CLL Treatment: Finding the Best Option for YOU

CLL Treatment: Finding the Best Option for YOU from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How could genetic testing results impact your chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment options and overall care? Dr. Jennifer Woyach discusses essential molecular testing and provides tools for self-advocacy and decision making.

Dr. Jennifer Woyach is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Institute. Find out more about this expert here. 

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Welcome to Insist CLL, a program focused on empowering chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients to take an active role and insist on better care. Today, we’ll discuss the latest advances in CLL, including the role of genetic testing and how this may affect treatment options. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Joining me is Dr. Jennifer Woyach. Welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Woyach:               

Sure. My name is Jennifer Woyach. I’m a CLL specialist from the Ohio State University.


Thank you. A reminder, this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your own healthcare team. Well, Dr. Woyach, let’s start by understanding CLL. Would you briefly walk us through what CLL actually is?

Dr. Woyach:               

Sure. CLL is a cancer of the blood, the lymph nodes, and the bone marrow.

And it happens when a particular type of white blood cell called a B lymphocyte acquires genetic mutations and transforms into a cancer cell. And then, over time, those cancer cells continue to grow and divide. And they can cause symptoms such as enlarged lymph nodes if the cells get stuck in the lymph nodes and continue to grow there. It can cause a high white blood cell count, which usually doesn’t cause any symptoms but is one of the things that we see often in CLL. And then, it can also cause the bone marrow to not be able to produce normal cells because it can get so infiltrated or so full of CLL cells.

And this can cause things like anemia, which is lowering of the red blood cell count and thrombocytopenia, which is lowering of your platelet count.


What are the steps involved in reaching a diagnosis?

Dr. Woyach:               

CLL is an interesting disease because it’s one of the only cancers that does not require a biopsy of something for a diagnosis.

So, we can, actually, make the diagnosis of CLL based on the peripheral blood. So, just a blood draw in somebody’s doctor’s office. Usually, CLL is diagnosed in the asymptomatic stage. So, somebody goes to their primary care doctor, has blood drawn usually for another reason, and is found to have a high white blood cell count or sometimes even a fairly normal white blood cell count but a high percentage of lymphocytes. That certain type of cancerous white blood cell. So, the next step in the diagnosis then is something called peripheral blood flow cytometry, which is a specialized test where we look at the markers or antigens on the surface of white blood cells.

So, there is kind of a code of these markers on the surface of all of your blood cells that can tell what type of cells they are. So, for CLL in particular, we’ll see that the cells express some of the normal markers we would see on a normal B lymphocyte.

Things like CD19, CD20, CD23. But they also express a marker called CD5, which is found on normal T lymphocytes but shouldn’t be found on B lymphocytes. And so, this collection of surface markers can make the diagnosis of CLL. Sometimes, we do need to do extra studies like a bone marrow biopsy or a lymph node biopsy. But often times, those are not necessary at the time of diagnosis.


When you meet with patients, Dr. Woyach, what are some common misconceptions that you hear about?

Dr. Woyach:               

I think the biggest thing that I hear, and grant it I see a lot of patients after they’ve been diagnosed by someone, gone to see an oncologist and then, come to me after, but one of the common things that I hear is that somebody has told them along the way that they have the good type of cancer, which I think is not a very helpful thing to hear as a patient because, of course, no cancer is a good type of cancer.

I think it’s important to note that CLL is one that has a lot of treatment options and usually extended survival. But I think that’s one of the most common misconceptions that I hear.


Before we get deeper into our conversation about genetics, there are a few terms that patients are often confused by. As a primer, I thought we could start by defining some of these terms. First, what is genetic or molecular testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, all cancer cells will have a collection of mutations or abnormalities in the DNA that either make the cell a cancer cell or make it behave in a certain way. And so, these mutations are referred to as the genetic abnormalities of the CLL cells. So, when we talk about genetic testing in CLL, we use it to mean a number of things. We can use it to look specifically for types of mutations so types of genetic abnormalities.

We also sometimes use that as a kind of catch all term like genetic or molecular testing also to refer to looking at changes in the chromosomes inside of a CLL cell. That’s also called cytogenetic testing. And then, we also use a number of tests in CLL where we look at specific, not necessarily abnormalities, but just changes in the cell that can indicate a certain type of behavior.


How is this different from genomic testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, genetic and genomic testing, I think, are usually used interchangeably. But sometimes, we use them in different contexts but they really mean the same thing in this case.


Okay. And what is a chromosome change?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, as you might remember from biology class maybe a long time ago, as it was for me, inside a cell, so a normal cell or a cancer cell, you have the nucleus, which holds the DNA.

And the DNA is organized into chromosomes. And so, when a cell goes through division, it takes those chromosomes, copies them and then, breaks them apart into two different cells. So, changes can happen in the level of the DNA itself. So, a mutation where one base is changed to something different. So, that would be just like a single nucleotide change. And that’s something you’re not going to see as a change to a chromosome. Another thing that can happen in CLL and in other cancers, too, is that during that process of cell division, an entire chromosome could be duplicated. It could be absent.

More commonly, parts of chromosomes can change. This is all because cancer cells just do a very poor job of editing their division.

An in normal cells, there are multiple steps along the way from the process of copying the genes to copying the chromosomes to doing the division. And every step along the way, if something happens incorrectly, which happens a lot, the cell usually just dies. But a cancer cell is not going to do that because it has so many signals that keep telling it to stay alive that it can tolerate a lot of different abnormalities. And so, you end up with cells that are just very different from what you would see normally.


All right. Well, that’s a great way for us to start. Let’s go into the discussion of the relationship between testing and CLL. How is testing administered?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, almost all testing, in terms of molecular genomic testing in CLL, can be done on a blood sample. So, that’s one important thing.

The CLL guidelines recommend that testing for certain prognostic factors be done before the administration of therapy. So, at the very least, before somebody starts treatment, they should have these tests performed. In my practice and I think most CLL specialists find it really helpful to do these tests, not necessarily just at the time of treatment but really at the time of diagnosis or the time we first see the patient because CLL is a very heterogenous disease, which means that it behaves very differently in different people. So, there are some people that are diagnosed and will go 10 or 20 years before they need any treatment.

And many don’t need treatment at all. Whereas other people are very likely to need treatment within the first few years after diagnosis. Some of the genetic tests that we do can help counsel patients on where they’re likely to fall in that spectrum.

And so, I think that’s helpful for people to know early on in the disease course. But really, the tests can be performed at any time before treatment


Have there been advances in testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

Absolutely. I think in every cancer, we’ve learned so much more about the biology of the disease, specific mutations that cause specific behaviors of cells, and really much more in CLL about the common genetic changes and what those means to response to therapy.


The goal of this program, Dr. Woyach, is to provide the confidence and tools for patients to advocate for the essential tests to get the best care personalized to them. Are there specific tests that patients should make sure they have?

Dr. Woyach:               

Yeah. In CLL, I would say there are three that are very, very important before starting treatment. The first is something called the IGHV mutational status.

What that is defined as is the changes in the variable region of the immunoglobulin heavy chain. That’s a big mouthful that doesn’t mean a lot to most people. So, I’ll give you just a little background on what that really means biologically and then, what that means clinically. So, every B lymphocyte, so a normal B lymphocyte and a CLL cell, has receptors on the surface of the cell that allow it to interact with the environment. And in a normal B lymphocyte, this is really important for the immune system. So, bacteria, virus, something is in the body and the B cell surface receptor is going to be able to recognize that that’s not supposed to be there and then, do something about it.

In CLL, the surface receptors don’t do a lot of interacting with the outside environment but they’re still present there. And in a normal B cell development, the B cells are initially formed in the bone marrow.

And at the time that they’re formed, every one of those receptors is exactly the same. So, we can do DNA sequencing on those receptors and you’ll see that every one is identical. So, during a normal development of a B cell, it undergoes this process that’s called somatic hypermutation, which is where those receptors mutate or change. And that’s important because then, they can recognize different things. And so, you end up with this whole repertoire of thousands or millions of B cells that all are a little bit different and can recognize something different.

So, CLL cells, they’re all clonally related to each other. They’re all going to have the same receptor on their surface. And about 60% of the time that receptor is different than the newly born B cells. And so, this is probably a little bit more simplistic than it actually is. But the way we think about that is that those B cells or those CLL cells, which we call mutated because they underwent that mutational process, we think that that means that they come from a more mature initiating cell.

And they tend to be less aggressive, more slow growing. The other 40% of patients, if you look at the receptor on their surface, it’s exactly the same as the new B cells in the bone marrow. And we call those IGHV unmutated because they haven’t done that mutational process. And they behave very differently. So, in mutated CLL, only about half of people will ever need therapy in their lives. An average time from diagnosis to first treatment is about 10 years. In contrast to those patients who have unmutated IGHV, basically, all of those people will need therapy at some point in their lives. And average time from diagnosis to first treatment is about three years.

So, you can see how it really breaks people up into two very different categories of disease.

So, that’s the first test and one that’s really important. That’s also one that doesn’t change during the course of the disease. So, if somebody is diagnosed with mutated CLL, it’s always mutated. So, the next marker that’s important is, actually, chromosome changes. So, we know that there are a few different recurrent chromosome abnormalities in CLL that are common and important prognostically. So, one of these is a deletion of part of chromosome 13. It’s called a 13q deletion. It indicates, again, very slow growing CLL. Patients how have normal chromosomes also are very good disease biology.

Some people have an extra copy of chromosome 12. That’s called trisomy 12 and that’s an intermediate marker. And then, there are two markers that are associated with a little bit more aggressive CLL. One is a deletion of proto chromosome 11. That’s called an 11q deletion.

And the other one is a deletion of proto chromosome 17 called a 17p deletion. These are all abnormalities that are important to test for. And the way that we test for these is something called FISH testing. And FISH stands for fluorescence in situ hybridization. And it’s a way to use an antibody to look for specific abnormalities in the CLL cells. So, that’s important. And another thing that can be done at specialized centers is something called stimulated cytogenetics. So, I mentioned to you with FISH testing, we’re looking for specific abnormalities with antibodies. But the things that we don’t test for we’re not going to see.

So, if they have a chromosome change that we don’t have an antibody looking at, we’ll never detect it. And we know that patients with CLL who have what’s called a complex karyotype, which is three or more chromosome abnormalities, they also have more aggressive disease.

