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Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When is it time to treat your chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)? Dr. Catherine Coombs reviews the criteria doctors consider when deciding whether it is time to begin 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:

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options?

Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

Refractory vs Relapsed CLL: What’s the Difference?

Transcript:

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 one, if the patient has low blood counts due to the CLL, so that could be anemia or low platelets. Two, if they have bulky lymph nodes. They actually define bulky as 10 centimeters. 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. Three, 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.  

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 

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

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

What do you need to know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR CLL? Dr. Lindsey Roeker discusses the role of key CLL tests, including biomarker testing, reviews emerging research, and provides tips for partnering with your care team to advocate for the best care. 

Download Guide

See More From INSIST! CLL


Related Resources

 

An Overview of CLL Treatment Types

What Should CLL Patients Know About Clinical Trial Treatment Options?

What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment?


Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized CLL treatment for your individual disease, and why it’s essential to insist on key testing. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information, to follow along during 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. And 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 me today is Dr. Lindsay Roeker. Dr. Roker, thank you so much for joining us. Would you introduce yourself?

Dr. Roeker:                 

Absolutely. So, my name is Lindsey Roeker, and I am a member of the CLL program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Katherine:                  

Excellent, thank you. Let’s start at the beginning. How is CLL diagnosed?

Dr. Roeker:                 

Absolutely. So, for most patients, CLL is diagnosed after a routine blood test shows a high white blood cell count. That’s kinda the most common way that we find people entering into our clinic. Other things that people can notice is they have lumps or bumps that they’ve felt in their neck or under their armpits. Those are some other symptoms that can lead to the diagnosis, but often once a patient finds that their white blood cell count is high, some additional testing is done, and the diagnosis of CLL is made.

Katherine:                  

What are some common symptoms of CLL? You mentioned the lumps and bumps.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Yeah. So, often in early stages, the lumps and bumps in the neck are the most common that people recognize, but fevers or chills, night sweats, where patients are waking up drenched, having to change their pajamas, or weight loss without trying, are some other symptoms that can raise some alarm bells and make people start looking for something.

 And CLL can be a diagnosis that can be found through that, as well.

Katherine:                  

What is watch and wait?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, after diagnosis, about two-thirds of patients enter this period of watch and wait, and what that means is we have good data to say that treating CLL before it’s causing symptoms doesn’t help people live better or live longer. And for that reason, we use the approach of watch and wait, and what that really means is you see your doctor a few times a year. I see people every three to four months. And you have your labs checked, have a physical exam, and through that process, just ensure that there are no symptoms that the CLL is causing that warrant therapy.

Katherine:                  

That’s very helpful. Thank you for that. Now, what tests are necessary to help understand a patient-specific disease, both at diagnosis and prior to treatment?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, a diagnosis flow cytometry is the first test done, and what that means is, you take all of your white blood cells in your blood, and you run them through a fancy machine that puts them into buckets. So, you have a bucket of your normal neutrophils, a bucket of your normal lymphocytes, and then you find this bucket of cells that look somewhat unusual. And those have a specific look, if you will, and if they look like CLL cells, that’s how we make the diagnosis.

As you start reading, you’ll find that people talk about monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis, which is MVL, CLL, and SLL, and a lot of times, it’s confusing because you start reading, and there are all of these – kind of lingo around it. So, what we’re looking for with flow cytometry is how many cells are in the peripheral blood? If it’s fewer than 5,000 per microliter – so, your doctor will talk to you; they’ll either say five or 5,000, depending on what units they’re using.

If it’s lower than that, and you don’t have any lumps or bumps or lymphadenopathy, meaning enlarged lymph nodes, that’s when we make the diagnosis of monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis.

So, that’s kind of a pre-cancer diagnosis. Then, CLL, the diagnosis, is made in any patient who has greater than 5,000 cells per microliter, or five, if you’re using that unit, and that’s when the diagnosis of CLL is made. If people have lymph nodes that are enlarged, and there are CLL or SLL cells inside of them, but not a lot of involvement in the blood, that’s when we make the diagnosis of SLL, which is small lymphocytic lymphoma. So, CLL and SLL are really the same disease; it’s just where they manifest, primarily. So, whether it’s mostly in the blood, that’s CLL, or mostly in the lymph nodes, and that’s SLL.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Nope. So, that’s the flow cytometry test, and that’s kind of the test that leads to the diagnosis.

