, it’s really something that you should take a pause and try to go back to readdress with your team. 

Katherine Banwell:

I’d like to move on to treatment now, Dr. Mims. And, of course, treatment takes place in phases for AML. The first is induction therapy. Can you start by defining induction therapy for our audience? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, induction therapy is really terminology that we use to talk about initial therapy for someone with a new diagnosis. So, we can have intensive induction therapies, and non-intensive induction therapies. But the goal for either of those types of treatment is to get the leukemia into remission. 

So, to talk about that in a little bit more detail, for intensive induction regimens, those typically involve cytotoxic chemotherapy. So, you may hear terminology like, “7 + 3 induction,” or “high-dose cytarabine regimens,” but those are typically more intensive regimens that we use that can have increased side effects but may be very important based off the type of acute leukemia. 

And then for non-intensive based regimens, one of the standards has really evolved to be venetoclax (Venclexta) and azacitidine (Vidaza) as a non-intensive regimen that can work very well for a majority of patients. And there are some off shoots of that as well. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. And when does stem cell transplant come into play? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, stem cell transplant is something that we all think about at the beginning for anyone with a new diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia where as we’re working to get back genomic information about the individual’s acute leukemia, we may go ahead and start looking for different donors, doing typing, just in case that’s something that we need as far as someone’s therapy. 

But typically we reserve stem cell transplant for patients who have either intermediate or high-risk features of their AML. Or who may have even favorable respite are not responding as well as we would like when looking at the depth of remission. And so, we always want  to be prepared in case that’s something we need to move forward with as part of their care, if the goal of their treatment is for curative intent. 

Katherine Banwell:

Let’s talk about what happens after the initial phase of treatment. What’s the purpose of consolidation therapy? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, there are a few different purposes we can use consolidation therapy for. So, for patients – consolidation therapy is used for patients who have achieved remission. And then it’s either to try to hopefully get them cure of their AML. The patients have more favorable risk features of their AML and cure is an option through just chemotherapy alone. 

Or it can be used to try to keep people in remission while we’re working to get towards stem cell transplant as that can sometimes take a few months to get a donor ready, have things ready to move forward with transplant. 

Katherine Banwell:

And what are the options for consolidation therapy?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, options for consolidated chemotherapy are typically based off of what you had initially for induction chemotherapy. So, if it’s more intensive-based regimens, it typically is consolidation with intensive consolidation, cytarabine based regimens.  

For lower intensity regimens, typically consolidation is more continuing therapy on what you started but may have adjustments of the treatment based off of trying to decrease the toxicity now that the patients are in remission. 

Katherine Banwell:

And how are patients monitored in consolidation therapy? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, it definitely is based off of the individual’s type of consolidation chemotherapy or treatment. But most patients, if we feel like the treatment is going to lower blood counts, they have bloodwork twice a week, and we’re watching for things, for side effects for treatment, looking out for risk of infection, giving transfusion support, and then if something happens that we feel like we can’t support patients in an outpatient setting, then we’ll get them back into the hospital if they need to for care. 

Katherine Banwell:

What side effects are you looking for?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, most of the side effects with any of the treatments that we give are what we call myelosuppressives. So, it lowers the different types of blood counts.   

So, white blood cell count which increases risk of infection, red blood cells, so, side effects or symptoms from anemia. And then risk of bleeding from low platelet counts.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Maintenance therapy has become more common in other blood cancers particularly in multiple myeloma. Is there a role for maintenance therapy in AML? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

There actually is now, which is something that’s newer that has evolved for acute myeloma leukemia. So, in the context of intensive therapy, we now have oral azacitidine (Onureg), which is a little bit different than some of the IV formulations that we give.  

But for patients who receive intensive induction therapy, get into remission and may receive consolidation but are not able to go onto transplant if they have that immediate or higher risk features, there’s FDA approval for oral azacytidine, which has been shown to improve overall survival and keep people in those remissions for longer. 

More recently, specifically for patients who have a particular type of mutation called FLT3, if they also receive intensive induction therapy with a FLT3 inhibitor added onto that, then their quizartinib was just recently approved as a maintenance therapy for patients with that particular type of AML.  

Katherine Banwell:

Are there emerging AML therapies that patients should know about other than what you just mentioned? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, I think there are a lot of exciting treatments that are up and coming based off of many small molecule inhibitors that are being studied. 

One in particular I would mention that everyone’s very excited about is a class of agents called menin inhibitors.  

And so that’s an oral agent that has been shown to have responses for patients with relapse or refractory AML who have NMP-1 mutations or have something called KNT2A rearrangements. And seeing responses with just a single agent in the relapse refractory setting, it’s been really exciting. And so, I think we’re hopeful that that may become FDA-approved in the near future. And it’s also now being explored in combination with intensive chemotherapies as well as less intensive induction regimens. And so, maybe we can do a better job without brunt treatment by adding these therapies on. 

Katherine Banwell:

That’s exciting news. When it comes to living and thriving with AML, Dr. Mims, managing disease symptoms and treatment side effects is a big part of that. 

Would you talk about how symptoms and side effects can impact life with AML?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, I think from my perspective, what we are always trying to do when we’re moving forward with a treatment plan is of course, get patients into remission, but the purpose of getting into remission is not just to achieve that, but for patients to have quality of life. And so, there needs to be continued dialogue between the patient and the treatment team about how you’re feeling during treatment. Because they’re definitely based off of therapy, different side effects, things that could be not necessarily due to active leukemia anymore. And so there may need to be dose adjustments and other things that we do to the regimens in order to make you feel as good as possible while continuing on treatment. 

Katherine Banwell:

Why is it so important for patients to speak up about any issues they may be having? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

I think it’s important because you’re your own best advocate. Being the patient, being the person who’s living with having this diagnosis and going through the treatment, myself, or other colleagues as physicians, we can have a sense of what may be going on based off of numbers. But we’re not truly going to know how you’re feeling unless you speak up and let us know. And there may be things we could do with supportive medications, dosing adjustments as mentioned, that could help in making you hopefully feel better and less side effects and toxicities from treatment. 

Katherine Banwell:

What are some common symptoms and side effects that you hear about?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Okay. Sure. So, different side effects that I would say that people can have, people can feel fatigued just from treatment in general. Some of our therapies can cause neuropathy, skin rashes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. And so, all of those are important along as mentioned with symptoms you may have from decreased blood counts that we do have interventions that we could implement to help the – make the therapy more tolerable. 

Katherine Banwell:

So, for the side effects like fatigue for example, what do you do about that? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, I think it depends on the level of fatigue. Of course, we don’t have – I wish we had a pill that could just make fatigue improve. But if it’s really that the treatment is deriving it, and it’s impeding your quality of life there are dose reductions or things we can do that may help with the level of fatigue you’re experiencing.  

Katherine Banwell:

And what about some of the other side effects. You mentioned diarrhea. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure.  

Katherine Banwell:

How is that handled? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yeah. So, for issues from GI complications such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, we have really lots of choices for anti-nausea medicines and different combinations we can use or newer antiemetics that can help with that. And from a diarrhea perspective it depends on the treatment. But of course, we want to make sure first and foremost there’s no infection. And if not, then there are good antidiarrheals we could add on to the regiment to help with that as well. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. That’s great advice. Thank you. I want to make sure that we get to some of the audience questions. These were sent to us in advance of the program today. Let’s start with this one; Janet wants to know what factors enable a patient to achieve and continue in remission if they are not able to achieve stem cell transplant due to age restrictions.  

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, I think first and foremost, I think it’s very important that there — that patients are aware that there shouldn’t be just strict, stringent cutoffs of age as a requirement for stem cell transplant. And really, there’s a lot of research going on that we should take into account. Physiological age, and there’s ways to measure that just to be sure that stem cell transplant really is not an option. And for patients who stem cell transplant is not an option, I think as we talked about earlier, so there can still be really great treatments that can get patients into remission and ongoing therapies with dosing adjustments again to decrease toxicity and improve quality of life and thinking about things like maintenance therapy as appropriate. 

Katherine Banwell:

What are the age restrictions, and why are they there? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, sometimes you will hear age 75.

Really, no one above age 75 should move forward with transplant. And that’s based off of past data where they’ve explored transplant and seen increased toxicity. And from transplant in itself, increased side effects, increased risk of early mortality. And so, I do think it’s important to take the patient as a whole into consideration because again, you could have someone who’s 77 who may be running marathons, and in great shape, and not a lot of other healthcare issues, who may still do really well with treatment. And so, I think that’s – really needs to be taken in account, really the overall picture of health for the patient before making… 

Katherine Banwell:

So, the… 

Dr. Alice Mims:

…just a firm cutoff. 

Katherine Banwell:

Right. Okay. So, it’s not cut and dry. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Exactly. 

Katherine Banwell:

If you’re 75 or older, then you definitely can’t have stem cell transplant. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

That’s correct. 

Katherine Banwell:

Then you’re looking at everyone individually. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yeah. So, it really should be looked at.  

And I still have some patients who will come to me and say, “Oh, I was told I’m 68 years old, I’m not a candidate.” And that always makes me take a step back. And then we kind of have to have that discussion again. And they may still not be a good candidate based off of other comorbidities or healthcare issues, but it shouldn’t just be a number rules you out for having that as an option. 

Katherine Banwell:

Good to know. We received this question from Carl, “What does treatment look like following transplant? And what are doctors looking for when monitoring through blood tests?” 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, after transplant, the first three months is pretty intensive of being seen very frequently at your transplant center twice to once a week. You’re also on immunosuppressive medications to try to help prevent issues like graft vs host disease, which can be a complication from transplant. 

And then over time if you’re doing well, we try to start tapering off those immunosuppressive regimens to see if you can tolerate that. And what I say to most of my patients for – who are undergoing transplant, it can take some time to really feel back to being yourself. It can take six months, it can take a year or longer. And sometimes your normal is a new normal based off of how you do and the side effects of the transplant in itself. So, you may not go back to if you’re here before transplant and before your diagnosis, it may be that this is your new normal. Just so people can be prepared and know what they’re signing up for.  

Katherine Banwell:

And with the blood testing, what are you looking for when you’re monitoring a patient?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. There are a few different things that we’re looking for when monitoring patients. So, one, making sure that the stem cells or the graft from the donor are recovering. 

You want to see that blood counts, levels of white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets are getting to normal levels. You’re also assessing and making sure you’re not seeing signs of relapse. You’re checking levels of donor cells versus the patient cells within the stem cell — sorry, within the stem cell compartments. And so, we’re taking all of those into account as well as checking organ function and making sure there’s no signs of potential graft versus host disease as well. 

