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What Should Patients Know About DLBCL Treatment and Research?

What Should Patients Know About DLBCL Treatment and Research? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Why should diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) patients feel empowered to participate in their treatment and care decisions? Dr. Kami Maddocks reviews current DLBCL therapies, discusses developing research in the field, and shares advice encouraging patients to speak up and become active members of their team.

Dr. Kami Maddocks is a hematologist who specializes in treating patients with B-cell malignancies at the The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James. Learn more about Dr. Maddocks, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we are going to talk about diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, known as DLBCL and how you can feel empowered to speak up and be a partner in your care. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice.

Please refer to your health care team about what might be best for you. Well, joining us today is Dr. Kami Maddocks. Dr. Maddocks, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Maddocks:

Thank you. I’m Kami Maddocks. I’m a lymphoma doctor at the Ohio State University James Comprehensive Cancer Program.

Katherine:

Excellent. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Dr. Maddocks:

Thank you for having me.

Katherine:

Well, since the goal of this webinar is to help our viewers feel empowered in their care, in your opinion, what does it mean to be an empowered patient?

Dr. Maddocks:

I think an empowered patient is invested in their health and in their medical care. This can look like different things for different patients but I think being educated about their disease, being invested in decision making, along with their providers, and then being invested in the outcomes of their treatment and their disease.

Katherine:

What do you feel is the patient’s role in their care?

Dr. Maddocks:

I think it’s important that the patient partners with their care providers and their family, while they’re going through treatment for any condition. So, I think the most important thing is that the patient is comfortable with their care. And I think that includes being educated on their disease process. For some patients, this is going to be doing some of their own research, for some patients, this is going to be really relying and trusting in what their physician and care provider say, and for some patients, this is going to include other information that they seek out after they get the information from their care provider.

Katherine:

How do you empower patients?

Dr. Maddocks:

When I first meet a patient, I schedule a large block of time to spend with the patient, and I like to explain to the patient their new diagnosis. Or, if it’s not a new diagnosis, what I know about their disease, try to understand if they understand what I’m explaining, and what they know before coming to see me.

If there are treatment options, discuss those and go over those and make sure that I ask them to repeat or go over what they understand, from what I’ve explained from that. And then, making sure that they’re comfortable with available options outside of that. So, are there clinical trials available? Should they be seeking second opinions? Where is it best for them to get those second opinions? And then, ensuring that we have open lines of communications, so they have ways to contact me or my office. Making sure that they’re comfortable following up with questions that come in throughout the disease treatment and process. Ensuring that they know to contact us if there are changes or concerns so that we can address things in real time.

Katherine:

Yeah. That’s great advice, Dr. Maddocks. Thank you. Now, let’s learn more about DLBCL. For those who may be newly diagnosed, what is it?

Dr. Maddocks:

Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma is a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So, this is considered a blood cancer. Lymphomas are a cancer of the lymphocyte, which is one of the types of blood cells that form your immune system. So, when you think about your nodes, these are part of the cells that help fight different types of infection. So, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma is one of the types of non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, it’s aggressive, and it is considered an aggressive form of lymphoma. And it’s when you get a cancer of those lymph cells that often involved the lymph nodes but could also involve bone marrow, blood cells, other sites outside of the lymph nodes.

Katherine:

Do we know what causes DLBCL?

Dr. Maddocks:

For the most part, we don’t know what causes diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. So, most of the time, it’s going to arise with patients not having risk factors. We know that age is the most common risk factor with the median diagnosis of a patient in their 60s.

Although, we also know that diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, why it’s more common to be diagnosed later in life, can occur across all the age spectrum. So, you see this in pediatric adolescents, young adults, and older adults. There are some causes. These represent more than minority of cases but certain viruses, including HIV virus, can be associated with the development of lymphoma. Certain other medical conditions, like rheumatologic conditions and some of the treatments for these, can be associated, and then, some chemical exposures. But in general, most of the time, we’re not going to have an identified cause.

Katherine:

What are the symptoms?

Dr. Maddocks:

They can look a little bit different for different patients. So, because this is often a cancer, most of the time there will be lymph node involvement. For some patients, they can actually feel or somebody will see a lymph node that grows. Most of the time, when this occurs, it’s going to be in the neck, under the armpits, or in the groin area.

Patients can start to have symptoms from other sites, of those lymph nodes growing or disease so that they can get pain or shortness of breath. Or they can have what’s called B symptoms. So, B symptoms are inflammatory like symptoms from the lymphoma, and these include weight loss. So, a rapid change in weight for no reason. Night sweats. So, daily night sweats, we call them drenching night sweats. They wake up the patient, they soak their clothes, sometimes they soak the whole bed. And then, fatigue. So, extreme fatigue, not able to do your daily activities. And then, occasional people will have cyclical fevers.

Katherine:

Are there different types of DLBCL?

Dr. Maddocks:

So, in general, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, there’s one major subtype. You can divide it into different pathological or molecular subtypes.

So, where the cell develops lymphoma during the cell’s development, there are different chromosome abnormalities. So, there are different categorizations but in general, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma itself is considered – it’s treated, often, the same even with these different subtypes. So, there are different subtypes but in general, they’re all considered a form of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.

Katherine:

They’re under this umbrella of DLBCL.

Dr. Maddocks:

Yeah. Yeah.

Katherine:

Yeah. Do patients usually get diagnosed after they experience some symptoms?

Dr. Maddocks:

So, because this is an aggressive lymphoma, there are a lot of patients that will have symptoms with this, and that’s how they’ll present. Via either noticing the lymph nodes, having the B symptoms, or having pain, or other abnormalities from the lymphoma progressing.

Occasionally, whereas indolent lymphoma is more commonly found of incidentally. Occasionally, that’ll be the case with these, but I would say a fair number of patients have some sort of symptom or something that brings them to medical attention.

Katherine:

How does DLBCL progress?

Dr. Maddocks:

So, they’re different, as far as there’s more aggressive and less aggressive. So, some patients can develop symptoms, really, over days to weeks. Whereas, some patients are more weeks to months.

Katherine:

“Okay. Let’s turn to treatment options. Is a person with DLBCL treated right away?”

Dr. Maddocks:

They’re treated pretty quickly after the diagnosis. So, typically, when somebody has a diagnosis, they undergo a number of different tests, including lab work, imaging work, sometimes for their biopsies.

So, that information is gathered over days to sometimes a few weeks process. Then, when you have all that information, you go over the results, go over the treatment at that time. So, it’s typically treated not within, usually, a day of diagnosis but it’s not something that you spend weeks or months before treating.

Katherine:

Yeah. What are the different types of treatments available?

Dr. Maddocks:

So, the diffuse large B-cell lymphoma is treated with chemotherapy and immunotherapy. So, a combination of an immune antibody therapy and chemotherapy. There is a role in some cases for radiation, but never just radiation alone and never just surgery alone. So, there’s always what we call a systemic treatment. So, a treatment that goes everywhere. Because this is considered a blood cancer, it’s a cancer of those cells, it can really spread anywhere.

And so, just cutting it out with surgery or just radiating the area doesn’t treat everything, even if you can’t identify it.

Katherine:

Can you get specific about some of the treatment classes?

Dr. Maddocks:

Yeah. So, the most common treatment for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma is a chemo immunotherapy called R-CHOP. So, this is three chemotherapies and antibody therapy that’s direct called rituximab (Rituxan) that’s directed at a protein on the lymphoma cells. And then, a steroid called prednisone, given with the chemo and then for a few days after. There was a study that recently showed an improvement with switching one of those drugs with another immunotherapy that’s an antibody conjugated to a chemo drug. But that’s not yet been approved. There are clinical trials available. So, looking at these treatments that might be new or combining therapies with this standard treatment.

And then, very occasionally, there are certain features of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. There are particular few different subtypes that are classified a little bit differently, that are treated within an infusional therapy called Dose Adjusted R-EPOCH.

Katherine:

What about stem cell therapy? Is that used?

Dr. Maddocks:

Stem cell therapy is used in the relapse setting. So, if a patient doesn’t go into a remission or if they relapse after achieving a remission with their chemotherapy, then stem cell transplant is an option. So, there are actually two different types of stem cell transplant. One from yourself and one from somebody else. In lymphoma, we typically do one from yourself, where you donate your own cell before. But we don’t use that as part of the initial treatment.

Katherine:

So, if somebody is high risk, Dr. Maddocks, is the approach different for them?

Dr. Maddocks:

So, it depends. We define high risk in different ways. So, there’s a specific type of lymphoma called double hit lymphoma, where there’s a few chromosomal translocations associated with the lymphoma, that we give a little more aggressive chemo immunotherapy regimen. There are also other subtypes, including a rare type of lymphoma called primary mediastinal B-cell lymphoma. Again, categorized a little bit different but sometimes included as a large cell lymphoma. We also give that treatment for.

Katherine:

Is a cure possible?

Dr. Maddocks:

Yes. A cure is possible. When you look at patients who are treated with initial chemotherapy, we cure somewhere between 60 percent to 70 percent of patients with the initial chemotherapy. If patients’ relapse, depending on their age and their condition, they’re candidates for other therapies.

And therapy including other chemo and stem cell transplant is potentially curable in some patients. And then, there’s a newer therapy called chimeric antigen receptor T-cell, or CAR T-cell therapy, which also looks like it’s curing a subset of patients who relapse or don’t respond to initial therapy.

Katherine:

Okay. What are the side effects that patients can expect with these treatments?

Dr. Maddocks:

So, when they get the treatment, on the day they get it, there can be an infusion reaction to the rituximab or antibody therapies. So, the first treatment, that treatment is given very slowly and titrated up. If patients have a reaction, we stop it, treat the reaction, and then they’re able to continue therapy but again, that first day, it can take several hours for that one antibody to get in. And then, later, therapies are given at a more rapid pace.

So, about 70 percent of people who react, it can be really almost anything. Some people get flushing, some people will get a fever, some people have shortness of breath or their heart rate will go up.

Katherine:

Okay. All right. Any other side effects?

Dr. Maddocks:

Yeah. So then chemotherapy is meant to kill cells during the cell cycle. So, cancer cells divide more rapidly, chemotherapy is targeting them, but it also effects good cells in the body, specifically those that divide at a more rapid pace. The biggest risk of chemotherapy is infection.

So, it effects the good white blood cells that fight infections. It can affect your red cells that carry your iron, gives you your energy. Or your platelets which help you to clot or not bleed when you get caught. So, infection is the biggest risk of chemotherapy. So, usually, with this regimen, that infectious risk is highest within the second week of treatment, that treatment is given every three weeks.

So, we tell patients they should buy a thermometer, check their temperature, they have to notify their doctor or go to the ER if they have a fever. Besides infection, there’s a small percentage of patients who might need a transfusion. GI toxicity. So, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, mouth sores, constipation, all of which we have good treatments for. So, we give medication before chemo to try to prevent people from getting sick and then give them medicine to go home with, if they have any nausea. We can alter those medications as time goes on, if they’re having any problems. So, we just need to know about it. Most patients will lose their hair with this regimen.

It can affect people’s tastes, it can make their skin more sensitive to the sun, and then, less common but potential side effects are it can cause damage to the nerves. Or something we call neuropathy, which most often patients will start with getting numbness or tingling in their fingers and toes, and we can dose adjust if that’s causing some problems.

And then, there’s a risk to the heart with one of the drugs. So, the heart should pump like this. The heart pump function can go down. So, we always check a patient’s heart pump function before they get their chemo, to make sure that they’re not at higher risk for that to happen.

Katherine:

So, all of these approaches are used in initial treatment?

Dr. Maddocks:

Mm-hmm.

Katherine:

Okay. So, how do you know if a treatment is working?

Dr. Maddocks:

So, as far as evaluating treatment, you get a scan before you start treatments, so we know where all the lymphoma is at. And then, typically, you get some sort of scan in the middle of treatment, and then after, you complete your six cycles of treatment. Or for early stages, sometimes patients will get less than six cycles. So, we get scans to make sure it’s working. So, you can tell by those things, how much has gone, hopefully all of it has gone by the end. Occasionally, patients that had a lot of symptoms to start with, their symptoms will go away, and then they’ll start coming back.

This is less common, because the majority of patients do respond to chemotherapy. It’s less common to get patients who are what is called refractory, meaning they don’t get any response to therapy. So, occasionally they’ll note symptoms but a lot of times, we’ll see something on that mid-therapy or end of therapy scan, if it’s not going to make it all go away.

Katherine:

Yeah. So, if a treatment doesn’t work, what happens then?

Dr. Maddocks:

If treatment doesn’t work, it depends a little bit – and now it depends a little bit on the timing of that treatment not working. So, it used to be that patients who were eligible for treatment, no matter if it didn’t work right away or if it put them into what we call a remission, so there’s no evidence of disease and then it relapsed, they would have the option of further chemotherapy and then an autologous stem cell transplant. So, a bone marrow transplant where they donate their own cells.

If they were in a good enough health or if they were not – to do that, you have to donate your own bone marrow cells and as we age, we make less bone marrow cells. So, once you reach a certain age, your body can’t produce enough cells to donate to a transplant. In those patients, we offer them less aggressive chemo options, which were not known to be curable but could put them into remission again, for a while. More recently, there has been some that chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy that I mentioned where you actually donate your own T cells. So that’s –And your lymphoma is of your B cells.

Your T cells are in another immune cell that should recognize that lymphoma is bad and attack it, and they’re not functioning properly. So, you donate your own T cells and they’re sent off and reengineered to target a protein on the tumor. Then, you get those cells back and they’re meant to target the lymphoma and kill the lymphoma cells.

So, that is now an approved therapy for patients who don’t achieve the remission – so, who’s first chemo doesn’t work or if they relapse within a year of completing chemo. So, that’s a possibility. The chemo and transplants a possibility. Or there’s other approved therapies now, that can be given as second options or third or later options, which have been shown to keep patients in remission for a while.

Katherine:

Dr. Maddocks, you touched up on this a moment ago but what are the approaches if a patient relapses? What do you do?

Dr. Maddocks:

So, you would rework them up if they relapsed. Similar to that, if they relapse within a year and they have access to the CAR-T and they’re healthy for that, then that’ll be an option. The second type of chemotherapy in the transplant. So, you can’t just go straight to a transplant. You have to get a different type of chemotherapy to try to get the disease under control again, before you would go to a transplant.

