Posts

AML Targeted Therapies, What’s Available and How Do They Work?

AML Targeted Therapies, What’s Available and How Do They Work? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

There are several targeted therapies approved for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Expert Dr. Ellen Ritchie provides insight about recent approvals, how these therapies work, and shares details about newer therapies currently being studied for the treatment of AML.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here.

See More From INSIST! AML


Related Resources:

 

Transcript:

Katherine:

You touched upon this earlier, but what targeted therapies or treatments are available for AML patients?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, there have been many recent FDA approvals of drugs that are targeted. One, is the FLT3 inhibitors. And the two that are available are Midostaurin, which is most commonly – was the first drug that was really added to intensive chemotherapy.

And clinical trials show that in those FLT3-positive population that patients had an overall better outcome if midostaurin (Rydapt) were added to intensive chemotherapy. There’s also a drug called gilteritinib (Xospata), and this drug is also a FLT3 inhibitor that was tested in patients who had refractory leukemia. They could either get real chemotherapy regimen or they could get gilteritinib. And it turns out in the FLT3-positive patients, the gilteritinib was superior to the strong chemotherapy. So that’s been approved for patients who have refractory, or disease that didn’t really respond to initial therapy, that is IDH – or is FLT3-positive.

Then there’s the IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors that have also been approved, and a small proportion of AML patients will be positive for IDH1 or IDH2 mutations.

The IDH1 inhibitor ivosidenib (Tibsovo), is available and can be used to treat patients if you know up front, they have an IDH1 inhibitor. So, that’s a regimen where the single agent can be used to treat an IDH1 mutated patient who’s newly diagnosed. Those patients are also eligible for many clinical trials now, where they’re combining that particular drug with other agents, in an effort to improve outcome. For IDH2 positive patients, there’s a drug called enasidenib (Idhifa). And this drug is used mainly in patients in the second line setting. But it specifically targets IDH2. And patients go into remission sometimes for a prolonged period of time. So, these drugs are FDA approved, and they’re treating targetable mutations.

TP53 mutations are a particularly bothersome mutation because it confers a poor outcome. And I’m happy to say that we have clinical trials now that are available that actually target TP53 mutations.

So, there are – there is therapy available for that type of mutation that was

not available before through the clinical trials. And I expect in coming years that we’re going to see more and more targeted therapies develop in AML which can be used potentially in combination with what we’re already using as backbones to enhance the outcome of patients with this disease.

Katherine:

Well, how do targeted therapies work?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, targeted therapies work on – it’s sort of complicated. The targets which are available, IDH or the FLT3 is really on the outside of the cell and it is a drug which is targeted directly to the FLT3 on the outside of the cell.

It works quite well in the peripheral blood, where you see the blast oftentimes disappear. The big concern always is how well it’s working getting deep into the marrow. But it’s looking at the target on the outside of the cell. IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors work on particular chemicals which are involved in the kreb cycle, and those of you that took high school chemistry may have memories buried in the deep parts of your brain of learning the kreb cycle. And this is a fundamental metabolic cycle inside cells, and if you have a mutation, an IDH1 or IDH2, you’re unable to go through that full kreb cycle in the appropriate way. And that is something that leads to you having a cancer, in this case AML. So, these drugs actually interfere with what’s happening in that kreb cycle, and allow you to make more normal cells.

Factors to Consider When Choosing an AML Treatment

Factors to Consider When Choosing an AML Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What test results and factors should be considered when choosing an acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment? Expert Dr. Ellen Ritchie explains how test results impact AML prognosis and treatment – and other factors that come into play when determining a treatment approach.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here.

See More From INSIST! AML


Related Resources:

 

Transcript:

Katherine:

How do the results of these tests affect prognosis and treatment?

Dr. Ritchie:

Well, when a patient has AML, if they are a fit patient, if it will help us determine after initial induction, whether to cure the patient we need to do a bone marrow transplant, or we can just continue with chemotherapy.

And those are really important things to determine. So, if you have a good prognosis AML, if you have an AML that has certain translocations like inversion 16 or 821, or if you have a CEPBA mutation or you have an NPM1 mutation, and that’s all you have, you may do particularly well with chemotherapy treatment alone. And you won’t need to have a bone marrow transplant.

If you have certain other mutations, we know that the only way that we’re going to cure you, is with a bone marrow transplant. And if you are fit, when we finish induction and even as we’re doing induction, we’re preparing you for a bone marrow transplant down the line.

One disadvantage, just to mention about the molecular testing, is it doesn’t come back as quickly as some of the other testing. So that you will have already started induction chemotherapy most generally before the mutational testing comes back. Which can be anywhere – depending upon the institution, between seven and 21 days. So, it takes time for those results to be available.

Katherine:

Outside of test results, Dr. Ritchie, what other factors should be considered when choosing treatment?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, you want to choose whether a patient is most likely to benefit from intense induction chemotherapy. With strong chemotherapies where the backbone of those therapies would be an anthracycline, like daunorubicin (Cerubidine) or cytarabine (Liposomal), or daunorubicin or idarubicin (Idamycin PFS), together with cytarabine. And these are intensive chemotherapies. Versus, non-intensive chemotherapy which is able to be done as an outpatient, more frequently. And it is something that is gentler for a patient, they’re less likely to have severe toxicity. And the backbone of those regimens is using a drug called azacitidine (Vidaza) or decitabine (Inqovi), together with a second drug called venetoclax (Venclexta).

So, these are the two backbones, there may be clinical trials or there may be targetable aspects of your leukemia, which drugs would be added to either of those backbones. But those are the two backbones. And I also like to identify those patients that may not benefit from chemotherapy at all. And so, it’s very important, I think to really get to know your patient. And I spend time with my patient, particularly on the first visit, to understand not only their physical health, but their mental health. How good is their cognition, what is their mood, are they depressed, or are they happy people? And what is their circumstance? Do they have people to support them? Do they live close to family? Is a caregiver able to come, with an elderly patient for example, to visits?

Those, and whether or not they’re living alone and need tremendous support. So that’s really important to determine and helps me to choose what the best therapy might be. And also, concurrently what I can do to shore up the patient to do better with whatever therapy that I’m giving them. I.e., if you’re depressed, let’s work on that, or if your blood pressure is too high, or if you are – your diabetes is out of control at the same time that I’m seeing you, to try and fix those particular problems. In older patients I often do sort of a miniature version of the geriatric assessment. And in trials that have been so far, the most important aspects of the geriatric assessment, are really what is your cognitive function? Do have a mild dementia, or do you not have a mild dementia? Because dementia may be or mild dementia may be associated with poorer outcome.

The other is, are you able to do what we call the incidental tasks of daily life. So, you know fundamental tasks are really brushing your teeth and combing your hair, and dressing yourself. But are you able to do your cooking and your shopping and your banking and those things? Patients who have trouble doing their cooking and shopping and banking, and those types of activities, that also has been associated with a poor overall survival in AML. So, it’s really important to determine all of those aspects and if there are any deficiencies, to really know that the only therapeutic choice for that particular patient would be a low-intensity therapy.

Understanding Personalized Medicine for AML

Understanding Personalized Medicine for AML from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What should you know before deciding on treatment for YOUR AML? AML specialist Dr. Ellen Ritchie reviews key factors that guide treatment choices, including biomarker testing results, and shares advice for partnering with your team to advocate for the best care.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here.

See More From INSIST! AML


Related Resources:

 

Transcript:

Katherine:

As we begin to talk about personalized therapy and AML, let’s start with the basics. How would you define personalized medicine?

Dr. Ritchie:

Personalized medicine, to me is really, it’s a difficult question. It’s trying to find the best treatment for a particular patient. And it’s looking at biologic issues, what kind of cancer, what type of AML is it, what are the specific mutations or chromosomal abnormalities. But it’s also looking at the person. Is the patient active or not active? Do they have lots of other diseases like diabetes and coronary artery disease? Or pulmonary disease, or are they completely healthy?