Katherine Banwell:

Katrina sent in this question; do you have any advice for dealing with a general oncologist who does not exactly follow my AML doctor’s recommendations? I see a local oncologist and an AML specialist guides my care. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

I think that’s a tough question. And so, I think I’ll answer that if – maybe two different ways. 

So, one, I think sometimes it’s hard when you’re the local community oncologist, and you’re there for the day-to-day care. And so there may need to be treatment adjustments and other things that you need to do in that moment or time to help make sure that toxicities are not too severe or are helping the patient as you’re seeing them day-to-day. And it may not be easy to involve the specialist right there in the moment. But I think if there are bigger issues as far as overall goals, overall communication, it should be that both are able to communicate well with each other. They should be able to communicate via email, via text message. That’s what I do with a lot of my community partners. And it’s always important that you as a patient feel confident in your care. And so, if that trust is not there that things are being followed, then it may be important to look and see if there’s another physician who you do feel comfortable with proceeding with your care with. 

Katherine Banwell:

And what do you tell patients when they’re not feeling comfortable with their care team or their oncologist or their general oncologist? What do you say to them to give them some confidence to find somebody else who they feel more comfortable with? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, I’ll just say from my perspective. So, if I’m seeing a patient and they may have questions, they may not feel comfortable, they may need more time. And I always think it’s important if you want a second opinion, whether it’s at a specialist level, whether it’s in a community oncology private setting, that should not be offensive to the physician.  

If that makes the patient feel more comfortable in what they’re doing with their care, that’s how they should move forward. And it should be what they feel like is best. If a physician takes that personally or is offended by it, I think that’s more of their problem as opposed to anything that you’re doing wrong.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Thank you for that. Ryan wants to know; I’m a year and a half post-transplant, how can you tell if the aches and pains in your joints are normal aging, host vs graft disease, the AML returning, or even something else? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, I think that’s also a difficult question to answer because it really is patient dependent. And so, I think if you’re having new joint aches or pains, it’s always important to reach out to your transplant team to make sure that – it could be any of the above.. 

And so you’re doing the appropriate workup with lab work, imaging, things that would be appropriate or seeing certain specialists. Maybe orthopedist if needed because it could be I’d say less likely leukemic relapse, but still want to be sure. But it could be definitely complications from GVHD or there’s some joint issues that can evolve post-transplant, especially for people who are on long-term immunosuppressant medications. Or it could be the normal effects of aging. So, it’s always good to have that reassurance. 

Katherine Banwell:

Let’s talk a little bit about mental health resources. Managing the worry associated with a diagnosis or concerns about relapse, or even various side effects can lead to emotional symptoms like anxiety and fear.  

Why is it important for people with AML to share how they’re feeling with their healthcare team? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, I think it’s very important because, one, all of those feelings are normal feelings. I think they’re sometimes that from going through such a rapid diagnosis and then having to start treatment pretty quickly and going through all the ups and downs with these types of diagnosis can really lead to for some patients PTSD-type symptoms. And then there are also things that can evolve over time where their anxiety or even survivorship guilt as you go if you move forward and are doing well where you may have some friends or people you met along the way who may not have had as good outcomes. And so, there are resources available based off of where you are.  

But for survivorship, oncology specific counseling to deal with some of these feelings that are understandable and normal for what patients have been through. 

Katherine Banwell:

Can a social worker help? And are there other people on the healthcare team who can support a patient’s emotional needs? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Oh, absolutely. So, I think it’s really place-dependent on where you are but yes, absolutely. Social workers are a great resource for patients. There may be other collaborative teams based off of where you’re receiving your treatment that may be available that are maybe patient support groups where you can go and be with other patients or Facebook, social media support groups. And I think all those can be very helpful. And I know at least at our center, we also have patient mentors who have been through and gotten through to the other side of transplant or whatnot who are great resources because they’ve lived and experienced it. 

And I think that’s just as a physician, I can talk about things that I don’t have that personal experience having lived through it. And I think that’s very important — 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. It’s a… 

Dr. Alice Mims:

…to be able to have somebody to talk to. Yeah. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. What about the financial aspect of treatments? There are many people who would find it difficult to find and maybe they don’t have insurance, or their insurance doesn’t cover a lot. How do you help patients who are dealing with financial restrictions?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, I think that we’re fortunate here because we have a lot of support staff to help patients with our financial counseling team. We also have people within the medication assistance programs who can help find foundation grants to help with medication support, travel support. 

I think for patients who may not have those things available at their individual center, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is a great place to reach out for.  

And there are other foundations as well who at least may have navigators to help patients figure out other resources or funding available. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. Okay. That’s really good information, Dr. Mims. Thank you. And please continue to send in your questions to question@powerfulpatients.org and we’ll work to get them answered on future programs. Well, Dr. Mims as we close out our program, I wanted to get your thoughts on where we stand with progress in AML care. Are there advances in research treatment that you’re hopeful about? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Yes. I would say from even when I finished fellowship 10 years ago, not to state my age, but we had essentially about three treatments at that time. 

Now in the past five years there have been I think maybe 11 different new drugs that have been approved for a acute myeloma leukemia. And so, I think we’re just on the precipice of really evolving to have individualized care. Hopefully have more curative options for patients. So, I’m really excited for the time we’re in right now where I even hope we’ll be in the next five years for patients. 

Katherine Banwell:

That’s an encouraging message to leave the audience with, Dr. Mims. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Thank you so much for letting me be here with you today. 

Katherine Banwell:

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

Phases of AML Therapy | Understanding Treatment Options

Phases of AML Therapy | Understanding Treatment Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the types and phases of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment? Dr. Alice Mims, an AML specialist, defines induction, consolidation, and maintenance therapy for patients. Dr. Mims also explains the role of stem cell transplant and discusses promising new AML therapies.

Dr. Alice Mims is a hematologist specializing in acute and chronic myeloid conditions. Dr. Mims serves as the Acute Leukemia Clinical Research Director at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James. Learn more about Dr. Mims

See More from Thrive AML

Related Resources:

AML Treatment Decisions | Understanding Factors That Impact Your Options

How Can You Thrive With AML Advice for Navigating Care.

New and Emerging AML Therapies Being Studied in Clinical Trials

New and Emerging AML Therapies Being Studied in Clinical Trials


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

I’d like to move on to treatment now, Dr. Mims. And, of course, treatment takes place in phases for AML. The first is induction therapy. Can you start by defining induction therapy for our audience?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, induction therapy is really terminology that we use to talk about initial therapy for someone with a new diagnosis. So, we can have intensive induction therapies and non-intensive induction therapies. But the goal for either of those types of treatment is to get the leukemia into remission.  

Katherine Banwell:

And what are the available treatment options for induction therapy?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, to talk about that in a little bit more detail, for intensive induction regimens, those typically involve cytotoxic chemotherapy. So, you may hear terminology like, “7 + 3 induction,” or “high-dose cytarabine regimens,” but those are typically more intensive regimens that we use that can have increased side effects but may be very important based off the type of acute leukemia. 

And then for non-intensive based regimens, one of the standards has really evolved to be venetoclax (Venclexta) and azacitidine (Vidaza) as a non-intensive regimen that can work very well for a majority of patients. And there are some off shoots of that as well. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. And when does stem cell transplant come into play? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, stem cell transplant is something that we all think about at the beginning for anyone with a new diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia where as we’re working to get back genomic information about the individual’s acute leukemia, we may go ahead and start looking for different donors, doing typing, just in case that’s something that we need as far as someone’s therapy.  

But typically we reserve stem cell transplant for patients who have either intermediate or high-risk features of their AML. Or who may have even favorable respite are not responding as well as we would like when looking at the depth of remission. And so, we always want  to be prepared in case that’s something we need to move forward with as part of their care, if the goal of their treatment is for curative intent. 

Katherine Banwell:

Let’s talk about what happens after the initial phase of treatment. What’s the purpose of consolidation therapy? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, there are a few different purposes we can use consolidation therapy for. So, for patients – consolidation therapy is used for patients who have achieved remission. And then it’s either to try to hopefully get them cure of their AML. The patients have more favorable risk features of their AML and cure is an option through just chemotherapy alone.  

Or it can be used to try to keep people in remission while we’re working to get towards stem cell transplant as that can sometimes take a few months to get a donor ready, have things ready to move forward with transplant. 

Katherine Banwell:

And what are the options for consolidation therapy?  

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, options for consolidated chemotherapy are typically based off of what you had initially for induction chemotherapy. So, if it’s more intensive-based regimens, it typically is consolidation with intensive consolidation, cytarabine-based (Cytosar-U) regimens.  

For lower intensity regimens, typically consolidation is more continuing therapy on what you started but may have adjustments of the treatment based off of trying to decrease the toxicity now that the patients are in remission. 

Katherine Banwell:

And how are patients monitored in consolidation therapy? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, it definitely is based off of the individual’s type of consolidation chemotherapy or treatment. But most patients, if we feel like the treatment is going to lower blood counts, they have bloodwork twice a week, and we’re watching for things, for side effects for treatment, looking out for risk of infection, giving transfusion support, and then if something happens that we feel like we can’t support patients in an outpatient setting, then we’ll get them back into the hospital if they need to for care. 

Katherine Banwell:

What side effects are you looking for? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

So, most of the side effects with any of the treatments that we give are what we call myelosuppressives. So, it lowers the different types of blood counts.  

So, white blood cell count which increases risk of infection, red blood cells, so, side effects or symptoms from anemia. And then risk of bleeding from low platelet counts.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Maintenance therapy has become more common in other blood cancers particularly in multiple myeloma. Is there a role for maintenance therapy in AML? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

There actually is now, which is something that’s newer that has evolved for acute myeloma leukemia. So, in the context of intensive therapy, we now have oral azacitidine (Onureg), which is a little bit different than some of the IV formulations that we give.  

But for patients who receive intensive induction therapy, get into remission and may receive consolidation but are not able to go onto transplant if they have that immediate or higher risk features, there’s FDA approval for oral azacytidine, which has been shown to improve overall survival and keep people in those remissions for longer. 

More recently, specifically for patients who have a particular type of mutation called FLT3, if they also receive intensive induction therapy with a FLT3 inhibitor added onto that, then their quizartinib (Vanflyta) was just recently approved as a maintenance therapy for patients with that particular type of AML. 

Katherine Banwell:

Are there emerging AML therapies that patients should know about other than what you just mentioned? 

