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Thriving With MPNs: Your Role in Managing Your Treatment and Care

Thriving With MPNs: Your Role in Managing Your Treatment and Care from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 How can patients thrive with a myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN)? Dr. Jeanne Palmer discusses treatment approaches, strategies for managing disease symptoms and treatment side effects, and advice on how patients can be proactive in their care.

Dr. Jeanne Palmer is a hematologist specializing in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) and bone marrow transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. Dr. Palmer also serves as Director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program and is Vice Chair and Section Chief for Hematology. Learn more about Dr. Palmer, here.

 

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today, we’re going to talk about how to live and thrive with an MPN. We’re going to discuss MPN treatment goals and how you can 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, joining us today is Dr. Jeanne Palmer. Dr. Palmer, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Thank you so much. I am so happy to be here and to help participate in this. My name is Jeanne Palmer. I am a hematologist at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. I specialize in MPNs as well as bone marrow transplant, and I am thrilled to be here. 

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us today, Dr. Palmer. We start all of the webinars in our Thrive series with the same question and that is, what does it mean to you to thrive with an MPN? 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

I think living with an MPN can be very difficult. I think there is a number of things. First of all, there’s always the worry of what’s going to happen in the future. Many of these MPNs can start as fairly, for lack of a better term, as benign issues and can convert to something much more serious. So, I think living with that sort of timebomb in the back it can be extremely stressful. So, figuring out how to live with the fact that there is some degree of uncertainty. 

I think the other thing is making sure to understand your disease. These are very rare disorders and even if you go to a hematologist-oncologist specialist, a lot of times they don’t have all the information because they don’t see a lot of them every year. So, it’s really important to make sure that above and beyond that you understand what’s going on in your body so that when new things happen, new symptoms happen, you’re able to really address them as opposed to sort of living with something that may make you feel poorly that’s not being addressed.  

So, again, I think the biggest piece of this is seeing how do you live with uncertainty and how do you make sure you understand your disease well enough that you know what’s going on in your own body. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. That’s helpful to understand, especially as we move through today’s program, and we’re going to cover the three classic MPNs, polycythemia vera, essential thrombocythemia and myelofibrosis. One part of thriving with an MPN is managing the symptoms of the disease. Would you walk us through the common symptoms of each of the MPNs? Let’s start with essential thrombocythemia. 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Right. So, there are a number of shared symptoms throughout all the diseases and when we start to figure out how to categorize them, they call into several different categories. The first one is inflammation-related symptoms. We know that the inherent pathway that’s dysregulated or that causes these diseases to happen can also result in significant inflammation in a person, that can result in things like fevers, night sweats, weight loss, and overall feeling really fatigued and poorly, which is something that it seems to be much more prevalent in patients with MPNs, all sorts of them, actually. 

The next set of symptoms is related to microvasculature, so all the little blood vessels. And sometimes we think, oh, maybe that’s because there’s too many red blood cells or platelets and the blood become viscous. It’s probably more related to the actual dysregulation of that JAK2 pathway, which is inherent to all the myeloproliferative diseases and as a result, the little blood vessels can clamp down and that can give people headaches, visual changes, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, and even can cause sort of a painful rash called erythromelalgia in the body. 

So, these are things that can happen that are probably less appreciated side effects of the disease. And finally, there’s spleen-related symptoms. The spleen is in the left upper quadrant of the abdomen and it’s an organ that generally is about 12 centimeters in length, 10 to 12, but in patients with myeloproliferative diseases it can be enlarged. And as a result of an enlarged spleen people can have feeling like they get fuller early. So, if you’re eating a meal, all of the sudden you can only eat half of that meal versus the whole meal.  

Discomfort or pain in the left upper quadrant. Sometimes it’s much more noticeable when you like bend over to tie your shoes. And then sometimes people can actually, when the spleen gets really big, the blood flow can be impaired towards the end of it which can cause some of the spleen tissue to die, and that can be painful. So, these are things that if somebody does start to notice that they’re having fullness in the left upper quadrant, pain, stuff like that, that that may be related to spleen symptoms. 

Katherine Banwell:

What about PV or polycythemia vera, what are the symptoms? 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

So, all of these sorts of relate to all of the myeloproliferative diseases. So, one other one that I didn’t mention, and this is actually more in PV than others, is itching. Itching can be absolutely unbearable when somebody has PV. It’s particularly noticeable after taking a shower. So, a lot of times I’ve met patients who are like I haven’t been able to take a shower in years, because it causes such a high degree of itching. 

Katherine Banwell:

Why a shower? Is it different from having a bath?  

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Water on the body that can cause the problem. So, if people take hot showers, it’s even worse. Although I think that people sort of react to it differently. Usually what patients end up doing is more like sponge bath type of things, rather than actually being exposed to the water. 

Taking colder showers or cooler showers can sometimes help mitigate that. But the itching, and even in the absence of a shower, people can have pretty severe itching, and that can also be one of the major side effects. 

Katherine Banwell:

Much of the time the chosen treatment for MPNs manages the symptoms of the condition. I’d like to review the different types and classes of treatment for the three MPNs. So, let’s start with essential thrombocythemia again. When is it time to treat, and what are the options available?  

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Right. So, with essential thrombocythemia, that’s the disease that sometimes we don’t need to treat. 

So, we basically have a risk stratification system and this risk is based on age, history of a blood clot, the presence or absence of a JAK2 mutation. So, for example, if somebody is 28, does not have a JAK2 mutation, which is again one of those driver mutations, and never had a blood clot, they actually don’t necessarily need to do anything and just be monitored.  

Somebody who is less than 60 and has a JAK2 mutation or who is greater than 60 and does not have a JAK2 mutation, in that setting, a lot of times you can use aspirin. Now, it gets a little bit gray in terms of that over 60 without the JAK2 mutation with regards to whether at that point you really should start taking some medicine to lower the platelets. 

Now, if somebody has a JAK2 mutation, is greater than 60 or has had a blood clot, hands down they need to take medicine to lower the platelets, in addition to aspirin or whatever blood thinner they may need. So, for example, if you have a blood clot in a vein, a lot of times you need to take a blood thinner and that will be a lifelong thing. And again, we do these risk stratifications because we know there is a certain risk of clotting associated with the risk of essential thrombocythemia. 

So, for example, somebody who is less than 60 and does not have a JAK2 mutation, never had a clot, their risk of clotting is probably very close to that of the normal population. Whereas if you’re higher risk and have a JAK2 mutation and greater than 60 or have had a history of a clot, the risk of clot is probably about 4 percent per year. So, this is something that can vary quite widely, and even though that 4 percent per year on the short-term doesn’t sound like a lot, if you take it additive over years, that’s why we generally try to be aggressive about lowering the platelets.  

In lowering the platelets, the goal is to get less than 400 and doing that can be done through several different medications. The most commonly used medications is a drug called hydroxyurea, which has been around for a number of years, and a drug called anagrelide which is probably a little less commonly used, because it has some more GI side effects and headaches associated with it. 

In some cases, especially in younger patients with this disease, we can consider using interferon, which is an injection of a cytokine, which are one of the chemicals that regulates the immune system within the body. But this interferon can actually help lower the platelets and there is a question of whether it may affect the biology of the disease as well. 

Katherine Banwell:

Let’s turn to polycythemia vera or PV, what are the different options available for treating it? 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

So, for polycythemia vera, everyone needs to be on aspirin. 

And additionally, everyone needs to make sure to keep their blood count low, to manage their hematocrit, which is one of the measures of red blood cells. So, in men it’s generally recommended to keep below 45 and in women it’s recommended to keep below 42 percent.  Now, the studied number was 45 percent and that was a study that was done, I don’t know, it was probably about 10 plus years ago, that actually showed that by keeping the blood hematocrit less than 45 percent you reduce the risk of having negative events like cardiovascular events and heart attacks. Because women tend to run with a lower blood count than men, it’s been extrapolated that 42 percent should be the number used for women. 

Now, this can be done by phlebotomy, which essentially is bloodletting. It’s kind of like donating blood except for that the blood unfortunately can’t be donated to anybody, it has to be discarded. But the phlebotomy is one way to do that, and the reason that works is because it makes somebody iron deficient. So, whereas if this is normal, if you’re iron deficient you become anemic. If your baseline hematocrit is here, making you iron deficient brings you back to normal. So, even though we always associate iron deficiency with anemia, iron deficiency in the setting of polycythemia vera is actually kind of a treatment of sorts. 

Now, once somebody gets above 60 and 60 seems to be sort of the magic age in these diseases, once somebody gets above 60, it is recommended that cytoreductive therapy is used, which means therapy or treatment that will bring down the red count. And again, for this one, hydroxyurea is an option as well as interferon. And there is recently an approval, actually FDA approval for a newer interferon called ropeginterferon or Besremi, which can help just bring down the red blood cells but it is the first interferon that’s actually been FDA approved for this indication. 

Katherine Banwell:

Are JAK inhibitors used as well? 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

They are. So, if somebody doesn’t respond well to hydroxyurea, the approval for ruxolitinib is actually for patients who have failed hydroxyurea. Although it’s something that we often consider especially in people who have a lot of symptoms. So, the itching, one of the things that can really help itching actually is Jakafi. If people have night sweats, they have weight loss, spleen related symptoms, those are the patients that will benefit from Jakafi. Additionally, if they are on hydroxyurea and can’t seem to get control of their blood count, Jakafi is a good option to help control the blood counts as well. 

Interferon is a very nice option because there’s great data that shows that you may actually be able to lower the percentage of JAK2 burden. 

So, we’d look at something called an allele burden, which is the percentage of cells that are involved – have the JAK2 mutation. Now, we don’t know whether lowering this percentage necessarily translates to long-term better survival, but I think there is enough data out there, and there is a good biologic underpinning for saying that this actually can help. But yes, Jakafi is another thing. 

And the really exciting thing is that there is a newer agent called rusfertide, which is a hepcidin mimetic, which is basically taking a protein in your body that helps metabolize iron and by making it externally and giving it to somebody that it can actually help bring down the hematocrit without having some of the other side effects we know with some of the other medications. That is currently in Phase III studies, so hopefully in the next couple of years we’ll see approval for that. 

Katherine Banwell:

Oh, that’s great news. And finally, how is myelofibrosis treated? 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

So, myelofibrosis is a little bit of a different animal. When you have something like essential thrombocythemia or PV, a lot of this is managing symptoms, preventing blood clots, but if you do appropriate treatment and management of these diseases you could probably live close to a normal life expectancy.  

So, I never typically pin a survival on it. With myelofibrosis, it’s a little bit different because there is a survival. Instead of saying you can live close to normal life expectancy, it backs up to saying how many years do I think you can live with this disease. Now, of course, we are horrible at predicting how many years anyone can live, so we have to take that all with a grain of salt. But we can at least sort of risk stratify people. 

And the first thing that’s really important is to figure out whether somebody is a transplant candidate or not and if, based on age, disease risk features, stuff like that, or whether we think they ever will be a transplant candidate. So, that kind of helps us sort of think about what your path moving forward is.  

Now, the current FDA-approved treatment for myelofibrosis, there are three JAK inhibitors approved, which is like Jakafi, which was the first approved one but there is also Inrebic or fedratinib and Vonjo or pacritinib and these have all been approved over the years. 

The role of JAK inhibitors and treatment of myelofibrosis is symptoms-based. So, for example, a lot of patients with myelofibrosis will have weight loss, night sweats, big spleens, really feeling fatigued and poorly and in this setting, the JAK inhibitor can be very helpful. And you don’t have to have a JAK2 mutation, a lot of times people say, well, I don’t have the JAK2 mutation so how can a JAK inhibitor help. So, the JAK inhibitor works on this pathway, which is called the JAK/STAT pathway, irrespective of mutation. 

So, if you are having symptoms and you have myelofibrosis, JAK mutation, excuse me, the JAK2 mutation does not predict who is going to have a response. And people who, regardless of which mutation you have, may actually benefit from it. 

So, the JAK inhibitors, though, are extremely effective at reducing symptom burden as well as reducing the spleen size. And we know that if a spleen is big and we can make it shrink that, that probably is a surrogate marker for living longer, and I think it’s because inflammation does a lot of wear and tear on the body. So if you can reduce the inflammation and the spleen shrinks, which generally go hand in hand, then you might help somebody live longer. It is not changing the biology of the disease, though, however, it doesn’t change the pathway and that this disease is kind of projecting ahead in terms of creating – it changes, as it goes along, may acquire new mutations or something like that which makes the disease become more serious. 

Right now, the approved therapies for it are JAK inhibitors and the Jakafi, ruxolitinib was the first one approved. Inrebic was approved several years back, or fedratinib. 

And then the most recent one that was approved is Vonjo or pacritinib and that’s a drug that is a JAK inhibitor that is actually very good for people with low platelets. The reason I bring that up is because if we think of what’s the biggest limiter of JAK inhibitors, JAK inhibitors bring down red blood cells, and they bring down platelets. So, when somebody has low platelets it’s very hard to use a JAK inhibitor, because we’re not really able to increase the dose well enough to get that inflammatory reduction because of the fact that the blood counts will drop too low. 

So, now drugs like Vonjo exist which, due to several other mechanisms associated with the drug are actually much more tolerated in somebody with low platelets. So, if you have low platelets, you can actually take the Vonjo, hopefully get the same degree of JAK inhibition to help the spleen shrink, help the symptoms get better without necessarily making the platelets substantially worse. A lot of times they do drop, it doesn’t help bring up the platelets, but it does help people tolerate more JAK inhibition, which ultimately will help with symptoms.  

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

So, one thing I also wanted to add about myelofibrosis treatment is sometimes people present, they don’t have a lot of symptoms, they don’t have a lot of spleen related problems but they have anemia or low blood counts and these can be incredibly hard to treat. 

Even with symptoms and low red blood cell count or anemia or low platelets, it can be challenging to treat because many of these medications lower that. To treat the anemia there are several things that we can do. One of the first ones is using erythropoietin, and so there are many agents, they go by the names of like Procrit or darbepoetin alfa, that actually stimulate red blood cell growth by – like we give a recombinant hormone that helps red blood cells grow. This is normally something produced by the kidney. 

