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Elevate | What You Should Know About Your Role in AML Treatment and Care Decisions Resource Guide

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Elevate | What You Should Know About Your Role in AML Treatment and Care Decisions

Elevate | What You Should Know About Your Role in AML Treatment and Care Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can you elevate your AML care and treatment? AML expert Dr. Gail Roboz discusses the importance of participating in AML treatment decisions, reviews key factors that may impact therapy options, and shares advice for advocating for yourself.
 
Dr. Gail Roboz is director of the Clinical and Translational Leukemia Programs and professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. Learn more about Dr. Roboz.
 

Related Resources:

FLT3 inhibitors for AML Update

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

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

Expert Advice | Managing AML Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects

Expert Advice | Managing AML Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects

Transcript: 

Katherine Banwell:

Hello, and welcome. I’m your host, Katherine Banwell. It’s no secret that the quality-of-care patients receive can vary, and patients who are educated about their condition and involved in their care may have improved outcomes. That’s why the Patient Empowerment Network created the Elevate series, to help AML patients and their care partners feel well-informed when making treatment decisions with their healthcare team. 

In today’s program, an AML expert will join us to share advice for accessing better overall care. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining us is Dr. Gail Roboz. Dr. Roboz, would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Gail Roboz:

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. My name is Gail Roboz. I’m a professor of medicine and director of the clinical and translational leukemia programs at Weill Cornell Medicine and the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Thank you again for having me. 

Katherine Banwell:

Well, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it. I’d like to start by discussing your role as a researcher. You’re on the frontlines for advancements in the AML field. What led you here, and why is it important to you? 

Dr. Gail Roboz:

So, I’m actually asked that question quite frequently, because AML is a challenging, difficult, scary disease, and people don’t necessarily assume that somebody in medical school would gravitate toward it. 

But I have to say that what is incredibly fascinating back then and now about leukemia is the continuous access to the disease. Patients will maybe giggle or groan as I’m saying that, because you can get a blood sample really anytime. You can even get a bone marrow sample anytime, although patients don’t enjoy that so much. 

But from a research perspective, it is absolutely extraordinary to be dealing with a disease where you can, in real time, truly run back and forth to a laboratory and see what’s happening, what is the new drug or the old drug doing, what’s happening with the patient, and I would say that from a fascination of a medical student perspective that grabbed me then and still does today.  

Katherine Banwell:

When it comes to choosing therapy for AML, it’s important to work with your healthcare team to identify what will work best for you, the patient. So, I’d like to know how you define shared decision-making.  

Dr. Gail Roboz:

The problem with AML sometimes is that it can be such an acute, emergency-type of presentation and urgent decision-making that I think your question is almost right out of the gate for some patients that will, “Wait, I don’t even have a minute, here. How do I build a team, do the research, look online if people are telling me that I’m in the middle of an emergency?”  

That isn’t always the case for acute leukemia, but it sometimes is. I think that what happens in AML in particular for patients is a building of knowledge and a building of the team, and figuring out, first of all, where am I when I am being told this diagnosis, and is it really an emergency? Do I have to make decisions really right now, because is it life-threatening today, I don’t have time to look around? Or do I have a minute to pause and get more information? 

I definitely feel that with the Internet era and with so much connection between doctors and teams, there is much more ability to reach out instantaneously for doctors, too, to get advice on a patient who might be in a smaller hospital that doesn’t have AML experience. But I think that the first thing is to try to figure out very, very quickly, what needs to happen to me as a patient immediately, and what can wait a minute, so that I can figure out what am I being told, and what are my options?  

Katherine Banwell:

Right, right. It can be confusing for patients, just finding out this new information. Part of making care decisions is setting goals. What are AML treatment goals, and how are they determined?   

Dr. Gail Roboz:

I would say that leaving cure on the table from the beginning is always a good place to start, because you want to figure out, first of all, what am I dealing with? What are the actual options?   

But when AML strikes, and a patient who has multiple medical conditions or comorbidities that are truly compromising function independently of the diagnosis of AML, that’s going to be a special path of what is actually reasonable for someone who is terribly medically ill or otherwise frail right from the beginning? That can be defining goals, but I think from the beginning, the best thing is to leave everything on the table. What can actually be done to make me better, first of all, to get me out of my immediate trouble? What can be done to make me better, and if I’m getting better, well, I like that, how do I stay there?  

What can be done to hang on to the state of ‘better,’ which is sometimes defined as remission? In AML, the goal is to get the bone marrow working again, functioning again, get rid of the acute emergency problem, if there is one, which there may or may not be in acute leukemia. 

Sometimes it’s truly an emergency, and sometimes it isn’t. But once I get better, can I stay there? What is required to keep me with a working bone marrow for as long as possible? 

But once you are starting to sort through the diagnosis, you realize that saying that somebody has acute myeloid leukemia is not telling me nearly enough information. This is a disease that is what we call biologically heterogeneous, which means there are lots of different forms. It’s like saying you’re sick. What exactly does that mean? There are lots of things that can make you sick. There are lots of different subtypes of AML, and fairly quickly in most institutions, we start getting back some information specifically on the subtype and biological characteristics of the disease.  

This can be very, very important in the initial treatment planning, and depending on where you are, the information that you get back can sometimes take 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours, a week. So, you start learning very quickly though that, “If I’m not in a complete emergency that requires instantaneous treatment, can I get back more information about the biological subtype of the disease so that I can start treatment planning of what is my best option right out of the gate?” That’s usually called induction, or the first therapy that you’re going to get with the goal, ‘getting rid of leukemia cells and getting into remission.’ That’s part one, and then everything that comes after that is about keeping you in remission.  

But for the initial goal, what is the therapy that the patient needs to get to get into remission? In order to figure that out, the good news is there are a lot of different ways to slice and dice getting into remission, and actually, it used to be such a weighty decision. 

Now, I would actually encourage people to – not relax, you can never use the word ‘relax’ with acute leukemia. But there are several different induction strategies for most patients that would be okay.  

So, even if you get started with one strategy and you hear five days later that another doctor might do something different, there are a lot of ways to safely get into remission. I think everybody should be pleased about the fact that we’re doing much better than we used to for patients across the board, all the way from children to much older adults, to safely getting people into remission. 

Katherine Banwell:

Right. So, what sort of factors then do you take into consideration when you’re choosing a therapy? 

Dr. Gail Roboz:

So, out of the gate, there are the patients that I think I referred to earlier who truly, truly are in situations based on their other diseases that there are certain treatments we would just cross out right out of the gate.  

If there are patients with very, very severely compromised cardiac or renal or lung function or are terribly ill from other conditions, AML doctors will right out of the gate for those patients eliminate certain treatments. But absent that scenario, what we try to look for is the biology of the disease. Not look at the age, not look at the comorbidities unless they are so severe that they make obvious certain choices. 

But rather, what I like to do is say, “What kind of AML is this, and what is the best treatment that I have to get this patient into remission?” And then ask the question, “can this particular patient handle this therapy?” Sometimes, these days, there actually may be more than one route to get to remission depending on the biology of the disease, and then, if that’s the case, then I can start getting picky and look at the individual patient. Where does the patient live? Who’s the patient’s family? What other diseases has the patient been treated for?  

Is there something that I can use? If I have a choice, if there are a couple of different things that might work, how do I fit the treatment to best take care of the needs of this particular patient? If I don’t have choices, then my question is, “Okay, how do I get this patient through my one therapy that I think is the truly, truly best option?” 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. I’d like to turn to test results for a moment. What sort of tests should be done following an AML diagnosis?  

Dr. Gail Roboz:

We often generally recommend a bone marrow biopsy, even if we know we can make the diagnosis from a blood test, because even though the bone marrow biopsy is not the most fun test in the world, it does offer better information for follow-up care than what you can get initially from the blood. 

So, every once in a while, we do have a patient for whom a bone marrow biopsy itself for whatever reason can’t be done. But almost always, we need a bone marrow biopsy, and on that biopsy, you’re going to look under the microscope and see what the cells look like. You’re going to get back standard testing, which is called flow cytometry, which is going to tell the difference between what are the different cells that you’re seeing under the microscope. 

But then you’re actually going to get progressively much more fancy testing, including things called chromosomes or cytogenetics, and then ultimately, the majority of patients, if at all possible, will be having mutational testing to identify certain subgroups of AML that benefit from very particular treatments. Next-generation sequencing, PCR, fusion proteins, FISH, cytogenetics, I can go on and on with all kinds of terminology that is very confusing, even to hematology fellows, let alone to patients.  

Usually, we use a combination of tests to decide, “Is this patient likely to be able to be cured with chemotherapy alone, or might this patient benefit from a stem cell transplant from somebody else after they go into remission?” 

That’s basically what the prognostic scoring systems used to be asking, but now it’s a lot more complicated than that. Because even in the favorable categories, even in the adverse categories, where there used to be very little subtlety, now there is a lot of subtlety. 

It’s all about defining getting into remission, and what do I give you once you’re in remission to keep you there? It’s no longer this windshield wiper thing of good, bad, transplant, no transplant. There’s a lot more to AML than there used to be. 

Katherine Banwell:

I’d like to add that if you, the viewer, are interested in learning more about AML testing and treatment, PEN has a number of resources available for you. You can find these at powerfulpatients.org/AML, or by scanning the QR code on your screen.  

Before we get into specific treatment types, Dr. Roboz, would you provide a brief explanation of the phases of therapy for AML? You mentioned induction therapy earlier. Would you tell us what that is? 

Dr. Gail Roboz:

Yeah. So, here, too, I have to say that it’s more confusing than it used to be for the following reasons. So, historically and currently, we typically talk about induction as the first therapy that you’re going to get to get into remission.  

Then, the treatment paradigm is you do something to get into remission; do some treatment to get into remission. After that, in the realm of post-remission therapy, there are different things that can happen. There can be something called consolidation, which might be another round of chemotherapy. Some patients get consolidation, some patients don’t. After consolidation, there can be a transplant.  

