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Clinical Trials As a CLL Treatment Option: What You Should Know

Clinical Trials As a CLL Treatment Option: What You Should Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Should you consider participating in a CLL clinical trial? In this webinar, Dr. Adam Kittai provides an overview of the clinical trial process and addresses common misconceptions. Dr. Kittai shares an update on the latest advances in CLL research and discusses key advice for patients considering trial participation.

Dr. Adam Kittai is a hematologist and an assistant professor at the The Ohio State University
Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James. Learn more about Dr. Kittai, here.

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See More from CLL Clinical Trials 201

Related Resources:

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options

Setting CLL Treatment Goals WITH Your Team

Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to discuss the latest research advances in chronic lymphocytic leukemia and discuss the role of clinical trials in patient care. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link a link to a program survey. This will allow you to provide feedback about your experience today and it will help us plan future webinars.  

Finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your health care team about what might be best for you. Okay, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Adam Kittai. Doctor, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?  

Dr. Kittai:

Thanks for having me. My name is Dr. Kittai, I’m an Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University, and I specialize in research and clinical research in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.   

Katherine:

Great. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.  

Dr. Kittai:

Happy to be here.  

Katherine:

I understand that CLL researchers met recently at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, also known as ASCO, to share their research. Are there highlights from the meeting that patients should know about?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, so this time of year, there are two main conferences actually that are very important to the CLL groups at large, as well as the oncology community. So, there’s ASCO and then there’s EHA, the European Hematology Association. And in general, there was a lot of exciting things at both of these conferences. 

In CLL, we have two main treatments that we’re really focused on. One is called the BTK inhibitors, which is ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, and zanubrutinib that you may have heard about. And the other treatment regimen is called venetoclax, and that’s usually paired with something called obinutuzumab. So, right now we’re either using the BTK inhibitors or the venetoclax as our frontline therapies. And typically, when patients progress on either one of those treatments – their disease gets worse – we switch to the other one. 

And so, what I’m getting to be that right now, that paradigm of starting with one therapy – the BTK inhibitors or the venetoclax – and then switching to the other, or vice versa, is being challenged. How that’s being challenged is combining the two medications together to see if combining them together is better than giving them sequentially. So, I think this is the primary research that’s being looked at in the world of CLL and we got some updates to show that the combination of the BTK inhibitors, plus the venetoclax, is looking quite good. It’s looking like it’s inducing deep remissions in some of our patients.  

Some of the challenges here though that we still need to figure out is that a lot of these combinations are leading to more toxicity. So, ultimately, I think we’re going to have a discussion about who is the appropriate patient for the combination, as opposed to giving it sequentially. 

There’s also a lot more research going on, looking at what we call randomized trials, which we’ll get to in a second, to determine if the combination is better than giving it sequentially. Right now, we just have what we call single-arm studies that kind of show safety and how well the trial works. But really, the definitive clinical trials – and once again, we’ll get to this a little bit later – are going to be randomized study where we randomize patients to the combination versus the sequential therapy to determine if doing it together is better than doing it sequentially.  

So, I would say that this new treatment paradigm of combining our two main treatments up front is looking quite good. We’re worried about some of the toxicities when we combine these medications, and we’re still not quite sure if combining them is the right approach, if it actually is superior to giving them sequentially. So, I think that’s the name in research right now for CLL, whether or not combination therapy is better than sequential therapy. The jury is still out, but some of the new data we saw was exciting. 

Katherine:

So, how can patients stay up to date on research like this as it develops? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, great question. So, for one, you can talk to your physician. A lot of the physicians will go to either ASCO or the European Hematology Association and be able to come back with some of this data to share with their patients. And then also, there’s a lot of smaller conferences that local oncologists will go to get highlights from these particular conferences, where they also will come back to the patient to let them know some of this highlighted research. I think that’s probably the easiest way for patients to get access to this research. And Google’s our friend, right? And so, a lot of things are available on Google if you know where to look for them. 

Katherine:

Right. So, a key part in moving forward with CLL research is clinical trials, right? So, for people who may not know the term, what is a clinical trial? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah. So, a clinical trial is an experiment where patients are enrolled to receive a treatment that is either new or new in a new setting – so, an old treatment in a new setting – and we’re looking to see whether or not the treatment leads to improved outcomes for our patients.  

Katherine:

Why would a CLL patient consider participating in a trial? What’s the benefit for them? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, great question again. The benefit of a clinical trial is two-fold. One is that by participating in a clinical trial, we are collecting data to determine what’s best for patients moving forward. [00:07:06] So, in a way, by participating in a trial, you’re contributing to the benefit of CLL patients in the future to help us determine what’s best for everybody moving forward. That’s one reason to go on a clinical trial. Another reason to go onto clinical trials is that it allows for access to therapies that may not be available otherwise, which may work better than what we already have and may be safer.  

Katherine:

Right. So, I’d like to walk through a few common questions that patients have about clinical trials. And here’s a concern we received from a patient prior to the webinar. “I’m nervous that I will receive a placebo if I join a clinical trial.” So, first of all, would you define a placebo?  

Dr. Kittai:

Sure. A placebo is usually a sugar pill or something that has no effect. That’s what a placebo is.  

Katherine:

And is it true then, would a patient possibly get a placebo in a CLL clinical trial? 

Dr. Kittai:

Not typically. So, in terms of clinical trials for CLL, we have a lot of treatments that are effective and safe in CLL. And so, we don’t typically design trials where you’re not getting some kind of active therapy. It would be extremely rare, and I don’t know of any trials currently that involve patients getting a placebo for CLL. Because it wouldn’t be ethical for us to enroll a patient on a trial where they would get a placebo instead of active therapy. 

Katherine:

Right. That makes sense. Here’s another question from an audience member, and I think this is probably a common concern for patients. “Is a clinical trial only something I should consider if there are no other options?” 

Dr. Kittai:

So, in my opinion, you should always consider a clinical trial, even if there are other options. And it’s because of those two reasons that I mentioned earlier. Number one, it benefits the CLL community as a whole to participate in the trial so that way doctors and researchers can collect data to improve outcomes for patients with CLL. And also, even though our drugs currently work really well, we don’t know how well they’ll last for, right? So, they still don’t know for certain how long our current drugs are going to work for in the future.  

And we’re always trying to do better. We’re always trying to create some sort of treatment, some sort of treatment paradigm that might be safer, as well as work better, and either of those goals is approvable. All of our drugs come with toxicity, right? And even though they’re really safe and they work really well, we’re hoping to develop something that is even safer and works even better.  

Katherine:

Yeah. It sounds, then, like trials can be considered throughout a patient’s life with CLL. What concerns do you hear from your patients?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, so I think the primary concern I hear about a trial and the difference between going on a trial and standard of care, is that typically for a trial, it does require a little bit more from the patient. Meaning that there’s usually more visits – whether it is to monitor the effect of the new medication or new medication combination on the patient, whether or not it’s affecting their laboratory values or how they’re feeling.  

Or there might be parts of the trial that require invasive procedures. So, for instance, many trials will require bone marrow biopsies where a standard of care won’t. And the reason why the collection of those bone marrow biopsies is important for the trial is to better get an idea of how the treatment is working on a patient’s body.  

So, I think those are the two primary concerns I hear from the patient. Number one, it typically is a bigger time commitment with more visits to the doctor because we have to closely monitor the patients while they’re on trial. And number two is sometimes the trial involves procedures that otherwise wouldn’t be indicated for standard of care.  

Katherine:

Let’s talk a bit about how trials work, starting with the phases. What happens at each phase?  

Dr. Kittai:

There are actually four phases of clinical trials, although three phases are typically what’s talked about. So, Phase I is when we are first introducing the new medication, the combination, or the old medication in a new scenario for the first time in a human being.  

Phase one encompasses a lot of different things. It could be a first in-human phase one, where we’re giving the drug for the first time in a human being. It could be, as I said, the combination of drugs being used for the first time in a human being. Or it could be that we have this drug that works for this other cancer and we’re trying it out on this new cancer. So, we might have experience with this drug in another scenario, but not in the scenario we’re trying to do.  

And the primary purpose of the phase one clinical trial is to see if it’s safe. So, that’s the primary purpose of a phase one clinical trial – see if this new medication, this old medication in this new scenario, or this new combination is safe to use going forward.  

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

We are able to see if it works to a small degree in the phase one trial, but typically these trials are very small with somewhere between 10 to 50 patients. And so, it’s hard to know how well this works by looking at such a small amount of patients.  

Once the Phase I trial goes forward, we usually go onto Phase II. So, one of the other points about Phase I is to determine the correct dose. Usually in phase ones, we increase the dose of the drug slowly until it meets some sort of toxicity cut-off for our patients. So, once that dose is discovered, then we move onto Phase II, and Phase II is usually a small study, usually about 50-100 patients where we’re looking at preliminary efficacy, to see if this drug, this new combination, or the drug in a new scenario, is actually working.   

And so, Phase II will tell us we think it’s working and if it looks good in phase two, it gets moved onto Phase III. Phase III is the final part of the drug development, where if it passes Phase III, it usually gets approved by the Federal Drug Administration. And Phase III is usually a randomized trial where you’re giving the new drug, the combo, or the old drug in a new situation, and you’re comparing it to whatever’s used as standard of care in that particular scenario.  

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

And that’s usually a randomized study where patients are either getting the new thing or the old thing. And then, we’re determining which one works better. Lastly is Phase IV, and this is post marketing. So, after a drug gets approved, the drug company and the FDA requires just a wide scope of just data that’s collected to see how well the drug is working and if it’s safe once it’s brought out to the wider community.  

Katherine:

Okay. You mentioned randomized clinical trials. There are a couple of other clinical trials as well. Would you define them and tell us how they’re different from one another?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah. So, a randomized trial is when you enroll onto a study, and you get randomly assigned to either the experimental arm or the control arm. The experimental arm is that new drug that we talked about. And the control arm is usually the standard of care. So, that’s a randomized study. 

And randomized studies are usually Phase III trials, but they can be phase two in some scenarios as well. You have – usually that’s paired with a randomized control study. So, a control study is just there’s a control arm, that’s what that means. But those usually go hand in hand. Those are usually together.  

And then another trial is the double-blind clinical trial. So, a double-blind clinical trial means that once you’re randomized to either the experimental or the control, neither you nor the physician know what drug you’re taking. And that usually is not used in CLL trials. Usually, we know what drug the patient is assigned to. And the reason why that is, is because oftentimes we’re looking out for specific adverse events or toxicities of the drugs we’re implementing at Phase III.  

And then, also, if you’re getting a triplet versus a doublet, meaning three drugs versus two drugs, it’s very hard to blind somebody to know which drug they’re on because obviously you’re getting three drugs versus two drugs. Or if an infusion is involved in one arm but not in the other arm, you obviously know that you’re getting an infusion versus an oral drug. 

Katherine:

Ah, okay. Are there common clinical trial terms that you think patients should know about? 

Dr. Kittai:

I think we covered most of them. So, knowing that phase one is typically the first in the sequence of events that I would ask your physician if this was a first in human study, right, because that comes with some special considerations knowing that you are the first human to receive a new drug is very important. Versus a phase three study where, you know, you know this drug has already gone through phase one and two in development, meaning it’s been given to a lot of patients, and they’re just looking to see if it’s better than standard of care. So, I think knowing those general concepts about what’s the difference between a phase one and a Phase III study, it’s very different. I think it’s important to keep those in mind when talking about clinical trials and discussing with your doctor.  

Katherine:

Patients often have questions about safety. What are the risks of clinical trial participation?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, so before anybody enrolls onto a clinical trial, you should sit with your doctor to talk about the pros and cons of entering this clinical trial. One of the things that they will talk to you about is what the expected safety of this drug is. So, you might ask yourself, well, if it’s a phase one study, first in human study, how do they know what toxicity to expect? 

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

The answer is that there’s a lot of pre-human studies that occur, both in mice and monkeys and other animals, and researchers often have a good idea of what to expect in human. But there is a lot of unknowns in a phase one clinical trial. And after discussing with your doctor the pros and cons of going on a clinical trial and what side effect profile to expect from whatever drug or combination that you are about to be using, usually you go through a consent.  

Usually, you’ll get a packet, it’s about 10 to 20 pages long, written in a way that patients can understand. And it’ll have a list of toxicities that are associated with the research that is occurring. In terms of knowing what adverse events might happen, the consent is key, because it’ll have those all listed out.  

And also having the conversation with your physician about either what they’ve experienced giving this clinical trial, or what is to be expected after this drug had been introduced pre-humans.  

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. Are there protocols in place to protect patients? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yes. So, remember how we talked about in the phase one trials, we dose escalate the drug until we’ve reached some toxicity limit? There are specifically rules written out in a protocol that the doctor must follow that ensures safety for the patients that enroll in clinical trials. And that dose escalation part where we reach a toxic limit is a key part of those phase one trials that is spelled out before you even enroll.  

Usually, there’s also something called a Data Safety Monitoring Committee, as well as other committees that are looking at patients as they are receiving these drugs and move forward on clinical trials to make sure that the investigators are following the protocol as printed. That if anything happens, they document why it happened and fix the problem before it becomes another problem for a patient. So, there are very specific safety rules and a lot of redundancy to protect our patients, because the number one priority is to protect the patient. 

Katherine:

Yeah. I think you’ve already answered this, Dr. Kittai, but how do you know the medicine is safe before a human trial even begins? 

Dr. Kittai:

The answer is you don’t. There is some risk. As I said, they do test it in animals before they give the drug to humans, and they usually start at the lowest dose possible. But there are certain circumstances where there are surprising side effects that are not expected. And so, when you’re entering a first in human, Phase I trial, that is a specific risk that you do need discussed with your physician about before you enroll. 

Katherine:

Can a patient change their mind once they’ve enrolled in a clinical trial? 

Dr. Kittai:

Always. Always.  

Katherine:

Okay. 

Dr. Kittai:

They can come off the clinical trial at any point if they choose to.  

Katherine:

Okay. Now that we know what trials are and how they work, how can people find out what trials are available to them? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah. So, I’ll come back to this, but once again, talk to your physician. They’ll know what clinical trials are available at whatever site you are seeing them in. If there’s a local academic sector, the academic sector typically has clinical trials available there as well. So, it’s always good to get a second opinion in that regard.  

But one of the open access places that you can find all clinical trials is clinicaltrials.gov. This has all active running clinical trials listed out and anyone can access it. There are other societies out there that often post about clinical trials. So, there’s the CLL Society. It’s a website that you can check out that has a lot of information on there about active clinical trials in CLL. There’s also The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Lymphoma Research Foundation, they all have websites available that have a lot of clinical trials listed and how to access them.  

Katherine:

Are there key questions that you think patients should ask their health care team about participating in a trial?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, for sure. I think one of the key questions to ask is, is the control arm appropriate. So, what do I mean by that? Sometimes people who design a clinical trial will design a trial where the control arm is an easy control arm to beat, meaning that it’s a treatment that we wouldn’t necessarily put you on as standard of care.  

And so, I think this is a real question and an honest question that you should ask your physician prior to enrolling on a trial is, is the control arm something you would give me as standard of care. And if the answer is no, you should really consider not going on that trial or talking about why you would want to go on that trial if the control arm is not something they would put you put you on as standard of care.  

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

That’s, I think, a key question to ask. And again, asking what phase it is and understanding where we are in the development.  

Katherine:

What do you feel are the barriers to accessing clinical trials for patients?  

Dr. Kittai:

So, unfortunately, a lot of clinical trials are at academic centers, and so there are – and the reason that is, is that the academic centers have the infrastructure to run the clinical trial. So, as we have mentioned before, there’s a lot of visits with a lot of extra science and labs that are done associated with the clinical trial. And a lot of those things and the coordination can only be done at large centers that can open clinical trials and know how to run them.  

Similar explanation could be that that safety monitoring committee that I’d mentioned before, where the academic centers have the infrastructure to ensure safety for the patients. So, access to academic centers is a limitation to enrolling in clinical trials. That being said, there are a lot of centers that are associated with an academic center and do have a lot of the clinical trials that are available at the academic center.  

And there are also cooperative groups. These cooperative groups are called Alliance and ECOG and SWOG. And these cooperative groups are national groups that are headed by multiple academic centers in partnership with pharmaceutical companies and they typically run large Phase III medical trials that help redefine standard of care. And those particular clinical trials are often available at private practices as well.  

Katherine:

Oh, that’s great. So, patients don’t necessarily have to think about traveling to a large educational institution then to become part of the clinical trial?  