So, one thing that’s important before going on one of these injections is to make sure that the kidney is not already producing enough. So, for example, if the kidney said, oh geez, I really need more red cells and is making lots of this hormone, erythropoietin, giving more of it is not going to help the system. But in people who don’t have a really high level it can be very beneficial. 

The other thing that can help with anemia, specifically, is a drug called danazol.  

It’s been around for a very long time. There are multiple presumed mechanisms of action, but one of them is that it is kind of a testosterone derivative. So, this is a medicine that can often help increase red blood cells in probably about 40 percent of people, and it’s a pill that you take twice a day. 

Another option, sometimes we use thalidomide or lenalidomide (Revlimid). These are medications that have been used quite frequently in the setting of multiple myeloma and even a little bit in myelodysplastic syndrome, so some other blood disorders.  

But in the setting of myelofibrosis, they can be helpful with anemia and sometimes are combined with prednisone or a corticosteroid. And then finally, in terms of drugs that are being tested and hopefully will be approved at some point in the future. There is a drug called momelotinib, which is another JAK inhibitor that actually has some mechanisms that may also help improve hemoglobin. 

So, this is something I’m really looking forward to and we anticipate may be approved by the end of the year. And finally, there is another drug called luspatercept (Reblozyl). Luspatercept may work in the setting where your kidneys are already producing enough erythropoietin. So, the luspatercept is an injection that you receive once every three weeks.  

It is currently FDA-approved for the treatment of myelodysplastic syndrome but this is something that has been shown to have some efficacy in myelofibrosis as well. So, this could be another therapeutic option for patients with myelofibrosis. 

It is also important, especially for people who have polycythemia vera myelofibrosis to make sure that your iron has been checked and B-12 has been checked, because just because you have a bone marrow disorder doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a nutrition deficit that may be able to help improve your hemoglobin somewhat. But these are important things to talk to your doctor. I do not recommend just starting to take iron or B-12, however, if you’re anemic because in many cases you are not deficient and taking too much iron can actually be damaged. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah, that’s great advice.  

When would you consider a stem cell transplant? 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

So, the stem cell transplant is based on disease risk. There is a number of ways we assess disease risk. The first two ones that were published a number of years back were the DIPSS score, which is Dynamic International Prognostic System Score, or the DIPSS Plus, which basically is the DIPSS and then you add to it a few other clinical features. This symptom score is based largely on things that we can see without even a bone marrow biopsy, so things like symptoms, age, number of white blood cells, whether somebody has anemia. And then the number of something called blasts, which is very immature white blood cells. The DIPSS Plus takes into account low platelets, need for transfusions, and chromosome abnormalities, which is the only test among that that needs to be from a bone marrow biopsy. 

Now, these were created prior to Jakafi being commercially available. So, we have to take a little bit of a grain of salt with those because of the fact that Jakafi probably has changed how long people can live with this disease. 

Now, more recently they’ve tried to account for these other molecular changes. So, when we take the genetic landscape of these diseases, we have the known driver mutations, so the JAK2 mutation which I have talked about, also calreticulin and MPL.  

These three mutations all affect that one pathway, the JAK/STAT pathway, so they all affect the pathway that drives the disease and they are known to be kind of mutually exclusive and definitely contribute to the formation of the disease.  

Some of these other mutations are called somatic mutations. They could be checked by things next generation sequencing or genetic analysis. There’s a number of different names that people use for this testing, but we look for mutations that are present and these mutations, number one, can sometimes tell us risk. So, there’s certain mutations that are high risk. Other times it can actually give us other opportunities for therapy, especially of the disease progresses. But these mutations are important to know for risk stratification. For example, if somebody has DIPSS score that is maybe not super high risk, but then they have one of these mutations, we know that that probably makes their disease a little bit more aggressive. 

And that’s when we think about transplant, is when we know that the disease probably has an average life – when somebody gets to the point in their disease where we estimate their life expectancy is around five years, recognizing that we’re not very good at this. That is the type of point when we start to think about transplant. But the timing of transplant is something that’s extremely difficult and a very personalized decision. It’s something that it’s really important to understand the disease risks, how we assess them and the caveats of these disease risk assessments as we move forward planning and timing of transplant and that’s something that is, again, a very, very important discussion to have at length with your physician. 

And I always recommend, there is quite a few of us out there who actually specialize in transplant for myelofibrosis and having discussions with somebody who really understands the biology of the myelofibrosis and important because it’s very different than a lot of the other diseases that are transplanted.   

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. Well, speaking of that, patients can sometimes feel like they’re bothering their healthcare team with their comments and questions. Why do you think it’s important for patients to speak up when it comes to symptoms and side effects?  

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Well, there is a lot of things. This is a disease, again, that we can direct our therapy many times towards symptoms, and so when we think about how do I direct my therapy, so how do I treat somebody, symptoms are an incredibly important part of it. And there is nothing worse than having a patient come and see me who I see every six months, because they’ve been pretty stable and they’re like, “Oh, for three months I’ve been feeling awful.” And you’re like, well, “Why didn’t you let me know, we could do something about this?” 

So, if there is something that doesn’t feel right, it’s very, very important to talk to your healthcare provider. I would much rather be bothered and handle something earlier on than miss something and really have a lot more catch-up to do afterwards. 

The other thing is symptoms may indicate a blood clotting event. We know that patients will have a higher risk of blood clotting. These are extremely important to identify early on because if they go unchecked, they can cause more damage. 

Katherine Banwell:

With many of the treatments available as pills now, patients have a role in self-administering their treatment regimen. What happens if a patient forgets to take a medication? Does it impact its effectiveness? 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Generally no. I think the ones that would are certain blood thinners you really don’t want to miss and you don’t want to miss the doses on it. With drugs like Jakafi, if you miss one dose you probably won’t notice it, but if you miss multiple doses you can actually get very sick from that. So, some of these medications are really important to be consistent on. 

Now, I know this could be a challenge. I mean I don’t take very many medications and I sometimes have a hard time keeping track of what I take, so I know that this can be a difficult thing to do. So, one thing is if you really find you’re struggling with it, setting an alarm on your phone or your Apple Watch or whatever… 

Katherine Banwell:

…device. 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Device you have can be a really helpful way of doing it. Also having a pill box. They make pretty amazing pill boxes these days that can account for taking drugs once a day, twice a day, three times a day. I’ve even seen them up to four times a day, although generally the most you’ll probably have to take a medicine for a myeloproliferative disease is twice a day. But those are different ways that can really help make sure you’re consistent about taking your medication. 

Katherine Banwell:

And if a patient misses a dose, do they need to call their healthcare team and let them know? 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Not just for one missed dose. If like, for example, they’re run out and they say, “Oh, geez, I don’t have any and many of these drugs are specialty pharmacy,” so they need to be mailed, and you know that you’re going to be missing it for a while. Or let’s say you look at your pill bottle and go, “Oh shoot, I only have so many pills left,” it is helpful to call because a lot of times, for example, if somebody is on Jakafi and they know they’re going to run out of their pills four days before they’re going to get their next shipment in, then what I sometimes do is I lower the dose a little bit to make sure they maintain a dose throughout that time. 

But this is something you definitely want to do under the advice of a healthcare provider. You don’t want to just all of the sudden go, “Oh, well I’m going to run out so I’m just going to change my dose,” and kind of do that. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah, yeah. We received some audience questions prior to the program today. This one is from Jacqueline, “What can I do to minimize pruritus or itching due to PV? A typical histamine blocker like Claritin or Zyrtec has done nothing whatsoever.” 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Yeah. Unfortunately, the itching of this is not as much mediated by an allergic type reaction or histamine. It’s a lot related to that microvasculature, those tiny little blood vessels. Things like avoiding hot showers, as we talked about, taking cooler showers or not even taking showers, just like cleaning yourself with a washcloth can be helpful. There are certain medications that we can use sometimes that help. 

Now, first of all, Jakafi is extremely effective for itching. Of course, it does have side effects. It’s not always approved for your disease, so for example, it’s not approved for essential thrombocythemia. But JAK inhibitors can be helpful in that setting. There are also medications like Gabapentin, which is a medicine that we use to treat peripheral neuropathy and that can actually be helpful because actually the itching, a lot of it is related to nerves not functioning right, so gabapentin can be helpful. 

And a really old-school medicine that I sometimes use, especially if the itching is most prevalent at night, is a drug called Doxepin and that’s been around for a very long time, but it can be extremely sedating and has to be used with caution, especially in patients who are older. 

Katherine Banwell:

Here is a question from Daniel. “How often should a person with PV have hematology appointments, and how often should you have blood tests?” 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Well, that is something that you need to discuss with a provider, because everyone’s a little bit different. If I have somebody who I’m managing on a medication, they’ve been rock solid stable, it may be every few months that I check blood and maybe every six months that I see them.  

If I have somebody who have been particularly difficult to control and I’m sort of adjusting medications or they’re having symptoms, then I try to check blood more regularly, like on a monthly basis. But again, this is something that – I have checked blood as frequently as every two weeks, especially in somebody who has an extremely high red blood cell count that I’m trying to lower. I have checked blood as infrequently as every three months. Again, in somebody who is not undergoing treatment, say, for example, who has essential thrombocythemia, sometimes I check blood even less. So, it really is something that can vary from every two weeks to every six months. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Katie had this question. “What are the signs of progression from PV to MF or AML, both clinically and in blood tests, and when do you need a new bone marrow biopsy to check for this happening?” 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

So, in terms of progression, there are several things that we see happen. 

I think most importantly is, let’s say you have PV, and you’ve always been on medication, and it’s been hard to control. And all of a sudden, you don’t need medication to control it anymore, or the same thing for essential thrombocythemia. You have been taking medication, and all of a sudden your platelets go down, and you don’t need to take drugs anymore. A lot of times people are like, “Oh, that means I’m fixed and I’m well,” not necessarily, you really need to make sure to talk to your healthcare provider and potentially get a bone marrow biopsy. 

Now, the other thing – sometimes the blood counts will actually drop too low, so you’ll have somebody who has PV, who has always been too high and then all of the sudden they come in, and their hemoglobin is very low, and they’re anemic, and that’s another situation where you do that. So, anytime the blood counts start to drop is concerning.  

Now, it’s a continuum, so the blood counts may drop as you’re at the point of transitioning but it doesn’t – it’s not like if your blood count is dropping you say, “Oh my God, I have myelofibrosis, I need a bone marrow transplant tomorrow.” That’s not necessarily the case. This is generally a transition type process. 

Also when the spleen starts to get enlarged. Now, the spleen can be enlarged even in the setting of just ET or just PV, so spleen enlargement does not necessarily mean you’re transforming, but it can be one of the things that we would see that would indicate that. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

And then finally white blood cell count increasing can often be a sign of that. Now, in terms of progression to AML, that is generally something we’ll see in the blood. AML or acute myeloid leukemia, is indicated by the presence of blasts at greater than 20 percent. Now, many patients with myelofibrosis, in particular, but even PV and ET, may have blasts in their peripheral blood. Blasts are normal. If I did a marrow on every healthy person out there, they are going to have some blasts, because these are the first part of the development of white blood cells. So, they’re like baby white blood cells. But what the problem is, is when they start to grow too much. 

And so in the setting of myelofibrosis and even sometimes with these other diseases, the blasts will be in the peripheral blood primarily because the bone marrow is damaged and doesn’t hold them in very well. It becomes AML when it gets greater than 20 percent, so that blasts of greater than 20 percent in the peripheral blood or in the bone marrow but a lot of times we find it in the peripheral blood is where we indicate this has progressed to AML. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. 

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Blasts of greater than 10 percent are also something that we really want to pay attention to, because that would suggest that the disease is starting to become more aggressive. Now, blasts vary, so for example, I’ve had patients go up to 11 and then drop back down to 3 or 4, and then they say around 3 or 4 or 5. So, you always want to make sure to double-check because one blast count at 11 percent, whereas it’s very important to address, may not necessarily reflect that you need to change in treatment at that time. Again, these blood tests, I always tell people, do not freak out over one blood test.  

Make sure you get at least a couple of them to really confirm what you are looking at. 

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you, Dr. Palmer. And to our viewers, please continue to send in your questions to question@powerfulpatients.org and we’ll work to get them answered on future webinars.  

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

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

So, I think that the first thing is make sure you understand your disease. Don’t hesitate to ask for a second opinion. It’s always good to make sure you talk to someone who can really explain so you feel like when you go home you understand what’s going on in your body. Make sure you understand what symptoms to look for, what things to be aware of, because a lot of times people come in and they have no idea that, oh, these symptoms are actually related to their disease. 

The other thing to make sure is that you’re very honest with your provider on how you’re feeling. A lot of times people come in and they say, “Oh, how are you feeling?” “I feel fine,” but then they start to ask very specific questions and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I’m really tired, my fatigue is an 8 out of 10,” or something. 

So, make sure you’re really honest with your provider. When they ask you how they’re doing, this is not a social visit, this is a visit where they need to know your symptoms, so you don’t need to say I’m fine like you normally would if you were walking down the street. 

The next thing is to always make sure to know where there’s clinical trials because we are making enormous great leaps and bounds in this field. It’s a really exciting time for myeloproliferative diseases, and there’s a number of new drugs that are being tested and coming out. So, it’s always important, if the opportunity is available and you can do it, clinical trials are a great way to get treatment. 

Plus, you are giving back, because these are things that help us learn whether something works or not. So, you’re not as much a guinea pig, you never get a sugar pill. It’s one of those things will you will always get the treatment you need and then they may add something to it or you may be in the situation where there is no treatment, so they try something. 

But clinical trials, I have to emphasize, are a great way to get therapy and really are how we know everything that we know about treatment for these diseases. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. It sounds like there’s a lot of progress and hope in the field.  

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

Oh, absolutely. 

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you so much, Dr. Palmer, for joining us today.  

Dr. Jeanne Palmer:

You are very welcome, my pleasure, and it’s always fun to do these things, so thank you for having me.   