So, you get into remission, you may or may not get a little bit of what’s called consolidation chemotherapy, and then go on to a transplant. 

However, sometimes either after the transplant or after chemotherapy before ever getting or instead of ever getting a transplant, there might be ongoing treatment in a lower intensity ongoing basis that is called maintenance.  

So, you’ve got to think about it as induction as what happens first, consolidation is something that happens when you’re in remission, and then maintenance usually refers to ongoing therapy that is different from consolidation. 

It’s usually lower intensity, easier to take, oral types of treatment that may go on and on. And just to be incredibly confusing, it’s different from something like breast cancer, where often the patients are given, “You get six cycles of this, and then you’re done.” From AML, there’s actually often not that type of an obvious plan right out of the gate for the patient. 

The answer will be, “It depends.” It depends. It depends how your treatment looks at this point in time. It depends how you look at this point in time. 

So then, the patients say, “Well, aren’t you going to cure me of this? What are you doing? Aren’t you going to get rid of it?” So, historically, there are some patients who get cured with chemotherapy. They get chemotherapy to get into remission, they get some chemotherapy afterwards, and there’s a cure rate for some patients with that. The majority of patients who are cured with AML get an allotransplant, or a transplant from somebody else. 

Then there’s a whole group of patients where we’re asking the question now, is it possible to get those patients beyond five years – so in oncology, five years is typically defined as cure. Can we get some patients with ongoing therapy to that past-five-year mark without a transplant? That’s in the zone of the ‘coming soon.’ Don’t have a ton of patients in that group right now, but hopefully we will. 

Katherine Banwell:

You’ve mentioned some various treatment types that are used to treat AML. Can you share a brief overview of available treatments? 

Dr. Gail Roboz:

So, the terminology that we use is a little bit annoying, because it is a little bit general. We say intensive and not intensive. 

But historically, intensive chemotherapy referred to a combination of generally two types of agents, cytarabine (Cytosar-U) and an anthracycline, which is a class of chemotherapy, that either just those two together or in combination with sometimes a third or a fourth drug usually keeps people in the hospital for around a month. Not that the chemotherapy takes that long, but the treatment gets rid of basically a lot of cells in the bone marrow, good guys and bad guys, and it takes about three weeks for those normal cells to recover. 

So, a standard intensive induction for AML is often around three to four weeks in the hospital, somewhere between three and five or so days of chemotherapy up front, depending on exactly what the protocol is. The classic regimen is actually still called 3+7, three days of one drug, seven of the other. But there are many variations of that that work. 

The chemo is then stopped, the patient hangs out in the hospital, very frequently getting transfusions and antibiotics, and we wait for the bone marrow to recover.  

Another current path that many patients are getting – almost all older patients, with ‘older’ being defined not by a specific age cutoff, but often 75 and older, almost everybody agrees no longer gets the classic chemotherapy that I just described. At some institutions, that 75 is going down, and even 70 and 65 and above are getting a new type of therapy, mostly because the new type of therapy is working pretty well. That is a combination of something called a hypomethylating agent.  

Drugs like azacitidine (Vidaza, Onureg) or decitabine (Dacogen) in combination with a pill that has changed the landscape of AML more than any other called venetoclax (Venclexta). Venetoclax is a drug that is not exclusively used for AML. 

It actually was originally approved for another type of leukemia. But I think that not many people would argue with the statement that what has changed absolutely the face of AML treatment has been this drug, because it’s a BCL2 inhibitor. What it does is it actually – cancer cells and leukemia cells in particular are very, very good at staying alive.  

They don’t undergo cell death, they don’t want to die, and venetoclax brings down their forcefield so that those cells can actually undergo apoptosis and die. 

Venetoclax in combination with azacitidine or decitabine has transformed the care of the disease, because many patients older than 65 – and the median age of diagnosis of AML is around 68 to 70. So, many patients never were well enough to have the intensive therapy. They weren’t going into remission, and they weren’t having prolonged survival often beyond a few months. 

But now, those patients do actually much better with the combination of aza [azacitidine] and venetoclax. So typically, the induction path is going to be deciding who gets an intensive therapy backbone, usually associated with long hospitalization. Who gets a less intensive backbone – by the way, that is often associated with just the same hospitalization. So, that’s why I don’t love the term ‘low intensity,’ because that implies that it doesn’t work.  

It does, and it also implies that you’re not going to be in the hospital. You probably will, because in the same way as for the more so-called intensive therapies, getting into remission involves getting rid of bone marrow cells and waiting for the normal ones to recover. Even if you are a patient who is getting the venetoclax combined with the azacitidine or decitabine, which is typically called low intensity, you may very well be in the hospital for a month. 

Because depending on where you live and who your family is and how sick you might be, you will probably want us to watch you carefully during that first month, but it’s worth it. Because if you have a good chance of getting into remission, remission is what makes life better and life longer. So, we want to get patients into remission, even if it means upfront time in the hospital. 

Katherine Banwell:

You mentioned one inhibitor as targeted therapy, but there are a couple of others. Would you briefly tell us about those? 

Dr. Gail Roboz:

So, over the years recently, we have identified certain specific targets in AML which are resulting in the addition of medications on these standard backbones. So, the target for venetoclax is something called BCL2, and actually, venetoclax probably makes all chemotherapy better. It’s kind of a controversial statement, but I’m going to stand by it. But in AML, it has been shown that the addition of venetoclax to lots of different backbones makes them work better. There are other things to hit, though.  

For example, there are patients with AML who have something called a FLT3, F-L-T-3 mutation. This mutation also has specific inhibitors that are FDA-approved drugs that target specifically the FLT3 mutation, and if you have one of those, your doctor may add on a FLT3 inhibitor to either a lower intensity or an intensive backbone. Similarly, there are agents called IDH inhibitors. There are IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors. 

If I start getting into isocitrate dehydrogenase pathways on this webinar, I think everybody will click off, because it’s certainly bored all of the medical students in med school, and it’s pretty tough to understand. But the bottom line is it’s very cool stuff because that boring pathway in medical school that nobody really thought about too much is actually part of very, very, central cellular functions that are a vulnerability now that have been identified in leukemic cells that, if you hit them with these specific inhibitors, patients do better.  

Now, couple of things for patients. It doesn’t mean that it’s better to have a FLT3 or an IDH mutation because the targeted therapies are available. So, a lot of patients are disappointed when they don’t have mutations. I don’t want you to think in that way. It’s not that it’s better, it’s different.  

It identifies a different biology. If you have certain mutations, there are certain medications that may help you more.  

That’s why I think the patients are learning quickly, too, to ask the doc – they may not remember the letters of the alphabet soup, but “Do I have something about my AML that can get one of these targeted therapies added on?” I think is a good question to think about. “Do I have something about my disease that has a specific drug that we’ve already learned makes outcomes better?”  

Katherine Banwell:

There’s a new emerging therapy as well. Is it the menin inhibitor? 

Dr. Gail Roboz:

I think that, in understanding different targets and different pathways, it leads me to a general statement that if you can get yourself potentially onto a clinical trial at an academic center, that is something to consider right out of the gate. Because there is a lot, a lot, a lot going on in this field right now. 

What we are hoping, and the reason that I am talking to you about venetoclax and FLT3 inhibitors and IDH inhibitors, is because of all the patients who jumped onto those clinical trials and proved that those drugs are better. Some of them are my patients! I was fortunate on some of those early trials to have some real winners in patients who got onto the trials. They’re the ones who drove the success. 

So, for example, menin inhibitors, which are very, very exciting, targeted agents for NPM1 and KMT2A mutations and rearrangements – these are complicated to remember as a patient, but there’s a cool drug out there that might be for you. I think that patients who really think about asking the question wherever they are, the “Hey, I just got a diagnosis of AML. Is there a clinical trial that might look good for me?” I think is a great question to ask pretty much out of the gate. 

Katherine Banwell:

The symptoms of AML as well as the side effects of certain medications can vary greatly among patients. So, how do you approach symptom management with your patients? 

Dr. Gail Roboz:

Patients will giggle because I repeat this line. You have to be afraid of the disease, not the treatment. I think that if you read the package insert on a Tylenol, you’re certainly not going  to think you’re going to live for more than 20 minutes if you take one of those. You can certainly appreciate that, with chemotherapy drugs and including some of the novel agents that I’m talking about, if you read package inserts and look at some of the signs and symptoms and things that can happen, it’s extraordinarily overwhelming. 

I think that a lot of what I do for patients is I keep them close. Because if the patient is in the hospital or coming in very frequently in clinic, I think that that everyday assessment of, “What are you experiencing?” and “What can I tell you is the disease’s fault, and what can I tell you is the medication’s fault?” is so, so important. 

Especially in the newly diagnosed patients, where the disease is active. Of course, we want to try to minimize anything that we can do to make the process better for patients, more comfortable for patients, but there are certain things that we do tell people, “You’ve got to slug through this particular problem, because this is the disease’s fault.” This is different from a patient in remission, where they might be getting ongoing therapy with something, or we say, “Hey, wait a minute. You’d be feeling fine, except now you’re taking this medication. How do we minimize messing up quality of life in remission?” 

Because we want you to feel great when you’re in remission. I think the real answer of that is to have a really close collaboration with the healthcare team, and for the patients to really understand – I repeat this because it’s so important. What is the disease’s fault, and what is the treatment’s fault? If there’s something that is therapy-related, do I have a substitute or do I not have a substitute?  

Because if the drug is essential to get us where we need to go, well, what can we do to manage comfort and to manage symptoms until you get to the place where your marrow is working again? 

Katherine Banwell:

That’s great advice, Dr. Roboz. I would like to get to an audience question that we received prior to the program. This one comes from Johanna. “How can I better understand my lab test results? What questions should I be asking my provider about those results?”  

Dr. Gail Roboz:

One of the things that I would say to patients is to be careful when interpreting your own results, because I really am not exaggerating to say that patients have had absolute trauma looking at things that I look at it and say, “Oh, this looks great.” So, the first thing is, be careful being your own doctor. 