Dr. Kittai:

Not always. Not always. Typically for the Phase I, the answer is yes. But for Phase III trials, usually there’s a lot of access available for Phase III trials.  

Katherine:

What would you say to patients who may be hesitant about participating in a trial?  

Dr. Kittai:

I would say that it’s important to at least ask about what’s available. And knowing what’s available and the risks and benefits of going on a clinical trial is how you should make the determination if you should go on a clinical trial.  

Remember what I said earlier that the clinical trial is really meant to help improve safety or efficacy. So, we don’t open clinical trials that we are not hoping to improve one of those two things. And so, that is something that we should be able to put in words to you when inquiring about the clinical trial. What is the goal of this trial, and why do you think it’s going to improve safety or efficacy? And the physician who’s talking the trial with you about it should be able to answer those questions for you. So, if you have some hesitance about going in clinical trials, I would say gather your information first before making a final decision.  

Katherine:

Some patients worry about the financial aspect or impact of a clinical trial. Aren’t trials expensive?  

Dr. Kittai:

So, actually, most clinical trials are less expensive than enrolling a standard of care. So, this is actually a benefit of going on a clinical trial. Often times, the drugs in the clinical trial are a cover. So, that’s something to ask too. And so, if somebody’s having trouble getting access to novel therapy that is looking good in a specific cancer, a clinical trial is actually a way to get access to that drug without paying for it.  

Also, all clinical trials when they’re being developed are looked at by the finance committees of the hospital or wherever it’s being developed. All standard of care options are billed through the patient insurance, but all the extra stuff is usually covered by the pharmaceutical company that’s enrolling those patients onto the trial. Or I should say the supporting the clinical trial, excuse me. 

Katherine:

That’s really good information to have.  

We touched on research at the top of the program, but are there other areas of research that you’re excited about and that patients should know about? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, so one of the things that I think is being really talked about in cancer care – and medical care in general – is if disparities exist between minority patients and white patients. And I think this is a really, really important topic.   

So, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which had the conference recently, really made this a mainstay point of the conference this year and there were a lot of abstracts that were defining whether disparities exist and hopefully, by defining whether disparities exist, we’re able to target those disparities in order to make outcomes equal for all of our patients.  

So, in the CLL world, one of the things that I alluded to is a lot of our therapies can be really expensive. So, these new therapies are really expensive, they really widen the disparity gap for patients who are minorities, as well as patients who come from socioeconomic status.  

Katherine:

Absolutely. 

Dr. Kittai:

And so, there were two abstracts. One was an oral presentation that looked at the National Cancer Database in ASCO that showed that Black patients do have worse overall survival than white patients. And then, I actually did my own study looking at the SEER database, which also showed the same exact thing. Even when controlling for socioeconomic status.  

So, I think addressing these disparities, making sure that there’s equity amongst our patients, that everyone has access to these drugs and can afford them, especially when they make our patients live longer and are safer than chemoimmunotherapy in CLL is very, very important.  

Katherine:

Dr. Kittai, if a patient feels like they’re not getting equitable care, are there resources available for them?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, so one of the things that I love about the CLL society, is that they have a section called Access an Expert, I believe. So, look on the website, I’m not sure it’s actually called Access an Expert, but it’s a way for all patients to get a second opinion from one of the CLL experts listed on the website. And so, if somebody is feeling like they’re not getting access to the most beneficial treatment, for whatever reason, seeking a second opinion and using the CLL Society’s website to find that second opinion, I think would be a great way for someone who feels that way to get access to the care that they deserve.  

I believe there are other ways to do this through the Lymphoma Research Foundation, as well as LLS. But I know for sure on the CLL Society, there is a link that you can click that you can get access to a second opinion.  

Katherine:

Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up. As we wrap up the program, Dr. Kittai, I’d like to get your final thoughts. What message do you want to leave the audience with related to clinical trial participation?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah. So, I would say that in the last ten years, there’s been a revolution in the way we treat CLL, and we wouldn’t have gotten here without clinical trials. So, the reason why we have the BTK inhibitors – the ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, and zanubrutinib – and the reason why we have the BCL-2 Inhibitor venetoclax, and the reason why these have changed the way that we treat CLL making our patients live longer with better safety profiles is because of clinical trials. And so, I am a firm believer that if we can enroll a patient onto a clinical trial that’s appropriate, who might benefit from the trial, then they should enroll in the clinical trial if possible.  

So, I strongly encourage everybody to enroll onto clinical trials, to get access to, you know, groundbreaking new therapies. And once again, I want to highlight that the point of a clinical trial is to improve safety or to improve efficacy and that’s why we develop clinical trials and that’s the hope by running it.  

Katherine:

Okay, that’s great advice. Dr. Kittai, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure.  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, it’s been a pleasure to you. Happy to be here. 

Katherine:

Thank you.  

And thank you to all of our partners. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. And don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan programs in the future.  

To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for being with us today. 

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options?

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What guides a CLL treatment choice? Dr. Catherine Coombs discusses genetic mutations and factors that may help determine a CLL patient’s therapy .

Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

 

Setting CLL Treatment Goals WITH Your Team

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

Transcript:

Katherine:

There’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to treating CLL, so how do you decide which treatment is right for a patient?  

Dr. Coombs:

I always look at their underlying disease biology. There’s a couple really important tests that I send for all of my CLL patients by the time that they need therapy. The first is to see what their underlying cytogenetics and molecular findings are. There are certain good findings, and then certain bad findings.  

One of the bad findings is having a deletion in the 17th chromosome in the short arm of that chromosome. The chromosomes are the big pieces of DNA within everyone’s cells. There are findings that are common in CLL: a 17p deletion is a poor prognostic feature. There’s a separate test where we can actually identify mutations in a gene called TP53. And these behave largely the same as 17p deletions, so I always check for both. It’s two different tests.  

Oftentimes patients have both of these findings: a 17p deletion and a TP53 mutation. But sometimes you can have the mutation without the deletion and vice versa. That is one finding that’s important when talking about different therapies. The other really important prognostic test is the IGHV gene mutation status. This is another specialized sequencing test. It looks to see if the patient’s heavy chain, if their immunoglobulin protein has undergone something called somatic hypermutation or not.  

It’s actually good to be mutated. What we know about people who are mutated is that they typically have better responses to most therapies and their disease typically is one that grows slower. So, I use those factors and then I have a conversation with the patient. The two main treatment classes that I spoke about – so the BTK inhibitors, those work actually really well and even the people with these bad prognostic features.  

So, people with the 17p deletion, people with the TP53 mutation, they can have disease control for six plus years on a BTK inhibitor, which is really good.  

That was not the case a decade ago when we didn’t have these drugs. That’s something that’s been hugely beneficial for our patients. The venetoclax/obinutuzumab regimen, that still works when people have the 17p or the TP53, but it probably doesn’t work as well.   

I’d mentioned the median time for disease to come back hadn’t been reached yet. It had been reached for that poor risk subset. The expectation for people with that poorest marker is that the median PFS, progression-free survival. So, again, when after someone starts therapy, when the disease then progresses is 49 months. It kind of gives me a rough estimate of, “Gosh, these are your therapy options and based on your underlying biologic factors unique to your disease, this is what you can expect out of therapy A or therapy B.”  

The mutated or unmutated IGHV, similarly, those BTK inhibitors work extremely well, even in people with the bad unmutated finding. I think those are always an option. The other treatment is an option, but the people with that bad finding do have a shorter time until they progress of just under five years.  

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What treatment options are there for CLL patients? Dr. Catherine Coombs explains the types of CLL approaches available and who they may be appropriate for.

Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options?

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Refractory vs Relapsed CLL: What’s the Difference?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Let’s walk through the types of treatments that are used today to treat CLL.  

Dr. Coombs:

So, for the non-watch-and-wait category, that means we are now thinking about therapy. Most of the time that involves a targeted agent.  

We largely are using a lot less in the way of cytotoxic chemotherapy. Not to say there isn’t a role for it, but in my own practice, it’s not something that I have been using in the past several years because it’s highly toxic. It is effective, but it can lead to some long-term toxicities. And it’s also not quite as effective as these new targeted agents. So, those fall into two major classes.   

The first class is a class of drugs called BTK inhibitors. That stands for Bruton’s tyrosine kinase. That’s an important target in the CLL cells, specifically. The CLL cells are a type of B cell. So, BTK is important for the signaling of both normal and cancerous B-cells. When we use drugs to block that protein, that impairs the CLL cells’ ability to multiply. Then we ultimately are able to control the disease with prolonged administration of one of these drugs.  

There are two FDA-approved BTK inhibitors. The first FDA-approved agent is a drug called ibrutinib. And then the newer agent is called acalabrutinib. There’s another drug that you may have heard of called zanubrutinib. That is not technically yet FDA-approved for CLL, but it is occasionally used given that it is FDA-approved for other lymphomas, and it is within the national cancer center network guidelines for CLL treatment.   

The big benefit of these drugs is they work phenomenally well at controlling the CLL. I would say the major downside is that they do have to be taken indefinitely. So, patients ask, “Am I going to be on it forever?” Well, it depends on what you mean by forever. We generally keep patients on these drugs as long as number one, they’re tolerating them, so no bad side effects, and then number two, as long as the CLL is staying under control.  

So, for that 85-year-old patient that I gave as an example, forever may be until the rest of their life. Because they can work for six, seven, eight plus years; so, they’re highly effective. Some patients may go on them and then die from something else years down the road. For the younger patients, or patients who progress faster, we would then put them on something else whenever the drug stopped working, provided that they didn’t have a significant side effect to the drug class. So, that’s a big first class.  

The second large subset of therapies is a drug called venetoclax, which we typically combine with an anti-CD20 drug. The one that we use for patients who are getting their first treatment is called obinutuzumab. Venetoclax is a BCL-2 inhibitor that inhibits this pathway within CLL cells. It’s not unique to CLL cells, but the CLL cells are particularly dependent upon it called apoptosis.  

So, when they get exposed to this drug, the CLL cells just die; they can’t continue living, they die off. So, venetoclax works really exquisitely well at killing off CLL cells. Probably works better when it’s paired with this drug obinutuzumab. That’s how it was approved in the frontline setting: those two drugs together. The big risk of that therapy, essentially, it’s kind of a weird risk, when the CLL cells die too quickly that can cause some problems in the human body because one has to metabolize all the debris left over from these dead cancer cells. The medical term we use for that is tumor lysis syndrome.  

That can actually be fatal if not done in a safe way. Fortunately, when we do it as per the recommendations by the manufacturer, we’ve not had any adverse severe problems from it. It ends up being that the patient has to come in weekly every five weeks to do a slow ramp-up of the drug to kind of slowly kill off the cancer cells so that the body isn’t overwhelmed by the contents of these dead cancer cells.  

The big advantage of this regimen is that because it kills the CLL so well, people can get into very deep remissions. So, instead of being a therapy that people are on indefinitely, it’s designed as a one-year therapy when given as the first therapy. So, it’s one year and then they’re done. People after that are in remission, they’re not on any treatment. They may feel like they don’t have CLL.  

Most of the time the CLL does come back. It depends on does the patient come back for something else? Which does happen when people are older. But it appears that it keeps people in remission for several years. The median, which is how long it takes for half of patients to have their disease come back, the median progression for survival has not yet been reached for the trial that was done using this therapy.  

So, that’s at least three, four plus years that we’ve been able to follow people. So, very attractive in that you’re done, and then you just wait for the disease to come back but largely feel good in the interim.  

Thriving With CLL: What You Should Know About Care and Treatment

Thriving With CLL: What You Should Know About Care and Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What does it mean to thrive with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)? CLL expert Dr. Catherine Coombs discusses the goals of CLL care, reviews current treatment options, and shares tools for taking an active role in decisions.

Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.

See More from Thrive CLL

Download Program Guide


Related Resources:

Thriving with CLL Resource Guide

What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment

What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment?

An Overview of CLL Treatment Types

Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today, we’re focusing on how to live and thrive with CLL. We’re going to discuss CLL treatment goals, and how you can plan an active role in your care.  

Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining us is Dr. Catherine Coombs. Dr. Coombs, welcome! Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Coombs:

My name is Catherine Coombs. I am an assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina. My main patient practice is CLL and SLL patients, which make up probably about 80 percent of the patients I see. I do see a couple other types of leukemia and precursor states as well.  

Katherine:

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to join us today; we appreciate it.  

Dr. Coombs:

No problem. My pleasure.  

Katherine:

Since this webinar is part of PEN’s Thrive series, I thought we could start with getting your opinion on what you think it means to thrive with CLL? 

Dr. Coombs:

I’d say the first thing that comes to mind when I hear thriving in CLL is my goal for all my patients, which is to live their lives and enjoy their lives, and to not let CLL take over their lives in any way. But it’s of course important to be knowledgeable and educated about how the disease can impact one’s life. But I think there is a lot of education that can also go with that to help individuals continue to enjoy their lives and do most of the activities they like within reason.  

Katherine:

This helps us guide us through the conversation, so thank you for that. Appropriate treatment obviously is part of thriving. Before we get into the specifics of CLL treatment approaches, how would you define treatment goals?  

Dr. Coombs:

The first thing to jump into prior to going into treatment goals is asking the question, “Is treatment even needed?” CLL, in contrast to pretty much most other cancers, is not one of the cancers that needs to be treated immediately.  

At least in 2022, there’s no proven benefit to early treatment. That is being questioned now that we have drugs that are much better tolerated. There are some nice clinical trials asking that question again, “Is early treatment beneficial?” At least what we know now is that is not the case. As it turns out, probably up to a third of patients with CLL never need treatment in their lifetime. That means that the disease progresses along usually at a slow pace, and individuals die from something else: any number of other potential causes of death.  

The other two-thirds plus do need treatment at some point in their lifetime. The goals of treatment kind of depend on the patient. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach in my view. I think it depends on what is most important to the patient.  

I’ll give two drastic examples just to show how goals can be different. CLL often is a disease of older individuals. The average age of diagnosis is usually around 70 or so. But many patients have the disease for a few years, if not longer, prior to needing therapy. So, one example patient could be an 85-year-old individual who has had the disease for a decade and finally needs treatment. The goals of that patient may be to control disease, but he or she may not be worried about going into a deep remission, and may be very, totally willing to be on a drug. And definitely in order to control the disease, alleviate disease-related symptoms, but perhaps not get into a deep remission.  

The other patient, just to take it to another far extreme, I work in an academic medical center; I see some very young patients which is not the norm in CLL, but it does happen.  

Say it’s a 40-year-old patient. His or her goals may be very different. They may not like the idea of being on an oral therapy indefinitely or until progression. So, the goals for that patient may be different. They may say, “Gosh, I’d like to do something a bit more intense to be able to be off of therapy.”  

So, I think in the end there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. It generally, for my clinic, comes down to a discussion with the patient talking about what their goals are: is it more important to be off therapy for some period of time and they’re willing to sacrifice a bit more intensive of a schedule? Or are they more appealing to be on a regimen that they’re on indefinitely provided that it still provides disease control and alleviation of the disease-related symptoms.  

Katherine:

That leads me to my next question, which is what is the patient’s role in setting care goals? 

Dr. Coombs:

I think they should have a huge role; it should be a shared decision between the patient and their cancer doctor. I think at least as of now, there’s not one proven best therapy. We have a number of therapies that work extremely well. But they differ quite a bit with respect to the schedule, the possible side effects profile, and sometimes in the cost, depending upon the patient’s insurance. 

Knowing that there’s not a superior therapy, I think the best approach would be to discuss all of the therapies that are highly effective, and then compare and contrast what those therapies may look like for the patient and then make a shared decision.  

Katherine:

I have a follow-up question to what we were talking about a moment ago. What would you say to a patient who has a lot of anxiety about having to wait for treatment? 

Dr. Coombs:

The first thing I would say is that anxiety is normal. More often patients are anxious than not because it’s really hard to be told you have a leukemia and that we’re not going to do anything about it. I think that’s really hard to hear. The way that I try to counsel people is that my role as the doctor is to do no harm. If you have a leukemia and there’s no proven way to make you live longer by giving therapy early on, if you’re in that early stage of CLL where you’re asymptomatic, by offering therapy, all I could do is make you worse.  

I could give you a new side effect, I could add a new cost burden – Until I have data to prove that that’s going to make your life longer, which we do not have yet (maybe that will be different five to 10 years from now, but we do not have that yet), I could only hurt you. So, that’s not what I want to do. I want to have you live and thrive.  

