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How to Play an Active Role in Your MPN Treatment and Care Decisions

How to Play an Active Role in Your MPN Treatment and Care Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can you play a role in your MPN care and treatment decisions? Engaging with your healthcare team is essential and may lead to better overall outcomes. In this program, Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju provides tips for how best to advocate for yourself or a loved one, as well as tools for making treatment and care decisions.

Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju is Director of the Blastic Plasmacytoid Dendritic Cell Neoplasm (BPDCN) Program in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Pemmaraju, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:    

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program.

Today, we’re going to explore how to engage with your healthcare team when diagnosed with a myeloproliferative neoplasm, and we’ll discuss the patient’s role in care decisions.

Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.

All right. Let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju. Dr. Pemmaraju, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Well, thank you for having me, Katherine and team. I’m Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju. Associate Professor of Leukemia and the Director of the Rare Disease Program with Blastic Neoplastic Cell Neoplasm (BPDCN) here at MD Anderson, and I’m happy to be here with you guys.

Katherine Banwell:    

Thank you so much. We’re glad to have you with us today. As we move through this conversation, we’ll talk about the classic myeloproliferative neoplasms: essential thrombocythemia, polycythemia vera, and myelofibrosis.

But before we get into our discussion, let’s start with the question that’s on the minds of many of our audience members. We’re all hearing that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe, but how effective is it for MPN patients?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Well, I believe that this is one of the most important issues of our time.

I think the way I would approach the COVID-19 question is, one, is we know that if our patients contract the virus, that can be deadly in actually many of our patients. So, I think it’s actually important to remember that the virus is still out there and that getting the virus is potentially very life-threatening, not only for the general population but for our patients.

For the vaccines, I kind of have two stories to tell you. So, one is my own anecdotal experience in the clinic where it has been surprisingly and remarkably well-tolerated in most of our patients. This is both the mRNA vaccines and as well as the J&J vaccine. And so, overall, we’ve seen a very minimal amount of allergic or other reactions.

I think the most important part, as you said at the top, is for specific medical advice, we need to be talking to our own providers. But I think for our MPN patients, we’re giving some caution, looking at the blood counts, what chemotherapy folks are on. But, in general, I’ve been happy with that rollout.

Now, for the effectiveness of them, sure. That’s a question of ongoing research. There are some data that’s coming out, particularly in CLL and other leukemias that – correct – maybe some of our immunocompromised patients, as you would expect, may not be able to mount the appropriate response. But all that data is moving and fluid, so we’ll see.

And then I think the other point here is with this question of the virus itself and maybe some of these vaccines having a signal for increased blood clots or coagulopathy.

This is something I think we have to follow in our MPN community only because our patients are already at a high risk for both bleeding and clotting. So, the virus itself, COVID-19, post-syndrome coagulopathy, possible side effects – idiosyncratic and rare, for sure, from these vaccines that can lead to a vaccine-induced thrombotic state. I think these are some of the factors that we have to watch out for. So, in general, we don’t yet know the exact answer for each patient, PV, ET, MF, how effective the vaccine may be. But we are encouraging everyone to go for it unless there’s an obvious contraindication. Katherine?

Katherine Banwell:    

Okay. Good. Thank you. Let’s learn a little bit more about the disease itself. Dr. Pemmaraju, do a level set with our audience. Can you help us understand the differences between ET, PV, and MF?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah, this is very important because we toss these words around as if there’s some big definition that was given, and oftentimes, that never happens. So, let’s pause to do that. So, this goes back to the 1950s when William Dameshek, who really postulated the modern MPDs at that time as they were known – myeloproliferative disorders – really thought that there were four diseases that were similar at some level and then presented differently. So, that’s polycythemia vera, essential thrombocytosis, myelofibrosis, and CML, chronic myeloid leukemia.

Then, as the modern era comes in, CML is divided off because of the Philadelphia chromosome, BCR-ABL, which is present in 100 percent of those patients.

So, now we know CML is its own thing. And now we have the big three, sort of non-Philadelphia chromosome MPNs, as they’re now known, because neoplasm – cancer – instead of disorder. Within the subtype, and this is important, the subtypes that you mentioned are the most common.

So, polycythemia vera – poly meaning many, cythemia, cells, vera is Latin for true. This is the designation for the patient who has a higher than expected blood red cell mass or hematocrit. And it actually, interestingly, Katherine, most patients with p. vera have an increase in all three of their blood lines, so the red cells, hemoglobin, hematocrit, platelets, and white count. Those patients with PV are especially at risk for both bleeding and clotting, transformation to myelofibrosis, and even transformation to acute leukemia in maybe 5 to 7 percent of patients.

So, the usual treatment there, Katherine, is to bring off the blood mass. That’s the phlebotomy.  And then in the patient who is above the age of 60 or has a prior blood clot, to give some form of chemotherapy, hydroxyurea (Hydrea) or interferon, for example.

Now, the second grouping is ET, essential thrombocytosis. Again, this word vera or essential, meaning not reactive, not benign, not from a regular cause like a surgery or a trauma or an inflammation. So, it means a cancerous cause, an autonomous cause, something that’s coming on its own.

Thrombocythemia or thrombocytosis, meaning too many platelets. So, usually, patients with ET have too many platelets as their predominant manifestation. But again, as with p. vera, patients can get into problems with that. Very, very high platelets, usually a million and a half or higher, can actually lead to bleeding. Not necessarily clotting, but extra bleeding. And then patients with any platelet levels, because the platelet level doesn’t exactly correlate, can have either bleeding or clotting. So, that’s usually the predominant factor. And again, the underlying problem with these MPNs is that they can transform to the other ones – PV, MF, even acute leukemia.

And then, finally, myelofibrosis, which we could spend the whole hour on just by itself, is the more advanced state out of these.  So, it can either arise out of the PV or ET or stand alone. And really here, this is an advanced bone marrow failure state with bone marrow scarring or fibrosis. And now, usually, most patients, their blood counts, rather than high are now low because the bone marrow is unable to produce enough cells. And then, therefore, the sequela of the disease – anemia, thrombocytopenia. So, low blood, low platelets.

Then you need transfusions. The liver and the spleen get larger because they remember how to make blood cells. People can have a wasting away appearance. And then here, more than the PV or ET, this is more of an acute disease for many where if you have intermediate to high stage, these patients can transform more readily to leukemia and have a decreased overall survival.

Katherine Banwell:    

When a person is diagnosed with an MPN, they have a whole healthcare team. Who is typically on that team?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Well, it’s interesting. Yeah, that’s evolved over time.

It used to just be patient and their local oncologist, right? And the oncologist office has become a very busy place with mostly solid tumors. So, breast, prostate, colon, and then maybe a few scattered patients in most practices with blood cancers. Obviously, blood abnormalities are common with platelets and anemia and all that, but to actually have an MPN patient in the general hem/onc practice is actually quite rare. Right? These diseases are 4 to 5 out of 100,000 people.

Now, fast-forward to the modern era. I think this is important. I think now, what I personally encourage – and obviously I’m biased because I’m here at the academic center. But I really think that patients with rare blood cancers such as MPNs should be co-managed. So, be seen by your local hematologist/oncologist, for sure. They know you the best. But also have a referral, if you’re able to and have the resources and ability to travel, to an academic center where you can see a blood cancer specialist such as me or my colleagues, as I only focus on blood cancer.

So, I’m not seeing patients with a solid tumor. So, local oncologist. If you can have a blood cancer expert as part of your care, it doesn’t have to replace the care. And then to have a member of the nursing allied professions – nursing and APP, advanced practice providers – is really becoming essential to help with acquiring the prescriptions from the specialty pharmacy, prior authorizations, teaching of the injectables, such as interferon, figuring out enrolling on clinical trials.