The second thing though is that the author of the question has to understand that there’s going to be a tsunami of data coming in with respect to AML treatment. Sometimes in the hospital on a daily basis when you’re in the middle of an induction, there is a true – tsunami is the right word – a deluge of data, and you have to work with your team to say, “What am I following here? What’s important at this phase in my treatment? What’s the number I’m looking at?” Patients sometimes tell me, “I don’t want to know any of this,” and I’m fine with that.  

I think it’s actually okay. Sometimes patients will say, “Give me guidance,” and I will be specific. Because you can actually have a leukemia induction patient where every single laboratory value is abnormal. They might be getting pushed to a device, in the morning, sitting in the hospital on your iPad, 50 abnormal results. You’re trying to battle back the disease and be positive and advocate for yourself, but there are 50 abnormal results in front of you. 

I think you have to really work with the team to say, “What am I looking at today? What are the numbers that are the really important ones? There are 50 abnormal ones here; everything is getting a yellow or a red light in this. How do I go through this?”  

And to appreciate, also, that at different points in the treatment, the beginning of treatment induction post-remission therapy, you’re looking for different things. So, work with your team so that you’re not assessing every single result with equivalent weight, because I think you’re going to stress yourself out.  

Katherine Banwell:

That’s great advice, Dr. Roboz. Thank you. As we close out the program, I’d like to find out what you would like to leave the audience with. Why are you hopeful? 

Dr. Gail Roboz:

AML is changing incredibly rapidly. And  I can tell you it is a lot more fun to be an AML doctor now than it used to be, with respect to what I am offering for patients. We have always fought really, really hard to have our wins, but we’re winning more. I do think that it is a complicated space to navigate for patients, but there is room for a lot of optimism. 

I think we are getting patients transplanted  –  patients that we never thought would ever go through a transplant or getting transplanted. Patients who never had a chance of even living more than six or eight months or living much longer than that. Is it perfect? No. Do we have as many cures as we want?  

No, but there’s a lot going on. I think if patients feel that excitement, they will also feel the need to ask about those clinical trials. Because I think that for a lot of patients, clinical trials is an area where they would be worried. They’re not sure that they want to. “I don’t want to be a guinea pig,” and yet here I can say in the AML space, one after another after another drug approvals in the last several years, with the patients on those trials being awfully happy that they participated. 

So, I think that it’s a very, very terrifying diagnosis. There’s nothing that I can do to take the sting out of that. But try to find yourself in an optimistic place with options that are being offered to the very, very, very best that we can do. There are patients who are listening, I’m sure, who have relapsed or refractory disease who are not feeling that optimism. 

I want to address you specifically, because we don’t have enough yet. We’re trying. When you have AML that has come back or come back multiply, that’s dangerous and difficult. But for those patients in particular, try really hard to get onto clinical trials. If the drugs that we have out there – if you’ve already taken them and they haven’t worked for you or if they’re not serving you well, if you’re in good shape and the drugs that we have aren’t good enough, well, let’s see if we can get you on something that’s investigational. 

Katherine Banwell:

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

Dr. Gail Roboz:

Thank you for having me. 

Katherine Banwell:

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

Is Stem Cell Transplant the Only Curative Option for Myelofibrosis?

Is Stem Cell Transplant the Only Curative Option for Myelofibrosis? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is there a cure for myelofibrosis? Dr. Lucia Masarova explains the role of stem cell transplant for the treatment of myelofibrosis and reviews additional therapies for patients who do not qualify for the procedure, such as JAK inhibitor therapy.

Dr. Lucia Masarova is an MPN Specialist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Masarova.

See More from Evolve Myelofibrosis

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Myelofibrosis Therapies in Clinical Trials | BET Inhibitors

Myelofibrosis Therapies in Clinical Trials | BET Inhibitors

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Choosing a Myelofibrosis Treatment Plan | Key Questions to Ask

Myeloproliferative Neoplasm News and Research Updates

Myeloproliferative Neoplasm News and Research Updates

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Masarova, stem cell transplant is sometimes recommended for people with myelofibrosis. Is this still the closest option to cure for those patients? 

Dr. Lucia Masarova:

I would say so, as much as we don’t like it. We would like to develop novel conservative, less aggressive, that we call procedures or drugs. Stem cell transplants still represent a long-term cure for patients that are eligible. 

Katherine Banwell:

What about for patients who don’t qualify for stem cell transplant? What are effective long-term treatments for them? 

Dr. Lucia Masarova:

That’s a very, very important question and topic. The key point here is the long-term because long-term is a little difficult term in conservative management of myeloproliferative neoplasm, particularly when it comes to myelofibrosis.  

With the development of JAK inhibitors, the longest experiences we have with the first one called ruxolitinib or Jakafi, we have seen prolonged outcomes in survival so patients could live longer than expected before.  

However, it’s not forever. So, that’s why we are trying to develop novel strategies where I see a lot of roles of combinations of JAK inhibitors and other correlative compounds, such as bromodomains inhibitors or hypomethylating agents or others that would affect the pathways that we are missing currently to cover with the JAK inhibition. And that ultimately leads to medication failures and patients being refractory and then having a shortened lifespan.  

So, I’m hoping we will develop something for long-term. Particularly promising a very, very interesting concept is with the calreticulin where we are developing monoclonal antibodies or vaccines because we have seen and discovered calreticulin driver to be a targetable thing that causes immunogenicity. 

But I do really hope that we will move forward with these discoveries and the JAK mutate or other drivers causing myeloproliferative neoplasms to offer long-term management.  

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

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

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

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

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

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What is the Purpose of AML Genetic Testing?

Essential Testing | Optimizing AML Care With Personalized Medicine

Essential Testing Optimizing AML Care with Personalized Medicine

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

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

Dr. Omer Jamy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AML Treatment Approaches | Factors That Impact Options

AML Treatment Approaches | Factors That Impact Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What factors are considered when choosing an AML treatment approach? Dr. Ann-Kathrin Eisfeld explains how shared decision-making comes into play when deciding on a therapy and reviews the options available to treat AML.

Dr. Ann-Kathrin Eisfeld is Director of the Clara D. Bloomfield Center for Leukemia Outcomes Research at The Ohio State University and a member of the Leukemia Research Program at the OSUCCC – James. Learn more about Dr. Eisfeld.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

With all the new tools that are available, what other factors do you consider when working with an AML patient to choose a treatment approach for them?  

Dr. Eisfeld:

The most important aspects are what we call – and this is – I’m glad that you bring this question up because I feel you have to think of – and that was what we’ve been talking about – called disease-associated factors. This is everything in the leukemic cell. They – how does a leukemia looks like? How does the blast look like? What changes are there?  

That’s the biggest part of what I would call patient-associated factors: the patient age, the patient performance status, actually the patient. In every – because I think, sometimes, we forget about it. But we just look at all the molecular testing.  

But even if – for example, there would be a patient with a very good risk leukemia, where I think, “Oh, this leukemia should respond very well to an intensive chemotherapy.” 

If the patient cannot tolerate chemotherapy or – and I see it more often than I would wish for patients who are young who have a great performance status, but they just cannot – they – their family reasons. Small children sometimes – they just cannot be away for so long. This all comes into consideration. So, it’s really important because we all work together as a team. And the right treatment for the leukemia might not be the right treatment for the patient.  

And for most cases, however, I think, it will only work if one stands with a whole heart with both physicians, and patients, and family. Because it’s a long journey behind the care that’s being given. And so, this is a joint decision-making, and there are different options that can be done. Of course, I would not advise something where I would think there are no chances of success.  

And so, this has to be an open discussion. But this is – it’s very often a very tough treatment to communicate that and see what are the goals of each patient? That will be most important for treatment and decision-making.     

Katherine Banwell:

What types of AML treatment classes are currently available?  

Dr. Eisfeld:

This is a very good question. The most classic treatment class is intensive chemotherapy. This is just because people might have heard the names. It is called 3 + 7 or 7 + 3, which refers to one weeklong impatient chemotherapy treatment. But you get one chemotherapy for seven days. And the first three days, you get a second treatment as well.  

That’s why it’s called three in seven in here, but it’s a total of seven days. So, we have intensive chemotherapy. And there are different flavors of it. But this is usually the backbone. The second class is what I would call a targeted inhibitor. And here we can look at two different aspects. We have targeted inhibitors for a specific DNA mutation that are found. And specifically, one are called IDH or FLT3 mutations.  

And these are pill forms that I usually by now combined with a third drop class which is called hypomethylating agents. And I will go through in a moment.  

But these are pills that really only work in patients and carry that genetic change. They have very, very low toxicity and very high chances of working. So, that’s why this testing is so important to see if one is one of the 15 percent of AML patients carrying an IDH mutation – 15 percent isn’t low. And a similar rate carries a FLT3 mutation.  

And then there is also going to target inhibitors. That is targeted because it is against what I would call a pathway. The gene that is commonly activated in acute leukemia – and this is called BCL-2 and the drug is called venetoclax (Venclexta).  

This is now stormed through the acute myeloid leukemia world in just a few years ago and has been approved as a front-line treatment option for several patients, especially for those who are older. And we know that even patients who respond usually favorably to chemotherapy, some of those also respond well to venetoclax the Bcl-2 inhibitor. The benefit is that this treatment in many cases if it works, can be done as an outpatient in here and has very often lower complications.  

It is actually has so good results that I – sometimes it seems too easy. So, we actually advise patients to still try to get – the first time they get the treatment, do it at a center where it’s done more commonly. Because it sometimes – don’t underestimated the power of a pill. And it’s still a very, very powerful drug. So, doing it in a controlled setting – because if cancer cells break down, they break down and can create all sorts of trouble.  

So, that is really something – for several leukemias, it can be concerning. And again, now the treatment group would be called hypomethylating agents. The names are azacitidine (Vidaza) and decitabine (Dacogen). And they act in a very different way. They try to change the epigenetics like methylation patterns. And often, if it is an untargeted way of the tumor cells and they can be used alone.  