Or there’s a number of other targeted therapies that are approved. So, there’s other – I talked about rituximab is given in the first line, that targets a CD-20 protein, there’s an antibody that targets a CD-19 protein that’s given out in relapse. There’s another antibody drug – there’s actually two antibody drug conjugates. So, an antibody that targets the protein on the cells that are attached to a chemo, that’s given. Or there’s different chemotherapy and then even some oral therapies.

Katherine:

Okay. So, there’s a lot of different options available for people.

Dr. Maddocks:

Correct. And there’s always clinical trials. So, there’s always the option to find something where we’re studying some of these newer therapies. They’re therapies in combination.

Katherine:

Well, that leads us right into emerging options and I’d like to talk about that. Have there been any recent developments in how DLBCL is treated?

Dr. Maddocks:

There had been recent developments. So, the CAR T-cell therapy, there is now three approved options for patients. And so, even patients who maybe are older and not considered candidates for a stem cell transplant because of other medical factors, might be able to get the CAR T-cell therapy. This is now, again, approved in the second line. There are a couple antibody drug conjugates, polatuzumab (Polivy) and loncastuximab (Lonca, Zylonta), they target proteins called CD-79 and CD-19.

And the polatuzumab’s the one that probably is going to be available for part of the front-line treatment in the future. There’s the antibody __ and lenalidomide. These are all approved therapies in the relapse setting. There are also therapies that are being studied and showing promising activity, which we think are probably likely to be approved in the future. There’s something particularly called bi-specific antibodies.

So, this targets a protein on the tumor cell but also a protein on the T cell. So, remember I said the T cells aren’t functioning. So, this targets the protein on the lymphoma cell but then targets a protein on the T cell to engage it to attack the lymphoma cell.

Katherine:

Right. Combination approaches?

Dr. Maddocks:

Yeah. So, there are a number of combination approaches under study a lot of the therapies that I mentioned, like the bi-specific antibodies, the antibody drug conjugates. These are all therapies that – they have side effects – I hate to say they’re well-tolerated – they have side effects but their side effects are such that they can be combined with other agents, that have different toxicities that are combined with each other. And so, there’s a lot of ongoing trials looking at combining these. There’re also oral targeted therapies that target proteins that are known to help the lymphoma cells survive and these are modulator therapies, BTK inhibitors, other inhibitors, that are being evaluated and used in combinations.

Katherine:

Thanks, Dr. Maddocks. That’s really helpful information. So, now that we understand more about DLBCL and how it’s treated, let’s talk about self-advocacy and how patients can engage in their own care. Why is it so important for patients to have a voice in their decisions?

Dr. Maddocks:

Well, I always tell my patients that they are the person most invested in their selves and their outcomes. As a care team, we certainly are invested in them and we want them to do well but they’re the one that knows their body, they know what’s going on, they’re the one that has to, essentially, live with all these outcomes. So, they have to be invested in what’s going on, they have to be invested in making sure that they know their care team is informed of things because we only see them in different periods of time and we’re not with them all the time to know what’s going on.

Katherine:

Right. It’s not always easy for patients to speak up. So, I’d like to debunk some common misconceptions that patients have, that may be holding them back. First one is, “I’m bothering my doctor with all my questions.” Is that true?

Dr. Maddocks:

That is not true at all. So, the best thing is an informed patient. So, I want to answer all their questions. “What is the disease or diagnosis?” “What are the treatment options?” “What do we know now?” “What are we learning?” I need to know what’s going on. I always tell my patients that I can’t help them with what I don’t know. So, if somebody shows up, they get once cycle of treatment and they show up for a second cycle and they’ve had all these problems and never called or notified me, first of all, we weren’t able to help them. There’s a lot of things we can do to help them and if we don’t know what’s going on, we can’t help.

And second, that might impact that second treatment, whereas knowing and knowing that sooner, we can plan to make changes.

Katherine:

Yeah. That’s really good advice. Here’s another one. “My doctor’s feelings will get hurt if I get a second opinion.”

Dr. Maddocks:

Not at all. So, I always encourage patients that they should get a second opinion, third opinion, whatever they need. No. 1, I think it’s important that a patient feels comfortable with their diagnosis and their treatment

plan because I really think that things go better if they understand that and they’re comfortable. If they’re always doubting what’s going on, it’s really hard to develop that trusting relationship. And I think it’s very important that a patient has a trusting relationship with their care team.

I think most of the time, when you get a second opinion, you’re probably going to hear or get the same advice. And so, that helps a patient to feel comfortable. Sometimes, there may be clinical trials out there that your doctor didn’t know about, that are options, and a doctor’s always going to be happy if there’s something out there available, that might make the patient outcome better, that they didn’t know about.

And lastly, I would say there are a lot of doctors who treat all types of cancer and there are some doctors that specialize in certain types of cancer. And so, if you were seeing a doctor who treats multiple different kinds, but want to see a doctor who specializes in a particular kind, they may be aware of a recent trial or a recent development that your doctor doesn’t know. Not because there’s anything wrong with that doctor, it’s just that there is so much data to keep up with these days, in cancer, that a specialist might be able to provide a point of view that somebody else doesn’t know.

Katherine:

Yeah. Another question or comment is, “There isn’t anything that could be done about my symptoms or treatment side effects. So, why should I even say anything?”

Dr. Maddocks:

That’s a great question but the thing is, a lot of times there are things. So, the one thing is, some of the treatments we use for some of our cancers, including lymphoma, have been around for a really long time. But some of the things that have changed, are our supportive care or our ability to treat patient side effects. So, I think that it’s always important that patients let us know if they’re having side effects because maybe nausea – so, we give medication to prevent that.

Usually, I send patients home with two different types of nausea medication. But if that’s not helping, I have more than two in my toolbox, I just don’t know to prescribe them if the typical things aren’t helping. So, a lot of times, there are things that we can do. Sometimes you have to tweak the dosing of the chemo, but really, the only way you can help with symptom management is if you know somebody’s having symptoms.

Katherine:

Right. So, when somebody starts to have side effects from the treatment, should they contact their care team right away?

Dr. Maddocks:

Yes. They should contact their care team right away. There are certain side effects, like having a fever during chemo, where they really need to go to the emergency room to be evaluated, to make sure it’s nothing. Because an infection can be very serious when you’re getting chemotherapy. Other side effects that are less emergent but, yes. Most of the time there’s a patient number that patients can call, where they can seek, like a nurse help line, where they can seek assistance, and that call can be escalated depending on the symptoms and what needs to be helped.

But I think, again, it’s important that we know what’s going on so we can help patients. And then, if something needs to be further investigated – because occasionally there will be something that’ll make us think, “Oh, we really need to evaluate this patient because what if it’s more than what it seems?”

Katherine:

Right. Are there any other misconceptions that you hear about from patients?

Dr. Maddocks:

I think, just in general, thinking about the patient taking care of themselves. So, a lot of times there can be resources that patients have questions on. Things like exercise. Things like nutrition. Things in the environment that they can be exposed to. Just different things. I think it’s always important that you ask your care team if there’s any question because they’re going to best be able to tell you versus just assuming something.

There’s a lot of good information that patients can get from educational sites. There’s a lot of good information on the internet but there’s also a lot of bad information, or inaccurate information on the internet. So, I think it’s great for patients to use resources and educate themselves but I think that it’s always good to confirm with your care team. Myths versus facts.

Katherine:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s really important. Do you recommend that patients continue getting vaccines? For COVID, for flu?

Dr. Maddocks:

Yes. So, particularly, when you look at lymphomas, this is a cancer of the immune system. The cancer can make your immune system compromise the treatment. While you’re getting treated makes your immune system compromised. And even for a period after treatment, your immune system can be compromised. So, it’s important to protect yourselves against infection. Sometimes the efficacy of vaccines in the middle of treatment might not be as good as not being on treatment.

But that said, there’s no data that the vaccines are harmful. You do have to be careful about live vaccines when you’re under treatment, and you should ask your doctor about not the typical vaccines, of course. But I think that it’s very important to take every step that patients can, to try to prevent themselves from battling something in addition to them already undergoing treatments, their body’s already going through a lot.

And so, anything that we can do or they can do to help prevent them from dealing with more than they already are, I think is important.

Katherine:

To close, what would you like to leave the audience with? Do you think that people can feel hopeful about the tools available to treat DLBCL?

Dr. Maddocks:

Yeah. I think, if you look at the progress we’ve made in the last five years, the last drug approved was rituximab in the early 2000s, and now in the last five years, we have had numerous therapies approved. Now it looks like we’re changing front-line therapy and numerous therapies that relapse. So, there’s a lot of – these are all promising therapies, some of them potentially curing patients that we weren’t able to cure before.

And so, they’re more available to patients. There’s a lot of promising drugs in clinical trials. And so, I think it’s hard to deal with a diagnosis but there are options for patients, both initially and at relapse, and I think seeking out what’s available, both to you and in clinical trials, is important to helping further improve outcomes.

Katherine:

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

Dr. Maddocks:

Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

Katherine:

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

What is YOUR Role in Choosing a CLL Treatment Approach?

What Is YOUR Role in Choosing a CLL Treatment Approach? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Jean Koff shares her perspective on the role of patient when deciding on a CLL treatment approach and reviews key factors that should be considered.

Dr. Jean Koff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Koff, here.

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

What Are the Current CLL Treatment Options?

 
What Do You Need to Know About CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What Do You Need to Know About CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

What is the patient’s role in deciding on a treatment plan? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, it’s very important that the patient be involved in deciding on a treatment plan. Especially in first-line. Because we have these two excellent classes of agents, the BTK inhibitors and the venetoclax- containing regimens. Both of them have been shown to have very good what we call efficacy CLL, meaning that they’re able to control the disease, patient’s symptoms largely at bay for long periods of time. You know, we’re talking an average of years that – that patients are on these therapies. And they each, like I said have different side effect profiles.  

And they’re given in slightly different ways. And so, right now we don’t have data from our clinical trials comparing a BTK inhibitor regimen to a venetoclax-containing regimen in CLL patients to tell us one is better than the other. And so, for that reason, a lot of the decision-making about which therapy is going to be better for you, or which therapy you would prefer, lies with the CLL patient rather than with the doctor. And the things that I ask my patients to consider, there are a couple different things. One is the side effect profile. So, patients may be more or less comfortable with certain  

side effects of one drug compared to another. Or there may be something in the patient’s medical history that puts them more at risk for a certain side effect than another. 

The other major player in this decision-making process is how these drugs are given. So, with ibrutinib (Imbruvica), the ibrutinib is given as a pill that you take once a day, and you take it indefinitely. Meaning you take that pill once a day for as long as it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, which is keeping your CLL under control, and as long as the patient is tolerating it well, meaning you’re not having a lot of uncomfortable side effects from the ibrutinib. So, I have patients who have been on ibrutinib for years and years and years and years.  

The venetoclax-containing regimen for patients who are getting their first-line treatment in CLL is different. It is designed as a – what we call time-limited therapy. And so, this regimen is given in – over about 12 months, 12 or 13 months, and then stopped, as long as the patient has had a good response. The other thing to consider with the venetoclax r egimen, it’s not just the pill. You do take a pill every day, but you also get a – an infusion for about six months of the monoclonal antibody. Meaning that you’ll have to come into the infusion center and get an infu – an IV infusion of this drug called obinutuzumab. The last consideration with the venetoclax regimen that differs in how it’s administered, is the venetoclax often works so well that it can break down the CLL cells a little bit too quickly. And so, for patients who have a very, very high white count, or large lymph nodes due to their CLL, there is a risk of something we call tumor lysis syndrome, which refers to the process where the tumor cells break down very, very quickly, and they produce molecules that are released into the bloodstream that can be dangerous if they get too high or too low. And so, sometimes, in some patients we have to monitor for the tumor lysis syndrome by checking labs fairly frequently after we start the venetoclax. And for some patients that means they have to stay overnight for a night or two in the hospital for lab monitoring.  

So, for some of my patients that I talk to about venetoclax, they say I want to stay out of the hospital, I just want to take a pill, I’m fine taking a pill, I’ll go with the BTK inhibitors. For other patients, they say I don’t want to be on a pill every single day, I will go through this year of therapy, I’m comfortable with that, and I’m happy that I’ll be able to take a break from therapy after one year. So, that ends up being a large factor in many of the conversations I have with my patients about which therapeutic approach we’re going to use in front-line therapy.  

What Do You Need to Know About CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What Do You Need to Know About CLL Treatment Side Effects? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

CLL Expert Dr. Jean Koff discusses common side effects of CLL treatment and explains how they can be managed.

Dr. Jean Koff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Koff, here.

See More from Thrive CLL

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CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

What is YOUR Role in Choosing a CLL Treatment Approach?

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

What are the common side effects of treatments, and how are they managed? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, each of the different classes of agents has a different profile of side effects. The BTK inhibitors, the first class that I mentioned with ibrutinib (Imbruvica) and acalabrutinib (Calquence), are usually very well tolerated. The most common side effects that we tend to see are things that the patients can feel or see, but also things that we can see on the labs when we’re monitoring patients. So, sometimes you can see a lower platelet counts or lower blood cell counts with ibrutinib. That’s something that you may not notice, but your doctor’s going to notice on the – the blood counts when you come to the office. Sometimes ibrutinib can cause a rash or GI upset, this is usually easily managed with supportive care from your physician.  

And then some more – some more common effects of the BTK inhibitors include joint pain and headache. And again, many physicians, because we’ve been using BTK inhibitors for a long time, have a good regimen for treating these side effects. More uncommon side effects of BTK inhibitors, particularly ibrutinib that we look out for would be abnormal heart rhythms and some tendency for bleeding. But these are relatively uncommon and with newer BTK inhibitors, we’re seeing lower rates of these side effects.  

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, in terms of venetoclax side effects we have a little bit of a different profile. This agent is much more likely to cause lower cell counts, especially in a white blood cell count known as neutrophil count, and so your doctor will be monitoring you for that. In terms of patient side effects that you can feel, it can cause a rash, it can cause some GI upset. These are usually relatively easily managed but we want you as the patient if you’re on venetoclax to talk to your doctor about these side effects so that they can help you feel better and help you manage those. In terms of the anti-CV20 monoclonal antibodies, which we use a couple in CLL more frequently, they have very similar side effect profiles.  