So – and then, if a patient, young and fit, with myelofibrosis, you’ll want to be consulted with a stem cell transplant doctor. And then, finally, as if that wasn’t enough, I think a good pharmacist team is important nowadays to go over the drug-to-drug interactions, side effects. It’s not just about the JAK inhibitors but all the other medicines – antibiotics and everything else – that may be a bit unique to the MPN patient compared to the general cancer patient.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. Lately, we’ve been hearing this term “shared decision-making,” which basically means the patients and clinicians collaborate to make healthcare decisions. And it can help patients to take a more active role in their care. So, I’d like to get your thoughts on how best to make this process work.

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

This is a passion area to me. I think this is so important that  you bring this out. I think a generation or two ago, Katherine, it may have been common for there to be more of a one-way monologue, if you will, doctor to patient, and that may have been the majority of the conversation before.

I don’t see it that way anymore, and most of my colleagues don’t either. I think it should be a dialogue, as you said. It should be a back-and-forth communication, one that learns and evolves over time as any real relationship would, right? Outside in the real world. So, I think that’s important. Number two, I think trust needs to be earned, not just given.

So, that means patient and physician, and really the physician team – so, all the other members of the team – building that trust over time through frequent communication, visits, all of this. And then, finally, I think the key here is that a lot of patients always ask, “Hey, what can I do on my own?” I’ll tell you what you can do. You can be involved and read and empower yourself if you’re able to, if you’re able to and you can. Many may not be able to due to their illness or for other reasons.

But if you are able to, I think it’s great to read online. There, I just said it. Let me repeat it to make sure everyone heard that. I want you to read. I think it’s fine. Consult Dr. Google. What’s the worst that happens? The worst that happens is you find misinformation. Well, don’t keep it to yourself. right? So, Google, look up things, go to social media, see what experts in your area are talking about, go to Facebook, go to the patient groups. But remember, everyone’s case is different. Someone else’s is different from yours, and yours is different from the next. So, gather information like a sponge.

Formulate it, synthesize it in the way that only you know how to do, bring some notes, and then talk about it with me at the next visit, “Hey, I saw this on the Internet.” “Okay, great, let’s talk about that.” Or, “Hey, this new formulation of interferon is coming.” “Great, let’s talk about it.” So, gather information, sort out signal from the noise with your healthcare team. Sort that out and then move on, move on, move on. So, I think these are some of the aspects of what’s called shared decision-making. No longer a monologue, one-way street. Let’s have a dialogue, let’s have a partnership, let’s figure out a way to empower each other in this journey.

Katherine Banwell:    

We’re going to talk in a few moments about online research and how well that works or how well it doesn’t. But let’s talk about treatment goals first for ET, PV, and MF. What are the goals of treatment from a clinical perspective?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Well, I think the goals are divided up into three factors. So, I think for the MPN patient, goal number one has to be what the patient themselves want to achieve.

Oftentimes, that’s different than what’s on the numbers with the labs and what the physician wants. So, I think a lot of our patients correctly are suffering from – or mentioning to us that they’re suffering from quality of life issues. So, fatigue is the most common manifestation of all the MPNs, followed by bone pain, night sweats, inability to concentrate, etcetera, etcetera.

So, I think quality of life is the goal of most people, and I think that’s an admirable goal. And some of the medicines can help that. Some can actually hurt that in the short term. So, let’s put that as bucket number one. What does the patient want to achieve? Usually, it’s the alleviation of fatigue, itching, bone pain, etcetera.

Number two, I think, is the sort of on-paper game, if you will, right? So, what do the labs show, what does the bone marrow biopsy show, what does the spleen show? I think all of that is good, too, in that bucket. And clearly, if someone has transfusion dependent anemia, two times a week needing blood transfusions, and whatever treatment you can do can alleviate that down to once a week, once a month never – okay, that’s a win for the patient.

And then I think, finally, our goals. You’re right. You asked me specifically “What are my goals for our patients?” Well, I want to see that your overall survival has improved if I can. So, your length of life, your quality of life has improved, minimization of side effects from whatever therapy we’re doing. If we’re going on a clinical trial or combining therapies in a novel way, that you’re not experiencing some brand new or idiosyncratic toxicity or side effect.

And then, finally, I think the key is to monitor for, let’s say, other things. Are you developing a second cancer, a second blood cancer? Are you having another problem that’s outside of your MPN, such as iron deficiency anemia or thyroid disease? Something that’s extremely common, has nothing to do with the MPN, but is also happening. And then do you have a healthcare team?

I failed to mention in your earlier question the primary care doctor, right? Let’s mention that person as well. If our patients have the general practitioner who they had already been seeing before the MPN diagnosis, or at least established one after, then some of these important aspects, like cancer screening, cholesterol checks, some of these other important things can be done in parallel to the MPN therapy and then, of course, combined at different points.

So, these are kind of my benchmarks for goals of therapy. They will vary from patient to patient and, of course, from case to case. The patient with advanced intermediate to high-risk myelofibrosis going to transplant, well, that’s markedly different from the patient who’s young with ET with no blood clots and relatively controlled blood counts. So, different goals there, Katherine.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. Right. So, you just mentioned a couple of factors that you take into consideration, but there are others as well, I think. What about the patient’s age and overall health, for instance?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Could not be more important. You’re right. I think age – and let’s use that as a surrogate for what we call ECOG performance data. So, the overall kind of fitness of a patient, as you said, may be the most important factor. And then followed by these other conditions, so-called co-morbidities. I’d like to talk about that for a second because that’s a lot of the program here. Depending on a patient’s age, performance status, fitness, and other organs that are involved, that actually leads to a couple of important points.

One, it may limit or reduce the number of treatment options that a person has based on their ability to even tolerate it in the first place. Both oral chemos that are available, some of these clinical trials that need to use an IV drug.

Number two, it may predict how your overall survival is going to be. So, perhaps your MPN, as we used in the other example, you have an earlier stage MPN that really doesn’t require treatment. It requires active observation.

But then on the other hand, you have advanced heart disease or kidney disease. That may actually do you more harm in the end. So, that’s actually very important that you bring that up.

And then, finally, right, is this concept that you have the co-morbidities and then you have the MPN, and then they kind of change and morph over time where one is the dominant issue, the other isn’t. And so, you do need that decision care team as you were mentioning earlier. So, let’s definitely say that out loud that that matters. And I think it also reminds us that nothing is in a vacuum. The MPN doesn’t exist in an isolated space, right? So, your MPN co-exists with your heart disease, your kidney disease, your lung disease, your past, your present habits, anything.

Katherine Banwell:    

Exactly.

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

So, I’m really glad you brought that up. And I think also, to your point with the shared decision-making model, I think sometimes, as physicians, we may not ask, and as patients, we forget to mention, “Oh, X, Y, Z in my history,” or “Oh, I’m taking this herbal supplement.” Sometimes these things are important to mention.

So, when in doubt, bring up everything to your care team so that you can make decisions together.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. It might help to make notes before you go in to talk to your doctor.

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Sure. Sure, absolutely. That doesn’t hurt, and it could help you at least organize your own thoughts even if you don’t use them in the visit.

Katherine Banwell:    

Exactly. Yeah. Dr. Pemmaraju, let’s talk about biomarker testing. Can you help us understand what biomarkers are and how they may affect treatments?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yes. Biomarkers – I think that word gets mentioned a lot with really no definition, because it’s one of those words that can be whatever someone wants it to be. So, you’re right. For us, it’s a very important word in MPN. Bio meaning of life, scientific, and then marker meaning some kind of a measuring stick that has a value.

Well, there are two ways to look at biomarkers. One is the obvious, which is we have the defined big three molecular mutations. So, that’s JAK2V617F, followed by CALR mutation, followed by MPL. Those are the big three. Those make up about 90 percent of all patients with MPNs. You’re technically not born with them, although new data suggests that you may acquire these mutations right after birth. So, those markers are important, because they can be used to diagnose the disease, right? Particularly in the challenging patient. They have high platelets, you can’t tell if it’s reactive or ET. Okay, so they’re helpful with diagnosis.