Or, do they have support at home? If they’re sick at home is there someone who can take care of them, versus a situation where you’re older and alone and you have no real family member to rely on. So, all of these things are very important in making a personalized decision as to how you treat a patient.

Where Do Clinical Trials Fit Into an AML Treatment Plan?

Where Do Clinical Trials Fit Into an AML Treatment Plan? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert Dr. Eunice Wang discusses the role that clinical trials play in advancing research, the benefits of participation in research, and explains why she recommends trials for AML patients. 

Dr. Eunice Wang is the Chief of the Leukemia Service and Professor of Oncology at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York. Learn more about Dr. Wang, here.

See More From Engage AML


Related Resources:


Transcript:

Katherine:

Where do clinical trials fit in when it comes to choosing treatment?

Dr. Wang:

Clinical trials are the mainstay of everything that we do in cancer care. Every single cancer drug that we’ve developed dating back into the 1970s at the National Institute of Health is the result of some patients and some doctors designing a clinical trial. These FLT3 inhibitors were developed over the last several years, so when I first came out of fellowship and started my training, we didn’t have these targeted therapies. Since 2017, in four years, we’ve had nine different drugs approved.

So, clinical trials are the way that we go from a finding in the laboratory to somebody having an extra birthday or going to their son or daughter’s wedding. That’s really how important it is, and those brave individuals who participate in clinical trials are helping not only themselves, but helping other people. I can’t tell you how many patients I enroll in clinical trials for AML, and I have told them – I said, “These nine drugs that we approved were because of nine different clinical trials which demonstrated benefit involving hundreds of thousands of patients.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a patient say to me, “Look, doctor, I’m going to participate in this clinical trial so that even if I’m not helped, you could learn something from me that could help the next person with their disease.” People are incredibly unselfish when it comes to clinical trials. I recommend a clinical trial for all my patients because I feel like that’s the cutting-edge clinical care.

I had patients here who I had on clinical trial drugs, and I was able to go to them and say, “Good news: Your drug has now been approved.” And, they say, “Doctor, why? I’ve been on this drug for a year.” And, I said, “That’s right, because you were part of that clinical trial, and you’re here now because of that drug, and now, a year or two later, that drug’s potency has been recognized, and now, the fact that you were in that trial has really helped us get this approval, which is going to help every other patient with that disease going down the line.” So, very important.

What Key Tests Do You Need Before Choosing an AML Treatment?

What Key Tests Do You Need Before Choosing an AML Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How do test results influence treatment choices for AML? Dr. Eunice Wang shares information about essential testing and explains how results aid in determining the best personalized treatment option for each patient.

Dr. Eunice Wang is the Chief of the Leukemia Service and Professor of Oncology at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York. Learn more about Dr. Wang, here.

See More From INSIST! AML


Related Resources:

 

Transcript:

Katherine:

What is the role of testing when deciding on treatment for AML?

Dr. Wang:

Testing is essential in us selecting and determining the best personalized treatment option for each individual patient. As you know, AML is an aggressive hematologic malignancy and can be devastating, both in its life-threatening nature and in its rapidity and the need for a rapid diagnosis. Testing, including both pathology results as well as protein marker testing, and, importantly in this day and age, DNA and RNA testing is essential because we have numerous different treatment options that could be available to the patient if their particular disease biology matches with the targeted therapies that we have.

So, as you may or may not know, since 2017, we’ve had eight or nine different therapies approved for AML, and this is a bonanza of options, some of which are only for specific biological subsets, and some even for specific patients, such as those above the age of 75. So, doing that testing, particularly that genetic testing, is important both in establishing the diagnosis and determining whether there is less toxic, more targeted, personalized treatment approaches, some of which involve low-dose chemo or even pills available to the individual patient.

Katherine:

You’ve answered this, in part, but which tests are essential following an AML diagnosis?

Dr. Wang:

I think all of them are essential, but in this day and age, for the selection of targeted therapy, it really is the mutational testing, which is looking at the RNA of the tumor cells and determining whether that has been altered in allowing the cells to express abnormal proteins. For standard chemotherapy, we also use DNA testing, which is looking at the different chromosomes and seeing whether there’s breakages or what we call translocations, pieces of chromosomes that have been swapped. That DNA chromosome information can give us some insight into prognosis and therapy response.

So, nowadays, it’s not just determining that you have acute leukemia, but looking at the specific DNA and RNA changes, and I have to say that this is a disease that we’re really not seeing any RNA or mutational changes occurring in more than 20 percent or 30 percent of patients. So all of the mutations that we see that could be impactful really don’t occur in more than 20 percent or 30 percent, and could only occur in five or one percent.

So, really, personalizing an individual patient’s disease, both for the disease biology as well as the person that’s getting the chemotherapy or the diagnosis, is really, really important.

Katherine:

Yeah. Let’s define a few terms that are often confusing for patients. What are biomarkers?

Dr. Wang:

Biomarkers are either proteins or expression levels on the cancer cells that can serve to tell us information about the biology of the disease. Okay, so, for example, if you have evidence of residual tumor proteins in your blood, that could be a marker, for example, of minimal residual disease, okay? And, that can tell you maybe one in a million cells have that biomarker, and then you can tell that those one-in-a-million cells are leukemia cells.

So, they’re any marker that we’re using that’s specific for the tumor that can help us in predicting or finding or locating or determining if a tumor would respond to a certain therapy.

Katherine:

What is biomarker testing?

Dr. Wang:

Biomarker testing can be done in many ways. For example, biomarker testing is drawing a sample from the patient and evaluating a marker that we think is going to predict for the disease type.

So, for example, in some cancers, we don’t want to biopsy the lung mass or the tumor mass every single time to see whether it’s shrinking, or getting smaller, or responding. So, in those patients, sometimes we’ll draw a blood sample, and we’ll look for a surrogate marker – some protein that’s expressed in the blood or some DNA or RNA in the blood that is a surrogate or a marker of the tumor so you don’t have to directly biopsy it.

In acute myeloid leukemia, we are looking for – like I said – particular cells in the blood that have particular proteins, and we measure those rather than going ahead and doing that bone marrow biopsy or biopsying those tumors. So, generally, in leukemia, it involves drawing blood samples – that’s the most common; it is a bloodborne disease.

Sometimes, we actually have to go into the bone marrow and do a bone marrow sample, but those biomarkers, as I said, can really improve our ability to detect very, very low levels of disease. So, for example, using a conventional bone marrow biopsy, we can only really detect 1 out of 200 cancer cells by normal – just by visual looking at, but by measuring biomarkers and mutations and other abnormal proteins, we can improve that to 1 in 100,000 cells.

So, really, these biomarkers are very sensitive and important because we want to detect the disease at a point where it’s very, very low. We don’t want to wait until the disease gets very advanced, in which case we think our therapies are less effective.

Katherine:

What is a genetic mutation?

Dr. Wang:

A genetic mutation is a mutation that occurs in the RNA of a cancer cell. That RNA dam – RNA aberration or abnormality does lead to different RNA – what we call transcript levels that lead to abnormal proteins.

Those proteins function in the cells to make a cell a cancer cell, okay? So, all cancer cells start out as normal cells, and as they acquire a mutation, they become a little less normal, and they start acquiring multiple mutations, and some of these mutations occur without DNA changes, some of them occur with DNA changes. And as these abnormalities occur, the cell gets more and more dysfunctional, and eventually, it starts becoming almost evil-ish.

It starts acquiring behaviors that are not normal, and then it starts to grow out of control, and that unchecked growth really is the end result of potentially many mutations occurring over time to drive that cell into becoming a cancer cell, and we call that process transformation, transforming from a normal, healthy-looking cell into almost a monstrous, cancer-like cell.

Katherine:

How do biomarkers affect AML treatment choices?

Dr. Wang:

So, those biomarkers, as I talked about, those mutations can determine what type of therapy patients can have. For example, up to 25 percent or 37 percent of newly diagnosed AML patients will have leukemia cells that carry the biomarker or the mutation in a gene called FLT3, or “flit.”