So, one is rituximab, and one is obinutuzumab. Obinutuzumab is usually used in combination with venetoclax in front-line CLL.  

Like I mentioned before, this is an infusion and most of the side effects that we think about and most commonly see in these anti-CV20s are side effects that patients have during the infusion. And these are referred to as infusion reaction. And these are relatively common, around 30 percent in these anti-CV20 monoclonal antibodies. So, what is an infusion center react – er sorry, what does an infusion reaction look like? This looks sort of like an allergic reaction. 

Katherine Banwell:

Hm. 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, your nurses in the infusion center are going to be monitoring you very carefully once you start the infusion, and they’re going to start it at a low dose, very slowly. But the side effects they’re monitoring for, they’re looking for changes in your heart rate or blood pressure. You may start to feel hot or cold or sweaty, you may have chills. Sometimes patients can have swelling in their throat or their tongue. And what will happen is because these are fairly common, is we’re still able to give the anti-CV20, but what we do is the nurse will stop the infusion, they may give you some medications that calm down that infusion reaction. So, medications like antihistamines –  

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm.  

Dr. Jean Koff:

Or steroids that help tamp down that immune response, and then they start the anti-CV20 infusion at a lower rate. The vast majority of patients will be able to receive an anti-CV20 antibody even if they have an infusion reaction. They may just need a little bit more of those immune tamping-down medications like antihistamines and steroids. And then the last thing to consider, which I think we’ve mentioned, especially in the venetoclax-containing regimens, is the tumor lysis syndrome. And so, that is a side effect like we mentioned is kind of like the venetoclax working really, really, really well, of the tumor breaking down too quickly.  

And so, patients who have tumor lysis, if they’re at high-risk, hopefully they’re already being monitored very closely with frequent lab draws, and they may receive medications that – that diminish the risk of adverse events happening because your electrolytes are out balance, for instance, your potassium is too high, or your calcium is too low. Because your doctors are monitoring you closely, they can give you medications that can help balance  out those – those electrolytes and help protect the kidneys. The tumor lysis is typically not a risk after the initial doses of venetoclax.  

So, the first couple weeks is when we typically monitor that, and then once the CLL has been broken down, or as I like to say, once it’s been cooled off a little bit, then you no longer have this risk of tumor lysis and it – it doesn’t require further monitoring. 

Katherine Banwell:

That’s great information, thank you.  

What Are the Current CLL Treatment Options?

What Are the Current CLL Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When is it time to treat CLL, and what are the current options? Dr. Jean Koff, from the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, reviews available CLL treatment approaches and discusses patient-specific factors that she considers when choosing therapy.

Dr. Jean Koff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Koff, here.

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

What Do You Need to Know About CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What Do You Need to Know About CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What is YOUR Role in Choosing a CLL Treatment Approach?

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Many patients are overwhelmed by the different types and classes of treatment. When is it time to treat CLL, and what are the options? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, I boil down the criteria to when you need to treat your CLL to two main categories. One category is that the disease is progressing quickly, and the other category is the disease is causing problems of some kind, or getting ready to cause problems of some kind. Those are some of the broad categories that we think about when it’s time to start treatment for CLL. Now, this – the groups that research CLL have put out various criteria that help guide physicians about when it’s time to start treatment, and some of those more specific criteria include items like symptoms. So, symptoms are a very important part of that decision-making process.   

And the same symptoms that we mentioned, the B symptoms, fevers, chills, night sweats, weight loss that’s unintentional, or lymph nodes that you can feel, those would potentially be reasons that your doctor would want to start you on CLL therapy. But the CLL can cause issues even in a patient who’s not necessarily having symptoms. So, one of the most common ways that CLL can cause issues is the CLL cells can cause your other blood cells, the normal blood cells, to be low in number. There are several ways the CLL cells can do this. One of the most common ways is that the CLL cells, which are often circulating through your bloodstream, can also collect or overrun your bone marrow.  

And if you think about it, the bone marrow is the factory that makes all of your blood cells. So, when there are too many CLL cells in the bone marrow, they can crowd out the normal blood cells, like red blood cells or platelets. So, when red blood cells or platelets get low beneath certain thresholds, that’s a reason to start CLL therapy. 

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm.   

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, there are a couple other criteria that we think about. CLL cells can collect in other areas, including the spleen. So – and if you remember, the spleen is a lymphoid organ that sits on the left side of your body that is right below the stomach. And so, if CLL cells collect in the spleen, they can cause it to be too big, it can press on the stomach, it can make it so you feel full, even if you haven’t eaten a full meal, that’s something we call early satiety. It can be uncomfortable, causing some abdominal pain. And if the spleen gets really, really big, it can cause it to not be able to do its normal job, which is to filter out the normal blood cells like it does every day. And so, that would be a reason to start therapy as well. And then the last – the last category I would think about is in CLL we have lots of – of CLL cells that are circulating in the blood that we can check with a routine blood count. And the absolute number of CLL cells is not as important as how fast that number is growing. So, your physician will track how fast that number of CLL cells is doubling.  

And if you meet criteria for what we call rapid doubling time, which is usually thought of as less than 12 months but certainly less than six months. So, if your count goes from 30,000 to 60,000 in under six months, then it may be time for you to start thinking about therapy. 

Katherine Banwell:

Right. So, Dr. Koff, would you briefly review the treatment classes? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, for first-line treatment, we have two main treatment classes that we think about at this time. The first is – is called BTK inhibitors, which is Bruton tyrosine kinase inhibitors. And these are oral medications, so medications that you take by mouth, and the most well-studied of these is called ibrutinib (Imbruvica), we typically prescribe ibrutinib by itself. There are other BTK inhibitors we are also now using in this space, one of them is called acalabrutinib  (Calquence), and that is often given with an IV monoclonal antibody called obinutuzumab (Gazyva).   

The other main class of drugs that we consider for first-line treatment of CLL is the BCL-2 inhibitors. Right now there’s only one BCL-2 inhibitor that’s approved for CLL and front-line and it’s called venetoclax (Venclexta). Usually, this drug is also given in the front-line with an anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody. So, the venetoclax itself is a pill you take. And the monoclonal antibody is an – either an IV or a subcutaneous injection.  

Katherine Banwell:

Where do clinical trials fit into CLL treatment? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, clinical trials are part of the reason, a big part of the reason that we’ve been able to make so much progress in how we treat CLL over the past few years. Clinical trials are how we figure out what treatments work for CLL, how patients feel on them, what sort of adverse events or side effects they have on individual treatments, and which treatments do better for keeping CLL symptoms under control, keeping the disease under control, and allowing patients to live longer and have a higher quality of life with their disease.   

Katherine Banwell:

Are there any other options available for CLL patients?  

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, there are other options. A clinical trial, if that is available to you as a patient is nearly always a good thing to consider if you have CLL. Because the vast majority of patients will not be cured by CL – by their treatment for CLL. Meaning that the – even though the treatments we have usually work for a very long time in most patients, ultimately the CLL will at some point, perhaps years down the road, progress and need another therapy. For that reason, we know we can do better. And we are hoping that the next  clinical trial is going to lead to the discovery of a new agent or a new combination – new  combinations of agents that will allow patients to live longer with a better quality of life with CLL.  

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm. 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, that’s always a good option to consider.  

Thriving With CLL: Your Role in Managing Your Care

Thriving with CLL: Your Role in Managing Your Care from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 How can patients thrive with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)? Dr. Jean Koff discusses CLL treatments approaches, strategies for managing disease symptoms and treatment side effects, and shares advice on how patients can be proactive in their care.

Dr. Jean Koff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Koff, here.

Download Resource Guide

See More from Thrive CLL

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Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:  

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to discuss what it means to thrive with CLL. And how you can play an active role in your care. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. At the end of this webinar, you’ll receive a link to a program survey. Please take a moment to provide feedback about your experience today, in order to help us plan future webinars.  

And finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please speak to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Jean Koff. Dr. Koff, welcome! Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

Hi, I’m Jean Koff. I’m a lymphoma and CLL specialist from Emory University and it’s a pleasure to be with you here today. 

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you for taking the time to join us. We start all of our webinar in our CLL Thrive series with the same question. In your experience, what does it mean to thrive with CLL? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, I think thriving with CLL means that a patient is informed about their disease, they are comfortable with the physician who’s helping them navigate their disease and their management plan. And their management plan, whatever that might be, is really allowing them to focus on their life outside of CLL. So, keeping their symptoms to the absolute minimum, their physician keeping them informed about their disease progress, or lack thereof, in terms of keeping the disease at bay so they can focus on all of those things that bring them enjoyment outside of the CLL world. 

Katherine Banwell:

That’s great. Thank you for your perspective. One part of thriving  with CLL is managing the symptoms of the disease. What are the common symptoms of CLL? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, one thing that I see with nearly all of my CLL patients, regardless of where they are in the CLL journey, and regardless of whether they need active medications to manage their CLL, is some degree of fatigue. And this can range from just mild fatigue that patients notice that they need a little bit of a breather in the middle of the day, to needing more sleep at night, to not being able to exercise as much as they’re used to. And that is by far one of the most common symptoms we see. Again, whether or not their disease needs medication to manage it. The classic symptoms of CLL that often let us know that it’s time to start medical management, are not just this fatigue. But the classic symptoms are B symptoms. And we describe those as fevers, night sweats, and unintentional weight loss. Those are very common. And then some patients with CLL will also have what we call palpable lymphadenopathy, which is our term for lymph nodes that are enlarged that you can feel. And the most common places to feel these on the body are on the neck, under the arms, and in the groin.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. How are symptoms treated? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, if your symptoms progress to the point that your doctor thinks you need medication – they’re becoming disruptive to your life, or they are getting worse and worse over time, then there are a variety of medications that we can use in CLL. And this is actually a very exciting field. Right now, the state of the field is that most patients who are starting on their first treatment for CLL will use some sort of oral medication, and that may be accompanied by an IV – what we call monoclonal antibody, or it may not. But one thing that has really changed even since I very first started practicing, is that we no longer commonly use what I would call conventional chemotherapy to treat CLL. Even though this was the standard of care just a few years ago. 

Katherine Banwell:

Wow. So, a lot has changed. 

Dr. Jean Koff:

Yes, definitely. 

Katherine Banwell:

Why is it so important for patients with CLL to speak up and communicate with their healthcare team about some of their symptoms? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

Well, for starters we want you to feel better. That’s our number one job as – as physicians, is we want to get you to feeling to – to where you are feeling like your best self. CLL or not. So, we want to make you feel better. But in CLL your symptoms are actually one of the criteria we consider when we’re thinking about whether or not we need to start a new therapy, or if you’re somebody who’s already on therapy, whether we need to change your therapy. So, it’s actually very important and your CLL doctor should be checking in with you regularly to see if you have new or worsening symptoms that might be due to your CLL.  

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm. It sounds like treatment of the disease is key to controlling your symptoms. So, let’s talk about treatment. Many patients are overwhelmed by the different types and classes of treatment. When is it time to treat CLL, and what are the options?  

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, I boil down the criteria to when you need to treat your CLL to two main categories. One category is that the disease is progressing quickly, and the other category is the disease is causing problems of some kind, or getting ready to cause problems of some kind. Those are some of the broad categories that we think about when it’s time to start treatment for CLL. Now, this – the groups that research CLL have put out various criteria that help guide physicians about when it’s time to start treatment and some of those more specific criteria include items like symptoms. So, symptoms are a very important part of that decision-making process.  

And the same symptoms that we mentioned, the B symptoms, fevers, chills, night sweats, weight loss that’s unintentional, or lymph nodes that you can feel, those would potentially be reasons that your doctor would want to start you on CLL therapy. But the CLL can cause issues even in a patient who’s not necessarily having symptoms. So, one of the most common ways that CLL can cause issues is the CLL cells can cause your other blood cells, the normal blood cells, to be low in number. There are several ways the CLL cells can do this. One of the most common ways is that the CLL cells which are often circulating through your bloodstream can also collect or overrun your bone marrow.   

And if you think about it, the bone marrow is the factory that makes all of your blood cells. So, when there are too many CLL cells in the bone marrow, they can crowd out the normal blood cells, like red blood cells or platelets. So, when red blood cells or platelets get low beneath certain thresholds, that’s a reason to start CLL therapy. 

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm.   

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, there are a couple other criteria that we think about. CLL cells can collect in other areas, including the spleen. So – and if you remember, the spleen is a lymphoid organ that sits on the left side of your body that is right below the stomach. And so, if CLL cells collect in the spleen, they can cause it to be too big, it can press on the stomach, it can make it so you feel full, even if you haven’t eaten a full meal, that’s something we call early satiety. It can be uncomfortable, causing some abdominal pain. And if the spleen gets really, really big, it can cause it to not be able to do its normal job, which is to filter out the normal blood cells like it does every day. And so, that would be a reason to start therapy as well. And then the last – the last category I would think about is in CLL we have lots of – of CLL cells that are circulating in the blood that we can check with a routine blood count. And the absolute number of CLL cells is not as important as how fast that number is growing. So, your physician will track how fast that number of CLL cells is doubling.  

And if you meet criteria for what we call rapid doubling time, which is usually thought of as less than 12 months but certainly less than six months. So, if your count goes from 30,000 to 60,000 in under six months, then it may be time for you to start thinking about therapy. 

Katherine Banwell:

Right. So, Dr. Koff, would you briefly review the treatment classes? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, for first-line treatment, we have two main treatment classes that we think about at this time. The first is – is called BTK inhibitors which is Bruton tyrosine kinase inhibitors. And these are oral medications, so medications that you take by mouth, and the most well-studied of these is called ibrutinib, we typically prescribe ibrutinib by itself. There are other BTK inhibitors we are also now using in this space, one of them is called acalabrutinib and that is often given with an IV monoclonal antibody called Obinutuzumab.   

The other main class of drugs that we consider for first-line treatment of CLL is the BCL-2 Inhibitors. Right now there’s only one BCL-2 Inhibitor that’s approved for CLL and front-line and it’s called venetoclax. Usually, this drug is also given in the front-line with an anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody. So, the venetoclax itself is a pill you take. And the monoclonal antibody is an – either an IV or a subcutaneous injection.  