Katherine Banwell:

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

What Is Next Generation Sequencing for MPNs?

What Is Next Generation Sequencing for MPNs? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) care may include the use of next generation sequencing.  Dr. Kristen Pettit from Rogel Cancer Center explains next generation sequencing and how it is used in MPN patient care.

See More From the MPN TelemEDucation Resource Center

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Transcript:

Dr. Kristen Pettit:

Next generation sequencing or NGS refers to tests done from the blood or the bone marrow that can look for many different genetic mutations at once. So we know that most patients with MPNs will have mutations in either JAK2, CALR, or MPL but many will also have additional genetic mutations.

These additional genetic mutations may be important prognostically as we know is, we know some of these additional genetic mutations can confer either higher or lower risk of the disease progressing over time. So, I think next generation sequencing or NGS panels should be a part of the work up for most patients with MPNs at the time of initial diagnosis, and probably again, at the time that there’s any concern for disease progression in the future.

Expert Perspective: Hopeful MPN Research and Development

Expert Perspective: Hopeful MPN Research and Development from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

MPN expert and clinical researcher Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub shares excitement about the future of MPN treatment and research, including an optimistic outlook for new approvals in the coming year. 

Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub is a hematologist oncologist at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. Dr. Yacoub is an active researcher and is an Associate Professor of Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapeutics. Learn more about Dr. Yacoub, here.
 
 

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How Treatment Goals Impact MPN Treatment Decisions

How Treatment Goals Impact MPN Treatment Decisions

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How Should You Participate in MPN Care and Treatment Decisions?

How Should You Participate in MPN Care and Treatment Decisions?


Transcript:

Katherine:

I wanted to get your take on the future of MPN research and treatment. Are there new developments that you’re excited about and that make you hopeful?  

Dr. Yacoub:

Absolutely. So, again, I would like to take the last few minutes to advocate for the future. And the future can only come when doctors and patients and advocates work together to advance the science. We have few tools to treat patients and to help patients. We have a lot of unanswered questions. And the only way to answer them is by designing quality clinical trials, enrolling patients on trials, taking the risk, and trying to find new answers and new therapeutics. So, I always would like to advocate for patients to seek clinical trials whether with their doctor or whether they have to travel for it, and for doctors to consider that for their patients. That’s the only way to advance science.  

There are very important national and international studies going on right now. One of the – and first, I would like to emphasize is that we have had ruxolitinib (Jakafi) as the only therapy, or the first-line therapy for myelofibrosis for a decade now.  

Not everybody responds to it, not everybody responds to it for a long time. So, now we’re designing combination trials. So, there’s a few studies that we are trying to redefine, “Is ruxolitinib alone enough, or should we have a combination first-line therapy?” So, these are some of the more important questions being asked right now.  

And this is definitely one of the bigger moves in the field, is trying to redefine what is the first-line therapy for myelofibrosis. For polycythemia vera, we’re also exploring therapeutics that would reduce phlebotomy with things you can add to your medical care to reduce phlebotomy.  

So, that’s also going on. And it’s definitely a big leap forward for many of our patients. For ET, when we don’t have any actual drugs approved other than hydroxyurea (Hydrea) and anagrelide (Agrylin), we actually have trials with interferon going on.  

So, I would like to advocate for that. So, interferon succeeded and now approved for PV, but not yet for ET. We’re working on that. So, again, in every disease, we’re trying to design clinical trials to redefine what is the best treatment today.  

We’re also doing studies to understand the cancer. So, studies where patients donate their samples for research. These are very helpful, very important. And contributing to that always advances the science, and it’s low effort to the patients. So, if there’s a clinical trial that is offered to patients, I would strongly urge everybody to consider that favorably and contribute to science. 

That’s the only way we can help future patients and ourselves immediately, at moving the field forward.  

What Are the Signs of MPN Progression?

What Are the Signs of MPN Progression? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub, an MPN specialist, explains how essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF) may progress from one disease to the next, including potential signs and symptoms of MPN progression. 

Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub is a hematologist oncologist at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. Dr. Yacoub is an active researcher and is an Associate Professor of Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapeutics. Learn more about Dr. Yacoub, here.
 

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What Are Treatment Options for Essential Thrombocythemia?

What Are Treatment Options for Essential Thrombocythemia?

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What Are Treatment Options for Polycythemia Vera?

What Are Treatment Options for Myelofibrosis?

What Are Treatment Options for Myelofibrosis?


Transcript:

Katherine:

We have a couple of questions from the audience. This one is from Sarah. She writes, “I’ve been living with essential thrombocythemia for three years, and have been relatively stable. Of course, I’m worried about progression to PV or MF. What is my chance of progression, and what are the signs of progression?” 

Dr. Yacoub:

That’s a very good question. And unfortunately, we’re very good at describing those numbers. Unfortunately, our tools at interfering are not as good. So, in general, patients with ET, statistically speaking, have a life expectancy that is not different from their age match peers. And Sarah’s story will be not too indifferent from her sisters and her mother, in terms of what’s going to happen to her long care and her health, provided she gets good medical care. The exception to that is that there is a transformation risk. For ET we caught around a 4 percent every 10 years in which ET will actually change into a different cancer, a higher risk cancer.   

Could be MF, could be MDS, could be acute leukemia. And that will be a much more serious diagnosis. So, it’s about 4 percent in 10 years. We do have a – or we extrapolate some of the data from other cancers. So, certain mutations are more favorable, certain mutations are more risky. And we try to forecast that but worried it’s really hard to predict that since it’s such a long journey with disease. The first symptoms or the findings, when patients start suspecting that their disease has changed, is that the pattern of symptoms that they have are different.   

They often become worse. So, they have more constitutional symptoms, more tiredness, more fevers, more night sweats, losing weight, not being able to eat a full meal, abdominal distension, the spleen gets bigger.  

So, these are some of the feelings that patients can experience that lead to this. Other objective things is when the blood tests change in a less favorable way. So, for patients with ET who always run at 800,000 platelet count, if they’re suddenly 200, and that’s in the normal range, but that’s actually not good news, because the cancer changed. And this change is not favorable. So, as the doctors run routine labs, if they see the sudden change in labs, that’s also abnormal.  

If the doctor can feel that the spleen gets bigger every time, that’s also concerning. If the patients suddenly have anemia or very high white cell count or immature white cells in the blood, that’s also a concern.  

So, that’s why it’s great or important to establish a baseline symptom burden.  A baseline spleen, a baseline bone marrow biopsy with mutation analysis, so that patients have a clear reference point to where they started, and if things change, they can always go back to that point and compare.  

How Should You Participate in MPN Care and Treatment Decisions?

How Should You Participate in MPN Care and Treatment Decisions? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub, an MPN specialist, shares advice for patient self-advocacy and provides tips for participating in care and treatment decisions.

Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub is a hematologist oncologist at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. Dr. Yacoub is an active researcher and is an Associate Professor of Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapeutics. Learn more about Dr. Yacoub, here.
 

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Advice for Choosing MPN Therapy: What’s Right for You?

Expert Perspective: Hopeful MPN Research and Development

Expert Perspective: Hopeful MPN Research and Development


Transcript:

Katherine:

Dr. Yacoub, what is the role of the patient in their care? When does shared decision-making come into play?  

Dr. Yacoub:

Absolutely. Patients are the drivers and the centerpiece of their health care. And patient self-advocacy is the most important tool. So, many of our patients are young, and they will live with their cancers a lot longer than many cancer doctors will practice oncology. And they will have many doctors. Statistically, each MPN patient will have multiple doctors throughout their career. And they will hear different derivatives. And the science will change. And they will be given different counseling over the time. And their disease will change.  

And they will have different needs as they go further. So, patients being involved in their well-being and their cancer care is important from the first day. And I always tell patients, “You need to start building your village from day one.” It is not just the patient, it’s your caregivers, it’s who else can help you.  

Who else can advise you? You might want to also invest in a friend or a spouse or a child, to come to you and listen to some of those discussions so that they can advise you later on, “Why are you making different decisions?” So, we encourage patients to be very involved early on, to build their own village, and to seek care. We routinely ask for second opinions. We want patients to always hear the story and hear the same story from another doctor so that they hear the range of how we word the truth and how we word the facts.  

And this way, they can have a better perspective. So, this is now a standard. Almost all patients should have two doctors, at least, the treating doctor and one doctor who’s an MPN specialist, who would give them another twist or another perspective to their health.  

So, and that is always important. And then there are very good references and online resources for patients to tackle in, such as this seminar and other good places where patients can seek more information. They also can go to a clinical trial to find out what are the ongoing clinical trials and advancements.   

There are structured patient symposiums nationally and regionally. So, and we strongly recommend that patients seek more opinions and more help and more resources and be very engaged with this disease, especially that it is a chronic cancer, and it’s not going to – 

Katherine:

It’s not going away. 

Dr. Yacoub:

It’s just a new lifestyle. And they need to be as engaged with it as they can.   

Advice for Choosing MPN Therapy: What’s Right for You?

Advice for Choosing MPN Therapy: What’s Right for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

MPN specialist Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub reviews factors that determine which treatment is most appropriate for your essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF). 

Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub is a hematologist oncologist at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. Dr. Yacoub is an active researcher and is an Associate Professor of Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapeutics. Learn more about Dr. Yacoub, here.
 

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How Treatment Goals Impact MPN Treatment Decisions

How Treatment Goals Impact MPN Treatment Decisions

How Should You Participate in MPN Care and Treatment Decisions?

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Expert Perspective: Hopeful MPN Research and Development


Transcript:

Katherine:

As with most conditions, all patients are different, of course, and what might work for one person might not be appropriate for another. So, how do you choose which treatment is right for a patient?   

Dr, Yacoub:

Excellent. So, and that’s actually the heart of what we define as the art of practicing medicine and being patient-centric and focused. And patients already have their own wishes and their needs. And everything should start with having a discussion with patients on what is their priority, and what are they trying to achieve.  

And we do have to explain to them the tools we have, the interventions that can help them. But we also need to make sure they’re compatible with what they actually want and their goals in life. And sometimes what we doctors want is not exactly what the patients want. So, we always have to remind ourselves that patients are the drivers of their care. And they have the absolute right to be informed and to make informed decisions based on the options we advise them about.  

So, that is always a centerpiece of healthcare. And then patients – basically, we defined four pillars of care. We want to control their symptoms, we want to prevent complications, we want to modify the disease so it doesn’t transform, and we want our therapies not to have toxicities, not to have side effects that are worse than the disease.  

So, we bring that up to the table. And we also look at the patient. What are their symptoms? What did the disease cause them to be complications?  

What is the risk that their cancer is actually going to progress quickly to hurt their lives? And how serious is the therapy we’re recommending? And we need to make sure that there is a good match between what we’re offering and what the disease is manifesting. So, for example, for patients who have a lot of symptoms, but they have low-risk cancer that they can live with for a long time, we focus on symptoms. We focus on treatments that improve their symptoms.  

While with patients who have more serious diseases that are eminently life-threatening, we focus on an expedited path to a more aggressive therapy and a bone marrow transplant.  

And then we also try to match those therapies with the other patient’s wishes and needs and so forth. So, all these factors are important. We have more tools to try to prognosticate. So, prognosticate is the medical word that we use as forecasting.  

We like to forecast the disease or the cancer. We try to predict the patient’s future. Fortunately, we actually have good tools to prognosticate now. We have models or calculators that factor in patients’ features, their symptoms, their age, their blood counts, their bone marrow findings, and their DNA mutations. And it gives us a score, a risk score that can correlate with their life expectancy or their outcomes.  

And we use those tools to guide us. So, there’s actually a tool we use to help patients reach that decision. It’s an objective tool to decide how serious is this disease and how seriously we should tackle it. It’s very applicable for patients with myelofibrosis, more sort of the other lower-risk cancers.  

Katherine:

What about comorbidities? How do they fit into the treatment plan?  

Dr. Yacoub:

Very important.  

So, again, it also goes back to finding the balance between how serious is the disease, how serious is the treatment, and how will the patient’s general health tolerate and factor in the choices patients make accordingly. So, myeloproliferative neoplasms do happen in a broad range of ages. And we have children, minors with MPNs, and we have elderly patients with MPNs. And it’s a continuous spectrum. And each individual patient will have their own health concerns and their own health comorbidities and their own wishes. And we always have to make sure that we match our therapies, the disease seriousness, and the patient’s wishes, which is also stemming from their own other health battles, too.  

We cannot turn a blind eye to the other health issues going on. That plays a major factor as we choose to discuss bone marrow transplantation with patients. Because that’s when the medical comorbidities are often the first barrier to go through.  

Katherine:

Are there specific biomarkers that may affect prognosis or treatment?  

Dr. Yacoub:

Yes. So, and we’re glad that actually myeloproliferative neoplasms are actually the model in medical oncology on how predictors can tell us a lot more about the patient’s future about the prognosis. So, early on in MPNs, we’ve developed models, like the International Prognostic Scoring Systems in many different iterations. And more recently, the Molecular Based International Prognostic Scores.  

They factor in patient’s age, they factor in blood numbers, they factor in DNA abnormalities, they also factor in DNA mutations, including the common driver mutations JAK2 and CALR and MPL, as well as more novel mutations that we call higher risk mutations.  

So, based on these models, we use these tools to predict how the cancer will behave, and how to approach it. This advancement has been an application for our MPN patients for a while, way ahead of all other fields of oncology. So, we’re proud that we can give our patients this tool before all other doctors were able to. Yeah.   

Thriving with an MPN: What You Should Know About Care and Treatment

Thriving with an MPN: What You Should Know About Care and Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 MPN specialist and researcher, Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub, reviews factors that help guide care decisions for MPNs – essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), and myelofibrosis (MF). Dr. Yaboub discusses the goals of treatment, shares tools for taking an active role in your care, and provides an update on promising new therapies for MPNs.

 
Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub is a hematologist oncologist at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. Dr. Yacoub is an active researcher and is an Associate Professor of Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapeutics. Learn more about Dr. Yacoub, here.
 