The better thing to do, based on what we know now and what we know our therapies can and can’t do is to do the watchful waiting. But the anxiety is normal. Depending on how severe the anxiety is, I have had patients meet with – at least at UNC we have something called the Cancer Center Support Program, which is a group of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists that can help talk over what it means to have a cancer diagnosis and not necessarily need therapy.  

Then I also provide education on the other health issues that can come up as part of being a CLL patient even on that watchful waiting program. The thing that we talk about the most is the increased risk for infections, which in the era of the COVID pandemic is a major concern. Luckily, we have a lot of ways to decrease the health risk for COVID, whether it’s due to the administration of vaccines, or monoclonal antibodies, which I think we’ll talk about more later.  

There’re a lot of ways that people can live with it. I do think the anxiety is normal. At least in my own practice, I’ve found that most of the time the anxiety lessens with time. Because it becomes a part of who you are. It doesn’t have to be all of who you are: people can live their lives largely the way they did before with a bit of extra knowledge about things that can come up in the future but may never come up at all.  

Katherine:

Let’s walk through the types of treatments that are used today to treat CLL.  

Dr. Coombs:

So, for the non-watch and wait category, that means we are now thinking about therapy. Most of the time that involves a targeted agent.  

We largely are using a lot less in the way of cytotoxic chemotherapy. Not to say there isn’t a role for it, but in my own practice, it’s not something that I have been using in the past several years because it’s highly toxic. It is effective, but it can lead to some long-term toxicities. And it’s also not quite as effective as these new targeted agents. So, those fall into two major classes.  

The first class is a class of drugs called BTK inhibitors. That stands for brutons tyrosine kinase. That’s an important target in the CLL cells, specifically. The CLL cells are a type of B-cell. So, BTK is important for the signaling of both normal and cancerous B-cells. When we use drugs to block that protein, that impairs the CLL cells’ ability to multiply. Then we ultimately are able to control the disease with prolonged administration of one of these drugs.  

There are two FDA-approved BTK inhibitors. The first FDA-approved agent is a drug called ibrutinib. And then the newer agent is called acalabrutinib. There’s another drug that you may have heard of called zanubrutinib. That is not technically yet FDA-approved for CLL, but it is occasionally used given that it is FDA-approved for other lymphomas, and it is within the national cancer center network guidelines for CLL treatment.  

The big benefit of these drugs is they work phenomenally well at controlling the CLL. I would say the major downside is that they do have to be taken indefinitely. So, patients ask, “Am I going to be on it forever?” Well, it depends on what you mean by forever. We generally keep patients on these drugs as long as No. 1 they’re tolerating them, so no bad side effects, and then No. 2 as long as the CLL is staying under control.  

So, for that 85-year-old patient that I gave as an example, forever may be until the rest of their life. Because they can work for six, seven, eight plus years; so, they’re highly effective. Some patients may go on them and then die from something else years down the road. For the younger patients, or patients who progress faster, we would then put them on something else whenever the drug stopped working, provided that they didn’t have a significant side effect to the drug class. So, that’s a big first class.   

The second large subset of therapies is a drug called venetoclax, which we typically combine with an anti-CD20 drug. The one that we use for patients who are getting their first treatment is called obinutuzumab. Venetoclax is a BCL-2 Inhibitor that inhibits this pathway within CLL cells. It’s not unique to CLL cells, but the CLL cells are particularly dependent upon it called apoptosis.  

So, when they get exposed to this drug, the CLL cells just die; they can’t continue living, they die off. So, venetoclax works really exquisitely well at killing off CLL cells. Probably works better when it’s paired with this drug obinutuzumab. That’s how it was approved in the frontline setting: those two drugs together. The big risk of that therapy, essentially, it’s kind of a weird risk, when the CLL cells die too quickly that can cause some problems in the human body because one has to metabolize all the debris left over from these dead cancer cells. The medical term we use for that is Tumor Lysis Syndrome. 

That can actually be fatal if not done in a safe way. Fortunately, when we do it as per the recommendations by the manufacturer, we’ve not had any adverse severe problems from it. It ends up being that the patient has to come in weekly every five weeks to do a slow ramp-up of the drug to kind of slowly kill off the cancer cells so that the body isn’t overwhelmed by the contents of these dead cancer cells.  

The big advantage of this regimen is that because it kills the CLL so well, people can get into very deep remissions. So, instead of being a therapy that people are on indefinitely, it’s designed as a one-year therapy when given as the first therapy. So, it’s one year and then they’re done. People after that are in remission, they’re not on any treatment. They may feel like they don’t have CLL.  

Most of the time the CLL does come back. It depends on does the patient come back for something else? Which does happen when people are older. But it appears that it keeps people in remission for several years. The median, which is how long it takes for half of patients to have their disease come back, the median progression for survival has not yet been reached for the trial that was done using this therapy.  

So, that’s at least three, four plus years that we’ve been able to follow people. So, very attractive in that you’re done and then you just wait for the disease to come back but largely feel good in the interim.  

Katherine:

When is it time to treat? What factors do you look at? 

Dr. Coombs:

There’s pretty well-established guidelines for when treatment is indicated. The international workshop for CLL has these published guidelines, so it’s something you could google. Off the top of my head, the main reasons that I do treatment, which are included in these guidelines, are 1.) If the patient has low blood counts due to the CLL, so that could be anemia or low platelets. 2.) If they have bulky lymph nodes. They actually define bulky as 10 cm. So, that’s pretty big.  

Or, if the lymph nodes are being symptomatic in some way, they’re bothering the patient, they don’t have to be that big. 3.) If the patient has bulky spleen enlargement or if it’s causing symptoms. The spleen is next to the stomach. So, say some patients may not be able to eat a full meal, that’s another reason we could do treatment.  

Another reason is if the CLL is causing constitutional symptoms. Sometimes these are black and white. One is unintentional weight loss of 10 percent or more of the body weight. The one that’s not always black and white is fatigue. Patients can have fatigue from the CLL, but I’ve found often fatigue can be due to other causes. So, that’s something I consider an important job of mine is to make sure we don’t jump into CLL treatment if say, there’s some other cause for the tiredness, such as, say the thyroid’s off or there’s a huge amount of stress due to some other factor outside of the CLL.  

Then, some other constitutional symptoms are CLL can cause fever or drenching night sweats. Those two it’s important to make sure that there’s not a concurrent infection because infections can also cause those symptoms. The last indication is patients with CLL can develop autoimmune cytopenias. That’s when the immune system attacks some component of the blood cells. Most commonly that’s an autoimmune anemia or autoimmune thrombocytopenia. That’s the term for low platelets.  

Usually, we can treat that with steroids or occasionally CD-20 by itself like rituximab to calm down the immune system. However, if those immune-based therapies fail the patient, then we could consider treating the CLL to help fix that problem.  

Katherine:

We received an audience question prior to the program. They asked, “What does it mean to be refractory, and how is that different from relapsing?” 

Dr. Coombs:

I actually just had a conversation about this. I’m not sure that’s formally defined. I have heard one definition suggested is – I think everyone agrees refractory means you did not respond to your last therapy. That’s actually really bad. Most of our therapies work in almost everyone. So, refractory is a term that is generally accepted means no response. So, whatever therapy you’re on, the CLL did not get better, it got worse. That’s refractory.  

Another definition that I’ve heard based on this recent discussion is if you had a short remission duration, such as six months or shorter. Most of the therapies we use should work for quite a while, usually on the order of years. So, some people also consider refractory a short remission duration, six months or shorter.  

Relapse is probably the more common scenario. That’s a patient who has had some type of therapy, but they had a decent response, but that response wore off, more on a normal pace. Again, not on the order of months, but usually on the order of years.   

Katherine:

There’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to treating CLL, so how do you decide which treatment is right for a patient?  

Dr. Coombs:

I always look at their underlying disease biology. There’s a couple really important tests that I send for all of my CLL patients by the time that they need therapy. The first is to see what their underlying cytogenetics and molecular findings are. There are certain good findings, and then certain bad findings.  

One of the bad findings is having a deletion in the 17th chromosome in the short arm of that chromosome. The chromosomes are the big pieces of DNA within everyone’s cells. There are findings that are common in CLL: a 17p deletion is a poor prognostic feature. There’s a separate test where we can actually identify mutations in a gene called TP53. And these behave largely the same as 17p deletions, so I always check for both. It’s two different tests.  

Often times patients have both of these findings: a 17p deletion and a TP53 mutation. But sometimes you can have the mutation without the deletion and vise versa. That is one finding that’s important when talking about different therapies. The other really important prognostic test is the IGHV gene mutation status. This is another specialized sequencing test. It looks to see if the patient’s heavy chain, if their immunoglobulin protein has undergone something called somatic hypermutation or not.  

It’s actually good to be mutated. What we know about people who are mutated is that they typically have better responses to most therapies and their disease typically is one that grows slower. So, I use those factors and then I have a conversation with the patient. The two main treatment classes that I spoke about – so the BTK Inhibitors, those work actually really well and even the people with these bad prognostic features. So, people with the 17p deletion, people with the TP53 mutation, they can have disease control for six plus years on a BTK inhibitor, which is really good.   

That was not the case a decade ago when we didn’t have these drugs. That’s something that’s been hugely beneficial for our patients. The venetoclax/obinutuzumab regimen, that still works when people have the 17p or the TP53, but it probably doesn’t work as well.  

I’d mentioned the median time for disease to come back hadn’t been reached yet. It had been reached for that poor risk subset. The expectation for people with that poorest marker is that the median PFS, progression-free survival. So, again, when after someone starts therapy, when the disease then progresses is 49 months. It kind of gives me a rough estimate of, “Gosh, these are your therapy options and based on your underlying biologic factors unique to your disease, this is what you can expect out of therapy A or therapy B.”  

The mutated or unmutated IGHV, similarly, those BTK inhibitors work extremely well, even in people with the bad unmutated finding. I think those are always an option. The other treatment is an option, but the people with that bad finding do have a shorter time until they progress of just under five years.  

Katherine:

Dr. Coombs, why should patients feel confident in speaking up and being a partner in their care? Do you have any advice for helping them find their voice? 

Dr. Coombs:

Great question. I think a patient is their own best advocate. We as their physicians always try to advocate for them, but we often don’t know what their wishes and desires are. I think through speaking to what’s important to you, that can help me know a little more about what path we should take. There’s not always one right path.  

I’ve talked about these two great treatment options we have. I had one patient who loved fishing and he just didn’t want to be in the infusion center. That’s the person that should go on the oral drug, where he doesn’t have to come to and from as often. 

If you tell us about your goals and your desires, that helps us also be your top advocate because then we have a little more background for what’s important to you. I think that’s my main thought. We’re here for you, but we need to know what you value the most. We don’t always know that.  

Katherine:

When should a patient consider a second opinion or a consultation with a specialist? 

Dr. Coombs:

I never discourage a second option. I’m a CLL specialist, but I’ve had patients ask for a second opinion. I’m always enthusiastic about it. If a patient feels that they need another set of eyes on their case. I’ve learned some things from some of my patients who have seen specialists in different areas of the country or locally. We have Duke down the street. Sometimes different providers just have different perspectives.  

Or, sometimes the patient just needs to hear something again if it doesn’t sound right to them. I’ve had patients for example who are one watchful waiting who really just had trouble believing. “I have leukemia, and you’re really telling me to do nothing.” But then they hear it from someone else and it just helps it sink in. I’d say the answer is anytime. Anytime you think you need another set of eyes on the case.  

But I would say especially for people in the community. I do think there’s a lot of value in seeing a CLL specialist once if it’s something that you’re interested in and your insurance pays. I think the community docs have one of the hardest jobs, and I don’t think I could do it. There are so many different cancers that they have to know about. I think, if anything, I have the easy job; I have one tiny slice of the pie that I know a ton about. Not to say they don’t do great jobs; I’m actually phenomenally impressed with most of the community.  

However, they have so much to know, often you can maybe get a little more of a unique view on CLL by seeing a CLL expert. If that’s in your interest. But certainly not mandatory, especially if your goal is to stay away from doctors.  

Katherine:

COVID is of course another factor that impacts a patient’s ability to fully thrive with CLL in today’s world. Many CLL patients are concerned about the effectiveness of the COVID vaccines and their ability to make enough antibodies to fight the virus. So, what do we know about how effective the COVID vaccines are for people with CLL? 

Dr. Coombs:

The COVID vaccines – we were fortunate in being able to build on some earlier research. Even prior to being able to look at the data for COVID vaccines, there have been studies looking at vaccines in general in CLL. That’s actually been a long-term established issue, which is that based on earlier studies we knew most vaccines were not as efficacious in individuals with CLL compared to people without.  

That’s due to this underlying immune deficiency. Since then, they’ve done studies looking at COVID specifically, and we have found lower rates of production of antibodies in individuals with CLL compared to regular, non-CLL controls. There have been a few different studies looking at this. I think the things that have been seen universally is that the CLL patients that are the most severely affected are those that are actively on therapy or have had recent anti-CD20. The CD20 drugs really wipe out the ability to make antibodies probably for a year, if not up to two years.  

The other drug class that can really hamper the ability to make antibodies are these BTK inhibitors. Then, venetoclax to some extent, it’s often paired with the CD20, so it’s hard to tease out the effect. But it likely hampers the ability to make antibodies as well, but just not as much as the CD20, which it’s often given concurrently with.  

CLL patients who have never had therapy can make a decent amount of antibodies, but still quite a bit less than an age-matched control. So, someone also your age without CLL. That was a lot of data based on the original two vaccine series. The Leukemia Lymphoma Society did a study that I actually referred a lot of my patients to, where they collected samples, looked at antibody levels, and they found that giving the booster did seroconvert a good amount of patients who were negative that then became positive for antibodies.  

That’s one of the reasons I’ve really encouraged the booster. This is now talking about the third shot. Now there’s this whole separate discussion about doing a fourth shot. I think the data’s a little too early to say it’s definitely helpful. But I think it’s certainly unlikely harmful. The vaccines don’t quite work as well. I feel very strongly they’re not harmful.  

Not to say any shot can’t cause some issue occasionally. But I think that’s very, very rare. I always encourage my patients to get the vaccine, but I separately say, “Gosh, I wouldn’t use this as an end-all cure because it may not work at its 100 percent efficacy level due to the underlying CLL, and worse when you’re under treatment.” 

Katherine:

We had another audience member send in a related question: “I’ve heard there is a treatment to help boost COVID antibodies. What is it and how can I get access to it?” 

Dr. Coombs:

I was going to bring that up actually, then I figured there was probably another question coming. I’m hugely enthusiastic about the drug that this person is speaking about. It’s called Evusheld. E-V-U-S-H-E-L-D. It got this emergency use authorization designation in December of 2021, so it’s pretty new. The idea behind this drug is that “Gosh, we know that not everyone is going to mount an effective immune response to vaccines, based on their own immune system, inability to make good levels of antibodies.”  

So, it’s two antibodies that were manufactured as this drug. So, it’s a drug that’s actually two different antibodies. It ends up being in two different vials, so you get two shots. It provides really remarkable protection against COVID. They’re long-acting antibodies, so they last for six months.   

The publication from the study that led to this being released showed an approximately 80 percent reduction in COVID for the people who got the shot as opposed to the people who got the placebo.  

Katherine:

It sounds like patients could ask their doctors about where they might be able to access this? 

Dr. Coombs:

Yeah. I think the best person to ask would be your CLL doctor. Because the drug, unless things have changed recently, it’s largely being focused for immunosuppressed individuals. Primary care doctors may not necessarily know a lot about it, but most oncologists are the ones who should have access to it. So, I would say ask your CLL doctor. If you’re in a smaller site that doesn’t have it, they may know in your geographic region where it could be gotten. 

Katherine:

As we close out this conversation, Dr. Coombs, I wanted to hear why you feel patients should be hopeful about the potential to thrive with CLL? 

Dr. Coombs:

There’s just so many reasons to be hopeful. CLL, I’d say more than – obviously it’s the cancer I’m focused on, but I think more than almost any other cancer has had advances that have really changed the lives of our patients in the last decade. And that’s only going to get better.  

We have therapies that work phenomenally well and can get you into remission, get the CLL under control, and let you just live your life as you wish; almost as though the CLL is not there. Though, it is in the background and your doctor can counsel you on special precautions needed. The drugs we have are phenomenal, but we only use them when we need them. Again, we don’t want to give you something you don’t need. But when you need it, the options we have are really phenomenal and they work well.  