Maybe some studies have shown that some of these markers can be predictive, Katherine, of blood clots. Let that research be ongoing. And then, obviously, some of these may be helpful in terms of designing the future treatments, particularly targeted therapies. So, I think biomarkers are part of our field, if you look at it that way, at diagnosis and risk stratification prognosis. But there are other factors that are starting to come out. One is there are molecular mutations outside of these big three.

So, outside of JAK2, CALR, and MPL, that are very important actually. Not everyone is checking for them. They are ASXL1 mutations, EZH2, IDH1 and 2, so on and so forth.

So, these are extended molecular markers that can be checked at some doctors’ offices that now, in the latest scoring systems, if you have one of those or more than one or two, they can elevate your risk score. So, if you have low-risk or intermediate-risk myelofibrosis, they may make you intermediate or high risk.

So, that may be a bit more complicated than what most people are aware of. But just so you know, there are markers that can be readily checked that can tell if your disease may be a bit higher risk than we though, say, 10 years ago.

I think other biomarkers that we look at are some of the labs that are just the regular labs that are on almost every panel, but they can tell a lot about the disease. There’s the LDH, lactate dehydrogenase. There are several markers, such as CRP and sed rate.

So, anyway, there are a lot of labs that we can check depending on where you are in your disease state that can kind of tell us a lot about how inflamed you are, how active your disease is at the moment, and then that will lead to further confirmatory tests. So, I think, yeah, in general, this is an active, developing area of research in our MPN field.

Katherine Banwell:    

It seems like results could really influence therapy choices then. So, do you think patients should ask for these tests specifically?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

I’m a big fan of patients being empowered to ask anything that comes to mind. And again, that’s why I love this discussion because maybe there might be some people out there who are shocked, frankly, at what we’re talking about here. I think it’s great to do what you said. Yes. I think do your research, online or otherwise. Come up with a list of questions. Bring – if you’re able to, of course – if you have the ability to, bring one person with you. Or nowadays, on the telehealth, we put one person on through the phone during the pandemic time.

And then – yeah. I mean, yeah, sure, just you hear about something, ask about it. The worst thing that your doctor says is, “Hey, that’s only a research test. That’s not available.” It doesn’t hurt to ask. And it may help to lead to other discussions. I think it’s also a good idea to get a second or a third opinion if you need to. There, I said it. It’s your body, it’s your life, it’s your choice. I think, yes, advocate for yourself, because at the end of the day, who else is going to do that?

Katherine Banwell:    

Absolutely. Dr. Pemmaraju, are there other questions that patients should consider asking about their proposed treatment plan?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

You know, I think the biggest thing that I think is getting left out in the rare blood cancers that I spend all my time in is the ability and access to clinical trials. And that’s one thing I wanted to discuss with you this morning, which is you’re seen in your local doctor’s office. They’re doing the heroic work, and I really think it is, of seeing breast cancer patients, prostate, lung, colon, PV.

It’s just the difference between the frequent, common tumors that get chapters dedicated to them in the board review testing and whole months dedicated in the oncology fellowship compared to the patient with the rare blood cancer that, really, you may only encounter once or twice in your career. As compared to, say, me, where I’m a specialist in only that area.

I think that we – look, here’s the deal. Even today, only 5 to 7 percent of all oncology patients are ever referred to – are ever enrolled on a clinical trial. Clinical trials oftentimes are seen as last resort, last ditch. And I understand that. In fact, I even thought that before I went into medical school.

Then once you get to this point where I am, you realize, wait a second, clinical trial, oftentimes, are frontline programs. Yes, sometimes they’re randomized, sometimes they’re not. Very few times does anyone get placebo, right? Which is what a lot of people are worried about. Or if they do, it’s two drugs versus one plus placebo. Anyway, so there are a lot of different things that are clinical trials.

But we realize now that oncology has so little known information still in 2021 and beyond. So the ability to enroll in a clinical trial, be referred to it, travel to it, know about it, get on it, you’re contributing so much information to not only yourself and patients in your cohort but possibly for the future. So, that’s my only plug, is I wish that we would all ask each other more about “What clinical trials are available, how do I look them up, do you recommend this for me, or can I figure out with you how to travel and do all that stuff?”

So, I think clinical trials in rare blood cancers such as MPNs are underutilized, under-referred to, under-thought of. And then even when we are able to get people there, Katherine, it’s difficult to keep people traveling, particularly vulnerable people.

Katherine Banwell:      

Yeah. We have a question from a newly diagnosed PD patient. Sharon says, “I’m just about to begin Jakafi. What can I expect?”

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah, great question, right? So, with ruxolitinib or Jakafi, I think the biggest couple of points here is, for what’s known, this is the first-in-class JAK inhibitor that we have the most experience with.

So, now we have over a decade-plus of experience. I guess general things are general, right? This is not specific medical advice. That’s not the intention of this program. But, in general, I would stick with what’s on the package label insert, and there are a couple things we know.

One is this is a highly effective drug. This drug, which we have tested now in multiple, multiple, multiple different trials in myelofibrosis, polycythemia vera, now approved in a form of graft-versus-host disease, different doses. So, I would say check the dose for your particular disease and indication. Double-check it with your pharmacist. Make sure there are no drug-to-drug interactions.

Number two, I think what’s important is that some patients on this drug can experience immunosuppression. So, that means that you may be at risk for some infections, and there’s some nice literature about that.

So, check with your doctor about that, particularly reactivation of old infections, looking out for viral infections, such as herpes zoster or shingles. And then I think the other key here is to watch out for the modulation of your disease. So, a lot of folks have big spleens, Katherine. Those shrink down. Then patients get their appetite back, they’re able to eat, and so some people can have weight gain that then goes the other way. So, these are some of the things you want to watch out for.

But, in general, read the package insert. If you have the ability to, it’s worth reading the – if you can, read the paper, right? Go read the New England Journal paper or – if you can look at that. And then make sure you talk to your local pharmacist and ask the same question there. You might be surprised at some tidbits and pearls you can pick up.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. Once on therapy, how is the disease monitored, and how do you know if the treatment is working?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah. So, it differs from each disease, but let’s take polycythemia vera for a good example. So, let’s suppose you have polycythemia vera. I think there are three markers here that you can check. One is the blood counts, right?

So, you want to make sure that the blood counts are controlled. New England Journal, five or six years ago now, our Italian colleagues published a very seminal paper which shows that the goal of therapy should be that the hematocrit should be below 45. So, that’s actually a very nice number to have. So, not just waiting for symptoms of the disease but keep the number low. And if you do that, that correlates with decreased cardiac events, thromboembolic events.

Number two, I think that, besides the blood count, the spleen. The spleen and liver size also is a nice surrogate for how the disease is doing. So, if that’s enlarging or getting out of control, that may be time to stop what you’re doing, reassess. The disease may be progressing to myelofibrosis, for example.

And then I think, lastly, the absence of stuff actually helps, too. So, the absence of major bleeding, the absence of blood clots, the absence of transformation to MF. I think if the quality of life is good, you’re decreasing blood clots and bleeding, you’re not going to a more advanced disease state, these are all wins for us with p. vera.

Katherine Banwell:    

You touched on this briefly, but I’m wondering when a patient should consider changing treatments.

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah, changing treatments is more art than science, I would say. So, it does – that’s one of those that is kind of specific from patient to patient. In general, what we just talked about gives you that guidance. So, in polycythemia vera, since we brought that up earlier, uncontrolled blood counts despite maximum medication intervention, the phlebotomy requirement being untoward and impossible to keep up with, the spleen size growing out of control, the quality of life being impossible – these are some aspects to look into changing therapy and/or clinical trial.

But remember, it’s not a one-size-fits-all, right? So, some patients, the counts – some of these things may or may not actually play out. So, it has to be more of a gestalt, more of a total picture there.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Why is it so important for patients to speak up when it comes to symptoms or treatment side effects?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Well, I’m going to be that magician who you watch the TV show, they give away all the secrets. So, this is the big secret. Your doctor cannot read your mind. I hate to say that, Katherine. I just said it here, and it’s going to surprise some people. No, I mean, seriously. Right. So, I think the problem with the MPNs – not the problem, the caveat, the difficulty – is if you are a patient, you have this war that’s suffering inside of you. I know that as an expert person. You know that as a patient. But whoever you’re sitting in front of is not going to know that.