 

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Expert Advice for Finding an MPN Clinical Trial

Expert Advice for Finding an MPN Clinical Trial


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today. Today’s program is about how to live and thrive with an MPN. We’re going to discuss MPN treatment goals, and how you can 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.

All right, let’s meet our guest. Joining me today is Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub. Welcome, Dr. Yacoub. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Yacoub:               

Hello, Katherine. And thank you very much for inviting me to participate in this very important and near and dear topic to my heart and to everything I do every day.

I’m a hematologist-oncologist at the University of Kansas. I practice hematology 100 percent of my time, and I dedicate it to patients with MPNs. I’m an active researcher through clinical trials at my own institution, as well as part of many national and international collaborations. We all strive to provide the best care and the updates for our patients. I’m also a Director of our hematology clinics in cancers at the University of Kansas, and I’m an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Kansas.

Katherine:                  

Well, thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy schedule to join us today. We appreciate it.

Dr. Yacoub:               

Absolutely, my pleasure.

Katherine:                  

To give our patient audience some context before we get into the specifics of MPN treatment approaches, how would you define treatment goals?

Dr. Yacoub:               

Thank you, thank you. And I always like to highlight and emphasize that unlike many of the cancer syndromes that patients deal with, myeloproliferative neoplasms are unique.

These are chronic cancers. There’s no finish line. And this is a disease you live with. It affects every day of your life, every activity of your future life. You plan your life events accordingly. Pregnancies and marriages and trips and all of that. So, this is a chronic cancer. And as we plan therapy, we always factor that in. We would like the cancer to have the least or almost no impact on your daily life.

Whether it’s symptoms, whether it’s disability and dysfunction and inability to perform your daily functions, whether it’s actual physical symptoms that you’re having from the cancer, or whether it’s affecting complications that are hurting your health. So, we would like to focus on all of these, the medical aspect as well as the impact of the disease to everyday symptoms.

This is a unique feature of these cancers. And it doesn’t really exist much in other diseases.

Katherine:                  

That’s helpful to understand as we move through today’s program. And we’re going to cover the three classic MPNs, polycythemia vera, essential thrombocythemia, and myelofibrosis.

So, for the person who has one of these conditions, can you help us understand the treatment approaches for each? Let’s start with essential thrombocythemia or ET.

Dr. Yacoub:               

Excellent. So, I’m going to start with some general concepts. So, as we approach our patients, we would like to get a good assessment of the disease burden to their lives. These can be symptoms. So, we actually have very good objective tools to measure symptoms, such as the MPN-SAF. It’s an objective tool to calculate the symptoms. So, we would like to get an objective baseline of symptoms.

Because we do want to address the symptoms, regardless of the MPN subtype. We do want to master actually the symptoms because that is what patients feel every day and we want to affect that early in the treatment. We also would like to get a good assessment of the disease complications. Have the patient suffered a clot or a hemorrhage or symptoms because of an enlarged spleen? Or were they unable to perform certain activities? Are they able to eat? Are they losing weight?

So, we would like to see how is the cancer also causing them immediate morbidity, and we also would like to tackle the future. So, cancers tend to get worse with time. They tend to transform into a higher risk cancer. So, as we approach any of the MPN patients, we also talk about the future risk of the cancer turning into a more aggressive form of cancer.

So, we would like if we can, for every patient to focus on these three pillars of their care: their immediate quality of life and symptoms, their immediate complications, and their future disease progression.

And we would like to factor in that our treatments does not add more side effects to their lives. So, that’s the fourth pillar of how we take care of patients. So, these are the basic concepts that will apply today for all patients with all three diseases.

Some patients will have more emphasis on one or the other. But this is something in our mind as doctors who treat MPN patients, we try to balance all these three pillars for every patient. So, let’s talk about essential thrombocythemia. This is among the other MPNs, the cancer with the lowest risk. Patients with essential thrombocythemia can have clots and can have bleedings. And they also often have symptoms because of their cancer.

But they also enjoy a long life expectancy that is almost indifferent from patients who don’t have cancer provided they get good care. So, our emphasis is on focusing that their life quality is not touched by their cancer, and focusing on treating patients with symptoms, to ameliorate the symptoms and allowing them to have a decent and good quality of life. At the same time, we would like to reduce the risk of clotting and bleeding.

And we have tools and medicines that are very effective at doing that in select patients who we define as high risk. And now there is a more clear definition of that. So, high-risk patients are patients who are over age 60 and have a JAK2 mutation, or patients who have already had a clot.

That is not the majority of ET patients actually. The majority are not high risk. And those patients might not require therapy to reduce their platelet count.

But for high-risk patients, we have tools to help them. So, hydroxyurea (Hydrea) is the most commonly used medicine in this setting.

The goal of hydroxyurea is to reduce the platelet count. And we’d like to keep it under 400, sometimes under 600 under different circumstances. And that will reduce the risk of clotting and bleeding for our patients. The other option, which I also feel passionate about is interferon.

Interferons are drugs that we’ve used for decades. They’re very effective. They’re safe in the right hands.

And they do have advantages over hydroxyurea in terms of long-term safety. These are medications we can give to young patients, we can give to pregnant patients, we can give for long term without concerns of toxicity, and also they have a higher ceiling. Patients with interferon can achieve a disease control that we cannot achieve with hydroxyurea.

And this will be beneficial long term treating those patients. So, these – Yeah, and then aspirin therapy is always something we would like to include in this regimen.

Katherine:                  

I was going to ask you about that. So, aspirin is still being used as a treatment?

Dr. Yacoub:               

Absolutely. So, the standard of care is to use aspirin. Usually, one baby aspirin once a day, preferably in the morning is what we recommend. And that’s probably all the aspirin they need. We do not want them to take more than that either.

Katherine:                  

And you mentioned using interferons for ET. That’s something that you would also use for polycythemia vera. Yes?

Dr. Yacoub:               

Absolutely. So, the same principles will apply to polycythemia vera. We would like to treat the higher-risk patients more aggressively. Hydroxyurea and interferon are also the first-line therapies in these patients.

The good news in 2022 is that we actually finally have an FDA-approved interferon for our patients. Finally, after 50 years of using interferon, now, we have an FDA approval. So, the new interferon, ropeginterferon alfa-2b is a medication that was studied prospectively in Europe, and it has been approved and in clinical use in Europe under the brand name Besremi.

And this year, it was approved in the US for patients with polycythemia vera, which is a great achievement for the medical field and a great tool to help our patients. We have used other brands off-label in the past, but it’s glad now to get this confirmation from the FDA that this is a standard of care for all patients.

And then beyond that, ruxolitinib or Jakafi, is also approved as a second-line option in patients who have had hydroxyurea as their first line.

So, these are the medicines we use for polycythemia vera. We also use therapeutic phlebotomy. And the goal in high-risk polycythemia vera, or actually in all patient polycythemia vera, is to reduce their hematocrit.

And we want it under 45 percent every day of the year. And we use the tools that we just discussed phlebotomy and medicines to achieve that, in addition to aspirin. So, that’s how PV is more unique than ET. Yes.

Katherine:                  

And since myelofibrosis is a progressive condition, I imagine it’s more difficult to manage. So, what else is available for patients with myelofibrosis?

Dr. Yacoub:               

Correct So, myelofibrosis is the higher end of this spectrum of cancers.

It is a cancer that is associated with much higher symptom burden and impact on daily life. It is also associated with low blood counts, and some patients will require transfusions. It’s a major morbidity to our patients. And in addition, it’s a cancer that is associated with shortened life. So, patients with myelofibrosis will not live as long as their health would have allowed them. And some of them will live actually a much shorter life than they want or deserve.

So, myelofibrosis treatment requires a lot more considerations. So, for patients who are in good health, who have a cancer that is more aggressive, that would be imminently impacting their longevity, we start a discussion about a curative role of allogeneic stem cell transplantation very early in their course.

Because bone marrow transplantation can be curative, and those patients can live a long life after a successful transplant. So, this is a treatment modality that should be brought up very early for patients with higher risk myelofibrosis. There are approved JAK inhibitors, ruxolitinib and fedratinib (Inrebic). And we know that Ruxolitinib which has been approved for over 10 years can improve symptoms, can improve the spleen volume, can actually prolong lives for patients on it, and also makes the transplant more successful.

So, we should be offering that to the appropriate patients also early in their diagnosis, in a strategy where, in addition to that, we get them to a transplant. Fedratinib is approved in that setting. And we are very optimistic that by the end of this calendar year, we will have two other JAK inhibitors approved.

So, we look forward to those two drugs. Momelotinib and pacritinib for patients with special disease features.

[Editor’s Note: As of February 28, 2022, pacritinib (Vonjo) has been approved for the treatment of myelofibrosis patients with severe thrombocytopenia.]

And hopefully, by the end of this year, we will have a list of JAK inhibitors that we can choose from, which is great news for our patients.

Katherine:                  

Oh, we’re still fighting.

Dr. Yacoub:               

Yes, absolutely.

Katherine:                  

As with most conditions, all patients are different, of course, and what might work for one person might not be appropriate for another. So, how do you choose which treatment is right for a patient?

Dr, Yacoub:               

Excellent. So, and that’s actually the heart of what we define as the art of practicing medicine and being patient-centric and focused. And patients already have their own wishes and their needs. And everything should start with having a discussion with patients on what is their priority, and what are they trying to achieve.

And we do have to explain to them the tools we have, the interventions that can help them. But we also need to make sure they’re compatible with what they actually want and their goals in life. And sometimes what we doctors want is not exactly what the patients want. So, we always have to remind ourselves that patients are the drivers of their care. And they have the absolute right to be informed and to make informed decisions based on the options we advise them about.

So, that is always a centerpiece of healthcare. And then patients – Basically, we defined four pillars of care. We want to control their symptoms, we want to prevent complications, we want to modify the disease so it doesn’t transform, and we want our therapies not to have toxicities, not to have side effects that are worse than the disease. So, we bring that up to the table. And we also look at the patient. What is their symptoms? What did the disease cause them to be complications?

What is the risk that their cancer is actually going to progress quickly to hurt their lives? And how serious is the therapy we’re recommending? And we need to make sure that there is a good match between what we’re offering and what the disease is manifesting. So, for example, for patients who have a lot of symptoms, but they have low-risk cancer that they can live with for a long time, we focus on symptoms. We focus on treatments that improve their symptoms.

While with patients who have more serious diseases that are eminently life-threatening, we focus on an expedited path to a more aggressive therapy and a bone marrow transplant. And then we also try to match those therapies with the other patient’s wishes and needs and so forth. So, all these factors are important. We have more tools to try to prognosticate. So, prognosticate is the medical word that we use as forecasting.

We like to forecast the disease or the cancer. We try to predict the patient’s future. Fortunately, we actually have good tools to prognosticate now. We have models or calculators that factor in patients’ features, their symptoms, their age, their blood counts, their bone marrow findings, and their DNA mutations. And it gives us a score a risk score that can correlate with their life expectancy or their outcomes.

And we use those tools to guide us. So, there’s actually a tool we use to help patients reach that decision. It’s an objective tool to decide how serious is this disease and how seriously we should tackle it. It’s very applicable for patients with myelofibrosis, more sort of the other lower-risk cancers.

Katherine:                  

What about comorbidities? How do they fit into the treatment plan?

Dr. Yacoub:               

Very important.

So, again, it also goes back to finding the balance between how serious is the disease, how serious is the treatment, and how will the patient’s general health tolerate and factor in the choices patients make accordingly. So, myeloproliferative neoplasms do happen in a broad range of ages. And we have children, minors with MPNs, and we have elderly patients with MPNs. And it’s a continuous spectrum. And each individual patient will have their own health concerns and their own health comorbidities and their own wishes. And we always have to make sure that we match our therapies, the disease seriousness, and the patient’s wishes, which is also stemming from their own other health battles, too.

We cannot turn a blind eye to the other health issues going on. That plays a major factor as we choose to discuss bone marrow transplantation with patients. Because that’s when the medical comorbidities are often the first barrier to go through.

Katherine:                  

Are there specific biomarkers that may affect prognosis or treatment?

Dr. Yacoub:               

Yes. So, and we’re glad that actually myeloproliferative neoplasms are actually the model in medical oncology on how predictors can tell us a lot more about the patient’s future about the prognosis. So, early on in MPNs, we’ve developed models, like the International Prognostic Scoring Systems in many different iterations. And more recently, the Molecular Based International Prognostic Scores.

They factor in patient’s age, they factor in blood numbers, they factor in DNA abnormalities, they also factor in DNA mutations, including the common driver mutations JAK2 and CALR and MPL, as well as more novel mutations that we call higher risk mutations.

So, based on these models, we use these tools to predict how the cancer will behave, and how to approach it. This advancement has been an application for our MPN patients for a while, way ahead of all other fields of oncology. So, we’re proud that we can give our patients this tool before all other doctors were able to. Yeah.

Katherine:                  

That’s excellent. Dr. Yacoub, what is the role of the patient in their care? When does shared decision-making come into play?

Dr. Yacoub:               

Absolutely.

Patients are the drivers and the centerpiece of their health care. And patient self-advocacy is the most important tool. So, many of our patients are young and they will live with their cancers a lot longer than many cancer doctors will practice oncology. And they will have many doctors. Statistically, each MPN patient will have multiple doctors throughout their career. And they will hear different derivatives. And the science will change. And they will be given different counseling over the time. And their disease will change.

And they will have different needs as they go further. So, patients being involved in their wellbeing and their cancer care is important from the first day. And I always tell patients, “You need to start building your village from day one.” It is not just the patient, it’s your caregivers, it’s who else can help you.

Who else can advise you? You might want to also invest in a friend or a spouse or a child, to come to you and listen to some of those discussions so that they can advise you later on, “Why are you making different decisions?” So, we encourage patients to be very involved early on, to build their own village, and to seek care. We routinely ask for second opinions. We want patients to always hear the story and hear the same story from another doctor so that they hear the range of how we word the truth and how we word the facts.

And this way, they can have a better perspective. So, this is now a standard. Almost all patients should have two doctors, at least, the treating doctor and one doctor who’s an MPN specialist, who would give them another twist or another perspective to their health.