Those FLT3 cells can be inhibited by specific targeted therapies, including a drug called gilteritinib (Xospata), which is a pill which blocks mutant FLT3 expressed by AML cells. So, we’ve demonstrated, actually, in a randomized clinical trial that patients who have relapsed or recurrent AML who carry cells that have that biomarker – that FLT3 mutation – will actually do better if they take a daily pill – a FLT3 inhibitor – every single day for treatment of their aggressive acute myeloid leukemia than if we gave them low- or even high-dose chemotherapy in the hospital for four to six weeks.

So, that’s the power of those targeted therapies. Because the biomarker is telling you that there’s a sensitivity of that cancer cell to a specific blockage of that pathway, that can really dramatically change the course.

That is where the importance and the power of those biomarkers really goes into play. In the past, patients who had acute myeloid leukemia with FLT3 mutations did poorly with chemotherapy and had disease that came back even after multiple rounds of that intensive chemotherapy. The fact that we can give a pill and people could do better or even go to a bone marrow transplant off treatment with the pill is pretty remarkable.

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

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

What should you know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR AML? AML specialist Dr. Ellen Ritchie reviews key factors that guide treatment choices, including biomarker testing results, and shares advice for partnering with your team to advocate for the best care.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here: weillcornell.org/ekritchie.

Download Program Resource Guide

See More From INSIST! AML

Related Resources:

Expert Advice for AML Patients When Making Treatment Choices

Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized AML therapy for your individual disease, and why it’s essential to insist on key testing. 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 this webinar. 

Finally, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Ellen Ritchie. Dr. Ritchie, would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Ritchie:

Hello, my name is Dr. Ellen Ritchie, and I am an attending with a Leukemia service, and an assistant director since, for the last 15 years. 

And I treat mainly Acute Myeloid Leukemia, Myelodysplastic syndromes, which are kind of a pre-Leukemia; and Myeloproliferative diseases. And have a particular interest in the treatment of older patients with AML.  

Katherine:

Excellent, well thank you so much for joining us today. As we begin to talk about personalized therapy and AML, let’s start with the basics. How would you define personalized medicine? 

Dr. Ritchie:

Personalized medicine, to me is really, it’s a difficult question. It’s trying to find the best treatment for a particular patient. And it’s looking at biologic issues, what kind of cancer, what type of AML is it, what are the specific mutations or chromosomal abnormalities. But it’s also looking at the person. Is the patient active or not active? Do they have lots of other diseases like diabetes and coronary artery disease? Or pulmonary disease, or are they completely healthy? 

Or, do they have support at home? If they’re sick at home is there someone who can take care of them, versus a situation where you’re older and alone and you have no real family member to rely on. So, all of these things are very important in making a personalized decision as to how you treat a patient. 

Katherine:

Well, it sounds like, each person’s AML is unique. So, let’s help our audience be clear about basic testing. What tests are necessary to help understand a patient’s specific disease at diagnosis? 

 Dr. Ritchie:

I mean certainly it’s important to do a physical exam and to find out what the general health of the patient is. In order to evaluate an AML, or any other Leukemia, I look at the peripheral blood smear. To look at what I think the type of Leukemia might be that I am dealing with. There are some Leukemias that have particular way that they look like Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia for which there is a designated therapy which works.  

And you can tell that just by looking at a peripheral blood slide. The next test is always a bone marrow biopsy. Patients are not delighted that that is a test, but it is a test that can be done in the office, usually within 15 to 20 minutes. And that test gives us a lot of information. It gives us information about what type of AML it is, what are the markers on the outside of the cell, it gives us information about the chromosomes inside the Leukemia cell. Are there missing chromosomes, or rearranged chromosomes? And if there are, that can be very relevant to the prognosis. And lastly, it’s sent for a particular mutations or markers. So, we look for IDH3 mutations, we look for FLT3 mutations, we look for IDH1 and IDH2 mutations, and we do an entire myeloid panel. Which is about 44/45 genes that are most commonly mutated in patients with AML.  

So that’s the initial work up for any AML patient. 

Katherine:

You mentioned markers Dr. Ritchie. What is genomic, or bio marker testing? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, we’re looking really at most specifically at mutations inside individual genes that might be in your Leukemia cell. So, there are some mutations actually that confer a better prognosis. Like NPM1 or CEPBA, those can be more positive type of prognosis than some of the others.  

But we’re also looking for markers that might be targetable with certain therapies that we have. So, if you have a FLT3 ITD or TKD, we actually have particular drugs which can target those particular mutations. There are also drugs that are FDA approved to treat IDH1 and IDH2 mutations. 

There are certain mutations that have a relatively poor prognosis, like TP53 for which there are clinical trials which are available, which specifically are meant to target patients who have those sorts of mutations. And there’re other clinical trials using the FDA approved drugs that I just mentioned, for FLT3, for IDH1 and IDH2 and combining it with other agents to try and improve outcome in AML patients. 

Katherine:

Some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests, so what key questions should they be asking their physician about testing? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, physicians, they – financial coverage of the mutational testing is not uniform across the country and across insurances. So, Medicare and different Medicare insurances and some of the private insurances all vary in their coverage.  

So, in my clinic, I am asking – I prefer the test that we do in house at Cornell. But it’s important that I ask, what will their insurance cover. And make sure that I send the appropriate testing that will be covered by insurance. There are some insurances that will not cover this type of testing. So, it is a real question for the patient, when you go to see the doctor to say, are you going to do mutational NGS testing?  

And, will my insurance cover this? Hopefully most – if Medicare adopts the coverage of these types of mutational testing, it’s often true that private insurance will eventually pick this up. But it’s a murky field and it’s really important to talk to your doctor about this. The cost of the bone marrow biopsy, and the chromosomal evaluation is nearly always covered by insurance.  

Katherine:

Okay, that’s really great advice, thank you. How do the results of these tests affect prognosis and treatment? 

Dr. Ritchie:

Well, when a patient has AML, if they are a fit patient, if it will help us determine after initial induction, whether to cure the patient we need to do a bone marrow transplant, or we can just continue with chemotherapy.  

And those are really important things to determine. So, if you have a good prognosis AML, if you have an AML that has certain translocations like inversion 16 or 821, or if you have a CEPBA mutation or you have an NPM1 mutation, and that’s all you have, you may do particularly well with chemotherapy treatment alone. And you won’t need to have a bone marrow transplant. 

If you have certain other mutations, we know that the only way that we’re going to cure you, is with a bone marrow transplant. And if you are fit, when we finish induction and even as we’re doing induction, we’re preparing you for a bone marrow transplant down the line.  

One disadvantage, just to mention about the molecular testing, is it doesn’t come back as quickly as some of the other testing. So that you will have already started induction chemotherapy most generally before the mutational testing comes back. Which can be anywhere – depending upon the institution, between seven and 21 days. So, it takes time for those results to be available.  

Katherine:

Outside of test results Dr. Ritchie, what other factors should be considered when choosing treatment? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, you want to choose whether a patient is most likely to benefit from intense induction chemotherapy. With strong chemotherapies where the backbone of those therapies would be an anthracycline, like Daunorubicin or Cytarabine, or Daunorubicin or Idarubicin, together with Cytarabine. And these are intensive chemotherapies. Versus, non-intensive chemotherapy which is able to be done as an outpatient, more frequently. And it is something that is gentler for a patient, they’re less likely to have severe toxicity. And the backbone of those regimens is using a drug called Azacitidine or Decitabine, together with a second drug called Venetoclax. 

So, these are the two backbones, there may be clinical trials or there may be targetable aspects of your Leukemia, which drugs would be added to either of those backbones. But those are the two backbones. And I also like to identify those patients that may not benefit from chemotherapy at all. And so, it’s very important, I think to really get to know your patient. And I spend time with my patient, particularly on the first visit, to understand not only their physical health, but their mental health. How good is their cognition, what is their mood, are they depressed, or are they happy people? And what is their circumstance? Do they have people to support them? Do they live close to family? Is a caregiver able to come, with an elderly patient for example, to visits? 