So, like I said, at specialized centers, we can do what’s called a stimulated karyotype, which is where we look at all of the chromosomes. So, that’s FISH testing and karyotype. And then, the last thing is, actually, doing DNA sequencing for a specific mutation called a TP53 mutation. And TP53 is an important tumor suppressor protein. And it is mutated quite commonly in CLL. About eight to ten percent of patients at the time of first treatment and, actually, up to about forty percent of people later on in the course of the disease. Most of the time, we see TP53 mutations occur at the same time as 17p deletions. About 80% of the time, those occur together but they can occur on their own.

So, that’s the third test that’s often helpful, especially prior to starting treatment.


Do patients need to be retested over time?

Dr. Woyach:               

Yeah. So, for the TP53 mutation and for FISH, it’s important to test for those before each line of therapy. Because those are so important in indicating disease biology and, specifically, with the 17p deletion and TP53 mutation, those indicate patients that are likely to not have as good of a response to treatment. It’s always important to check for those prior to therapy.


We have a patient question. I have 17p deletion. Should I be worried?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, 17p deletion is usually associated with more aggressive disease biology almost always associated with that unmutated IGHV. The reason I bring that up is there are a very small subset of patients who have 17p deletion and mutated IGHV who, actually, have pretty indolent or slow growing disease.

People who don’t, which is the majority of them with 17p deletion, do have a shortened time to treatment and shortened survival with most of our current therapies. There have been a lot of advances though in the treatment of 17p deleted CLL. And may of our newer therapies can very much prolong the remission time in the lives of patients with 17p deletion.


Dr. Woyach, how do these chromosomal changes affect disease progression and prognosis?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, the markers that are associated with more aggressive disease biology usually are going to be associated with people that need treatment within the first few years after diagnosis, especially those people who have 17p deletion, 11q deletion, unmutated IGHV.


What exactly are prognostic factors? Would you define that?

Dr. Woyach:               

Sure. Prognostic factors, and I mentioned three of them, the IGHV, FISH, and the TP53 mutation, are ones that have been studied extensively and shown that the presence of this marker or some change in this marker is associated with a change in the biology of the disease or in the response to therapy.


How does the identification of these changes or mutations affect treatment options?

Dr. Woyach:               

Well, right now, we’re lucky in CLL because we have a lot of treatment options. I would say the most important changes when we’re talking about somebody with CLL that is about to start their first treatment is the decision of whether chemotherapy is ever appropriate. So, almost everybody with CLL now is treated exclusively with targeted therapies.

So, nonchemotherapeutic options. There are some people who are young, and in CLL terms that means under the age of 65, who have mutated IGHV and who otherwise have good genetic list disease. So, normal chromosomes of the 13q deletion, no TP53 mutation. That small subset of patients, actually, has the potential to be cured with a specific type of chemotherapy. It’s called FCR or fludarabine, cyclophosphamide, rituximab. So, for those young, healthy patients, it’s really important to know those risk factors to know if they are in that group that has that potential for cure.

The converse to that is if patients don’t fall in that group, they probably shouldn’t receive chemotherapy as their first treatment because it’s not as effective as our other therapies.


Yeah. It makes sense.

Dr. Woyach:               

And then, even in the future with first and other treatments with novel therapies, we know that patients with 17p deletion and TP53 mutation tend to have a shorter response time. And so, what I use that for in my practice is I know that those are people that I really have to be sure that we’re following them closely, taking any signs of progression seriously, and always have a back up plan for what we’re going to do if this treatment doesn’t work.


We have another question from a patient who wants to know if their children will inherit CLL. Is there any link between inherited mutations and CLL?

Dr. Woyach:               

That’s a very, very common and really important question. I would say of the hematologic cancers, CLL is one with higher linkage in families, which means that people with CLL are more likely to have another family member with CLL though it’s still not very common.

And it’s very different from breast cancer or the solid tumors where we know that these specific mutations indicate families that are going to have risk of disease. There has actually been a lot of study over the years of families that tend to have multiple people with CLL. Unfortunately, there really have not been genes identified that are the reason for those family linkages. I think there has been only one family that I know of where they’ve actually found a gene that was likely the cause of multiple family members’ illnesses. So, yeah, there is no indication to test family members.

I tell people do not worry that you’re going to pass this to your children or your grandchildren. CLL is not something that we should be using as like a marker of whether you should have kids or should have anything like that.

So, maybe a little more likely in family members but not enough to really be worried about that.


What are the differences or difference between inherited and acquired genetic mutations?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, inherited mutations are those that you get from your parents. And there are lots of inherited mutations that, actually, can predispose to cancer. Specifically, I mentioned the TP53 mutation and CLL cells. Well, there are also people who inherit a TP53  mutation have risk factors for multiple cancers. And CLL, specifically, every mutation that we talk about is an acquired mutation. So, that’s also known as a somatic mutation. So, they’re mutations in the cancer cells. But if you did DNA sequencing of the normal cells, they would not be there.


We have a question from a patient. If I have FCR, does that rule out me using a targeted therapy later on?

Dr. Woyach:               

Absolutely not. And, actually, all of the studies of the targeted therapies, all of the early studies were done in people who previously had had chemotherapy. Most of them had received FCR. So, certainly, receiving chemotherapy doesn’t mean that you can’t get a targeted therapy later on.


What are other factors that are important to consider when deciding on a treatment route?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, besides the genetic factors we talked about, other things are age and very closely related to age is fitness status. So, how active is somebody? How able are they to do all of their normal activities? Are there other health problems that we need to be concerned about when thinking of treatment?

As well, certain medications can influence treatment choices, specifically, with oral therapies where there might be drug interactions. And then, also a lot of the decision of frontline therapy is patient preference right now. So, do people prefer to have a time limited therapy? Do they prefer to have an indefinite therapy? Do they prefer an all p.o. regimen or a mix of p.o. and IV? So, there are definitely a lot of considerations when thinking about frontline treatment.


Dr. Woyach, what do you feel is the patient’s role in this conversation about treatment approaches?

Dr. Woyach:               

I think that, obviously, the patient is the most important part of the talk of treatment indications. Like I mentioned, sometimes we have the discussion of chemotherapy versus a targeted therapy. More often, the discussion is we have three approved frontline CLL therapies right now. We have two BTK inhibitors or Bruton’s tyrosine kinase inhibitors, ibrutinib, acalabrutinib.

And then, we have a BCL-2, venetoclax, that’s given in combination with an antibody called obinutuzumab. These are very different treatments in terms of side effects, [inaudible] [00:28:13] how they’re administered, how often they’re administered, just as an example. The BTK inhibitors are pills. And they’re meant to be given indefinitely. So, you start them with plans that you’re not going to stop them, unless the patient doesn’t tolerate them or they stop working. And so, with that type of regimen, you have the kind of burden of being on treatment for a long period of time.

But on the flipside, it’s very easy to start treatment. So, if you decide you want a BTK inhibitor, I write a prescription for it, it comes to your house, you start it. I usually see patients monthly for the first six months and then, we go to every three months. It’s very easy to start treatment.

The other type of treatment, the Venetoclax plus with the obinutuzumab regimen, that’s the BCL-2 inhibitor with an antibody, it’s a finite therapy. So, people are treated for a year and then, they go off treatment. The flipside of that is they’re a lot more time intensive in the beginning. So, you have the IV therapy with the obinutuzumab. Venetoclax you, actually, have to ramp up the dose so patients have to come in weekly for the first five weeks and they have to come in monthly for their infusions. So, it’s much more time intensive upfront but then, you get to stop treatment. And so, those are considerations that I can’t answer for somebody.

I don’t know which one people would prefer and people prefer different things. So, we spend a lot of time talking about all of the different scenarios and what’s going to make the therapy work best for the patient.


How can patients stay informed about CLL?

Dr. Woyach:               

There is a lot of good information about CLL that’s available online through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

They have a number of resources for lots of different cancers, including CLL. There are a number of different patient centered websites. One is called the CLL Society. There are others that are heavily moderated, provide a lot of good information, and tend to stay on topic with CLL current developments and don’t get into the weeds too much I would say.


If there are side effects, what would some of the side effects be for these targeted therapies?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, it depends on the drug. So, BTK inhibitors, specifically, ibrutinib can cause some joint and muscle pain, some rashes, diarrhea, heart burn. Those are things that tend to, if they’re going to happen, usually happen earlier on in treatment and tend to get better over time. It can also cause high blood pressure. It can cause an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation.

So, those are things we watch out for with ibrutinib. Acalabrutinib really has all of the same side effects but for many of them, they don’t occur as often. And then, the tradeoff there is ibrutinib is given once a day and acalabrutinib is given twice a day. With venetoclax plus obinutuzumab with that regimen, you get a lot more hematologic toxicity. So, you see more lowering of the good white blood cell count, which is, obviously, a risk for infections. That regimen comes with a risk of something called tumor lysis syndrome, which is where the cells can break down too quickly and cause damage to the kidneys, damage to the heart.

It can also cause some GI disturbance like some diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, things like that. I see there are a lot of side effects. And, of course, when I’m talking to a patient about treatment, we go over them in more detail than that. But I think the important thing is with all of these therapies, we do have ways to manage these side effects.

One thing I think is important for patients to remember is your doctor doesn’t know you’re having side effects unless you tell them. So, we know that people have these side effects. But if you don’t tell us that you’re having diarrhea or heart burn or things like that, we can’t help with it. And we have a lot of medicines that can help these things.


That’s a good point. Are there emerging treatments patients should know about?

Dr. Woyach:               

Yeah. There are a lot of really exciting things going on in CLL right now. And CLL is a disease that has been completely transformed in the last five to ten years and is poised to do so again. So, I mentioned these therapies that we use for frontline treatment and there are clinical trials now combining them together. So, these agents work so well on their own. Are they going to be even better if we add them together?

There are also newer target therapies, different targets that we are finding increasingly important in CLL, as well as a modality called CAR-T cells, which most people have heard of where we take patients’ own T cells, modify them in the lab and then, give them back with a goal of getting those cells engineered to kill CLL cells.

These are all things that are not ready for prime time in CLL yet but are available in clinical trials. And I think one other thing I’d really like to put a plug in for is clinical trials in CLL because right now, we’re at a point where our therapies are really very good. But if people just do those treatments, we are never going to figure out which one is the best or figure out, for specific types of patients, which treatment is the best. And so, I advocate that any of my patients that are eligible for clinical trials should consider them because that’s how we make progress in the disease from an altruistic sense.

That’s how we make things better for everybody. That’s one way a patient can think about it. But more personally than that, being in a clinical trial gives somebody the opportunity to get a treatment that they otherwise wouldn’t get that might be better than our standard of care therapies.


Dr. Woyach, as a researcher in the field, why are you hopeful?