Katherine Banwell:

Where do clinical trials fit into CLL treatment? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, clinical trials are part of the reason, a big part of the reason that we’ve been able to make so much progress in how we treat CLL over the past few years. Clinical trials are how we figure out what treatments work for CLL, how patients feel on them, what sort of adverse events or side effects they have on individual treatments, and which treatments do better for keeping CLL symptoms under control, keeping the disease under control, and allowing patients to live longer and have a higher quality of life with their disease.  

Katherine Banwell:

Are there any other options available for CLL patients? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, there are other options. A clinical trial, if that is available to you as a patient is nearly always a good thing to consider if you have CLL. Because the vast majority of patients will not be cured by CL – by their treatment for CLL. Meaning that the – even though the treatments we have usually work for a very long time in most patients, ultimately the CLL will at some point, perhaps years down the road, progress and need another therapy. For that reason, we know we can do better. And we are hoping that the next clinical trial is going to lead to the discovery of a new agent or a new combinations – new combinations of agents that will allow patients to live longer with a better quality of life with CLL.   

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm. 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, that’s always a good option to consider. 

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm. What are the common side effects of treatments, and how are they managed? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, each of the different classes of agents has a different profile of side effects. The BTK inhibitors, the first class that I mentioned with ibrutinib and acalabrutinib, are usually very well tolerated. The most common side effects that we tend to see are things that the patients can feel or see, but also things that we can see on the labs when we’re monitoring patients. So, sometimes you can see a lower platelet counts or lower cell counts with ibrutinib. That’s something that you may not notice, but your doctor’s going to notice on the – the blood counts when you come to the office. Sometimes ibrutinib can cause a rash or GI upset, this is usually easily managed with supportive care from your physician.  

And then some more – some more common effects of the BTK inhibitors include joint pain and headache. And again, many physicians, because we’ve been using BTK inhibitors for a long time, have a good regimen for treating these side effects. More uncommon side effects of BTK inhibitors, particularly ibrutinib that we look out for would be abnormal heart rhythms and some tendency for bleeding. But these are relatively uncommon and with newer BTK inhibitors, we’re seeing lower rates of these side effects.  

So, in terms of venetoclax side effects we have a little bit of a different profile. This agent is much more likely to cause lower cell counts, especially in a white blood cell count known as neutrophil count, and so your doctor will be monitoring you for that. In terms of patient side effects that you can feel, it can cause a rash, it can cause some GI upset. These are usually relatively easily managed but we want you as the patient if you’re on venetoclax to talk to your doctor about these side effects so that they can help you feel better and help you manage those. In terms of the anti-CV20 monoclonal antibodies, which we use a couple in CLL more frequently, they have very similar side effect profiles.   

So, one is rituximab, and one is obinutuzumab. Obinutuzumab is usually used in combination with venetoclax in front-line CLL.  

Like I mentioned before, this is an infusion and most of the side effects that we think about and most commonly see in these anti-CV20s are side effects that patients have during the infusion. And these are referred to as infusion reaction. And these are relatively common, around 30 percent in these anti-CV20 monoclonal antibodies. So, what is an infusion center react – er sorry, what does an infusion reaction look like? This looks sort of like an allergic reaction.  

Katherine Banwell:

Hm.  

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, your nurses in the infusion center are going to be monitoring you very carefully once you start the infusion, and they’re going to start it at a low dose, very slowly. But the side effects they’re monitoring for, they’re looking for changes in your heart rate or blood pressure. You may start to feel hot or cold or sweaty, you may have chills. Sometimes patients can have swelling in their throat or their tongue. And what will happen is because these are fairly common, is we’re still able to give the anti-CV20, but what we do is the nurse will stop the infusion, they may give you some medications that calm down that infusion reaction. So, medications 

 like antihistamines –  

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm. 

Dr. Jean Koff:

Or steroids that help tamp down that immune response, and then they start the anti-CV20 infusion at a lower rate. The vast majority of patients will be able to receive an anti-CV20 antibody even if they have an infusion reaction. They may just need a little bit more of those immune-tamping down medications like antihistamines and steroids. And then the last thing to consider, which I think we’ve mentioned, especially in the venetoclax-containing regimens, is the Tumor lysis syndrome. And so, that is a side effect like we mentioned is kind of like the venetoclax working really, really, really well, of the tumor breaking down too quickly.  

And so, patients who have Tumor lysis, if they’re at high-risk, hopefully they’re already being monitored very closely with frequent lab draws, and they may receive medications that – that diminish the risk of adverse events happening because your electrolytes are out balance, for instance, your potassium is too high, or your calcium is too low. Because your doctors are monitoring you closely, they can give you medications that can help balance out those – those electrolytes and help protect the kidneys. The Tumor lysis is typically not a risk after the initial doses of venetoclax.  

So, the first couple weeks is when we typically monitor that, and then once the CLL has been broken down, or as I like to say, once it’s been cooled off a little bit, then you no longer have this risk of Tumor lysis and it – it doesn’t require further monitoring.  

Katherine Banwell:

That’s great information, thank you. What is the patient’s role in deciding on a treatment plan? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, it’s very important that the patient be involved in deciding on a treatment plan. Especially in first-line. Because we have these two excellent classes of agents, the BTK inhibitors and the venetoclax- containing regimens. Both of them have been shown to have very good what we call efficacy in CLL, meaning that they’re able to control the disease, patient’s symptoms largely at bay for long periods of time. You know, we’re talking an average of years that – that patients are on these therapies. And they each, like I said have different side effect profiles.  

And they’re given in slightly different ways. And so, right now we don’t have data from our clinical trials comparing a BTK inhibitor regimen to a venetoclax-containing regimen in CLL patients to tell us one is better than the other. And so, for that reason, a lot of the decision-making about which therapy is going to be better for you, or which therapy you would prefer, lies with the CLL patient rather than with the doctor. And the things that I ask my patients to consider, there are a couple different things. One is the side effect profile. So, patients may be more or less comfortable with certain side effects of one drug compared to another. Or there may be something in the patient’s medical history that puts them more at risk for a certain side effect than another. 

The other major player in this decision-making process is how these drugs are given. So, with ibrutinib, the ibrutinib is given as a pill that you take once a day, and you take it indefinitely. Meaning you take that pill once a day for as long as it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, which is keeping your CLL under control, and as long as the patient is tolerating it well. Meaning you’re not having a lot of uncomfortable side effects from the ibrutinib. So, I have patients who have been on ibrutinib for years and years and years and years.  

The venetoclax-containing regimen for patients who are getting their first-line treatment in CLL is different. It is designed as a – what we call time-limited therapy. And so, this regimen is given in – over about 12 months, 12 or 13 months, and then stopped. As long as the patient has had a good response. The other thing to consider with the venetoclax regimen, it’s not just the pill. You do take a pill every day, but you also get a – an infusion for about six months of the monoclonal antibody. Meaning that you’ll have to come into the infusion center and get an infu – an IV infusion of this drug called Obinutuzumab. The last consideration with the venetoclax regimen that differs in how it’s administered, is the venetoclax often works so well that it can break down the CLL cells a little bit too quickly.  

And so, for patients who have a very, very high white count, or large lymph nodes due to their CLL, there is a risk of something we call Tumor lysis syndrome, which refers to the process where the tumor cells break down very, very quickly, and they produce molecules that are released into the bloodstream that can be dangerous if they get too high or too low. And so, sometimes, in some patients we have to monitor for the Tumor lysis syndrome by checking labs fairly frequently after we start the venetoclax. And for some patients that means they have to stay overnight for a night or two in the hospital for lab monitoring.  

So, for some of my patients that I talk to about venetoclax, they say I want to stay out of the hospital, I just want to take a pill, I’m fine taking a pill, I’ll go with the BTK inhibitors. For other patients, they say I don’t want to be on a pill every single day, I will go through this year of therapy, I’m comfortable with that, and I’m happy that I’ll be able to take a break from therapy after one year. So, that ends up being a large factor in many of the conversations I have with my patients about which therapeutic approach we’re going to use in front-line therapy. 

Katherine Banwell:

Hm. Dr. Koff, we received a patient question prior to the program. If I’ve had FCR for my first treatment, does that prevent me from having – or having to take an oral drug later on? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

Absolutely not. So, the very first clinical trials that we did studying these regiments, especially the BTK inhibitors, were performed in patients who had received conventional chemotherapy like FCR. And what we saw is that patients who had received conventional chemotherapies and had – and needed retreatment of their CLL responded very, very well to agents like ibrutinib. And ibrutinib was able to control their disease, control their CLL, without them needing additional therapy for a long time. And that was actually the original indication for ibrutinib, was patients who had what we call relapsed CLL, often after these conventional therapies.   

Katherine Banwell:

Hm. Let’s turn to medication management. Excuse me. With oral medications available to treat CLL, patients now have the role of self-administering with their treatment program. How does this work exactly? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, just as you would receive a prescription from one of your doctors to manage your high blood pressure with a bottle of pills, you would also receive a special prescription from the doctor who is managing your CLL, a prescription for one of these oral agents. Either the BTK inhibitors or a venetoclax. And you would be – you would have the instructions on the pill bottle, just as you would you know another prescription and you would take the medication by mouth, every day, as instructed. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. What happens if a patient forgets to take their medication? Does it impact efficacy? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, forgetting a dose for one day, or having to skip a dose for another reason, or even a few days, shouldn’t have a major impact on controlling the CLL. And that’s true for two reasons. One, you’re going to start taking your medication again, you know fairly soon after you miss that dose. The next day. Or – or in a few days. But also, the – what we call the half-lives of these drugs are relatively long, and so you have some activity of the drug in your system in its ability to control the CLL, even though you haven’t taken the dose that you missed that day. In fact, sometimes we have to hold CLL medications.   

Maybe you’re getting a procedure, some sort of surgical procedure, and you might be at an increased risk of bleeding just in the day or two before and after that surgical procedure, so we would actually recommend that you hold a BTK inhibitor, if that was what you were receiving for your CLL, and then resume it once your risk of bleed had gone down a few days after the surgery.  

Katherine Banwell:

Hm. 

Dr. Jean Koff:

We do recommend that if you are going to miss a dose of your medication that you let your clinical team know, just so they can instruct you on how to resume your dose if you haven’t already gotten instructions from them about that. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. That’s really helpful information. What strategies are there to keep on schedule and remember to take the medication on time and regularly?  

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, I think these strategies are good whether you have CLL or some other type of disorder that you’re taking medication for. My patients often use labeled pill boxes with days of the week and a.m. and p.m., so that you know whether you took your pill that day and what time of day you took it. And so, setting that out for the week can be very helpful in organizing and making sure that you can check back and remind yourself whether or not you took your pill. 

Katherine Banwell:

How are patients monitored during treatment? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, your doctor is going to monitor you more closely when you first start a medication. So, I typically monitor my patients within one or two weeks of them starting an oral drug. One to make sure that they’re feeling okay on it, that they’re not having any side effects when they first start, but also to check lab values and make sure that the – the oral medication isn’t causing any problems with their blood counts or with other labs. Then, once we’ve established that they’re doing well on the medication, maybe they’ve come in every couple weeks for a month or six weeks, we start to space out those visits.  

I usually see my patients who are on active therapy about every three to six months to check and see whether they’re feeling okay, whether they’re having any side effects from the medicines, like I said to check their labs, make sure the medications aren’t causing any lab abnormalities. And also in the longer term, to make sure that their CLL is under good control on – on the medications. Because that’s one of our main goals is to keep the CLL under good control.  

Katherine Banwell:

We received another patient question prior to the program. Has there been any progress in helping CLL patients get a better reaction from COVID vaccines? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

That is a great question, and that is one that is near and dear to my heart and my colleagues at – at Emory. You raise a really good point, which is that CLL patients have altered immune systems just by virtue of their CLL. The CLL cells exert their influence on other immune cells and can cause your immune system not to respond to infections or immunizations the way it normally would. That’s without any medication in the mix. Now, when we look at patients who are on medications like the ones we’ve been talking about, the BTK inhibitors, venetoclax, but especially the monoclonal antibodies that react against CD20, we see that those patients really do not have an optimal response to vaccines, especially the COVID vaccine. 

Meaning, that patients who receive the COVID vaccine while they’re on that therapy, or even within twelve months of receiving a monoclonal antibody, often don’t mount the same strong immune response as somebody who’s not on those therapies. So, luckily, we – we don’t have to just depend on the vaccines. I still recommend that my patients get vaccinated, because it is safe and it might impart a little bit of efficacy, and it’s certainly more effective than not getting the vaccine. But we also have other approaches to increasing your protection against COVID, including the – the injection called Evusheld, which can help protect patients specifically whose immune systems are not completely normal and are not expected to mount a strong response to COVID vaccines.  

So, that is definitely a discussion to have with your doctor about how your medications impact your protection from COVID, from vaccines, and whether there are other medications that might be used to help increase your protection.  

Katherine Banwell:

That’s great advice. Dr. Koff I’d like to get your thoughts on where we stand with progress with helping people live longer and truly thrive with CLL. What would you like to leave the audience with? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, I think that one thing to remember with CLL is over the past few years we’ve seen an explosion in how we manage the disease because we have newer agents and therapeutic combinations that are helping people control their CLL for much longer than was possible 10 or 15 years ago. We still have a long way to go because ideally, we want every patient to be able to control their CLL and thrive with CLL for as long as possible. And, right now like I said before, we are not curing patients yet. Meaning that we don’t have a therapy that can get rid of the CLL, make it go away, and keep it away forever.  

That’s where clinical trials come in. That’s where we are able to make progress, is we’re able to study what therapies work, what therapies don’t, how they perform against each other, how they make patients feel, and what sort of side effects might be associated with them. And so, that’s really the next step, is continuing the work that has already been done in clinical trials and exploring these new therapeutical approaches. 

Katherine Banwell:

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

Dr. Jean Koff:

Thank you for having me. 

Katherine Banwell:

And thank you to all of our collaborators. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. And don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan future programs. To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a more proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks so much for being with us today. 

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

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

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

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

Download Guide

See More from CLL Clinical Trials 201

Related Resources:

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options

Setting CLL Treatment Goals WITH Your Team

Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

Transcript:

Katherine:

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

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

Happy to be here.  

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

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

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

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

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

Always. Always.  

Katherine:

Okay. 

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

Katherine:

That’s really good information to have.  