And there are two reasons for that. One is you don’t look like that. Most of our patients – whatever this is, I’m going to put this in big air quotes, so in case someone’s not watching this and they’re only hearing, I’m putting air quotes. People say to my patients, “Wow, you don’t look like a cancer patient.” Whatever that means, right? So, most of our patients don’t have their hair falling out, etcetera, etcetera. So, there’s that aspect of it, the visual education part of it.

Then there’s also the part, which is a lot of these symptoms burdens are not obvious on the physical exam. You cannot tell by talking to someone or looking at them if they have night sweats, bone pain, even itching, any of these things. Fatigue. You can’t tell if someone has fatigue most of the time unless you ask them. So, this is one of those where shared partnership in decision-making is not just a generic phrase. This is important.

I would say that for a patient with an MPN, the MPN symptom burden – the questionnaire, the 10 questions that we now have settled on – that can tell so much more or as much as the physical exam or the blood counts.

So, it’s imperative. It’s not just a luxury. It’s imperative. And if the patient themselves is unable to speak up, then if the advocate or caregiver or loved one can, if that person is available.

The other point I would say to this is that oftentimes the symptoms can precede – they can come before laboratory changes, physical exam changes, all these things. So, a constant, constant communication, “Hey, I was playing 18 holes of golf last year.”

“Now I can’t even get out of bed.” Hello? That tells you more than almost anything you can read on a piece of paper. So, you, as always, are spot-on with what you said. And this is the case where people say, “What can I do to help my care?” This is it. Speak up, speak out. It’s your body, it’s your life, make sure you feel empowered to do that.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. It’s important to have that dialogue. Dr. Pemmaraju, you’re very active on social media, and patients often share information with one another. So, what advice do you have for patients to ensure online sources are actually credible?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Wow, great question. First thing I would say is I encourage everyone to get out there, so that’s key opinion leaders, local physicians, nurses, pharmacists, patients, caregivers, everyone. But Part two is what you said is true. Most everything out there is noise. It could be garbage. It could be background. It could be misinformation. So, you do have to have some way to filter it.

I call it signal from the noise. That’s a common phrase that a lot of people on social media use. I guess three things that I would give as tips. One is don’t be afraid to read and get on there, but I would just say whatever you read, take it with a grain of salt, as you said, and just write everything down where you have it organized.

Number two, tend to gravitate towards known experts and known sources. So, for example, you mentioned that I’m on there. That’s great. Ruben Mesa, our great friend and colleague, etcetera, etcetera. So, if you know who the 10 or 15 thought leaders are on Twitter or social media, see what they’re saying directly. That’s nice, because it’s straight from them to the public.

And then three is stick with the organizations and entities that are trusted sources. New England Journal of Medicine, ASCO, ASH, programs such as yourself, etcetera, etcetera, who are trying to put out there the latest and honest information.

Okay. So, now the fourth part, though, I think is the most important, which is what we said earlier, which is whatever you look up, discuss it with your doctor and your physician team. Period. Because no matter what research you did, no matter what patients groups you join, there might be something that either doesn’t apply to you, or worse, as you said, it could be actual misinformation, and it’s a red herring.

So, maybe find information, figure out a way to filter it, cross-check it, and then bring it up to your doctor team. I think that’s a winning way for success with information nowadays.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. That’s really helpful information. Well, we have another audience question. This one is from Richard. He wants to know, what advice do you have for caregivers, and how can he be supportive during appointments?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Yeah. Richard’s question really is so important. Really, before the pandemic and now with the pandemic this extended time, this is the most important question that’s coming up. This is a challenge. I think a lot of our patients who are older, frail, live alone, they don’t even have the option to do that. That may be 25 percent of our patients right there,

And that’s very heartbreaking and difficult, and clearly, their care – it may not be compromised, but it’s certainly limited in some ways without getting that other perspective, right? So, I think that’s important.

Now, out of the 75 percent of the people who may have someone that can be a part of their life, a lot of these folks, Katherine, are limited because of the pandemic. Most hospitals, smartly, I think, still have restrictions on not allowing every single person in the building just for health and safety protocols. So, telehealth has had to be a substitute, I would say, for that, and in a lot of cases, has been helpful. In some cases, frustrating, obviously, with technical difficulties, etcetera, etcetera.

I would say that the key is – and I really want this to be very specific. It would be easy to just say, “Yep, bring a loved one to your visit.” No, it’s not that easy, right? So, now, during the pandemic, I think two things are very important and what I’ve noticed. One is, if the patient is able to, if their health allows them to, prime the loved one or caregiver, “Hey, I’m going to be in the doctor’s office from this time.”

And I always say make it like the cable person visit, right? From 8:00 to 5:00. So, “Hey, today, on Tuesday, if you can have your cell phone on you, that would be nice, because I’m going to patch you in, and you can listen in the background.” This is actually a key pearl I can give to people. You’d be surprised how helpful that is. Because most people, if they’re not living in the same household or whatever – “Oh, I didn’t even know you were going to be,” – okay.

Number two, when the loved one or caregiver is involved, which I encourage for everyone, try to discuss with them the night before, if your health allows you to, to go over some of the key questions. Say, “Hey, guess what? I only understand about 7 to 10 percent of what goes on in these visits, but I need you to ask this.” So, you can kind of prime your loved one to do that.

And then, lastly, you had mentioned earlier to have this list of questions. Well, that’s a great thing to give to the caregiver, right? So, if you’re able to use email and your family member is in California and you’re in Texas, maybe a quick email the night before.

“Hey, here’s what I’m thinking. In case I forget, will you ask this to the doctor?” A lot of these visits may only be five or 10 minutes, but you’d be surprised, if you have a list of two or three questions – boom, boom, boom – and then it’ll alleviate those worries there.

Lastly, I would also say don’t feel – I want to tell this to the viewers out there. Don’t feel pressured when you’re in the visit with us that you have to get every single thing out. And what I mean by that is now with email and the electronic medical record portal systems, there is some ability to contact people during – I’m sorry, after and between visits. So, maybe that might help you to not feel so much pressure in the visit.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Very good advice. Thank you. Before we end the program, have there been any recent developments in MPN treatment and research that make you hopeful?

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

I have a lot of optimism and hope. It really blossomed over the last two years. I’m happy to report to our viewers – and this is incredible, I never would have predicted this. There are over 10, maybe 13, Phase 3 clinical trials that are in the clinic now or opening soon.

Phase 3 meaning sort of the latest – one of the latest stages of clinical trial development for new drugs. And a lot of these drugs are combinations. So, a lot of them, you’re on your ruxolitinib, for example, you’re on your JAK inhibitor, and then you add in the second agent. This is very exciting. I, myself, am leading or a part of several of these. I mean, we could have never envisioned this five years ago. So, not only these drugs have shown encouraging activity in the Phase 1 and 2 – so, the earlier stages – so, now we have to confirm and test them in larger trials. So, stay tuned for that, whether you can participate directly or at least follow along with the information.

And then the other piece of excitement is that there’s a lot of beyond JAK inhibitor drugs. So, that means novel pathways, new drugs that have nothing to do with JAK that can either stand alone by themselves or be combined. That’s another exciting area. We have multiple classes of drugs emerging from the lab into the clinic now that I hope will have a lot of benefit for our patients.

So, tons of optimism and excitement, frankly, that just wasn’t there five years ago.

Katherine Banwell:    

That’s wonderful. Dr. Pemmaraju, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Pemmaraju:         

Thank you, Katherine. I just love the chance to spend time with you guys. I hope to do this soon one day.

Katherine Banwell:    

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

What’s YOUR Role in Making Myelofibrosis Treatment Decisions?