Dr. Alice Mims:

Sure. So, I think there are a lot of exciting treatments that are up and coming based off of many small molecule inhibitors that are being studied.  

One in particular I would mention that everyone’s very excited about is a class of agents called menin inhibitors.  

And so that’s an oral agent that has been shown to have responses for patients with relapsed or refractory AML who have NMP-1 mutations or have something called KNT2A rearrangements. And seeing responses with just a single agent in the relapsed/refractory setting, it’s been really exciting. And so, I think we’re hopeful that that may become FDA-approved in the near future. And it’s also now being explored in combination with intensive chemotherapies as well as less intensive induction regimens. And so, maybe we can do a better job with upfront treatment by adding these therapies on.  

AML Treatment Decisions | Understanding Factors That Impact Your Options

AML Treatment Decisions | Understanding Factors That Impact Your Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

An acute myeloid leukemia (AML) diagnosis can be different for each individual patient, so how is a treatment approach determined? AML specialist Dr. Jacqueline Garcia provides an overview of factors taken into consideration when choosing therapy, including age, overall health, and the patient’s preference. 

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia is an oncologist and AML researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Garcia.

See More from Thrive AML

Related Resources:

Acute Myeloid Leukemia Care | Who Are the Essential Team Members

Understanding AML Treatment Categories


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

With all the treatment options available, how do you decide who gets what? Tell us what is considered when choosing treatment for a patient. 

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

When I – this is a complicated question, because it’s not like you follow any particular algorithm. But when I meet a patient, I make a decision on what’s important to the patient and what’s  their goal. If I know – I need to understand their overall health to get a sense of are there ongoing competing risk factors that are active and more likely to impede with response, ability to deliver chemo, ability to get to transplant, something that tells me that’s not a possibility, or is their age too advanced – meaning greater than 75 – where we know that some of the treatments are not safe to deliver in that setting?   

So, I take a look at a patient’s overall health and age to make a decision. I take a look at bone marrow biopsy and lab findings to understand the flavor of their leukemia, from chromosomes to mutations. And because I am familiar with the data to give me a sense of what’s safe, what’s tolerable, and importantly what types of diseases, or subtypes of AML, would respond to one therapy over another, that’s how I formulate a recommendation.  

And based on all of that, all together, I’ll talk to them about treating the AML in steps. The first step is getting them into a remission, which can be done regardless of therapy type. That means to get their bone marrow under control, blood counts to recover. The second step, which is a more involved conversation that I often give a little bit of a hint of, but I go into greater detail over time, because we will see each other quite a lot, whether in the hospital or in clinic, is how to keep them in remission.  

And that’s where details about things like transplant come into play. I do my best to not overwhelm them, because when a patient hears the word transplant – and that’s often what they hear from family and friends because that’s what you can Google – they don’t know that there are many things, or many weeks of therapy, that have to happen in advance of transplant even being considered or happening. And transplant can’t even happen until someone’s in remission.  

But that is always on the forefront of a leukemia doctor’s mind, “Can I bring this patient to a transplantation? How successful will I be and what else do I need to give them to get them there sooner, safer, with a deeper response?” So, that way transplant could be successful. Transplant, by the way, is when we give a patient someone else’s stem cells that match their HLA typing, or their white blood cell signature.  

And it helps us to use someone else’s immune system to completely irradicate any microscopic leftover leukemia in a patient. But that is only successful when patients have good disease control or remissions. And that is only also successful if we have a donor for the patient, both of which  require at least several weeks to a couple of months of therapy. But that process is always initiated and ongoing in the background. And so, we often do this in piecemeal, because getting a diagnosis is already overwhelming. Learning about treatment is overwhelming.  

Learning about the frequency of labs, transfusions, being hospitalized, and then details about what a transplant would entail can be also overwhelming. But a lot of family and friends like to ask, because they feel like that is one way they might be able to help a patient. So, I know that they often eagerly ask the patient, “Well, what about this? How can I help?”  

Katherine Banwell:

Right. I can imagine that patient preference is also considered. But what kind of questions should patients ask about their treatment regimen?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

I always tell patients that I care very much about things like travel, hotels, all that jazz. But I always tell them let’s first talk about their health, what treatment I would recommend based on the available options and what their disease would mostly respond to, because I want it to be successful. And I always tell them let’s reserve questions on how it’s going to be done for last. I call that the logistics. I will never bring up or recommend something that could never be possible. But that being said, I try not to let the commute determine the decision.  

Whether or not there needs to be a hospitalization versus a hotel stay. I always consider then the background, but that financial decision should not drive the best treatment choice for a patient. Very fortunately, we’re in a country where patients have the ability – often, not always – to seek second opinions or to travel to academic centers.  

And because AML is an emergent or life-threatening disease, many insurance providers allow patients to come up to a big center to be treated, which I think is more than appropriate. So, we get into details of logistics last, because that’s the one thing that we can often overcome by providing additional resources and support. In terms of patient preference, if that’s what you mean with that, I would say I leave logistics to last, but we always consider and we do our best to accommodate.  

And that might be where we inform them we will look into getting a local partner to help us with additional therapies after the first month or upon discharge. So, it totally depends on the scenario for a patient, whether or not they have a local provider and a local hospital that could accommodate acute leukemia. I always tell patients ideally you don’t want to go to a place that only sees this once per year. You want to go to a place where everyone has seen it multiple times, including the nurses on the floors.  

So, that way, when there’s a complication, everyone knows what to do. We don’t want any “surprises” when it’s really just run-of-the-mill standard stuff for us every day. In terms of what patients desire, we always keep that in the conversation of their level of support. Can they swallow pills? Are they able to cope with being in and out of the hospital? All that stuff gets considered, but I think if they hear about the plan, about what’s required, when my expectation would be for a response, when the frequency of trips to a big city would decrease, how I could get a local partner to help with some of the lab or transfusion burden.  

Many of those preferences that they thought they had diminished, because they recognize that we found a way to make it work.  

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Garcia, you mentioned earlier the fact that some therapies can cause a lot of side effects, like nausea. And certainly, speaking up and telling your healthcare team how you’re feeling and what some of the symptoms and side effects are, that’s really essential. What is the impetus for someone to consider changing treatment if something is just absolutely not agreeing with them?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

So, there are many reasons to change a treatment. One is a patient doesn’t tolerate it. It depends on what the issue is. Is it something that’s serious, like a liver or enzyme abnormality that is very abnormal, or a new cardiac problem where it would warrant a change or a dose reduction? That makes sense. There is definitely – often, there’s a lot of guidance in the package inserts or within a clinical trial and how to manage that. But if patient has some intolerabilities that could be overcome with standard supportive care methods, I would make sure we’ve done that.   

So, I would make sure you give you medical team the chance to fix any nausea. We have so many great antinausea drugs. I would want to make sure – or if constipation or diarrhea. It’s often a GI issue that patients get really bothered by.  

I would try to delineate whether or not the side effect was really from the chemo or is from the leukemia that is not yet under control. Or is it another medical condition or a drug-drug interaction that was missed. So, I would do my best to make sure there wasn’t something that was fixable or something else that should be addressed. We otherwise would recommend changing therapy for an extreme intolerability if there was another equivalent better option. And if someone’s disease does not respond to treatment, then we would consider another therapy, too.  

Understanding AML Treatment Categories

 

Understanding AML Treatment Categories from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the available classes of therapy for acute myeloid leukemia (AML)? Dr. Jacqueline Garcia reviews AML treatment options, ranging from chemotherapy and stem cell transplant to supportive care. 

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia is an oncologist and AML researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Garcia.

See More from Thrive AML

Related Resources:

New and Emerging AML Therapies Being Studied in Clinical Trials

New and Emerging AML Therapies Being Studied in Clinical Trials


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

In your experience, what does it mean to thrive with AML?   

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

I think that’s a really great question, and I’m glad you’re asking me now as opposed to a decade ago. In the last several years, we’ve had a tremendous number of drugs that got FDA-approved and a lot of exciting clinical trials that have not only shown efficacy and safety but really some long-term responses. So, we can now focus on not just finding what drug can work, which used to be our problem 10 years ago, since we had very limited therapeutic tools, meaning treatments. We now have several treatments available.  

So, when I think of what it means to thrive, it’s identifying the right treatment for each individual patient with acute myeloid leukemia, because what might be recommended for one patient may not be the right for another. And there are many different patient- and disease-related factors that go into that decision-making.  

Katherine Banwell:

Can you walk us through the classes of treatment that are considered when choosing an AML treatment approach?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yeah. In terms of the different classes of treatments, I would say we think of probably three broad categories. One would be – sorry, four broad categories. One would be intensive chemotherapy. And that involves generally hospitalization. Another would be less intensive therapy. That could involve a mixture of inpatient or outpatient therapy. That could also include targeted therapy. The third would be clinical trials, which can include any of the former options I recommended, but they would be in an experimental study. And the fourth would be focusing solely on supportive care or hospice for patients that are too sick to receive therapy.  

Other aspects that are specific, such as pills, versus IV, versus role of transplant, I don’t see it as being separate. You don’t go right to transplant when you have a diagnosis of AML. You have to be in remission. So, transplant, for instance, would come after an intensive therapy or after the less intensive chemotherapy. So, I see that as being the second step once I choose the right treatment option for the patient.  

Katherine Banwell:

And when you’re talking about transplant, you’re talking about stem cell transplant, right?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yes. Stem cell transplant, bone marrow transplant – they mean the same thing. We recruit stem cells from donors that are related or unrelated, and we mobilize them from bone marrow to blood. And so, we can collect stem cells either from blood or bone marrow at this point. So, that’s exactly right.  

Katherine Banwell:

And what about targeted therapy?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

We have targeted therapy available that’s IV or pill form. And so, any one of these options can be considered. But everything is very patient-specific, and I am very happy to tell you some of the categories and nuances of things that I look at, because I don’t usually just offer patients a menu.  

I tell them what’s appropriate based on their patient characteristics, meaning what their liver function is, their heart function, their history, medical history, what their labs show. And then, I look at their disease history. We are now in an era where we have options. So, I look to see are there mutations that are targetable. Are there not? Are there markers on the surface of their leukemia cells that suggest that there’s a target for an immunotherapy?  

So, we don’t offer classes per se without it being specific. So, I always look to see what are the patient disease-specific characteristics, and then I start the conversation about what the potential options could be and then what I think the best option would be for that particular case.  