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

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

Katherine:

Absolutely. 

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Kittai:

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

Katherine:

Thank you.  

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

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

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options?

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

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

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

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

 

Setting CLL Treatment Goals WITH Your Team

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

Transcript:

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

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

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

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

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options?

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Refractory vs Relapsed CLL: What’s the Difference?

Transcript:

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See More from Thrive CLL

Download Program Guide


Related Resources:

Thriving with CLL Resource Guide

What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment

What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment?

An Overview of CLL Treatment Types

Transcript:

Katherine:

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

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

No problem. My pleasure.  

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

It’s been my pleasure, thank you.  

Katherine:

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

DLBCL Treatment Approaches: What You Need to Know

DLBCL Treatment Approaches: What You Need to Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What do you need to know about diffuse large b-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) treatment options? DLBCL expert Dr. Justin Kline discusses current therapies for newly diagnosed and relapsed/refractory patients, reviews promising research, and shares tools for staying up to date on the latest treatment approaches.

Dr. Justin Kline is the Director of the Lymphoma Program at the University of Chicago Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Kline, here.

See More From The Pro-Active DLBCL Patient Toolkit

Download Guide

Related Resources:

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

An Overview of Current DLBCL Treatment Approaches

DLBCL Treatment Approaches What You Need to Know Resource Guide


Transcript:

Katherine:      

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s webinar. Today we’re going to discuss diffuse large B-cell lymphoma or DLBCL and explore current and emerging treatment approaches. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this webinar contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link to a program survey. Please take a moment to provide feedback about your experience today in order to help us plan future webinars.

Finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Joining us today is Dr. Justin Kline. Welcome, Dr. Kline. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Kline:       

Hi, thank you. Yes, my name is Justin Kline. I am an associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, medicine.

I’m the director of the lymphoma program, which basically means I specialize in taking care of folks who’ve been diagnosed with various types of lymphomas.

Katherine:      

Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to join us.

Dr. Kline:       

Pleasure.

Katherine:      

Let’s start by understanding what DLBCL is and how it progresses. How would you define DLBCL?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma is a malignancy of a normal counterpart cell called a B-cell, which is part of our immune system. Its job is to make antibodies, to help protect us from various types of infections. Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, or DLBCL, initiates when normal B-cells acquire changes in their genetic machinery, like any cancer. And DLBCL is the most common form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. We classify it as aggressive, as an aggressive lymphoma, which means if left untreated it tends to grow pretty quickly.

Katherine:      

How is it typically diagnosed?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, it varies. But like any cancer, a diagnosis requires some sort of a biopsy, either a surgical removal of a lymph node or a needle biopsy of a lymph node or another structure where the tumor seems to be growing.

Katherine:      

How does somebody know if they have DLBCL?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, there are certain symptoms that are more common amongst folks with DLBCL. And they’re not specific to DLBCL, they can be seen in other lymphomas, but they include symptoms like fatigue that’s unrelenting, unintentional weight loss, sometimes fevers, typically at similar times throughout the day, drenching night sweats, swollen lymph nodes, and then certainly pain in any area of the body that comes and doesn’t go. Those are some of the general symptoms.

Katherine:      

And how does the condition progress?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, as I mentioned, DLBCL tends to be an aggressive lymphoma, so sometimes folks will notice enlarged lymph glands that continue to grow and grow and grow. Sometimes they’re painful, sometimes not so much. DLBCL, it can really grow anywhere, so we think of it as a lymphoma and so involving lymph nodes, but DLBCL can grow in any organ, even outside of lymph nodes. And so it sometimes progresses locally, but it also can spread and start to grow in other areas of the body.

Katherine:      

And how is it staged, Dr. Kline?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, there’s a special staging system for all lymphomas that is somewhat similar to what folks might think of with solid tumors like a breast cancer, a lung cancer. But in other ways, it’s different.

The staging tools for DLBCL are really most importantly PET scans and CT scans, really PET scans and in some cases bone marrow exams or bone marrow biopsies. The PET scan is a very sensitive scan that uses radioactive glucose to identify very sensitively where in the body lymphoma might be growing, because lymphoma cells really preferentially prefer to use glucose as their primary energy source. So, they preferentially take up the radioactive glucose that’s given through the vein before the PET scan is taken.

As I mentioned, in some cases, a bone marrow test is also done, although less and less frequently. Which is good, because that’s a more invasive and uncomfortable test. And so folks who have early stage DLBCL that typically involves one lymph node group, like for example, a lymph node in the neck or several lymph node groups on the same side of the breathing muscle, of course you can’t see my breathing muscle here, called the diaphragm.

Those are stage I and stage II DLBCLs. stage III DLBCLs are those that involve lymph nodes on either side of the breathing muscle, so in other words, lymph nodes involved in the neck and then maybe in the groin area, where stage IV DLBCLs are those that involve sites outside of lymph nodes like the liver or the lungs or the bones.

Katherine:                  

What are the subtypes of DLBCL?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, that’s a good and somewhat complicated question. So there, probably most importantly, there’ve been two subsets, if you will, of DLBCL identified, and they really have to do with where along the normal maturation course a B-cell becomes lymphoma or where the DLBCL develops in that normal maturation course. Some DLBCLs arise from what we call germinal center B-cells, which are B-cells that are sort of just seeing their natural antigen or what they’re supposed to recognize.

And then there are DLBCLs that arise in more differentiated or more mature B-cells, and those are called activated B-cell type DLBCLs. So, there’s germinal center and activated, the B-cell type DLBCLs. And I don’t know that that’s super important for your listeners to know, but it is important because these two subtypes of DLBCL are driven by largely separate mutations or alterations in the DNA, and they also respond differently to initial treatment. There are other rare subtypes that involve specific mutations and genes like MYC and BCL2, and these are the so-called double-hit lymphomas. They’re officially classified as high-grade lymphomas, but they’re very similar to DLBCLs. There are other rare subtypes of DLBCL, for example, a type that comes on typically in young men and women called primary mediastinal B-cell lymphoma.

But I think for the sake of simplicity, the most common two subtypes are the germinal center derived and then the activated B-cell type of DLBCL.

Katherine:      

All right. That’s good to know, thank you. It helps us understand the disease a little bit better.

Dr. Kline:       

Good.

Katherine:      

Let’s move onto treatment. From what I understand, treatment really should start right away. So, what types of treatment are currently available to someone newly diagnosed with DLBCL?

Dr. Kline:       

Sure, so for about 20 plus years now, the standard of care for most patients with DLBCL, regardless of whether it’s a germinal center or an activated B-cell type DLBCL, is a combination of what we call chemo immunotherapy, the acronym for which is R-CHOP, and each of those letters stands for a different medication. The R stands for rituximab, which is an antibody that coats the surface of lymphomatous B cells and sort of signals the immune system to come and kill those cells.

The C is cyclophosphamide, the H is hydroxy doxorubicin, and the O is Oncovin. These are each classical chemotherapy drugs, and they each work through a different mechanism to help kill lymphoma sells. And the P is a steroid pill called prednisone, so it’s a little bit complicated, but the reason that we use cocktails of medicines to treat lymphomas is that it really works to prevent the lymphoma cells from gaining the upper hand, from developing resistance to a single type of treatment.

Katherine:      

Right.

Dr. Kline:       

Now, I should say that for certain DLBCLs, particularly those double hit lymphomas that we talked about, sometimes we use a more intensive cocktail called dose-adjusted R-EPOCH. It has largely the same medications with an additional chemotherapy called etoposide.

The difference is that R-CHOP is given – all the drugs are given intravenously, with the exception of prednisone, over a single day. The dose-adjusted R-EPOCH is given over an infusion over the course of about five days. The other point I might make is that there was a recent large clinical study that compared R-CHOP to a new regimen called polatuzumab R-CHP. So, basically the O in R-CHOP was removed and substituted for this new drug called polatuzumab vedotin, and although many, many combinations similar to R-CHOP have been compared to R-CHOP over the past 20 years and failed, this regimen, polatuzumab R-CHP in the study called the POLARIX study actually was shown to improve what we call progression-free survival by about six percent. So, it may become a new standard of care for treating DLBCL, which is exciting, because we haven’t had one in over 20 years.

Katherine:                  

Right. That’s good news.

Dr. Kline:       

Long answer to a short question, sorry about that. Yes, it is good news.

Katherine:      

That is good news. What about stem cell transplants?

Dr. Kline:       

Good question. So, for newly diagnosed patients, in this era, we rarely if ever are recommending stem cell transplant or stem cell transplantation as part of initial therapy. There are rare circumstances, but for the vast majority of patients who are, people who are diagnosed with DLBCL, it’s not recommended.

Katherine:      

Where do clinical trials fit in?

Dr. Kline:       

It’s a really good question. I practice at an academic medical center, and so one of our missions is to advance therapy and make it better. There’s no way to do that without performing clinical trials, so I think for – clinical trials aren’t for everyone. As a matter of fact, most people with lymphoma are not treated in the context of clinical trials.

But certainly I think they are important to consider, and number one, it’s possible that the particular person might be involved with the clinical trial that is very successful and actually improves their outcome. I always tell people that I see that being involved with the clinical trial is also, to some extent, an altruistic endeavor. You’re helping your doctors learn more about how to treat a type of cancer, hopefully better, maybe not, you know? So, there is some altruism that goes into clinical trials as well. So, I do think that most people who are able should consider having a second opinion. Doesn’t have to be at an academic medical center, but at least with another doctor, where clinical trial options can be discussed.

Katherine:      

Other than a newly diagnosed patient’s stage of DLBCL and their age, what other factors would impact a treatment decision?

Dr. Kline:       

Yeah. So, that’s a good question, so you named I think the biggest two, the most important two. Although I have to say that even people in their – oftentimes in their 80s are prescribed full dose therapy. The goal of our treatment, especially in newly diagnosed patients, is to cure the lymphoma, and so we tend to be aggressive. But outside of age, other things we consider are other health problems. Does the person have a healthy heart, healthy kidneys? How many other medical problems does the person have? How fit is the person? How sick is the person or symptomatic is the person from him or her lymphoma? And sometimes we take into consideration all those factors and we say, well, it’s still worth it to try to deliver the most intensive therapy that we can.

Other times we say, you know what? I think the risk of doing such is probably not worth the potential benefit, and so sometimes we’ll recommend dose reductions, reduce the doses of some of the medicines and the R-CHOP cocktail if that’s what we’re going to do, and occasionally, if the person has too many other things going on, we may talk about more palliative treatments, in other words, gentler treatments that may extend a person’s survival while hopefully maintaining a really good quality of life.

Katherine:                 

Yeah. What kind of side effects should patients expect?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, that’s a conversation I’ve had many, many, many times over the years. And specifically to the R-CHOP cocktail, just because that’s the one that’s used most commonly, I tell people that the most common things are symptoms like fatigue, occasionally nausea, sometimes vomiting, although the medications we have to prevent those things are very good these days.

Constipation is not uncommon, hair loss, mouth sores. I think probably the most important thing is to recognize that the chemotherapy will suppress or reduce the immune system, and so we’re always worried about people catching infections when they’re on chemotherapy, because sometimes they can be serious. And then I talk about rare symptoms that are a big deal. Sometimes the chemotherapy can damage organs like the heart. It’s uncommon, but it happens sometimes. And chemotherapy, while we need to give it to cure the lymphoma, can sometimes cause secondary blood cancers like leukemias years down the road. The risk is low, but again, these are I think serious things that people, even if they’re rare, people need to know about them before they start.

Katherine:      

Yeah. Let’s turn to what happens after treatment. How is the effectiveness of the treatment monitored?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, so depends on the doc to some degree, but I like to do some, what I call interim imaging. So, we’ll typically, again, depending on the stage, but very often we’re delivering six treatments of R-CHOP, usually given every three weeks. So, the total treatment course is about four and a half months. It can be a little bit shorter for patients who have Stage 1 or Stage 2 DLBCLs. I like to get interim imaging, which is either a PET scan or a CAT scan, done sort of in the middle of treatment, just to give us a sense of how things are going. Are the lymphomatous tumors shrinking down? Some patients are, even by the middle of treatment, are in a complete remission. Their PET scan has gone totally normal. And then at the end of treatment, that’s probably the most important imaging, and there I do like to do PET scans again. Again, they’re the most sensitive test we have to detect lymphoma.

And so at the end of treatment, usually about four to six weeks after somebody completes treatment, we like to get that end of treatment PET scan, and that’s the PET scan that allows us to say, you’ve had a complete response. You’re in a complete remission, or not.

Katherine:                  

So, what does remission mean exactly then?

Dr. Kline:       

So, in DLBCL, remission is pretty simply defined as absence of disease on, or absence of cancer on the tests that we do to detect it. Again, typically PET scans, and if somebody had involvement of his or her bone marrow at the beginning before treatment, we’ll repeat that bone marrow at the end of treatment just to make sure that there’s no lymphoma left over. And so, but for most people it’s a PET scan. If the PET scan does not show any abnormalities, then that’s what we call a complete remission or remission.

Katherine:      

Is a cure possible for patients with DLBCL?

Dr. Kline:       

Cure is not only possible, it’s actually quite common. If you look at all comers, regardless of stage, age, what have you, approximately 60 to 65 percent of folks who are treated for DLBCL are cured. The cure rates are higher with folks with earlier stage lymphomas, but even folks who have advanced DLBCL are frequently cured.

Katherine:      

That’s great news. Let’s talk about if someone doesn’t respond to initial treatment or they relapse. Let’s start by defining some terms for the audience. What does it mean to be refractory?

Dr. Kline:       

So, refractory is a term that’s used to describe a situation where a person has received treatment but that treatment hasn’t worked as well as we have expected. And the most – probably the most important scenario is after initial treatment.

Most people, for example, who receive R-CHOP, somewhere between 80 and 85 percent will have a completely negative PET scan after treatment. That’s remission. If the PET scan is not negative and you do a biopsy and it shows that there’s still lymphoma there, that’s what’s called primary refractory. In other words, the person’s lymphoma was refractory to initial or primary treatment. And in clinical trials that are testing agents, drugs or immunotherapies in folks who’ve had multiple treatments, usually refractory is used to define someone who has either not responded or has had a very, very short response to whatever the last treatment they had was.

Katherine:                  

How does relapse then differ from refractory?