What’s YOUR Role in Making Myelofibrosis Treatment Decisions? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can you play a role in your myelofibrosis care? Dr. Joseph Scandura shares his personal philosophy on patient care and the important role of shared decision-making.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

Related Programs:

Have You Had These Essential Myelofibrosis Tests?

What Are the Considerations When Choosing Myelofibrosis Therapy?

Expert Perspective: Promising Myelofibrosis Treatment Research


Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Scandura, what is the role of the patient in making treatment decisions? 

Dr. Scandura:

My personal philosophy is I view myself and my interactions with patients as a partnership. And I have and I bring to this partnership medical knowledge, some scientific knowledge, experience treating patients, understanding the diseases and the biology of the diseases. 

What patients bring is their personal histories, what they want and need from therapy, what their expectations are, where their fears and concerns might be. And as we share our information, I think that provides the opportunity to come to an understanding where the patient can make an informed decision and I can support that decision, that we know what the groundwork has been between us. And so, I spend, often, a lot of time in the beginning with patients kind of trying to understand who they are as people and what they need and expect. And everybody, as you might imagine, is an individual.  

And I present to them the information, and I try to encourage questions so that I know that they understand the information that I’m giving so that they can make a decision in their best interest. And so, I think shared decision-making is the only model I practice.  

Now, patients have different needs, particularly some of my older patients. And, culturally, there are some differences where they don’t want to take that role of being the decision-maker. And so, then my role changes a little bit, and it becomes more to make sure they’re comfortable and understand the direction that we’re going in and, again, always trying to encourage people to take ownership. 

I think, in New York City, that’s not so common. People are pretty well-informed and interested and more than willing to express their opinions.  

And so, I would say it can be very rewarding to come to a decision where patients feel their needs are being met.  

Expert Perspective: Promising Myelofibrosis Treatment Research

Expert Perspective: Promising Myelofibrosis Treatment Research from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Joseph Scandura shares optimism about myelofibrosis therapy in clinical trials, including excitement about anti-fibrotic agents and how they work.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

Related Programs

What Are the Considerations When Choosing Myelofibrosis Therapy?

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What’s YOUR Role in Making Myelofibrosis Treatment Decisions?


Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Scandura, you mentioned promising research in myelofibrosis treatment. What are you most excited about right now? 

Dr. Scandura:

I think there are a couple drugs that have been in clinical trials that have had activity in a significant subset. So, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of patients where the bone marrow fibrosis is actually reversed. 

And this is really something that we haven’t seen with other agents. And the approved agents, when that does happen, it’s really in a vast, vast minority of patients. And so, these newer drugs and, often, they’re used in combination with other approved drugs, can reverse the fibrosis in the marrow. And that is what I find most intriguing and exciting. They seem to be well-tolerated medications with predictable and reversible side effects when they do exist. And I think that time will tell if the promise is long-lived or if it’s short-lived. I mean, obviously, new drugs we don’t have the experience with that we really need. 

The clinical trials that are available now with some of these agents are in the last stages before the companies go to the FDA seeking approval for use. 

And so, we don’t have their results from those studies yet. They’re just opening, so sometimes the excitement doesn’t bear out when we do the rigorous clinical trials. But I’m actually quite optimistic about some of these agents, and I think that there is going to really be a sea change in how we treat patients and some of the outcomes we can expect from our therapies.  

COVID-19 Vaccination: What Do Myelofibrosis Patients Need to Know?

COVID-19 Vaccination: What Do Myelofibrosis Patients Need to Know? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Should myelofibrosis patients get the COVID-19 vaccine? Dr. Joseph Scandura discusses the risks and benefits of vaccination.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

Related Programs

What Are the Considerations When Choosing Myelofibrosis Therapy?

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for patients with myelofibrosis, and how does the vaccine affect treatment? 

Dr. Scandura:

So, I will flip that question around a little bit. I live in New York City.  

If I cross the street, the decision to cross the street is potentially a life-or-death decision. And whatever minor decision you’re making, there are always risks and there are always potential benefits. So, I might get home, I might get run over by a cab. And so, I try to mitigate those risks as I can by crossing in certain streets, looking both ways. So, when we talk about vaccine, we also have to talk about the other part of it. What is the risk of not being vaccinated? And so, we know COVID-19 is a severe illness in a subset of patients, we know that if you take all people, about 1 percent of people die from COVID. 

 If we take all people from the vaccine who have been vaccinated, the number of serious side effects is very, very, very, very small, so, like .000, you know, something percent. 

So, very low. It doesn’t mean it’s zero, but it’s very, very low. So, just looking at those numbers, I say for virtually everybody, the risk/benefit is in favor of vaccination. In patients with myelofibrosis, we’ve had the opportunity collectively across the world to gather experience and look at patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms and how they responded to COVID when they were infected with COVID. And worldwide, the toxicity of COVID in patients seems to be quite high. And so, patients with myelofibrosis may be at higher risk from COVID. 

I can’t say that they absolutely are because this is imperfect data, but that’s the experience that has been published so far.  

We really don’t know anything about the experience of patients to the vaccine. Actually, at my center, we have a myeloproliferative diseases center, and we are trying to collect that information because patients often ask, and I don’t have any results from that. But I think that, all told, there is no reason to expect higher symptoms in patients with myelofibrosis from vaccination. And what we do know is that the risk of not being vaccinated is probably higher than the risk of being vaccinated.   

What Are the Considerations When Choosing Myelofibrosis Therapy?

What Are the Considerations When Choosing Myelofibrosis Therapy? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 When choosing a myelofibrosis treatment, how do you determine what might be best for you? Dr. Joseph Scandura shares expert advice, including a review of inhibitor therapy and stem cell transplant.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

What are the considerations when choosing treatment for myelofibrosis?  

Dr. Scandura:

I would say in broad strokes, the primary considerations are the patient, what they want, the disease, what our options are, and the overall condition in terms of what are our possibilities for therapy and what is the risk/benefit of some of these different therapies. So, in myelofibrosis, although there’s been a huge amount of research over the past 10 years, really blossoming and are very impressive in, I think, an exciting way, there really are only two therapies that are approved by the FDA in the treatment of myelofibrosis, and those both affect one class of agents. These are JAK2 inhibitors, and those can be ruxolitinib (Jakafi) and fedratinib (Inrebicare the two drugs that are approved. 

Now, we have a number of therapies that have been used off-label, meaning without FDA approval, so often and for so long that they’re considered alternative standards of therapy. These can be growth factors; these can be biological agents in certain situations. And then, clinical trials is really increasingly a common therapeutic option for patients.  

And then, on the most aggressive side, is hematopoietic stem cell transplant and allogeneic transplant getting blood-forming cells from another person and replacing the entire blood system through transplant. 

Katherine Banwell:

So, who is right for a stem cell transplant? 

Dr. Scandura:

I would say, first and foremost, an informed patient about the risks of transplant and a patient for whom a donor exists, and a good quality donor. Transplant is not an option for some people or if a donor can’t be identified, obviously. 

And it’s a patient for whom the risk balance, the risk/benefit balance is tipped so that the potential toxicity, frankly, of transplant is warranted. Transplant is our most aggressive therapy. Virtually every patient will have significant side effects from transplant. Some of them are short-lived, some of them can be chronic. People die from the consequences of transplant. And so, it’s not something that is considered in patients who are necessarily doing well or are frail. The risk of transplant versus the benefit may not be in favor of transplant at that time.  

My approach for transplant is to get advice from transplant physicians. I’m not a transplant physician, but I have colleagues who I refer to. 

And I refer in myelofibrosis fairly universally fairly early, with the rationale being that this is information. It is not a plan; it is to speak to a transplant, what kind of donor exists. If no donor exists, then transplant is not on the table. If we have a very good, high-quality donor, then this is something that wouldn’t make the decision in itself, but it’s kind of something we can keep in our hip pocket in case we need it. And I think it’s important for patients to understand and have a full and complete discussion with a transplant physician so they understand what that means. You know, it is a significant commitment of time and morbidity, and it comes with risks. 