Katherine:                  

Got it. What about FISH and TP53 mutation?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, at diagnosis, I often do this testing. Depending on which provider you go to, you may do it at diagnosis or closer to the time of needing treatment. But FISH is basically a test that looks for big changes in the chromosomes. So, if you remember back to high school biology and you see all of those chromosomes laid out, what FISH is looking for is big changes in those chromosomes. So, is there an entire arm of one of the chromosomes missing? And that’s what FISH does.

There’s also something called karyotyping, or in some institutions, they use something called SNP array. These are more refined tests that look for additional changes in the DNA. So, FISH is kind of a targeted look at a few different chromosomes, whereas karyotype or SNP array looks at all of the chromosomes. Then, there is TP53 mutational testing, and that is done through a bunch of different testing, often next-generation sequencing is what we use.

And we basically use a fancy spellcheck to see if there’s any misspellings, if you will, in TP53.

And TP53 is a gene that we use. It’s called the guardian of the genome. So, its job is basically to make sure that our cells are reproducing. They keep all the genes in working order. If TP53 is missing or misspelled, it doesn’t work as well, and that’s when people can get more issues with their CLL. It tends to be CLL that behaves a little more aggressively.

Katherine:                  

What about IGHV mutation status?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutation status is a really important feature because it really is, of all of the things, what helps us understand the best way to go about therapy. And IGHV mutational status is basically a signature of the CLL that helps you understand how mature or immature the CLL cells are.

In general, mature cells tend to behave a little bit more predictively, and in ways that behave a bit better with therapy. So, the more mature cells are actually mutated IGHV, and I know that’s backward, because usually we think of mutated as being back. But in this case, mutated is actually those cells that are a bit more mature, and that just has to do with how white blood cells develop in our body. If it’s IGHV-unmutated, those tend to be the more immature cells that can behave a little more erratically.

Katherine:                  

Which tests need to be repeated over time?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutational status never changes, so that one does not need to be repeated. TP53 mutational status, FISH, and karyotype or SNP array, are ones that I tend to repeat before we start any therapy. So, at the time that you’re going to start your frontline therapy, and then if you have the disease come back and need to be treated again, I usually repeat those tests because those can change over time.

So, that’s both FISH, karyotype or SNP array, and the TP53 mutational testing.

Katherine:                  

Okay. So, it sounds like it’s important for patients to make sure they’ve had this testing. What do the test results reveal about a patient’s prognosis?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutational status, like I said, really helps us understand how to approach therapy. In general, CLL is a disease that we are increasingly managing with targeted medicines, so drugs that really manipulate the cell biology to either stop the growth of cells or kill the cells so that they pop open. And that has been a trend that has taken place over the last six or seven years, and definitely has revolutionized the treatment of CLL. There is still a small minority of patients, the patients who have IGHV-mutated disease, and are younger, and have fewer other medical problems, that can still be good candidates for chemotherapy.

And the reason that I say that is because in general, chemotherapy for those young, mutated patients cures a subset of patients, so when we look at long-term studies of FCR, which is a combination of chemo and immunotherapy, there are a subset of patients who have a really long period where their disease doesn’t come back, to the point that we call them cured or functionally cured. That’s obviously a word that has a lot of emotional charge around it, and it’s hard because there’s always the possibility of the disease coming back in the future.

But because of those long-term outcomes, we know that there’s some patients that can really have long-term benefit from chemoimmunotherapy.

For IGHV-unmutated patients, and especially for patients with TP53 mutations or deletion of 17p, chemoimmunotherapy really is not the right answer, with all of the medications that we have available to us now.

Katherine:                  

We have an audience question. Mike wants to know, “What does it mean to have high-risk CLL?”

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, great question, and the interesting thing is that I think the answer to that question is evolving. So, deletion of 17p, deletion of 11q, and TP53 mutation have historically been markers of more aggressive disease or unfavorable CLL. In the era where we only had chemo and immunotherapy, we know that patients had less great outcomes. We know that the treatments tended to not work as well, and patients had disease that tended to come back faster, and things like that.

 That’s all evolving in the era of targeted agents. We have some indication that probably patients who have more aggressive underlying disease biology, meaning disease that’s going to behave less well, kind of regardless of what we treat it with, certainly may derive less benefit, meaning that the treatment will work for less long. That being said, these treatments are still really effective for our patients who have traditionally high-risk disease. So, I think it still remains to be seen, in terms of long-term outcomes and what to expect for patients that have these traditionally high-risk characteristics.