Those, and whether or not they’re living alone and need tremendous support. So that’s really important to determine and helps me to choose what the best therapy might be. And also, concurrently what I can do to shore up the patient to do better with whatever therapy that I’m giving them. I.E., if you’re depressed, let’s work on that, or if your blood pressure is too high, or if you are – your diabetes is out of control at the same time that I’m seeing you, to try and fix those particular problems. In older patients I often do sort of a miniature version of the geriatric assessment. And in trials that have been so far, the most important aspects of the geriatric assessment, are really what is your cognitive function? Do have a mild dementia or do you not have a mild dementia? Because dementia may be or mild dementia may be associated with poorer outcome. 

The other is, are you able to do what we call the incidental tasks of daily life. So, you know fundamental tasks are really brushing your teeth and combing your hair, and dressing yourself. But are you able to do your cooking and your shopping and your banking and those things? Patients who have trouble doing their cooking and shopping and banking, and those types of activities, that also has been associated with a poor overall survival in AML. So, it’s really important to determine all of those aspects and if there are any deficiencies, to really know that the only therapeutic choice for that particular patient would be a low-intensity therapy. 

Katherine:

You touched upon this earlier, but what targeted therapies or treatments are available for AML patients? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, there have been many recent FDA approvals of drugs that are targeted. One, is the FLT3 inhibitors. And the two that are available are Midostaurin, which is most commonly – was the first drug that was really added to intensive chemotherapy. 

And clinical trials show that in those FLT3 positive population that patients had an overall better outcome if Midostaurin were added to intensive chemotherapy. There’s also a drug called gilteritinib, and this drug is also a FLT3 inhibitor that was tested in patients who had refractory leukemia. They could either get real chemotherapy regimen or they could get gilteritinib. And it turns out in the FLT3-positive patients, the gilteritinib was superior to the strong chemotherapy. So that’s been approved for patients who have refractory, or disease that didn’t really respond to initial therapy, that is IDH – or is FLT3 positive.  

Then there’s the IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors that have also been approved, and a small proportion of AML patients will be positive for IDH1 or IDH2 mutations. 

The IDH1 inhibitor Ivosidenib, is available and can be used to treat patients if you know up front, they have an IDH1 inhibitor. So, that’s a regimen where the single agent can be used to treat an IDH1 mutated patient who’s newly diagnosed. Those patients are also eligible for many clinical trials now, where they’re combining that particular drug with other agents, in an effort to improve outcome. For IDH2 positive patients, there’s a drug called Enasidenib. And this drug is used mainly in patients in the second line setting. But it specifically targets IDH2. And patients go into remission sometimes for a prolonged period of time. So, these drugs are FDA approved, and they’re treating targetable mutations.  

TP53 mutations are a particularly bothersome mutation because it confers a poor outcome. And I’m happy to say that we have clinical trials now that are available that actually target TP53 mutations.  

So, there are – there is therapy available for that type of mutation that was not available before through the clinical trials. And I expect in coming years that we’re gonna see more and more targeted therapies develop in AML which can be used potentially in combination with what we’re already using as backbones to enhance the outcome of patients with this disease. 

Katherine:

Well, how do targeted therapies work? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, targeted therapies work on – it’s sort of complicated. The targets which are available, IDH or the FLT3 is really on the outside of the cell and it is a drug which is targeted directly to the FLT3 on the outside of the cell. 

It works quite well in the peripheral blood, where you see the blast oftentimes disappear. The big concern always is how well it’s working getting deep into the marrow. But it’s looking at the target on the outside of the cell. IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors work on particular chemicals which are involved in the kreb cycle, and those of you that took high school chemistry may have memories buried in the deep parts of your brain of learning the kreb cycle. And this is a fundamental metabolic cycle inside cells, and if you have a mutation, an IDH1 or IDH2, you’re unable to go through that full kreb cycle in the appropriate way. And that is something that leads to you having a cancer, in this case AML. So, these drugs actually interfere with what’s happening in that kreb cycle, and allow you to make more normal cells. 

Katherine:

You mentioned earlier Dr. Ritchie, low-intensity therapy. Could you tell us about the types of treatment options? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, I’ll go – high-intensity therapy or intense chemotherapy always has to be given really in a hospital. And if you don’t start it – if you can start certain intensive chemotherapies, like Vyxeos, which is also intensive, in the outpatient setting, but by day seven or eight, you end up in the hospital. And in intensive chemotherapies, you lose your hair, there’s GI toxicities, you’re at high risk of developing infections and you need a lot of transfusion. And for even young people, it’s a difficult therapy for which you’re in the hospital, and 90-some percent of patients are on IV antibiotics. 

So, it’s intensive chemotherapy because it has to be given in a hospital setting and requires intensive supportive care. Low-intensity therapy can be given in the outpatient setting. So, at the present time you can get a drug like Azacitidine, for example, which is an injection that you get seven days in a row. Unfortunately, you have to come to the doctor’s office every day for those injections, but once you’ve had the injection, you can go home. Combined with Venetoclax which is an oral agent. So, an oral agent can be given at home. You need close supervision in the physician’s office when you’re on this type of therapy, but you don’t need the constant support that you need if you are getting intensive chemotherapy. So, it can be done, in the comfort really of your home and with your family. You will have to come in and have transfusions potentially as an outpatient, nearly everyone does. And there’s always the risk that you develop a fever and if you do, you have to come into the hospital for IV antibiotics. 

But in general, low-intensity means not so much support needed in a hospitalized setting, and the tolerability of this particular chemotherapy in the outpatient setting.  

Katherine:

Once a patient has begun treatment, how do you monitor whether it’s working? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, one of the more frustrating things about being an AML patient, is you don’t know right off the bat whether or not that you have gone into remission. So, what happens is you receive the chemotherapy, and the day you start chemotherapy is really day one. And somewhere around day 14, you’re at your lowest point. So, your blood counts are low, and you often feel really terrible, and you really wonder, is this working? But unfortunately, I can’t really tell you. Some institutions do bone marrow biopsies if you have intensive chemotherapy on day 14, or if you’re getting Venetoclax therapy somewhere around day 21 to look and see whether they still see Leukemia cells, but the utility of that is different per institution.  

The real test of whether chemotherapy x`, is at the end of about 28-35 days, are your blood counts coming up, and are you making normal blood cells. Are you making platelets, which are the part of the blood that clots the blood? Or are you making neutrophils, which are the important cells needed to help you fight infection. So, the real proof of a remission, is are your platelets over 100,000? Is your neutrophil count over 1,000? And when we look in the bone marrow around that time, do we see normal cells developing and no Leukemia? 

Katherine:

How often should testing take place? And should patients be retested over time? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, the bone marrow biopsy is done frequently once you have a diagnosis of Acute Leukemia. So certainly, it’s done upon diagnosis of the disease. 

And as I mentioned earlier in certain institutions, about halfway through your chemotherapy cycle, they’ll do a bone marrow biopsy to see whether or not they see any residual Leukemia cells. That’s not done everywhere, and it’s done differently depending upon institutions sometimes. At the end of the chemotherapy treatment, if you recover your blood counts, we do a bone marrow biopsy to confirm a remission. If by day 35, we haven’t seen that your blood counts are recovering, we may do a bone marrow biopsy to see whether or not we see Leukemia cells in there, or early recovery. So, you’re definitely going to have bone marrows at those time points. If you’ve gone into remission, it depends on what we’d do next as to when you would have another bone marrow biopsy. So, if you’re going to bone marrow transplant you may have one more biopsy, just prior to going into transplant, and another biopsy at the end of the first month after transplant. 

If you’re gonna have what we call ongoing therapy, roughly every three or four months, we may do a bone marrow biopsy to determine whether or not the remission is holding. If during ongoing therapy, we see that there is blood count abnormalities that we weren’t expecting, that might be a reason that we would do a bone marrow biopsy. And that’s unpredictable as to when that would be.  

Katherine:

Dr. Ritchie, what advice do you have for patients to help them feel more confident in speaking up and advocating, being a partner in their care? 