Dr. Woyach:               

I am so hopeful in CLL because there is so much that we’re learning every day about the biology of the disease, about specific mutations and other genetic factors that are important and really can be targeted by new drugs. Paralleling our understanding of the disease, there also are many more techniques to make these targeted therapies that kill cancer cells selectively while sparing normal cells and making our drugs even more tolerable.

And I think both the targeted therapies like this and the potential of combining them, figuring out sequences that are best but then, also these newer modalities where we, actually, get the immune system involved like the CAR-T cells. They’re making CAR NK cells now. And just lots of other strategies that could be used together with targeted therapies to, hopefully, cure the disease.


Thank you for taking the time to join us today and sharing all of this information with the patients. We appreciate it.

Dr. Woyach:               

Of course. It’s my pleasure.


Please take a moment to fill out our survey. It helps us as we plan upcoming programs. And thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit I’m Katherine Banwell.

Which CLL Treatment Approach Could be Right for You?

Which CLL Treatment Approach Could be Right for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Which CLL treatment approach might be best for your individual disease? This animated video walks through important considerations that help guide treatment decisions, including genetic testing results, lifestyle factors and patient preference. 

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Hi, I’m Christy. I’m a nurse practitioner and I specialize in chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. With a variety of available treatment options, CLL patients often wonder which approach might be best for their individual disease.

Before we walk through the information that goes into choosing a treatment approach, I want to remind you that this video is intended to help educate CLL patients and their loved ones and shouldn’t be a replacement for advice from your doctor.

So, how is a treatment path determined?

CLL physicians will typically consider several key factors to help guide the decision.

When many CLL patients are first diagnosed, their medical team may use an approach called “watch and wait” or “active surveillance.” This means that treatment won’t begin immediately. Their healthcare team will monitor their CLL via in-person visits and lab testing. And, some patients may never even need treatment, depending on their individual situation.

But, if bloodwork indicates advanced disease, enlarged, bothersome lymph nodes develop, or, if symptoms like fatigue and night sweats are negatively affecting a patient’s daily life, then it may be time to treat the CLL.

Physicians typically consider a patient’s age, overall health, and existing conditions before they suggest an approach. There are also several tests on the CLL cells that may help guide treatment decisions.

Physicians use immune globulin heavy chain gene, also known as IGHV, mutational analysis to determine whether a patient is IGHV mutated or unmutated.

In IGHV mutation analysis testing, being “mutated” is a favorable finding. 

If a patient’s IGHV status is mutated, and, depending on other factors such as age and overall health, the physician may recommend a treatment called FCR. FCR stands for the drugs used in this approach, which are two chemotherapy drugs combined with a targeted treatment that is a monoclonal antibody.  

However, it is important to realize that due to side effects and other risks, chemotherapy is not for everybody. Non-chemotherapy treatments work very well for IGHV mutated patients as well as unmutated patients.

If a patient has unmutated IGHV, then a targeted treatment or a clinical trial might be more effective.

Molecular testing, also known as genetic testing, can identify specific genes, proteins, chromosome changes, and other factors unique to your CLL.

The results can provide your healthcare team with information related to prognosis, risk and which therapy may be most effective in treating your disease.  

One of the most widely used tests is call a FISH test and it looks for specific changes in the chromosomes of your CLL cells.  These specific changes can help understand how well certain treatments are likely to work for you. 

For example, patients with the chromosome abnormality “17p deletion” may have higher-risk disease and will not respond well to chemotherapies such as FCR. An oral targeted treatment approach or a clinical trial will be more effective in patients with 17p deletion.

There are several types of targeted treatments that are currently approved to treat CLL including:

  • Monoclonal Antibodies, which work by targeting specific proteins on cancer cells.
  • And, Kinase Inhibitors, which work by blocking proteins that tell the cancer cell to grow and survive.
  • A combination of treatment approaches may also be considered.

Before you start any treatment, it’s essential to ask your doctor if you have had relevant CLL genetic testing, including FISH testing, and what the results could mean for you.

Finally, one of the most important factors that your healthcare team will consider is YOUR treatment goals. 

It’s very important to consider a treatment’s course and potential side effects.

With the many options available today to treat CLL, you will be able to get effective treatment. How your treatment choice affects your other health conditions and your lifestyle is essential.

Remember, you are a partner in your care and have an active voice in finding the best treatment for you.

When treatment is discussed may be a good time to consider a second opinion or a consult with a specialist.  If you don’t feel supported or an active member of your team, then it is always best to get another opinion if you are able.

So, how can you put this information to work for you and help improve your care?

  • Talk to your physician about what you’ve learned.
  • Ask about testing mentioned in this video and whether you need to be retested over time.
  • Discuss clinical trials with your physician.
  • Visit credible resources to stay up to date on CLL information.

Visit to learn more about CLL.

Why You Should Consider a Clinical Trial for Lung Cancer Treatment

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Dr. Erin Schenk, a lung cancer expert and researcher, explains why patients with lung cancer should consider a clinical trial and the role trials plays in clinical care.

Dr. Erin Schenk is an assistant professor in the division of medical oncology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Schenk and her lung cancer research here.

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New and Improved Lung Cancer Treatment Options


Dr. Erin Schenk:

We have a very active clinical trial practice in the lung cancer world for one reason alone, and that’s that while our current therapies are good, we can still do better. Lung cancer accounts for significant cancer-related deaths in the United States and the world. And we wanna work to try and improve how well patients do and also improve how many patients we are able to cure. Clinical trials can be at any step of your workup or treatment.

So, even patients with earlier-stage disease meaning lung cancer where we can resect it with surgery, there are a number of clinical trials going on right now to try to better improve the outcomes we see with our normal standards of care. So, whether you are having a lung cancer removed by surgery whether you’re receiving chemotherapy and radiation and immunotherapy whether your lung cancer has happened to spread outside of the lungs, there are clinical trials available at every step in the game.

And I would really encourage you to ask your cancer care team or your doctor about whether or not clinical trials might be available in your area. Because often, they can help identify new targets or other ways of trying to attack the vulnerabilities of your lung cancer.

If you are considering a clinical trial, there are a number of important questions to find out from the clinical trial team as well as your cancer care team. Some of the things are really practical, logistical questions and one of those is, “How often do I need to come to clinic? How many more schedule visits do I need?”

Usually, with clinical trials, upfront so before you get on the clinical trial or once you start receiving the clinical trial medicine or therapy, often there are more frequent visits in that initial time period. But after things are – after you’ve had several treatments with the trial medicine, often it becomes more standard of care meaning visiting once every three weeks for blood work and a visit with your team and then infusion.

So, it’s often a little more work up front, and then it gets back to the usual expectations of how often you have to be in our offices. So, I think those logistical concerns are very real because especially for larger institutions, sometimes, coming to our campuses can be a bit of a challenge. So, that would be one. I would recommend discussing logistics. Discussing with your team as to why they think this would be a trial for you is important.

Occasionally, we are able to screen for certain markers or certain things that are expressed on the cancer cells and then match you with clinical trials that try to target those specific molecules or proteins or flags that are on the surface of the cancer cell. So, oftentimes, we try to match patients up to a specific clinical trial, so better understanding why that one was recommended. And then I would ask your team to also discuss what are the side effects that have been noticed.

Often with these clinical trial medicines, we don’t have a lot of experience with how well patients do on these therapies. But sometimes, we can give you an idea in terms of what we expect and what we will watch closely for. So, I think logistics are important, why your doctor or your cancer team thinks this is a good trial for you, and then finally, what sort of side effects have been noticed as best we can tell with this new trial medicine.

Ask Your Doctor About These Essential Genetic Tests for CLL

Ask Your Doctor About These Essential Genetic Tests for CLL from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Genetic testing results can impact a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s treatment options and provide a deeper understanding into their disease. Dr. Steven Coutre, a CLL specialist, reviews essential tests and explains their role in CLL care.

Dr. Steven Coutre is a Professor of Medicine in the Hematology Department at Stanford University Medical Center. Learn more about this expert here.

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Dr. Steven Coutre:

In terms of testing for CLL, additional testing, of course, diagnostically, it’s generally not a challenge. It’s very straight-forward. A test that we call Flow Cytometry on a blood sample is usually sufficient to establish the diagnosis. Very, very uncommonly would a bone marrow exam be needed, for example. And in routine practice, also, we don’t necessarily give CT scans to establish a diagnosis or even to, as people say, stage the disease. It really isn’t necessary in most cases.

However, we do have a staging system that correlates with the extent of the disease and that’s simply based on our exam and blood counts, but people also want more information. They wanna know how they’re gonna do, specifically. So, we can add additional tests, genetic testing as people often call it, that can further subdivide individuals into groups that give you additional information on how you might do, meaning if you’re without symptoms, and an observation is recommended, you wanna know, “Well, how long is it gonna be before I need treatment?” Although our staging system gives that information, we can refine that further.

One test is the so-called FISH test, which looks at specific chromosome abnormalities, and the second test that’s generally used is called the IGHV Mutation Assay. That’s really looking at what’s called the mutational status of your immunoglobulin genes. So, it’s really those two broad categories that are most relevant.

Now, we don’t necessarily advocate doing that testing on everyone at the time of diagnosis. Certainly, not everyone who is without symptoms, where we’ve already decided that treatment is not indicated. So, as you can imagine, you can do that testing. You might come up with a profile that’s less favorable. And then, instead of the watch and wait approach, or as folks like to call it, “watch and worry approach,” you worry even more. But then, of course, if you have a favorable profile, then you’re happier. You’re more pleased.

However, we don’t do anything differently regardless of what those tests show, at least at current state. Compared to a decision that’s already been made about treat or not treat. We do, however, strongly advocate getting that testing at the time of treatment, and sometimes, repeating some of the testing with subsequent treatment, when you require treatment, say, a second time, in some cases. So, very important to have a discussion about these tests and what information you will get from them.

Well, we’ll often see patients who are coming for another opinion about their disease. Perhaps they’ve been recently diagnosed, and they have been advised for observation, so, it’s, of course, natural to ask whether that’s a reasonable approach. And in that context, other testing often comes up in the conversation. Perhaps they had the testing done, the FISH, and the mutational testing, and they wanna know what it means, or actually we see some results that have been obtained and we ask them about it. And there’s very often confusion, or really lack of information about what they mean.

So, we really try to discuss that issue. That issue of testing with each and every patient, whether or not they’ve had it done, really trying to let them know what it means. That way they’re fully informed, and in some cases, people feel very strongly that they would like to have it done, even through they realize that we’re not gonna act on it at that point. So, I think pretty much for all patients, it should be part of the initial discussion.