They have some side effects, but I’d say they’re much better than the side effects of the older fashion drugs we used to use a decade-plus ago. The disease is there, we have better ways to control it, and I think there’s plenty of reasons to live your life, enjoy your life, thrive. We’ll take care of the CLL with all these tools in our toolbox when we need to.  

Katherine:

Dr. Coombs, thank you so much for joining us today.  

Dr. Coombs:

It’s been my pleasure, thank you.  

Katherine:

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

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An Expert Debunks Advanced Prostate Cancer Myths from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Atish Choudhury debunks common myths about advanced prostate cancer, including concerns about genetics, treatment, and side effects.

Dr. Atish Choudhury is the Co-Director of the Prostate Cancer Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham & Women’s Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Choudhury here.

See More from Engage Prostate Cancer

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When Should Prostate Cancer Patients Consider a Clinical Trial?


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

I’d like to address a list of common concerns about treatment that we’ve heard from the community. So, I’d love to get your take on these. “There’s nothing that can be done about advanced prostate cancer.” Is that true?

Dr. Choudhury:           

So, that is very much untrue in that even patients with pretty advanced prostate cancer – even what we call “high-volume” kinds of prostate cancer – can live for years, and years, and years with appropriate treatments.

And the concern, oftentimes, is that the way that we get those years, and years, and years are with treatments that lower levels of testosterone, and I’m guessing that some of your questions coming up are related to concerns around side effects of treatment. But many of our patients tolerate those side effects pretty well and can live quite a good, and vigorous, and fulfilling life even with pretty advanced prostate cancer.

Katherine:                  

The next one: “Clinical trials are a last-resort treatment option.”

Dr. Choudhury:   

Yeah, so, as I’d mentioned before, clinical trials can be appropriate anywhere along the treatment trajectory of prostate cancer, and they are often being compared against standards which are often pretty good, but can we make them better? And certainly, participating in clinical trials isn’t for everyone, but for a long of our patients who are interested in seeing if an experimental approach might be beneficial to them or contributing some knowledge to patients down the line really do find trial participation to be quite fulfilling.

Katherine:                  

All right. The next one is: “Prostate cancer isn’t genetic, so I don’t need to be tested.” Is that the case?

Dr. Choudhury:        

No. So, it turns out that prostate cancer is actually one of our most heritable cancers. Somewhere between 40% and 50% of the predisposition to prostate cancer is actually genetic, or inherited based on family. So, the part that’s tricky and the part that is hard to maybe explain to patients is that a lot of that heritability is not encompassed in particular cancer genes in the way that many people are familiar with with breast and ovarian cancers, which are often linked to genes called “BRCA-1” and “BRCA-2.” So, a small subset of patients with prostate cancer do have alterations in that BRCA-2 gene, or BRCA-1, or ATM, or some other genes involved in breast and ovarian cancers.

And that does impact, potentially, their treatments down the line, and certainly is impactful for themselves, their siblings, their children as far as, potentially, screening recommendations for other cancers. But oftentimes, we’ll do one of these tests in patients who have a pretty extensive family history of prostate cancer, and they come out negative, and the patient is very confused because they clearly have a family history, but it’s because not all the risk of prostate cancer is actually encompassed in these gene tests that we run.

Katherine:                  

Ah, okay. The next concern is “I’ll lose all sexual function when I receive treatment.”

Dr. Choudhury:         

So, it very much depends exactly what the treatment is, and what’s being offered, and what the recovery is like.

So, for example, for patients who go into a prostatectomy and have very good erectile function, it’s not inevitable that you’ll lose your sexual functioning after a prostatectomy. There is a process – we kind of refer to it as “penile rehab” – of using medications like a Viagra or Sialis to restore the blood flow. You could use certain things like vacuum pump devices to restore the blood flow, and again, it’s not inevitable that people are going to lose their sexual functioning after a prostatectomy.

Even with testosterone suppression, while it plays a role in libido and erectile function, it’s not inevitable that people lose their libido and erectile function completely, even on these drugs. But certainly, more often than not, people will lose their erectile function on testosterone-lowering medications.

And so, there are alternative ways to get erections – involving, again, use of vacuum pump devices or injections that people can give themselves into the penis. People can have penile implant surgery to be able to get erections that way. And so, it’s really dependent on what the situation is.

Again, none of those more mechanical interventions are really ideal, but particularly when people have a defined course of treatment – for example, a surgery or radiation with a brief course of hormones – people can recover erectile function even after those sorts of interventions. And if they can’t, then we do have other approaches that will allow people to still be able to be sexually intimate with their partner after all of the treatments are completed.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Choudhury, one more concern: “My symptoms and side effects can’t be managed.”

Dr. Choudhury:           

Yeah. So, again, it’s very rare that we run into situations where there are side effects or symptoms that can’t be managed at all, in the sense that we have very effective medications against hot flashes, or moodiness, or pain, or –just fatigue. And certainly, lifestyle plays a big role in this. Also, a lot of the symptoms that people express are related to underlying depression and anxiety issues, and certainly, engaging with a mental health provider can be helpful in terms of managing those as well.

And then, there’s a lot of nonpharmacologic treatments – meaning nonmedication approaches that can provide people a lot of benefit in terms of their quality of life, and we have an integrative center called the Zakim Center for Integrative Medicine that helps with the relaxation techniques, and massage, and yoga, and acupuncture…

And people find different approaches to help manage these symptoms and side effects. And so, it’s very unusual where we run into a situation where the side effects are unbearable and unmanageable. Usually, we can manage them in some form of way that allow people to have, again, a good quality of life and a meaningful life, even on prostate cancer treatment.

How Is Advanced Prostate Cancer Treated?

How Is Advanced Prostate Cancer Treated? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What therapies are available to treat advanced prostate cancer? Expert Dr. Atish Choudhury reviews current treatment options.

Dr. Atish Choudhury is the Co-Director of the Prostate Cancer Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham & Women’s Cancer Center.
Learn more about Dr. Choudhury here.

See More from Engage Prostate Cancer

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An Expert Debunks Advanced Prostate Cancer Myths

An Expert Debunks Advanced Prostate Cancer Myths


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

So, let’s walk through the types of therapy that are used today to treat prostate cancer. If you would start with surgery?

Dr. Choudhury:            

Sure. So, surgery is a radical prostatectomy, and they take out the prostate – they take out neighboring structures called seminal vesicles, they take out the surrounding fat, and they’ll usually take out some neighboring lymph nodes as well. And there are advantages of surgery in that when the prostate is out, the pathologist can examine the whole prostate front to back, side to side, as well as those neighboring structures to really understand the stage of the cancer – “Where is it?” – and also, the grade – “Is it a high-grade cancer, a low-grade cancer, somewhere in the middle?”

And it really helps guide “What is the risk of developing recurrence afterwards, and are there further treatments that we should be giving after the surgery? For example, radiation to the prostate bed to decrease the risk of recurrences. Surgery does have its own set of potential side effects and complications, so it’s not appropriate for everyone, but in general, that’s the process.

Katherine:                  

What other treatment options? You mentioned radiation. What else is there?         

Dr. Choudhury:          

Yeah, so, radiation comes in two forms: there’s seed radiation, which is implantable little radioactive pellets that are implanted throughout the prostate. And then, there’s external radiation, and that can be given in several forms and over several schedules that it’s really important to discuss with the care team.

The other forms of treatment that people on this call might’ve heard about or read about are in a category called “focal treatments,” and these are basically ways to – and the term we use is a blade but zap – an area of the prostate using lasers, or high-intensity ultrasound, or with freezing an area of the prostate, or with something called “irreversible electroporation.”

These are basically all ways to, again, zap an area of the prostate either with heat or with cold with the intention of killing off cancer cells in an area. And the trouble is that none of these treatments have actually been demonstrated to improve outcomes related to prostate cancer compared to just surveillance alone. And it does complicate, sort of, the monitoring afterwards to see if something has come back.

But there might be very selected patients where there’s an area of cancer that’s seen on a scan – like an MRI – with no cancer seen outside of that area who might decide to pursue this possibility of focal treatment with the goal of maybe putting off the need for something like radiation or surgery. But that’s something that really should be discussed with a multidisciplinary team so that people really understand what they’re getting into in terms of risks and potential benefits.

So, those treatments are not really considered standard at this time.

Katherine:                  

What about hormonal therapy?        

Dr. Choudhury:   

Yeah, so, hormonal therapy plays a role in the treatment of prostate cancer, really depending on the stage and the other treatments that are being considered. So, for example, if a patient is going to surgery for a localized prostate cancer, in general, we wouldn’t use hormonal treatment either before or after the surgery unless they’re planned for radiation after the surgery.

However, for patients who have intermediate risk or higher localized prostate cancer and are getting radiation, then we will often recommend hormonal treatments, which are basically testosterone-lowering drugs, to make the radiation work as well as possible. And then, for patients who have advanced cancer beyond where surgery or radiation is going to be of help, then, hormonal treatments are important to treat the cancer wherever it is.

And that’s because prostate cancer cells, wherever they are in the body – wherever they’re in the prostate itself, or in lymph nodes, or bones, or other organs – depend on the testosterone in your body to supply a fuel – to support its growth and survival.

And so, lowering the level of testosterone in the body basically deprives the cancer cells of that fuel and starts a process of killing cancer cells even without any need for radiation, or chemotherapy, or things like that. However, hormonal treatments are not curative. They don’t kill all the cancer – they kill some and put the rest to sleep. And so, if you stop the hormonal treatment, the cancer will grow back, and that’s why it’s not a treatment on its own for localized prostate cancer.

And that’s also why, for prostate cancer that’s spread, we often add on additional medications to the testosterone-lowering drugs to be more effective at really killing the cancer wherever it is compared to the testosterone suppression alone.

Katherine:                  

Oh, I see. For advanced disease, what treatments are available for patients that are hormone-sensitive or -resistant?

Dr. Choudhury:           

Yeah, so “hormone-sensitive” means that the cancer has advanced, but the patient hasn’t started on testosterone-lowering drugs yet. And so, as I had mentioned, testosterone lowering is really the backbone of treatment of these patients. And so, there are additional treatments that have been demonstrated previously to be effective after testosterone-lowering by itself stops working, and these include a chemotherapy drug called docetaxel. And in addition, there are more potent hormonal drugs called abiraterone, enzalutamide, apalutamide, and darolutamide.

And the role of these other drugs is to block hormonal signaling within the cancer cells from hormones other than testosterone. And so, by doing the more potent hormonal drug in conjunction with the testosterone lowering, that leads to a much deeper response – much more tumor shrinkage – and, it turns out, also prolonged survival in patients treated with those combination treatments – compared top people who are treated with testosterone lowering alone and then receive these drugs later.

So, there’s something about treating more aggressively at the beginning in this hormone-sensitive state that plays out in prolongation of survival. And not only prolonged survival, but improved quality of life due to delaying the symptoms of cancer grown and progression.

Katherine:                  

Right.        

Dr. Choudhury:   

When we then talk about castration resistant disease, certainly we use the same classes of drugs, but then, there’s a wider armamentarium of things that we use that include, again, other kinds of chemotherapy.

There are radiation drugs, and an approved drug Radium-223. And there’s another drug on the horizon called Lutetium PSMA. There are immune therapy drugs – something called Sipuleucel-T – and then, this is also a situation where we do genetic testing of the cancer to understand if there’re certain –what we call “therapeutic vulnerabilities.”

Other treatment options that are available based on the genetics of the cancer that might be helpful in some people? And specific options include a chemo-immune therapy called “Keytruda” in a small subset of patients with particular genetic changes involving genes involved in mismatched repair of DNA. And then, there’s another set of targeted treatments called “PARP inhibitors” for certain sets of patients who have alterations in genes involved in homologous recombination repair of DNA.

So, that’s all very complicated, and so that’s why it’s important to get treated with high-volume providers of prostate cancer patients so that they’re really aware and onboard with these various treatment options that are available.

What Is Prostate Cancer Palliative Care?

What Is Prostate Cancer Palliative Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is palliative care? Dr. Atish Choudhury discusses what palliative care involves for advanced prostate cancer patients.

Dr. Atish Choudhury is the Co-Director of the Prostate Cancer Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham & Women’s Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Choudhury here.

See More from Engage Prostate Cancer

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Dr. Choudhury, we received this question from an audience member prior to the program: What is palliative care?

Dr. Choudhury:           

So, palliative care is really a branch of medicine that helps with symptom management. And so, that symptom management doesn’t necessarily have to be end-of-life sort of symptoms relating to death and dying. It can be just along the way to help with managing the symptoms related to cancer and its treatment, but also to be kind of another medical provider to help with communication of goals of care – what’s really bothersome, what’s really important – so that we kind of incorporate those wishes and desires into the management decisions that we make.

So, a patient does not have to be at end-of-life to engage with palliative care. Certainly, even earlier engagement with palliative care can be helpful to maximize quality of life along the treatment journey. But as symptoms become more bothersome, certainly, our palliative care colleagues can be incredibly helpful – not just in helping manage pain, but also nausea, also depression and psychological side effects. So, they’re a really critical part of our treatment team.

Who Are the Members of a Prostate Cancer Care Team?

Who Are the Members of a Prostate Cancer Care Team? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Prostate cancer expert Dr. Atish Choudhury explains which experts comprise a prostate cancer care team. Dr. Choudhury encourages patients to take an active role as a member of their care team.

Dr. Atish Choudhury is the Co-Director of the Prostate Cancer Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham & Women’s Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Choudhury here.

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Which Factors Impact Advanced Prostate Cancer Treatment Decisions?


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

So, who is typically on a patient’s prostate cancer healthcare team?

Dr. Choudhury:            

Yeah. So, generally, the consultations here at Dana-Farber are multidisciplinary, with a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, and a urologic oncologist – so, a surgeon.

And so, if a patient is a good candidate for treatment to the prostate itself, then certainly, the surgeon and the radiation oncologist will talk about those treatments. And if the treatment is primarily with medications, then the medical oncologist will generally sort of take the lead. But there is often a role for local treatment to the prostate itself, even in cancer that’s spread beyond the prostate. So, that’s why the multidisciplinary consultation is so important.

Katherine:                  

Right. What do you feel is the patient’s role as a team member?

Dr. Choudhury:           

Absolutely. So, I think it is very important for the patient to make sure that they come into these multidisciplinary meetings with questions around “What is my stage?” “What are the choices?” “What do I expect with treatment? Without treatment? With the various treatment options?” And basically, to take in the advice that they’re getting from the different members of the multidisciplinary team, and really think about how that’s impactful for them and their goals for themselves and what they really hope for the short term and for the long term.

I think what gets tricky is that there’s really very not-great sources of information that’s out there online and in YouTube videos and things like that, and I think it does play an important role for the patient to really understand what are the real high-quality sources of information – they tend to come from academic medical centers like ours. And certainly, we do encourage second opinions at other high-quality, high-volume centers so that the patients understand that the recommendations that are being made are generally made based on the based data and with people with a lot of experience at treating their kind of cancer.

Katherine:                  

What about caregivers? How do they fit into the team?

Dr. Choudhury:             

Caregivers are critical because patients are not always the most expressive at, really, what their wants, and needs, and desires are. And especially when they’re on treatment, sometimes they’re not so expressive around the things that are bothering them on a day-to-day basis.

So, the caregivers are really important for communication with us to be kind of another set of eyes and ears in terms of kind of reporting what the patient’s symptoms are or what their goals or desires are that maybe they themselves don’t feel comfortable expressing. But they also play an important role in helping us with, kind of, lifestyle recommendations to the patient. Because certainly, much of the process of doing well with prostate cancer treatments is kind of lifestyle modifications – makes sure you’re eating healthy, exercising regularly – and the caregivers can play a very important role in making sure that patients stick to that kind of regimen as well.    

Katherine:                  

I would think one of the issues for a patient too is that just having a cancer can be overwhelming and can make it difficult for them to even remember all the questions and concerns that they have.

Dr. Choudhury:            

Yeah, that’s absolutely critical, and the caregivers play a very important role. So, often, people who are not partnered, for example, will just bring a friend to these appointments just to be that second set of eyes and ears.

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

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

What steps can you take to engage in your prostate cancer treatment and care decisions? Dr. Atish Choudhury discusses current and emerging prostate cancer therapies, reviews key treatment decision-making factors, and shares advice for self-advocacy.

Dr. Atish Choudhury is the Co-Director of the Prostate Cancer Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham & Women’s Cancer Center.
Learn more about Dr. Choudhury here.