PODCAST: Thriving With AML | Tips and Support for Navigating Treatment

 

How can you navigate care and thrive with acute myeloid leukemia (AML)? In this webinar, Dr. Jacqueline Garcia, an AML specialist and researcher, discusses the treatment and management of AML. Dr. Garcia will review factors that impact therapy choices and shares advice and resources for people living with AML.
 
Dr. Jacqueline Garcia is an oncologist and AML researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Garcia.

Download Resource Guide

See More from Thrive AML

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for this webinar. Today’s program is about how to live and thrive with AML. We’re going to discuss how to live well with AML and why you should play an active role in your care. 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.  

Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Jacqueline Garcia. Dr. Garcia, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yes. Hi. My name is Jacqueline Garcia. I’m an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. I’m a clinical translational investigator. And what this means is I take care of patients with acute and chronic leukemias. I focus mainly on patients with acute myeloid leukemia. The investigator part means, in addition to seeing patients, I spend a lot of time writing, developing, and executing clinical trials in the AML space. We know that there have been so many wonderful therapies that we helped to move froward and bring to the field and so there is more work to be done. So, having active investigations is a key part of this role.  

Katherine Banwell:

Excellent. Well, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to join us today. We really appreciate it. We start all of our webinars in our Thrive Series with the same question. In your experience, what does it mean to thrive with AML?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

I think that’s a really great question and I’m glad you’re asking me now as opposed to a decade ago. In the last several years, we’ve had a tremendous number of drugs that got FDA-approved and a lot of exciting clinical trials that have not only shown efficacy and safety but really some long-term responses. So, we can now focus on not just finding what drug can work, which used to be our problem 10 years ago, since we had very limited therapeutic tools, meaning treatments. We now have several treatments available.  

So, when I think of what it means to thrive, it’s identifying the right treatment for each individual patient with acute myeloid leukemia, because what might be recommended for one patient may not be the right for another. And there are many different patient- and disease-related factors that go into that decision-making.  

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you for that, Dr. Garcia. It helps guide us as we move into our conversation. Typically, there are a number of team members to care for a patient. Who is part of an AML healthcare team?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Absolutely. We definitely cannot work on our own. Our team is very large, and it’s because these patients require a lot of support. At a bare minimum, a healthcare team will include at least one physician or an oncologist. The AML healthcare team might also include a second oncologist – that could be a bone marrow transplant doctor.  

Other members that are very critical include having a mid-leveler available that’s a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner. Often, an oncologist who runs a busy practice, who takes care of patients that could be very sick, like AML, they work in partnership with often very talented physician assistants and nurse practitioners. I know I do.  

In addition to that, I’m at an academic center so I’m super fortunate. I have really amazing and very smart hematology oncology fellows and residents that also follow to learn how to take care of patients. But we also, in the background, that patients don’t see – we have a pharmacist that helps us with making sure that drugs are prescribed correctly. They often call the patients with oral therapies to follow up. We have financial resource teams to help patients, to link them to LLS for support for bills that might come up, or transportation, or linking them up to other services that could help to defray or reduce costs.  

So, the healthcare team is quite extensive. But in terms of those that are patient-facing, it’s primarily the MDM that are mid-leveler. Some teams operate also with a nurse or a nurse care coordinator. That’s pretty common, too. And that person helps to not only schedule but also to answer pages or phone calls from patients if the medical team is not doing that.  

Katherine Banwell: What about a social worker or psychologist?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Oh. Yes. Yes. So, absolutely. So, every patient can be offered, if needed, access to an inpatient or outpatient social worker. Often, if my patients are admitted we have them see a social worker because that’s fairly seamless. Otherwise, for outpatient, if we identify any particular needs or there’s an interest, we’ll link them up with a social worker. This is the same that goes for physical therapy, or nutritionists, or those other ancillary services that can be really critical when patients are getting started.  

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. Of course, getting appropriate care and treatment is essential to thriving. Can you walk us through the classes of treatment that are considered when choosing an AML treatment approach?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yeah. In terms of the different classes of treatments, I would say we think of probably three broad categories. One would be – sorry, four broad categories. One would be intensive chemotherapy. And that involves generally hospitalization. Another would be less intensive therapy. That could involve a mixture of inpatient or outpatient therapy. That could also include targeted therapy. The third would be clinical trials, which can include any of the former options I recommended, but they would be in an experimental study. And the fourth would be focusing solely on supportive care or hospice for patients that are too sick to receive therapy.  

Other aspects that are specific, such as pills, versus IV, versus role of transplant, I don’t see it as being separate. You don’t go right to transplant when you have a diagnosis of AML. You have to be in remission. So, transplant, for instance, would come after an intensive therapy or after the less intensive chemotherapy. So, I see that as being the second step once I choose the right treatment option for the patient.  

Katherine Banwell:

And when you’re talking about transplant, you’re talking about stem cell transplant, right?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yes. Stem cell transplant, bone marrow transplant – they mean the same thing. We recruit stem cells from donors that are related or unrelated, and we mobilize them from bone marrow to blood. And so, we can collect stem cells either from blood or bone marrow at this point. So, that’s exactly right.  

Katherine Banwell:

And what about targeted therapy?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

We have targeted therapy available that’s IV or pill form. And so, any one of these options can be considered. But everything is very patient-specific, and I am very happy to tell you some of the categories and nuances of things that I look at, because I don’t usually just offer patients a menu.  

I tell them what’s appropriate based on their patient characteristics, meaning what their liver function is, their heart function, their history, medical history, what their labs show. And then, I look at their disease history. We are now in an era where we have options. So, I look to see are there mutations that are targetable. Are there not? Are there markers on the surface of their leukemia cells that suggest that there’s a target for an immunotherapy?  

So, we don’t offer classes per se without it being specific. So, I always look to see what are the patient disease-specific characteristics, and then I start the conversation about what the potential options could be and then what I think the best option would be for that particular case.  

Katherine Banwell:

As a researcher, Dr. Garcia, you’re on the frontlines of AML treatment. Are there new and emerging therapies that patients should be aware of?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yeah. I think we’re at this really exciting point now where we had for a long time just been giving people standard two agent intensive chemotherapy. We have been studying in Phase II and Phase III settings, and even in Phase I – which means testing safety out for the first time. We’ve been moving a lot of treatments to more mature settings where we’re testing the addition of a third drug. So, for people that are getting intensive chemo, we’re looking at, “Can we add a pill to augment responses deep in them to reduce risk of disease returning?”  

For less intensive chemotherapies, one of the most common regimens we now use is something called azacitidine (Vidaza), which is a hypomethylating agent that is given by IV or subcutaneous administration. Plus, a pill called venetoclax (Venclexta).   

We helped to get that FDA-approved a couple of years ago. That combination of therapy, we call that a doublet, meaning it’s two drugs – because it’s so well-tolerated and active, we’re now asking the greedy question of, “Well, can we make it more active for patients since we’re seeing how well-tolerated it is?”  

So, there have been a lot of therapies that are currently under investigation that are adding a third drug to these less-intensive doublets. So, there’s a lot of therapies under investigation to test, “Can we add an immunotherapy target? Is there another pill that we can add? Is there another targeting mutation to add to the doublet?” So, we’re looking at AML therapies from different angles. We’re looking at adding something to the existing new standard of care – those are these new, so-called, triplets.  

We’re looking at still the role of cellular therapy or CAR Ts targeting leukemia cells from an immunotherapy standpoint.  

That remains underdeveloped overall, and we have not succeeded as well, like our lymphoid colleagues in the lymphoma and acute lymphoblastic leukemia realm where there are drugs that are active and FDA-approved.  

So, we’re still trying to identify the right target. But those are some of the areas that are currently under study.  

Katherine Banwell:

You touched on this earlier, Dr. Garcia, but I’d like to get into a bit more detail. With all the treatment options available, how do you decide who gets what? Tell us what is considered when choosing treatment for a patient.   

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

When I – this is a complicated question, because it’s not like you follow any particular algorithm. But when I meet a patient, I make a decision on what’s important to the patient and what’s  their goal. If I know – I need to understand their overall health to get a sense of are there ongoing competing risk factors that are active and more likely to impede with response, ability to deliver chemo, ability to get to transplant, something that tells me that’s not a possibility, or is their age too advanced – meaning greater than 75 – where we know that some of the treatments are not safe to deliver in that setting?  

So, I take a look at a patient’s overall health and age to make a decision. I take a look at bone marrow biopsy and lab findings to understand the flavor of their leukemia, from chromosomes to mutations. And because I am familiar with the data to give me a sense of what’s safe, what’s tolerable, and importantly what types of diseases, or subtypes of AML, would respond to one therapy over another, that’s how I formulate a recommendation.   

And based on all of that, all together, I’ll talk to them about treating the AML in steps. The first step is getting them into a remission, which can be done regardless of therapy type. That means to get their bone marrow under control, blood counts to recover. The second step, which is a more involved conversation that I often give a little bit of a hint of, but I go into greater detail over time, because we will see each other quite a lot, whether in the hospital or in clinic, is how to keep them in remission.   

And that’s where details about things like transplant come into play. I do my best to not overwhelm them, because when a patient hears the word transplant – and that’s often what they hear from family and friends because that’s what you can Google – they don’t know that there are many things, or many weeks of therapy, that have to happen in advance of transplant even being considered or happening. And transplant can’t even happen until someone’s in remission.  

But that is always on the forefront of a leukemia doctor’s mind, “Can I bring this patient to a transplantation? How successful will I be and what else do I need to give them to get them there sooner, safer, with a deeper response?” So, that way transplant could be successful. Transplant, by the way, is when we give a patient someone else’s stem cells that match their HLA typing, or their white blood cell signature.  

And it helps us to use someone else’s immune system to completely irradicate any microscopic leftover leukemia in a patient. But that is only successful when patients have good disease control or remissions. And that is only also successful if we have a donor for the patient, both of which  require at least several weeks to a couple of months of therapy. But that process is always initiated and ongoing in the background. And so, we often do this in piecemeal, because getting a diagnosis is already overwhelming. Learning about treatment is overwhelming.  

Learning about the frequency of labs, transfusions, being hospitalized, and then details about what a transplant would entail can be also overwhelming. But a lot of family and friends like to ask, because they feel like that is one way they might be able to help a patient. So, I know that they often eagerly ask the patient, “Well, what about this? How can I help?”  

Katherine Banwell:

Right. I can imagine that patient preference is also considered. But what kind of questions should patients ask about their treatment regimen?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

I always tell patients that I care very much about things like travel, hotels, all that jazz. But I always tell them let’s first talk about their health, what treatment I would recommend based on the available options and what their disease would mostly respond to, because I want it to be successful. And I always tell them let’s reserve questions on how it’s going to be done for last. I call that the logistics. I will never bring up or recommend something that could never be possible. But that being said, I try not to let the commute determine the decision.  