Or very often by now in combination with the targeted inhibitors that I was just mentioning. These are infusions that can be done either over five, seven, or 10 days depending on the combination treatment. And for patients, as I mentioned before, that don’t respond well to many other options to those patients with a complex karyotype. This is, for example, a scenario where patients can just receive this as their only therapy.          

Katherine Banwell:

What about stem cell transplant? You didn’t mention that.   

Dr. Eisfeld:

Yes. That would be the next one. So, stem cell transplant always comes as an option, which I would call as a maintenance therapy. Again, two aspects. We have two different end goals.  

First is get rid of some leukemia. Second is to make sure it stays away. And as soon as the leukemia is in complete remission, depending on the performance status – the agent. Again, in multiple different things. It’s not an easy decision. 

At that time, there has to be a conversation. And that always involves a leukemia physician and a transplant physician very often. These are different providers that goes for the risks and benefits. Where the question is if I only continue to do chemotherapy – because it’s never only once. You would always have to repeat your chemotherapy. What is the likelihood that the leukemia comes back, and does it outweigh the risks that comes with the stem cell or bone marrow transplant that comes in here. But for many leukemias, especially for young patients and for patients with higher risks, this is the only chance of a cure. That is the most curative and only curative attempt for many leukemia attempts.  

Katherine Banwell:

Where do clinical trials fit into the treatment plan? 

Dr. Eisfeld:

That is the absolute backbone. We always have to think about that. 

Everything – all the treatment options that I mentioned – have been clinical trials, just very, very short time – very few years ago. So, every patient that comes to a leukemia or a cancer center, clinical trials will be discussed if they’re available. Because they will provide a special opportunity to have even more fine-tuned treatments – either newer agents. And I think what is very important to mention is that all clinical trials that are available would give the option of the best standard of care.  

And then the hope that a patient wouldn’t be getting any of the best standard of care options that are approved. The hope is that the new agent or added agent in many cases would even do better.  

It’s also important that there’s a lot of additional monitoring during the trial. I think it can be seen in two ways as two parts of a coin. In one way, it may be additional visits to the hospital or additional blood draws that are necessary to be sure that the medications are safe, and that researchers and conditions can learn about it. But on the other hand, it also gives you this extra bit of being looked after and really getting checked in and out, making sure that all organs are functioning that everything is just going fine. And many patients appreciate this a lot. And they have this pair of extra eyes on them all the time.  

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Eisfeld, what therapies are available for AML patients who relapse or don’t respond to initial therapy? And is this treatment approach different from those who are newly diagnosed?  

Dr. Eisfeld:

Most of the time, the treatments available at relapse are the same available at the first diagnosis. Just because we know now that, for example, if you have a molecular marker that, for example, is available, it would act with also relatively high chance of relapse upset. However, at relapse, the most important thing I personally would do is consider a clinical trial even stronger than in the first mindset. 

 Because it means that the leukemia outsmarted current treatments very often. So, usually what we would be doing is see if there is a targeted inhibitor or a cell mutation FLT3 or IDH, which I would personally always prefer to go in MLL rearrangement now for the new menin inhibitors where one would go with the same option as if it would have been their diagnosis. But if not to really consider clinical trials is a strong urge. 

Katherine Banwell:

Should patients or should relapsed patients undergo genetic testing again? Is it necessary?  

Dr. Eisfeld:

Yes. At any time. Yes. Because we know that the leukemia changes. And you just can think about it in the way is that the cells that are surviving treatment, they’ve become smart. There was so much poison. There was so much treatment put on them. 

And the ones that survive might have a quiet additional chromosome change as additional gene changes. And even if a genetic change has not been present at time of diagnosis, the reason the cell has survived might have been that it has now one of these changes that came up on a later time during treatment or while the cell is hiding somewhere to come back. 

Challenges in Treating TP53-Mutated AML, Hope on the Horizon

Challenges in Treating TP53-Mutated AML, Hope on the Horizon from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

TP53-mutated acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment has some challenges. Dr. Naval Daver from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center shares his perspective. Learn about promising treatments on the horizon for this AML subgroup

[ACT]IVATION TIP from Dr. Daver: “The TP53 mutation remains the most difficult subset of acute myeloid leukemia, there is hope on the horizon with new treatments such as CD47 antibodies and targeted therapies like APR that are being looked at, and also a strong consideration for allogeneic transplant in TP53, because this seems to be the only modality associated with a good chance of cure after achieving remission with one of the frontline therapies.”

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Transcript: 

Art:

Dr. Daver, what have we learned about TP53-mutated AML? And what is the takeaway for these patients?

Dr. Naval Daver:

TP53-mutated AML remains the most difficult molecular subset of all acute myeloid leukemia. Patients who have this mutation, unfortunately, do not respond well to any of the established standard care therapies, including intensive chemotherapy, the HMA alone, such as azacitidine (Onureg or Vidaza), decitabine (Dacogen) alone, or even HMA venetoclax (Venclexta) with all of these, we do see responses, especially with HMA venetoclax or intensive chemotherapy, we can see 15 to 55 percent remission rate, but the remission, very short lived, early relapses and the median overall survival across all of these currently available standards of cares are between six to 10 months.

So there has been an intense effort in the last six, seven years to develop TP53-directed therapies or therapies that will work regardless of TP53 mutation, and there are two drugs this time that are very promising and being evaluated as ongoing Phase II and Phase III studies.

One of them is an immunotherapy drug called magrolimab which seems to have very similar activity and probability with good response rates in TP53-mutated AML. This has been completed in a single arm phase 1B study in front line TP53-mutated AML where we saw close to 50 percent CR, CRI complete permission rates. And median survival was above 11 months in older unfit TP53, which is better than any survival we have seen in the past in this population.

The other study was with the oral care targeted therapy towards TP53, called APR, and this therapy was specifically designed to target the TP53 mutation, and this is being evaluated in the frontline setting in combination with a society in venetoclax. We hope that these regimens are these novel therapies, one or both of them will be able to at least incrementally improve their current outcomes in TP53.

The other area where we have really been doing a lot of research, and I think the data is suggesting, is that allogeneic transplant may work for separate, and we are routinely considering transplant in these patients in the frontline setting, once they are able to achieve remission.

My activation tip is the TP53 mutation remains the most difficult subset of acute myeloid leukemia, there is hope on the horizon with new treatments such as CD47 antibodies and targeted therapies like APR that are being looked at, and also a strong consideration for allogeneic transplant in TP53, because this seems to be the only modality associated with a good chance of cure after achieving remission with one of the frontline therapies. 

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What Does Triplet Therapy in AML Mean for the Future?

What Does Triplet Therapy in AML Mean for the Future? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What do acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients need to know about triplet therapy? Dr. Naval Daver from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center shares his perspective. Learn about the meaning, progress, and outlook for triplet therapy. 

[ACT]IVATION TIP from Dr. Daver:Some of the early data with the FLT3 inhibitor as well as the CD47 antibody triplets are showing very, very promising activity and are now moving into larger multi-center and randomized studies.”

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Transcript: 

Art:

Dr. Daver, what does triplet therapy in AML mean for the future?

Dr. Naval Daver:

So when we say triplet therapy, what we’re really thinking about is building on the existing FDA-approved combination of HMA venetoclax (Venclexta), so as a background venetoclax, showed a CR, CRI which is a complete remission rate of about 70 to 75 percent with the median survival in 15 months.

This was in older patients, about 75 years in age, those who were not considered fit for intensive chemotherapy, although this was a major step forward in comparison to what we have seen with traditional low intensities with azacitidine (Onureg or Vidaza), decitabine (Dacogen) alone, we do see the three-year survival is about 25 to 30 percent. 

So this is progress compared to 10 percent long-term survival, we used to get a decade ago, but, of course, we want to improve on that. Also, a molecular analysis of data has shown that there are certain molecular subsets that don’t respond as well to azacitidine, venetoclax or if they respond they relapse quickly these include FLT3 mutated and the TP53 mutated as well as potentially MLL rearranged.

And so here we have started incorporating the targeted therapies like inhibitors like the menin inhibitors like CD47 antibodies to target those specific high-risk or bad molecular cytogenetic groups, and we are seeing that with the combinations of these three drugs, especially for those particular molecular subsets.

So azacitidine and venetoclax for FLT3 inhibitor for FLT3 mutator, azacitidine, and venetoclax, magrolimab for TP53 mutated, the response rates that we’re getting, as well as the depth of response and the early trends towards survival are looking very, very promising compared to what we have seen with azacitidine venetoclax alone.

So we believe, and I personally believe that these three drug combinations, the so-called triplets will actually be eventually the way to go forward now, that means that one has to realize that when you add a third drug, there is a cumulative myelosuppression, azacitidine-venetoclax is already a myelosuppressive regimen. 

Yes, it’s manageable, but it is myelosuppressive. And the third drug, this can become more cumulative, so we have been working for the last three, four years and continue to work on those optimization because since we are seeing true synergy but pre-clinically and what we think in the clinic, we are not needing to give full doses and we’re doing reduced durations of venetoclax and those with FLT3 inhibitor, and now we feel that some of those triplets are actually giving very, very, very good efficacy.

There’s a lot of discussion in the community of whether we need to combine all two drugs up front or can be sequence these drugs or can we introduce a targeted therapy based on a molecular escape, and I think a lot of these will have to be evaluated and many of these are being looked at in various trials, but I do think the bottom line is that bringing in your targeted therapy or immunotherapies early on in the frontline setting and some way or the other is probably where you’re going to get the most bang for the buck and the most benefit in curing patients long-term rather than trying to reserve them for the salvage, because in salvage AML historically, nothing has really been able to improve the long-term cure rate significantly.

So the activation tip for this question is that now with the identification of certain molecular subsets that have poorer outcomes with the HMA venetoclax, we have started incorporating targeted and immunotherapies in the earlier settings, either up front in the three drug combination or an early sequential approach.