Again, in terms of genetic testing are these tests that I discussed. It’s important to understand what information they give you so you understand why your physician may be making a distinction between one therapy versus another. It is very, very important to get that testing, if somebody is talking about using chemotherapy, for example, hopefully. That’s quite uncommon. But with our newer agents, we know that they work broadly despite those other features.

Nevertheless, I think it’s important for a patient to at least expect the discussion about these tests. We’re not asking you to go to your physician and ask that they be done in all cases, but really understand perhaps why your physician recommended that they not be done at that particular time. 

Advocate for These CLL Genetic Tests

Advocate for These CLL Genetic Tests from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Genetic testing results can influence a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s treatment options and provide a more in-depth understanding into their disease. Dr. Philip Thompson, a CLL specialist, reviews key tests that CLL patients should advocate for.

Dr. Phillip Thompson is an Assistant Professor in Medicine in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about this expert here.

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Dr. Philip Thompson:

I would say that I see a lot of patients that have previously seen an oncologist closer to home and then traveled to MD Anderson for a second opinion. And so, I can say that over the last three or four years, there’s definitely a significant change in the awareness of physicians in general about doing genetic testing for CLL.

So, in particular, almost everybody will get a FISH test, which I didn’t always see three or four years ago. And more patients are now having IGHV mutation status analysis done. The thing that I see that is very rarely done, though, is what we call next-generation sequencing, or NGS, that looks for mutations in individual genes, and most importantly, in the TP-53 gene that I mentioned.

So, I would – and the other thing that often isn’t done is what we call a carrier tag, which is a routine analysis of the chromosomes of the CLL cells. And it requires some special techniques for the lab to get it to work in CLL. But that can actually provide additional information compared to just FISH.

So, I would suggest to a patient, particularly if they’re gonna do a bone marrow biopsy on you, which is an invasive procedure, that you really try to get some clarity around what tests are going to be ordered on that beforehand. And if you’ve just been diagnosed and you’ve got early-stage CLL, you can make an argument about how many of these tests are absolutely necessary to start with. Because the biggest utility in these tests is in determining what type of treatment you’re going to have.

If you’re not immediately going to have treatment, they don’t necessarily change what your oncologist is going to do. They’re going to monitor you over time and see if your disease is getting worse or not. But I still think they’re useful to have the – a lot of them are useful, particularly the IGHV mutation status and FISH are useful to have at initial diagnosis. Because they give you a really good idea of what the biology of this disease is – this patient’s disease is like and how quickly they’re likely to progress, and that may change how frequently you monitor the patient.

But anyway, I would say it’s important to ask them what genetic testing you are gonna get. And that you ask – have an understanding of what can be ordered.

 And in particular, if you’re going to get treatment, you must ask for TP-53 sequencing, FISH for 17-P deletion, and IGHV mutation status because those three things are essential to determine the optimal treatment that you have. And you shouldn’t feel shy about asking, are those things going to be done.   

What Do Genetic Tests Reveal About My CLL Treatment Options?

What Do Genetic Tests Reveal About My CLL Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Genetic testing results can influence a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s treatment options and provide a more in-depth understanding into their disease. Dr. Phillip Thompson, a CLL specialist, reviews three important testing results that can impact treatment timing and approaches.
Dr. Phillip Thompson is an Assistant Professor in Medicine in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about this expert here.

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Dr. Philip Thompson:

So, there are three main things we look at before initiating treatment in a patient.

One is what we call the IGHV mutational status of the patient. And this basically splits people into types of CLL. So-called mutated or unmutated. And this is a relatively complex concept. Basically, what happens in normal B-lymphocyte development, so B-lymphocytes are part of your immune system. Their job is they have a probe on the surface of the cell that looks for invading microorganisms. And when they find an invader, this probe binds to the organism. And then the cell actually undergoes, as part of its normal development, a process of mutation so that it makes the best possible antibody to fight that infection. So that’s a normal process that the B-lymphocyte undergoes when fighting infections.

So, CLL can arise from what we call a mature antigen-experienced mutated B-cell, or it can arise from a naive B-cell that has never gone through that process, in which case, it will have an unmutated IGHV. Now, it’s kind of counterintuitive, but the patients with a mutated IGHV generally have better outcomes. That type of CLL is less proliferative, it doesn’t grow as fast, and it also tends to respond better to certain types of treatment. Particularly, it responds better to chemotherapy than patients with unmutated IGHV.

However, the difference between those two is less important if you’re getting some of the newer therapies. Particularly, it seems like if you receive BTK inhibitors, it doesn’t really matter if you have mutated or unmutated IGHV, patients are responding very well. But I like to know whether they have a mutated or unmutated IGHV because it’s helpful for giving the patient an expectation of how their disease is likely to behave biologically.

But also, if they have a mutated they may be a candidate for chemotherapy-based treatment. Whereas if they have unmutated IGHV, I don’t use chemotherapy for those patients.


The second thing is a test called FISH. And FISH looks for chromosome abnormalities. So, we have 46 chromosomes, 23 from our mother and 23 from our father. They contain all of our genetic information. And in malignant diseases, you can have major abnormalities in the chromosomes of the cancer cells. Not in the rest of your body, just in the cancer cells. And they happen because of errors that are made when the cells are replicating their chromosomes.                                                                 

So, in CLL, there are four common abnormalities that we look for in a test called FISH, and they tell us a lot about the patient’s prognosis. And there’s one in particular that we look at that has a major impact on our decision making, and that’s a deletion on Chromosome 17.

So, a missing piece of Chromosome 17. And the reason that that’s important is it tends to be an aggressive form of CLL. It also does not respond to chemotherapy, or if it does, the responses are very, very short-lived. So basically, that’s a contrary indication to receiving chemotherapy for your CLL when you should receive another form of therapy if you have a 17-P deletion.

And then, finally, we look at a type of – we look for individual gene mutations in the cells. And that’s different from IGHV mutational status, although the names are kind of similar.

So, in CLL, there are numerous genes that can be affected by mutations that alter the function of the gene. In some cases, it makes the gene non-functional; in some cases, it changes the function in some way that perturbs the normal functioning of the cell and contributes to the malignant transformation of that cell.

So, the most important one, again, relates to a gene called TP-53. So that’s the gene that is deleted if you lose a piece of Chromosome 17. It’s located on the P arm of chromosome 17. If you mutate that gene, it has the same consequences essentially for the cell as if you delete it by deleting a piece of the chromosome. And the two often go together, so you’ll have a 17-P deletion and a mutation of the TP-53 gene on your other Chromosome 17. Because remember, you have two chromosome 17s. So, if you lose both, it may be even worse than only having one. However, it does seem that if you only have a mutation on the TP-53 gene, but you don’t have a deletion on Chromosome 17, that the responses of those patients to chemoimmunotherapy are still really poor.

So, it’s very important to find out, do you have a TP-53 mutation as well as do you have a deletion on Chromosome 17 before you embark on treatment, particularly if that treatment is going to be chemotherapy. So, those are the three things that we look for before    we start any patient on therapy.

Fact or Fiction? Myeloma Treatment & Side Effects

Fact or Fiction? Myeloma Treatment & Side Effects from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When it comes to online myeloma information, how do you separate fact from fiction? Dr. Irene Ghobrial shares facts about current myeloma treatments, common side effects and emerging research. Download the Program Resource Guide, here

Dr. Irene Ghobrial is Director of the Clinical Investigator Research Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ghobrial specializes in multiple myeloma (MM) and Waldenström macroglobulinemia (WM), focusing on the precursor conditions of monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) and smoldering myeloma. More about this expert here.

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Welcome to Fact or Fiction: Multiple Myeloma Treatment and Side Effects. Today, we’ll review common misconceptions about myeloma. I’m Patricia Murphy, your host for today’s program. Joining me is Dr. Irene Ghobrial. Dr. Ghobrial, why don’t you introduce yourself?

Dr. Ghobrial:

My name is Irene Ghobrial. I’m a professor of medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School.


Great, thanks so much. Before we get started, just a reminder: This program is not a substitute for medical advice, so please consult your care team before making any treatment decisions. Okay, Dr. Ghobrial, let’s get started.

Let’s talk about some of the things, first, that we hear from patients. You tell me whether or not this is fact or fiction. Here’s one: “There are a number of treatment options for myeloma.”

Dr. Ghobrial:

Fact. It’s amazing because I trained in the old days – and, this shows you how old I am – when we only had bad chemotherapy: Vincristine, Adriamycin, and dex. None of you would even know about it.

Then, we had had high-dose dexamethasone, and that was it, and then we had stem cell transplant, and that’s all we had until suddenly, we had thalidomide, lenalidomide, bortezomib, carfilzomib, ixazomib, and you think about it, we are now in an era where we have 15-20 new drugs, we have another 15-20 coming up, we have an amazing time to completely cure myeloma in the future, and that’s just an exciting time to see that happening in the last 15 years of our lifetime, when patients were living three years, when we had – I remember five percent complete remission rate.

Now, we expect that all of our patients should get into a deep remission into potentially MRD-negative disease, and that’s just the beauty of how myeloma has changed completely.


Well, you’ve already busted our second myth, I guess, that there is no cure for myeloma.

Dr. Ghobrial:

That’s correct. There is no cure for myeloma, but there is a long remission, and the question is if someone lives for 20, 25, 30 years without evidence of myeloma and they die from something else, it’s a step forward. I would love to see us say to a patient, “You are cured,” but until then, we’re getting longer and longer remissions.


How about this one? “Only blood relatives can be donors for bone marrow or stem cell transplant.”

Dr. Ghobrial:

That’s not correct at all. If we think about it, what is stem cell transplant? There are two types. There’s something called autologous stem cell transplant, meaning it’s from myself, so that means that I’m taking my own stem cells, and the whole idea of that autologous transplant is basically high-dose chemotherapy.

So let’s take your own cells before we give you that high-dose melphalan, give the chemo, and then give them back to you, so that you’re not with low blood counts for two weeks, four weeks, you’re only with low blood counts for a couple of weeks. So, that’s autologous transplant; that means I’m giving my own stem cells to myself.

Allogeneic stem cell transplant, which we rarely do now in myeloma, is from another person, and that could be from a relative, but also can be from unrelated donors if they are matching us, but that’s very few cases.


Let’s get an overview of available myeloma treatments.

Dr. Ghobrial:

Oh, boy. Okay, how long do we have here? It depends. The moment I see a patient – and again, maybe we can start with smoldering myeloma because that’s an area I’m really excited about.