Whether or not there needs to be a hospitalization versus a hotel stay. I always consider then the background, but that financial decision should not drive the best treatment choice for a patient. Very fortunately, we’re in a country where patients have the ability – often, not always – to seek second opinions or to travel to academic centers.  

And because AML is an emergent or life-threatening disease, many insurance providers allow patients to come up to a big center to be treated, which I think is more than appropriate. So, we get into details of logistics last, because that’s the one thing that we can often overcome by providing additional resources and support. In terms of patient preference, if that’s what you mean with that, I would say I leave logistics to last, but we always consider and we do our best to accommodate.  

And that might be where we inform them we will look into getting a local partner to help us with additional therapies after the first month or upon discharge. So, it totally depends on the scenario for a patient, whether or not they have a local provider and a local hospital that could accommodate acute leukemia. I always tell patients ideally you don’t want to go to a place that only sees this once per year. You want to go to a place where everyone has seen it multiple times, including the nurses on the floors.  

So, that way, when there’s a complication, everyone knows what to do. We don’t want any “surprises” when it’s really just run-of-the-mill standard stuff for us every day. In terms of what patients desire, we always keep that in the conversation of their level of support. Can they swallow pills? Are they able to cope with being in and out of the hospital? All that stuff gets considered, but I think if they hear about the plan, about what’s required, when my expectation would be for a response, when the frequency of trips to a big city would decrease, how I could get a local partner to help with some of the lab or transfusion burden.  

Many of those preferences that they thought they had diminished, because they recognize that we found a way to make it work.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Well, that’s really good to know. You touched on oral therapies a bit ago, and I know that they’re available for certain patients. Do you have any advice for patients who are in charge now of administering their own therapy?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yeah, I think that taking pills in general is hard for anybody, whether they’re naïve to pills. I definitely have patients that have never been on anything, and suddenly they’re on many medicines, to other people that are managing multiple medical conditions and this is yet another burden to add. I would say having an oral regimen is wonderful. It offers a lot of convenience. But we are all very thoughtful, and we all need to be proactive about looking for drug-drug interactions, because often there could be increases in the chemotherapy presence when another drug is on board.  

Sometimes, antibiotics are added on but they don’t realize it can add to side effects to chemotherapy. So, I would say number one is always make sure your oncology team is aware of the medications you are on or get recommended to add on in the midst of therapy, so we can make sure there are appropriate dosage estimates or if a particular drug should be avoided, then we can do that.  

I would say, too, having oral therapies is great, but there’s also financial toxicity that comes with it. Sometimes copays can get hefty. So, just because it’s oral, it’s not always convenient financially. Also, when things are oral it can add to more GI or mal gut toxicity. So, we’re always keeping in mind how many oral therapies, what drugs they are, so we don’t increase nausea and diarrhea, which can happen frequently when you’re requiring the GI tract to absorb the therapies that are necessary to eliminate the disease.  

So, all these things are under consideration. But to help people that are on oral therapies, it’s helpful to let your providers know if you’re noticing a pattern of nausea, so we can premedicate, have you take a nausea medicine before you take the chemo. You could also put a timer on your phone if you’re not used to taking medicines to serve as a reminder. You could create little calendars or check off on a paper calendar when you’ve taken a drug if you need help with reminding.  

So, there are little tricks like that. I always consider using a pillbox if you don’t have other pills to mix in and if you’re the only one touching it. I don’t want anybody to be exposed to therapies that they shouldn’t be otherwise.  

Katherine Banwell:

That’s good advice. Thank you. If a patient is feeling uncomfortable with the direction of their treatment plan or their care, should they consider a second opinion or even consulting a specialist?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Oh, 100 percent. I would say – I think that I’m spoiled. I’m a leukemia specialist, so they’re already seeing a specialist when a patient sees me. I don’t take care of any other cancers. But, I would say, for anyone seeing any oncologist in general, I would – number one, it doesn’t do the medical team any favors if you withhold any feelings of how the treatment’s going. Meaning, if you feel uncomfortable or that you’re having symptoms or people are taking too long to get back to you based on your experience.   

I would just make sure you do your best to at least let them know so that they have the ability to adjust or accommodate whatever need you might have that might be different than what they’re used to, because every patient’s different. Some people have a really great support system. Or they have a little bit of experience of being a patient. Different coping mechanisms. Everyone’s different. There’s no right or wrong. But I would just make sure that it’s clear with your existing team because they’re actively seeing you. Give them a chance to make the experience better.  

I would for sure seek a second opinion. Don’t delay – I will just put this disclaimer. I would not delay treatment for an AML if your current doctor is giving you a good plan and you feel confident that they have looked into whether or not you need to go to a bigger leukemia center and all that other stuff. But if you feel like they are giving you a good plan, don’t delay your therapy in the beginning, because you might get sick.  

If, however, there is demonstration of safety and time to see someone within a short timeframe for a second opinion at the time of diagnosis before treatment started, then that’s okay. But wouldn’t wait a few months to go looking around, because that could put your health at risk. Once you’re on treatment, seeking a second opinion, if you’re dissatisfied with your ongoing team, it’s fine. I always want patients to feel comfortable with their treatment plan.  

But I would recognize that you want to make it clear to your current team that they’re still helping you and responsible for your treatment. Because if you, for instance, started seeing multiple doctors and they won’t know who should be helping to follow up on certain things, who’s going to be scheduling the next round of therapy. And that ends up putting more ownership unnecessarily onto the patient where they might not have needed to have all that extra responsibility. So, I would just say just make sure that’s clear. Yeah.  

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Garcia, you mentioned earlier the fact that some therapies can cause a lot of side effects, like nausea. And certainly, speaking up and telling your healthcare team how you’re feeling and what some of the symptoms and side effects are, that’s really essential. What is the impetus for someone to consider changing treatment if something is just absolutely not agreeing with them?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

So, there are many reasons to change a treatment. One is a patient doesn’t tolerate it. It depends on what the issue is. Is it something that’s serious, like a liver or enzyme abnormality that is very abnormal, or a new cardiac problem where it would warrant a change or a dose reduction? That makes sense. There is definitely – often, there’s a lot of guidance in the package inserts or within a clinical trial and how to manage that. But if patient has some intolerabilities that could be overcome with standard supportive care methods, I would make sure we’ve done that.  

So, I would make sure you give you medical team the chance to fix any nausea. We have so many great antinausea drugs. I would want to make sure – or if constipation or diarrhea. It’s often a GI issue that patients get really bothered by.  

I would try to delineate whether or not the side effect was really from the chemo or is from the leukemia that is not yet under control. Or is it another medical condition or a drug-drug interaction that was missed. So, I would do my best to make sure there wasn’t something that was fixable or something else that should be addressed. We otherwise would recommend changing therapy for an extreme intolerability if there was another equivalent better option. And if someone’s disease does not respond to treatment, then we would consider another therapy, too.  

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Garcia, I want to make sure that we get to some of the audience questions that were sent to us prior to this program. Let’s start with this one.  

 Jerry had this question. “How long can patients stay on azacitidine and venetoclax before relapse or toxicities force them to abandon treatment?”  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

So, this is a good question. I would say azacitidine and venetoclax just got FDA-approved just shy of five years now, and it’s totally changed our treatment paradigm in many great ways. It was initially approved for patients that could not get intensive chemotherapies or were above 75. We call these our older patients, our more vulnerable.  

And we demonstrated and compared to azacitidine alone. It was given with placebo. We saw that the combination of azacitidine and venetoclax not only was safe, well-tolerated, it led to two-and-a-half times higher complete remission rates and impressively longer survival. That’s all we care about, patients are living longer. So, one of the things that we are appreciating in 2023 now, now that we have more patients on azacitidine and venetoclax, is that we have many patients that are long-term responders.  

So, in the original clinical trial we’ve been reported – and we just submitted the update for the long-term follow-up that we presented at the American Society of Hematology meeting in 2022, in December.  

We presented the long-term follow-up data that shows that responses can be durable and even as long as two years or three years in some patients. The average amount of time the patients are on therapy is somewhere between one-and-a-half to two years. But not every patient performs like an average patient.  

We have some that respond for less time. We have some that respond for a longer time. So, I definitely have a few patients that have been on combination therapy, and we’ve gone to year three, then four, and two that got to year five. And that was using the original indication of older the 75, no intensive chemotherapy. Most of those patients in the original trial and led to the approval were not transplant candidates. But once those drugs got approved, more patients that were older started getting this therapy.  

And so, the durability of this treatment might be longer for people that don’t have competing health problems and for specific mutation subtypes. There are a couple of mutation subtypes that include IDH2 and NPM1, where we’ve seen some extreme long-term responders.   

And then, there are others that are much shorter. So, I would say it’s very individual. In terms of toxicities in general, the regimens very well-tolerated. And if it’s not, often it’s because there should be supportive care, prophylaxis, and adjustments to the dosing strategy, which has been well-published. Sometimes, if you have a treating oncologist that is less familiar, they won’t know the nuances of how to adjust the doses, so I would ask your local oncologist to reach out to anybody that was part of the original trials. Often, a lot of us are very responsive to helping out our colleagues to help patients to stay on treatment.  

But at the end of the day, if a patient loses response or has a bad toxicity that makes it very difficult, we have to move on to another therapy.  

Katherine Banwell:

Of course. Carrie sent in this question. “What percent of patients relapse and what percent of patients relapse more than once?”  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Okay. So, this is a question that I can certainly answer, but I would say it depends on the context. So, if I was taking – any time a patient asks me that, I always ask them what they want to know and what they don’t want to hear, because sometimes hearing numbers can be really daunting to patients overall.  

So, a very large number of patients with leukemia can go on to relapse, which is why, if you’re on a treatment like azacitidine and venetoclax, we continue it every month as long as we can with dose reductions to help with tolerability.  

And that’s why, if you got that regimen or intensive chemo or another clinical trial and you get into remission, we ask the question of can we transplant this patient to do our best to cure them long-term to avoid and reduce the chance of a relapse. So, even with transplant, which remains our gold standard for long-term curability – it’s the only treatment we have that has a guaranteed track record of cure – not every patient that goes to transplant will remain in remission.  