And we believe that with such combinations, we may be able to achieve deeper remission and longer responses. Some of the early data with the FLT3 inhibitor as well as the CD47 antibody triplets are showing very, very promising activity and are now moving into larger multi-center and randomized studies. 

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Assessing Untreated AML Patients Who Are Ineligible for Intensive Chemotherapy

Assessing Untreated AML Patients Who Are Ineligible for Intensive Chemotherapy from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How are acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients assessed for intensive chemotherapy? Dr. Catherine Lai from Penn Medicine explains eligibility criteria. Learn factors that impact patient eligibility and treatment options for AML patients who are categorized as ineligible for intensive chemotherapy.

[ACT]IVATION TIP from Dr. Lai: Talk with your physician about how they will determine whether or not you are fit or unfit for intensive chemotherapy.

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Transcript: 

Art:

Okay, Dr. Lai, what are we learning about patients with untreated AML who are ineligible for intensive chemotherapy?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

To define ineligible for intensive chemotherapy, I think that that is a moving target because historically, we would define patients as eligible for intensive or less intensive chemotherapy based on an age cut-off. And as the population is becoming more fit and is also getting older, what I would like to say is that we should use physiologic age, not chronologic age to determine who is eligible for intensive chemotherapy, and that is…in terms of how that is assessed, that is not uniformly done. 

But, in general, it takes into account how active a patient is and what they’re able to do on a day-to-day basis, so mostly their physical function, we also take into consideration their cognitive function as well, but to a lesser extent.

So, for patients who are ineligible for intensive chemotherapy, the standard practice would be the combination of azacitidine (Onureg or Vidaza) or decitabine (Dacogen), both of which are hypomethylating agents in combination with venetoclax (Venclexta), and that combination has really changed the landscape in terms of how we treat patients, it can be given as an outpatient, so it’s much better tolerated and has fewer side effects compared to intensive chemotherapy.

So the activation tip here is to talk with your physician about how they will determine whether or not you are fit or unfit for intensive chemotherapy. 

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What Are the Latest Acute Myeloid Leukemia Therapies?

What Are the Latest Acute Myeloid Leukemia Therapies? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the latest treatments in acute myeloid leukemia (AML)? Dr. Catherine Lai from Penn Medicine discusses the increase in available AML treatments. Learn about combination therapies and treatment options for patients with IDH1, IDH2, and FLT3 mutations.

[ACT]IVATION TIP from Dr. Lai: “Ask your physician and your oncologist when you’re talking with them about what all the newest therapies are and what would be specifically the best treatment for their specific leukemia with respect to the different mutations.”

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Transcript: 

Art:

Dr. Lai, for newly diagnosed AML patients, what are the latest available therapies?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

That’s a great question. The last, I would say, a handful of years have really seen a dramatic increase in the number of new treatment options for AML patients, specifically since 2017, the FDA has approved 10 new drugs for AML, that’s both for patients who are newly diagnosed and in the relapsed refractory setting.

And so what I would say is that we break our patients into two different categories in terms of being able to tolerate intensive chemotherapy versus non-intensive chemotherapy, and as well as looking at specifically targeted mutations that patients may have so that we can better understand the disease but also treat these patients more specifically to try to maximize efficacy while minimizing toxicity. 

And so specifically, I would say for patients who have FLT3 mutations, there are drugs such as midostaurin (Rydapt) and gilteritinib (Xospata), there are drugs for mutations in IDH1 and IDH2, enasidenib (Idhifa) and ivosidenib (Tibsovo) and recently, or in December of  2022, olutasidenib (Rezlidhia) was also approved for IDH1-mutated patients as well.

We have a general targeted agent that’s an oral chemotherapy that probably has made the biggest difference in how we treat patients called venetoclax (Venclexta), and that’s used in combination with azacitidine (Onureg) or decitabine (Dacogen), or low dose cytarabine (Cytosar).

Although most commonly in the United States, we use azacitidine or decitabine in combination with the venetoclax, and that I think is really what I’d say has been practice changing for the most part, in terms of both increasing the complete remission rates as well as the overall survival for these patients. So I would say there are a lot of new drugs. It is all very exciting.

The biggest activation tip in terms of takeaways is to ask your physician and your oncologist when you’re talking with them about what all the newest therapies are and what would be specifically the best treatment for their specific leukemia with respect to the different mutations.

Art:

Okay. Dr. Lai, what are the latest approaches to combination chemotherapy to treat AML?

Dr. Catherine Lai:

So, the latest approaches for combination chemotherapy would be in the combination of a hypomethylating agent, azacitidine or decitabine in combination with venetoclax. This is the most practice-changing combination that has been approved since 2017 to 2018, and now more recently, what’s been happening is now looking, so we call that a doublet, and now it’s been looking at…what we’ve been studying is now whether or not triplets are more effective, when we do have triple combinations, we do see an increase in toxicity and so on, we haven’t come up with the right algorithm in terms of what that exact formula should be, but often I think about it in kind of a three-fold in terms of wins the right time, what’s the right combination, and how do we see in the drugs, and I think the sequencing is the biggest thing that we don’t yet know, and how do we combine the two different..two different drugs in a way, and how do we give them in a way that will maximize efficacy, will minimize the toxicity, so as an example is, Do we give two drugs for a specific period of time, and then after some determined time point, do we…

And change it to a different set of combination of drugs to make sure that patients are getting the most benefit of the drugs, and we don’t know that yet, but I think that that’s where the general direction…where the landscape is heading, so the activation tip I would take home from this is just to have a conversation with your physician about potential clinical trials and how combination therapies are being used. 

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Advances in AML Research | Where Do Clinical Trials Fit In?

Advances in AML Research | Where Do Clinical Trials Fit In? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How do clinical trials advance acute myeloid leukemia (AML) research? Dr. Farhad Ravandi-Kashani discusses newer AML treatments that have changed the landscape of care and how patient trial participation moves research forward.

Dr. Farhad Ravandi-Kashani is professor of medicine and Chief of the Section of Developmental Therapeutics in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. Learn more about Dr. Ravandi-Kashani.

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Transcript:

Laura Beth:

When it comes to AML research and emerging treatment options, what are you excited about right now?  

Dr. Ravandi:

Well, I think one of the biggest, I would call, revolutionary changes in AML was the introduction of venetoclax (Venclexta), because AML is a disease of the older population.  

The median age is about 68, which means half of the patients are older than 68, and among the other half, majority are older than 55. And when you go beyond 60, 65, traditional chemotherapy is not well-tolerated. But the introduction of venetoclax plus azacitidine (Onureg) or decitabine (Dacogen), depending on the center, has really completely changed the management of older AML patients from a situation that it was dismal treatment to a situation that’s still not great, but it’s a lot better, as in we don’t cure the majority, but many people have a tolerable therapy and live with their disease for several months if not several years.  

And personally, I have treated a 97-year-old patient, and she did well for three years, so. Because of this drug, age is no longer as frightening as it used to be for advanced age. 

Laura Beth:

So, where do clinical trials fit in when it comes to choosing treatment?   

Dr. Ravandi:

So, the best drugs that we have available now, the venetoclax that I mentioned and all the other drugs that I mentioned, targeted drugs, came from clinical trials.  

If we don’t do clinical trials, we would be still doing the same treatments that we were doing in the 1970s and ‘80s.  

In fact, up until about seven or eight years ago, many places were still doing the same treatments that was developed in 1970s, which in the era of computers, and Apple, and everything else, it’s mindboggling that we should be doing something that we were doing in the ‘70s. So, clinical trials are important to move the field forward. They are at major academic centers, all the clinical trials are extremely well-vetted and scientifically vetted, as well as with institutional review boards, ethically vetted. So, patients can be sure that they’re not going to get anything less and potentially more than what they would normally get.  

AML Research Updates: News From ASH 2020

AML Research Updates: News from ASH 2020 from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert Dr. Jeffrey Lancet shares the latest news from the 2020 American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting. Dr. Lancet sheds light on headlines from the meeting including FLT3 inhibitor research, combination therapies with venetoclax, a promising inhibitor therapy, and shares his optimism about the future of AML treatment.

Dr. Jeffrey Lancet is Chair and Program Lead in the Department of Malignant Hematology at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL. He is nationally and internationally recognized for his clinical research in the field of acute leukemias. Learn more about Dr. Lancet, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:      

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell. Today we’ll discuss the latest news from ASH 2020 and how AML patients can advocate for personalized care. Joining me is Dr. Jeffrey Lancet. Welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Lancet:                   

Hi, sure. My name is Dr. Jeff Lancet. I’m at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, where I am the Chair of the Malignant Hematology Department. We spend a lot of time treating patients and conducting clinical trials of Acute Myelogenous Leukemia.

Katherine:                   

Okay. Thank you. Dr. Lancet, the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting just closed. What are the AML headlines from this year’s meeting?

Dr. Lancet:                   

Yeah, so as usual, AML was a very busy area for clinical presentations this year at the ASH meeting focusing largely on novel and targeted therapies.

I don’t believe that there were many practice changing developments per se, but rather discussions about many promising therapeutic strategies that are still under development and moving forward rapidly largely in the areas of targeted therapy, low intensity therapy, measurable residual disease and things of that nature.

Katherine:                   

What does this research news mean for patients?

Dr. Lancet:                   

Well, I think that there’s a lot to be encouraged about and maybe I’ll take the time to review some of the highlights in what was presented with respect to some of the novel therapeutic approaches that many of our patients can look forward to receiving in the not too distant future.

So, we often talk about you know, targeted therapies and, of course, one of the major targets over the years has been that of mutated FLT3 which is one of the most common mutations in AML.

And at this meeting we saw several presentations on clinical trials resolved to utilizing inhibitors of FLT3, with some emphasis on the most recently approved second generation drug called gilteritinib.

