What Standard Testing Follows a Myeloma Diagnosis?

What Standard Testing Follows a Myeloma Diagnosis? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What tests will you have following a myeloma diagnosis? Are there additional tests you should request? Dr. Joshua Richter provides an overview of key testing for myeloma and why each test is necessary.

Dr. Joshua Richter is director of Multiple Myeloma at the Blavatnik Family – Chelsea Medical Center at Mount Sinai. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Medicine in The Tisch Cancer Institute, Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology. Learn more about Dr. Richter, here.

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What standard testing follows a myeloma diagnosis?

Dr. Richter:

So, the standard testing that follows a myeloma diagnosis is multifaceted. So, the first one is blood work. And we draw a lot of blood tests to look at the bad protein that the cancer cells make. So, we send tests like a protein electrophoresis which tells us how high that bad protein is. We send immunofixation. That test tells us what type of bad protein it is. You’ll hear names like IgG kappa and IgA lambda.

These are the different types of bad proteins made by myeloma cells. Oftentimes, we’ll send urine tests to find out how much of that bad protein that was in the blood is coming out in the urine. We will, typically, do a bone marrow biopsy. It’s a test where we put a needle into the back of the hip bone to look at the marrow itself. And we’ll use that marrow to figure out how much myeloma there is, any other characteristics like the genetic changes in those cells.

The other big thing is imaging. So, the classic imaging that we do with myeloma is something called a skeletal survey. It’s, basically, a listing of X-rays from head to toe. But nowadays, we have newer techniques, things like whole body low-dose CAT scans, something called a PET-CT scan, and MRI scans. And your care team may have to figure out which one is right for you at what given time.


Mm-hmm. Are there additional tests that patients should ask for?

Dr. Richter:

Absolutely. One of the most important things from myeloma has to do with the genetic risk stratification.

So, for almost all cancers, the staging has a very big impact. And people will often think of cancer in stages I, II, III, and IV, and they’re managed very differently depending upon what stage it is. Myeloma has three stages, stage I, II, and III. But the most important thing is, actually, beyond the staging is what’s called the cytogenetics risk stratification. So, it’s really important when the bone marrow is sent to be sure that it is sent for, kind of, advanced techniques. Because you really want that snapshot of exactly what the genetic profile is, because that gives us information of A) how to treat, and B) prognostic, you know, who will tend to do better or worse based on this information. And even though that may not tell us which drugs to use, specifically, it may say, should we do something like a transplant or not? Should we consider a clinical trial early or not?


I see. How do test results affect treatment choices?

Dr. Richter:

So, test results can affect treatment choices in a number of ways. Probably, the most common one is thinking about the routine blood tests like your CBC or complete blood count and your chemistry, which looks at things like your kidney function. Some drugs tend to have more toxicity to the blood counts. So, if your blood counts are very low, we may choose drugs that don’t lower the blood counts very much.

Kidney function which we, usually, measure by something called the creatinine. Creatinine is made by the muscles and cleared out by the kidneys. So, if your kidneys aren’t working very well, you don’t pee out creatinine, and that creatinine level will rise in the blood. If your creatinine level is high, we may choose certain drugs that don’t affect the kidneys or not metabolized or broken down by the kidneys.

The genetic studies that we use – we’re not quite at this base yet where we can say, if you have this genetic abnormality in your myeloma, we should use this drug except there’s some really great data on the cutting edge about a drug called venetoclax.

Venetoclax is a pill that’s used to treat other diseases like lymphoma and leukemia. And it turns out that people who have what’s called a translocation (11:14) which means part of the 11th chromosome and part of the 14th chromosome in the cancer cells swap material.

Those people respond amazingly well to venetoclax. So, we’re starting to have what we would call precision medicine where we find your genetic abnormalities, not that you got from your parents or passed to your kids, but the genetics inside the tumor cells to tell us which treatments will work best for you.

What Should You Know About Myeloma Treatment Options?

What Should You Know About Myeloma Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Peter Forsberg outlines options in the myeloma treatment toolkit, including targeted therapies, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and combination approaches —and explains how the recovery process from stem cell transplant has improved.

Dr. Peter Forsberg is assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and is a specialist in multiple myeloma. More about Dr. Forsberg here.

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Would you walk us through the currently available myeloma treatment approaches and who they might be right for?

Dr. Forsberg:             

At this point, we’re lucky that we have a much broader toolkit to treat myeloma than we have had in the past. Myeloma is one of the successes in modern oncology in that way. At this point, we have a number of targeted therapies. Some of those are pill-based options, some are injections or infusional medicines. We have some immunotherapies, which are things like monoclonal antibodies, which help to work.