Katherine:                  

So, now that we understand how these tests affect prognosis, let’s discuss how they can affect treatment options. Let’s run through a few potential results so we can understand how you might approach each patient type. If someone has deletion 17p, what is the approach?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, there are two totally reasonable frontline treatment options.

So, BTK inhibitors, which are – the current approved ones are ibrutinib and acalabrutinib, are completely a reasonable approach in the frontline setting, meaning the first treatment that someone gets, and those are pills that you take daily. For ibrutinib, it’s once a day. For acalabrutinib, it’s twice a day, for as long as they’re working. And the idea is, with this approach, you keep on those medicines, and they keep the disease suppressed. So, that’s the first option.

The second totally reasonable option is a combination of venetoclax and obinutuzumab. So, venetoclax is a pill and obinutuzumab is an IV medicine, and the way that this was studied was a total of one year of therapy. So, from the time you start until you’re done with all of your treatments, that’s a one-year course. And the drugs have different side effect profiles, and depending on other medical problems, patient preference about, let’s just take a pill and that’s easy, versus the combination of pill and IV medicines, either can be a completely reasonable choice.

It just depends a lot on patient and doctor preference.

Katherine:                  

What about the TP53 mutation?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, both of those treatment options seem to work very well for TP53-mutated patients. We had that discussion about the possibility of chemoimmunotherapy for a small minority of patients, and for patients with a TP53 mutation, using chemoimmunotherapy up front is probably not the correct answer. It’s better to go with one of the targeted drug approaches.

Katherine:                  

You mentioned, Dr. Roeker, the IGHV mutated and unmutated. How would you approach each patient type, if a patient is IGHV unmutated?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV-unmutated is the same discussion. Chemoimmunotherapy is probably not going to provide a durable, meaning it’s not going to last for a long time. We’re not going to achieve that potential cure. So, for those patients, either the BTK inhibitor approach, or the venetoclax/Obinutuzumab approach is completely a reasonable one to take.

Katherine:                  

And if they’re IGHV-mutated?

Dr. Roeker:                 

IGHV-mutated patients who are young and don’t have a lot of other medical problems, that’s when we add in the third option of chemoimmunotherapy. For many patients, it’s not wrong to choose either a BTK inhibitor or venetoclax/Obinutuzumab, but it does add in that third potential option of chemoimmunotherapy.

Katherine:                  

Are there other markers that patients should know about?

Dr. Roeker:                 

I think those are the big ones.

So, TP53 mutation status, FISH, and karyotype kind of gets you most of them. Some centers do additional next-generation sequencing of other genes that have been associated with higher-risk disease, though really understanding how to interpret those results still remains somewhat unclear, and that’s still an area of research that people are doing, to really understand what those other mutations really mean for people.

Katherine:                  

What about the impact of testing, overall? Why is it so important?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, as we’ve moved from a disease that was really only treated with chemoimmunotherapy, to one that has targeted drugs available, knowing your IGHV mutational status really impacts what your frontline treatment options are. That’s the major therapy-defining risk factor. The other mutations help you know what to expect. So, for patients who have deletion of 17p or TP53 mutation, it’s possible that the treatments are going to, overall, work for a shorter period of time.

All that being said, every person is an individual, and it’s hard to predict exactly how long someone’s going to respond, from an individual basis. So, what I tell my patients is, “I could tell you what 100 of people with exactly your same disease would do, on average, but I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen for you. And that’s a journey that we’re going to take together and really understand over time.”

Katherine:                  

These are really great points, Dr. Roeker. Now, we’ve talked about this a little bit. What are other important factors to consider, like a patient’s age, that can help them access the best treatment for their CLL?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, age is important. Other medical problems is actually a very important consideration.

So, these medications have different side effect profiles and behave differently in different people. So, the BTK inhibitors, specifically ibrutinib is the one that we have the most data on, has cardiovascular side effects, so it can cause atrial fibrillation. It can cause high blood pressure. So, for patients who have preexisting heart disease, or preexisting atrial fibrillation that has been hard to control, or blood pressure that has been hard to control, for those people, I think adding in a BTK inhibitor can be a bit more of a higher risk situation than in somebody without those preexisting problems.

Venetoclax is a pill that causes the cell to burst open rapidly, and it kills cells very quickly. Because of that, the major side effect is called tumor lysis syndrome, and tumor lysis syndrome is basically the cell opens up and all of the salt inside of it goes into the bloodstream.