So, and that is always important. And then there are very good references and online resources for patients to tackle in, such as this seminar and other good places where patients can seek more information. They also can go to a clinical trial to find out what are the ongoing clinical trials and advancements.

There are structured patient symposiums nationally and regionally. So, and we strongly recommend that patients seek more opinions and more help and more resources and be very engaged with this disease, especially that it is a chronic cancer, and it’s not going to –

Katherine:                  

It’s not going away.

Dr. Yacoub:               

It’s just a new lifestyle. And they need to be as engaged with it as they can.

Katherine:                  

Absolutely. We have a couple of questions from the audience. This one is from Sarah. She writes, “I’ve been living with essential thrombocythemia for three years, and have been relatively stable. Of course, I’m worried about progression to PV or MF. What is my chance of progression, and what are the signs of progression?”

Dr. Yacoub:               

That’s a very good question. And unfortunately, we’re very good at describing those numbers. Unfortunately, our tools at interfering are not as good. So, in general, patients with ET, statistically speaking, have a life expectancy that is not different from their age match peers. And Sarah’s story will be not too indifferent from her sisters and her mother, in terms of what’s going to happen to her long care and her health, provided she gets good medical care. The exception to that is that there is a transformation risk. For ET we caught around a 4 percent every 10 years in which ET will actually change into a different cancer, a higher risk cancer.

Could be MF, could be MDS, could be acute leukemia. And that will be a much more serious diagnosis. So, it’s about 4 percent in 10 years. We do have a – or we extrapolate some of the data from other cancers. So, certain mutations are more favorable, certain mutations are more risky. And we try to forecast that but worried it’s really hard to predict that since it’s such a long journey with disease. The first symptoms or the findings, when patients start suspecting that their disease has changed, is that the pattern of symptoms that they have are different.

They often become worse. So, they have more constitutional symptoms, more tiredness, more fevers, more night sweats, losing weight, not being able to eat a full meal, abdominal distension, the spleen gets bigger.

So, these are some of the feelings that patients can experience that lead to this. Other objective things is when the blood tests change in a less favorable way. So, for patients with ET who always run at 800,000 platelet count, if they’re suddenly 200, and that’s in the normal range, but that’s actually not good news, because the cancer changed. And this change is not favorable. So, as the doctors run routine labs, if they see the sudden change in labs, that’s also abnormal.

If the doctor can feel that the spleen gets bigger every time, that’s also concerning. If the patients suddenly have anemia or very high white cell count or immature white cells in the blood, that’s also a concern.

So, that’s why it’s great or important to establish a baseline symptom burden.                                   

A baseline spleen, a baseline bone marrow biopsy with mutation analysis, so that patients have a clear reference point to where they started, and if things change, they can always go back to that point and compare.

Katherine:                  

Right. We have another question. This one from Victor. He says, “I was diagnosed with PV in 2018. And I’ve been treated with hydroxyurea. Recently, I’ve been very fatigued. I want to exercise, but I don’t have the energy to do much. Do you have any advice for boosting my energy?”

Dr. Yacoub:               

That is a very good question and very common question. So, the causes for fatigue in adults, in general, so many. And adding PV to that adds a few other reasons why one would be more fatigued. So, assuming that Victor follows with his doctor, and his primary care doctor has systematically went through all the possible causes for fatigue, and those were addressed.

Now that PV specific causes, A). Hydroxyurea can cause fatigue. So, maybe it’s the hydroxyurea dose. And that’s a side effect. And maybe that’s not the best medicine for him. B). Polycythemia vera can cause fatigue. Maybe we’re not controlling it enough. Maybe we need to dial up the dose of the medicine or dial down the dose of the medicine accordingly. And then there’s also the iron deficiency which we induce with PV and phlebotomy.

And whether we actually have taken Victor to become very low on iron, and that can cause fatigue. So, we have to evaluate the treatments, the disease, and the side effects of the interventions we’ve done. And those are the polycythemia vera specific factors that can add to the fatigue.

Katherine:                  

Here’s another question from the audience. This is from Sandy. She writes, are MPNs hereditary? Should my children or siblings be aware of their risk?

Dr. Yacoub:               

All right. Well, the answer to that question changed many times over the last 10 years. So, the answer changed from absolutely not, to very possibly maybe over the years. So, although we don’t think of cancers as inherited, it’s not passed from one parent to their children. But MPNs tend to run in families. And for 11 percent of patients with MPN, and that number has also increased over the years, have actually a first-degree family member with MPN. That is a big coincidence, it’s almost too high to be a coincidence. So, we are realizing that there is genetic makeup or clustering that can cause MPNs to happen more often in certain families.

So, how does this apply to patients? So, if a patient has MPN, that does not mean that their children or siblings will get MPN, it just means they’re more likely than the other people to have MPN, just because they all share the same genetic makeup. And they should be made aware. And they should maintain good health care and maintain the relationship with a primary and have routine labs and all that. But not necessarily that they will get cancer. This still is a very rare disease, and 11 percent of a rare disease still is a small number.

Katherine:                  

Thank you for answering those patient questions. I appreciate it.

Dr. Yacoub:               

My Pleasure.

Katherine:                  

And to our patients, please continue to send in your questions to question@powerfulpatients.org and we’ll work to get them on future programs.

So, Dr. Yacoub, as we close out our program and our conversation, I wanted to get your take on the future of MPN research and treatment. Are there new developments that you’re excited about and that make you hopeful?

Dr. Yacoub:               

Absolutely. So, again, I would like to take the last few minutes to advocate for the future. And the future can only come when doctors and patients and advocates work together to advance the science. We have few tools to treat patients and to help patients. We have a lot of unanswered questions. And the only way to answer them is by designing quality clinical trials, enrolling patients on trials, taking the risk, and trying to find new answers and new therapeutics. So, I always would like to advocate for patients to seek clinical trials whether with their doctor or whether they have to travel for it, and for doctors to consider that for their patients. That’s the only way to advance science.

There are very important national and international studies going on right now. One of the – And first, I would like to emphasize is that we have had ruxolitinib as the only therapy, or the first-line therapy for myelofibrosis for a decade now. Not everybody responds to it, not everybody responds to it for a long time. So, now we’re designing combination trials. So, there’s a few studies that are trying to redefine, “Is ruxolitinib alone enough, or should we have a combination first-line therapy?” So, these are some of the more important questions being asked right now.

And this is definitely one of the bigger moves in the field, is trying to redefine what is the first-line therapy for myelofibrosis. For polycythemia vera, we’re also exploring therapeutics that would reduce phlebotomy with things you can add to your medical care to reduce phlebotomy.

So, that’s also going on. And it’s definitely a big leap forward for many of our patients. For ET, when we don’t have any actual drugs approved other than hydroxyurea and anagrelide (Agrylin), we actually have trials with interferon going on.

So, I would like to advocate for that. So, interferon succeeded and now approved for PV, but not yet for ET. We’re working on that. So, again, in every disease, we’re trying to design clinical trials to redefine what is the best treatment today.

We’re also doing studies to understand the cancer. So, studies where patients donate their samples for research. These are very helpful, very important. And contributing to that always advances the science, and it’s low effort to the patients. So, if there’s a clinical trial that is offered to patients, I would strongly urge everybody to consider that favorably and contribute to science.

That’s the only way we can help future patients and ourselves immediately, at moving the field forward.

Katherine:                  

Seems like there’s a lot of progress in the field.

Dr. Yacoub:               

A lot of progress. I look forward to future events. I’m going to have a lot more tools to discuss. Hopefully, by this time next year, we’re going to have four JAK inhibitors, injectables for PV, interferon for ET, and a lot more things to go over.

Katherine:                  

That’s wonderful. Dr. Yacoub, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Dr. Yacoub:               

You’re welcome. And it’s my pleasure. I feel passionate about this. And I’m happy to help.

Katherine:                  

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

Updates from ASH: How Biomarker Testing Has Changed MPN Care

Updates from ASH: How Biomarker Testing Has Changed MPN Care from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

MPN specialist, Dr. Andrew Kuykendall, discusses how the identification of specific biomarkers in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), such as the JAK2 mutation, have moved research forward. Dr. Kuykendall shares promising findings that were released at the 2021 American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting and how this may impact MPN care in the future.

Dr. Andrew Kuykendall is an Assistant Member at Moffitt Cancer Center in the Department of Malignant Hematology. Dr. Kuykendall’s clinical and research efforts focus on myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), MDS/MPN overlap syndromes and systemic mastocytosis (SM). Learn more about Dr. Kuykendall, here.

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Transcript

Katherine:

How has molecular or biomarker testing changed the field of MPN care and treatment?

Dr. Kuykendall:

Well, I think, first and foremost just understanding – going back to 2005 and knowing that we have JAK2 mutations. I think that gave really a lot of clarity to the diagnosis and really understanding the biology of how the disease acted through the JAK-STAT pathway. And certainly, that led to the understanding of MPL mutations and then calreticulin mutations.

We’re still figuring out exactly how calreticulin mutations work. There was a great abstract, a preclinical abstract, this year talking about the impact of interferon on calreticulin mutations and how that may differ from what we see in the impact of interferon on diseases that are driven by JAK2 mutations.

Clinically, we see a little bit of difference in how those diseases respond and we may understand a little bit better about why that happens. Additionally, that’s kind of gone down to looking at these big next generation sequencing panels where we identify high-risk mutations and that can certainly change our understanding of the prognosis of these diseases.

We’re starting to get, at least in the AML world, we’re getting targeted agents that can potentially target some of these mutations such as IDH1 and IDH2 mutations that have specific inhibitors.

Those are mutations that occur in myeloproliferative neoplasm patients and convey a worse prognosis, so there are ongoing trials looking to see if we can use those IDH inhibitors in myeloproliferative neoplasms either in the chronic phase or maybe in the more accelerated advanced phase.

You know the big thing, this meeting, was actually looking at polycythemia vera patients and what’s the relevance of the JAK2 mutant allele burden. I think this is something we’ve talked about a lot as far as how significant this is. We know in chronic phase myeloproliferative neoplasms that that JAK2 mutation tends to be associated with more thrombotic complications.

There are more blood clots in the veins and the arteries. There were a couple great abstracts that looked at the really the implications of the JAK2 mutation and the fact that it is associated with more thrombosis, but maybe more venous thrombosis. That might be a big risk factor for venous thrombosis and it may be that cardiovascular risk factors, such as diabetes, hyperlipidemia that’s really what’s driving the arteriole thrombosis. It also looked at the variant allele fraction, the number of cells that have that JAK2 mutation.

One abstract showed that if you have over a 50 percent allele fraction, if more than 50 percent of the alleles have the mutation – a higher burden of that mutation that’s associated with an increased thrombotic risk even in low-risk polycythemia vera patients. Whether or not that’s enough evidence to really change the paradigm of how we treat low-risk patients is to be determined, but I think very interesting and provocative work. 

An Overview of ET, PV and MF Treatment Options

An Overview of ET, PV and MF Treatment Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Treatment for essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), and myelofibrosis (MF) can vary greatly. Dr. John Mascarenhas breaks down the treatment types and the goals of treatment for each type of myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN).

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Depending on the patient, it seems like ET or PV may be easily managed. So, how are they treated? Let’s start with essential thrombocythemia or ET.

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

So, ET is a disease in which first and foremost, we’re trying to reduce the risk of thrombosis, clotting, and/or hemorrhage bleeding. So, typically, ET patients are risk stratified by low risk or high risk.

It’s almost simply based on their age, whether they’ve had a clot in the past, and some systems now even incorporate other factors like mutation status. And, you tailor the treatment based on their risk score. So, low risk ET patients don’t necessarily need to be treated. They can be followed expectantly and watched. The height of the platelet count does not predict thrombotic risk. So, we don’t treat the platelet count per se. A high-risk patient is at high risk for clotting. So, these patients almost invariably are getting aspirin at a baseline, and they are often on cytoreductive therapy. And sometimes, that is chemotherapy like hydroxyurea. Sometimes it’s a non-chemotherapeutic option and like anagrelide, and sometimes it’s a biologic therapy like interferon alfa either 2a, Pegasys, or 2b ropeginterferon. And, these are therapies that have rationale, that have clinical data, that have demonstrated reduction in risk of clotting, which again is the reason why we treat high-risk ET patients.

Katherine Banwell:                  

And, what about PV, polycythemia vera?

Dr. Mascarenhas:     

So, in polycythemia vera, it’s similar to ET. We risk stratify patients low and high risk based on age and clotting histories. And whether you’re low or high risk, we give PV patients aspirin or at least once daily, and we look to keep their hematocrit below a threshold of 45 percent. And sometimes in women, we even go lower, to 42  percent. But the idea is that controlling the hematocrit, which is one of the red blood cells indices, you reduce the risk of having clots, and that’s been shown actually many years ago and reinforced in a very well-known study called the CYTO-PV study in Italy documented that if you keep the hematocrit less than 45 percent, so, stringent control versus allowing for less stringent control between 45 to 50, that you reduce by fourfold the number of cardiovascular events that can occur.

So, we know that controlling the hematocrit is important, and that can be done, again, with hydroxyurea, interferon, and ruxolitinib.

The JAK2 inhibitor has also proved specifically for patients who had an intolerance or refractory hydroxyurea, but also importantly as a drug that can address, probably better than most drugs in this field, the symptom burden that could be problematic for some of those patients. But, it’s really about controlling the hematocrit.

Katherine Banwell:                  

Yeah. Since myelofibrosis is a progressive condition, I imagine that makes it more difficult to manage. So, what else is available for patients with myelofibrosis?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

The first line of treatment is typically a JAK inhibitor, although I would say that there are a subset of patients – well, there are patients we sometimes meet that have very low risk disease. They don’t have those clinical variables we discussed before that could uptick their risk score, and some of those patients can be watched.

And interestingly, there are a subset of patients that can have an indolent or slow form of the disease where they don’t have aggressive changes in their disease, their blood counts, their symptoms, their spleen, and don’t need immediate treatment. Most patients would benefit from a JAK inhibitor, although there are a subset of patients where their issue is less simple in spleen burden and it’s more anemia.