It is also our only curative therapy. And so, it’s a double-edged sword, and I think informed patients and understanding what the options are are the gateway to any consideration of transplant.   

Primary vs. Secondary Myelofibrosis: What’s the Difference?

Primary vs. Secondary Myelofibrosis: What’s the Difference? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Are primary and secondary myelofibrosis different? Dr. Joseph Scandura, a specialist in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), explains the diagnoses and shares insight into each type.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Scandura, would you start by introducing yourself?  

Dr. Scandura:

Sure. My name’s Joe ScanduraI’m an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. I’m a physician scientist. My laboratory studies blood formation, normal and malignant, and clinically I treat people with  myeloid neoplasms, particularly, and myeloproliferative neoplasms.  

Katherine Banwell:

Would you define myelofibrosis for us, and also provide an explanation of primary versus secondary myelofibrosis? 

Dr. Scandura:

Sure. Myelofibrosis is in the class of diseases called myeloproliferative neoplasms. And, really, its sort of marker feature is scarring in the bone marrow.  

Clinically, this comes along most commonly and fairly universally with anemia, and there can be abnormalities of both the white blood cell count and the platelet count, sometimes, often in the beginning, being too high. And then they can also become too low. 

It tends to be a progressive disease, or on the face on which it progresses is different in different people and there are a variety of different features that can go along with risk. But every individual, of course, is individual.  

A primary myelofibrosis is what we refer to when the diagnosis is made and there’s no antecedent, there’s no precursor malignancy. And so, you come in and the diagnosis is myelofibrosis, and we can’t find anything that came before it.  

Secondary myelofibrosis is what we refer to when somebody has another blood disorder, usually essential thrombocythemia or polycythemia vera, and in a small subset of these patients, the disease can change, what we call evolve or progress into a fibrotic phenotype or associated with the marrow scarring, and a lot of the features of myelofibrosis. Although there are some subtle differences between primary and secondary, they’re more similar than different in terms of their clinical features and how we treat them. 

How Does Inhibitor Therapy Work to Treat Myelofibrosis?

How Does Inhibitor Therapy Work to Treat Myelofibrosis? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is inhibitor therapy? Dr. Joseph Scandura reviews approved JAK inhibitor therapies and explains how they work to treat myelofibrosis.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

How does inhibitor therapy work to treat myelofibrosis? 

Dr. Scandura:

So, the therapies that we have now that are approved therapies that are in this class are  ruxolitinib (Jakafi) and fedratinib (Inrebic) 

Both of these agents act to block signaling through a protein called JAK2. You can think of JAK2 as being part of the antennae system that a cell uses to communicate with the rest of the body. And so, our blood-forming cells have a lot of input from the body saying, “Okay, we need some of these kinds of cells, we need some of those kinds of cells,” and it’s a very adaptive system. And JAK2 is involved in a lot of the signaling in this as part of the antennae system.  

And what happens in the myeloproliferative neoplasms is that signaling is a bit excessive. 

And so, it’s like the volume is turned up too loud and the signaling is causing the cells to do things, make too many cells, make the wrong kinds of cells, and JAK2 is part of that signaling system. So, these inhibitors kind of help turn down the volume of the signaling in these blood-forming cells. They are drugs that have good activity in improving symptoms, they have great success in reducing the size of the spleen, they can be useful for a few years to many years. They are not curative therapies. We don’t think of them as therapies that change the course of disease, but they certainly have an important role in helping people feel better. There are other inhibitor therapies that are in clinical development. 

So, clinical trials of some of these drugs have really impressive activity, but none is approved yet by the FDA.  

I hope and expect we’ll have a couple more drugs available in the coming years. And there’s a lot of excitement in clinical trials in terms of some of the activities that are being seen, and really quite tolerable therapies, so not a lot of side effects for patients. And so, I think it’s kind of an exciting time for physicians and for patients and a lot more options now and, I think, a lot more options coming down the line.

Which Gene Mutations Impact Myelofibrosis Treatment Options?

Which Gene Mutations Impact Myelofibrosis Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Are there specific mutations that may affect myelofibrosis treatment choices? Dr. Joseph Scandura explains the factors that are considered when deciding a myelofibrosis therapy, including a discussion of high-risk and low-risk disease.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Are there gene mutations that affect myelofibrosis treatment choices? 

Dr. Scandura:

Yeah. So, you know, the primary mutations in JAK2 or CALR or MPL in myelofibrosis aren’t that helpful in guiding therapy.  

And we look at the other genes for co-ocurrent mutations and those, as I was mentioning before, can come into one of two categories. So, there are a number of genes that we know tend to confer a higher risk, and so we call those high molecular risk mutations. And people who have higher molecular risk tend to have a more aggressive disease. 

Now, I want to add a word of caution because when we talk about patients and risk, we’re talking about groups of patients. For any individual, everything kind of boils down to it happens, or it doesn’t happen. And so, there’s nobody is 50 percent dead in five years, right. You either are or you’re not. And so, when we talk about risk, then we’re talking about risk of bad things happening like death or other complications of the disease, we’re trying to guide treatment decision-making and guided discussion based on a chance.  

But all of those things, for any individual, there are people who have high risk who do quite well for a long period of time, and people who don’t have high risk who don’t do as well as you think they should. And so, it’s a part of a conversation, it helps guide discussion, but it is not something carved into stone, and nobody has a perfect ability to predict anybody’s future. 

And all of these things are our best tools to estimate, but they are not a future; they are a possibility. And so, people who have higher molecular risk, we might think about more aggressive treatments than people who have lower molecular risk.  

Have You Had These Essential Myelofibrosis Tests?

Have You Had These Essential Myelofibrosis Tests? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the essential tests that should follow a myelofibrosis diagnosis? Dr. Joseph Scandura reviews the necessary laboratory testing, along with a discussion of next generation sequencing, and explains how often bone marrow biopsies should take place.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell: 

What testing should take place following a myelofibrosis diagnosis? 

Dr. Scandura:  

So, a diagnosis of myelofibrosis always comes after a bone marrow exam and a physical examination. Often, patients have an enlarged spleen and blood count testing and a variety of other laboratory tests. So, after that and a diagnosis is made of myelofibrosis and, sort of, coincident with the diagnosis, we often look for molecular markers of myelofibrosis. So, these are malignancies of the bone marrow, cancers, if you will, on the bone marrow, although the term is scarier than or is different than what we think of for many malignancies in how it acts. But the myelofibrosis, this is a disease that’s characterized by, really, mutations in the malignant cells, the abnormal cells. 

They’re really just one of three genes. And so, JAK2 being one of the genes, calreticulin or CALR being another one, and MPL one.  

And more than 90 percent are people having mutation in just one of those three genes. And so, often at the time of diagnosis, tests for those mutations are done, and they help eliminate the possibilities of other causes of myelofibrosis – infections, rheumatological diseases. Sometimes, you can have marrow fibrosis but they don’t go along with mutations and the same clinical situation. And so, at the time of diagnosis, we usually know something about a mutation in JAK2, CALR, or MPL.    

More commonly now, and it’s increasingly common over the past 10 years in, I would say, in New York City and many places across the country, we also look more broadly for other common mutations in the MPN cells. And these are what we refer in the batch as next generation sequencing or NGS panels, and we use the term panels because we’re looking at from a few tens to even 100 or a couple hundred genes for mutations that occur far less frequently than in JAK2 or MPL or CALR.  

But they occur often enough that some of them we use to help guide treatment decision-making or approach to therapy. The reality of it is that that the technology to sequence and identify mutations has really outstripped our knowledge of what to do with all of that information. 

And, for the vast majority of people, it comes down to do you have a marker, a genetic marker that tends to go along with higher risk, meaning a higher likelihood of something that we don’t want to have happen. And in that instance, although it may be looking at a hundred or so genes, it comes down to a binary thing – either you have or you don’t have. 

Katherine Banwell:

Is there any other testing that you usually want to do? 