We use some conventional or older fashioned chemotherapy, often lower doses and as part of combinations. And steroids. Steroids are always the medicine that is one of the backbones of our combinations. In myeloma, we do often use combinations. So, it’s usually a mixture of targeted therapies. Sometimes immunotherapies or chemotherapies.

As well as steroids to try to treat the myeloma. And some of the considerations are, which combination makes the most sense. Are there other medical problems or disease related factors like disease aggressiveness that may influence which ones we wanna choose or how many. Also, is a three-drug combination the right fit or is a four or a two drug the right. And it does continue to evolve.

Our options and our ability to use multi-agent regimens has continued to improve as we’ve gotten better and better therapies that’re well tolerated and that allow us to use really active combinations, even in patients who may have substantial other medical problems. So, I think it’s been something that continues to evolve over time and will continue to evolve. But the good news is that it’s been an issue of just how to incorporate more and better options.

How do we bring these good new tools into the mix as early as is appropriate? To control the myeloma in really substantial ways. And again, as I mentioned, the question of the role of stem cell transplant continues to be an important one. That is a way for us to still use older fashioned chemotherapy at a high dose to help to achieve a more durable remission. But usually, the way that we parse through these targeted immunotherapies and chemotherapies, is something that may be individual.

Although, we have some broad principals that help guide us for how we manage patients across different types.


How do you decide who stem cell transplant might be right for?

Dr. Forsberg:             

The good news in the United States is that we’re able to be fairly broad in terms of our consideration of stem cell transplant. There is no age restriction above which it’s not. We’ve gotten better and better at supporting patients through stem cell transplant. We have better medicines to deal with potential toxicities. And so, patients do better and better in going through transplant. But it is still an intensive treatment modality. So, in considering it, it is an option for a large portion of myeloma patients at diagnosis. After we get the myeloma under control. But the decision remains an individual one. Some patients may prefer to defer stem cell transplant until a second line therapy or later.

Whereas others feel very comfortable moving forward with it in the first-line setting. I would say that it is certainly something that we try to demystify for patients. It can sound a little bit intimidating, certainly because it is a little more intense and requires more support. But it is something that we have gotten quite good at navigating patient and supporting them through.


What about maintenance therapy, how does that fit in?

Dr. Forsberg:             

Following initial treatments to get the myeloma under control, whether that includes stem cell transplant or not. Usually we transition into a maintenance therapy. Maintenance therapy is a way for us to sustain control or remission of the myeloma. And make that longer lived. So, what we use for maintenance may be different patient to patient. But it is a important part of our treatment approach for many patients.


Are some therapies less intense than others, and what are some possible side effects of those?

Dr. Forsberg:             

So, certainly there are treatments with varying degrees of intensity or potential toxicities. The good news is that as we’ve gained more and more treatment options, we’ve also gotten better at using the ones we have had for a while now to minimize some of their toxicities. So, by adjusting dosing schedule and routes of administration, we’ve gotten better at fine tuning the tools we have toward minimizing those toxicities.

So truthfully, many myeloma patients after you start treatment, actually feel better than before they started chemotherapy because the myeloma itself is a destructive process and the treatments are quite often well tolerated. That being said, certainly over time, treatment related side effects often emerge. Some of the treatment toxicities may cause some challenges in terms of managing patients through their myeloma process. But usually, those can be overcome. Even if that means needing to adjust the treatment protocol.

Adjust doses, change medicines. And so, while there are varying degrees of intensity, we’re usually able to find the right balance for any given patient to still have a very active anti-myeloma regimen while trying to be very cognizant of potential treatment toxicities and taking steps to mitigate that.

What Tests Should CLL Patients Insist They Receive?

What Tests Should CLL Patients Insist They Receive? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Which chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) tests are most critical in CLL care? Dr. Jennnifer Woyach details the key tests, what the tests identify, and how they help provide optimal care personalized to each patient.

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

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, like I said, at specialized centers, we can do what’s called a stimulated karyotype, which is where we look at all of the chromosomes. So, that’s FISH testing and karyotype. And then, the last thing is, actually, doing DNA sequencing for a specific mutation called a TP53 mutation. And TP53 is an important tumor suppressor protein. And it is mutated quite commonly in CLL. About 8 to 10 percent of patients at the time of first treatment and, actually, up to about 40 percent of people later on in the course of the disease. Most of the time, we see TP53 mutations occur at the same time as 17p deletions. About 80 percent of the time, those occur together but they can occur on their own.

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


Do patients need to be retested over time?

Dr. Woyach:               

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