If I were to be asked, “Well, how many relapse,” I would say it depends. I would say if I took the average patient, maybe 40 to 50 percent will relapse. But if you ask me for certain mutation types it could be 90 percent are cured or only 20 percent are cured. So, it’s very individual. It depends on age. It depends on mutations. It depends on the level of response they had before they go to transplant.  

So, I would say even though the word relapse is very scary or disease coming back is definitely a scary thing, there are a lot of people, including me, that are working on ways to reduce risk of relapse, improve how we transplant, improve the treatments around and after transplant, and improving frontline and relapse therapies.  

I think you had a second question of what happens if you relapse once and then what about if relapse happens again? I would say that getting into remission the first time is always the easiest. The way I always think about it is, you kill off all the bad cells that are the easiest to die the first time around with chemotherapy. Anything that’s left behind are often the resistant types. And so, getting into a second remission or responding the second time around with treatment is doable, but it’s much harder.  

So, I would say the majority of patients that relapse the first time will relapse the second time, unless we can successfully bridge them to a transplantation.  

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. Dr. Garcia, as we close out this conversation, I wanted to get your thoughts on where we stand with progress in helping people live longer and thrive with AML. What would you like to leave the audience with?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

I think that this is – I feel very lucky with when I entered the field, that in this last decade, as I’ve developed – my time at Dana-Farber, for instance – I’ve seen that there have been so many drugs that we helped to get approved that are now in the hands of local oncologists and other academic oncologists, suggesting that the clinical trials are a gateway to improving treatments and offering new options.  

 We’ve gotten better at understanding what mutations and chromosomes means and personalizing medicines, and that has allowed us to develop smarter and better clinical trials, which we hope we will get to keep approving and making more available to patients. So, I think that this is a really good time for AML, meaning we have more than one option, that is for sure. We can now think about what the patient wants, what the patient, and what their patient disease has in order to make a decision. We weren’t able to do that before.  

So, we can really involve patients so they understand why we would recommend one option versus another. And we are still not done with investigation, even though many drugs got approved in the last five years. There’s a lot more progress to be made, especially in areas that we touched upon, from approving getting patients to transplant, reducing relapse risk, keeping people in remission. Those are all things that I’m personally working on in the clinical trial space and things a lot of my colleagues in the world are working on, too.  

It’s very important to all of us. So, I would say be hopeful that we are not done. There’s a lot of great options out there. We really can personalize. There are a lot of options out there, but everyone will get offered their best therapy and the first-line therapy is the most important. And I am very hopeful that we will keep getting better at prolonging remissions and durability of those responses.   

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Garcia, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. It’s been a pleasure.  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Thank you.  

Katherine Banwell:

And thank you to all of our collaborators. To learn more about AML and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for being with us.   

Thriving With AML | Tips and Support for Navigating Treatment

How can you navigate care and thrive with acute myeloid leukemia (AML)? In this webinar, Dr. Jacqueline Garcia, an AML specialist and researcher, discusses the treatment and management of AML. Dr. Garcia will review factors that impact therapy choices and shares advice and resources for people living with AML.
 
Dr. Jacqueline Garcia is an oncologist and AML researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Garcia.

Download Resource Guide

See More from Thrive AML

Related Resources:

How Can You Thrive With AML Advice for Navigating Care.

How Can You Thrive with AML? Advice for Navigating Care

The Benefits of Being Pro-Active in Your AML Care

What Are the Phases of AML Therapy


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for this webinar. Today’s program is about how to live and thrive with AML. We’re going to discuss how to live well with AML and why you should play an active role in your care. 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.  

Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Jacqueline Garcia. Dr. Garcia, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yes. Hi. My name is Jacqueline Garcia. I’m an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. I’m a clinical translational investigator. And what this means is I take care of patients with acute and chronic leukemias. I focus mainly on patients with acute myeloid leukemia. The investigator part means, in addition to seeing patients, I spend a lot of time writing, developing, and executing clinical trials in the AML space. We know that there have been so many wonderful therapies that we helped to move froward and bring to the field and so there is more work to be done. So, having active investigations is a key part of this role.  

Katherine Banwell:

Excellent. Well, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to join us today. We really appreciate it. We start all of our webinars in our Thrive Series with the same question. In your experience, what does it mean to thrive with AML?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

I think that’s a really great question and I’m glad you’re asking me now as opposed to a decade ago. In the last several years, we’ve had a tremendous number of drugs that got FDA-approved and a lot of exciting clinical trials that have not only shown efficacy and safety but really some long-term responses. So, we can now focus on not just finding what drug can work, which used to be our problem 10 years ago, since we had very limited therapeutic tools, meaning treatments. We now have several treatments available.  

So, when I think of what it means to thrive, it’s identifying the right treatment for each individual patient with acute myeloid leukemia, because what might be recommended for one patient may not be the right for another. And there are many different patient- and disease-related factors that go into that decision-making.  

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you for that, Dr. Garcia. It helps guide us as we move into our conversation. Typically, there are a number of team members to care for a patient. Who is part of an AML healthcare team?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Absolutely. We definitely cannot work on our own. Our team is very large, and it’s because these patients require a lot of support. At a bare minimum, a healthcare team will include at least one physician or an oncologist. The AML healthcare team might also include a second oncologist – that could be a bone marrow transplant doctor.  

Other members that are very critical include having a mid-leveler available that’s a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner. Often, an oncologist who runs a busy practice, who takes care of patients that could be very sick, like AML, they work in partnership with often very talented physician assistants and nurse practitioners. I know I do.  

In addition to that, I’m at an academic center so I’m super fortunate. I have really amazing and very smart hematology oncology fellows and residents that also follow to learn how to take care of patients. But we also, in the background, that patients don’t see – we have a pharmacist that helps us with making sure that drugs are prescribed correctly. They often call the patients with oral therapies to follow up. We have financial resource teams to help patients, to link them to LLS for support for bills that might come up, or transportation, or linking them up to other services that could help to defray or reduce costs.  

So, the healthcare team is quite extensive. But in terms of those that are patient-facing, it’s primarily the MDM that are mid-leveler. Some teams operate also with a nurse or a nurse care coordinator. That’s pretty common, too. And that person helps to not only schedule but also to answer pages or phone calls from patients if the medical team is not doing that.  

Katherine Banwell: What about a social worker or psychologist?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Oh. Yes. Yes. So, absolutely. So, every patient can be offered, if needed, access to an inpatient or outpatient social worker. Often, if my patients are admitted we have them see a social worker because that’s fairly seamless. Otherwise, for outpatient, if we identify any particular needs or there’s an interest, we’ll link them up with a social worker. This is the same that goes for physical therapy, or nutritionists, or those other ancillary services that can be really critical when patients are getting started.  

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. Of course, getting appropriate care and treatment is essential to thriving. Can you walk us through the classes of treatment that are considered when choosing an AML treatment approach?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yeah. In terms of the different classes of treatments, I would say we think of probably three broad categories. One would be – sorry, four broad categories. One would be intensive chemotherapy. And that involves generally hospitalization. Another would be less intensive therapy. That could involve a mixture of inpatient or outpatient therapy. That could also include targeted therapy. The third would be clinical trials, which can include any of the former options I recommended, but they would be in an experimental study. And the fourth would be focusing solely on supportive care or hospice for patients that are too sick to receive therapy.  

Other aspects that are specific, such as pills, versus IV, versus role of transplant, I don’t see it as being separate. You don’t go right to transplant when you have a diagnosis of AML. You have to be in remission. So, transplant, for instance, would come after an intensive therapy or after the less intensive chemotherapy. So, I see that as being the second step once I choose the right treatment option for the patient.  

Katherine Banwell:

And when you’re talking about transplant, you’re talking about stem cell transplant, right?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yes. Stem cell transplant, bone marrow transplant – they mean the same thing. We recruit stem cells from donors that are related or unrelated, and we mobilize them from bone marrow to blood. And so, we can collect stem cells either from blood or bone marrow at this point. So, that’s exactly right.  

Katherine Banwell:

And what about targeted therapy?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

We have targeted therapy available that’s IV or pill form. And so, any one of these options can be considered. But everything is very patient-specific, and I am very happy to tell you some of the categories and nuances of things that I look at, because I don’t usually just offer patients a menu.  

I tell them what’s appropriate based on their patient characteristics, meaning what their liver function is, their heart function, their history, medical history, what their labs show. And then, I look at their disease history. We are now in an era where we have options. So, I look to see are there mutations that are targetable. Are there not? Are there markers on the surface of their leukemia cells that suggest that there’s a target for an immunotherapy?  

So, we don’t offer classes per se without it being specific. So, I always look to see what are the patient disease-specific characteristics, and then I start the conversation about what the potential options could be and then what I think the best option would be for that particular case.  

Katherine Banwell:

As a researcher, Dr. Garcia, you’re on the frontlines of AML treatment. Are there new and emerging therapies that patients should be aware of?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yeah. I think we’re at this really exciting point now where we had for a long time just been giving people standard two agent intensive chemotherapy. We have been studying in Phase II and Phase III settings, and even in Phase I – which means testing safety out for the first time. We’ve been moving a lot of treatments to more mature settings where we’re testing the addition of a third drug. So, for people that are getting intensive chemo, we’re looking at, “Can we add a pill to augment responses deep in them to reduce risk of disease returning?”  

For less intensive chemotherapies, one of the most common regimens we now use is something called azacitidine (Vidaza), which is a hypomethylating agent that is given by IV or subcutaneous administration. Plus, a pill called venetoclax (Venclexta).   

We helped to get that FDA-approved a couple of years ago. That combination of therapy, we call that a doublet, meaning it’s two drugs – because it’s so well-tolerated and active, we’re now asking the greedy question of, “Well, can we make it more active for patients since we’re seeing how well-tolerated it is?”  

So, there have been a lot of therapies that are currently under investigation that are adding a third drug to these less-intensive doublets. So, there’s a lot of therapies under investigation to test, “Can we add an immunotherapy target? Is there another pill that we can add? Is there another targeting mutation to add to the doublet?” So, we’re looking at AML therapies from different angles. We’re looking at adding something to the existing new standard of care – those are these new, so-called, triplets.  

We’re looking at still the role of cellular therapy or CAR Ts targeting leukemia cells from an immunotherapy standpoint.  

That remains underdeveloped overall, and we have not succeeded as well, like our lymphoid colleagues in the lymphoma and acute lymphoblastic leukemia realm where there are drugs that are active and FDA-approved.  

So, we’re still trying to identify the right target. But those are some of the areas that are currently under study.  

Katherine Banwell:

You touched on this earlier, Dr. Garcia, but I’d like to get into a bit more detail. With all the treatment options available, how do you decide who gets what? Tell us what is considered when choosing treatment for a patient.   