And that salt can actually be really hard on the kidneys. So, for people who have kidney problems, venetoclax can be somewhat more challenging to use and just requires a higher level of vigilance. So, for patients who have preexisting kidney disease or the idea of a lot of monitoring and things like that, is more challenging. Then maybe the BTK inhibitors are a better choice.

Katherine:                  

How do you monitor whether a treatment is working?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, a lot of it has to do with the CBC, so your normal blood count, and what we’re looking for is improvement in hemoglobin and improvement or normalization of platelet count. And for many people, those, either anemia or low platelets, are the symptoms that drive people to be treated in the first place, so we’re looking for those parameters to get better.

With a lot of people with CLL, totally understandably, because it’s the number that’s the most abnormal, really focused on white blood cell count. 100% understandable.

I always tell people that that’s actually the part of the CBC that I care least about, and the reason is that, for patients on BTK inhibitors, we expect to see the white blood count actually get higher before it gets less high. That’s actually just a sign that the drug is working and it’s pulling CLL cells from the lymph nodes into the bloodstream. So, that’s actually a good sign that it’s working, and that lymphocyte count, at least in the beginning, isn’t a great marker of how well the drug is working.

The other thing that’s important is the physical exam, so looking for whether any lymph nodes that were enlarged have normalized or gone away, and also feeling the sides of the spleen, because the spleen can become enlarged with CLL, and it’s important to make sure that’s normalizing, as well.

And then the last piece is talking to people, so making sure that if they were having fatigue, or fevers, or night sweats before they started treatment, to make sure that those symptoms have gone away. And that’s kind of the three things that I use. I use the blood counts, the physical exam, and the interview with a patient to really understand how their disease is responding.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Roeker, why is it important for patients to speak up if they’re experiencing side effects? I know that they sometimes feel like they’re bothering their healthcare team.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Thank you for that question, because it’s really important point. Side effects are easiest to manage when you catch them early. So, when people have, for instance, muscle pain or joint aches, I have lots of tricks up my sleeve to help people, but I need to know about it. So, if people don’t tell me until they have joint pain that’s so bad that they’re not able to exercise or not able to get out of bed easily in the morning, that’s taking it – it’s gone on for a while at that point, and it’s pretty far down the line.

First of all, you wouldn’t have had to suffer for that long because we have ways of fixing it, and second, it’s always harder to fix a problem once it’s further down the line than earlier on. So, I talk to people about what side effects they might experience and what to expect, and then we talk about different management strategies to really nip it early so that we’re not dealing with a really huge problem down the line.

Katherine:                  

We have a question from our audience. Maria asks, “I just found out that I will need to undergo treatment again. I was previously treated with FCR. Does that impact my options now, going forward?”

Dr. Roeker:                 

Great question. So, FCR was a really common treatment strategy before we had all of the drugs that we have available now. We have good data to say that both BTK inhibitors and venetoclax-based treatments work after chemoimmunotherapy. In fact, those were the patients in whom these drugs were really initially studied, so we actually know better in that group of patients how they’re going to work, than in the patients who have never been treated with them, in terms of the amount of data and the long-term follow-up that we have.

So, most likely, your provider will still talk to you about kind of the two therapeutic option being a BTK inhibitor-based approach versus a venetoclax-based approach, and either are completely appropriate in that setting.

Katherine:                  

We have another question from our audience. Eileen is currently in active treatment for her CLL, and she wants to know, “Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for her?”

Dr. Roeker:                 

Great question. So, here is my take on COVID vaccines. We have great data on the safety of these vaccines, so the risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction is very, very low, less than one in a thousand. We know that it can cause some irritation at the injection site, so pain in your arm. We know that it can cause some kinda flu-like, blah symptoms for a couple of days, totally fine to take ibuprofen and kinda get yourself through that period.

But from a safety perspective, I don’t have concerns about these vaccines. There’s a lot of social media coverage on long-term implications that are either not based on data, at all, and just speculation, and people who are trying to raise alarm, or people who are really bringing up bad things that are happening to people really far out from the vaccine. And I think it’s really hard to attribute that to the vaccine. Obviously, any time there is a new technology, there’s the possibility of things happening, and we’re going to know more with time, but I think, overall, from a scientific perspective, there is no data that makes me worried about the safety of this vaccine.