So, we take those patients where anemia’s the focus, we look at their erythropoietin level, which is their endogenous hormone level that regulates red blood cell production. If it’s low, we give them a lab-based form of erythropoietin, something called Procrit or Aranesp. If it’s high, we will move on. We can use a drug called danazol, which is a synthetic male androgen which can improve hemoglobin levels in 20 to 40 percent of patients. Or, we can use a drug called lenalidomide, which is an immunomodulatory drug. And, more recently, there’s a drug in testing called to luspatercept, which is an active activin receptor ligand trap. So, there is a growing armamentarium of drugs that can be used to try to alleviate the anemia which is present and can be a significant issue in about a quarter of patients with myelofibrosis upfront at time of diagnosis or about 75  percent through the course of their disease. So, that’s an unmet need that still requires attention and may alter the treatment plan for a given patient.

Katherine Banwell:                  

What about stem cell transplants?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

So, we relegate stem cell plant transplants for those patients as mentioned before that are higher risk because we think that the potential benefit-to-risk ratio is in favor of transplant.

Transplant is really a modality that is the only modality that offers the potential for cure, but it’s also a modality that poses a significant risk of morbidity and mortality associated with it. So, it has to really be taken very seriously. It can’t be the kind of treatment you would think of as a last resort at the last minute. Once you see a transplanter, if they’re interested in that therapy and see it early on in the disease course, in my opinion, to start that dialog and then figure out when is the optimal time to employ a bone marrow transplant, which is not a surgical procedure. It’s often thought to be surgical. It’s not a transplant of an organ. It’s a transplant of hematopoietic cells. So, it’s really an infusion of stem cells that then end up in the person’s bone marrow, and they create a whole new hematopoietic system and immune system. And with that, you can have an immune system that then goes after the myelofibrosis stem cells.

That’s called graft-versus-leukemia effect. But with that included graft-versus-host disease, which is when the new graft, the new immune system doesn’t always recognize well the person’s own tissues, whether it’s the liver, or the lung, or the skin, and you can have immunologic reactions to that.

So, that’s a complex discussion. But, transplant, typically for patients less than 70 years of age who have high-risk myelofibrosis or even up to 75 if they have a good performance status and as we said don’t have a lot of comorbid issues with a goal of cure. So, if you have someone where their goal is to try to maximize their time out of the hospital and they’re not focused on longevity, their focused on quality of life, that may not be an appropriate patient for transplantation.

So, I think a very upfront, honest and a transparent discussion with the patient about what to expect with transplant, what are the pros and cons, what are the risks involved, and importantly does it match up with their expectations or their desires.

What Are the Benefits of MPN Inhibitor Treatment?

What Are the Benefits of MPN Inhibitor Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

MPN expert Dr. John Mascarenhas shares an overview of how inhibitor therapy works to treat myelofibrosis (MF) and the benefits of this type of treatment.

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Mascarenhas, what is inhibitor therapy and how does that work?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

So, inhibitor therapy in general are usually oral drugs for the most part, small molecule inhibitors that are geared and usually specific but not totally specific because then they can have off-target effects, but geared to inhibiting usually an enzyme that is overactive or is contributing to the pathophysiology of the disease.

I think in MF, probably one of the best examples is a JAK2 inhibitor. So, there are a number of JAK2 inhibitors that have been in clinical testing. There are two that are approved, ruxolitinib and fedratinib which are excellent drugs in inhibiting JAK2 protein itself in the cells that could be either upregulated or hyperactive in the signaling pathway, and it quiets down a signaling pathway in the hematopoietic cells that leads to a lot of the manifestations of the disease, namely symptoms and spleen.

So, one of the clear benefits of JAK inhibitors that was established many years ago and reinforced by multiple drugs that are either approved or in late-stage testing is these drugs are excellent in improving the symptom burden in the patients and reducing their spleen. Unfortunately, as a class, we’ve not seen these drugs induce remissions or cure patients. So, there’s still interest in developing, obviously, non-JAK inhibitor therapies. But inhibitors in general are inhibiting proteins that are either inappropriately activated or part of a cascade of signaling molecules that are contributing to the disease.

And they are not chemotherapeutic, which might be an important point to make. In past days, we’ve relied heavily in hematologic malignancies in using chemotherapies which are nonspecific and just kill dividing cells whereas inhibitors typically are targeted, and in some sense, it’s personalized to the disease with toxicity profiles that are usually quite distinct from the traditional chemotherapies that we use.  

 

How Do MPNs Progress From One Disease to the Next?

How Do MPNs Progress From One Disease to the Next? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Understanding how essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF) are connected may be confusing to patients. Dr. John Mascarenhas, an expert in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), provides an overview of how the conditions are defined and how they may progress from one condition to the next.

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell: 

As we move through today’s program, which is going to cover the three classic MPNs, polycythemia vera, essential thrombocythemia and myelofibrosis. So, for someone who has one of these conditions, can you help us understand how one may progress to the next?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, these are a very heterogeneous or variable group of diseases that are under an umbrella called the myeloproliferative neoplasm. So, MPNs can really present and behave and have very different clinical courses. So, I think it’s very important for patients to realize that these are rare diseases, that that has a complexity to it because they don’t always have the ability or the privilege to know other patients or people in their lives that may have these diseases. So, it could be very frightening from a level of feeling isolated or alone with a diagnosis like this and not having familiarity, but also, that these are vague diagnoses in the sense that when you have breast cancer, one can kind of conceptualize that there is a mass in the breast, for example, and that that can be staged. It can go to the lymph nodes in the armpit, it could spread below. And people can kind of understand that concept. I think it’s a little bit more challenging when you talk about MPNs because it’s a little bit more abstract.

These diseases are within the bone marrows at diagnosis. So, they’re not staged in a physical way, and they are complex because they can lead to high blood counts, low blood counts, different types of symptoms, and the approaches really have to be personalized. They are all three interrelated because there are commonalities. So, there are certain clinical commonalities and also biologic commonalities. So, for example, the JAK2 mutation, the JAK2V617F mutation is seen in all three diseases. So, it’s not specific to one or the other.

It’s more common in polycythemia vera, but in about 50 percent of patients with ET, and 50 percent of patients with MF, you can see this mutation. So, the mutation alone doesn’t really tell us what the disease is. It just tells us you have one of these diseases. And, there are other mutations. So, a bone marrow biopsy then becomes integral in helping subtype the patient and then create that treatment plan and that outlook that’s specific for that disease.

And as you mentioned, to make it even more complicated, these diseases can overlap not just biologically, but in a continuum. So, patients with ET or polycythemia vera can progress in some cases to myelofibrosis. And, all three diseases in a minority of patients can progress or evolve into acute myeloid leukemia, which is a more aggressive form of bone marrow cancer.

Patient Considerations That Impact MPN Treatment Decisions

Patient Considerations That Impact MPN Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can personal choices play a role in your MPN care? Dr. John Mascarenhas reviews factors that should be considered, including lifestyle and overall health, when choosing therapy for essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF).

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Outside of testing, what other factors should be considered when choosing treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

I think patient expectation. So, sometimes physicians and family will impose what they want for a patient, and that may not be what the patient really wants. So, I have learned over the years that it’s crucial to make sure that you understand the patient and what the patient’s expectations, desires, and that’s influenced by the life they’ve lead or the remaining life that they want to live and their own personal religious and spiritual beliefs.

So, I think knowing your patient and understanding what their expectations are, it’s fundamental, and sometimes, it’s overlooked. So, understanding that, I think, is very crucial. And then, dividing what are the objectives of the treatment in a given patient? Is it really to improve anemia in some patient versus perhaps a different patient, it may be to improve their quality of life and reduce their symptom burden. And then in other patients, it may be purely trying to cure the disease with therapies that may be aggressive, which may not be appropriate for an older patient where toxicity could outweigh any potential benefit of survival or longevity. So, you really have to have a discussion with the patient or caregivers, and then define what are the goals in that individual to personalize that approach for that patient.

Katherine Banwell:                  

Right. Right. And, there’s the patient’s overall health, comorbidities, other things like that?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

Yeah, because we are not treating a disease in isolation usually. So, patients come with baggage posed of past diseases, current diseases.

And sometimes patients are not “fit” for certain types of therapies because they may be sick or they may have organ dysfunction that would make certain types of treatment approaches ill-advised because the toxicity could be higher. So, absolutely, you need to know their comorbid index, how much comorbidities they have and also their performance status, how active and how well they are in general.

Katherine Banwell:                  

Are there specific biomarkers that may affect prognosis or treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

So, yes and no. I mean, I think that’s an area of intense interest and research. So, we have identified certain biomarkers that have, as I mentioned, prognostic significance, and that may influence treatment decisions. So, patients who have, for example, as we discussed next-generation sequencing and we see their mutations that are present, if they have an accumulation of high molecular risk mutations, that may give us a sense that perhaps that patient may not enjoy the full benefit and duration of benefit of, for example, a JAK inhibitor as another patient that has a less complex disease.

And, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the therapy is not appropriate for the patient. But it may help us plan and be prepared to move on to the next therapy sooner or to be more vigilant for changes that would tell us it’s time to move on. So, I think they help us maybe get a general sense of things and put things into perspective. They don’t always necessarily inform us on a change in therapy immediately or the next or the most immediate therapy. But I do think that that will change because I would predict in the next five to 10 years, I think that the number of available drugs for myelofibrosis, for example, will likely double from what it is now. I think we will have an armamentarium to choose from, and what we will learn from trials that are ongoing is there may be certain profiles, mutations, chromosomal profiles, other clinical variable profiles that we will learn from these trials that will help us to find upfront, “Well, this profile really should go with his medication. That profile should go with that medication.”

An early of example that would be we’re learning that not all patients with the JAK2 mutation are created equal, that you can have different burdens of JAK2 mutation.

And, patients with low burden JAK2 mutation, for example, may fare better with up a specific JAK to inhibitor like pacritinib than patients who get treated with other JAK inhibitors like ruxolitinib.

So, there are differences even within patient defined by mutation that may help us predict which of the JAK inhibitors, as an example, may be more appropriate as a first-line therapy. So, I think that will evolve more so over the next five to 10 years.

What Questions Should Patients Ask About MPN Test Results?

What Questions Should Patients Ask About MPN Test Results? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What should you know about your MPN test results? Dr. Mascarenhas discusses how test results are used, including the importance of genetic mutations and risk stratification when analyzing results.

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell: 

Some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests. So, what key questions should they ask their physician about testing?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

Well, I think it’s important that the patients feel empowered to understand sort of where the field is and what key questions you would ask a physician, hematologist who’s taking care of you. So, I think all patients should be aware of their diagnosis, the name of the diagnosis, the subtype, but also do they have any of the key driving mutations, the JAK2 mutation, the calreticulin mutation, the MPL mutation, and that’s usually done off of a bone marrow biopsy sample, but it can be done off peripheral blood. And, they may not always know that it’s done. So, I think having a discussion with the position to understand there are criteria that exist called the World Health Organization criteria that are updated frequently and should set a standard throughout the world of how you diagnose and establish these diagnoses.

So, I think it’s important for physicians to be able to convey to the patients with confidence, “We follow these criteria and you have these criteria and we’ve done this testing that shows that you have these mutations.” And not just regurgitate what they found, but help them understand and navigate with that means, which again, I will point out that sometimes we don’t know. But, I think it’s important for physicians to convey sometimes that some of the findings that they may see, for example, patients look on portals these days and they can look at their labs and stuff like that. And, we don’t always have a terrific answer or an informed answer for everything that we get back. And, we will potentially in 10 years from now, but sometimes at the moment, we don’t. But, I think a discussion about the meaning of the labs that are obtained is probably good for the patient to understand what’s being done.

Katherine Ba:nwell:

Absolutely. It sounds like each person’s situation is unique and should be considered before making any treatment choices. Can you talk about how the results of these tests may affect prognosis and treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:     

So, we do have risk stratification systems that we use for essential thrombocythemia, polycythemia vera, and myelofibrosis. I’ll talk about myelofibrosis because that’s probably a little bit more of a complex and sophisticated model. It’s also changing, and we update it frequently. And, these models are imperfect, so I always warn patients to not put all of their money in one basket when we talk about risk stratification. They broadly help us understand where a patient is in their disease course. So, for example, in myelofibrosis, historically, the DIPSS, the Dynamic International Prognostic Scoring System is used, which considered five clinical variables that have been shown to be independently prognostic. So, at age over 65, the presence of blasts or circulating immature cells in the peripheral blood, anemia, hemoglobin less than 10, symptoms, fevers, night sweats, weight loss or a high white count over 25,000, you those points up.

And patients can do this online. There are calculators that you can calculate your DIPSS score. And, you’ll see that there are four different risk groups that range from low risk to high risk, and they are associated with median survivals. We now know that mutations influence those, have influence on prognosis. So, there are a group of high molecular risk mutations like ASXL1, SRSF2, IDH1/2. So, there are mutations that also have prognostic significance, and we incorporate them into the decision-making.

And, essentially, and this is where I think patients have to be very careful, physicians have to be very careful with conveying this. With these risk models whether they are clinical variable risk models or these integrated molecular risk models, each category is associated with a median survival, that’s based on retrospective studies. But that doesn’t tell the patient specifically what they should expect in terms of survival. And, I always fear that patients, when they look at these things, or even physicians when they convey them that they may inadvertently misrepresent or convey what those really mean.

And, I think the purpose of those risk stratifications is really to help guide a risk adapted treatment approach that’s reasonable and is weighted for benefit to risk of the disease. So, for example, if you have advanced disease with a high-risk score of intermediate to or higher, bone marrow transplant in certain patients may be a warranted therapy to consider. So, they really help inform treatment.

 

Which Tests Do You Need Following an MPN Diagnosis?

Which Tests Do You Need Following an MPN Diagnosis? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

After a diagnosis of essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF), what testing should take place? Dr. John Mascarenhas shares an overview of essential and in-depth testing for patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs).

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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MPN Treatment: What Is the Role of Biomarkers?