Dr. Scandura:

Laboratory testing, for sure and, as I mentioned before, a bone marrow exam. But physical examination, some people might do imaging of the spleen size. Honestly, I don’t routinely do that outside of the setting of the clinical trial. I don’t really think it dictates therapy very often. 

And if the spleen is so small that you can’t feel it on physical exam, it probably isn’t clinically meaningful anyway in terms of something to treat. It might be there, but it doesn’t really change things too much.   

Katherine Banwell:

How often should patients have a bone marrow biopsy? 

Dr. Scandura:

So, I’ll answer there is no standard in terms of monitoring for myelofibrosis with the marrow or otherwise. My personal approach is I do a marrow when I think it’s going to help medical decision-making. And so, for a patient who’s got early myelofibrosis, who’s been very stable, responding well to therapy, that could be three, five years between marrow exams. 

For somebody who’s being considered for a clinical trial, oftentimes, a marrow exam is required before they start on the clinical trial and at various intervals afterwards. If there’s somebody who had been stable and something is changing, like the blood counts are changing or his symptoms are changing, or any of a number of clinical features, then I might look in the marrow to see what’s happening there, to see if explains and can help guide a treatment approach to help people feel better. So, there is no single standard, but my personal approach is to do a bone marrow exam when I think it’s going to help make a decision.  

Shared Decision-Making: The Patient’s Role in Treatment Choices

Shared-Decision Making: The Patient’s Role in Treatment Choices from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is the role of the patient when it comes to treatment choices? Dr. Brady Stein details how he partners with patients in decision-making for their MPN care. 

Dr. Brady Stein is a hematologist focusing on myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more about Dr. Stein, here.


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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

What do you feel is the patient’s role in the decision for therapy?

Dr. Stein:                   

I think it’s a really important role. I think historically – and, this is decades past; this era should be well over and behind us – this era of authoritative medicine is over.

You can’t just have a doctor walk in the room and say, “This is your treatment, this is what you should do, I’ll see you later.” It’s shared decision-making, and that can be troubling for some patients. But, the idea of shared decision-making is us explaining options informing the patient and making decisions together. That’s really the paradigm for modern contemporary medicine.

Some patients have a harder time with that. A lot of patients say, “Well, doc, this is too overwhelming for me. I just want you to decide for me.” And, we try not to do that. That’s a more uncomfortable type of visit for me when a patient is very deferential and says, “Whatever you say, I’ll do.” That’s not really what we want to hear. I want to know that you feel really informed, that you have a good understanding because each of these treatments – any treatment, any medication has its pros and cons.

There are no real magic bullets, and each upside has an equal downside, so you have to engage and open a dialogue, and what that means is that patients need to read and learn. That’s hard, but patients need to become proactive in their approach to their own illness, and all the patients who are listening now are doing that, trying to get more education about your relatively rare illness that’s going to give you a much better framework to help make decisions together.

Katherine:                  

Absolutely. If a patient isn’t feeling confident with their treatment plan or their care, do you recommend that they maybe consider a second opinion or seek a specialist?

Dr. Stein:                   

Of course, yeah. These are rare diseases, and patients often – I would say that in my clinic, a lot of the patients direct their own second opinions. Oftentimes, it’s coming from the patient more so than their doctor. I think the patient community is very active, the patients are networking, and they’re finding the right specialist to get to.

I think it should be really a team approach. It’s never – it’s usually not very convenient to go to a university unless you live really close, so you want to have someone close to home who can handle the routine, and then, someone who maybe is a little bit further away who can see you once a year, can help with the big decisions, can be part of the healthcare team. So, we generally recommend that you have someone near, and that maybe you have someone far who focuses only on MPNs as part of your team, and now, it’s a little different. Telemedicine is becoming a pretty ingrained part of medicine. It’s a little easier to have those visits with a physician who’s far away because of telemedicine.

Self-Advocacy: Advice for Being a Pro-Active MPN Patient

Self-Advocacy: Advice for Being a Pro-Active MPN Patient from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) patients be more pro-active in their care? Dr. Brady Stein shares advice to help patients educate themselves about the disease, while finding the right balance of knowledge to prevent them from feeling overwhelmed. 

Dr. Brady Stein is a hematologist focusing on myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more about Dr. Stein, here.


Related Resources

Tools to Help You Learn More About MPN Clinical Trials

How Often Should You See Your MPN Doctor?

Which MPN Treatment is Right for You? Factors to Consider


Transcript:

Katherine:

Let’s talk about patient self-advocacy now, Dr. Stein. Patients can sometimes feel like they’re bothering their healthcare team with their comments and questions.

Why is it important for patients to speak up when it comes to symptoms and side effects?

Dr. Stein:                   

I smile a little bit because patients – I get a lot of patient emails by MyChart. That’s our medical record, and it’s a secure patient email, and a lot of patients will start their message by saying, “I’m sorry to bother you.”

And, I always say, “Why do you think that? It’s my job. Please don’t apologize for reaching out to me.” So, that’s kind of the first thing. Don’t feel like you’re bothering your doctor. There are certain things that we won’t know unless you tell us, and so, I think that’s pretty clear. When we’re in a patient room and there might be a husband and wife together, and whether it’s the husband is the patient or the wife is the patient, we might ask a question, and we might get, “No, everything is fine,” but all doctors kind of sneak over to the partner, and the partner may be saying – they’re making gestures to us. There may be nonverbal forms of communication to tell us there’s something much worse than what the patient is telling you.

So, again, “advocate” meaning you have to tell us what’s going on with you. If you’re worried about something, please don’t be stoic about it. These diseases are treated a lot based on your symptoms, and so, if you don’t tell uls about your symptoms, we won’t know.

And, in terms of advocacy, I think one of the things is that these are pretty rare diseases. In an academic center, no, this is our focus, but if you’re in a community practice where the doctor’s seeing 10-15 different things during the course of a day, it’s basically impossible to keep up with myelofibrosis, especially if you have one patient in your whole practice. I can’t do that for diseases that I see that I have only one patient. The medical literature can be overwhelming.

So, patients can quickly outpace their doctor in terms of their knowledge of these diseases, but I think it’s really important to read, to learn, and to think about the illness because you may find out things through your research that your doctor wouldn’t know are available. You may find a clinical trial, a new strategy, or a new test that they simply haven’t had the time to keep up with or learn about. So, that’s what advocacy is about. Reading is really important, but you have to find a balance. I want my patients reading, but you’ve got to find the right amount because there’s a certain amount of reading where the patients start to get overwhelmed.

All patients kind of get to this point. They take it in – like taking it in like a fire hydrant in the beginning of the disease, and it’s overwhelming, and then they start to find their balance. I think there’s a point where the reading becomes anxiety-provoking rather than ameliorating anxiety, and all patients just generally find their balance.

Is My MPN Treatment Working?

Is My MPN Treatment Working? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

During myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) treatment, specific blood tests and diagnostic measurements help to gauge a patient’s treatment response. Dr. Brady Stein details the criteria he assesses in monitoring the efficacy of a therapy, including patient-reported outcomes.  

Dr. Brady Stein is a hematologist focusing on myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more about Dr. Stein, here.


Related Resources

What Are the Treatment Options for Myelofibrosis?

Monitoring MPNs: When is it Time to Switch Therapies?

MPN Symptom or Treatment Side Effect? Know the Difference


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Once a patient has started treatment, how do you know it’s working?

Dr. Stein:                   

That’s a good question because this is a very unique area. Yes, of course, in some respects, it’s straightforward with ET or PV. If we’re starting a medication to control a blood count in hopes of having lowered the thrombosis risk, you can look objectively at blood counts.

Okay, your hematocrit is at this goal? Yes, therapy’s working. You have not had a blood clot?

Yes, therapy’s working. So, there are some objective things. In myelofibrosis, there are some objective things like measuring the spleen and seeing it reduce. You can feel that with your hands, or you can do an ultrasound. So, there are some objective parameters of success. But, in this area, patient-reported outcomes are really important, and so, a measure of success is really just asking the patient, “Do you feel like your drug is working? Do you feel better?