Dr. Kline:       

So, right, so relapse suggests that the lymphoma at some point was in a remission, right?

And so for example, a person gets six treatments of R-CHOP, has a PET scan at the end, the PET scan is clean. We say you’re in remission. Eight months later, the person develops a newly enlarged lymph node, and a biopsy shows that the lymphoma has come back, right? That’s what we would call a relapse. There was a period of remission, whereas refractory usually means there was never a period of remission to begin with.

Katherine:                  

Got it. How typical is it for a patient to relapse?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, again, if you look at all comers, if you treated 100 people with DLBCL, most, probably 70 to 75 percent, would go into remission. About 10 or 15 percent would have primary refractory disease and another 10 or 15 percent would have a remission that would end at some point and they would have a relapse. So, it’s not terribly common.

The problem is that once the lymphoma has either demonstrated that it’s refractory to treatment or it’s come back, it’s relapsed, it’s a little bit more difficult to cure the lymphoma at that point.

Katherine:      

How are patients treated then if they’ve relapsed or refractory?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, so for somebody who’s had primary refractory lymphoma or has a lymphoma that’s relapsed after initial therapy, again, say for the sake of argument with R-CHOP, for many, many years, the next line of treatment if you will was to administer what we call salvage chemotherapy, and this is different chemotherapy from the original R-CHOP, that’s meant to put the lymphoma back into remission. In other worse, to salvage a remission. And for folks whose lymphomas were sensitive or responded, shrunk down to that salvage chemotherapy, we would consolidate that remission.

We would make it deeper using high dose chemotherapy and an autologous or a cell, stem cell transplant. And that’s been the standard of care for younger patients for decades.

That paradigm has been challenged, particularly in refractory patients or those who have very early relapses after R-CHOP, by two important clinical trials that have demonstrated superiority of a type of immunotherapy, a cellular immunotherapy called CAR T-cell therapy, which seems to be more effective even than stem cell transplantation in that population of folks.

Katherine:      

What about emerging therapies, Dr. Kline? What approaches are showing promise?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, I think probably in DLBCL, the biggest breakthrough, I don’t even know that I can call it emerging at this point, because it’s on the market, so to speak.

But I think it’s important to talk about, again, is CAR T-cell therapy, and this is a type of immune therapy where a person’s own immune cells called T-cells are taken from his or her bloodstream. And then using a special type of a virus, those T-cells are manipulated or engineered, that sounds better, to express on their surface something called a chimeric antigen receptor, which is somewhere between an antibody and a normal T-cell receptor. But anyhow, this chimeric antigen receptor confers or allows the T-cell to recognize a protein that’s expressed on the surface of B-cells, cancerous or otherwise, called CD19. And when that chimeric antigen or CAR antigen, excuse me, that CAR receptor expressing T-cell sees a lymphoma cell, it engages it and kills it, a pretty clever idea which has been in the works for decades now.

But CAR T-cell therapy has now been approved for not only DLBCL but many other types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. And I think in the past decade, far and away, that’s the biggest breakthrough. There are other types of immunotherapy, probably most notably a type called bispecific immunotherapy, which is a pretty clever type of immune therapy where these specially engineered antibodies that are capable of binding or sticking to not only a person’s T-cell, a T-cell that’s already in his or her body, and a B-cell, a lymphoma cell that’s right next to that T-cell, sort of holds them together, and the part that binds the T-cell actually activates it, triggers it to kill the B-cell. And so there are a number of companies that have those bispecific therapies that are in development. I suspect a couple will be approved by the FDA, I would guess, in 2022.

These bispecific immunotherapies have been very effective, again, in DLBCL that’s come back, relapsed or refractory, as well as in other lymphomas. They do have some side effects that are similar to what we see in folks with CAR T-cell therapy. I won’t belabor what those are, but they are also very effective. There’ve been a number of drugs that, either immunotherapies or other types of therapies, that target that same CD19 protein on diffuse large B-cell lymphoma cells that have recently been approved by the FDA, either alone or in combination. Targeted therapies are always exciting. Although as compared with other lymphomas, these targeted therapies, many of which are oral, which are pills, have not been particularly effective in relapsed DLBCL.

So, I think that among the most exciting therapies are those that take advantage of our own immune systems to recognize and kill the lymphoma cells.

Katherine:      

With all of these treatments in development, how can patients ensure that they’re receiving the latest treatment options?

Dr. Kline:       

Yeah. It’s complicated, even for somebody who’s in the business. There are so many clinical trials going on all over the place and at various stages. I think, as I mentioned early on in our conversation, one of the best ways to make sure that you or your loved one is receiving the most advanced care is to get that second opinion, particularly at a center that does clinical trials. And it doesn’t have to be an academic center. There are many offices in the community that also run clinical trials, but I think meeting with somebody who treats DLBCL for a living at least once to talk about those options is a good idea.

The second approach is really to get engaged. And it may not be the person with lymphoma, sometimes it’s a spouse or a child, usually a grown child, but doing due diligence, getting involved with websites, Lymphoma Research Foundation, Leukemia-Lymphoma Society, where you know you’re getting good information. Folks like you guys who are involved in patient education. I think I have seen many patients who come in extraordinarily well educated about DLBCL, even before their first visit, and I do think it does make a difference in helping them decide what and where they want to get their treatment.

Katherine:      

Yeah. What resources would you recommend for patients to help them stay up to date or to learn more about their disease?

Dr. Kline:       

Sure, yeah. Again, I think as folks sort of meet with their oncologist or oncology nurse, each office or center may have their own specific recommendations. I really like, as I mentioned, the Lymphoma Research Foundation, which I think is LRF.org*, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, LLS.org. They not only have a website that has a lot of information on it, but they often have patient education days once or twice a year where specific lymphomas are discussed in their treatment, that’s geared toward people with lymphoma and their caregivers.

They also have, it talks about dealing with chemotherapy, the financial toxicity associated with cancer treatments, how to sort of share your diagnosis with your children and other family members, so it’s not just doctors that are barking at you all day long, but it’s other people, social workers, lawyers, nutritionists, nurses. So, those are probably my two favorite organizations, but there are many others where people can get very good and useful information about DLBCL and other lymphomas as well.

Katherine:      

To close, what are you wanting to leave the audience with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Kline:       

Well, I think DLBCL has really been a success story, right? I mean, if you look through the literature 50 years ago, there were very few people, if any, who were cured after being diagnosed with DLBCL. And as I mentioned earlier, again in our conversation, and today we’re curing about two-thirds of people who are diagnosed with DLBCL. That being said, that leaves about a third of people who need additional treatment, and that additional treatment often has a lot of side effects associated with it. So that is a particular group of people for whom I think we need new, more effective and hopefully less toxic treatments. So, again, if you’re somebody out there who’s been diagnosed with DLBCL, get a second opinion, consider being involved in a clinical trial. It may not only help you, but it also helps your doctors and other people who do DLBCL treatment for a living.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Kline:                   

It’s been my pleasure, thanks for having me.

Katherine:      

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

To learn more about DLBCL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit Powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell, thanks for being with us.


*Editor’s Note: The Lymphoma Research Foundation’s website is lymphoma.org

DLBCL Treatment Approaches: What You Need to Know Resource Guide

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

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

What steps can you take to engage in your diffuse large b-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) treatment and care decisions? Expert Dr. Jason Westin discusses current and emerging DLBCL therapies, reviews key treatment decision-making factors, and shares advice for partnering with your healthcare team.

Dr. Jason Westin is the Director of Lymphoma Clinical Research in the Department of Lymphoma/Myeloma in the Division of Cancer Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Westin, here.

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

An Overview of Current DLBCL Treatment Approaches

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What Do You Need to Know about Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma (DLBCL)?

What Do You Need to Know About Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma (DLBCL)?

 

Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today, we’re going to explore the goals of DLBCL treatment and discuss how you can play an active role in making care decisions.

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

Joining us today is Dr. Jason Westin. Dr. Westin, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself? Okay.

Dr. Westin:                 

Of course. Happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me. My name’s Jason Westin. I am the Director of Lymphoma Clinical Research and the Section Chief for Aggressive Lymphomas at MD Anderson Cancer Center of Houston, Texas.

Katherine:                  

Excellent. Thank you so much for taking time to join us today. Today, we’re going to be learning about DLBCL treatment goals and how patients can be active members of their team. So, let’s start by understanding who is typically on a patient’s DLBCL healthcare team.

Dr. Westin:                 

It’s a good question. The members of the DLBCL healthcare team usually consist of a physician – and this person usually would start the process of saying, “This is something. I don’t know what’s going on with this mass or this pain you’re having. Let’s get some imaging. Let’s get a biopsy to figure out what’s going on.” There would often be a nurse as a member of the team. And the nurse usually provides a critical service in terms of help – facilitating patients to understanding what’s going on and to work with the healthcare team directly to provide excellent patient care.

And eventually, there would often be a pharmacist involved in terms of the chemotherapy or treatments that are administered to help review those and work with the physician and the nurse directly. Those would be the main members of the healthcare team. Occasionally, there might be a social worker or there might be other care providers that are involved. But usually, it’s the physician, the nurse. And then, sometimes the physician extender, such as a PA or a nurse practitioner.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Westin:                 

Patients are a critical part of our team and are often the decider of what goes on. The physicians, nurses, PAs, pharmacists – our jobs are to help educate the patient and to help the patient to decide what the best treatment is.

Ultimately, it’s the patient’s responsibility to understand what’s going on, to ask good questions, and then to make a decision about what treatments are best for them.

Katherine:                  

What role do caregivers take?

Dr. Westin:                 

Caregivers often play a very important role, and it’s variable from person to person how involved a caregiver is. But if patients have symptoms or side effects of treatment, caregivers are often critical to make sure patients get the appropriate medical care that they need. Some treatments may have more potential for side effects than others. Sometimes, caregivers are essential to actually stay with a patient, even during admission to the hospital to make sure the patients are monitored closely.

And we may talk about different treatments later in the interview. But at our center, sometimes we even mandate that there are caregivers involved in the sense of staying with the patient in the hospital for certain therapy types. But in general, being a supportive family member or caregiver, it’s a good thing to have even if we don’t have a lot of toxicity for emotional and physical support. But sometimes it’s really important to help manage toxicities.

Katherine:                  

Right. Before we move on to discuss the types of treatment, what are the goals of DLBCL treatment and how do they vary by patient.

Dr. Westin:                 

It’s a very important question to define at the outset what are we trying to accomplish when we’re talking about different treatments that we could recommend. DLBCL is a curable disease but, unfortunately, we don’t cure as many patients as we’d like. The majority of patients are cured but we always want to try and do better. But at the outset, we define our goals. And if somebody’s newly diagnosed, the goals of treatments is to try and go for a cure. That’s the end of that sentence when I am talking to my patient, that we are going for a cure, period. And then, we describe how we get there.

If somebody has relapsed or refractory disease, if the first treatments don’t work, usually we’re still trying to go for a cure, but there are some contexts where a curative treatment may be too toxic, the treatment itself may be a bad idea, just because of the potential of toxicities to be too much for a patient to tolerate.

So, there are situations, if the patients had a cancer that’s not gone away with the standard approach, sometimes we’re still going for a cure. Sometimes that may be difficult to achieve and we’d be going for a palliative treatment to try and prolong the patient’s quality of life and to try and give the patient more good days without harming them with treatments. But by and large, when we’re talking about the category or large B-cell lymphoma, the intention of treatment is to go for a cure.

Katherine:                  

How can patients make sure they understand their goals of treatment?

Dr. Westin:                 

It’s important to ask physicians, and PAs, and nurses at the outset about the goals of treatment. Sometimes we move quickly from diagnosis to treatment and don’t necessarily take a moment to talk about, “What are we trying to accomplish with this treatment?” We just see a fire and we’re trying to put it out. And the patient’s excited to get started after the scare of a diagnosis.

But I do think clarifying, “Can we talk a little bit about what the goal of this treatment is” – because sometimes there can be a mismatch between what a patient might expect a goal is and a physician, or a PA, or a nurse might expect a goal is. And if we’re not clarifying that and on the same page about that, sometimes there could be conflicts or confusion as we go into the treatments.

Katherine:                  

All right. I think we have a good understanding of treatment goals. So, when is it time to treat DLBCL?

Dr. Westin:                 

DLBCL is not a cancer that we wait to treat. This is a cancer that needs treatment very quickly after diagnosis. If a patient were not treated, the cancer would progress very rapidly. Some DLBCL’s progress faster than others but we would expect that if treatments were not administered, if we lived a century ago when treatments didn’t really exist, people would live, at the most, a few months with this cancer. This is a rapidly growing cancer that would result in death if we didn’t take care of it.

So, the time to initiate treatment is basically after a biopsy is obtained, the pathologist says, “This is large B-cell lymphoma,” a meeting with and oncologist occurs that says we got to start a treatment. Than then, ASAP after that to get going. What we know from DLBCL patients in the past is those that require treatment sooner – meaning you get a biopsy on a Monday and by Friday night you’re sick and you need treatment now or else – that tends to go along with a more aggressive version of DLBCL and perhaps can be associated with worse outcomes.

Patients who get a biopsy and four weeks later then they’re in the oncologist’s office talking about, “Maybe we should start a treatment,” but no symptoms, no problems, that usually goes along with a better prognosis. The so-called diagnosis to treatment interval can be actually powerfully prognostic.

Katherine:                  

So, once it’s time to treat, then of course it’s time to think about treatment options. So, let’s walk through the types of therapy that are used today in DLBCL treatment. First of all, let’s talk about chemotherapy.

Dr. Westin:                 

Yeah. So, unfortunately, chemotherapy is still the – cornered the realm when it comes to DLBCL therapy, especially in the frontline setting. So, if a patient is newly diagnosed, no prior history of DLBCL, biopsy comes back and describes that’s what we’re looking at, the standard treatment, which has been around for about 40-plus years, is a combination of chemotherapy called CHOP, each letter representing a different medication. The antibody immunotherapy Rituxan, or rituximab, was added about 20 years ago.

So, the standard treatment for the past 20 years has been R-CHOP. And this has been tried and true. It’s been tested many, many times to try and improve this or to beat this. And R-CHOP has been less toxic than other alternatives or as good as other alternatives through many, many, many trials.