Download Guide

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s webinar. Today, we’re going to explore the goals of advanced prostate cancer treatment and discuss tools for playing an active role in your 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. Joining us today is Dr. Atish Choudhury. Dr. Choudhury, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Choudhury:        

Hello. Thank you so much for the invitation. So, I’m a medical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and I’m the codirector of the prostate cancer center at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. And I serve as the chair of the Lank Center for Translational Research as well, and ’t’s my pleasure to be here.

Katherine:                  

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to join us. Today, we’re talking about advanced prostate cancer.

What exactly does “advanced” mean in terms of this cancer?

Dr. Choudhury:          

Yeah. So, it’s actually a pretty broad term, and it can mean different things in different contexts. But generally, what it means is that it’s cancer that has extended outside of the confines of the boundaries of the prostate itself – either locally where it is into the surrounding fat around the prostate capsule or to local lymph nodes, where it could also spread to other parts of the body – like lymph nodes, bone, and other organs.

So, it can really mean different things depending on the context.

Katherine:                  

Before we get into the types of treatment available, let’s start by understanding the goals of treatment. What are the goals of advanced stage prostate cancer?

Dr. Choudhury:              

So, in general, the goal of treating any cancer is to a live a long, happy, healthy life with limited quality of life troubles from the cancer itself or its treatments. And so, for localized prostate cancer, that generally means treating with curative intent – that we give radiation or surgery, potentially in combination with hormonal treatments so that the cancer is taken care of and people can be cured and not need further treatments moving forward at all.

And there are situations, even in fairly advanced cases, where that’s a reasonable and accomplishable goal. And there are other situations that we might not be able to cure the cancer completely, but the treatments can be quite effective at keeping it under control and keep people with a very good quality of life so that prostate cancer is not a day-to-day burden for them and that they can survive with cancer for years, and years, and years.

Katherine:                  

It sounds like these goals would be determined with members of your healthcare team. So, who is typically on a patient’s prostate cancer healthcare team?

Dr. Choudhury:            

Yeah. So, generally, the consultations here at Dana-Farber are multidisciplinary, with a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, and a urologic oncologist – so, a surgeon.

And so, if a patient is a good candidate for treatment to the prostate itself, then certainly, the surgeon and the radiation oncologist will talk about those treatments. And if the treatment is primarily with medications, then the medical oncologist will generally sort of take the lead. But there is often a role for local treatment to the prostate itself, even in cancer that’s spread beyond the prostate. So, that’s why the multidisciplinary consultation is so important.

Katherine:                  

Right. What do you feel is the patient’s role as a team member?

Dr. Choudhury:           

Absolutely. So, I think it is very important for the patient to make sure that they come into these multidisciplinary meetings with questions around “What is my stage?” “What are the choices?” “What do I expect with treatment? Without treatment? With the various treatment options?” And basically, to take in the advice that they’re getting from the different members of the multidisciplinary team, and really think about how that’s impactful for them and their goals for themselves and what they really hope for the short term and for the long term.

I think what gets tricky is that there’s really very not-great sources of information that’s out there online and in YouTube videos and things like that, and I think it does play an important role for the patient to really understand what are the real high-quality sources of information – they tend to come from academic medical centers like ours. And certainly, we do encourage second opinions at other high-quality, high-volume centers so that the patients understand that the recommendations that are being made are generally made based on the based data and with people with a lot of experience at treating their kind of cancer.

Katherine:                  

What about caregivers? How do they fit into the team?

Dr. Choudhury:             

Caregivers are critical because patients are not always the most expressive at, really, what their wants, and needs, and desires are. And especially when they’re on treatment, sometimes they’re not so expressive around the things that are bothering them on a day-to-day basis.

So, the caregivers are really important for communication with us to be kind of another set of eyes and ears in terms of kind of reporting what the patient’s symptoms are or what their goals or desires are that maybe they themselves don’t feel comfortable expressing. But they also play an important role in helping us with, kind of, lifestyle recommendations to the patient. Because certainly, much of the process of doing well with prostate cancer treatments is kind of lifestyle modifications – makes sure you’re eating healthy, exercising regularly – and the caregivers can play a very important role in making sure that patients stick to that kind of regimen as well.    

Katherine:                  

I would think one of the issues for a patient too is that just having a cancer can be overwhelming and can make it difficult for them to even remember all the questions and concerns that they have.

Dr. Choudhury:            

Yeah, that’s absolutely critical, and the caregivers play a very important role. So, often, people who are not partnered, for example, will just bring a friend to these appointments just to be that second set of eyes and ears.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Choudhury, we received this question from an audience member prior to the program: What is palliative care?

Dr. Choudhury:           

So, palliative care is really a branch of medicine that helps with symptom management. And so, that symptom management doesn’t necessarily have to be end-of-life sort of symptoms relating to death and dying. It can be just along the way to help with managing the symptoms related to cancer and its treatment, but also to be kind of another medical provider to help with communication of goals of care – what’s really bothersome, what’s really important – so that we kind of incorporate those wishes and desires into the management decisions that we make.

So, a patient does not have to be at end-of-life to engage with palliative care. Certainly, even earlier engagement with palliative care can be helpful to maximize quality of life along the treatment journey. But as symptoms become more bothersome, certainly, our palliative care colleagues can be incredibly helpful – not just in helping manage pain, but also nausea, also depression and psychological side effects. So, they’re a really critical part of our treatment team.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. I think we have a pretty good understanding and the goals of treatment. So, let’s walk through the types of therapy that are used today to treat prostate cancer.

If you would start with surgery?

Dr. Choudhury:            

Sure. So, surgery is a radical prostatectomy, and they take out the prostate – they take out neighboring structures called seminal vesicles, they take out the surrounding fat, and they’ll usually take out some neighboring lymph nodes as well. And there are advantages of surgery in that when the prostate is out, the pathologist can examine the whole prostate front to back, side to side, as well as those neighboring structures to really understand the stage of the cancer – “Where is it?” – and also, the grade – “Is it a high-grade cancer, a low-grade cancer, somewhere in the middle?”

And it really helps guide “What is the risk of developing recurrence afterwards, and are there further treatments that we should be giving after the surgery? For example, radiation to the prostate bed to decrease the risk of recurrences. Surgery does have its own set of potential side effects and complications, so it’s not appropriate for everyone, but in general, that’s the process.

Katherine:                  

What other treatment options? You mentioned radiation. What else is there?         

Dr. Choudhury:          

Yeah, so, radiation comes in two forms: there’s seed radiation, which is implantable little radioactive pellets that are implanted throughout the prostate. And then, there’s external radiation, and that can be given in several forms and over several schedules that it’s really important to discuss with the care team.

The other forms of treatment that people on this call might’ve heard about or read about are in a category called “focal treatments,” and these are basically ways to – and the term we use is a blade but zap – an area of the prostate using lasers, or high-intensity ultrasound, or with freezing an area of the prostate, or with something called “irreversible electroporation.”

These are basically all ways to, again, zap an area of the prostate either with heat or with cold with the intention of killing off cancer cells in an area. And the trouble is that none of these treatments have actually been demonstrated to improve outcomes related to prostate cancer compared to just surveillance alone. And it does complicate, sort of, the monitoring afterwards to see if something has come back.

But there might be very selected patients where there’s an area of cancer that’s seen on a scan – like an MRI – with no cancer seen outside of that area who might decide to pursue this possibility of focal treatment with the goal of maybe putting off the need for something like radiation or surgery. But that’s something that really should be discussed with a multidisciplinary team so that people really understand what they’re getting into in terms of risks and potential benefits.

So, those treatments are not really considered standard at this time.

Katherine:                  

What about hormonal therapy?        

Dr. Choudhury:   

Yeah, so, hormonal therapy plays a role in the treatment of prostate cancer, really depending on the stage and the other treatments that are being considered. So, for example, if a patient is going to surgery for a localized prostate cancer, in general, we wouldn’t use hormonal treatment either before or after the surgery unless they’re planned for radiation after the surgery.

However, for patients who have intermediate risk or higher localized prostate cancer and are getting radiation, then we will often recommend hormonal treatments, which are basically testosterone-lowering drugs, to make the radiation work as well as possible. And then, for patients who have advanced cancer beyond where surgery or radiation is going to be of help, then, hormonal treatments are important to treat the cancer wherever it is.

And that’s because prostate cancer cells, wherever they are in the body – wherever they’re in the prostate itself, or in lymph nodes, or bones, or other organs – depend on the testosterone in your body to supply a fuel – to support its growth and survival.

And so, lowering the level of testosterone in the body basically deprives the cancer cells of that fuel and starts a process of killing cancer cells even without any need for radiation, or chemotherapy, or things like that. However, hormonal treatments are not curative. They don’t kill all the cancer – they kill some and put the rest to sleep. And so, if you stop the hormonal treatment, the cancer will grow back, and that’s why it’s not a treatment on its own for localized prostate cancer.

And that’s also why, for prostate cancer that’s spread, we often add on additional medications to the testosterone-lowering drugs to be more effective at really killing the cancer wherever it is compared to the testosterone suppression alone.

Katherine:                  

Oh, I see. For advanced disease, what treatments are available for patients that are hormone-sensitive or -resistant?

Dr. Choudhury:           

Yeah, so “hormone-sensitive” means that the cancer has advanced, but the patient hasn’t started on testosterone-lowering drugs yet. And so, as I had mentioned, testosterone lowering is really the backbone of treatment of these patients. And so, there are additional treatments that have been demonstrated previously to be effective after testosterone-lowering by itself stops working, and these include a chemotherapy drug called docetaxel. And in addition, there are more potent hormonal drugs called abiraterone, enzalutamide, apalutamide, and darolutamide.

And the role of these other drugs is to block hormonal signaling within the cancer cells from hormones other than testosterone. And so, by doing the more potent hormonal drug in conjunction with the testosterone lowering, that leads to a much deeper response – much more tumor shrinkage – and, it turns out, also prolonged survival in patients treated with those combination treatments – compared top people who are treated with testosterone lowering alone and then receive these drugs later.

So, there’s something about treating more aggressively at the beginning in this hormone-sensitive state that plays out in prolongation of survival. And not only prolonged survival, but improved quality of life due to delaying the symptoms of cancer grown and progression.

Katherine:                  

Right.        

Dr. Choudhury:   

When we then talk about castration resistant disease, certainly we use the same classes of drugs, but then, there’s a wider armamentarium of things that we use that include, again, other kinds of chemotherapy.

There are radiation drugs, and an approved drug Radium-223. And there’s another drug on the horizon called Lutetium PSMA. There are immune therapy drugs – something called Sipuleucel-T – and then, this is also a situation where we do genetic testing of the cancer to understand if there’re certain –what we call “therapeutic vulnerabilities.”

Other treatment options that are available based on the genetics of the cancer that might be helpful in some people? And specific options include a chemo-immune therapy called “Keytruda” in a small subset of patients with particular genetic changes involving genes involved in mismatched repair of DNA. And then, there’s another set of targeted treatments called “PARP inhibitors” for certain sets of patients who have alterations in genes involved in homologous recombination repair of DNA.

So, that’s all very complicated, and so that’s why it’s important to get treated with high-volume providers of prostate cancer patients so that they’re really aware and onboard with these various treatment options that are available.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Where do clinical trials fit in?

Dr. Choudhury:       

So, clinical trials can fit in anywhere along the treatment trajectory for prostate cancer. It’s not something that’s reserved for kind of late-stage disease. So, for example, for people with localized disease, there are different types of treatment strategies that might be available to maybe enhance the activity of the surgery or the radiation that’s planned. And so, we might consider a clinical trial even for localized prostate cancer.

And then, anywhere along the way, there are standard treatments that are available, and then, there are some experimental approaches that might be available. And the experimental approaches might be to add an additional drug to the standard or to actually – what we call “deescalate treatment” – give a little bit less of the medication and see if the outcomes are the same. And these are tests.

And so, the control arm, when there’s a randomized trial, is generally considered a standard of care. And then, the experimental arm is some alteration or deviation from that standard. But many of our trials are also single-arm trials where we’re testing some experimental regimen that all patients who participate in the trial will take part in, and it’s really important for the patient to ask, “What are the clinical trials available?” “What are the alternatives as far as standard treatments?” and “Are there other clinical trials other than the one that’s being discussed,” that might be appropriate for them?

Katherine:                  

Are there emerging approaches that patients should know about?   

Dr. Choudhury:        

Yeah. So, a lot of the emerging approaches are related to the genetics of the prostate cancer, as I just mentioned. And then, these different forms of radiation drugs – in addition to the ones that have already demonstrated survival advantage, there are other ones in the pipeline. And then, one thing that patients are very curious about is immune therapy approaches to prostate cancer.

Now, the standard kind of immune therapy drugs that are approved for lung cancer, and melanoma, and kidney cancers don’t tend to work particular well for prostate cancer. But there are many clinical trials trying to combine those kinds of drugs with other drugs or have newer approaches to immune therapies that patients with advanced cancer can certainly ask about.

Again, all of this is really experimental, and people need to understand that these sorts of approaches aren’t going to help everyone. But participating in a clinical trial allows our patients to contribute to knowledge that can be useful for other patients down the line.

Katherine:                  

Right. Now that we’ve delved into the types of treatment, let’s talk about what goes into deciding on an approach. What do you typically consider when determining the best treatment approach or option for a patient?

Dr. Choudhury:   

So, the starting point and the ending point is the patient themselves. And so, “the patient” means “What is their age? What is their fitness level? What are their activities? What’s the overall life expectancy? What are there other medical issues?” And then, we consider the cancer – “What is the stage? What is the grade? Where has it spread to, if it’s spread?”

And then, we try to incorporate all of those pieces with data – with clinical trials that have already been reported – and we have a lot of data in prostate cancer from patients who’ve participated in clinical trials, often randomized to one approach versus another, that gives us a sense of “What are the approaches that really benefit patients in terms of increasing likelihood of cure or prolonging the survival?”

And so, once we incorporate all of those things, we can come up with some treatment suggestions, and then patient preference on those suggestions obviously plays a very important role. But sometimes, we start down a line, and the patient is having troublesome side effects or it’s not working as well as we’d really hoped, and it’s important to be adaptive and to change things if things are not going down a route that we’d really hoped. So, that’s an ongoing conversation. It’s not that you make a treatment plan at the first visit and that’s the plan that’s stuck with throughout the whole course of things.

It’s a conversation at every visit on how things are going in terms of how the patients are doing and how the cancer is responding. And then, again, try to manage side effects as well as we can and adjust things if we need to along the way – and maybe switch to something that’s potentially going to be better tolerated or more effective, depending on what we see.

Katherine:                  

Right. It sounds like there are many factors to weigh when making this decision. I’d like to address a list of common concerns about treatment that we’ve heard from the community. So, I’d love to get your take on these. “There’s nothing that can be done about advanced prostate cancer.” Is that true?

Dr. Choudhury:           

So, that is very much untrue in that even patients with pretty advanced prostate cancer – even what we call “high-volume” kinds of prostate cancer – can live for years, and years, and years with appropriate treatments.

And the concern, oftentimes, is that the way that we get those years, and years, and years are with treatments that lower levels of testosterone, and I’m guessing that some of your questions coming up are related to concerns around side effects of treatment. But many of our patients tolerate those side effects pretty well and can live quite a good, and vigorous, and fulfilling life even with pretty advanced prostate cancer.

Katherine:                  

The next one: “Clinical trials are a last-resort treatment option.”

Dr. Choudhury:   

Yeah, so, as I’d mentioned before, clinical trials can be appropriate anywhere along the treatment trajectory of prostate cancer, and they are often being compared against standards which are often pretty good, but can we make them better? And certainly, participating in clinical trials isn’t for everyone, but for a long of our patients who are interested in seeing if an experimental approach might be beneficial to them or contributing some knowledge to patients down the line really do find trial participation to be quite fulfilling.

Katherine:                  

All right. The next one is: “Prostate cancer isn’t genetic, so I don’t need to be tested.” Is that the case?

Dr. Choudhury:        

No. So, it turns out that prostate cancer is actually one of our most heritable cancers. Somewhere between 40% and 50% of the predisposition to prostate cancer is actually genetic, or inherited based on family. So, the part that’s tricky and the part that is hard to maybe explain to patients is that a lot of that heritability is not encompassed in particular cancer genes in the way that many people are familiar with with breast and ovarian cancers, which are often linked to genes called “BRCA-1” and “BRCA-2.” So, a small subset of patients with prostate cancer do have alterations in that BRCA-2 gene, or BRCA-1, or ATM, or some other genes involved in breast and ovarian cancers.