The efficacy question, I think, is more of an open question, and the reason I say that is two-fold. The first is, we know that patients with CLL who get other vaccines, some get 100% coverage, some get zero percent coverage, and some are somewhere in between.

And it’s hard to predict who is going to fall where. So, that’s the first piece. The second piece is, we’ve looked at patients who had CLL and got COVID, and we saw if they made antibodies, which is kind of a marker of an immune response, and it’s not consistent that every patient who got COVID makes antibodies.

So, the combination of those two pieces of data makes me question exactly how well they’re going to work. So, what I’m telling my patients is, “Definitely go ahead and get it. I think it’s safe. And then pretend that you didn’t get it.” So, I know that’s hard advice to hear, but continue wearing a mask, continue social distancing, and continue to wash your hands. And then, every interaction you have is a risk-benefit discussion or decision. So, that’s different for every person, but in general, I recommend that people continue being cautious.

Once the whole population around you is vaccinated and we have less virus circulating in the community, that’s when it’s going to be substantially safer. So, definitely, I recommend that people get it, regardless of whether you are on watch and wait, getting treatment, have just finished treatment, whatever it is, but I do think there’s reason to be cautious even after getting vaccinated.

Katherine:                  

Are there symptoms or issues CLL patients should be looking out for, post-vaccine?

Dr. Roeker:                 

Not particularly, beyond what people are getting in kind of the general population. If you’re having a lot of those kind of flu-like symptoms, just talk to your provider to make sure that ibuprofen is safe, because if your platelets are really low, that can cause bleeding. But Tylenol is typically pretty safe, and talk to your doctor about which medicines are kinda best for you to take in that situation, but no particular concerns in patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

Okay. Thank you for the clarification. As I mentioned at the start of this program, patients should insist on essential CLL testing. As we conclude, I think it’s important to point out that some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests, so how can they take action?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, the next time you’re at your doctor, ask, “I just want to know more about the prognosis of my CLL, and can we talk through the genetic markers of my disease, to help me understand what to expect?” That’s kind of code for, “Let’s go through all of these test results,” and it also – if you have a provider who doesn’t routinely test them at diagnosis, and for instance, just tests before treatment, they can also kind of give you their sense of when they do the testing, so you know what to expect. And I think that’s an important discussion to have with your provider, for sure.

Katherine:                  

Are there key questions that patients should ask their physicians?

Dr. Roeker:                 

I’m always impressed with the questions that people come up with. I think one of the best is, what should I expect, based on what we’re doing now? It’s always a hard question to answer because, obviously, for any patient, it’s so individualized, but I think understanding what to expect, as a general sense, is a good way to approach both treatment and prognosis, and all of those kinds of things.

Katherine:                  

I’d like to close by asking about developments in CLL research and treatment. What’s new that you feel patients should know about?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, there are a lot of exciting drugs coming up in CLL. We have the BTK inhibitors, ibrutinib and acalabrutinib approved. We have more BTK inhibitors with different side effect profiles that are in development.

And there’s also a new class of drugs called noncovalent BTK inhibitors, which seem to work well, even when prior BTK inhibitors have stopped working. So, that’s a really exciting development. There is also just lots of studies about how we combine drugs to maximize efficacy while minimizing side effects, and all of these studies that are underway are really looking at refining how we approach treatment so that we can treat people very effectively but also minimize their side effects.

And as we have more results available, the treatment paradigm for CLL is going to continue to shift and evolve, and I think there are a lot of exciting things coming, and there’s definitely a lot of reason to be hopeful, that the future of CLL is even brighter than the present.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Roeker:                 

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

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 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 proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us.

How to Play an Active Role in Your CLL Treatment Decisions

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

How can you partner with your healthcare team to feel confident in your CLL decisions? In this webinar replay, Dr. Matthew Davids discusses CLL treatment approaches, developing research and tools for partnering with your healthcare team. Dr. Matthew Davids is the Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Lymphoma at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

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Which CLL Treatment Approach Could be Right for You?

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to explore the factors that guide CLL treatment decisions, including your role in making those decisions. 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. And at the end of this program, you will receive 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 is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Refer to your own healthcare team. All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Matthew Davids. Dr. Davids, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Davids:                  

Hi, Katherine. Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be with everyone today. I’m Matt Davids. I’m a CLL-focused physician based at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and I’m also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. And I get to wear many hats here. First and foremost, I take care of patients, particularly patients with CLL, but I also have some administrative roles. I direct our clinical research program in the lymphoma division. I also run a research laboratory focused on CLL and other lymphoid cancers, and I run about a dozen clinical trials mostly focused on developing new treatment options for patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

Wow. Sounds like you’re a busy guy. I’m glad you have the time to join us today.