If you have asymptomatic disease, it does not mean you have to watch and wait until you fall apart, until you have bone lesions, until you have anemia. We want to see those patients early because we have a lot of clinical trials, and potentially, the cure may actually be in an earlier precursor session when we treat you earlier before you have the disease.

But, the standard of care is when you have symptoms – anemia, hypercalcemia, lytic lesions, and renal failure, or other things like 60% plasma cells – we say you have active multiple myeloma, and in that case, we start saying, “Well, are you a transplant candidate or not?” In the old days, it used to be by age, but now, we say age is just a number, so it really depends on if you have good organ function, are you in an active good state, do you have good lungs, good heart, are you willing to take the transplant, because now, there’s a big discussion whether we should transplant patients or not.

And then, at the end of the day, we’re starting to actually blur that, saying that most of our treatments are almost identical, whether you are old or young, whether you’re a transplant candidate or not. It depends on frailty. Can you tolerate this treatment or not? Maybe a few years ago, we used to say a three-drug regimen is the best way to go.

Now, most of us are starting to say four-drug regimen up front is the way to go, which is an antibody – currently, it’s daratumumab – a proteasome inhibitor – it could be bortezomib or carfilzomib – an immunomodulator – likely, this is lenalidomide – and then, dexamethasone. That’s sort of the option that we have right now, at least in the U.S.

If you go to Europe, you’ll find us using different drugs, like thalidomide or other things, but most of us are thinking of a four-drug regimen to think of our up-front myeloma treatment to get you the best remission, eventually MRD-negative disease, and then we talk about transplant or no transplant, and then, of course, we talk about maintenance.

We want to keep everyone on maintenance therapy; the question is how long, which maintenance, do we use one drug or not? So, there is a lot to be discussed in treatment of myeloma, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s truly an art and science together. It’s not just “Here’s a combination because you have this treatment.” We really personalize therapy for you.

We look at your cytogenetics, your FISH. We say you have high-risk cytogenetics or not, you’re young or not, you have good organ function or not.

There are so many things that we put in consideration when we come up with a treatment plan for a patient.


We’ve been talking a little bit about what patients believe when they come in, some of the things they’re thinking about. What else do you hear from patients that you either have to correct or affirm when they come into your office?

Dr. Ghobrial:

A lot of things. I think the first thing is, of course, they say myeloma is fatal, and they’re so scared, and absolutely, I understand that, but the median survival has become so much better, so much longer. There is a lot of hope, enthusiasm, and excitement right now with the treatments we have. The second thing is most of our treatments are not your typical chemotherapy, so unlike breast cancer or other cancers where you lose your hair, you’re throwing up, you cannot work, you have to take time off, most of our drugs now, people are working full-time, they’re active, you don’t lose your hair, so probably, no one has to know unless you tell them.

And, I think that’s something important for a patient to think about. It’s their own personal life, and not having to interrupt that. I think that’s very unique. So, these are a couple things that, as they come in, that anxiety of “Oh my God, I have cancer,” and then, taking a deep breath and saying, “Now, how do I handle this situation?”


Sure. What about clinical trials? What common misconceptions do you hear from patients enrolling in trials?

Dr. Ghobrial:

There’s a lot of misconceptions, and it’s unfortunate. I would say I would absolutely go on a trial if I can. I’m a believer in clinical trials because they’re the way forward to bring in new therapies and new options. I think a lot of people think that we’re experimenting on them when we’re doing clinical trials, meaning that it’s first in human, meaning it’s the first time we try this drug, and I would say that most of our clinical trials are not first in human.

They’re not the very first time we’ve tried them. Likely, those are drugs we’ve tried, we know the side effects, we know the toxicity, but it’s the first time we’ve put it in a different combination or it’s the first time we’ve put it in a specific subset of patients to look at response or at overall survival.

Most of the trials – so, before you decide “Oh, it’s a trial,” just think – is this a phase 1, a phase 2, or a phase 3? Phase 1 are usually that first time that we try in a population. Phase 2 are usually we know already what happens, we know the toxicity, we’re bringing it to look at the response rate in general or the survival, and then, phase 3s are the bigger studies, going to the FDA for approval.

The second thing is you want to think about is there a placebo arm in it. Most of my patients really worry about “Oh my God, you’re gonna give me the placebo,” and I’m like, “No, we don’t have a placebo arm in this trial. You’re taking the drug that we tell you about.” So again, depending on the trial – read it carefully – there may be a placebo arm, but in most of them, it’s not a placebo arm.

So, I would personally go ask the doctor every time, “So, you’re talking about standard of care. What else do you have? Do you have clinical trial options or not? What’s new?” Almost every single new drug that we’re gonna get approved in the next 5-10 years from now is what we have today in clinical trials. It would be cool to try and get access to those earlier.


So, there’s a significant amount of vetting that goes on before clinical trials are actually in process on humans.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Oh, absolutely.


What are the common myeloma misconceptions about treatment side effects?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

I think the biggest thing is the loss of hair, the nausea, and fatigue, and to the point that I cannot travel, I cannot see my family, I’m gonna be so immunosuppressed. And again, that’s a huge misconception. Yes, there is toxicity for every drug. Even if you take aspirin, you have toxicity from it.

But, every drug has risks and benefits, and currently, the combinations we have are just impressive that they are well tolerated in general. I’m not saying there is no side effect – there is, for every different class of agents, there are, and you will go through those side effects with your doctor in detail – but in general, yes, you’re slightly immunosuppressed, you have to take care of it, and I said it yesterday to one of my patients – if someone is looking very sick in front of you, don’t go and hug them.

Christmas is around the corner, and we want to make sure people celebrate and enjoy life and enjoy the holidays with their family members.


Dr. Ghobrial, let’s talk about some of the things that patients are concerned about when they come in about treatment side effects, and maybe some of those things aren’t true. You tell me. Treatment side effects are unavoidable – we already talked a little bit about that. How about this one? “Myeloma patients should visit the dentist more frequently.”

Dr. Ghobrial:              

So, there is something about the bisphosphonates that we give patients, and they can cause – in a very rare number of patients – something called osteonecrosis of the jaw.

In the old days, when we didn’t know about that side effect, people would go get a root canal, come back, and have a big problem of osteonecrosis of the jaw with severe pain, and it doesn’t recover.

So, we’ve learned our lesson. We know very well that we hold Zometa or zoledronic acid if they’re getting any procedures. We make sure they don’t get surgical procedures – it doesn’t mean don’t get dental cleaning, please do the usual things for dental health, but don’t go into surgical procedures when you’re getting zoledronic acid – and we’re very careful with that.

We talk to our patients. Most dentists know about it, so I think this is something that in the old days, it was a problem. Now, we know how to medicate that.


Sure. How about this one? “Treatment causes increased risk for blood clots.”

Dr. Ghobrial:              

So, a couple of the drugs that we have – especially immunomodulators – can increase your risk for DVTs, blood clots, or pulmonary embolism, PE. So, the first thing we say is, “Let’s assess your baseline risk.

Are you someone who is at risk of clotting anyways?” Remember, myeloma also increases your risk of clotting, so you’re double. So, if you are at a high risk of clotting, then we would give the full anticoagulation. If you are not, then we would say aspirin is good enough to control that inflammation and endothelial damage that happens early on with therapy, and that can take care of it.


How about this one? “Side effects can be managed by diet and lifestyle.”

Dr. Ghobrial:              

So, I am a big believer that exercise and good, healthy living helps you in general. It makes your mood better, it makes you feel stronger, it gives you that energy because of the fatigue from the side effects, it helps with the dexamethasone because dex is a steroid, so you’re gonna be hungry, you’re gonna be eating more, and the on-and-off makes you fatigued and tired.

So, absolutely, diet and good healthy living – I’m not saying you have to go into extreme starvation and things like that. We say in general, be good, healthy living; exercise if you can.


What do you hear from your patients about side effects and treatments that they may think is true?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

I think neuropathy is very important, and we underestimate the neuropathy, so if you have numbness or tingling, tell your doctor.

That comes from Velcade; it comes from thalidomide when we used to use thalidomide, but it can happen in many patients who have an underlying amyloidosis and we did not diagnose it yet, or it can just happen as you go on from myeloma, rarely. So, tell your doctor about this.

I think the fatigue is very important to know about it because people suddenly change their life, and they want to know about that. I think the rashes that can happen with many of the drugs are very important to know about so that you’re not surprised when you get the rash. We know, for example, Revlimid can cause itching of the scalp, and that’s something that if we don’t tell the patients and they start going like this, then there is a problem.

So, it’s small things, but we want to let them know. We usually tell the patients everything, to a point of just going through all the side effects. It’s better to be aware of it, and then, if you get or not, at least you were aware.


Sure. How does one distinguish treatment side effects from comorbidities like fatigue?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

I think that’s important, and again, talking to your doctor is very important. Keeping a diary on the side is very important because you may have had some of those problems, and that could be from myeloma before you even started the drugs, and making sure that we know what’s from myeloma, what’s from your thyroid issue, what’s from your lung problems if you have asthma or COPD, what’s your diabetes if you have that or your other medications, from what are you doing with those medications.

I think that’s why when you start therapy, we tell you, “Try not to take too many other medications that we don’t know about, herbal medicines and other things, because then we don’t know what are the side effects and what’s causing what.”


Sure. You mentioned neuropathy. Let’s talk a little bit about what that is.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

So, neuropathy can come in different ways, but the most common one is numbness and tingling that you have in your tips of toes and tips of your fingers, and that can happen from medications, as we said, or from the underlying myeloma or amyloidosis. It can be painful, and we’re careful that if you have this, tell your doctor because if it get worse and worse, it’s very hard for us to reverse neuropathy, so just always tell us because we can stop the drug, we can decrease the dose rather than having you go through it.



What about this one? “An MGUS diagnosis will lead to myeloma.”

Dr. Ghobrial:     

Great question. So, let’s talk about MGUS in general. In the general population, once you’re over the age of 50, there’s a three percent change of having MGUS incidentally found, and that’s known from the big studies from Dr. Robert Kyle. Any of us walking around probably may have MGUS, and we don’t know.

We started recently a big study called the PROMISE study where we actually screen for the first time to look for myeloma – or, for MGUS – and the reason for that is we said, “You go screening for mammography with breast cancer, you go screening with a colonoscopy for colon cancer; we don’t screen for myeloma, which is an easy blood cancer with a blood test. Let’s screen for it.” So, that’s available online –

The other thing that we said is if you have MGUS, your chance of progression is only one percent per year. That’s very important to know. So, that means that in 10 years, you have a 10% chance of progression to myeloma. In 20 years, you have a 20% chance. So, if you’re 70 or 80, you may have something else that happens before you even develop myeloma or before you are at risk of myeloma.