Dr. Ritchie:

Well, when you choose a Leukemia doctor, you need to choose someone that you can actually communicate with. Someone who you feel is not allowing you to ask questions, or is not curious about what your life is like, you may wanna think, I wanna check out somebody else.  

Because it’s really important you like the person who’s your doctor, and that you have a trust relationship together. So, it’s really – I tell some patients it’s a marriage of convenience that we have. And that you really have to think of it that way. If someone doesn’t allow you to ask questions or if they are not fully answering your questions in a way that you understand, try and speak up for yourself and make sure that the doctor tries to address that. And if the doctor won’t address those things for you, or you feel like you don’t understand what is being explained to you, then you can think about trying to see someone else. I think it’s really important if you can, to write down as many questions as you have about your disease before you come in. 

Because often what happens is you get there, you’re stunned by the amount of information, and the questions you wanted to ask, you forget. And the next day, you’re like, ugh, I didn’t ask these questions. So, before you come in, if you write questions. Questions about insurance coverage, that may not be something that we go over. Or questions about toxicities, or questions, if I’m gonna lose my hair, do you have the name of a wig facility. All these questions that you might have, put them on a piece of paper, so that they can be addressed when you’re with the doctor. And other things will come up, you’ll have other questions when you’re there, but make sure your fundamental questions are answered. 

Katherine:

Yeah, those are great suggestions. We have a couple of audience questions. Mike wants to know, what does it mean to have high-risk AML? 

Dr. Ritchie:

High-risk AML means that there is something in your chromosomes that are worrisome and may confer a worse outcome. Or that one of the mutations that you have, or the combination of mutations that you have and the genetic testing are poor risk mutations that are associated with poor outcome. So, high-risk, really means a high risk of progression, or a high risk of – it’s a high risk of not going into remission and not being treatable AML. So, these are AMLs we treat aggressively, and if we get a patient into remission, we generally send high-risk patients to a bone marrow transplant. 

Katherine:

The second question is from Craig, he says; I’m currently undergoing treatment for AML, is the Covid-19 vaccine safe and effective? 

Dr. Ritchie:

I recommend the Covid-19 vaccine to everyone, all my patients. A little immunity is better than none. And there is preliminary data, looking at patients with Myeloid malignancies, not Lymphoid, but Myeloid malignancies, where it appears there is an immune response to the Covid-19 vaccine. So, I would suggest that you get the Covid-19 vaccine. Any of them that are available, are good. Whether it’s Moderna, or Pfizer, or Johnson and Johnson. Whatever is available to you, you should go ahead and get. 

Katherine:

Are there any symptoms or issues that AML patients should be looking for post-vaccine? 

Dr. Ritchie:

Post-vaccine, there’s a lot of symptoms that people have. And they can be similar among Myeloid patients. Some of my patients have had no reaction whatsoever, some people have had a really sore arm. 

Some patients are incredibly tired after the vaccine; some patients develop a low-grade fever for a couple of days. Those are really what we watch for. Sometimes when there’s a reaction, we’re hopeful that there’s an antibody being made, or an immune response that’s developing. So, it’s not always a bad thing if you have a reaction. But I don’t think that the reactions of patients of Myeloid malignancies is any different than that of the general public. 

Katherine:

That’s what it sounds like. To close Dr. Ritchie, what would you like to leave the audience with? Are you hopeful about the future of AML treatment? 

Dr. Ritchie:

I’m very hopeful. I’ve worked in this field for 15 years and through the 15 years we have seen a lot of new drugs that have been approved for AML. It’s remarkable, the FLT3 inhibitors, IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors, new formulations of intensive chemotherapy, like Vyxeos, the Pfizer drug; glasdegib – I can never say that one. And most importantly, venetoclax, which has really revolutionized our treatment of low-risk, or not low-risk, but the low intensity patient. 

I see in the future that there is gonna be more – there’s an emphasis on immunotherapy, so I think we’re gonna see more antibody-based therapy that’s going to be approved by the FDA. Maybe it will be used in combination with the drugs that we are already using. There are all sorts of combinations using all the FDA approved drugs in different ways together. So, we can maybe do better with the drugs that we have. And there’s always new targeted drugs which are being tested in AML. So, I think as time goes on, from a molecular perspective it will be even more targeted. And I’m hoping also that there will be oral formulations of a lot of our drugs. So, it’s kind of exciting that there’s an oral form of Decitabine called Inqovi, which is something that could potentially be given in induction therapy right off the bat with Venetoclax for an all-oral regimen at home. 

All of these things are great advances, in my opinion, and I think that the opportunity to treat patients outside the hospital, with more targeted therapy and immunotherapy is gonna be the future. 

Katherine:

Yeah. And the future sounds promising. Thank you so much for joining us today Dr. Ritchie. 

Dr. Ritchie:

Thank you for having me. 

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners.  

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

Treatment Approaches in AML: Key Testing for Personalized Care

When it comes to Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), genetic testing (or biomarker testing) is essential in helping to determine the best treatment approach for YOU. In this program, AML expert, Dr. Naval Daver reviews key decision-making factors, current AML treatments and emerging research for patients with AML.

About the Guest:
Dr. Naval Daver is an Associate Professor in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. More about Dr. Daver: https://faculty.mdanderson.org/profiles/naval_daver.html

AML Research Updates: News from ASH 2020

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

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

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

Download Program Resource Guide

See More From INSIST! AML

Related Resources:

Navigating AML Treatment Decisions

New AML Therapies vs. Traditional Chemotherapy: What’s the Difference?

Transcript:

Katherine:      

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

Dr. Lancet:                   

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

Katherine:                   

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

Dr. Lancet:                   

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

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

Katherine:                   

What does this research news mean for patients?

Dr. Lancet:                   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Treatment Approaches in AML: Key Testing for Personalized Care

Treatment Approaches in AML: Key Testing for Personalized Care from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When it comes to Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), genetic testing (or biomarker testing) is essential in helping to determine the best treatment approach for YOU. In this program, AML expert, Dr. Naval Daver reviews key decision-making factors, current AML treatments and emerging research for patients with AML.

Dr. Naval Daver is an Associate Professor in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. More about Dr. Daver here.

Download Program Resource Guide

See More From INSIST! AML

Related Resources:

 

How is Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Treated?

 

Effective AML Combination Treatment: Pairing Old and New Therapies

 

Confused About AML Genetic Testing and Treatment? What You Need to Know

Transcript:

Katherine:                   

Welcome to INSIST! AML. A program focused on empowering patients to insist on better care. Today we’ll discuss the latest advances in AML, including the role of genetic testing and how this may affect treatment options. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. And joining me is Dr. Naval Daver. Welcome, Dr. Daver. Thank you so much for being here. Would you introduce yourself?

Dr. Daver:                    

Hello. Yeah. Thank you very much, Katherine. It’s a pleasure to join this discussion and meeting. I’m the Associate Professor in the Department of Leukemia at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. I focus on the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia and MDS, including the development of a number of clinical trials that are using targeted therapies and immune therapies for this disease. And with the great and dramatic progress, we’re seeing in acute myeloid leukemia; I think it is now more important than ever for patients to be aware of the options and be able to select the most appropriate therapy with their physicians.

Katherine:                   

Before we get into the discussion about AML, a reminder that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your own healthcare team. Dr. Daver, I know the field of AML research is advancing rapidly. Would you give us an overview of the current treatment types in AML?

Dr. Daver:                    

There has been dramatic progress in the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia, especially in the last three years. We’ve had eight new drugs approved for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia. The most progress I think that has happened so far is in the identification of particular molecular mutations and targeting those mutations with targeted therapies.

The mutations that are most important right now and have target options for FLT3 mutations, F-L-T-3, and the drugs that have been USDA-approved for this are an agent called Midostaurin, which is a first-generation FLT3 inhibitor and combination chemotherapy.

And then, more recently, another agent called Gilteritinib, as a single agent in relapse refractory FLT3 AML. The other mutational group that is also very important, and therapeutically needs to be checked, is IDHN1 and IDH2. And there are now two IDH inhibitors, IDH1 inhibitor, Ivosidenib, and IDH2 inhibitor, Enasidenib, both of which have been approved by the United States FDA for relapse patients with IDH1, IDH2 mutations. So, I think it’s really critical now to check for particular molecular mutations and to appropriately add the particular targeted therapy or select the particular targeted therapy in patients who have the mutation.