There were I thought three major presentations focusing on gilteritinib and one was an update on a randomized Phase III trial comparing gilteritinib plus azacitidine versus azacitidine alone in newly diagnosed unfit for induction chemotherapy patients with FLT3 mutations, preliminarily showing good tolerability and high composite complete response rates in the combination on.

There was another trial of gilteritinib plus venetoclax in relapsed and refractory FLT3 mutated AML.

And what was interesting was that a very high percentage of patients achieved response with this combination of gilteritinib plus venetoclax, many of whom were heavily pretreated previously and many of whom had also gotten prior FLT3 inhibitor therapy during an early stage of the disease. So, the combination of gilteritinib and venetoclax and this more refractive study, it was encouraging to see these promising responses.

And then we saw some data reporting the effects of gilteritinib in combination with more traditional chemotherapy induction with a couple of studies demonstrating both a high complete response rates as well as high rates of mutation clearance of the FLT3 mutation.

So, those were very encouraging data that were presented with respect to the FLT3 mutated AML population.      

So, another very important drug that reached the marketplace for AML recently is a drug called venetoclax, which is an inhibitor of a protein called BCL2.

And this drug was recently FDA approved for use in combination with low intensity chemotherapy drugs such as azacitidine or decitabine.

And it seems as though the combination of venetoclax plus one of these hypomethylating agent drugs, azacitidine or decitabine has resulted in very, very strong efficacy signals as recently published in a New England Journal of Medicine paper that reported on the results of the Phase III trial of venetoclax plus azacitidine.

So, that has now become standard of care for older less fit adults with newly diagnosed AML; the combination of venetoclax plus a hypomethylating agent such as azacitidine.

And naturally, there’s been interest in really kind of taking it several steps further to advance the role of these combinations and to also look at additional drugs in combination with venetoclax plus hypomethylating agent therapy.

So, we saw some of that at the ASH meeting this year. One approach would be to take venetoclax and then to combine it with more intensive chemotherapy for perhaps more fit patients or younger patients that could undergo a more intensive program.

So, we saw presentations of venetoclax being combined with a drug called CPX-351, which is a novel liposome formulation of two common chemotherapy drugs that had been approved a few years ago for secondary AML. And we also saw a combination strategy with venetoclax, and a regimen known as FLAG-IDA, which is a commonly used induction regimen in acute myeloid leukemia.

And I think it’s important to recognize that although these trials that combine the venetoclax with more intensive chemotherapy showed signs of good efficacy with good response rates, there were definitely signals of increased toxicity, hematologic toxicity primarily, which is not completely unexpected with venetoclax knowing that it can cause significant lowering of white blood cells and platelets and hemoglobin.

And then finally, there is a lot of interest in, you know, doing these types of combinations with venetoclax in different subsets of AML and one subset of AML that has been very important recently is that of the IDH mutated AML population of patients.

IDH is a fairly common mutation that occurs either in the Isoform of IDH1 or IDH2 and there’s about a 15 to 20 percent incidence of IDH mutations in AML.

Now we do have an inhibitor for both of these types of mutations: ivosidenib for IDH1 and enasidenib for IDH2, but there also appears to be a strong role for venetoclax plus azacitidine in IDH mutated AML.

We saw from a series of patients presented by a physician at MD Anderson looking at outcomes with venetoclax plus azacitidine in IDH mutated AML. And the response rates were very high when you give HMA plus venetoclax to these patients with IDH mutated AML.

But I think more importantly was that there were what we call high intro patient response rates when switching between venetoclax and HMA therapy with an IDH inhibitor containing regimen.

In other words, a patient would have a good chance of responding to the initial therapy and then if or when that therapy stops working, having a good effect from a salvage therapy with the other regimen. So, when you see initially azacitidine plus venetoclax and then had a relapse, the IDH inhibitors worked well and vice versa if you had received an IDH inhibitor and then subsequently received HMA-venetoclax at a later time point that also worked well.

So, it’s encouraging to see that you can potentially sequence these drugs and get continued responses along the way and ultimately we think will help a survivor and keep patients in a better state of health even longer.               

So, I just wanted to take a few minutes also and discuss some of the newer more novel therapies that are really hitting or approaching the landscape right now. One of these is called CC486, also known as oral azacitidine or ONUREG. And this drug was shown in recent literature to prolong overall survival in patients who are in first remission from their AML who had received induction chemotherapy.

So, this drug was used as maintenance therapy after a variable number of consolidation regimens. And people who got this ONUREG or oral azacitidine drug as maintenance therapy, it resulted in longer survival compared to those who had received placebo.

And this was presented at last year’s ASH meeting, but this year’s ASH meeting provided an update, a very important update, showing that the overall survival advantage from this drug, this oral azacitidine drug, when used as maintenance was independent of whether a patient had measurable residual disease at the time that they went onto the maintenance therapy.

In other words, whether you had MRD, measurable residual disease or not at the time of the study entry, your responses were still more favorable, your outcomes were more favorable, if you received this oral azacitidine drug.

So, this was FDA approved earlier this year for patients in the maintenance phase of therapy for AML who had gotten prior reduction chemotherapy.

And importantly, this drug was also shown to be able to convert about 25% of patients who were positive for measurable residual disease; convert them from positive to negative. So, even though they were in remission, they had measurable residual disease and this drug in about 25 percent of the cases converted that from positive to negative. So, that’s a very important finding as well.

Another important drug that I think you should keep your eye on is a drug called magrolimab. This is an antibody against a certain type of protein that is present on the immune system cell called the macrophage, and when this magrolimab drug was combined with azacitidine in a recent clinical trial, it was demonstrated very high response rates of over 65 percent.

And, in particular, in patients with P53 mutations, which is a very bad mutation to have in most cancers, including AML, in patients with this high-risk mutation, the combination of magrolimab with azacitidine appears to be effective based upon the early data that we have with high response rates.

And then finally, I just wanted to make mention of another important area in, not really just AML, but in all cancer and that’s  outcomes disparities between different races and ethnic groups. And we saw a very important presentation at the plenary session this year where the authors reported outcomes amongst younger patients with AML who were African American compared with Caucasian.

And the data clearly indicated a worse overall survival amongst Black patients compared with white patients under age 60. And this included patients who were enrolled in clinical trials. So, that it appeared that African American patients have a worse outcome than Caucasian patients with acute myeloid leukemia highlighting the need to better understand various risk factors and other factors that play into these disparate outcomes between our Black American population and a white American population, which I think could shed light on additional disease characteristics that may help everybody as well.

 

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.

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Transcript:

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? 

An Expert Summary of Current MPN Treatment Options

An Expert Summary of Current MPN Treatment Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 MPN expert, Lindsey Lyle, provides an overview of therapies used to treat myelofibrosis (MF), polycythemia vera (PV) and essential thrombocythemia (ET).

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.

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Transcript:

Lindsey:

To overview the treatment types for MPNs, we have a variety of different mechanisms in which we use, and clumping these three main MPNs together, we can kind of break it down into, first of all, cytoreductive therapy, which is nonspecific, but really just reduces the amount of cells the bone marrow is producing. And so, it’s really to control the blood counts. And, different types of cytoreductive therapy generally are – hydroxyurea is used probably the most commonly.

There are some other sorts of chemotherapy that may be used in different instances. We also have biological agents, such as interferons, that may be used in patients with MPNs. We then have JAK inhibitors, which there are two FDA-approved JAK inhibitors at this point for myelofibrosis, and one approved for polycythemia vera.

We also have a variety of novel agents in clinical trials. These may be inhibiting different pathways of the cellular production or different signaling pathways at the level of the stem cell, so there are a variety of those. We also use hypomethylating agents in some patients who maybe have higher-risk disease, mainly myelofibrosis, that really changes the way that the stem cells are produced in the bone marrow in order to control the cell counts and also symptoms.

So, there are a variety of therapeutic measures that are taken. Additionally, not necessarily medication-related, but phlebotomy, which is considered a therapy for polycythemia vera, is generally used in order to reduce red blood cell volume, and then, aspirin is commonly used, especially in polycythemia vera and essential thrombocythemia as a supportive care medication to reduce risk of complications from the disease.

Fact or Fiction? AML Causes & Symptoms


Dr. Daniel Pollyea, an AML specialist, dispels common myths around the causes and symptoms of AML and shares advice so that you can identify credible resources for information. Download the Program Guide here.

Dr. Daniel A. Pollyea is Clinical Director of Leukemia Services in the Division of Medical Oncology, Hematologic Malignancies and Blood and Marrow Transplant at University of Colorado Cancer Center. 

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Transcript:

Ross:

I’m Ross Reynolds. Today we’re gonna be debunking some common misconceptions about the causes and symptoms of AML.

And joining me is Dr. Daniel Pollyea. Dr. Pollyea, could you introduce yourself?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. Hi. Good morning, everyone. I’m Dan Pollyea. I’m an Associate Professor of Medicine here at the University of Colorado, where I am the Clinical Director of Leukemia Service.

 

Ross:

I wanna emphasize to you that this program is not a substitute for medical advice, so be sure to consult your healthcare team when it comes to solid information about it. But you will get some background that I think you’re gonna find useful. And you might have some questions as we go along.

 Dr. Pollyea, let’s start out with the basics. What are the causes of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, Acute Myeloid Leukemia, it’s a disease, a cancer of the bone marrow.

And it’s the result of an accumulation of mutation and chromosomal abnormalities that affect the DNA of a precursor cell in the bone marrow, otherwise known as a stem cell.

And those abnormalities accumulate until that cell can no longer properly mature, and it also can’t properly die. And so, a cell like that just makes copy after copy after copy of a cell until it crowds out the whole bone marrow with these sorta useless, immature cells.

And the end result of that is the failure of the bone marrow, which causes all of the problems associated with this disease. So, biologically, that’s sort of what happens to make this disease occur.