Dr. Davids:                  

My pleasure.

Katherine:                  

Let’s start with a question that’s on the mind of many of our audience members. Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for CLL patients?

Dr. Davids:                 

Very timely question. The simple answer is yes. There are now actually three different vaccines that have been granted emergency use authorization by the FDA.

And I would say that so far, we’ve seen clinical trial evidence suggesting these are very safe vaccines in the general population.

Our own experience with our own CLL patients so far has also suggested safety, so I think it’s very important that our CLL patients get vaccinated as soon as they can. I think the bigger concern more than safety is on the efficacy side of the vaccine, meaning how effective are these vaccines going to be for CLL patients? That’s not something that we know yet from the larger clinical trials that have been done. So, those numbers you see quoted, 95 percent protective, that’s in the general populations.

We do worry a bit based on our experience with other vaccines in CLL patients that they may not be quite as effective, but we don’t know that yet. Fortunately, that’s something that we’re studying now, both at our center and in some nationwide efforts, to look for example at the antibody production that CLL patients can make before and after vaccination. I’m hopeful that over the next few months we’ll start to learn about how effective these vaccines are specifically for CLL patients.

We certainly expect they will have some benefit, so that’s why we recommend vaccination for all of our CLL patients. But once patients are vaccinated, it doesn’t give them a free pass to then take their masks off and go back to normal life. Particularly CLL patients I think need to be careful even after vaccination to continue to do social distancing, hand hygiene, and all these things.

Katherine:                  

Is there one type of vaccine that’s more suited for CLL patients?

Dr. Davids:                 

Nope. As far as we can tell, all three of the approved vaccines so far are safe and should have some good effects for CLL patients.

There’s no benefit of one versus the others, so the best one to get is the one that’s in your muscle and injected. Whatever you can get access to, that’s the best one for you.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Davids, have there been any recent developments in CLL treatment and research that patients should know about?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah. We could spend a few hours on this, but I’ll try to summarize it. There’s a lot of exciting developments in the field. and I think we’re going to get into some of the specific treatments in a few minutes, but I would say at a high level obviously, over the last decade the entire field of CLL treatment has been transformed. Whereas we only had chemotherapy-based approaches before, now we have a whole number of different drugs that we call novel agents. And the reason why they’re novel is that they target the CLL cells, but they spare the other cells in the body, so there’s less collateral damage there. What that means is that they have fewer side effects, and they’re more effective, so it’s really a win-win situation for patients.

There’s kind of been two main approaches for this.

One is to start a novel agent drug and to continue it for as long as it’s helping, which fortunately for most patients is a long time, many years. And then, a newer approach is actually to do what’s called time-limited therapy where you start usually at least a couple of these different novel drugs together but hopefully achieve what we call a very deep remission, meaning excellent shrinkage of lymph nodes and improvement of blood counts and bone marrow disease. And by getting these very deep remissions the idea is we can do a finite period of treatment, whether it’s one year or two years, it kind of depends on the regimen. And then, stop therapy and hope that patients can then enjoy many years of remission while off therapy, which can be nice in terms of reducing side effects and costs and all these other things.

So, those are the biggest developments in the field right now, the continuous novel agent therapy and time-limited novel agent therapy. And a lot of the clinical trials that are getting off the ground now are starting to compare these two strategies to figure out really what’s the optimal way to treat CLL patients.

Katherine:                  

How can patients stay up-do-date on developments like these?

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s definitely challenging. It’s challenging even for us who are in the field to keep up with things on the academic side. I think for patients, seeking out patient-friendly sources of information on the web are helpful, but sometimes it can be hard to know what’s reliable information on the web. So websites like this and programs like this I think can be very helpful. Another resource that a lot of my patients find helpful is the CLL Society, so www.cllsociety.org. Brian Koffman really curates a lot of the new developments in the field on that website nicely. He interviews a lot of different CLL experts in this short format that can be very digestible for patients. Patient Power is another great website. So, there are a bunch of them out there, and I think those can be a great resource for our patients.

Katherine:                  

When a person is diagnosed with CLL they have a whole healthcare team. Who’s typically on that team?

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s definitely a multidisciplinary team.