The other major area of advancement, and probably, if not the most important breakthrough that has happened, is the development of a new drug called Venetoclax. This is a BCL2 inhibitor. It’s new in AML, but in fact, it has been used for many years in CLL, which is chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

And this drug, in combination with Azacitidine in the frontline setting in older patients with AML who are not good candidates for intensive induction, has shown very high response rates, almost 70 percent CR-CRi, which is more than double of the 20 to 25 percent we were getting with Azacitidine alone.

And it’s now been approved by the US FDA and, in my opinion, and many of the experts really is the new standard of care and should be used in all older patients who are not good candidates for intensive chemotherapy given both the very high response rates, as well as now mature data showing significantly improved overall survival and a good tolerability.

So, there are many other breakthroughs. But I think these targeted agents, and Venetoclax, probably are the most impactful today.

And we’re focusing a number of new combinations building around this.  

Katherine:                   

What are common mutations in AML?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. So, the most common mutation in AML is F-L-T-3, FLT3 mutation. This is both prognostically important mutation, presence of an FLT3 in a newly diagnosed AML, has been shown in many large publications by the German Cooperative Group, British Cooperative Group, our group, and others, is associated with an inferior survival.

Also, now, on top of that, it is also a therapeutically important mutation in addition to having negative prognostic value because the addition of FLT3 inhibitors seems to dilute, to a large extent, the negative prognostic value.

So, we believe that if we can identify FLT3 mutations at FLT3 inhibitors, we can definitely improve the outcome of those patients. The second most common is what we call NPM1 mutation, and that tends to occur with FLT3. About 55 percent of patients with an FLT3 mutation will have a coopering NPM1.

NPM1 is very interesting. With NPM1 mutation is present on it’s own without a FLT3, it’s actually associated with favorable outcome. It’s a favorable prognostic marker. However, if NPM1 is present with a FLT3, and especially if the FLT3 has a high quantity, high allelic load, then the NPM1 loses its favorable impact. So, now we’re kind of moving beyond just; do you have one mutation or not, which is what we thought 10 years ago, to; well, yes, you have this mutation, but what about the core-occurring mutation and even beyond. What about the burden, or what we call the variant allele frequency of that mutation?

So, for good or bad and I think it’s good in the end because it’s going to improve the patient outcomes, that we are getting more, more in-depth and there’s no longer quote, unquote, AML.

So, there’s a lot more granularity and analysis that is required even before starting treatment. And this is the thing that, in the community, we’re educating the doctors a lot, is that it’s okay to wait four to six days, especially if the patient does not have a very proliferative leukemia, to get the important bloodwork to identify the appropriate molecular and chromosome group.

So, that we can select the right treatment which will improve outcome rather than just rushing into standard treatment and missing a particular molecular chromosome group.

Katherine:                   

True. It might not be – the genetic testing might not be right for everyone.

Dr. Daver:                    

Right. Right.

Katherine:                   

What is genetic testing in AML?

Dr. Daver:                    

So, genetic testing in AML is basically what we call molecular profiling.

So, it’s looking at the presence of particular molecular mutations. For example, at MD Anderson, we do what we call 81 gene panel. So, this looks at 81 different genes for mutations in the bone marrow of newly diagnosed acute myeloid leukemia. Now, how did we come up with 81 genes? So, this was actually done by literature analysis and review of previously published preclinical and translational studies, and we basically selected all mutations that had been shown to occur in two percent or more of thousands of AML patients. And we found 81 such mutations. So, that any mutation that had a two percent or higher frequency in known published or public databases was included.

And that’s how we’re able to analyze for the mutation. So, it’s still possible that there may be some very rare mutations that are present, and those may be important for research. But they don’t change our treatment decision today. And so that’s what we call genetic profiling. Some people call it molecular mutation analysis. Some people call it next-generation sequencing.

But basically, this is looking for mutations in particular genes that are known to occur in AML. Now of those 81 genes; and some people do a 100 gene panel, some do 50, so those are variables; but among those, there are four or five that are most important: the FLT3, as we discussed, where we can use FLT3 inhibitors; IDH1 and two, because we can use IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors; TP53 is a very important mutation because it has very high risk and adverse prognosis.

And there are now new drugs coming that may be very effective in TP53. So, we are checking for that. Those drugs are in trials, but the trials are showing very promising data and could be a great option if a patient is known to have a TP53.

Those drugs are Magrolimab, CD47 antibody, and APR-246. So, these are the four most important therapeutic mutations.

There are also some mutations that have prognostic value even though we cannot target them. These include mutations like RUNX1, DNMP3A, ASXL1.

One does not need to know the list. But the point is that these mutations may help determine whether a patient falls into intermediate-risk group or high-risk group, which then impacts the decision as to whether we need a stem cell transplant or not. So, it really is important to get this molecular profiling. It’s actually available in the United States commercially. And any clinic or hospital is able to actually order it. And insurance will cover it in 100 percent of the cases.

Katherine:                   

Wow, that’s great. What should – when should patients be tested, and how is testing done?

Dr. Daver:                   

Yeah. So, the basic testing for any suspected new acute leukemia is to get a bone marrow biopsy. That has to be done.

That should be done very quickly because all of the information that will be generated to make the treatment decision will come off the bone marrow biopsy.

Katherine:

What about retesting, Dr. Daver? Is that necessary?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. So, retesting is necessary in – not for everything, I think.

But let’s say someone had treatment induction and relapsed a year later. So, we would definitely retest: 1) to confirm with the bone marrow’s relapsed AML, get the blast percentage because we need that before restarting treatment, so we know what was the starting point to know how the patients doing after treatment if he’s responding. 2) Molecular testing, for sure, should be repeated. We usually repeat the molecular testing such as FLT3, IDH1, IDH2, because there are drugs that can target these mutations in a relapse.

And more interestingly, we actually have published, and other groups have also published, that there are some patients who may not have those mutations at baseline but may actually acquire or have detectible mutations at relapse. So, if you don’t have FLT3 at baseline, your physician may assume that the FLT3 is not there, not do mutational testing. But in fact, that may not be true. So, it is important to retest about 15 percent, one five percent, in our publications can acquire a detectible FLT3. Which is critical because this could then change your treatment.

IDH1 and two are rarely lost or acquired, but we have seen a few five percent or so cases of that. So, it’s still better to check for that. And then TP53 we check for because now we have these new research clinical trials, phase one, two, that are showing some very encouraging activity in TP53. So, these are probably the main things to retest for.

There’s also some new clinical data emerging with a new drug called menin inhibitor that targets a particular chromosome abnormality, MLL rearrangement. This is again in a phase one setting, so the data may not be widely disseminated. But we’re seeing some very encouraging activity with menin inhibitors.  

And so, we are 100 percent checking for the MLL rearrangement chromosome, which can be done on FISH, or routine chromosome.

And if that is there then trying to get on one of the menin inhibitor trials, they’re opening about 25, 30 centers with different menin inhibitors, would be a very, very good option because we think these will be the next molecular or chromosome-targeted breakthrough in AML.

Katherine:                   

We’ve been discussing how molecular testing results lead to targeted therapy. How do targeted therapies work?

Dr. Daver:   

Targeted therapy means that we’re targeting a particular mutation. Now we may be targeting in different ways. So, some of the drugs, like FLT3 inhibitors, these are the most established and oldest targeted therapies in acute myeloid leukemia, been in development for about 18 to 20 years, work by blocking a particular receptor, the FLT3 receptor.

That receptor, when blocked, removes the growth and proliferation signal to the leukemia blast. And that receptor is much more preferentially and heavily expressed on the surface of the acute myeloid leukemia cell as compared to the normal, healthy myeloid or lymphoid cell. So, basically, we are shutting down the growth signals, resulting in eventual death of the leukemia blast and that’s how FLT3 inhibitors work. So, it’s a more of a direct activity resulting in cell death over a few days and quick action. On the other hand, we have what also is called targeted therapies but act very differently. These are IDH1, IDH2 inhibitors.