 

Ross:

What are some of the myths that you hear from patients that come in and they say, “Oh, this must’ve caused my AML,” but you have to tell them that’s not so?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Right. So, I mean, this is one of the most frustrating issues for patients and their families after diagnosis. I mean, it’s a rare disease, only about 30,000 cases a year in the United States. And so, trying to associate a rare disease with external or environmental factors is difficult to impossible. So, although there are a variety of exposures that probably contribute to this disease, we have very little understanding of what those exposures typically are or how that all works.

So, there’s a few things that we know pretty well; large doses of radiation, either associated with like industrial accidents like the Chernobyl disaster, or some of the radiation therapies that patients receive for other types of cancer. Other types of chemotherapy that are used to cure other cancers can contribute to this disease in later years.

We know that there are certain precursor conditions that can evolve to AML, so a person with myelodysplastic syndrome, for instance, has a fairly high chance of someday evolving to develop Acute Myeloid Leukemia. But beyond these sort of a few associations, there isn’t a whole lot that’s known or proven.

 

Ross:

Now there is radiation associated with X-rays, and some people think that X-rays can cause AML. Is that true?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah.

So, I mean, I think a priori no because millions of people get X-rays every day, and only 30,000 people a year get AML. So, clearly it’s not a simple association between getting an X-ray and developing AML. But I think that there is an unknown interaction between environmental exposures and a person’s individual genetic makeup that makes a person more or less susceptible to developing something like AML with respect to exposure to the environment or X-rays and things.

So, while you cannot say that getting an X-ray will lead to AML, certainly there are some people who are more sensitive to the damage that’s done by something like an X-ray. And so, the best course of action is to be cautious and judicious about your exposure to these things, but not to not get these things when they are medically necessary.

So, that’s the challenging balance.

 

Ross:

Here’s something else we’ve heard, that weed killers can be a risk factor for AML. Is that true?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

I mean, I think there’s a lot coming out now about weed killers and their association with other types of cancers. Again, I go back to the limitation we have in that in only 30,000 people a year in the United States get AML. Millions of people are exposed to weed killers.

We’re statistically never going to be able to make a clear association. I think that there are certainly some risks for some people. Whether you’re that person who’s more susceptible to developing leukemia or any other cancer because of exposure to a weed killer is impossible to know.

So, like all of these things, I think the advice we have is you have to live your life. You have to do your best to sort of avoid things that you can avoid that you think would be… Or that may cause problems. But not to let those things prevent you from living a normal life.

I know that’s not a satisfying answer, but at the moment that’s the best answer we have.

 

Ross:

Is formaldehyde exposure another risk factor for AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. We think that it is, and kind of along the lines of benzene. But, again, we think that those studies that have shown those types of association show it in very high amounts, amounts that most people in this country would not be exposed to. But I do think, or we do think that there is something to that, to formaldehyde somehow contributing to this.

 

Ross:

What’s the difference between a risk factor for AML and a cause of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, I think risk factors by definition are things that may contribute to AML. And a risk factor for AML by that definition could be walking down the street and having some exposure to radiation from the sun. A cause of AML is something that is a much more solid sort of well-understood factor.

Like I said before, having myelodysplastic syndrome, there is a high chance that that can evolve to Acute Myeloid Leukemia. And if that happens then the MDS, the myelodysplastic syndrome, could be considered or would be considered the cause of your AML. So, very, very different in terms of the amount of evidence that goes into making those determinations

 

Ross:

Is there a genetic component to this? Can this run in a family?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, this is a disease of the genome.

So, I mean, in a lot of respects it is a genetic disease. But the question is very different when you ask is this an inherited genetic disease? Is this disease due to a gene that I inherited from a parent or could pass along to a child?

For many, many years, the answer from the medical community was, “No.” This was not considered to be a disease that clustered in families or that could be inherited. We now know that that’s not necessarily the case. There are some very rare cases where this does seem to travel in families or cluster in families. And we’re now beginning to understand who those people are and what those genes are.

But the vast majority of people with this disease did not inherit a gene to contribute to it and cannot pass this along to a child. This is a random, spontaneous event that occurred within one person’s own body and is not traveling within family. So, we’re learning more and more about this, but really, the vast majority of this is not an inherited genetic condition.

 

Ross:

You’ve mentioned gene mutations. What mutates a gene? What causes that to happen that could lead down the line to AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great question. Most of the time we do not know the answer to that. These gene mutations occur spontaneously, randomly, and we don’t understand why they happen when they do happen.

And I know that’s, again, not a satisfying answer. It’s very frustrating, particularly patients come in, and, “I’ve lived a healthy lifestyle. I’ve done everything right. I exercise. I eat right. How could this have happened?”

These are things that for the most part are out of the control of a person. These aren’t impacted by your diet or your activity levels, what you eat or don’t eat, what you do or don’t do. That’s a real frustration. In the end, in almost all cases we don’t know or understand why these gene mutations or these, I call them mistakes in the body, occur when they occur. We don’t understand them.

And, Dr. Pollyea, someone asked if benzene can be a risk factor for AML.

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, benzene is one of the sort of rare environmental exposure associations that we do have clear associations with AML.

But the level of benzene that a person would need to be exposed to is really something that hasn’t been seen in this country in a very long time.

We’d be talking about like an industrial accident type exposure in almost all cases, so being exposed to a cleaning solution or some other fairly minor exposure to benzene, we don’t think is enough, in most cases, to prompt this disease. But benzene in very high doses, like an industrial accident, yes, that is something that we understand can certainly contribute or cause AML.

 

Ross:                          

Autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, can they increase the risk of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Oh, boy. That is a really interesting one. So, there are papers in the literature that do support those associations. And I know in my own practice I certainly see that trend. So, I do think that there is something there. There is a proven association between autoimmune conditions and myelodysplastic syndrome, which I said before can be a clear precursor condition to AML. So, certainly, that is an association that is a possibility.

It can be a little difficult to tease out whether it’s those diseases that are associated with ultimately developing AML, or the treatments that people get for some of those autoimmune diseases. Those treatments can modulate the immune system in certain ways that may, in fact, contribute or drive the disease. So, that’s a difficult thing to tease out.

But in general terms, yes, I think there are some associations. Now not by a long shot everyone with an autoimmune disease gets AML. It’s a teeny, tiny fraction. But I think there is an association there.

 

Ross:

How easy is it to diagnose AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Well, I mean, I think there’s very clear diagnostic criteria for AML. But I guess that doesn’t really answer the question. And we certainly have patients who come to us after many months of frustration without a clear diagnosis.

So, those scenarios can play out. Many times AML’s a very dramatic presentation, so people get very, very sick very, very quickly with extraordinarily high white blood cell counts and suppression of all the other blood counts that come from the bone marrow like red blood cells and platelets.

In those cases it’s pretty clear that there is a type of acute leukemia going on. There can be some difficulty distinguishing Acute Myeloid from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia; those are sort of like cousins, but very different and treated differently. So, it kinda runs the gamut. I mean, it can be pretty clear, but it’s sometimes missed, so yeah.

 

Ross:

This is a great lead-in to my next question, which is about the symptoms of AML. What should be the warning signs that this might be something you need to get looked at?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Right. So, at presentation, the main symptoms are reflective of the fact that the bone marrow, the organ that makes all the cells of the blood, has failed.

So, that can cause severe anemia. Signs of anemia: a white sort of appearance, feeling dizzy or lightheaded when standing, short of breath, weak, tired, fatigue. Those are all pretty clear presenting symptoms for AML. Because the bone marrow also is responsible for making platelets that clot the blood, some people will present with a bleeding complication, or a very subtle rash made up of these particular red dots. We call that a petechial rash. And that rash can come on when the platelet count gets very low.

Sometimes a person will present with an infection or infections that don’t go away or don’t clear because of decrease in white blood cells, the infection-fighting cells of the bone marrow. Those are made in the bone marrow and can fail in the setting of this disease. So, those are the most common symptoms at presentation, symptoms that are reflective of bone marrow failure.

 

Ross:

You mentioned that sometimes the presentation could be very dramatic, and it sounds like the symptoms are very severe, very quickly. Is that always the case? Is that often the case?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

That is the case in, I would say, a minority of times. That’s usually the case. It’s more often seen in younger patients with AML. Typically, older patients with AML have a more smoldering course and a much less dramatic presentation, although this sort of very dramatic and dangerous presentation can happen in older patients, but it’s probably something like a third of the time that those very dramatic and medical emergency presentations occur.

 

Ross:

How important is early diagnosis?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Well, I mean, it’s crucial. I mean, in particular in those cases where it’s a very dramatic and proliferative diagnosis, or presentation. A quick diagnosis and recognition of this condition is very important because the sooner a person starts effective treatment the better the ultimate outcome is.

I would say in general terms that applies to all AML patients, but certainly there’s some degrees of variation. So, there’s some AML patients that when I hear about their case on the phone from a referring doctor, it’s appropriate to see them next week in the clinic.

So, it’s not always a medical emergency, but we would never, even in those next-week-in-the-clinic patients, this isn’t something that can wait for weeks or certainly months. This is something that needs to be addressed fairly quickly.

 

Ross:

What are the best ways to manage those symptoms?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Right. So, I mean, at presentation, all those symptoms, the best way to manage those are to start treatment as quickly as possible. So, impacting the underlying cause of this disease is the most important and critical factor to getting a person feeling better because all of these problems stem from the disease in the bone marrow, and so everything else that you do to sort of help a person’s symptoms are Band-Aids when you’re not talking about getting to the root cause.

So, that’s at presentation. Now once we start treatment, there are many potential side effects to any number of treatments. And it all is dependent on what treatment you’re getting and other things about you that will make this a significant problem in some cases. And in that setting, we do have ways that we can aggressively manage a person’s side effects.

 

Ross:

Can you manage all of the symptoms? Or can people still be experiencing symptoms even after they’re in treatment?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Absolutely. So, a person with this disease, depending on how long they’ve had it and some of the features, may not be feeling back to their baseline self for potentially weeks or months after treatment starts in the best-case scenario. So, that can be very frustrating, but a person needs to sort of be able to continue to have a good outlook and stay positive.