And that does impact, potentially, their treatments down the line, and certainly is impactful for themselves, their siblings, their children as far as, potentially, screening recommendations for other cancers. But oftentimes, we’ll do one of these tests in patients who have a pretty extensive family history of prostate cancer, and they come out negative, and the patient is very confused because they clearly have a family history, but it’s because not all the risk of prostate cancer is actually encompassed in these gene tests that we run.

Katherine:                  

Ah, okay. The next concern is “I’ll lose all sexual function when I receive treatment.”

Dr. Choudhury:         

So, it very much depends exactly what the treatment is, and what’s being offered, and what the recovery is like.

So, for example, for patients who go into a prostatectomy and have very good erectile function, it’s not inevitable that you’ll lose your sexual functioning after a prostatectomy. There is a process – we kind of refer to it as “penile rehab” – of using medications like a Viagra or Sialis to restore the blood flow. You could use certain things like vacuum pump devices to restore the blood flow, and again, it’s not inevitable that people are going to lose their sexual functioning after a prostatectomy.

Even with testosterone suppression, while it plays a role in libido and erectile function, it’s not inevitable that people lose their libido and erectile function completely, even on these drugs. But certainly, more often than not, people will lose their erectile function on testosterone-lowering medications.

And so, there are alternative ways to get erections – involving, again, use of vacuum pump devices or injections that people can give themselves into the penis. People can have penile implant surgery to be able to get erections that way. And so, it’s really dependent on what the situation is.

Again, none of those more mechanical interventions are really ideal, but particularly when people have a defined course of treatment – for example, a surgery or radiation with a brief course of hormones – people can recover erectile function even after those sorts of interventions. And if they can’t, then we do have other approaches that will allow people to still be able to be sexually intimate with their partner after all of the treatments are completed.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Choudhury, one more concern: “My symptoms and side effects can’t be managed.”

Dr. Choudhury:           

Yeah. So, again, it’s very rare that we run into situations where there are side effects or symptoms that can’t be managed at all, in the sense that we have very effective medications against hot flashes, or moodiness, or pain, or –just fatigue. And certainly, lifestyle plays a big role in this. Also, a lot of the symptoms that people express are related to underlying depression and anxiety issues, and certainly, engaging with a mental health provider can be helpful in terms of managing those as well.

And then, there’s a lot of nonpharmacologic treatments – meaning nonmedication approaches that can provide people a lot of benefit in terms of their quality of life, and we have an integrative center called the Zakim Center for Integrative Medicine that helps with the relaxation techniques, and massage, and yoga, and acupuncture…

And people find different approaches to help manage these symptoms and side effects. And so, it’s very unusual where we run into a situation where the side effects are unbearable and unmanageable. Usually, we can manage them in some form of way that allow people to have, again, a good quality of life and a meaningful life, even on prostate cancer treatment.

Katherine:                  

Thank you, that’s really helpful. I’d like to talk about the term “shared decision making.” What does that mean to you, exactly?       

Dr. Choudhury:   

So, shared decision-making really means that when the physician conveys information to a patient, that the patient really understands what’s being said, and what, really, the alternatives are – and the real risks and the benefits of the different alternatives. And so, if a patient goes to see a surgeon and they say, “Well, we should take this out,” and there’s never really discussion of what the risks and benefits of the alternatives are –and the alternatives could be just watching, or radiation, or even more intensive treatment, then that’s not really shared decision making.

But what I think is not exactly shared decision making is when the patient is getting information from really non-knowledgeable or non-reputable sources and then starts to come up with conclusions based on hearsay or people trying to sell them a product that really hasn’t been FDA approved or really tested. And so, those are situations where when the information is really not good, then we can run into troubles with communications. But there are a lot of really excellent sources for patient information that’s available, and the Prostate Cancer Foundation is a really good source, and a lot of the academic prostate cancer centers are really great sources of information.

And so, being educated and asking good questions is really the best way for a patient to feel comfortable that they’re not missing anything and that they’re, again, having all the information that they need to make a good choice for themselves.

Katherine:                   

Do you have any advice to help patients speak up if they’re feeling like they’re not being heard?

Dr. Choudhury:           

Sure. So, I mean, there’s never any barrier to bringing up concerns with whoever that you’re seeing, and if you feel like whoever you’re talking to isn’t being receptive to those concerns, then certainly, second opinions are very useful. But if you see multiple doctors and they’re kind of telling you the same thing based on good evidence, then you probably have to take in what they’re saying, and process it, and see if it really does apply to your particular situation.

But any cancer doctor who really has your self-interest in mind will be very open to discussing the concerns that you have, so you should absolutely bring them up.

Katherine:                  

To close, Dr. Choudhury: What would you like to leave the audience with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Choudhury:          

Yes. I’m actually incredibly hopeful. There’s been such a transformation in our diagnosis and management of prostate cancer compared to when I first started as an independent attending back in 2012. In the last ten years, there’s been so many new treatments that’ve been approved in the last decade and a lot of newer technologies available for staging patients – really finding where their prostate cancer is.

And newer technologies for treating the cancer wherever it is and in a really smart way. And so, we can really individualize our treatments for the patient that’s in front of us being a bit more intensive for people with higher-volume or higher-risk cancers, and actually potentially being able to back off treatment, and actually stopping some of the testosterone-lowering drugs in patients who are responding exceptionally well to the medications and the local treatments that we’re giving them.

And then, also, I’m really hopeful about the newer treatments and newer technologies that are on the horizon. We have newer – what we call “molecularly targeted agents.” We have new approaches involving immune therapies that are being tested – newer radiation approaches. And I feel like all of this put together allows us to, again, satisfy the goal of maintaining patients’ good, healthy, meaningful quality of life moving forward.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Choudhury:           

Oh, you’re welcome. It’s so wonderful to have this opportunity.

Katherine:                  

And thank you to all of our partners. Please continue to send in your questions to Question@PowerfulPatients.org, and we’ll work to get them answered on future programs. To learn more about prostate cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit PowerfulPatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for being with us today.

What Do You Need to Know About Metastatic Breast Cancer Genetic Testing?

What Do You Need to Know About Metastatic Breast Cancer Genetic Testing? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Why is it important to ask about metastatic breast cancer genetic testing? Find out how test results could reveal more about YOUR breast cancer and could help determine the most effective treatment approach.

See More From INSIST! Metastatic Breast Cancer

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What Questions Should Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients Ask Before Starting a Treatment Plan?


Transcript:

Why should you ask your doctor about metastatic breast cancer genetic testing?

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network – also known as the NCCN – recommends that every metastatic breast cancer patient undergo genetic testing. The test results can help predict how your cancer may behave and could indicate that one type of treatment is more effective than another.

This testing identifies specific gene mutations, proteins, chromosomal abnormalities, and/or other molecular changes that are unique to YOU and YOUR breast cancer.

There are two main types of genetic tests used in breast cancer:

  • Germline or hereditary genetic testing, which identifies inherited gene mutations in the body. These mutations are present from birth, can be shared among family members and be passed on to subsequent generations.
  • The second is somatic or tumor genetic testing, which identifies markers that are unique to the cancer itself. It is also commonly referred to as genomic testing, biomarker testing, or molecular profiling. Somatic mutations are NOT inherited or passed down from family member to family member.
  • Depending on your history, your doctor may order one–or both–of these types of tests.

So why do the test results matter?

  • If you have specific gene mutations – such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 inherited gene mutations – it could indicate that a targeted treatment approach may be the most effective option. For example, there are two oral targeted therapies that are approved specifically for use in metastatic patients with BRCA1-positive or BRCA2-positive breast cancer.
  • Results of these tests may also help you to find a clinical trial that may be appropriate for your particular cancer.
  • Additionally, results from germline genetic testing may suggest that close family members should also be tested to determine their risk.

How can you insist on the best breast cancer care?

  • First, always speak up and ask questions. Remember, you have a voice in YOUR breast cancer care.
  • Ask your doctor if you have had–or will receive–genetic testing, including germline and somatic testing.
  • If you have already undergone genetic testing, bring a copy of your results to your current doctor, so they can understand your results and determine whether additional testing is needed.
  • Have a discussion with your healthcare team about the test results – including which markers were detected and how results may impact your care and treatment plan.
  • Ask whether your family members should meet with a genetic counselor or undergo testing to help gauge their risk of developing breast cancer.
  • And, finally, bring a friend or a loved one to your appointments to help you process and recall information.

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

Healthcare and Genetic Testing

Leading up to the NORD’s Rare Diseases and Orphan Products Breakthrough Summit on October 18 – 19, we interviewed NORD’s Director of Policy, Heidi Ross.


Please tell us about yourself and your work at NORD

My name is Heidi Ross, and I am the Director of Policy at the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). My job at NORD involves working at the state and federal level to ensure laws are in place so patients have access to affordable, quality health care coverage, including necessary health care providers, diagnostics, and treatments. I love getting to work with policy makers and advocates to ensure our health care system is meeting the needs of rare disease patients.

What is genetic testing and how does it impact people with a rare disease?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are an estimated 7,000 rare diseases and 2/3 of rare diseases are thought to be directly caused by changes in genes or chromosomes. Additionally, it takes on average 5-7 years for rare disease patients to get an accurate diagnosis. There are a lot of different types of genetic tests. Some tests only look for variations in one gene, but other genetic tests are more complex and can look at the entire genome for changes. For some rare disease patients genetic testing can be a useful tool for obtaining an accurate diagnosis and can assist health care providers in determining an appropriate treatment plan.

How can someone with a rare disease access genetic testing?

Patients should consult with their health care provider to determine if genetic testing would be helpful in the diagnosis of their condition.

How is genetic testing impacting health care costs for people with a rare disease?

The costs associated with genetic testing vary significantly, as does the out-of-pocket expenses for patients, depending on the type of genetic testing being conducted and the type of health care program or insurance a patient utilizes. However, the costs associated with a long diagnostic odyssey can also be significant for patients and the broader health care system, as patients suffer though unnecessary or unhelpful tests, treatments, or hospitalizations. The uncertainty can also take a significant toll on the mental health of patients and their loved ones.

Can you tell us more about the Healthcare System Savings with Genetic Testing breakout session?

This break out session is focused on Project Baby Bear, which was a $2 million pilot project to provide rapid whole genome testing to ill newborns eligible for care under California’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal. We have an amazing panel, including the state legislator, Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, who championed the creation of Project Baby Bear, Dr. David Dimmock from Rady Children’s Hospital, which was one of five hospitals who participated in the pilot, and Ms. Christy Moore from Blue Shield of California, which has expanded coverage of rapid whole genome sequencing for their plan participants.

According to the final report on Project Baby Bear:

“The pilot project to expand access to rapid whole genome sequencing provided diagnoses for 76 babies, led to a change in the management of 55 babies that resulted in fewer hospital days, fewer procedures or new therapies, and diagnosed 35 rare conditions that occur in less than one in one million births. In addition, the project reduced healthcare costs and downstream spending, primarily by empowering doctors to eliminate unnecessary procedures and discharge babies sooner, resulting in an estimated $2.5 million in health care savings.

For patients specifically, access to the results of rapid whole genome sequencing through Project Baby Bear led to 513 fewer days in the hospital, 11 fewer major surgeries and 16 fewer invasive diagnostic tests.”

As a result of Project Baby Bear, the insurer Blue Shield of California is now providing coverage for rapid and ultra-rapid sequencing of babies and children who have life-threatening and unexplained medical conditions. Furthermore, this year, California’s budget included significant funding for a whole genome sequencing benefit for Medi-Cal eligible children. Attend the session on Monday, October 18 to learn more about this incredible pilot program.

What are looking for to the most during the Rare Diseases and Orphan Products Breakthrough Summit?

The variety of panels and the expertise of the various speakers makes for a compelling Summit, even in a virtual setting. It is always exciting to learn more about the research and development of new diagnostics and treatments for rare diseases, because I know the hope that they give to many rare disease patients. The Summit is also a great chance to learn about rare disease challenges and opportunities and what they mean for public policy, both now and in the future. Registration is still open! We hope to see you next week.

What Do Prostate Cancer Patients Need to Know About Genetic Testing?

What Do Prostate Cancer Patients Need to Know About Genetic Testing? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 What should men with prostate cancer know about genetic testing? Expert Dr. Tomasz Beer explains inherited mutations versus cancer-specific mutations and discusses the roles they can play in the development of prostate cancer.

Dr. Tomasz Beer is Deputy Director at OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. Learn more here: https://www.ohsu.edu/people/tomasz-m-beer-md-facp.

See More From INSIST! Prostate Cancer

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Prostate Cancer Treatment Decisions: How Do Genetic Test Results Impact Your Options?


Transcript:

Katherine:

Excellent. Let’s talk a bit about genetic testing and the role it plays in prostate cancer. I’d like to start by defining a few terms that are often confusing for patients. First of all, what is a somatic mutation?

Dr. Beer:                     

Well, so let’s first start with what is a mutation. So, we all have DNA that is the code of life in every cell in our body in the nucleus of the cell, and that is where all of the encoding for all the genes that then identify the proteins that make up our cells in our body exist. A mutation is a change in the sequence of that gene of that DNA, a missing letter, or a letter that’s been replaced by another letter, that can lead to a faulty protein being made. Sometimes, a mutation can cause a protein to be activated inappropriately.

Otherwise, we can see situations where the protein is silenced and inactive when it’s needed. So, those are mutations. Now, somatic mutations occur in a cancer. The person does not carry those mutations in their genome. They’re not passed along to their children or inherited from their parents. They happen in the cancer itself, and that’s the nature of cancer. Many cancers have a propensity to accumulate mutations, and so, a somatic mutation represents a cancer-specific mutation.

Katherine:                  

What then is the difference between somatic and a germline mutation?

Dr. Beer:                     

Yeah. So, germline is an inherited mutation. That is a mutation that is in the genetic code that that individual is born with, almost always inherited from their parents.

And I say almost always because in rare circumstances, a new mutation emerges in the fetus and becomes a germline mutation, but almost always this is a mutation that’s inherited.

And an important thing to understand about those is that because it’s in the germline, in the parent DNA, that mutation is present in every cell in the body of that human being, including the eggs and sperm, and that’s how it’s then transmitted to the next generation. Those germline mutations, they predispose people to cancer, can turn out to be deleterious and can lead to the development of cancer, typically when an additional mutation develops, and the two together team up to begin the process of cancer development.

Why Should You Ask Your Doctor About Prostate Cancer Genetic Testing?

Why Should You Ask Your Doctor About Prostate Cancer Genetic Testing? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Why is it genetic testing important when it comes to prostate cancer care? Learn how test results could reveal more about YOUR prostate cancer and may indicate that one treatment may be more effective than another.

See More From INSIST! Prostate Cancer

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Transcript:

Why should you ask your doctor about genetic testing?

The test results may predict how your prostate cancer will behave and could indicate that one type of treatment may be more effective than another type.

Genetic testing identifies specific gene mutations, proteins, chromosomal abnormalities, and/or other molecular changes that are unique to YOU and YOUR prostate cancer.

There are two main types of genetic tests used in prostate cancer:

  • Germline or hereditary genetic testing, which is conducted via blood or saliva and identifies inherited gene mutations in the body. Germline mutations are present from birth and can be shared among family members and passed on to subsequent generations. Results can identify whether you could be at risk for another type of cancer or if your family members may need genetic counseling and testing to guide their own cancer risk.
  • The second is somatic or tumor genetic testing, which is performed through testing tumor tissue or by testing cancer cells/DNA extracted from blood to identify gene mutations that are unique to the cancer itself. It is also commonly referred to as genomic testing, biomarker testing, or molecular profiling. Somatic mutations are NOT inherited and are NOT passed on to subsequent generations or shared among family members.
  • Depending on your history, your doctor may order one–or both–of these types of tests.

So why do the test results matter?

Both germline and somatic mutation testing can identify the presence of certain genetic mutations that may help to guide your treatment plan, and germline testing specifically can inform cancer risk for you and, potentially, family members.

  • In some cases, mutations can indicate that a newer approach, such as targeted therapy or immunotherapy, may work better for you.
  • Results of these tests may also help you to find a clinical trial that may be appropriate for your particular cancer.
  • And, genetic testing results could also show that your cancer has a mutation or marker that may prevent a certain therapy from being effective, sparing you from getting a treatment that won’t work well for you.

How can make sure you have had essential biomarker testing?