So, when you use an IDH1 or two inhibitor, they do go to the IDH1 and two receptor on the surface of the acute myeloid leukemia cell, but actually, they don’t result in the death of the cell. They actually cause what we call differentiation.

So, they promote that immature abnormal leukemia cell to undergo maturation and become a normal myeloid cell, which, over time, will die because normal cells have a finite lifespan, and they will die. As compared to leukemia blasts, which can live on much, much, much longer. And so, this process is called differentiation. So, FLT3 inhibitor, very different direct cell death. IDH inhibitor, very different from most maturation differentiation of immature cells to mature cells and takes longer. So, this is important clinically because with FLT3 inhibitors. We see responses quickly, one to two months. IDH inhibitors it takes longer, three to five months.

And so, targeted therapy is not one and all the same. You may be targeting a particular receptor, but the modality of action downstream may be very different.

Katherine:                   

What’s the treatment regimen for targeted therapies, and how long are patients treated with these types of therapies?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. I mean, that’s an area of big research. There’s no one field of answer yet for – and I don’t think there will be.

Of course, eventually. So, it really depends on; 1) What setting we’re using it in? Newly diagnosed, relapsed AML. In relapsed AML, with most targeted therapies, whether you’re use is a single agent, like FLT3, IDH1, IDH2, TP53, MLL-targeted agents, the goal is to get a patient to transplant.

Transplant, meaning allogeneic stem cell transplant using a sibling donor or a match-generated donor.

Because in relapsed AML without transplant, irrespective of the genetics and chromosomes, all relapsed AML have very poor outcome. The survival is only 20 percent or less without transplant.

If we can get a patient to transplant, we do have a good chance of long-term survival. So, the goal is transplant. And we usually use a targeted therapy for short, finite period, two to four months, to get a remission, get to transplant, hope that will cure the disease.

In front line, it’s quite different. We’re using induction chemotherapy with FLT3 inhibitors. In some research trials, we’re adding IDH1 and two inhibitors. We’re using Venetoclax, which is a kind of a targeted therapy.

Also, the BCL2 in combination with hypomethylating agents. And here, the targeted therapy is often used indefinitely. At least for one or two years. But in our approach and our guidelines, we continue the FLT3 inhibitor, IDH1 or two inhibitor or Venetoclax, as long as patient is tolerating it and does not have disease progression.

So, these are being used kind of similar to CML, chronic myeloid leukemia, where we use tyrosine kinase inhibitors or myelofibrosis, where you use jak inhibitors. They don’t cure the disease, but they continue to control the disease as long as you take them.

And in the end, we call this functional cure.

If somebody takes a FLT3 inhibitor and lives 20-plus years, semantically, he was never a cure, like an infection gets cured. But functionally, to me, he lived a normal life, and he was cured.

Dr. Daver:                    

And so, that’s how we’re using those inhibitors in the frontline setting different from the relapse setting.

Katherine:                   

How do these newer therapies differ from more traditional chemotherapy?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. Dramatically different. Completely different from traditional chemotherapy. So, to put it in more layman terms, traditional chemotherapy is like a nuclear bomb. Right? You – There’s a lot of things there in the marrow. You don’t know what’s good. You don’t know what’s bad. Blow it all up and hope that, when the new plants grow, the good ones grow and the bad ones were kill. And, in fact, this is true, to a large extent. Traditional chemotherapy, not to put it down, is actually been curative in a large population of AML for the last three decades. Our group and British MRC and Polish, and many groups have published up to 50 to 65 percent cure rates, especially in younger patients, below 65, with traditional chemotherapy.

So, this is not bad. People always get depressed with leukemia. But if you look at solid tumors, I mean, they have never achieved cure rates above 10 to 15 percent till the last decade or so. So, we were still getting 60, 65 percent cure rate. Two out of three.

So, traditional chemotherapy has done great work. But it was that approach. Just nuclear explosion. Take it all out, and hope good stuff comes.

Now the targeted therapy’s like a sniper. It’s actually looking for the particular leukemia cells and trying to take them out one by one with minimum collateral damage to your healthy bone marrow cells, which are important to produce red cells, platelets, white cells. So, guess what? There’s much less toxicity. You don’t see the hair loss with these agents. You don’t see the mouth sores and mucositis. GI complications are much less; infection risk is usually less.

Not to say they don’t have their own side effects. Unfortunately, even the targeted therapies have unique side effects. But, in general, those side effects are much less impactful in a negative quality-of-life way and much more manageable and tolerable. So – And, in the end of the day, they’re actually often more effective.

So, for example, with the FLT3 inhibitor, the study that was done with Gilterinib and Quizartinib, two very potent FLT3 inhibitors, was looking at a single-agent FLT3 inhibitor versus three-drug, high-intensity combination nuclear chemotherapy. And if I told this to any layperson, they would say, oh my God, that’s completely unfair comparison. You’re going to use three drugs, IV chemo, strong chemo, and compare it to one oral targeted pill. There’s no way the pill can be even equal, leave apart, win.

But guess what? The targeted therapy actually won. It not only was equal. It doubled the response rates, it reduced the toxicities and early mortality and led to improved overall survival, the gold standard. So, this shows that even though they are sniper, they can actually be much more effective with less toxicity. So, it’s a win-win. Better, tolerable, and more effective. Now the next stage within then decade, we think, it’s not one or the either, it’s really a combination. So, we’re reducing the dose of chemotherapy. So, we’re not making it as nuclear as it was. It’s still intense. But much more tolerable. And we’re compensating for that by adding the targeted therapy.

And, in fact, in the end, we expect much higher responses and survival with much better tolerability and lower early mortality. But I don’t think we’re at a stage where traditional chemotherapy is gone. Maybe 10, 12 years from now, as many more developments come, we’ll get there. But I think it still has a role, especially in the younger AML patients.

Katherine:                   

Dr. Daver, you mentioned the – some common side effects of chemotherapy. What about some of the newer therapies? Do they also have side effects?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, every therapy we have in leukemia has a side effect. There’s no drug I can mention that is just devoid of them. Of course, some are less, and some are more. So, to be more specific, I think, for example, IDH1, IDH2 inhibitors, these are probably one of the most tolerable treatments we have in all of leukemia treatment. In general, they don’t cause much myelosuppression. Meaning, drop in blood counts. They don’t cause hair loss. They don’t cause mouth sores and GI upset in majority of people.

They’re always some patients who may. But what they can cause are two things: Number one, is they can cause what we call the differentiation syndrome.

And differentiation syndrome means the blasts that are going from the immature state to the mature state; in that process, they can cause an inflammatory reaction. And this can manifest with fever and cough, and chest pain, hypoxia. It’s something that’s actually very, very easily treatable, giving steroids for three or four days will take care of it. But many times, people were not aware of this. And so, often, we saw this was missed in the community.

So, that’s one specific example. With the FLT3 inhibitors, sometimes we see that they can cause more prolonged drop in blood counts, and count recovery can be delayed. Or we can sometimes see that they may cause some cardiac signals; increase in cardiac intervals. Again, something that, with close monitoring, bloodwork, keeping the electrolytes normal, can be managed. But I don’t want to go through the whole list. But the point is that there are specific and unique side effects that can be seen with particular targeted therapies.

And again, this is a learning curve where we have done these trials for eight to 10 years. So, we became familiar. But when the drug is approved, it’s a – it’s kind of a night-and-day situation in the community. They didn’t have the drug yesterday. They have it today. But there may not be any learning curve there. So, I think that’s where a lot of education and interaction with our colleagues is now coming into play.

But also, patients, I think, need to take this a little bit into their own hands, and also read about the label, read about the drug. So that, if they have side effects, if they actually ask their doctor and say, do you think this could be differentiation? I read about it. Yeah, most people will at least think about it. And I think this could be helpful to make sure that things are not missed. So, we do want patients to be more interactive and kind of  take things into their own hand. Because there are so many new drugs out there that their doctors may not be fully familiar yet.