Now, late last year, in 2021, there was finally a randomized Phase III trial that showed, in addition of a targeted therapy in place of one of the chemotherapy drugs, had a slightly better progression free survival at two years. The targeted therapy here is a drug called polatuzumab. Polatuzumab is an FDA-approved therapy for large B-cell lymphoma patients in the US. Currently, as of the time we’re taping this, it’s approved for patients with relapsed disease. It’s not yet approved, based on this Phase III trial, but that may change in the coming months.

The improvement was modest. Around six percent of patients differing in terms of those who had progressed versus those who had not progressed in two years. So, not an earthquake, but R-CHOP or variations of R-CHOP are still a standard treatment for patients, outside of a clinical trial, of newly diagnosed diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.

Katherine:                  

And what about CAR T-cell therapy?

Dr. Westin:                 

The other treatment classes, the targeted therapies include CAR T-cell, or other antibody drug conjugates, immunotherapies, bispecific [antibodies] – there is a lot going on in new drugs and new drug development for DLBCL.

As of today, most of those therapies that are approved are looked at in patients that have already had a frontline chemotherapy approach and the cancer has come back. So, those are approved. But they’re either approved for patients in second line therapy – after having had one line, cancer comes back and now we’re in second line – or in third line therapy, two previous treatments and now we’re in third line treatment. There’s a lot of clinical trials, and I think we’ll talk maybe about clinical trials in a bit, that are exploring use of these targeted therapies, including CAR T-cells, including bispecific antibodies, including other targeted therapies as a potential for a frontline treatment.

But outside of a clinical trial, R-CHOP or versions of R-CHOP are still the standard today.

Katherine:                  

And what about stem cell transplant?

Dr. Westin:                 

Stem cell transplant’s been a second line therapy option, and it’s been the standard second line therapy for about 25 years. We’ll see this change in the coming years. There have recently been three randomized clinical trials comparing stem cell transplant versus CAR T-cell. All three of those reported out some information in late 2021, with two of them having final results, one of them having an interim report. And one of the final reports, one the interim reports, showed a significant improvement in chance of staying in remission in all the outcomes that were measured for CAR T-cell beating stem cell transplant.

So, we’re waiting to see how the health authorities view these clinical trials, if CAR T-cell potentially moves into second line treatment for a majority of patients instead of stem cell transplant. So, stem cell transplant’s been there, it’s tried and true. It has cured a significant portion of patients. However, CAR T-cells potentially are better and may be moving in the second line within the next year.

Katherine:                  

Okay. Good to know. You touched upon clinical trials. Where do they fit in?

Dr. Westin:                 

Yeah. In my view, clinical trials are our best weapon against cancer, period. I think that’s true across the board, even for cancers like DLBCL where the majority of patients are cured with their first treatment, like an R-CHOP type therapy. All of our treatments at some level came from a clinical trial. They didn’t just have treatments fall out of the cancer treatment tree. They all came from patients going on to clinical trials, trying to improve upon previous standards.

And as I mentioned, CHOP has been there for about 40 years. R-CHOP has been there for about 20 years. We don’t do a lot of things that we would consider risk of death that we trust a 40-year-old technology to try and save us from. We like the latest, we like the modern, we like what’s the shiny new object. And so, clinical trials are the way that we define new standards and move forward to do new therapies.

CAR T-cells are an incredible advance. Those didn’t exist a handful of years ago. They were only defined as successful in clinical trials. So, my advice to a patient who is diagnosed with DLBCL is ask your provider, as your physician, or your PA, or your nurse practitioner, “What clinical trials are available to me?” If the answer is, “We don’t have any,” go on the internet and figure out where you can go for a second opinion where clinical trials might be available. And there are plenty or resources online to try and figure this out.

Time is of the essence for this DLBCL. We don’t have six months to shop around and go figure out what centers, but clinical trials are really the only engine we have to drive progress to do better and cure more patients.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. You touched upon this earlier, Dr. Westin, but aren’t there emerging DLBCL approaches the patient should know about?

Dr. Westin:                 

Yes. Thankfully, there are many, many. We could spend several hours talking about lots of new therapies coming along. So, it’s a great answer to have. It’s an embarrassment of riches that we have for lots and lots of new therapies that appear quite promising in the early development stage.

In terms of those that have actually crossed over the finished line to be approved by the FDA, we have a handful of new therapies in the past few years that have been approved. Previously, we didn’t really have very many, but now there are multiple therapies that are approved by the FDA outside of a clinical trial, that are targeted treatments.

And those include antibody drug conjugates, basically an antibody like you make against an infection. However, this antibody has a chemotherapy warhead attached to the back of it. So, effectively, it’s a heatseeking missile that finds whatever target we want it to find – in this case, cancer cells – and delivers a high dose chemotherapy right to the bad guys, not to the good guys. There are also other immune therapies that we’ve seen than can be very powerful antibodies, plus immunomodulatory drugs. And we can talk about specific names of these if we’d like.

And then, lastly, there are other oral agents that are coming along that look very promising in terms of their ability to target the cancer cells more directly than growing cells.

Lastly, there’s a very new class of therapies not yet approved, but very promising. I mentioned this before. It’s something called a bispecific antibody. Bispecific – the word bicycle meaning two wheels. Bispecific is two specific antibodies. Basically, it’s an antibody that’s grabbing onto a cancer cell and grabbing onto an immune cell. “I’d like to introduce you guys. Why don’t you guys come in proximity and see if we can have a party.”

And it’s an idea here of trying to get the cancer cell to be attacked by the immune cell simply through this close proximity that occurs. Not yet approved. Looks very promising and I think probably will be approved for multiple different lymphoma types, including large B-cell, in the coming years.

Katherine:                  

Okay. That’s really good information. Related to clinical trials and research, we received a patient question before the program. Anthony wants to know, “If I participate in a clinical trial, will I receive a placebo?”

Dr. Westin:                 

Great question, Anthony. I get this question all the time. The short answer is no in the way that you’re meaning this question.

Is there a possibility that you won’t get an active treatment for your cancer? No. That’s unethical. That’s not something that would ever been done in a clinical trial when there’s indication that treatment is needed. The only time a placebo might be used is to try and check to see is something effective more than what we’ve done in the past. An example being if we wanted to check a new drug in combination with R-CHOP, comparing it to R-CHOP alone, sometimes patients might get R-CHOP with the new drug or R-CHOP with a placebo.

Not a placebo by itself, but basically as a balance so that everybody’s taking an extra pill on top of their regular therapy. Because the placebo effect is powerful. Patients who take the new therapy, got the new pill, “I feel better because I’m doing this new targeted treatment.” When, in reality, placebos do that, too. So, it does help to have a balance in terms of symptoms, in terms of effectiveness in adverse events, to have placebo-controlled trials.

However, patients don’t get only a placebo. They get standard treatment plus a placebo. So, the only context I can think of you’d do that would be in that situation or if we think you’re already potentially cured but we’re giving an extra therapy just to be double sure versus observing the current standard. You may get a placebo there. But if you have active lymphoma that needs treatment, you will never get a placebo as your single therapy. That would be unethical and unacceptable. That does not happen.

Katherine:                  

Okay. That’s really good to know. Thank you.  Now that we have a better understanding of the types of treatment, let’s talk about what goes into deciding on an approach. Since no two patients are exactly the same, I imagine then that their treatment approaches are different. So, what do you consider when determining the best treatment option for an individual patient?

Dr. Westin:                 

That’s a very important question. How can we personalize treatments in a way that gets us down to what a single patient needs, not both populations of thousands of patients, but the person sitting across the exam room.

Katherine:                  

Right.

Dr. Westin:                 

For first line DLBCL, someone who’s newly diagnosed, unfortunately the one size fits all of R-CHOP being the standard, or versions of R-CHOP, the new treatment that I mentioned having a slight improvement not yet approved by the FDA, there’s not as much customization or personalization outside of clinical trials as I would like. We’d love to be smarter and to be able to say, “Well, you have the subtype A of large B-cell, therefore you should get subtype therapy A,” or subtype B and you get subtype therapy B. We have more of a one-size-fits-all approach in our frontline treatment outside of clinical trials.

On clinical trials, sometimes patients will have a subtype of large B-cell. We talk about things called the cell of origin. We talk about things called double hit. There are specific subtypes of DLBCL that occasionally a clinical trial will target that subtype and have a therapy that’s supposed to work better in that subtype.

So, that’s another reason to consider clinical trials, is the ability to potentially to customize or personalize your therapy to go more specifically after what’s wrong with your cancer cells as opposed to having something that’s given as a shotgun approach to everyone. And the reason that R-CHOP is around for this long is that it works fairly well across the board in different subtypes. It’s not something that’s completely effective in one and completely ineffective in another.

But, in terms of personalizing therapies, clinical trials are an important thing to be considered. In the relapse space, with patients that have relapsed disease, there we have more potential to customize treatments and often that’s done based upon characteristics of the tumor or the patient’s preferences in terms of frequency of treatments, in terms of potential for side effects. There’s more that can be done if somebody’s already had a treatment and it came back. But clinical trials are a great way to try and customize, or to drill down in terms of specifics about your particular cancer.

Katherine:                  

Can you touch upon treatment side effects?

Dr. Westin:                 

Yes. Treatment side effects, obviously, are very important to our patients in terms of what does their quality of life look like while the therapy’s ongoing to try to get rid of this dread cancer. The side effects really depend upon what treatment we’re talking about. And if we focus on frontline treatments, the initial treatments being R-CHOP based treatments, side effects are chemotherapy side effects. And that includes low blood counts, white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, risk of infection along with the low white blood cells, and risk of fevers prompting a trip to the emergency department for an evaluation.

Thankfully, that’s rare. Maybe one out of four or one out of five patients would have an infection during treatments. But if it happens, it can be serious. Fatigue, nausea – which is usually very well controlled with medications, but nonetheless has to be something we watch out for. And for many patients, it’s important to note that hair loss can occur from the chemotherapy. And that’s something that it’s easy to say, “Oh, I don’t care about that.” But for many people, when you look in the mirror and you see somebody else looking back at you, somebody that has a different physical appearance than you’re used to, it can be quite distressing.

That’s unfortunately part of many patients’ journey with the therapy for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. In nonchemotherapy treatments – the targeted ones that I mentioned – these are the antibody drug conjugates, the targeted immune therapies, or in CAR T-cells, side effects can be very different, sometimes much less in terms of the side effects, other times completely different types of side effects. So, it really matters what type of treatment you’re talking about. And this is something you really want to clarify with your physician, with the nurse, with the PA.

“Tell me a lot of details about what I should expect when I’m feeling this. And give me reading materials so I can digest it, think about it, and figure out what questions I need to ask after we first discuss this.”

Katherine:                  

Yeah.

Dr. Westin:                 

The side effects really are an important part of the patient’s journey.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. We had another audience question prior to the program. “Where can I find a specialist?”

Dr. Westin:                 

Very important question. It depends where you live. Specialists are not on every oncology shop in the country.

Katherine:                  

No.

Dr. Westin:                 

Lymphomas are not the most rare cancer. They’re somewhere in the seven, eight, nine range every year in terms of annual incidents of cancers. But that’s lymphomas in general. Large B-cell lymphoma is the most common lymphoma, but it represents about 30,000 new diagnoses each year. Thirty thousand Americans are diagnosed with this disease each year. Thirty thousand sounds like a large number if you’re thinking about a sporting event, but if you’re thinking about compared to the entire US population, that’s a relatively small number.

So, I think that going to a relatively large cancer center, if that’s something that’s feasible for you – if you live in a driving distance or have the economic means to be seen at a cancer center, you’re very likely to find a physician that has expertise in DLBCL. I practice at MD Anderson, where basically most of my patients have DLBCL. And I work in a department where all patients have lymphoma of various subtypes.

So, I have a somewhat unique position, where we’re able to drill down about subtypes of subtypes of subtypes and get into the weeds. Many physicians are able to keep up with the latest information for DLBCL, but may not be able to have that level of focus. I think it’s important to consider where you’re being treated as something that’s critical. And as mentioned before, asking about clinical trials. And if the place you’re at doesn’t have them or doesn’t want  to talk about them, maybe I should think about getting a second opinion someplace that might. 

Katherine:                  

Yeah. It sounds like there are several factors to weigh when making this decision about treatment. And lately, we’ve been hearing this term shared decision-making, which basically means the patients and clinicians collaborate to make healthcare decisions. And it can help patients take a more active role in their care. So, I’d like to get your thoughts on how best to make this process work. Are there questions that patients should consider asking about their proposed treatment plan?

Dr. Westin:                 

Definitely. And I think shared decision-making is something that we view to be critical. We want everybody on board to feel like they’ve got some sense of ownership of these decisions and that they’re involved in a way that’s meaningful. At the end of the day, the patients make the decisions about which treatments are right for them but they’re trusting their healthcare team to give them good advice. This is not something that patients have expertise in. This is often out of nowhere that somebody is newly diagnosed and this is not on their radar, not something that they ever thought that they’d be sitting in the chair talking about which type of therapy for this cancer.

And so, patients are often relying on the healthcare team to give them good advice. But it’s a fair question and it’s, I think, one that’s appropriate to ask. “Are there other treatment options that we should be talking about?” Basically, exploring, “Is this option you’re presenting the option or is this what you consider to be the best option.” Oftentimes physicians, and PAs, and nurse practitioners might filter information such that, “Yeah, there are other options but here’s why they’re bad. Here’s why they’re not right for you.”

But feeling that you have some clarity about why a treatment choice was made, I think, is often quite important. For first line DLBCL, there are less options to consider. But in the relapse space, there are lots of options. And those should be discussed. And sometimes the healthcare provider, a physician, might have their favorite that they have had good experience with treatment A and therefore they recommend treatment A to the next patient. But that may not always be the right treatment for a given patient.

There may be reasons to consider other treatments. And so, asking that question, “What else is out there? What other treatments are there? Anything else that we should be considering,” I think is a fair question to ask and an important one. And if the answer is, “No, there aren’t other treatment options. This is the one that we should choose,” at least you’re aware of that by asking that question. So, I think that’s an important one to clarify.

Katherine:                  

Right. That leads me to my next question. What advice do you have for patients who don’t feel comfortable speaking up but they have questions about their treatment plan?