  • First, always speak up and ask questions. Remember, you have a voice in YOUR prostate cancer care.
  • Ask your doctor if you have had or will receive genetic testing, including germline and somatic testing, and how the results may impact your care and treatment plan.
  • Ask whether your family members should meet with a genetic counselor or undergo testing to help gauge their risk of developing prostate cancer.
  • And, finally, bring a friend or a loved one to your appointments to help you process and recall information.

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

Which Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know

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

What do you need to know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR metastatic breast cancer? Expert Dr. Jane Meisel reviews recent research news, discusses the role of key tests–including biomarker testing –in determining a treatment plan, and shares advice for self-advocacy.

Jane Lowe Meisel, MD is an Associate Professor of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Meisel, here.

[Editor’s Note: On August 23, 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for individuals 16 years of age and older.]

Download Program Guide

See More From INSIST! Metastatic Breast Cancer

Related Resources:

 

What Could Advances in Breast Cancer Research Mean for You?

How Can You Advocate for the Best Breast Cancer Care?

Factors That Guide a Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Decision

 


Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. In today’s webinar, we’ll discuss how you can access the most personalized metastatic breast cancer therapy for your individual disease and why it’s vital to insist on key testing. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few more important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials.

If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link to a program survey. Please take a moment to provide feedback about your experience today, in order to help plan future webinars. And finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember, this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team – Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.

All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining us is Dr. Jane Meisel. Dr. Meisel, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely and thank you so much for having me. My name is Jane Meisel and I’m a medical oncologist at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. I’ve been here for about six years and before that, I did my training in Boston and at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York. And I specialize in breast cancer and have had a lot of great opportunities to treat amazing patients and participate in a lot of research.

And I’m looking forward to having this discussion with you today.

Katherine:

Thank you for joining us, we really appreciate it. So, let’s start by discussing the latest developments in treatment and research updates. Are there recent developments you feel breast cancer patients should know about?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely and I think it’s really been such a remarkable time because even during COVID, a pandemic, where I think a lot of people worried that research efforts would shut down or stall. We’ve still seen the approval of a number of drugs in the past year that’ve really already markedly changed lives. And a lot of important findings that’ve come out of other trials that they have opportunity to do that as well.

I think some of the biggest information that was presented at our most recent large meeting, which was the American Society of Clinical Oncology, or ASCO National Meeting in 2021, were a few things that pertain to the metastatic breast cancer population. One was two studies, the PALOMA-3 Trial and the MONALEESA-3 Trial, which looked at a class of drugs called CDK4-6 inhibitors along with anti-estrogen pills in metastatic estrogen-positive breast cancer.

And really confirm for patients that not only do these drugs improve the amount of time that people can stay on treatment before their cancer progresses, but actually improve how long people live. Even when they’re used very, very early on in treatment, they impact survival down the line for many, many years. So, it really confirms for physicians like me that this class of drugs should be used as the standard of care and first line for patients with estrogen-positive stage IV breast cancer, and I think that’s important for patients to know. Along those lines, there a drug called sacituzumab govitecan, or Trodelvy, which is a much easier to say name.

Katherine:

Yes.

Dr. Meisel:

A new antibody drug conjugate in triple-negative metastatic breast cancer. And we’ve also seen, since this drug was approved last year, it has markedly changed the lives of many patients with triple-negative disease. And the study called the ascent trial, which is what led to that drug’s approval was studied further and some of these additional results presented at ASCO this year.

And found that this drug not only improves again, how long people get before they have to move on to another treatment, but actually improves how long people live as well, even when given later on in the course of therapy. So again, really encouraging use especially in triple-negative metastatic disease, which is hard to treat. And I think another study that’s really worth patients and doctors taking a hard look at, was actually a study that looked at patient outcomes and patient experience. This is a study that actually talked with metastatic patients and gathered their views on treatment related adverse effects.

Talked to patients about what adverse effects they were experiencing from drugs. How they managed those adverse effects. And found that most patients, over 90%, will be willing to talk about reducing the dose of drugs or changing dosing schedules, in order to improve quality of life. And I think that’s really important because a lot of times, the doses of drugs that get approved are the doses that are the highest doses that don’t cause extreme toxicity. But sometimes people can have effective, really good outcomes on lower doses and have much better quality of life.

And in metastatic breast cancer where really the goal often times is to help people live as long as they can, but also as importantly, as well as they can, be able to have those open-ended conversations between patients and doctors about what’s really impacting your quality of life now and how can we make that better is important. And this study I think really highlighted that both for patients and physicians, how important that back and forth is to having a successful outcome. Both in terms of how life is lived, but in terms of quality of that life.

Katherine:

Right. Right. How can patients stay up to date on developing research?

Dr. Meisel:

It’s so interesting because there is so much coming out and I think it can be hard to figure out what Phase I study that looks exciting is really going to become something, versus what really could be important in my treatment today. And what I always tell people is actually, the NCI website. So, the National Cancer Institute, has a phenomenal page looking at advances in breast cancer research. So, if you Google “NCI advances in breast cancer research,” there’s a great page that comes up. And it’s impressively up to date and I think very patient-friendly.

Breaks things down into early stage and metastatic and then in the metastatic section, talks about estrogen-positive, HER2-positive, triple-negative, which we can talk about more today but are the three big subtype of metastatic disease that dictate how we treat them. And then have links to all the different research updates and talk about what these drugs are, what the classes are and what the settings are in which they’re studied.

And so, I think that’s a really great first stop and then the links can take you to all different stuff that’s on the page that you might want to look into more in depth. And then also, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which is a phenomenal organization. They have a great website, too and if you click around on the website, you can see not only who they’ve donated money to that’s doing promising research, they also have podcasts, they have a blog with science and research news. I think that’s a really great site for patients to use to stay updated.

Katherine:

Let’s shift gears for a moment and talk about another time sensitive topic, COVID. Now that vaccines are available, are they safe and effective for breast cancer patients?

Dr. Meisel:

Yeah, I think the short answer to that is yes, absolutely. I’m encouraging all my patients, no matter what their treatment status is to go ahead and get vaccinated. And we are seeing now this third surge in COVID with cases rising all over the country, and really among unvaccinated populations. And with the delta variant being more transmissible, I think it’s all the more time, even if you haven’t considered vaccination up until now, to really go ahead and strongly consider getting a vaccine.

I think some of the hesitations that some of the people have talked to me about is that there were not a lot of active cancer patients, if any, included in the initial trials. And whereas that is true, it’s still the case that now, so many cancer patients have been vaccinated. We haven’t really heard about adverse effects in vaccination being something that’s higher in patients who have cancer who are on active treatment. I think the one challenge is, if you have a compromised immune system because of cancer treatment, there’s the possibility that you might not mount the same immune response to the vaccine as someone who doesn’t have cancer or isn’t getting active treatment.

So, while I would say yes, definitely get vaccinated, I would also at the same time encourage caution in saying, because you might not mount the same, 95 percent or whatever immune response, it may still be a good idea to wear a mask when you go to the grocery store, taking those precautions because no one really knows what’s coming and it’s better to be safe than sorry. But I think we will get a lot of information as the months go on about, do we need boosters? Who might need boosters more soon than others and some of that will get clarified for us, but my short answer would be yes, vaccines for all.

Katherine:

Excellent, that’s very helpful.

Dr. Meisel:

Thank you.

Katherine:

Since this webinar is focused on metastatic disease, would you define metastatic breast cancer for us?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely. And I think metastatic breast cancer is one of those terms that as doctors, we throw around a lot and often times don’t stop to check understanding as to what that means.

And what metastatic breast cancer is and means, is breast cancer that is spread outside of the breast and surrounding lymph nodes to another organ system. So, metastatic breast cancer, some of the most common places where it spreads are to the bone, to the skin, to the lungs, to the liver, to the brain. There are other places it can spread to. I’ve seen it on the ovaries, in the GI tract. But basically, when breast cancer spreads outside of the breast and surrounding lymph nodes to another organ system, that’s when we consider it metastatic.

Katherine:

How can a patient ensure they are getting an accurate diagnosis?

Dr. Meisel:

Another good question. And I think the most important thing when you’re considering whether or not you have a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is to get a biopsy of that metastatic site. So, you wouldn’t want to assume, just based on a CT scan that shows something in the bone that you have metastatic disease. Ideally, we would biopsy that spot or some spot that was indicative of metastatic disease to actually prove that there is metastatic cancer in that distant site.

Because sometimes it’s nothing. Sometimes you get scans and a little bone abnormality, maybe a scar from a prior fall. And then also, sometimes if it is metastatic, sometimes the breast cancer, the hormone receptor status, for example, can change from the primary site to the metastatic site. And that might impact treatment. So, it’s important to both get a metastatic biopsy to confirm diagnosis. And also, to understand what the treatment plan might be. And I think also for patients, just to make sure that you understand what your stage is, ask your doctor.

Say, what is my stage? Because sometimes doctors think people understand and they don’t actually, so checking that understanding is important. But if your doctor or provider is not actively checking your understanding, you can check it with them to make sure that if you are metastatic or have Stage IV disease, which is another way we define metastatic or talk about metastatic cancer, that you make sure you have the definition right.

Katherine:

Right, right. So, once someone has been diagnosed with metastatic disease, are there key tests that’re used to help understand how their disease may behave and progress?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely. So, I think the first thing as I said is that metastatic biopsy. Another thing that’s very important is understanding the hormone receptor status and the HER2 status of the breast cancer. And probably for a lot of you listening, if you have listened to metastatic breast cancer webinars before or maybe know someone or have had a diagnosis yourself, you’re well versed in this. But for some who may not be, I think a quick overview is maybe helpful. Breast cancer can be divided into three different subtypes. So, triple-negative, estrogen-positive or HER2-positive. And estrogen-positive breast cancer is the most common kind.

That tends to be driven by hormones and often treated with what we call, endocrine therapy. So, anti-estrogen pills, things like Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors are examples of that. And that’s one kind. And then there’s HER2-positive breast cancer, which is a type of breast cancer that over expresses a marker called HER2. And we now, since we know about that marker, have been able to develop a lot of different treatments that target HER2 selectively.

And can be used to treat that subtype. And then triple-negative is basically estrogen-negative, progesterone-negative and HER2-negative. And that type of breast cancer traditionally was treated essentially only with chemotherapy. But now we’ve had some breakthroughs, which we’ll talk about I think later in this program talking about immunotherapy and more targeted therapy for that. But those subtypes help determine how we treat patients. And it also can sometimes predict behavior.

I would say one of the other things that helps us predict behavior of metastatic disease is, if a patient had early-stage disease before, how quickly they developed metastatic disease. So, for example, someone who develops estrogen-positive metastatic breast cancer 12 years out from their original diagnosis is statistically more likely to have a slower progressing course of disease than someone who develops triple-negative metastatic disease very soon after their initial treatment. So, I would say that’s the primary thing we look at in terms of determining treatment plan and then predicting overall course.

Katherine:

Right. Well, let’s talk about treatment options for advanced disease.

Can you review the types of treatments available for metastatic breast cancer?

Dr. Meisel:

Absolutely. And what I’ll do is, I’ll give you a broad overview and then because there’s so much and this is such a rich environment, I mean, I give hour long lectures just about the treatment of metastatic triple-negative breast cancer to our fellows. So, there is so much meaty information here. But I’ll give an overview with some key buzzwords so then people can go look up things that matter more to them or interest them more. So, as I said, we start with thinking about, is this hormone receptor-positive or estrogen-positive breast cancer? Is this HER2-positive or is this triple-negative? And those factors really send us down different paths.

So, if someone is estrogen-positive, I had mentioned before the PALOMA and MONALEESA studies showing that CDK4-6 inhibitors, which is a class of drugs that the first one was approved in 2015 and then two others have been approved subsequently. So, relatively new drugs. But those drugs, which are pills, added to traditional anti-estrogen therapy which would be aromatase inhibitors or fulvestrant.

Are often great first-line options for these patients. And people can do well for years on just that alone, with estrogen-positive metastatic breast cancer. On average, about two years before people progress and need something new. And then after that, there are lots of trials ongoing looking at different ways in which an estrogen-positive breast cancer might progress on that regiment and how do we target that. So that there are multiple other anti-estrogen options down the line that people can use in estrogen-positive breast cancer before they need to even think about going on to something like chemotherapy.

So, really lots and lots of options for those patients, but probably starting with a CDK4-6 inhibitor plus anti-estrogen combination. And then in HER2-positive breast cancer, typically the first-line treatment would be what we call monoclonal antibodies directed at HER2. So, something like Herceptin and Perjeta, which you may have heard of. And often combined with chemotherapy. But again, this is one of those areas that is also very, I think the art of medicine is very important and patient dependent.

Some of these regiments depend a little bit on patient’s age and other medical problems and desires, whether to include chemotherapy along with that frontline anti-HER2 regimen. Or whether to think about something like anti-estrogen therapy if the patient is HER2-positive and estrogen-positive. And then there are a lot of other different things we’re also using in HER2-positive disease after patients progress on that initial therapy, so there are what we call, antibody drug conjugates, where a chemotherapy like drug is attached to an antibody that then brings the chemo to the HER2-positive cell and allows for chemotherapy penetration more directly.

And then a class of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors, which are oral drugs that get directed at HER2. So, another really exciting area to treat and a place where we’ve seen so many advances. And then in triple-negative breast cancer, I’d mentioned that chemotherapy has really been the mainstay of treatment historically because there weren’t great targets. But recently we’ve seen that immunotherapy, along with chemotherapy drugs like Keytruda, which you may have heard of.

Or atezolizumab, which is Mesenteric, can be used along with chemo and patients that overexpress a molecule called, PDL1. And that can actually include not just how long patients spend on the first treatment, but how long they live. So, we’re seeing a lot of triple-negative patients being great candidates for immune-based regimen now. And then for patients who have inherited a BRCA gene mutation, which many of you may have heard of. That gene mutation can actually predispose a triple-negative patient to be more receptive to a class of drugs called PARP inhibitors.

So, drugs like olaparib (Lynparza) or talazoparib (Talzenna) are new drugs that’ve been approved in the last couple of years in triple-negative metastatic breast cancer for patients who carry a BRCA1 mutation or BRCA2 mutation. And then there are also antibody drug conjugates in triple-negative breast cancer as well. The Trodelvy that’s been approved and then of course others that are in clinical trials currently. So, as you can see, it’s complex. I mean, the treatment of metastatic breast cancer is complicated. And so, it’s important I think to really be able to have a dialogue with your provider about what they’re recommending for you and why.

And I think there are often lots of options. And so, as much as you can make your doctor aware of what matters to you in terms of what side effects are you most afraid of or would you like most to avoid, what dosing schedules would be idea for your schedule for the rest of your life. So that you can deal with taking kids to school or the job that you’re currently working on or whatever, I think helps your doctor help you come up with the right regiment for you.

Katherine:

Yeah. Yeah. So, what factors are considered when deciding on the best treatment approach for an individual patient?

Dr. Meisel:

So, I think certainly the tumor type that we were talking about. Is it estrogen-positive or HER2-negative or HER2-positive? I think response to past treatments, both in terms of if someone has had metastatic disease for a long time and has had a few treatments already, how long did they respond to those treatments and how completely did they respond to those treatments. Did they have stable disease for a while or did their cancer actively shrink?

And then I think other than that, it would be some of the things I touched on. Side effect profiles. Do patients have pre-existing neuropathy from other chemotherapy? If so, maybe you want to avoid a regiment that causes more neuropathy. Schedule. Some patients, it’s really important to be on a certain schedule, as opposed to a different schedule. I think whether there are clinical trials available instead of whatever the standard of care regiment would be is also important.

Because for some patients who are interested in pushing the envelope or who might be a great candidate for a particular trial, if there is one that they’re a candidate for that’s not horribly inconvenient from a logistics standpoint, then trials I think are also a great option to consider. So, I think from an effectiveness standpoint, you want to think about the tumor type response to past treatments. And then potentially, if the patient has had, what we call genomic profiling, where the tumor has been sent for basically genomic analysis, to see what genes might be mutated in the tumor that could potentially drive a response to a newer, different therapy.

All those things can be taken into account as we think about the cancer. But then there is the patient specific factors, and I think those would be mainly side effects, schedule, clinical trials and desire or not to pursue those. And then, just what the patient’s perspective is on the plan that you’re offering them.

Katherine:

What is biomarker testing and how do results impact treatment options?