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

When I – this is a complicated question, because it’s not like you follow any particular algorithm. But when I meet a patient, I make a decision on what’s important to the patient and what’s  their goal. If I know – I need to understand their overall health to get a sense of are there ongoing competing risk factors that are active and more likely to impede with response, ability to deliver chemo, ability to get to transplant, something that tells me that’s not a possibility, or is their age too advanced – meaning greater than 75 – where we know that some of the treatments are not safe to deliver in that setting?  

So, I take a look at a patient’s overall health and age to make a decision. I take a look at bone marrow biopsy and lab findings to understand the flavor of their leukemia, from chromosomes to mutations. And because I am familiar with the data to give me a sense of what’s safe, what’s tolerable, and importantly what types of diseases, or subtypes of AML, would respond to one therapy over another, that’s how I formulate a recommendation.   

And based on all of that, all together, I’ll talk to them about treating the AML in steps. The first step is getting them into a remission, which can be done regardless of therapy type. That means to get their bone marrow under control, blood counts to recover. The second step, which is a more involved conversation that I often give a little bit of a hint of, but I go into greater detail over time, because we will see each other quite a lot, whether in the hospital or in clinic, is how to keep them in remission.   

And that’s where details about things like transplant come into play. I do my best to not overwhelm them, because when a patient hears the word transplant – and that’s often what they hear from family and friends because that’s what you can Google – they don’t know that there are many things, or many weeks of therapy, that have to happen in advance of transplant even being considered or happening. And transplant can’t even happen until someone’s in remission.  

But that is always on the forefront of a leukemia doctor’s mind, “Can I bring this patient to a transplantation? How successful will I be and what else do I need to give them to get them there sooner, safer, with a deeper response?” So, that way transplant could be successful. Transplant, by the way, is when we give a patient someone else’s stem cells that match their HLA typing, or their white blood cell signature.  

And it helps us to use someone else’s immune system to completely irradicate any microscopic leftover leukemia in a patient. But that is only successful when patients have good disease control or remissions. And that is only also successful if we have a donor for the patient, both of which  require at least several weeks to a couple of months of therapy. But that process is always initiated and ongoing in the background. And so, we often do this in piecemeal, because getting a diagnosis is already overwhelming. Learning about treatment is overwhelming.  

Learning about the frequency of labs, transfusions, being hospitalized, and then details about what a transplant would entail can be also overwhelming. But a lot of family and friends like to ask, because they feel like that is one way they might be able to help a patient. So, I know that they often eagerly ask the patient, “Well, what about this? How can I help?”  

Katherine Banwell:

Right. I can imagine that patient preference is also considered. But what kind of questions should patients ask about their treatment regimen?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

I always tell patients that I care very much about things like travel, hotels, all that jazz. But I always tell them let’s first talk about their health, what treatment I would recommend based on the available options and what their disease would mostly respond to, because I want it to be successful. And I always tell them let’s reserve questions on how it’s going to be done for last. I call that the logistics. I will never bring up or recommend something that could never be possible. But that being said, I try not to let the commute determine the decision.  

Whether or not there needs to be a hospitalization versus a hotel stay. I always consider then the background, but that financial decision should not drive the best treatment choice for a patient. Very fortunately, we’re in a country where patients have the ability – often, not always – to seek second opinions or to travel to academic centers.  

And because AML is an emergent or life-threatening disease, many insurance providers allow patients to come up to a big center to be treated, which I think is more than appropriate. So, we get into details of logistics last, because that’s the one thing that we can often overcome by providing additional resources and support. In terms of patient preference, if that’s what you mean with that, I would say I leave logistics to last, but we always consider and we do our best to accommodate.  

And that might be where we inform them we will look into getting a local partner to help us with additional therapies after the first month or upon discharge. So, it totally depends on the scenario for a patient, whether or not they have a local provider and a local hospital that could accommodate acute leukemia. I always tell patients ideally you don’t want to go to a place that only sees this once per year. You want to go to a place where everyone has seen it multiple times, including the nurses on the floors.  

So, that way, when there’s a complication, everyone knows what to do. We don’t want any “surprises” when it’s really just run-of-the-mill standard stuff for us every day. In terms of what patients desire, we always keep that in the conversation of their level of support. Can they swallow pills? Are they able to cope with being in and out of the hospital? All that stuff gets considered, but I think if they hear about the plan, about what’s required, when my expectation would be for a response, when the frequency of trips to a big city would decrease, how I could get a local partner to help with some of the lab or transfusion burden.  

Many of those preferences that they thought they had diminished, because they recognize that we found a way to make it work.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Well, that’s really good to know. You touched on oral therapies a bit ago, and I know that they’re available for certain patients. Do you have any advice for patients who are in charge now of administering their own therapy?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Yeah, I think that taking pills in general is hard for anybody, whether they’re naïve to pills. I definitely have patients that have never been on anything, and suddenly they’re on many medicines, to other people that are managing multiple medical conditions and this is yet another burden to add. I would say having an oral regimen is wonderful. It offers a lot of convenience. But we are all very thoughtful, and we all need to be proactive about looking for drug-drug interactions, because often there could be increases in the chemotherapy presence when another drug is on board.  

Sometimes, antibiotics are added on but they don’t realize it can add to side effects to chemotherapy. So, I would say number one is always make sure your oncology team is aware of the medications you are on or get recommended to add on in the midst of therapy, so we can make sure there are appropriate dosage estimates or if a particular drug should be avoided, then we can do that.  

I would say, too, having oral therapies is great, but there’s also financial toxicity that comes with it. Sometimes copays can get hefty. So, just because it’s oral, it’s not always convenient financially. Also, when things are oral it can add to more GI or mal gut toxicity. So, we’re always keeping in mind how many oral therapies, what drugs they are, so we don’t increase nausea and diarrhea, which can happen frequently when you’re requiring the GI tract to absorb the therapies that are necessary to eliminate the disease.  

So, all these things are under consideration. But to help people that are on oral therapies, it’s helpful to let your providers know if you’re noticing a pattern of nausea, so we can premedicate, have you take a nausea medicine before you take the chemo. You could also put a timer on your phone if you’re not used to taking medicines to serve as a reminder. You could create little calendars or check off on a paper calendar when you’ve taken a drug if you need help with reminding.  

So, there are little tricks like that. I always consider using a pillbox if you don’t have other pills to mix in and if you’re the only one touching it. I don’t want anybody to be exposed to therapies that they shouldn’t be otherwise.  

Katherine Banwell:

That’s good advice. Thank you. If a patient is feeling uncomfortable with the direction of their treatment plan or their care, should they consider a second opinion or even consulting a specialist?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Oh, 100 percent. I would say – I think that I’m spoiled. I’m a leukemia specialist, so they’re already seeing a specialist when a patient sees me. I don’t take care of any other cancers. But, I would say, for anyone seeing any oncologist in general, I would – number one, it doesn’t do the medical team any favors if you withhold any feelings of how the treatment’s going. Meaning, if you feel uncomfortable or that you’re having symptoms or people are taking too long to get back to you based on your experience.   

I would just make sure you do your best to at least let them know so that they have the ability to adjust or accommodate whatever need you might have that might be different than what they’re used to, because every patient’s different. Some people have a really great support system. Or they have a little bit of experience of being a patient. Different coping mechanisms. Everyone’s different. There’s no right or wrong. But I would just make sure that it’s clear with your existing team because they’re actively seeing you. Give them a chance to make the experience better.  

I would for sure seek a second opinion. Don’t delay – I will just put this disclaimer. I would not delay treatment for an AML if your current doctor is giving you a good plan and you feel confident that they have looked into whether or not you need to go to a bigger leukemia center and all that other stuff. But if you feel like they are giving you a good plan, don’t delay your therapy in the beginning, because you might get sick.  

If, however, there is demonstration of safety and time to see someone within a short timeframe for a second opinion at the time of diagnosis before treatment started, then that’s okay. But wouldn’t wait a few months to go looking around, because that could put your health at risk. Once you’re on treatment, seeking a second opinion, if you’re dissatisfied with your ongoing team, it’s fine. I always want patients to feel comfortable with their treatment plan.  

But I would recognize that you want to make it clear to your current team that they’re still helping you and responsible for your treatment. Because if you, for instance, started seeing multiple doctors and they won’t know who should be helping to follow up on certain things, who’s going to be scheduling the next round of therapy. And that ends up putting more ownership unnecessarily onto the patient where they might not have needed to have all that extra responsibility. So, I would just say just make sure that’s clear. Yeah.  

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Garcia, you mentioned earlier the fact that some therapies can cause a lot of side effects, like nausea. And certainly, speaking up and telling your healthcare team how you’re feeling and what some of the symptoms and side effects are, that’s really essential. What is the impetus for someone to consider changing treatment if something is just absolutely not agreeing with them?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

So, there are many reasons to change a treatment. One is a patient doesn’t tolerate it. It depends on what the issue is. Is it something that’s serious, like a liver or enzyme abnormality that is very abnormal, or a new cardiac problem where it would warrant a change or a dose reduction? That makes sense. There is definitely – often, there’s a lot of guidance in the package inserts or within a clinical trial and how to manage that. But if patient has some intolerabilities that could be overcome with standard supportive care methods, I would make sure we’ve done that.  

So, I would make sure you give you medical team the chance to fix any nausea. We have so many great antinausea drugs. I would want to make sure – or if constipation or diarrhea. It’s often a GI issue that patients get really bothered by.  

I would try to delineate whether or not the side effect was really from the chemo or is from the leukemia that is not yet under control. Or is it another medical condition or a drug-drug interaction that was missed. So, I would do my best to make sure there wasn’t something that was fixable or something else that should be addressed. We otherwise would recommend changing therapy for an extreme intolerability if there was another equivalent better option. And if someone’s disease does not respond to treatment, then we would consider another therapy, too.  

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Garcia, I want to make sure that we get to some of the audience questions that were sent to us prior to this program. Let’s start with this one.  

 Jerry had this question. “How long can patients stay on azacitidine and venetoclax before relapse or toxicities force them to abandon treatment?”  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

So, this is a good question. I would say azacitidine and venetoclax just got FDA-approved just shy of five years now, and it’s totally changed our treatment paradigm in many great ways. It was initially approved for patients that could not get intensive chemotherapies or were above 75. We call these our older patients, our more vulnerable.  