Transcript

Katherine Banwell: 

What tests are necessary to help understand a patient’s specific disease at diagnosis?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Usually, the blood counts are the first opening door test that allows some understanding of, again, either an abnormal production of red blood cells, platelets or under production of these cells. And, that’s really where often the evaluation begins. And then, there are further blood tests that often are done.

And I would say almost indefinitely or almost definitely one should have a bone marrow biopsy that helps categorize the type of myeloproliferative neoplasm because there can be overlap in how the blood counts can look from one disease to the next and overlap in the mutations like the JAK2 mutation. So, sometimes, the blood counts and the molecular testing are not enough, and a bone marrow biopsy looking under the microscope at the different types of cells, the proportion of cells, whether there’s fibrosis where there’s others other types of cells that shouldn’t be there and they’re looking at the chromosomes and the flow cytometry, these are associated tests. As well as almost probably anywhere anyone goes at this point, they’re going to get next-generation sequencing, which is looking at multiple genes and mutations, and that gives a more broader, deeper sense of the disease.

So, those really become the integral parts. In some cases, patients will end up getting imaging of their abdomen to see if they have an enlarged spleen or enlarged liver.

Although that’s not always necessary, that is often part of the workup. So, it’s bloodwork, it’s bone marrow biopsy, sometimes imaging is usually the cornerstone.

Katherine Banwell: 

And, what is molecular or biomarker testing?

Dr. Mascarenhas:    

So, molecular testing today really means – at one point, it really meant looking at PCR for specific gene mutations.

So, for example, we would look at the JAK2 and we would say, “In a given person, is this gene mutated?” We all have JAK2 gene, but in patients with these diseases, they’re more commonly mutated which means altered in the blood cells. And, it’s very important for a patient to understand not in every cell in their bodies, but in their blood cell compartment. And, that helps us understand and start characterizing their disease, and sometimes that mutation can be measured. It can be at a low level. It could be a high level. And, that’s all put together in trying to understand the molecular basis of these diseases.

Today, next-generation sequencing has really taken over and that’s looking at more than just one gene.

Its sequencing could be 40 genes, it could be 200 genes, to get a sense of the complexity of the disease and looking for certain mutations which are considered biomarkers that can portend prognosis or I think increasingly, we’ll see may inform treatment decisions and may even be targets themselves of therapies.

Katherine Banwell:              

Right. Should all patients diagnosed with ET, PV, or MF undergo biomarker testing? Is that necessary?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

I would say it’s part of the modern evaluation and management of patients today. I don’t think that that was true 10 years ago. But, I think the field has matured. I will say I’m the first person to acknowledge to patients that we get a lot of information back, and the truth is we don’t often know what to do with all of that information. So, sometimes we get information back that can cause anxiety because you can see mutations in genes. But they don’t always inform us on how to educate the patient about their disease or tell us what to do with the treatment.

So, there is still a lag as there normally would be between the testing of the results that we get, and then the actual knowledge of what to do with that. And, that’s still a process that’s in evolution.

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

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

What should you know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR MPN? MPN expert Dr. John Mascarenhas reviews key factors–including essential testing–that guide treatment decisions for essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), and myelofibrosis (MF). Dr. Mascarenhas also provides an overview of available treatment types and why he’s hopeful about the future of MPN research.

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Transcript

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today, we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized therapy for your MPN and how you might benefit from key testing. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.

All right. Let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Mascarenhas. Welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Thanks for having me. My name is John Mascarenhas. I am an associate professor at the Icahn School of Medicine here at Mount Sinai in New York City, and I am a clinical investigator in myeloproliferative neoplasms, and I direct the Adult Leukemia Program here.

Katherine:

Excellent. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us today. Before we delve into our discussion, let’s start with a term we’ve been hearing a lot about recently. How would you define “personalized medicine?”

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, it’s a good question because I think it’s poorly defined in many ways because it can mean different things I think to different people. And, it’s a definition that’s in evolution. So, I think at its core, personalized medicine tries to embody the concept of creating an evaluation and management plan that is specific of tailored to that patient on multiple levels.

On a personal level, on an objective level of what the patient’s objectives are with their therapy or their disease, and then on a biologic level in terms of the type of disease, and now increasingly, on a molecular level. So, in some cases, it may be personalized therapeutics that are specific or targeted to certain mutations that the patient may have. And, that’s kind of where things are evolving from a treatment perspective. And to me, personalized medicine should be the goal of any interaction with a patient that you have to personalize the approach. Because, every patient that we meet is quite different and distinct from the next patient, and their own sensitivities, understandings and desires can be quite different. So, you want to personalize that approach to that patient at the most basic level.

Katherine:

Yeah. Well, that’s really helpful as we move through today’s program, which is going to cover the three classic MPNs, polycythemia vera, essential thrombocythemia and myelofibrosis. So, for someone who has one of these conditions, can you help us understand how one may progress to the next?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, these are a very heterogeneous or variable group of diseases that are under an umbrella called the myeloproliferative neoplasm. So, MPNs can really present and behave and have very different clinical courses. So, I think it’s very important for patients to realize that these are rare diseases, that that has a complexity to it, because they don’t always have the ability or the privilege to know other patients or people in their lives that may have these diseases. So, it could be very frightening from a level of feeling isolated or alone with a diagnosis like this and not having familiarity, but also, that these are vague diagnoses in the sense that when you have breast cancer, one can kind of conceptualize that there is a mass in the breast, for example, and that that can be staged. It can go to the lymph nodes in the armpit, it could spread below. And people can kind of understand that concept. I think it’s a little bit more challenging when you talk about MPNs, because it’s a little bit more abstract.

These diseases are within the bone marrows at diagnosis. So, they’re not staged in a physical way, and they are complex because they can lead to high blood counts, low blood counts, different types of symptoms, and the approaches really have to be personalized. They are all three interrelated because there are commonalities. So, there are certain clinical commonalities and also biologic commonalities. So, for example, the JAK2 mutation, the JAK2V617F mutation is seen in all three diseases. So, it’s not specific to one or the other.

It’s more common in polycythemia vera, but in about 50 percent of patients with ET, and 50 percent of patients with MF, you can see this mutation. So, the mutation alone doesn’t really tell us what the disease is. It just tells us you have one of these diseases. And, there are other mutations. So, a bone marrow biopsy then becomes integral in helping subtype the patient and then create that treatment plan and that outlook that’s specific for that disease.

And as you mentioned, to make it even more complicated, these diseases can overlap not just biologically, but in a continuum. So, patients with ET or polycythemia vera can progress in some cases to myelofibrosis. And, all three diseases in a minority of patients can progress or evolve into acute myeloid leukemia, which is a more aggressive form of bone marrow cancer.

Katherine:

Well, let’s turn to testing. And, you did just mention this. You touched on it a moment ago. What tests are necessary to help understand a patient’s specific disease at diagnosis?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Usually, the blood counts are the first opening door test that allows some understanding of, again, either an abnormal production of red blood cells, platelets or under production of these cells. And, that’s really where often the evaluation begins. And then, there are further blood tests that often are done.

And I would say almost indefinitely or almost definitely one should have a bone marrow biopsy that helps categorize the type of myeloproliferative neoplasm because there can be overlap in how the blood counts can look from one disease to the next and overlap in the mutations like the JAK2 mutation. So, sometimes, the blood counts and the molecular testing are not enough, and a bone marrow biopsy looking under the microscope at the different types of cells, the proportion of cells, whether there’s fibrosis where there’s others other types of cells that shouldn’t be there, and they’re looking at the chromosomes and the flow cytometry, these are associated tests. As well as almost probably anywhere anyone goes at this point, they’re going to get next-generation sequencing, which is looking at multiple genes and mutations, and that gives a more broader, deeper sense of the disease.

So, those really become the integral parts. In some cases, patients will end up getting imaging of their abdomen to see if they have an enlarged spleen or enlarged liver.

Although that’s not always necessary, that is often part of the workup. So, it’s bloodwork, it’s bone marrow biopsy, sometimes imaging is usually the cornerstone.

Katherine:

And, what is molecular or biomarker testing?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, molecular testing today really means – at one point, it really meant looking at PCR for specific gene mutations.

So, for example, we would look at the JAK2 and we would say, “In a given person, is this gene mutated?” We all have JAK2 gene, but in patients with these diseases, they’re more commonly mutated which means altered in the blood cells. And, it’s very important for a patient to understand not in every cell in their bodies, but in their blood cell compartment. And, that helps us understand and start characterizing their disease, and sometimes that mutation can be measured. It can be at a low level. It could be a high level. And, that’s all put together in trying to understand the molecular basis of these diseases.

Today, next-generation sequencing has really taken over and that’s looking at more than just one gene.

Its sequencing could be 40 genes, it could be 200 genes, to get a sense of the complexity of the disease and looking for certain mutations which are considered biomarkers that can portend prognosis or I think increasingly, we’ll see may inform treatment decisions and may even be targets themselves of therapies.

Katherine:

Right. Should all patients diagnosed with ET, PV, or MF undergo biomarker testing? Is that necessary?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

I would say it’s part of the modern evaluation and management of patients today. I don’t think that that was true 10 years ago. But I think the field has matured. I will say I’m the first person to acknowledge to patients that we get a lot of information back, and the truth is we don’t often know what to do with all of that information. So, sometimes we get information back that can cause anxiety because you can see mutations in genes. But they don’t always inform us on how to educate the patient about their disease or tell us what to do with the treatment.

So, there is still a lag as there normally would be between the testing of the results that we get, and then the actual knowledge of what to do with that. And, that’s still a process that’s in evolution.

Katherine:

Right. Some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests. So, what key questions should they ask their physician about testing?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Well, I think it’s important that the patients feel empowered to understand sort of where the field is and what key questions you would ask a physician, hematologist who’s taking care of you. So, I think all patients should be aware of their diagnosis, the name of the diagnosis, the subtype, but also do they have any of the key driving mutations, the JAK2 mutation, the calreticulin mutation, the MPL mutation, and that’s usually done off of a bone marrow biopsy sample, but it can be done off peripheral blood. And, they may not always know that it’s done. So, I think having a discussion with the position to understand there are criteria that exist called the World Health Organization criteria that are updated frequently and should set a standard throughout the world of how you diagnose and establish these diagnoses.

So, I think it’s important for physicians to be able to convey to the patients with confidence, “We follow these criteria and you have these criteria and we’ve done this testing that shows that you have these mutations.” And not just regurgitate what they found, but help them understand and navigate with that means, which again, I will point out that sometimes we don’t know. But I think it’s important for physicians to convey sometimes that some of the findings that they may see, for example, patients look on portals these days and they can look at their labs and stuff like that. And, we don’t always have a terrific answer or an informed answer for everything that we get back. And, we will potentially in 10 years from now, but sometimes at the moment, we don’t. But I think a discussion about the meaning of the labs that are obtained is probably good for the patient to understand what’s being done.

Katherine:

Absolutely. It sounds like each person’s situation is unique and should be considered before making any treatment choices. Can you talk about how the results of these tests may affect prognosis and treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, we do have risk stratification systems that we use for essential thrombocythemia, polycythemia vera, and myelofibrosis. I’ll talk about myelofibrosis because that’s probably a little bit more of a complex and sophisticated model. It’s also changing, and we update it frequently. And, these models are imperfect, so I always warn patients to not put all of their money in one basket when we talk about risk stratification. They broadly help us understand where a patient is in their disease course. So, for example, in myelofibrosis, historically, the DIPSS, the Dynamic International Prognostic Scoring System is used, which considered five clinical variables that have been shown to be independently prognostic. So, at age over 65, the presence of blasts or circulating immature cells in the peripheral blood, anemia, hemoglobin less than 10, symptoms, fevers, night sweats, weight loss or a high white count over 25,000, you those points up.

And patients can do this online. There are calculators that you can calculate your DIPSS score. And, you’ll see that there are four different risk groups that range from low risk to high risk, and they are associated with median survivals. We now know that mutations influence those, have influence on prognosis. So, there are a group of high molecular risk mutations like ASXL1, SRSF2, IDH1/2. So, there are mutations that also have prognostic significance, and we incorporate them into the decision-making.

And, essentially, and this is where I think patients have to be very careful, physicians have to be very careful with conveying this. With these risk models whether they are clinical variable risk models or these integrated molecular risk models, each category is associated with a median survival, that’s based on retrospective studies. But that doesn’t tell the patient specifically what they should expect in terms of survival. And, I always fear that patients, when they look at these things, or even physicians when they convey them that they may inadvertently misrepresent or convey what those really mean.

And, I think the purpose of those risk stratifications is really to help guide a risk adapted treatment approach that’s reasonable and is weighted for benefit to risk of the disease. So, for example, if you have advanced disease with a high-risk score of intermediate to or higher, bone marrow transplant in certain patients may be a warranted therapy to consider. So, they really help inform treatment.

Katherine:

Right. You mentioned a couple of these already. But, outside of testing, what other factors should be considered when choosing treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

I think patient expectation. So, sometimes physicians and family will impose what they want for a patient, and that may not be what the patient really wants. So, I have learned over the years that it’s crucial to make sure that you understand the patient and what the patient’s expectations, desires, and that’s influenced by the life they’ve lead or the remaining life that they want to live and their own personal religious and spiritual beliefs.

] So, I think knowing your patient and understanding what their expectations are, it’s fundamental, and sometimes, it’s overlooked. So, understanding that, I think, is very crucial. And then, dividing what are the objectives of the treatment in a given patient? Is it really to improve anemia in some patient versus perhaps a different patient, it may be to improve their quality of life and reduce their symptom burden. And then in other patients, it may be purely trying to cure the disease with therapies that may be aggressive, which may not be appropriate for an older patient where toxicity could outweigh any potential benefit of survival or longevity. So, you really have to have a discussion with the patient or caregivers, and then define what are the goals in that individual to personalize that approach for that patient.

Katherine:

Right. Right. And, there’s the patient’s overall health, comorbidities, other things like that?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Yeah, because we are not treating a disease in isolation usually. So, patients come with baggage posed of past diseases, current diseases.