It’s kind of a simple question, but it’s really important, and it’s what we ask in patients who are on certain therapies. “Do you feel like the net effect of your therapy is still positive? Do you feel like it’s helping?” Seems like a straightforward type of question, but I think the answer is extremely informative. When a patient says, “Yes, definitely, my medication is still helping me,” then I know that I don’t need to change it.

MPN Treatment Choices: Where Do Clinical Trials Fit In?

MPN Treatment Choices: Where Do Clinical Trials Fit In? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When considering MPN treatment approaches, clinical trials are a viable option for care. Dr. Brady Stein discusses clinical trials and factors to keep in mind when considering participation.

Dr. Brady Stein is a hematologist focusing on myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more about Dr. Stein, here.


Related Resources

Tools to Help You Learn More About MPN Clinical Trials

Promising ET, PV & Myelofibrosis Therapies in Development 

What Are the Treatment Options for Myelofibrosis?


Transcript:

Dr. Stein:                   

Clinical trials are always a treatment – always an option for patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms because while we have some standards, we can definitely improve upon those standards for certain. So, clinical trials are always a therapeutic option. I think the one thing is that it may not – it’s not always the most convenient option, but it could be a really important option if available to you.

So, clinical trials basically offer something new or novel that would not otherwise be available to other patients. So, ruxolitinib (Jakafi) was approved around 2011, but the first clinical trials were in 2007, so that’s the example I give to a patient about the benefit of a clinical trial.The patient can get access to a drug that’s effective perhaps three to four years before it’s commercially available.

That’s really the biggest advantage, is you can get early access to something that could really help you. The downsides are that clinical trials are not usually as convenient as regular care, there are often more visits, and there are a lot of unknowns – unknowns about whether it will work. Some side effects are known and expected; there are others that are unknown. So, it’s a lot to think about, but I think it’s always important to consider, especially if your first-line therapy has not been effective, if it’s losing its touch, it’s a good thing to think about for a second line.

Katherine:                  

Are there emerging approaches for treating MPNs that patients should know about?

Dr. Stein:                   

Yeah, absolutely. I think the first question – I think patients are often worried that they have a really rare disease, and why would anyone do research in this area, and that’s – the research community is extremely engaged, the productivity is pretty impressive, and there’s a lot of clinical trials in the space, and I think what I try to explain is pharmaceutical companies aren’t just targeting the most common diseases.

They have interests in rare diseases, and findings in rare diseases can be extrapolated to other diseases that you might think are unrelated, but they can share features, so when you find something working in one space, it can have broad applicability. So, there’s an abundance of research in myeloproliferative neoplasms which are emerging?

In PV, I think there’s quite a possibility that there’ll be a drug approval in 2021, a novel type of interferon called ropeginterferon

That is a drug that’s approved abroad; it’s approved in Europe, and I believe it’s approved in Taiwan, and the FDA is looking at it now. So, it’s a possibility that there’ll be a future option for patients with polycythemia vera. So, yes, it’s research now, but it could be available, and so, that’s the drug that I’m starting to talk more and more about for patients with PV.

In myelofibrosis, you have two JAK inhibitors that are approved, ruxolitinib and fedratinib, you have two others in clinical testing, momelotinib and pacritinib, and then you have a whole other class of what we call non-JAK2 type of therapies targeting the vast array of pathway abnormalities in myelofibrosis.

So, there are a number of different clinical trial options, especially in myelofibrosis. I think that’s the disease area where there are the most clinical trials.

Understanding High-Risk vs Low-Risk Disease in ET, PV & MF

Understanding High-Risk vs Low-Risk Disease in PV, ET & MF from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When looking at polycythemia vera (PV), essential thrombocythemia (ET), and myelofibrosis (MF), how is risk determined? Dr. Brady Stein explains factors he examines when assessing risk to provide ideal care for each patient. 

Dr. Brady Stein is a hematologist focusing on myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more about Dr. Stein, here.


Related Resources

MPN Symptom or Treatment Side Effect? Know the Difference

Monitoring MPNs: When is it Time to Switch Therapies?

Promising ET, PV & Myelofibrosis Therapies in Development 


Transcript:

Dr. Stein:                  

For ET and PV, when we talk about high versus low risk, we’re talking about vascular complications, risk of having a blood clot. We’re not really talking about risk of transformation. We don’t have, I think, wonderful, widely used toolkits to predict those things. We know they can happen, but our treatment is still really based on clotting for ET and PV.

And, MF – each couple of years, the tools that are available to assess prognosis become more and more. So, in MF, we’re using the most comprehensive approach – of course, taking into account things like age and demographics, but also, looking at symptoms, looking at the depth and severity of blood count changes, looking at bone marrow features like the degree of scarring, looking at the rise in blast counts, and then, looking at chromosomes and novel genetic markers. So, we’re definitely the most comprehensive in myelofibrosis at assessing prognosis.

What Are Treatment Options for Essential Thrombocythemia (ET) & Polycythemia Vera (PV)?

What Are Treatment Options for Essential Thrombocythemia (ET) & Polycythemia Vera (PV)? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When considering treatment options for essential thrombocythemia (ET) and polycythemia vera (PV), where do experts begin? Dr. Brady Stein details treatment considerations and how he determines the best approaches for ET and PV patients. 

Dr. Brady Stein is a hematologist focusing on myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more about Dr. Stein, here.


Related Resources

Which MPN Treatment is Right for You? Factors to Consider

Promising ET, PV & Myelofibrosis Therapies in Development 

MPN Treatment: Why Testing for Mutations Matters


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Let’s start with essential thrombocythemia, or ET.

Dr. Stein:                   

So, I think the first thing is taking an inventory of symptoms, seeing how symptomatic the patient might be. Again, there are some patients who are asymptomatic or have few symptoms, and they were told of a high platelet count during a routine visit, so some patients can be observed if they have few symptoms, and especially if they fall into a lower vascular risk category.

So, symptom assessment first. Second, looking at vascular risk, and there are four categories of risk in in ET in terms of predicting the likelihood of a future blood clotting event. There’s a very low, low, intermediate and high risk group, and that’s based on a patient’s age, whether they’ve had a blood clot before, and the type of mutation they have. JAK2 mutations increase the risk of clotting.

So, if a patient falls into a higher-risk group – say they’re older than 60 with a JAK2 mutation or they’ve had a prior blood clot – those are patients who are generally treated more aggressively with cytoreduction.

And then, the other thing is aspirin. We often see aspirin given to all patients with ET, but not all patients with ET necessarily need it. The role of aspirin is actually a little less clear in ET. For a very low-risk patient, there’s a potential for more harm than benefit, especially if the patient lacks a JAK2 mutation. So, the evidence base to support aspirin for all ET patients is just not there; it’s evolving.

Katherine:                  

What about polycythemia vera, or PV?

Dr. Stein:                   

So, there are a few standards. It’s different – the aspirin question in PV is generally answered by randomized data from 16 years ago in 2004. It’s been shown that aspirin reduces the risk of clotting in PV patients, so, generally, we give low-dose aspirin to all patients. And, hematocrit control is really important.

At least, a goal of 45 percent is mandated in PV. And then, there are patients who might fall into a higher-risk category – older than 60 or have had a prior blood clot – they need something more. And then, I’d also emphasize that there are lower-risk patients who may not be traditional candidates for cytoreduction, but they could have symptoms that really interfere with quality of life, and symptoms alone can be the trigger to add something more to the phlebotomy and aspirin program.

Katherine:                  

What about things like interferon?

Dr. Stein:                   

So, interferons have been used in MPNs for decades and decades. So, a longstanding history with interferons. The issue has been tolerability.

These days, there’s a class called pegylated interferon that’s longer acting, and I think there’s been a lot more use, at least in the last 10 years, still much more in an academic setting than a community practice.

But, interferons have a pretty established role in MPNs, especially polycythemia vera, for sure in ET, less so in myelofibrosis.