Dr. Westin:                 

Yeah. I think written questions sometimes are easier than trying to remember all of your questions. It always is a bit problematic when I go into a visit and a patient has six pages of paper written down for questions. We unfortunately don’t have unlimited time to get through all of those. But trying to condense into – prioritizing. Which of the questions are the ones that I feel like I must get into and which are ones that I can submit to have answered after the fact.

Perhaps the nurse could send me a note through the electronic medical record to answer questions 10-15 on my list. So, I think you can overwhelm a visit if you show up with a list of questions that are even 30-second answers might take an hour to answer all of them. That’s sometimes counterproductive, in my opinion, to have that level of detail on a single visit. But it’s fair to say, “Can I contact the healthcare team to get these answered electronically through the EMR,” or, “Can we table this and go into the questions that we didn’t get to at our next visit?” I think both of those are appropriate.

I think people that are not comfortable to push back on the physician, or the PA, or the nurse, doing things in writing sometimes feels a little bit less confrontational for people. So, I think that’s important to have as a backup option.

Katherine:                  

And I imagine caregivers can be helpful in this regard as well.

Dr. Westin:                 

Correct. Yeah. I think caregivers are a key part of that. And sometimes we go into a room and the patient says, “Nope. Don’t have any questions.”

And then, the caregiver has got a whole list of them. That’s very appropriate. Caregivers have that responsibility and that role to play sometimes, to be the key questioner.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Are there resources to help patients and their loved ones to weigh the risks and benefits of different treatment options?

Dr. Westin:                 

There are. There’s lots of resources online and I would make sure that you go to a trusted site. Sometimes things sound too good to be true because they’re not true. But things like the lymphoma research foundation or the LLS, the Lymphoma & Leukemia Society, are great sources for information. And sometimes they may link you to other sites. You could also ask your healthcare provider does their institution have anything specific about this disease. Sometimes your healthcare provider might tell you, “Here’s the right article if you want to go read the source, the clinical trial, that was published to show why this treatment’s good.” They may show you that paper.

But online, careful how deep into the weeds you go because sometimes you can find things that aren’t correct. Trust good, trusted sources.

Katherine:                  

Do you think patients should consider a second opinion consult with a specialist?

Dr. Westin:                 

It sometimes is appropriate. Other times, there’s not a lot of time. If treatment’s needed right away, you don’t want to get sicker because you’re waiting for seeing somebody two states over and it takes two weeks to get there. Sometimes you want to start treatment and get the second opinion after you’ve got the fire put out. But the second opinion usually gives more peace of mind than actually changing treatments. But if you’ve got that thought of, “I’m not so sure this is what I’d like to do,” or, “I’d like to get more information,” a second opinion may be very appropriate.

Katherine:                  

Okay. So, to close, Dr. Westin, what would you like to leave the audience with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Westin:                 

I am very hopeful for the future for how we can beat DLBCL. We currently are curing the majority of our patients. We’ve got new weapons which look incredible and are continuing to help more and more people. But the main engine that we do help more people – the main engine that we make progress is clinical research through clinical trials.

I think this is something that we don’t want to rely on 1970s chemotherapy as we’re getting into the 2030s, and 2040s, and 2070s. This is something that we should be able to improve upon and to move beyond. And the only way we do that is through clinical trials. So, please do ask your doctor about what clinical trial might be right for you and don’t presume that a trial is something that’s experimental or something that’s not safe or not good for me. That’s how your treatments that we’re talking about today were originally discovered was through clinical trials. So, the future is bright. We’re helping a lot of people. And we can do more and do better in the future.

Katherine:                  

Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today, Dr. Westin.

Dr. Westin:                 

Thank you for having me.

Katherine:                  

And thank you to all of our partners.

Please continue to send in your questions to question@powerpatients.org and we’ll work to get them answered on future programs.

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

Why Follicular Lymphoma Patients Should Speak Up About Symptoms and Side Effects

Why Follicular Lymphoma Patients Should Speak Up About Symptoms and Side Effects from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Tycel Phillips urges patients to be active participants in their follicular lymphoma care and discusses the importance of sharing symptoms and side effects with your healthcare team. 

Dr. Tycel Jovelle Phillips is a Medical Oncologist in the Hematology Clinic at The University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Phillips, here.

See More from The Pro-Active Follicular Lymphoma Patient Toolkit

Related Programs:

Follicular Lymphoma: What Treatment Options Are Available?

Follicular Lymphoma: What Treatment Options Are Available?

What Factors Are Considered When Choosing a Follicular Lymphoma Treatment?

What Are the Treatment Goals for Follicular Lymphoma?

What Are the Treatment Goals for Follicular Lymphoma?


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Let’s take a moment to talk about patient self-advocacy. Patients can sometimes feel like they’re bothering their healthcare team with their questions and their comments. Why is it important for patients to speak up when it comes to symptoms and side effects?

Dr. Phillips:                 

Well, for the side effect part it’s important because your physician can’t potentially prevent the worst thing or further development of side effects. Nobody can. And also, they can’t prevent you from going to the hospital if you don’t let them know you have this certain side effects.

So, it’s very important to communicate side effects, because for the most part there are logical next steps that we can implement to either eliminate the side effects or hopefully prevent them from future treatment regimens. And also, other concerns that you may have. I mean, you only get one life. And this is your body. Then for the best part, it’s best to communicate any concerns that you may have in regard to treatment, or any questions you may have so that you are well aware.

You can’t really fight this appropriately without sort of being well aware of what you’re dealing with, what we’re using to take care of the cancer, and what potential side effects may come up. Again, so we can, again, have you have the best experience possible to try to get your cancer under control. I try to explain to my patients, “I don’t want you to wait until the next visit if you have issues.” I mean, we need to sort of manage these in real time. Even things we don’t take care of right then and there, again, it gives us a heads up and a head start to try to take care of these problems the next time you come to the clinic.

Emerging Follicular Lymphoma Treatment Approaches

Emerging Follicular Lymphoma Treatment Approaches from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Tycel Phillips explores the latest follicular lymphoma treatment approaches. Dr. Phillips discusses CAR-T cell therapy and inhibitor treatments and provides advice on clinical trial participation. 

Dr. Tycel Jovelle Phillips is a Medical Oncologist in the Hematology Clinic at The University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Phillips, here.

See More from The Pro-Active Follicular Lymphoma Patient Toolkit

Related Programs:

Follicular Lymphoma: What Treatment Options Are Available?

Follicular Lymphoma: What Treatment Options Are Available?

What Are the Treatment Goals for Follicular Lymphoma?

What Are the Treatment Goals for Follicular Lymphoma?

What Factors Are Considered When Choosing a Follicular Lymphoma Treatment?


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Okay. Are there emerging approaches for treating follicular lymphoma that patients should know about?

Dr. Phillips:                 

There are. So, there are some more exciting data that’s coming out, specifically looking at CAR-T, which is chimeric antigen receptor therapy. So, these are augmented T-cells that they collect from the patient, they help recognize – they help to modify those cancer cells to recognize the tumor more appropriately. And they target those tumor cells through a receptor called CD19 that’s present on the tumor.

So, that therapy has shown a significant overall response rate in follicular lymphoma. Even in very heavily pretreated patients. Right now, we’re still waiting on a longer follow up as far as the duration of the response, but as of right now it is a very encouraging therapy.

The downside to that therapy is that you can only receive it at select centers because they have to be a therapeutic approved center. So, you can’t just go sometimes to your regular oncologist’s in say, Skoboken or wherever, and get this treatment. So that’s one downside to that and also, it’s a very expensive treatment and you need insurance approval to cover that. Some of the side effects from that treatment we have gotten better at controlling, such as cytokine release syndrome, which can cause fever, low blood pressures, difficulty breathing.

That typically happens within a set period of time after the infusion of the [inaudible] [26:49] Liso-cel? Maybe chemo? The audio fully cuts out. and modified T-cells. And then there’s also what we call neurotoxicity, meaning you can have some neurological complications. Which, again, we’ve become better at managing. There are a couple CAR-T products on the market right now; all of them seem very comparable and also effective in follicular lymphoma. There’s also treatments called bispecific antibodies, these are like causally off the shelf products, except they use an antibody.

And in this antibody it has sort of two receptors. So, earlier we talked about Rituximab, which is a CD20 antibody. The bispecifics have a CD20 antibody and a CD3 antibody set. So, they bind to the tumor and also bind to your T-cells. And with the binding to the T-cells, they call it T-cell activation and expansion. And it will utilize your own T-cells to fight off the cancer. So, because these bispecifics are given as an off the shelf product, they can likely be able to be given in more accessible areas.

So, you won’t have to select centers to be given. There are still some complications with those, such as CRS and neurotoxicity, but early reports indicate that they’re much less severe and less frequency than what we see with CAR-T. But as of right now, neither the duration of responses of these treatments are still to be determined. So, again, these are two exciting sort of avenues that are moving forward for patients with follicular lymphoma that will be further developed and sort of be expanded on in the coming years.

Katherine:                  

I’d like to just go back for a second and ask you about inhibitor treatments.

Dr. Phillips:                 

Sure. So, as of right now, CAR-T with the chimeric antigen receptor therapy treatment is only approved for patients with relapsed refractory disease. The bispecific antibody therapies are only available in clinical trial. There are some other sort of cyclin inhibitors that haven’t gotten approval. So, we have the PO3 kind of Delta inhibitors, which inhibit the PO3 kind of pathway in a patient with follicular lymphoma.

There were four approved agents in this class of drugs. We had umbralisib, duvelisib, copanlisib, and idelalisib. More recently, two of those, idelalisib and duvelisib, have removed their indications for follicular lymphoma.

So, as of right now we have copanlisib which is an IDP kind of three dose inhibitor and umbralisib, which is an oral agent for the PO3 dose kind of inhibitor. So, both of those agents are typically usually targeted in the third line and beyond. So, patients who fail at least two lines of therapy. We also have tazemetostat, which is an EZH2 inhibitor, that was most recently improved. So, EZH2 mutations occur in about 20% of patients for follicular lymphoma.

But tazemetostat was actually approved for those with and without the mutation as it did show some efficacy in both. It appeared that the overall response rate was a bit higher than those who had an EZH2 mutation, with the duration of the response appears to be equivalent. But I do think for most parts in that situation, for those who lack the mutation the drug is typically used for patients who are unfit for other therapies. Whereas those who have the mutation, it typically probably will be used a bit earlier.

Katherine:                  

What about clinical trials? How do they fit in?

Dr. Phillips:                 

So, for patients with relapsed refractory disease and even some patients with untreated disease, clinical trials are sometimes your best avenue for getting some of these new and promising therapeutics before they get approval. I know sometimes patients are very cautious about clinical trials because they don’t want to be guinea pigs. But I would say all treatments that we offer you have started in clinical trials. And this is the only way to really advance the field. So, if your treating physician has a clinical trial for you, I would strongly recommend patients consider that.

Because, again, they are typically offering you something that they can’t offer you as a standard care, insurance approved treatment. And for the most part, they’re either adding drugs to what we do as far as standard of care treatment approach or offer you something that is very promising in the relapsed refractory setting or upfront setting. That compares very favorably to what we would give you as a standard of care option. That allows you to get this option sooner and earlier when you’re in better shape and less sort of beat up from the other treatments that we would give you.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Phillips, to close, what would you like to leave the audience with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Phillips:                 

So, I think follicular lymphoma, and lymphoma in general, we are having a better understanding of the biology of the cancer, certain things that are important to the cancer, and certain avenues that we can treat the cancer and avoid some toxicities that have sort of plagued us before. So, I think moving forward there is a ton of research going into improving outcomes for patients with lymphoma, and follicular lymphoma, in general. There are a ton of other treatment options that are coming down the pipe way.

So, I think patients with follicular lymphoma should be very hopeful and encouraged that we will just continue to improve the quality of life and also the duration that they can live with this cancer. I mean, as of right now, until we can cure this cancer, our real goal is to continue to buy you more time. And time buys you more treatments. And most of the treatments that we are developing and are coming, again, down the pipeline are less toxic than some of the things we had 5, 10, definitely 15, 20 years ago.

So, your experience and your quality of life will be improved, and these treatments will also give you more longevity than you could have ever expected. So, patients with lymphoma are living a lot longer and that’s not an important thing to remember. Not hopeful, not – sorry, it’s not hopeless, even though we may say we can’t cure your cancer, the goal is as of right now is to turn this into a chronic disease such as any other chronic disease. Something that you can live with, while managing control. Hopefully, you will continue to enjoy your life and your life won’t be cut short by this cancer.

What Treatment Options Are Available for Relapsed Follicular Lymphoma?

What Treatment Options Are Available for Relapsed Follicular Lymphoma? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Tycel Phillips answers a patient question regarding relapsed follicular lymphoma and discusses available treatment approaches for relapsed patients.

Dr. Tycel Jovelle Phillips is a Medical Oncologist in the Hematology Clinic at The University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Phillips, here.

See More from The Pro-Active Follicular Lymphoma Patient Toolkit

Related Programs:

What are the stages of Follicular Lymphoma?

What Are the Stages of Follicular Lymphoma?

Dr. Tycel Phillips reviews how follicular lymphoma patients are monitored during remission, including frequency of office visits.

Monitoring Follicular Lymphoma Patients During Remission

Why Follicular Lymphoma Patients Should Speak Up About Symptoms and Side Effects

Why Follicular Lymphoma Patients Should Speak Up About Symptoms and Side Effects


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

We received this question from an audience member prior to the program. Angela asks, “What if I relapse after treatment? What are my options then?”

Dr. Phillips:                 

So, a lot of that, again, depends on the timing. If you relapse early, obviously whatever we gave you in the frontline we would not repeat. And again, if it’s within the 24-month period, again, that takes you on the road of POD24. Wherein patients who are fit enough, it would take you to a route where you would actually probably get a transplant. It’s consolidation to extend our true progression sabbatical.

If you relapse after 24 months, that would really depend on what you received in the frontline because some of these agents can be repeated. If we don’t repeat what you’ve had in a frontline setting – so again, if you’ve got R chemo, then a second line setting, normally what we would do now, based on published data from the augment study, is we would typically treat these patients with Rituximab and lenalidomide, which is that oral medication.

That’s typically if you did receive lenalidomide in the frontline setting and you would not want to repeat that, then we would typically give you R chemo in a second line setting. Again, in most of those situations, it would be RCP or Bendamustine and Rituximab.