And we demonstrated and compared to azacitidine alone. It was given with placebo. We saw that the combination of azacitidine and venetoclax not only was safe, well-tolerated, it led to two-and-a-half times higher complete remission rates and impressively longer survival. That’s all we care about, patients are living longer. So, one of the things that we are appreciating in 2023 now, now that we have more patients on azacitidine and venetoclax, is that we have many patients that are long-term responders.  

So, in the original clinical trial we’ve been reported – and we just submitted the update for the long-term follow-up that we presented at the American Society of Hematology meeting in 2022, in December.  

We presented the long-term follow-up data that shows that responses can be durable and even as long as two years or three years in some patients. The average amount of time the patients are on therapy is somewhere between one-and-a-half to two years. But not every patient performs like an average patient.  

We have some that respond for less time. We have some that respond for a longer time. So, I definitely have a few patients that have been on combination therapy, and we’ve gone to year three, then four, and two that got to year five. And that was using the original indication of older the 75, no intensive chemotherapy. Most of those patients in the original trial and led to the approval were not transplant candidates. But once those drugs got approved, more patients that were older started getting this therapy.  

And so, the durability of this treatment might be longer for people that don’t have competing health problems and for specific mutation subtypes. There are a couple of mutation subtypes that include IDH2 and NPM1, where we’ve seen some extreme long-term responders.   

And then, there are others that are much shorter. So, I would say it’s very individual. In terms of toxicities in general, the regimens very well-tolerated. And if it’s not, often it’s because there should be supportive care, prophylaxis, and adjustments to the dosing strategy, which has been well-published. Sometimes, if you have a treating oncologist that is less familiar, they won’t know the nuances of how to adjust the doses, so I would ask your local oncologist to reach out to anybody that was part of the original trials. Often, a lot of us are very responsive to helping out our colleagues to help patients to stay on treatment.  

But at the end of the day, if a patient loses response or has a bad toxicity that makes it very difficult, we have to move on to another therapy.  

Katherine Banwell:

Of course. Carrie sent in this question. “What percent of patients relapse and what percent of patients relapse more than once?”  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Okay. So, this is a question that I can certainly answer, but I would say it depends on the context. So, if I was taking – any time a patient asks me that, I always ask them what they want to know and what they don’t want to hear, because sometimes hearing numbers can be really daunting to patients overall.  

So, a very large number of patients with leukemia can go on to relapse, which is why, if you’re on a treatment like azacitidine and venetoclax, we continue it every month as long as we can with dose reductions to help with tolerability.  

And that’s why, if you got that regimen or intensive chemo or another clinical trial and you get into remission, we ask the question of can we transplant this patient to do our best to cure them long-term to avoid and reduce the chance of a relapse. So, even with transplant, which remains our gold standard for long-term curability – it’s the only treatment we have that has a guaranteed track record of cure – not every patient that goes to transplant will remain in remission.  

If I were to be asked, “Well, how many relapse,” I would say it depends. I would say if I took the average patient, maybe 40 to 50 percent will relapse. But if you ask me for certain mutation types it could be 90 percent are cured or only 20 percent are cured. So, it’s very individual. It depends on age. It depends on mutations. It depends on the level of response they had before they go to transplant.  

So, I would say even though the word relapse is very scary or disease coming back is definitely a scary thing, there are a lot of people, including me, that are working on ways to reduce risk of relapse, improve how we transplant, improve the treatments around and after transplant, and improving frontline and relapse therapies.  

I think you had a second question of what happens if you relapse once and then what about if relapse happens again? I would say that getting into remission the first time is always the easiest. The way I always think about it is, you kill off all the bad cells that are the easiest to die the first time around with chemotherapy. Anything that’s left behind are often the resistant types. And so, getting into a second remission or responding the second time around with treatment is doable, but it’s much harder.  

So, I would say the majority of patients that relapse the first time will relapse the second time, unless we can successfully bridge them to a transplantation.  

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. Dr. Garcia, as we close out this conversation, I wanted to get your thoughts on where we stand with progress in helping people live longer and thrive with AML. What would you like to leave the audience with?  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

I think that this is – I feel very lucky with when I entered the field, that in this last decade, as I’ve developed – my time at Dana-Farber, for instance – I’ve seen that there have been so many drugs that we helped to get approved that are now in the hands of local oncologists and other academic oncologists, suggesting that the clinical trials are a gateway to improving treatments and offering new options.  

 We’ve gotten better at understanding what mutations and chromosomes means and personalizing medicines, and that has allowed us to develop smarter and better clinical trials, which we hope we will get to keep approving and making more available to patients. So, I think that this is a really good time for AML, meaning we have more than one option, that is for sure. We can now think about what the patient wants, what the patient, and what their patient disease has in order to make a decision. We weren’t able to do that before.  

So, we can really involve patients so they understand why we would recommend one option versus another. And we are still not done with investigation, even though many drugs got approved in the last five years. There’s a lot more progress to be made, especially in areas that we touched upon, from approving getting patients to transplant, reducing relapse risk, keeping people in remission. Those are all things that I’m personally working on in the clinical trial space and things a lot of my colleagues in the world are working on, too.  

It’s very important to all of us. So, I would say be hopeful that we are not done. There’s a lot of great options out there. We really can personalize. There are a lot of options out there, but everyone will get offered their best therapy and the first-line therapy is the most important. And I am very hopeful that we will keep getting better at prolonging remissions and durability of those responses.   

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Garcia, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. It’s been a pleasure.  

Dr. Jacqueline Garcia:

Thank you.  

Katherine Banwell:

And thank you to all of our collaborators. To learn more about AML and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for being with us.   

How Can You Access Personalized Medicine for Gastric Cancer?

How Can You Access Personalized Medicine for Gastric Cancer? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is the right therapy for your gastric cancer? This animated video reviews treatment decision considerations, how results of essential testing may impact therapy, and advice for engaging in your gastric cancer care. 

See More From INSIST! Gastric Cancer

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Essential Testing Following a Gastric Cancer Diagnosis

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How Do Biomarker Test Results Impact a Gastric Cancer Treatment Plan?

How Do Biomarker Test Results Impact a Gastric Cancer Treatment Plan?


Transcript:

Advances in gastric cancer research are leading to more targeted treatments and giving patients access to personalized care. Personalized medicine – or precision medicine – is a type of care that is based on the genetic makeup and individual characteristics of your disease.  

Biomarker testing identifies key markers such as genes, proteins, or other molecules in a sample of tissue, blood, or other bodily fluid. The test results help the healthcare team better understand your cancer and may influence treatment options – leading to more tailored options with potentially fewer side effects.  

For example, if the PD-L1 receptor is detected during biomarker testing, you may benefit from immunotherapy. The tumor’s HER-2 status or mismatch repair protein expression status may indicate that you may respond well to a targeted therapy. And, treatment targets continue to be identified as research moves forward.  

When deciding on a treatment approach, physicians may consider factors such as: 

  • Your age, overall health, and any pre-existing conditions. 
  • Your type and stage of gastric cancer. 
  • And your test results, including biomarker testing. 

So, how can you partner with your doctor to guide a personalized treatment approach for YOUR gastric cancer? 

  • First, seek a gastric cancer specialist to lead your care. A second opinion consultation with a specialist can confirm your diagnosis and treatment plan. 
  • Ask your doctor if you have had, or will receive, all essential testing, including biomarker testing, and discuss if there are any markers that impact your risk, prognosis, or treatment options.  
  • Inquire about clinical trial options suited to your specific cancer and biomarker test results. 
  • Discuss the potential side effects of each treatment option and ask if any of your existing health conditions may impact your choices. 
  • Include a care partner, such as a friend or loved one – someone you trust – in discussions, so you can feel confident in your decisions.  
  • And finally, always speak up and ask questions. Remember, you have a voice in YOUR gastric cancer care. 

To learn more about your gastric cancer and to access tools for self-advocacy, visit powerfulpatients.org/gastric.  

Advances in the Treatment of Relapsed/Refractory Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

Advances in the Treatment of Relapsed/Refractory Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert Dr. Omer Jamy discusses his approach when considering treatment for patients with relapsed or refractory AML, including transplant eligibility, molecular markers, and whether clinical trials may be an appropriate option.

Dr. Omer Jamy is a Leukemia and Bone Marrow Transplant Physician and Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Learn more about Dr. Omer Jamy.

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What Is the AGILE Study? Research for AML Patients With the IDH1 Mutation

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Essential Testing | Optimizing AML Care With Personalized Medicine

Essential Testing Optimizing AML Care with Personalized Medicine

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Jamy, are there any recent advances that may affect the care of patients with relapsed or refractory AML? 

Dr. Omer Jamy:

Yeah, that’s a good question. So, patients with relapse refractory AML, of course, carry a poor prognosis. That means that chemotherapy was working and has stopped working or chemotherapy didn’t work from the get-go, right?  

So, in my practice I try to divide patients into two different buckets. One is that I need to get them into remission, and they’re fit for a transplant, so I take them to transplant.  

So, then my treatment approach is a little different for those patients. As opposed to someone who’s elderly or too frail, that they may go into remission, but they may not be able to proceed to stem cell transplantation after that.  

So, what happened in the relapsed/refractory setting also depends on what the patient received in the upfront setting. Ideally, I would recommend a clinical trial enrollment for patients with relapse refractory AML if they have access to it. At the time of relapsed/refractory AML, it is very important to again profile the leukemia to see if there are any mutations that were present at diagnosis or if there are any new mutations for which there may be targeted therapy. Some of those mutations for which we have targeted therapy include FLT3-ITD for which there is a drug called gilteritnib (Xospata), which is FDA-approved in the relapsed/refractory setting. 

We spoke about IDH 1 which is ivosidenib, IDH 2 which is enasidenib (Idhifa) is also approved for patients with relapsed/refractory AML. And then more recently the FDA approved another IDH1 compound called olutasidenib (Rezlidhia) which is also for patients with relapse refractory acute myeloid leukemia with an IDH1 mutation. I think these are target therapies which have shown to get people into a second remission and beyond. And these have been approved in the last few years. And I think it is very important to basically test whether the person harbors these mutations so that we can target them accordingly.  

For patients who don’t have any mutations we would generally, outside of a clinical trial, probably use the combination of some of the approved agents that may be venetoclax (Venclexta) with azacitidine (Vidaza) or decitabine (Dacogen). Patients who may have received this venetoclax or a hypomethylating agents frontline and may still be eligible for intensive chemotherapy.  

You could offer them intensive chemotherapy in the relapsed/refractory setting, but I would say that at this point being at a center where there’s opportunities to enroll in a clinical trial would be really helpful as well.