Because we are able in many cases to make a big impact on this disease and return a person to their pre-disease quality of life.

 

Ross:

What are some of the myths that you hear, Dr. Pollyea, about the treatment? Some things that people come in to you saying they think that it helps, but there’s no science to back that up?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

So, myths about treatment, so many people have a lot of preconceived notions about the intensity of a therapy that they’re going to be asked to withstand. And although sometimes we do treat this disease very intensively, that’s not always the case, and now we have some very effective lower-intensity regimens that can be used in a variety of different scenarios.

There are a lot of people who have a lot of preconceived notions about a stem-cell transplant or a bone-marrow transplant and whether or not they would be eligible for this based on maybe what they’ve heard from friends or family, or what they’ve seen in the internet.

And those are often incorrect. And so, keeping an open mind about treatment options, and discussing those in detail with your doctor are really, really important.

 

Ross:

You mentioned sometimes it presents in young people, sometimes in older people. What’s sort of typical?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

This is a disease of predominantly older patients, so the median age of presentation is 68. So, that means that over half of the patients are over 68 years old at diagnosis. So, while this does happen, can happen in younger patients, that’s really an unusual situation. This disease is, like I said, it is predominantly a disease of older patients.

 

Ross:

There are some patients who I understand think that supplements can deal with the symptoms of AML. Is that accurate?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

You know, I mean, I think the supplement question is always a challenge. A lot of these supplements, or most of these supplements have never been tested with the rigor of treatments that we’re accustomed to in the medical establishment.

That being said, I won’t deny that some of the supplements can help patients based on what patients’ experiences are and what they tell me. I think what’s really important is just be very open and honest with your doctor about the supplements that you’re taking or want to take to ensure that there are no sort of unanticipated interactions with treatments.

Because I think most doctors are very open to having their patients care for themselves in the ways that they’ve become accustomed to, and they know their bodies very well, and we’re very open to that. But there are sometimes that a drug or a supplement might have a bad interaction with the treatment.

And so, a good example in my practice is antioxidants. So, there’s a lot of literature, a lot of interest in antioxidants as cancer-prevention treatment.

And a lot of that is not well-established, but still I don’t see much harm. But when it comes time to treating a cancer, that’s a very different situation. When we give a patient treatment to try to kill the cancer cells, many times we’re trying to provoke oxidation. That’s part of how these drugs and these treatments work.

So, if you’re taking those treatments, but also at the same time taking antioxidants, there’s the potential you could sort of be cutting your therapy off at the knees, fighting it with one hand behind your back. So, for the period of time when my patients are getting an active treatment, I ask that they don’t take it antioxidant.

And they can resume that in the future in the hopes of preventing another cancer. But the time to prevent with an antioxidant isn’t appropriate when you’re dealing with an active cancer. So, that’s just one example.

 

Ross:

Fatigue could be a symptom of AML, but there are a lot of causes of fatigue.

How do you differentiate between something that really could be AML and something that isn’t?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. That’s a challenge because I think these are, as I said, older patients. And older patients have a lot of other medical problems. And older people get fatigued, just that’s unfortunately part of the normal aging process. So, we would usually make an assumption that a person’s fatigue and diagnosis is due to the leukemia, the anemia as a result of the leukemia.

But as we successfully treat a patient if they are responding based on their numbers and other objective criteria, but the fatigue is not improving then I think that’s where we would start to look at other contributing factors, and there can be many, so having an open mind at that point is important.

But at the beginning, this is such a monster of a disease, it’s so overwhelming, I think the focus is usually on assumption that the fatigue is due to the disease or to a treatment associated with this disease.

 

Ross:

This question: is loss of appetite a symptom of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. I definitely see that, hear that, so sometimes people come in and they say that. Sometimes it may not be a loss of appetite, but an extreme weight loss, so a lot of different types of cancer, including AML, can cause that, just basically unintentional weight loss.

A person’s not trying to lose weight. They’re eating what they think is their normal amount and they’re losing tremendous amounts of weight. So, those are both potential presenting symptoms with AML. And loss of appetite, unfortunately, can be associated with some of the treatments for this disease. And taste changes, things not tasting good, can all contribute to that as well, so those are all challenges that our patients face.

 

Ross:

How important is to get a second opinion? I mean, are all doctors like you pretty much on the same page when it comes to symptoms and treatment?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

So, this is a challenge. So, the answer to the second question first is unfortunately, no. A lot of this hasn’t quite been standardized. And some doctors, oncologists, cancer doctors, they’ll predominantly be treating the things that are common: colon cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer. And they will probably only have a few cases of acute leukemia a year.

And so, their approach to this is going to be different than somebody who spends all day seeing patients with AML and thinking about AML.

So, a second opinion is a very nice thing to be able to do. The problem with this disease is that most times it doesn’t afford that opportunity. So, with other conditions you have some time to go out, read about it, talk to some different doctors, get a good plan together.

With AML, often that’s not a possibility. A person is so urgently sick that you have to sorta deal with the resources where you are. The best recommendation I have there, if you do find yourself in a situation where there’s not a lot of expertise is to ask your doctor to just call somebody in the region or email somebody in the region who may have that expertise.

And most doctors all over the country have that sort of resource or partner that they will go to and talk the case through with them, and maybe a transfer to one of those high-volume centers is appropriate.

And maybe that’s not a possibility or appropriate, but maybe you would benefit from just talking… Maybe your doctor would benefit from talking this through. But in cases where it’s not such a dramatic presentation, then yeah, for sure, I think a second opinion can be appropriate. But this isn’t something that can be sort of drawn out for long period of time.

 

Ross:

You know, when you find out something like this, your tendency might be to jump on the web and start searching for AML. How do you vet those sources that you look at? How do you figure out that their – what would be a sign that they’re bogus sources?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. I mean, I think this field is so rapidly changing and the treatment that we have, that I would, for the most part, assume that what you’re finding on the web is not relevant and is not an up-to-date resource. So, the resources that I listed, the NCCN, UpToDate, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, I should mention.

A very important resource that has up-to-date information, and they have even phone numbers for patients and their families to call to get connected with the proper people in a particular city, so that is a really important resource. But I’d be really, really cautious about what you find on the internet because things are changing so fast in this field. There’s a lot of outdated and misinformation on the internet.

 

Ross:

Well, then there’s outright scams. One of the things you mentioned before we went on is be cautious if someone’s asking you to put money upfront, or if it’s a nonmedical facility. What are some things that people should watch out for?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, one of the things that is so important in our area is clinical trials and participating in clinical trials. Patients who opt to do this and receive experimental therapies can sometimes get the treatment of the future, get a drug that’s not currently available through the FDA, but may have a lot of promise.

And this is the way that we fight this disease. We’ve recently had an onslaught of approvals for AML and that’s because the patients being willing to participate in sanctioned clinical trials. So, participating in a sanctioned clinical trial is crucial, and it’s always a recommendation of all leukemia doctors.

When you participate in a conventional clinical trial, you’re asked to sign a consent form that explains what you’re doing and why. There is a confirmation that this has been vetted by an institution’s regulatory board that is prioritizing the safety and well-being of you, the patient. This has been approved by the FDA as a clinical trial. Nobody would ever ask you to pay money. That’s not ethical to participate in a clinical trial. Insurance covers whatever standard of care. And the clinical trial covers anything that isn’t.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re not being asked to sign a consent form, where a clinical trial has not been reviewed by a regulatory board, where your doctor is not a leukemia specialist, where the FDA has not sanctioned the treatment, all of those are alarm signs.

Because there are people out there that are preying on patients in a desperate situation, a very difficult time in their life, and giving them sort of false hope and leading them down paths that are not legitimate.

One easy thing to do to sorta check to see if a clinical trial is legitimate is to go onto clinicaltrials.gov.

This is a resource set up by our national healthcare system that now feeds in every legitimate clinical trial from all over the world, needs to be registered on clinicaltrials.gov. So, if you can’t find your clinical trial on clinicaltrials.gov, I would have a lot skepticism and caution about that.

 

Ross:

Like what advice do you have for people when they’re first diagnosed? What are the first things they should try to do?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. I mean, that reaction is totally normal and natural. I mean, many times these people are perfectly healthy or have been perfectly healthy, and this news is a complete shock.

And so, it is normal and appropriate to have some period of grieving for the healthy life that you are losing. But I would also, while giving yourself that time to grieve, first, draw on your support system, your family, your friends. Allow them to help you. Accept that assistance that they have. And to be optimistic because we are getting so much better at treating this disease.

I had mentioned before, there has been an onslaught of approvals for drugs in this area the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades. We have new tools and weapons in our arsenal that we couldn’t have dreamed of even a few years ago.

We in our community are very excited and hopeful about the future and we hope that that will translate ultimately to patients, but being depressed or being down, being scared, all of that is normal.

All of that is expected. Anyone would feel like that. Allowing yourself to have those feelings and emotions is important, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of doing what you need to do to fight this disease.

 

Ross:

It sounds like you’re hopeful about new treatments for the disease. How about a cure? What’s the science? What’s the medical science say about that? Are we getting any closer to that?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

We are getting closer to curing this in more cases. So, like I mentioned before, as bad as this is, we can already cure some subsets of patients. There’s one type of Acute Myeloid Leukemia called Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia, APL. It’s an uncommon form of AML, less than 10 percent.

But we can cure close to 99 percent of people with APL. And APL, 15 years ago, was universally the worst form of acute leukemia to get. So, that dramatic 180 that we’ve seen in APL, we are hoping to translate into other forms of AML.

Some other forms of AML have cure rates as high as 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent in the right setting. Sometimes we can cure patients with a stem cell transplant fairly reliably. So, we are very, very hopeful about our ability to continue to make progress and cure more and more and more of these patients. That’s the future that we see.

 

Ross:

Dr. Pollyea, thank you so much. And thank you so much for ending on such a positive note. We really appreciate it. And thank you for joining us for this program today.

To learn more about AML and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Ross Reynolds. Thanks for joining us.