However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have the chance. You have a very small chance; it’s a precursor to myeloma, but it’s one of the biggest precursors to myeloma, so we always tell you, “Please go see your doctor, please do follow up with us because the one thing that’s important is we catch it early before it happens.” So, it does not always go to myeloma, but if we live for another 100 years, it may actually progress to myeloma because of the 1% chance per year.


How about this one? “MGUS and smoldering myeloma are the same.”

Dr. Ghobrial:              

That’s not true. That’s a very important question. So, in general, MGUS is diagnosed as having less than 10% plasma cells and a small monoclonal protein, less than 3 grams, and you don’t have any organ damage.

Smoldering myeloma – and, the name says it; it’s almost myeloma, it has a higher chance of progressing to myeloma – in general, it’s about 10% per year, and usually, the bone marrow has more than 10% plasma cells. Now, you start telling me as a patient, “Well, if my bone marrow is nine percent, I’m MGUS, and if it’s 11%, I’m smoldering myeloma, that doesn’t make sense.” So, it’s correct. In general, those demarcations or numbers are more for us as physicians to talk to each other about what we’re calling rather than the patient themselves. The patient is a continuum.

So, you may move from MGUS to smoldering at a certain point, and it’s not really that extra percentage of bone marrow that moves you into the 10% risk. In general, again, smoldering myeloma, you have a higher chance of going to myeloma. So, I saw a patient recently who’s 30 who has smoldering myeloma. The chances of progressing to myeloma is 10% per year. In five years, you have a 50% chance.

You want to make sure that patient is followed up carefully, and you want to offer, potentially, clinical trials because we want to prevent progression. The hope in the future is you don’t want until you have lytic lesions, fractures in your bones, kidney failure, and then we treat. The hope is we treat you earlier and we can make a huge difference in that early intersection for myeloma.


It sounds like staying engaged with your care team is critical.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Absolutely, and I would say myeloma is a specialty field. Come and see a myeloma expert, wherever it is, even for a one-time consult, because it’s really complicated and it’s not a common disease, so it’s not something easy for everyone to know what to do with MGUS, what to do with smoldering, what to do with overt myeloma. I relax for the first time. All of these things are important, and just like you go and see the best specialist in anything, I would say care about your myeloma in a very specific way, ask your doctor questions, go online and look it up, and always ask an expert if you want to have a second opinion.


Sure. How about this one? “Myeloma is hereditary.”

Dr. Ghobrial:              

It’s a very good question. So, it’s not hereditary specifically. However, there is a 2x increased risk in family members, and that goes back to that PROMISE study.

We are screening people who have first-degree relatives with myeloma. So, what does it mean? Why do I have a higher risk if I have a family member with myeloma? I recently saw a patient who – the patient had myeloma, the mother had myeloma, and the grandmother had myeloma, and you’re thinking, “Okay, there is something we’re inheriting.”

So, we don’t know. There are some susceptibility genes that we could potentially be inheriting, germ line, and we’ve done something called “germ line,” which means you have it from Mom and Dad, that can increase your risk. It could be other factors come in and we’re still trying to understand all of these factors. What are the genes that can increase your risk? Is there an immune factor that can increase your risk, and can we identify those early in the family members?


What about preventing progression from smoldering? Is there anything patients can do?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

I would say enroll on the PCROWD. Study PCROWD is empowering patients themselves to go online. You can look it up – PCrowd with Dana-Farber – so, precursor crowdsourcing.

This is a study where anyone who has MGUS or smoldering myeloma can tell us about their data – so, their clinical information – tell us about their samples – so, give us their samples whenever they’re going to get their peripheral blood or their bone marrow – and by doing that, we can look at 1,000-3,000 people, put it all together, and hopefully give you very soon the answer of what causes progression, what are the specific markers genomically and immune that can predict progression, and can we target them?

Can we develop therapy for you specifically as a smoldering patient and not use the same drugs as myeloma, but target it for one specific patient for one specific operation?


When patients come into your office, they’re learning a lot of new things. Are there terms that are confusing to patients that you need to define for them?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Absolutely. I think a lot of those terms are very hard. The words “complete remission” – was that a cure or not? It’s not.

We decrease all of your M spike, we decrease your plasma cells to zero, but it doesn’t mean that we’ve cured you. I think progression is very important. We use certain numbers. A 25% increase in your M spike or a 0.5-gram increase – even monoclonal protein is important to understand, that that’s the antibody that your plasma cells are secreting.

So, absolutely, there are so many words that could be very daunting for any patient to go through all of this. I think having an advocate with you – don’t go on your own because there’s so much information you’re getting that first time. I personally think if patients are recording us or taking notes, that’s perfectly fine because you go back and think about it, and you want to make sure that the information is clear.

So, it’s a lot of information to take in, especially if you’re not in the medical field, and I would encourage patients to ask questions, take notes, think about it a lot.


Tell me what an M spike is.

Dr. Ghobrial:    

So, an M spike – a monoclonal spike – is the protein – the antibodies. So, plasma cells are actually antibody-secreting cells, so they secrete the antibody, it goes in the blood, and when you have a lot of it from the same type of cell, they’re monoclonal, so they’re all the same IgG kappa – IgG kappa because they came all from that same kind of plasma cells.

And, when we run a specific gel, called serum protein electrophoresis, all of those antibodies will run in one area, and they will do a spike instead of going into a bigger area, where we call it polyclonal. So, that tiny little spike, which is a very high level of all of them coming together, we can measure it, and we can say, “Your monoclonal spike is 3 grams per deciliter.” If you don’t have all of them the same type of protein, they will just go around in one big area – big lump, basically, on that electrophoresis, and they will not come out as a spike. So, that’s monoclonal spike. 40:44


And, what are some reliable source of information for myeloma? The world wide web is vast.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Yeah, and it’s unfortunate. So, there is so much information, and you can get lost, and you can also get misinformation. I think some of the big foundations are very important So, I would say the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, the International Myeloma Foundation, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and of course, if you go to, you will find that information, and you’ll find a lot of the clinical trials. But again, ask your doctor. Ask the experts.


There are a lot of online forums – again, we talked about how vast the internet is. How can a patient identify misinformation online? What are some clues?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

That’s a hard one. I would say again, print it and take it to your doctor. Tell him, “Does that make sense? I’ve read this.” This is where you really need to do your research and go to the sites that you have confidence in so that you’re not lost in the middle of so much misinformation.


Do you have patients come in and say things to you that you just have to say, “Whoa, that’s just not accurate”?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Yeah, but again, this is part of the discussion. I personally think every question is a good question. Even if it sounds completely ridiculous, ask it. That’s why we’re here. We’re here to tell you, “This is right, this is wrong, this one I don’t know, I’m not so sure,” and that’s okay. It’s part of the discussion.


Before we finish up, let’s get your take on the future of myeloma. What are you seeing on the horizon?

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Oh, a lot, and I hope I live long enough to see all of the amazing things. I truly think that we will cure myeloma. I think we should treat patients early. That’s an absolute change.

I think immunotherapy is coming in, CAR-T, bispecific antibodies. We will harness our immune system to kill myeloma, and I think there’s so much to be done there. I think precision medicine is very important. The first study is from MMRF [Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation] coming out now, genotyping, asking the questions “Which mutations do you have?”, and then putting them into different buckets so you can understand which disease should be treated with which drug.

We always say we know there is different subtypes of myeloma, then we treat you the same way, so let’s stop doing that, let’s do precision medicine, let’s individualize treatment specifically for you. So, I think that’s another big thing. So, in the future, there will be so many options. The hope is truly we’ll cure myeloma, we diagnose it early, we screen for it, we diagnose it early, and we prevent it from even causing one lytic lesion for a patient. 41:52


Dr. Ghobrial, let’s end by talking about why you’re so hopeful about the future of myeloma.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Well, again, I trained – and, I said that 15 years ago – at Mayo Clinic, where we only had few drugs, when the survival of myeloma was three to five years, when we saw patients having severe fractures and severe pain, and now, we look at it, and it’s only 15 years in our lifetime, and we look at it that myeloma is a completely different disease.

We can diagnose it early – in fact, we’re thinking of screening them early – we can make a huge difference in all of the comorbidities, but the most important thing is we have so many amazing drugs that we’re using together to get an amazing, complete remission, MRD-negative disease, and then, in the next 5-10 years, I think we will change, again, immunotherapy with CAR-T. We will have precision medicine and immunotherapy to completely change how we treat myeloma. So, I am extremely hopeful and extremely excited for our patients.


So, how do you talk to your patients about this hope? I would imagine that when they come in, they’re pretty terrified about what’s going on.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Absolutely. Again, the first thing is you want to say, “Yes, you have a cancer,” and that shocks you. That is a big thing. It makes a big difference in a patient. “I have cancer now” is an important part that you have to acknowledge.

And then, you go to the next step, and now, let’s talk about treatment. Let’s talk about survival. Let’s not say, “I will not see my kids grow up.” These are not things – again, we cannot predict. We’re not gonna play God, and we can never predict if someone will respond or not, but we know from the data that we have so far that we have amazing remissions and long-term survivors. I have many of my patients that I transplanted 15 years ago still alive, doing well. Again, I cannot say that myeloma is cured, but we have a good remission rate currently.


Dr. Ghobrial, thank you so much for taking the time today.

Dr. Ghobrial:              

Absolutely. Thank you.


And, thanks to our partners. To learn more about myeloma and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit I’m Patricia Murphy.

Could an MPN Clinical Trial Be Right for You?

Could an MPN Clinical Trial Be Right for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is a clinical trial your best MPN treatment option? Dr. Ruben Mesa explains the clinical trial process and how patients may benefit from participating.

Dr. Ruben Mesa is an international expert in the research and care of patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). He serves as director of UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center in San Antonio, Texas. More about this expert here.

See More From the The Path to MPN Empowerment

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Improving Life with MPNs: The Latest Research and How to Get Involved


Dr. Ruben Mesa:

There is much exciting research in myeloproliferative neoplasms. First, research trying to understand, why do people develop MPNs, and why do they progress. This is crucial research, and that this basic research to better understand the diseases will help us asses whether our treatments are having an impact slowing down the progression of the disease, and help us better design therapies that, hopefully, can cure these diseases.

Be reassured  that our goal as a scientific community is to cure the MPNs. Now, until we’re able to do that, we want to be able to best control them as best we can. So, the next level of research is really in new therapies; primarily drug-based therapies, but future therapies using the immune system; potentially using vaccine therapy to try to better control the disease to make the disease as neutral in your life as possible.