And sometimes patients are not “fit” for certain types of therapies because they may be sick or they may have organ dysfunction that would make certain types of treatment approaches ill-advised because the toxicity could be higher. So, absolutely, you need to know their comorbid index, how much comorbidities they have and also their performance status, how active and how well they are in general.

Katherine:

Right. Are there specific biomarkers that may affect prognosis or treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, yes and no. I mean, I think that’s an area of intense interest and research. So, we have identified certain biomarkers that have, as I mentioned, prognostic significance, and that may influence treatment decisions. So, patients who have, for example, as we discussed next-generation sequencing and we see their mutations that are present, if they have an accumulation of high molecular risk mutations, that may give us a sense that perhaps that patient may not enjoy the full benefit and duration of benefit of, for example, a JAK inhibitor as another patient that has a less complex disease.

And, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the therapy is not appropriate for the patient. But it may help us plan and be prepared to move on to the next therapy sooner or to be more vigilant for changes that would tell us it’s time to move on. So, I think they help us maybe get a general sense of things and put things into perspective. They don’t always necessarily inform us on a change in therapy immediately or the next or the most immediate therapy. But I do think that that will change because I would predict in the next five to 10 years, I think that the number of available drugs for myelofibrosis, for example, will likely double from what it is now. I think we will have an armamentarium to choose from, and what we will learn from trials that are ongoing is there may be certain profiles, mutations, chromosomal profiles, other clinical variable profiles that we will learn from these trials that will help us to find upfront, “Well, this profile really should go with his medication. That profile should go with that medication.”

An early of example that would be we’re learning that not all patients with the JAK2 mutation are created equal, that you can have different burdens of JAK2 mutation. And, patients with low burden JAK2 mutation, for example, may fare better with up a specific JAK to inhibitor like pacritinib than patients who get treated with other JAK inhibitors like ruxolitinib.

So, there are differences even within patient defined by mutation that may help us predict which of the JAK inhibitors, as an example, may be more appropriate as a first-line therapy. So, I think that will evolve more so over the next five to 10 years.

Katherine:

Dr. Mascarenhas, what is inhibitor therapy and how does that work?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, inhibitor therapy in general are usually oral drugs for the most part, small molecule inhibitors that are geared and usually specific but not totally specific because then they can have off-target effects, but geared to inhibiting usually an enzyme that is overactive or is contributing to the pathophysiology of the disease.

I think in MF, probably one of the best examples is a JAK2 inhibitor. So, there are a number of JAK2 inhibitors that have been in clinical testing. There are two that are approved, ruxolitinib (Jakafi) and fedratinib (Inrebic), which are excellent drugs in inhibiting JAK2 protein itself in the cells that could be either upregulated or hyperactive in the signaling pathway, and it quiets down a signaling pathway in the hematopoietic cells that leads to a lot of the manifestations of the disease, namely symptoms and spleen.

So, one of the clear benefits of JAK inhibitors that was established many years ago and reinforced by multiple drugs that are either approved or in late-stage testing is these drugs are excellent in improving the symptom burden in the patients and reducing their spleen. Unfortunately, as a class, we’ve not seen these drugs induce remissions or cure patients. So, there’s still interest in developing, obviously, non-JAK inhibitor therapies. But inhibitors in general are inhibiting proteins that are either inappropriately activated or part of a cascade of signaling molecules that are contributing to the disease.

And they are not chemotherapeutic, which might be an important point to make. In past days, we’ve relied heavily in hematologic malignancies in using chemotherapies which are nonspecific and just kill dividing cells whereas inhibitors typically are targeted, and in some sense, it’s personalized to the disease with toxicity profiles that are usually quite distinct from the traditional chemotherapies that we use.

Katherine:

Well, outside of inhibitor therapy, let’s review other treatments for patients. Depending on the patient, it seems like ET or PV may be easily managed. So, how are they treated? Let’s start with essential thrombocythemia or ET.

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, ET is a disease in which first and foremost, we’re trying to reduce the risk of thrombosis, clotting, and/or hemorrhage bleeding. So, typically, ET patients are risk stratified by low risk or high risk.

It’s almost simply based on their age, whether they’ve had a clot in the past, and some systems now even incorporate other factors like mutation status. And, you tailor the treatment based on their risk score. So, low risk ET patients don’t necessarily need to be treated. They can be followed expectantly and watched. The height of the platelet count does not predict thrombotic risk. So, we don’t treat the platelet count per se. A high-risk patient is at high risk for clotting. So, these patients almost invariably are getting aspirin at a baseline, and they are often on cytoreductive therapy. And sometimes, that is chemotherapy like hydroxyurea (Hydrea). Sometimes it’s a non-chemotherapeutic option and like anagrelide, and sometimes it’s a biologic therapy like interferon alfa either 2a, PEGASYS, or 2b ropeginterferon. And, these are therapies that have rationale, that have clinical data, that have demonstrated reduction in risk of clotting, which again is the reason why we treat high-risk ET patients.

Katherine:

And, what about PV, polycythemia vera?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, in polycythemia vera, it’s similar to ET. We risk stratify patients low and high risk based on age and clotting histories. And whether you’re low or high risk, we give PV patients aspirin or at least once daily, and we look to keep their hematocrit below a threshold of 45 percent. And sometimes in women, we even go lower, to 42 percent. But the idea is that controlling the hematocrit, which is one of the red blood cells indices, you reduce the risk of having clots, and that’s been shown actually many years ago and reinforced in a very well-known study called the CYTO-PV study in Italy documented that if you keep the hematocrit less than 45 percent, so, stringent control versus allowing for less stringent control between 45 to 50, that you reduce by fourfold the number of cardiovascular events that can occur.

So, we know that controlling the hematocrit is important, and that can be done, again, with hydroxyurea, interferon, and ruxolitinib. The JAK2 inhibitor has also proved specifically for patients who had an intolerance or refractory hydroxyurea, but also importantly as a drug that can address, probably better than most drugs in this field, the symptom burden that could be problematic for some of those patients. But it’s really about controlling the hematocrit.

Katherine:

Yeah. Since myelofibrosis is a progressive condition, I imagine that makes it more difficult to manage. So, what else is available for patients with myelofibrosis?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

The first line of treatment is typically a JAK inhibitor, although I would say that there are a subset of patients – well, there are patients we sometimes meet that have very low risk disease. They don’t have those clinical variables we discussed before that could uptick their risk score, and some of those patients can be watched.

And interestingly, there are a subset of patients that can have an indolent or slow form of the disease where they don’t have aggressive changes in their disease, their blood counts, their symptoms, their spleen, and don’t need immediate treatment. Most patients would benefit from a JAK inhibitor, although there are a subset of patients where their issue is less simple in spleen burden and it’s more anemia.

So, we take those patients where anemia’s the focus, we look at their erythropoietin level, which is their endogenous hormone level that regulates red blood cell production. If it’s low, we give them a lab-based form of erythropoietin, something called PROCRIT or Aranesp. If it’s high, we will move on. We can use a drug called danazol, which is a synthetic male androgen which can improve hemoglobin levels in 20 to 40 percent of patients. Or, we can use a drug called lenalidomide, which is an immunomodulatory drug. And, more recently, there’s a drug in testing called to luspatercept, which is an active activin receptor ligand trap. So, there is a growing armamentarium of drugs that can be used to try to alleviate the anemia which is present and can be a significant issue in about a quarter of patients with myelofibrosis upfront at time of diagnosis or about 75 percent through the course of their disease. So, that’s an unmet need that still requires attention and may alter the treatment plan for a given patient.

Katherine:

What about stem cell transplants?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, we relegate stem cell plant transplants for those patients as mentioned before that are higher risk because we think that the potential benefit-to-risk ratio is in favor of transplant.

Transplant is really a modality that is the only modality that offers the potential for cure, but it’s also a modality that poses a significant risk of morbidity and mortality associated with it. So, it has to really be taken very seriously. It can’t be the kind of treatment you would think of as a last resort at the last minute. Once you see a transplanter, if they’re interested in that therapy and see it early on in the disease course, in my opinion, to start that dialog and then figure out when is the optimal time to employ a bone marrow transplant, which is not a surgical procedure. It’s often thought to be surgical. It’s not a transplant of an organ. It’s a transplant of hematopoietic cells. So, it’s really an infusion of stem cells that then end up in the person’s bone marrow, and they create a whole new hematopoietic system and immune system. And with that, you can have an immune system that then goes after the myelofibrosis stem cells.

That’s called graft-versus-leukemia effect. But with that included graft-versus-host disease, which is when the new graft, the new immune system doesn’t always recognize well the person’s own tissues, whether it’s the liver, or the lung, or the skin, and you can have immunologic reactions to that.

So, that’s a complex discussion. But, transplant, typically for patients less than 70 years of age who have high-risk myelofibrosis or even up to 75 if they have a good performance status and as we said don’t have a lot of comorbid issues with a goal of cure. So, if you have someone where their goal is to try to maximize their time out of the hospital and they’re not focused on longevity, they’re focused on quality of life, that may not be an appropriate patient for transplantation. So, I think a very upfront, honest and a transparent discussion with the patient about what to expect with transplant, what are the pros and cons, what are the risks involved, and importantly does it match up with their expectations or their desires.

Katherine:

Right.

We have a question from Mike that we received prior to the program. He wants to know, “What does it mean to have high-risk myelofibrosis?”

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, high-risk can be defined different ways. For example, if you’re using the DIPSS score, it means that you have enough of those points to put you in a category that would suggest that your disease is more likely in a shorter time period to cause significant morbidity and mortality than someone who has low risk disease. So, it’s really, as we said before, we don’t stage myelofibrosis like stage I, II, III, and IV metastatic disease. But we risk stratify patients. We put them in these categories, and that helps to decide what treatments may be more appropriate. And as we were discussing, transplant is a therapy if you’re a high-risk patient and you’re inclined and you don’t have a lot of comorbidities, and you’re not very advanced in age. That may be a treatment that is appropriate for a high-risk patient, a high risk for having a bad outcome of the disease within a shorter period of time.

Katherine:

Right.

And we have another question from Craig that we received earlier. “I’m currently receiving regular phlebotomies for PV, but my doctor is considering switching me to inhibitor therapy. What can I expect and are there side effects that I should be concerned about?”

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, for some patients, therapeutic phlebotomy is all that they need, and they do very well with it, and they don’t need to take a therapeutic like a JAK inhibitor or hydroxyurea, which is a non-specific treatment.

But some patients do. So, some patients where if their risk score is higher and their risk for thrombosis, that may be an appropriate indication. And some patients have a lot of symptoms with their PV. So, not all PV patients present and behave the same way. Some patients have a very low symptom burden. Some patients have a very significant symptom burden. Itching, for example can be a very annoying and very troublesome symptom for patients with PV.

And, if you don’t have PV or you don’t know someone with PV, you may not understand or realize the negative impact of having intractable itching, often associated with taking a shower or warm water.

And, that can really detract from quality of life and cause a lot of anxiety. So, that’s an example of where sometimes a JAK inhibitor like ruxolitinib can be really lifesaving in terms of restoring quality-of-life and functionality to a patient.

Usually, drugs like ruxolitinib are very well-tolerated too, which we’re fortunate about. There’s not a lot of toxicity associated with them. So, for example, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair falling out with chemotherapeutics, you really don’t see with ruxolitinib or Jakafi. Easy bruising, headaches and some dizziness up front sometimes may be seen. They’re usually low-grade and they’re usually fleeting. And usually, the benefit, the feel-good aspect of it outweighs toxicity that can be seen with the drugs. They are immunomodulatory drugs. So, ruxolitinib or Jakafi may increase, to some small extent, but likely, real extent, infectious complications like shingles, urinary tract infections, upper respiratory infections. So, sometimes there is this increased risk. It’s often outweighed by the benefit of the drug.

But, there are risks that are associated, and of course the results are not guaranteed. So, I always warn patients, be careful when you look at the package inserts or talk to the physicians. Risks are risks. They’re not guaranteed. So, most patients don’t have these toxicities, but one is at risk for toxicity whenever they take any medication.

Katherine:

Yeah. Before we close, Dr. Mascarenhas, let’s talk about research. Are there new developments that you’re excited about?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Absolutely. So, what I’m happily interested in and involved in is clinical investigation and moving the field forward, and there are many people out there that are similarly involved and they’re doing really excellent work. So, I am super jazzed and enthusiastic and optimistic, and it’s what gets me work every day and inspires me is all of the effort that is happening. And, it’s a continuum. So, it’s not just one person trying to try a different drug here and there. It’s really a bringing together of many different people because these are rare diseases.

Many different people from many different institutions that have different areas of expertise, but have a common goal of translating from laboratory informed data, so, not just taking a dart and throwing it at the dartboard and hoping it sticks. But actually taking data that we learned from the lab and leveraging that information to develop therapies that are informed, that are targeted, that are personalized and going through a process of evaluating them to get them into the clinic, with the goal of, and I would say ambitiously, our goal these days is moving beyond trying to make patients feel better, which is an important goal, but it’s really can we really target the disease in a more effective way to induce remissions, to, dare I say, cure patients. So, I think the ambitious goal of the clinical investigators and laboratory investigators that are active in MPN research today is really one looking for an understanding at the basis of the biology of the disease to develop curative therapies. And, I am optimistic that that will happen.

And, I don’t mean happen in a hundred years from now. I mean happen in our lifetime. So, that’s where we’re going. There’s a lot of very exciting drugs, oral and intravenous drugs and they target very different types of aspects of the disease, and I think patients and physicians will see that maybe those drugs are used best in combination. So, the idea of using one drug, waiting for it to fail and using another drug is really old news, and much of oncology is combination therapy. So, taking drugs that have different targets or mechanisms of action and non-overlapping toxicity to try to better target and delete what’s called the myelofibrosis stem cell that’s the basic issue here, which we don’t effectively delete other than transplant. So, our goal would be to put bone marrow transplanters out of business.

Katherine:

Well, that’s a great plan. I hope that that can happen one day. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Mascarenhas. We appreciate you taking the time.

Dr. Mascarenhas:

My pleasure.

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners.

To learn more about MPNs and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us today. Thank you so much.