Usually there’s an oncologist-hematologist who’s leading the team as a physician, but there’s a very large team of other people who are involved, whether it’s an advanced practice person such as a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant. They’re often very closely involved with the day-to-day patient care. There’s nurse navigators in some places that can help with getting access to these novel agents and with looking into clinical trial opportunities. There’s pharmacy folks who are very helpful sometimes in checking in on side effects, and advising on dosing, and so forth.

That’s more on the provider side of things. But, of course, the care team really includes the caregivers for the patient, whether it’s family members or friends, who are really a crucial part of this. The field is very complicated, and one of the challenges with COVID recently is that I’ve always invited family members and friends to come to visits with patients, because I do think it’s helpful to have many people listening. And that’s been hard because we’ve had to restrict visitors usually to either no visitors or one visitor because of COVID precautions.

Even if that’s the case, you can still have people dial in by phone or use technologies like FaceTime to try to have them there with you, because I think having that extra set of ears can be helpful as you hear all this information coming at you from your oncologist.

Katherine:                  

Yeah, absolutely. So, it really does sound like it’s a whole team approach. We have a question from the audience. Linda writes, “I’ve heard that CLL doesn’t need to be treated right away. Is that true?” 

Dr. Davids:                 

That is true for the majority of CLL patients, and it’s actually a very counterintuitive thing. We’re conditioned that if you have cancer that it’s important to be proactive and get rid of it as quickly as possible, the sooner the better, and that is actually not the case in CLL. And we didn’t just take a guess that that’s the best approach. This is actually something that’s been studied in clinical trials. There were several clinical trials launched in the ‘70s and ‘80s looking at an early intervention strategy using a chemotherapy-based approach to see if treating at the time of diagnosis would be better than waiting until patients developed more significant symptoms.

And all of those studies did not show a benefit to early intervention.

Now, more recently those studies have been challenged as somewhat out of date, which is a fair criticism because they used an older chemotherapy drug. And so, there is a newer study now going on in Europe that is looking at early intervention with the drug ibrutinib, which is one of our novel agents for CLL, looking to see if early intervention with ibrutinib, particularly for patients who have a higher risk form of CLL, may be beneficial.

But we have seen some data now already presented from this study that do not show any improvement in how long the patients live by treating with ibrutinib early, and we do see some of the typical side effects that we’re accustomed to seeing with ibrutinib. So, even with the newer data that we’re seeing, we still do not recommend early intervention for patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

I’ve heard this term “watch and wait.” What does that mean?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah, it’s not the best term because it’s very passive. That refers to this observation strategy. I like to think of it more as “active surveillance.” It seems more proactive because you’re doing something about it.

You’re really checking the blood counts, you’re getting your physical exam, you’re checking in on symptoms, these sorts of things, and really keeping a close eye on the disease. And that’s the approach that we like to take with our patients to really keep them engaged, making sure they’re staying up-to-date on their screenings for other cancers, making sure they’re getting vaccinations, these sorts of things are all the things we do with active surveillance.

Katherine:                  

How is someone monitored during this watch-and-wait period?

Dr. Davids:                 

It varies depending on individual patients. We’ve alluded to the fact that there’s different genetic subgroups of CLL already, so there are some patients that have higher-risk disease. The example of that usually is deletion 17p that people may have heard of on the FISH test. For those patients I usually am seeing them every three months or so, physical exam, checking on their history, checking their bloodwork. But there’s quite a few CLL patients who have lower-risk disease. If they have for example mutated IGHV, if they do not have the 17p for example, those patients may be able to be seen once every six months or so with a similar setup.

 I don’t routinely get CAT scans on a regular basis for most patients. Most patients don’t need bone marrow biopsy tests unless they’re starting treatment. So, it’s mostly it’s exam, talking to patients, and checking the bloodwork.

Katherine:                  

Okay. So, how does CLL progress? When do you know when it’s time to treat?

Dr. Davids:                 

The stages of CLL involve the progression of the disease. When we first meet patients, often they only have cells circulating in the blood, and that’s called stage 0 disease. It’s one of the few cancers where there’s actually a Stage 0 before even Stage I, and the reason for that is that many patients can go for years on Stage 0 disease. But as the burden of the CLL cells begin to accumulate in the body they can start to collect in their lymph nodes, and the lymph nodes can start to swell up whether it’s in the neck or the armpits or elsewhere. That’s stage I disease.