Our goal, short of curing the disease is to make the disease as invisible in your life as possible. Hopefully, minimal side effects, minimal symptoms, protected against risk of blood clots or bleeding, ideally, decreasing the risk of progression, and hopefully without any significant side effects from the medication your receiving.

So, that really is our goal.

 Clinical trials are a crucial way for us to improve the treatments that we have for any diseases. And in particular, in areas like myeloproliferative neoplasms where we have therapies, but we don’t have cures, clinical trials are crucial. Clinical trials are a structured way for you to be able to receive a new treatment. That treatment is closely monitored, and starts with a strong belief that that treatment is going to be beneficial for you.

Being on a clinical trial has many steps, but you are in the driver seat in each of them. So, you’re able to enroll in a study, and you’re able to decide at any point whether or not you’d like to continue on in that study. You are made clearly aware of what you’re receiving; what dose; what to expect at each and every step of that therapy.

It’s a treatment just like any other, but we use them because we are hoping that it will be better than the treatments that we have, and we do it on a clinical trial so that we can learn from that experience. If that drug is better, then we should probably expand its use and give it to other people, and have it be approved and used around the world. Or for whatever reason that therapy is not as helpful as we would like, then we learn from that, as well.

Why was it not helpful? Was it the wrong therapy? Was it targeting the wrong aspect of the disease? Were there side effects that made the therapy not beneficial? So, we learn a lot about it in either direction. Hopefully, individuals who participate in clinical trials will have a direct benefit themselves by being able to experience a new therapy that is, hopefully, better. But also, they do have the ability to help other patients now and in the future that will be facing the same disease they have.

MPN Treatment Decisions: Which Path is Best for You?

MPN Treatment Decisions: Which Path is Best for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Ruben Mesa provides an overview of available treatments and reviews important factors to consider when choosing a therapy for essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV) or myelofibrosis (MF).

Dr. Ruben Mesa is an international expert in the research and care of patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). He serves as director of UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center in San Antonio, Texas. More about this expert here.

See More From the The Path to MPN Empowerment

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Essential Lab Tests for MPNs

Ready to Start an MPN Treatment? What You Need to Consider

An Expert Summary of Current MPN Treatment Options


Dr. Ruben Mesa:

The treatment landscape for myeloproliferative neoplasms is changing very rapidly. And in a good way, it’s increasingly having many more options for patients with Myeloproliferative Neoplasms. But I would separate it, really, into two groups. First, there are those individuals with essential thrombocythemia and polycythemia vera.

These individuals, we have newer therapies, such as interferons, we have, potentially, use of JAK inhibitors, we have some experimental therapies, as well as prior therapies we’ve used and become accustomed to, including hydroxyurea, phlebotomy, and aspirin.

But we’re learning much more about how to use these therapies; how to combine them; what constitutes success with these therapies; what should constitute a change in terms of therapy.

And there are new therapies being developed in the future that will impact this group of individuals with earlier MPNs: ET and PV.

For patients with myelofibrosis, the treatment is evolving. Patients with Myelofibrosis are affected in different ways. It is, in some ways, a more problematic disease.

There is evolution of our most impactful therapy, of stem cell transplantation. We have a better sense of in which patients we should consider that treatment, and how that can be applied in the safest way. We also have more medical treatments. We just saw in 2019 the approval of Fedratinib as the second specific JAK inhibitor approved for patients with myelofibrosis.

We, additionally, now have, truly dozens of clinical trials of new therapies in development that are in clinical trials right now that might be helpful for patients with myelofibrosis who have either had Ruxolitinib, or have a suboptimal response to Ruxolitinib, or sometimes even newly diagnosed patients. But I would say the future is very bright.

So, it is key with a treatment to first understand what is the treatment, what is the dose, and what is the goal? Each of the treatments have different goals. Some of the goals are to decrease the likelihood of blood clots or bleeding.

And frequently, we assess whether we’re protecting against the blood clots or bleeding by bringing down elevated counts. Is the plate account high, and we’re trying to bring it into the normal range? Is the hematocrit high, and we’re trying to bring that to under 45%? Is the white blood cell count high? Have we lowered each of those? First, it’s around controlling blood counts if that is the goal, as well as trying to decrease at risk of blood clots or bleeding.

 Second, if patients have symptoms associated with their MPN, sometimes itching, sometimes symptoms associated with high courts, sometimes enlargement of the spleen, or symptoms associated with the spleen, have we reduced or nullified those symptoms? Have we shrunk the spleen if the spleen was enlarged?

And then, finally, we assess our goal by trying to be sure that patients are not progressing or getting worse on the disease. So, depending upon the treatment, we first asses what is our goal? Is it to improve counts? Is it to improve symptoms? Is it to shrink the spleen? And have we accomplished one, two, or all three of those goals? Or was only one those our goals to begin with? 

Could an MPN Clinical Trial Be Your Best Treatment Option?

Could an MPN Clinical Trial Be Your Best Treatment Option? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Lindsey Lyle discusses the role of clinical trials as an MPN treatment option and how research is advancing the field.

Lindsey Lyle is a physician assistant at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, specializing in hematological malignancies with a subspecialty in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). More about this expert here.

See More From the The Path to MPN Empowerment

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Diagnosed With an MPN? Why You Should Consider a Second Opinion.

Improving Life with MPNs: The Latest Research and How to Get Involved

An Expert Summary of Current MPN Treatment Options



When considering treatment, remembering that clinical trials are an option – and often, a very good choice – is something that I really try to communicate to my patients. Generally, there’s a stigma around clinical trials as patients feeling like a lab rat or some sort of a study subject, and there is a perception that they’re not receiving as good of care as they would if they were not on a clinical trial. However, in my patients, I really try to dismiss this thinking because at this point in time, we do have really fairly good options for treatments with MPNs.

However, we do not have a cure for MPNs outside of a transplant, and our treatments are not perfect, and so, enrolling in a clinical trial really should be considered by patients and their providers as a very viable option.

It’s generally introducing perhaps a new way of approaching the disease treatment. Oftentimes, clinical trials are using a combination of agents, which is not necessarily available outside of the clinical trial.

And so, with clinical trials, we’re always trying to make something better. We’re trying to learn something, we’re trying to, No. 1, help the patient – so, my No. 1 goal in enrolling one of my patients in a clinical trial is to, first of all, help them, help control their disease, help them to feel better, and to live a long and good life. No. 2, we learn as we go along. Clinical trials are critical for drug development and for the future of treatment in patients with MPNs.

So, not only are our patients helping themselves, but hopefully, they are helping the future MPN patients who may come along and need a treatment. So, I always like to keep this really in the conversation when discussing treatments, and it may be up front, and it also may be after a treatment has stopped working that we consider a clinical trial.

So, there are also a lot of things that kind of go into clinical trial management and different requirements, so if a patient lives very far away, it may be challenging for them to come back to the academic center on a regular basis for routine clinical trial monitoring that’s required by the study, but if they live close by, I generally do recommend this. They are also associated with clinical research coordinators or clinical trial nurses.

And, these patients are monitored really very closely, and it’s kind of nice to have that extra person in it with you in the clinical trial, just another point person to discuss, perhaps, how you’re feeling or different questions or concerns as the clinical trial proceeds. So, when talking about treatments, in my opinion, especially in MPNs, clinical trials really should be one of the options that is first discussed when thinking about starting treatment, and especially if a treatment has stopped working.

So, there are very many exciting possibilities in MPN research right now. We have a lot of combination therapies, which I think I am most excited about, because we have a decent backbone of therapy at this point, but building on that and trying to maybe enhance the way that the backbone therapy works, and also to perhaps change the microenvironment of the bone marrow – basically, trying to reverse fibrosis.

So, there is currently a drug in clinical trial that is looking at this, and we are proceeding with this trial, and really hoping for the best, but I think that to combination therapies where we can put two things together that we think work really well together to help produce good outcomes – I think I’m most excited about that at this point.

Ready to Start an MPN Treatment? What You Need to Consider.

Ready to Start an MPN Treatment? What You Need to Consider. from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Lindsey Lyle discusses the factors that should be considered when choosing a therapy.

Lindsey Lyle is a physician assistant at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, specializing in hematological malignancies with a subspecialty in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). More about this expert here.

See More From the The Path to MPN Empowerment

Related Programs:

Diagnosed With an MPN? Why You Should Consider a Second Opinion.

Essential Lab Tests for Myeloproliferative Neoplasm (MPN) Patients

An Expert Summary of Current MPN Treatment Options



When deciding about a treatment, it’s really important for the healthcare professional and the patient to discuss the patient’s goals.

The patient really is the key player here, and we as medical professionals are here to support the patient’s goals. So, what might work for one patient is not going to be necessarily the same treatment I would choose for a different patient. So, right off the bat, identifying the patient’s goals – and really, what are we trying to fix in one specific patient is going to look different from the next patient I see in that day.

For example, there are certain clinical manifestations of MPNs that need specific treatment approaches and maybe honing in on trying to help one clinical issue.

So, first of all, identifying the disease process – that’s No. 1. What is the diagnosis? No. 2: Coming up with a goals of care plan with the patient. What is causing them the most difficulty in their everyday life, and how are we going to fix that? That’s generally where I start.

Then, I discuss with the patients the different options for treatment, which either include therapies that are FDA-approved or enrolling in a clinical trial. And then, we really talk about pluses and minuses for each of these therapeutic decisions.

Patients may have different comorbidities, so they may suffer from different chronic diseases that may impact the treatment that is chosen with the patient and their provider, as well as discussing stem cell transplant, which we haven’t talked much about, but stem cell transplant is an option, and at this point, the only curative therapy for patients with myelofibrosis. And so, determining whether or not transplant is in the patient’s best interest is also a topic of discussion when deciding on therapy approach.

Clinical Trial Toolkit

Reinventing the Clinical Trial: Start at Ground Level

If each of us humans is a snowflake, unique in our genomic makeup, where’s my snowflake medicine? I asked that question from the platform at the ePharma Summit in New York in 2013, and have yet to get an answer. The challenge for the bioscience industry is, I believe, the classic randomized clinical trial. That design goes through four phases:

  • Phase 1: a small group of people are given the drug under study evaluate its safety, determine a safe dosage range, and identify side effects
  • Phase 2: a larger group is given the drug to evaluate its efficacy and safety in a larger population
  • Phase 3: large groups – plural – of people are given the drug to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to other commonly-used treatments, and collect information that will allow the drug /treatment to be used safely
  • Phase 4: the drug is marketed while study continues to assess long-term effects and efficacy

Of course, before they even get to Phase 1, there have to be both the idea for the new treatment, and animal studies to determine what the substance or compound under study might do to a mouse or a monkey.