Katherine:                   

Well, let’s talk about patient advocacy. What are some of the key tests that patients should ask for after they’ve been diagnosed?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. Absolutely. So, I think the key things that patients should want to get the information is: 1) Knowing the bone marrow blasts.

I mean, that’s really basic. Just knowing what leukemia it is. What are the blast percentage? 2) Is, I think, chromosome analysis is very critical to get that information and to make sure we’re not missing acute promyelocytic leukemia, or core-binding factor leukemia, which have different treatments and very favorable outcomes, and would never, in general, never require a allogenic transplant. At least in majority of cases.

And 3), which is the one where we still see that it may sometimes not be available or be missed, is molecular testing.

I think it’s very critical to request molecular testing. And among molecular testing, especially FLT3, maybe IDH1 and IDH2, and TP53.

So, I think these are the most important data sets. Cytogenetics, key molecular mutations, bone marrow blasts, and confirmation of the type of leukemia before we embark on any treatment.

Katherine:                   

How can patients feel confident, do you think, in speaking up, and becoming a partner in their care?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. I mean, this is always a touchy area because physicians may feel that this is kind of encroaching on their territory or telling them what to do. And this is always a major challenge. I think when you go for the clinic visits, just to have a list of your questions written down and having them prepared and prioritizing them.

I always say, have your top-three questions ready.

We’ll try to do the others. But we’ll do the top three. And I think, when you have a new diagnosis of AML, the top three should be: what is the type of leukemia I have, and what are the bone marrow blasts? Number one. Do we have any chromosome and molecular information? Number two. And number three: Are there any specific treatments for my specific AML based on that chromosome molecular information? Or do we need additional information, and can we wait for that safely? I think these are the three very reasonable questions which, I think again, most leukemia experts will automatically be discussing this.

But, I think, for a patient, I think that’s important information to make sure they get before proceeding. If there’s time, the fourth question will be: Is – Are – Do we have a choice between high intensity, low intensity? And if we do, what are the pros and cons? In some cases, there may be a choice. In some cases, it may very clear that high intensity is the way to go, or low intensity is the way to go. But still, I think it’s often good to discuss that with your physician.

So, these are probably the four things one can bring up reasonably without the physician feeling that this is going to take forever, and I cannot discuss this. And then a lot of the AML treatment happens in-patient. So, there will be a lot of time for additional discussion. I tell my patients that, look, once we get the basics and the treatment decided, which is what we do in clinic, then you’ll be in the hospital most of the time. If it’s induction chemo for four weeks. Even if it’s Venetoclax, often they’re admitted for five to seven days, they will have more time then to discuss with the physician, the nurses, on a daily basis, and get more of the nitty-gritty.

Things like diet, exercise, lifestyle. Can I meet friends? I think you should not try to bring those things up right in the first visit. Because that may dilute the key information. So, I think staggering it, keeping in mind that many physicians are extremely busy, and getting that information in pieces over time, is probably productive for you and for the doctor.

Katherine:                   

With Covid-19 affecting all our lives right now, what should AML patients be considering at this time?

Dr. Daver:   

There’s a lot of guidelines on general approaches to managing things in COVID. And all of those guidelines heavily center, as we would think intuitively, on precautions.

Hand washing, minimizing contact, avoiding crowded places, trying to get treatment, potentially locally, if there are equivalent options available. We have not changed any of our frontline – we discuss this a lot every week in our faculty meeting.

This is discussed especially, as you know, because Houston currently is a major center affected heavily by COVID, and so, we have discussed whether we should move in a universal way to lower-intensity therapy for all patients. And we haven’t. And there’s pros and cons to that. When we do induction chemotherapy higher intensity, we, in fact, admit our patients for 28 days.

o, actually, even though it’s high intensity, the patient is more protected because they are in the room. Isolation rooms, sometimes. And they have minimum contact with outsiders. So, with COVID, actually, there’s very little opportunities or chances for them to get it. But the chemo is intensive. So, if they did get COVID, then it could be much more difficult or risky, or even fatal. On the other hand, low-intensity therapy is good because it’s low intensity and the risk of COVID, the frequency may or may not be changed; we don’t know. But the intensity we think could be lower because the immune system has not been suppressed.

However, low-intensity therapy very often is given outpatient. And so, then you have the benefit of lower intensity but the risk that you are going to be driving back and forth to the medical center, getting bloodwork, exposed to people in the waiting room, this and that. So, what we decided, after a lot of discussion among a big leukemia expert faculty in our group, was that we will still decide the optimum treatment based on the leukemia chromosome, molecular, age, fitness of the patient like we’ve always done.

And then we just have to try to encourage the patients to do as much precautions as possible. The other thing with the COVID, I think is very important is that, even though you may not be able to travel to your academic institution nearby because it’s harder to travel now, it’s still a good idea to try to get a consultation. We are doing a number of phone or email consultation, either directly with the patient, and even more frequently with their community doctor.

So, I get every day, four or five emails from academic even, and community physicians just saying, I have this patient, new AML, relapsed AML, whatever the case may be, here’s the mutation chromosome information, and I was going to do this. But the patient asked that I run this by one of my top academic colleagues. So, maybe MD Anderson. Some, I’m sure, are talking to Sloan. Some are, I know, are talking to Dana Farber. Cornell, whatever it may be. So, you can always request that. And maybe 100 percent of physicians may or may not do that.

And we’re seeing this collaboration actually. One of the positive things of COVID is we’re seeing these collaborations becoming better and better over time.

Katherine:                   

Oh, excellent. If a patient does need to go to clinic for a visit, what safety measures are in place?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. So, there’s a few things we’re doing in clinic is; one is we have staggered our clinics. So, instead of having everybody come at 9:00 or 10:00 a.m., and having 30 people in the waiting room, we really have more time slots.

And we ask people to come three of them at a time in the waiting room. We’re minimizing it three to five patients at most

Of course, there’s a lot of sanitization, dispensation units everywhere, encouraged to use those. The other important thing which, unfortunately, is a double-edged sword, is that we have had to minimize the number of friends, relatives, spouses, that can come with patients.

In fact, the policy at MD Anderson, like most cancer centers, is that nobody is allowed with the patient unless the patient is physically really impaired, as in wheelchair-bound or cannot go to the restroom. Of course, there are exceptions. But generally, I know, and I actually benefit a lot from it too, when patients have their family because the emotional support also helps our medical team to get information across. The patient may be sometimes stressed and forget things. So, what we’re doing more and more is doing phone calls.

So, what I would recommend is, as soon as doctor comes in, say, hey, doctor, can I call my daughter or my wife? I want her to listen to everything. Perfect. I don’t mind. There’s a speaker on. Good.

So, that helps with communication. But those are the big changes we have done from the clinic perspective. Still seems to be working relatively smoothly. We’re still seeing almost about the same number of patients in clinic that we were before COVID. And we have, fortunately, and knock on wood, not seen big numbers of leukemia patients with COVID. And we think the primary reason is because leukemia patients are just very cautious from the beginning. Even before COVID, they knew the risks, and we want them to continue that as much as possible.  

Katherine:

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

Dr. Daver:   

Thank you very much. Always a pleasure.

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners.

To learn more about AML and to access tools to help you become a more proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell – Thank you, Dr. Daver.

Fact or Fiction? AML Causes & Symptoms


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

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

See More From the Fact or Fiction? AML Series

Related Resources

 

How is an AML Treatment Approach Determined?

 

Addressing Common Myths About AML Treatment

 

Fact or Fiction? AML Research and Internet Claims


Transcript:

Ross:

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

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

 

Ross:

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

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah.

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

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

So, that’s the challenging balance.

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

Is formaldehyde exposure another risk factor for AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:                          

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

How easy is it to diagnose AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

 

Ross:

How important is early diagnosis?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

What are the best ways to manage those symptoms?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

 

Dr. Pollyea:

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

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

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

 

Ross:

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

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

Events

Coming Soon

Please check back soon as we work to build more resources.