Dr. Meisel:

Great question. So, I think people often confuse germline mutations and somatic mutations. So, I’ll talk about that a little bit as we talk ab out biomarkers. So, I think biomarkers in general are factors within the tumor that allow us to make treatment decisions. So, if a biomarker in the tumor can predict response to a certain type of treatment, we want to know what that biomarker is so we can better treat the patient and more elegantly design a regimen. So, for example, having an estrogen-positive tumor, estrogen positivity is a biomarker suggestive of response to anti-estrogen treatments, which is why we give anti-estrogen therapy to ER-positive breast cancers.

But more recently, we’ve been able to move a little bit beyond estrogen, HER2- and triple-negative as our subtypes and think a little bit more in some patients about more sophisticated biomarkers. And that’s where somatic mutation testing comes in. So, there are germline mutations, which are inherited mutations that’re present in every cell in your body. So, for example, if your mother was a BRCA mutation carrier and based that BRCA mutation down to you, you would have a germline BRCA mutation. So, your cancer would carry a BRCA mutation, but so would every other cell you have.

And that’s a biomarker. That would make you a candidate for something like a PARP inhibitor. But in cancers, which the genes in the cancer have gone awry by definition, there are often other biomarkers within that tumor that may make you a candidate for certain treatments. And so, those mutations that arise in the cancer itself are called, somatic mutations. Those are mutations in the tumor, can’t be passed down to your offspring or anything like that and were not inherited by your parents. But mutations that’ve accumulated over time as these cancer cells have gone awry.

And so, genomic testing, or biomarker testing can be done often on a metastatic specimen. So, to be specific about it, say you had a metastatic breast cancer to the liver. You could have a liver biopsy done and that tissue from the liver biopsy could be sent for genomic testing. There are a lot of companies that do this and there are also some larger cancer centers that actually do in house testing for genomics. So, this testing can be done and what it does then is, it helps you determine, do you have a biomarker that predisposes you to a certain treatment.

So, if that metastatic liver tissues, for example contained high levels of PBL1 expression for example and you were triple-negative, that would say to your doctor, “Ooh, this is a great candidate for immunotherapy along with chemotherapy.” Or if you’re estrogen-positive, for example, and your tumor contains a mutation in the gene called PIK3CA and that might make you a candidate for a drug called, alpelisib (Piqray). So, these mutations could often be paired to a drug or treatment options, or sometimes to a clinical trial to allow patients to come take advantage of more targeted therapies.

That sometimes, because they’re targeted, have fewer side effects than drugs that are a little more discriminate.

Katherine:

Marie sent in this question prior to the program. Are there some genetic tests that’re more accurate than others?

Dr. Meisel:

That’s a good question. I would say most genetic testing platforms have been heavily vetted and approved by national organizations and laboratories that’ve been tested multiple times before they’re allowed to be marketed. So, I wouldn’t say that one genetic testing program is necessarily better than another. I think that any of the commercially available platforms that’re used are probably pretty accurate.

Katherine:

Okay. How does symptom management play into the treatment decision?

Dr. Meisel:

I was just going to add one thing to that, if that’s okay. I was going to say that I think it’s important when you’re using genetic testing platforms though to know what you’re testing for. So, there are some platforms that will just test for say, the three most common mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 that Ashkenazi Jews have.

And so, if you get that testing back and you’re negative, you might think oh, I don’t have a mutation in those genes. Well, we know from that testing, just as an example, is that you don’t have a mutation in those three alleles of that gene. But if you haven’t had full gene sequencing, you could have a mutation somewhere else in that gene. So, I would say all genetic testing that’s commercially available is probably pretty accurate. But it is important when you get testing done to know what you’re testing for and what you’re not testing for so you can interpret your results accurately. And genetic counselors, as well as your doctors can help you do that.

Katherine:

Right, right. Okay, I’m going to ask the question, this question again. How does symptom management play into the treatment decision?

Dr. Meisel:

I think symptom management is huge, because like I said and I tell this to all my patients at the outset of treatment that most of the time, metastatic breast cancer becomes a chronic diagnosis for a patient. You’re dealing with it, essentially like a chronic illness for the rest of your life. And you’re on some form of treatment for the most part, for the foreseeable future.

And so, making sure quality of life is as good as it can be is critically important. And I think symptom management is a huge part of that and we know that if we can treat and manage symptoms well, people can live better and often live longer because then they can stay on treatment for more extensive periods of time comfortably. And so, I always encourage patients, don’t be a martyr.

Don’t think you have to just bounce in here and tell me everything’s okay if it’s not okay. If you’re having symptoms and side effects from treatment, or from the cancer, I want to know about them so that we can really aggressively manage those symptoms just like we’re aggressively managing the cancer. A lot of times oncologists can do that on their own. We are pretty well versed in managing a lot of symptoms and side effects.

But a lot of times also, there are teams of doctors either who do palliative care or here at Emory, we call it supportive oncology where they are specially trained in things like pain management and managing more common side effects like nausea, constipation, diarrhea, appetite suppression, that can go along with cancer and with treatment.

And then they often will co-manage patients with us as well, just to make sure there’s that really strong focus on maintaining as much of a low symptom burden as possible.

Katherine:

So, you mentioned earlier, clinical trials. When should patients consider participating in a trial?

Dr. Meisel:

I think it’s a great question and I think the answer is really, almost any time. There are trials in every setting. So, I think one of the common misconceptions about clinical trials is that you really only should be in a clinical trial, or your doctor might only mention a clinical trial if they don’t have other options for you or if you’re really in stage. And I think that perception is changing. But I think the reality is that there are clinical trials in every setting.

So, we have clinical trails looking at prevention of breast cancer. Clinical trials looking to optimize early-stage treatment of breast cancer. Clinical trials looking at secondary prevention, so once you’ve had breast cancer, how can we reduce your risk of recurrence. And then lots of clinical trials in the metastatic setting both for patients who are initially diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.

And then in second, third, fourth line and even for patients who have had tons and tons of additional therapy that we’re looking at new drugs for. So, I think at almost any juncture where you’re making a treatment change, it’s probably appropriate to say, would there be a clinical trail that you can think of that would be good for me in this setting? And it may be that there’s a one that’s 12 hours away, and it’s not convenient for you or feasible.

And it may be that your doctor doesn’t necessarily know of one but then that prompts them to ask a colleague who may be more involved in clinical trial design and development. Or it may be that there is one, but you ultimately choose not to pursue it because you have a different option. But I think it’s always appropriate to ask, would there be a trail for me? Because if there is, then maybe that opens up an option you hadn’t thought about before.

Katherine:

Sure. For patients who aren’t familiar with the stages of clinical trials, would you give us a brief overview of the stages?

Dr. Meisel:

Yeah. Absolutely. So, in terms of clinical trials that’re being done in humans, we talk about Phase I, Phase II and Phase III typically. So, a Phase II clinical trial is typically an earlier stage trial.

Looking at either a drug that has not been tested in humans before or a drug that has not been tested in a particular combination in humans before. And so, those trials are done only in select institutions, usually academic institutions as opposed to private hospitals. And they often have what’s called a dose finding phase and then a dose escalation phase. So, the earliest part of those trials is actually looking at, what is the safest dose to give to patients?

So, they start the first patients at a low dose of the compound. And if those patients do well, the next patients that’re enrolled get enrolled at a slightly higher dose. And then up until they reach the highest dose they can find where people are tolerating it and doing reasonably well. And in those Phase I trials, doctors and investigators are also evaluating efficacy, is this drug working. But the primary goal of the early phase trial is actually to find the right dose to then study in larger groups. And so, if they find the right dose and there’s good biological rationale for the compound, then the trial would go on to a Phase II.

Which might be just what we call single arm Phase II study, where every patient is getting that experimental drug. And we monitor them to see, is the drug effective, or is it less effective than the standard of care? Or sometimes they’re what we call, randomized Phase II trials where patients are randomized to either get the experimental drug, or to get what the standard of care would be in that situation. I think a lot of people get afraid about the idea of a randomized trial because they’re afraid they’re going to be randomized to a placebo. And that is really not done in the metastatic setting, because it wouldn’t be ethical to give a patient with active cancer a placebo.

So, usually the randomization would be either to the study compound or to a standard of care drug. And then if things look good in a Phase II trial, then a Phase III study is done which is usually what the FDA requires to allow a drug to go on and be administered outside of a study for approval. And those Phase III trials tend to be larger studies that’re done in larger groups of patients with more statistical validity because of their size, to determine, is this drug really better than the standard.

Katherine:

Right. We have another question we received earlier, this one from Eileen. She asks, how will I know whether my treatment is working?

Dr. Meisel:

That’s a really good question. So, I think for patients who have symptoms from their cancer, they often will know the drug is working because their symptoms improve. Say if you have lung metastases and you are short of breath and your shortness of breath gets better. That’s a really good sign that the treatment is working. I would say that often what we are doing, and it depends a little bit on the regimen and what the patient is getting and how often they’re coming in.

But we’re checking labs as well and sometimes there are lab abnormalities when a patient is diagnosed with metastatic cancer that can then improve over time. So, for example, if someone has a heavy burden of bone involvement with breast cancer, there’s a lab value called the alkaline phosphatases that will often be elevated. If that starts elevated and comes down, that’s a really good sign. And some of their liver function tests that we check and if a patient has liver metastases, we often will see those come down if a patient is responding.

There are also, what we call tumor markers that we can check in patients with metastatic breast cancer. Those would be proteins in the blood basically that can be made by the breast cancer in abundance. And those are called CA27-29 and CA15-3. Some doctors check both of them. Some will just check one depending on which one their laboratory at their institution is running. But typically, I will check those at diagnosis of metastatic disease. And then if it’s elevated, I know it’s a good marker to follow for my patient. And then I’ll follow that monthly or every three weeks, depending on when the patient is coming in to see me.

And if I see that marker start to go down, it’s not an absolute, but it can be a good early indicator of improvement with the treatment. And then I think it varies a little bit from practice to practice and based on patient preference. But often there will be scans done when a patient is initially diagnosed to determine the extent of the disease. So, usually a CT scan of the chest and the abdomen and the pelvis or a PET scan, which some of you may have heard of. Either one of those is good.

And that can be done about every 12 weeks usually in the beginning, to make sure a patient is responding and once you feel confident that they are, those can be done sell frequently. So, I would say the scans and the lab work and then the patient’s overall condition are usually the way that we look to see, are we having a response or not.

Katherine:

We’ve talked about several key tests. Some patients may be confused about whether they’ve received these tests. So, what questions should they ask their physician to make sure they’re getting appropriate testing?

Dr. Meisel:

I think it’s probably useful because not everybody needs every test, and I think there are often things you hear about online or from friends or even in a webinar like this, and there may be a good reason why you haven’t had that particular test. So, I wouldn’t assume that if you haven’t had everything that we’ve talked about today even, that someone’s made a mistake or that you need that and aren’t getting it. But I would ask. I think it’s always helpful to know more, knowledge is power. And so, if you have never had a CT scan or a CA27-29 level or a genomic testing.

I think it’s not a bad thing if you’re curious about it, to just ask your treating team, “Hey, I heard about genomic testing, is there a reason I haven’t had that? Or have I had that?” Maybe you have, and they called it something else. I think it is complicated, but I think it helps to understand what you’ve had done and what you haven’t had done. And sometimes, asking about something like that may prompt the team to do things that my benefit you.

Katherine:

Before we wrap up, Dr. Meisel, how do you feel about the future of breast cancer research and what would you like patients to know?

Dr. Meisel:

Yeah, I think one of the most important things and I actually said this to a family this morning where a loved one had received a new diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is that the field has evolved so much over the past five years. I think often when people get a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, it’s the most dreadful feeling they ever had. They remember that day for the rest of their lives. But we are seeing so many people do so well for so long now and tolerate treatments well because the treatments are better tolerated.

And there’s I think more attention being paid now to symptom management. That people really can do so much better than they’ve been doing. And I would say really, every year, even every six months, when I go to give a lecture on a topic in metastatic breast cancer, I can’t just give the same talk. I’m always having to update my slides because there’s so many new things coming out, so much new research on the table.

And we’re seeing so many new drug approvals now that we’re starting to unlock some of these new mutations and reasons for progression and understanding new drug classes. So, really think it is a bright time to be in breast cancer research, and there’s never been a better time to be a patient if you have to fall into that category.

Katherine:

It all sounds so promising, Dr. Meisel. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Meisel:

You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me.

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. Also, don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan future programs.

To learn more about breast cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit PowerfulPatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell, thanks for joining us.

 

How Does Genetic Testing Impact Prostate Cancer Care?

How Does Genetic Testing Impact Prostate Cancer Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Genetic testing has taken on a vital role in prostate cancer care. Expert Dr. Maha Hussain provides insight about genetics and biomarker testing, how results are used in determining treatment options, and key questions to ask to ensure the best care.

Dr. Maha Hussain is the Deputy Director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more about this expert here.

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Treatment Options for Advanced Prostate Cancer

Understanding Prostate Cancer Staging and Progression

How Do Genetic Mutations Impact Prostate Cancer Treatment Options


Transcript:

Katherine:

Many patients are confused about the role of genetics and biomarker testing in prostate cancer care.

For people who haven’t heard of some of these terms before, let’s go into the definitions. So, what is genomic or biomarker testing, first of all?

Dr. Hussain:

So, I think there’s one thing. Maybe I can explain because the wording can be confusing. So, there is the genetics, and there is the genomics. The genetics would be what we inherit from our families. So, this would be present in our body. The genomics testing would be to look for what the structure of the genes of the cancer itself, cancer cells itself. Now, that doesn’t mean that this was inherited. It’s just that this is a renegade, and it evolved. And that is what is going to show up.

The reason these two are important, both of them have implications potentially for treatment or perhaps clinical trials. And again, with the PARP inhibitors, the BRCA-like genes will have implications for treatment sort of for resistance cancers.

With regard to the genetics, the implications are for, again, inheritance of family and potential risk for blood relatives. Now, there are panels that are FDA-approved for the purpose of genetic testing. And the requirement or the indications right now, anybody who presents with metastatic disease or an aggressive disease and diagnosis, the recommendation is to proceed with the genetic testing, certainly counseling and testing, because there are some people who prefer not to be tested. And that’s something else.

What I tell my patients is this, even if the testing is done and it was negative for inherited genes that might put the patient family at potential higher risk, the fact that a person has prostate cancer by default puts potential, adds risks to family, to blood relatives.

And the risks aren’t just for the males with regard to prostate cancer, but certainly breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer potentially, and things of that sort. So, this is where I think a patient needs to be discussing with their doctors. And certainly, there are many centers that have genetics counselor, and so that’s where I generally refer my patients to. I counsel them myself, and then refer them also for more discussions with genetics counselor.

Katherine:

What exactly are genetic mutations? And how do they impact a treatment path?

Dr. Hussain:

Well, I think, again, it’s the changes that happens in specific genes that may promote the aggressiveness of a cancer. And so, the BRCA gene is one of the oldest genes that have been identified in breast cancer. And essentially, the body regulates itself.

And when cancer cells come up and they sort of – the body no longer sustains that regulation, the genetic regulation in those cancer cells. Those cancer cells will behave the way they want to. That means that they’re going to grow faster. That means they could be resistant to treatment and things like that. And so, that’s what we check for, these alterations. And there are certain medications that would allow – and again, in prostate cancer, it’s not a lot. It’s just, as I said, right now the only things that are proven is the PARP inhibitors. This is essentially to kind of gang over the cancer cell, preventing from allowing it to repair itself so it can continue to grow.

Katherine:

Some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests. So, for patients that aren’t all that sure, what key questions should they be asking their physician or their specialist?

Dr. Hussain:

So, I would say when it comes to the genetics testing, I believe a patient has to consent.

Because again, we live in the U.S., and this is a private matter for the patient. So, this generally has to be the case. Otherwise, depending on the institution, sometimes some tests will require for the overall testing for looking for any genetic alterations, general tumor alternation. Different centers have different things. But the patient should ask and say to their doctor, “Have my cancer genes been tested? Have my genes been tested? And if they have, what are the results?” Because we generally share with the patients once it’s been done.

The other things I should point out, some of the good things that have happened recently. Up until recently, when it comes to the tumor genomic testing, tissue was required. Nowadays, the FDA has approved blood tests that several companies now run that can actually collect blood sample and basically test it for circulating tumor cell genes there.

Now, no testing is 100 percent perfect. But in situations like patients with prostate cancer who may not have recent tissue or adequate tissue for testing, certainly doing the blood test to verify if there is anything reflective of the genes of the cancer, and that may allow for potential actionable-type treatments. Again, up until now, this is more going to apply for potential clinical trials or resistant metastatic disease.