Science isn’t easy. The phrase “trial and error” came out of science labs, with many trials running up against the error wall by Phase 2. Since bioscience companies can sink about $1 billion-with-a-B into getting just one drug to market, it seems that the traditional clinical trial has turned into a pathway to NOT making scientific discoveries that can benefit humankind.

Then there’s the whole “who’s in charge here?” question. Clinical trials are now a global effort, with US and European pharma companies testing new treatments in Latin America, Russia, and China to gain traction in those emerging markets while simultaneously developing me-too drugs for their domestic markets. So, who’s in charge, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? The European Medicines Agency (EMEA)? A player to be named later? The answer to the question seems to be “all of the above,” which adds to the complexity of the clinical trial process.

As digital technology has made data easier to collect and share, it would seem that clinical trials would be a great place to start intersecting with the quantified-self movement. The shift to electronic health records, the widening adoption of all sorts of health tracking devices, and the rise of (relatively) cheap genomic sequencing should signal an ability to identify conditions, and populations, eager to participate in clinical investigations. But so far, it hasn’t.

What might challenge that stasis? In November 2013, three major pharma companies – Novartis, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly – announced via the White House’s website that they had joined together in a clinical open innovation effort. That page on the White House’s site is gone now – changes in Presidential administrations will do that – but here’s a direct quote from that announcement:

“In order to connect patients and researchers, Novartis, Pfizer and Eli Lilly and Company, are partnering in the U.S. to provide a new platform to improve access to information about clinical trials. The platform will enhance and will provide more detailed and patient-friendly information about the trials, including a machine readable ‘target health profile’ to improve the ability of healthcare software to match individual health profiles to applicable clinical trials. As part of the project, patients can search for trials using their own Blue Button data.”

Five years later, and we’re still stuck on the slow train when it comes to really reinventing the clinical trial.

I’m one of a growing group of people who think that the entire life-sciences process chain needs to be re-tooled for the 21st century. In my view, the best place to start that re-tool is at ground level, with the patients and clinicians who deal with challenging medical conditions daily. If a doctor has a number of patients who might benefit from some clinical study, why isn’t there an easy way to find a researcher looking into that condition? If a patient has an idea for a clinical investigation into his or her illness or condition, why can’t they find a researcher who’s interested in the same condition to team up and start a science project?

I can only hope that the regulatory agencies involved in life science oversight (hello, FDA!) can move beyond the aftermath of Thalidomide – for which epic disaster we’re still paying a price when it comes to the timeline for drug approval in the US – and toward a process of “all deliberate speed” that doesn’t forsake speed for deliberation. Both are necessary, neither should be more heavily weighted than the other.

We all can, and should, take part in scientific exploration into human life, and human health. Got an idea for a clinical trial? Share that idea in the patient communities you hang out in, and ask your tribe to help you bring that trial to life. To quote Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

We’ve got to start somewhere, right?

Reaping the Benefits of Patient-Centered Clinical Research

This blog post was originally published on Trial Mix, Science 37’s blog, and is reposted here with permission. Learn more about Science 37’s approach to clinical research or view the original post here.

Patient-centered research studies — which reduce the burden of participation — allow patients to reap the benefits by working smarter not harder.

As a scientist, I see the value in clinical research, but my time spent as a cancer patient showed me that priorities realign in times of health crisis. I cared a little less about the scientific value of what I was doing, and more about taking care of myself and spending time with my family. I know that clinical research studies do require extra effort from the participants, but patient-centered studies — those that are designed with the patient in mind — can let the patient work smarter, not harder, while still reaping the benefits.

Clinical Research Requires Some Extra Effort

I have lots of wonderful friends, many of whom have participated in clinical research studies, so I asked them to help me understand some of the hardest parts of their experiences. In addition to hearing about the experiences my friends had as adults, I also got some insight from a friend who’d been in a clinical trial as a child, and another whose son is in a food allergy research study now, giving me little peek at how clinical research impacts kids. Aside from the annoying paperwork like consent forms and surveys, here are the top three hurdles they mentioned:

  • Time: It’s precious and finite, so all those minutes and hours spent in transit, in waiting rooms, and in exam rooms prevent clinical research participants from going about their normal routine.
  • Money: While there should be no additional out-of-pocket cost for medical care to participate in clinical research, there is still a potential financial cost. Several friends talked about the need to pay for parking, miss work, or find childcare for each additional trip.
  • Extra procedures: Shots, additional medications, or daily trips to the nurse for kids who take study drugs during the school day complicate a patient’s routine, and extra scans and invasive examinations really take a toll on a person. Beyond that, of course, no one wants to go through the pain of extra biopsies or the anxiety that comes with additional scans.

Patient-Centered Study Design Can Ease the Burdens of Participation

A more patient-centered study design could remove or reduce some of these hurdles. For example, providing extra assistance like patient navigation to connect patients with resources to provide transportation, childcare, or emotional support could reduce the burden. But since closer monitoring helps the investigators learn more from the research, many of these hurdles can’t be completely eliminated.

More Than Altruism: Clinical Research Benefits Participants

While some people look at all those barriers and decide (totally justifiably) that in their circumstances, the burdens of participation are too much for their family, many of the people I spoke with who had taken part in clinical research told me the extra work was so very worth it.

One friend wrote: “Facing that needle every week and working up the nerve to jab it deep into my thigh was the hard part for me…I still wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. That study gave me my life back.”

From another: “(There were) ups and downs, but I’d do them again. I’ve had substantial shrinkage of my tumor.”

A third shared: “The extra biopsies were painful and scary. But I felt like the doctors were watching me extra so it was worth it.”

My friends could see that not only did they contribute to some particularly awesome science, but each of them were able to reap benefits in their own lifetime — either because a pill could replace the need for a weekly self-injection, the drugs actually slowed their disease, or they knew they were being monitored so much more closely than a patient under standard care.

Working Smarter, Not Harder Improves the Patient Experience

While I’m quick to tell you that the increased monitoring a patient receives from all those doctor visits, blood draws, and surveys is vital to the clinical research process, it would be disingenuous to imply that the system can’t be improved.

Investigators need to design each study to obtain the most valuable data and draw valid conclusions. By involving patients in the design process to make the studies truly patient-centric, the research protocols can be written to ensure each study respects the patient experience and reduces the negative impact on a patient’s life. The Science 37 team partners closely with patients and investigators to ensure that trials are designed thoughtfully to minimize the impact on patients and their families, making it easier for them to benefit from awesome science.

We know it’s worth it to participate in clinical research, but we still want to make it less work for the patients involved.

About the Author

Jamie Holloway is a both a scientist and a survivor, earning her PhD in tumor biology from Georgetown University — where she spent long hours researching breast cancer — a few years before her own breast cancer diagnosis. Now living with no evidence of disease after treatment for early stage triple negative breast cancer, she bridges the gap between scientists and researchers as a Clinical Research Advocate for Science 37, and as the Patient Advocate for the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project at the Broad Institute. She works with researchers as part of the Georgetown Breast Cancer Advocates and writes about her personal experience with cancer on her blog Run Lipstick Chemo, and as a contributor to the Cure Magazine community. A wife, mother, runner, and lipstick addict, Jamie shares her story from the perspective of both a patient and a scientist.

Patient Profile: Elizabeth Carswell

She was 25 weeks pregnant and felt like she had the flu. It was early July 2015 and she made her way to her obstetrician’s office because the antibiotics she’d taken over the Fourth of July holiday hadn’t made her feel better. A couple hours later Elizabeth Carswell was in the hospital being diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. She was 33 years old.

“Obviously, the scariest part was the first two months when I was still pregnant,” says Carswell, known as Liz to her friends. She was immediately transferred to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and began chemotherapy. “It was a very tough decision to be treated, but I wanted to meet my baby.”

The first two rounds of chemo were unsuccessful and her doctors wanted her to undergo a more aggressive treatment. That meant it was time to deliver the baby. Liz was 32 weeks along and the surgery was extremely risky. Her blood counts and platelets were considered too low for surgery, but despite it all, baby Hudson was born weighing in at 4 pounds. Liz continued her treatment in the hospital while Hudson was admitted to the NICU for five weeks.

When Hudson was released from the hospital, Liz was not. Her boyfriend, Hudson’s father, Frankie Lightfoot had to return home to work, so Liz’s father and her sister moved to Miami, rented an apartment near the hospital and cared for the baby. Liz was never alone. Her father and sister alternated caring for the baby and spending the night in the hospital with her. Her friends showered her with gifts for the baby and travelled to her bedside to decorate her hospital room. Meanwhile, her doctors were trying to ready Liz for a bone marrow transplant, but could never get her levels where they needed to be and eventually her Jackson Memorial team told her it was time to go home and spend whatever time she had left with her baby.

That’s when a friend connected Liz with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society which led her to a clinical trial at the City of Hope Cancer Research Hospital in Duarte, California under the care of Stephen J. Forman, M.D., F.A.C.P. She went the next day. The trial involved very aggressive full-body radiation and a stem cell transplant. Her brother, a perfect 10 match, was her donor.

The transplant put her into remission. It was November 2015. Then, in August of 2016, she found some lumps in her breast. The leukemia had returned in mass form. More radiation and seven more rounds of chemo later she is technically in remission. But, due to a gene mutation that makes her highly likely to relapse, Liz continues with regular rounds of chemo for maintenance.

“My doctor expects recurrence,” she says. That’s why she will undergo another stem cell transplant within the next couple months. This time, from an unrelated donor so that a new immune system can be introduced. She will spend another six weeks in the hospital, but she believes this is what she has to do. “I know it’s needed,” she said. “I trust it’s needed. I trust my doctor. He’s pretty amazing.”

Liz is undaunted by what lies ahead. “There are lots of ups and downs, but a positive attitude is a must if you’re going to survive,” she says. Though she credits Hudson, now two, as her main motivation. Early on she felt it was Hudson growing inside her who was keeping her alive and now being his mother keeps her going. “I’m not scared to go through it again,” she says of her upcoming transplant. “I’m excited to do it again. I’ll do anything that will give me a chance to watch Hudson grow up.”

Liz has kept a record of her journey on her Facebook page, Prayers for Elizabeth. She continues to keep her page updated and in addition to helping her, she hopes that sharing her story can help others. You can keep up with Liz here.


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