They can accumulate in the spleen, which is an organ in the abdomen. It’s kind of a big filter for your bloodstream, and as the filter traps more of these lymphocytes the spleen can slowly enlarge over time. That’s stage II disease.

And then finally, the CLL cells can get into the bone marrow, which is like the factory for making your blood cells. And if the factory floor gets all gummed up with CLL cells it can’t make the normal red cells, that’s called anemia. Or it can’t make the normal platelet cells, that’s called thrombocytopenia. And when we start to see those more advanced stages III and IV of CLL, that usually does require treatment. And what the treatment does is it clears out the factory floor and it allows for the normal machinery to make the normal blood cells again. So, that’s one of the more common reasons why treatment is needed is due to anemia and low platelets. Second reason can be if the lymph nodes or spleen get so bulky that they’re uncomfortable or threatening organs internally. We want to treat before that becomes a real threat.

And then, the third thing that usually happens as the disease progresses, patients can develop some symptoms, what we call constitutional symptoms. These can be things like unintentional weight loss, drenching night sweats that are happening on a consistent basis, and those sorts of things. So, if that’s happening at the same time as these other factors are progressing, those would be reasons to treat.

And notice that one thing I did not say is the white blood cell count itself.

That’s a common misconception. Some people think that as the white blood cell count goes higher – and people use all different thresholds, 100, 200 – that by crossing that threshold you need to start treatment. And in fact, that’s not the case. We have many patients whose white blood cell count can get very high but then it can kind of level off and plateau for a period of several years, and as long as they don’t meet those other treatment indications, they don’t need to be treated just based on the white count alone.

Katherine:                  

Hmm, okay. Well, once it’s time to treat, of course then it’s time to think about treatment options. Let’s walk through the types of treatments that are used today to treat CLL.

Dr. Davids:                 

As I alluded to before, we historically have had chemotherapy-based approaches to treat CLL. And that was an effective way to temporarily put the disease into remission, but it had a lot of side effects and inevitably the CLL would come back. And the challenge particularly with chemotherapy-based approaches it that when the CLL does come back after chemotherapy, it tends to behave more aggressively and be harder to treat.

So, there have been quite a few studies over the last few years trying to figure out ways that we can avoid using chemotherapy as the first treatment, and this can involve treatments such as monoclonal antibodies. People may have heard of rituximab or a newer drug, obinutuzumab. There are the inhibitors of the B-cell receptor pathway, and this is for example ibrutinib, which targets a protein called BTK, also a newer one called acalabrutinib, which targets BTK. And then, I mentioned at the beginning these fixed-duration therapies that stop after a period of time. Many of those are based on a newer oral drug called venetoclax, which when we give it as a first therapy, we give in combination with that antibody obinutuzumab.

So, a bit of an alphabet soup. I know it gets confusing with all the different treatments, but the good news for CLL patients is, 1.) we have a lot of options, which is great, 2.) we don’t necessarily need to use chemotherapy anymore, and in fact I use it pretty rarely these days. One situation where I do still consider chemotherapy is for younger patients – which in the CLL world is sort of under age 60 or so – if they have very favorable biology to the disease, in particular this mutated IGHV.

That’s a scenario where the older chemotherapy regimen, FCR, can be very effective. It’s a six-month treatment, and we have patients with those molecular characteristics who are now 12, almost 15 years out from their initial six months, and they’re still in a complete remission. So, many of those patients have been functionally cured of their CLL from the six months of treatment. But again, there are some risks to that approach. We worry about other cancers that may be more likely after receiving FCR. We worry about infections, and particularly in the COVID situation, we worry about COVID infection in patients on chemotherapy.

So, it’s been pretty rare that I’ve been using that approach these days. I’ve been opting more for the novel agent-based approaches. So, often now the conversation as an initial therapy comes down to, “Do you prefer more of a continuous treatment strategy with a BTK inhibitor drug like ibrutinib or acalabrutinib, or do you like the idea of a time-limited therapy with one year of venetoclax in combination with obinutuzumab?” And I would say there’s pros and cons to both approaches, and we don’t know which one is the optimal one for CLL patients to start with, but probably I think most patients at some point in their lifetime are going to need one therapy or the other.

So, maybe in the end it doesn’t matter too much which one you start with if you’re going to get both eventually anyway. But we don’t know that yet.

Katherine:                  

Right. Where do clinical trials fit in with the treatment approaches?

Dr. Davids:                 

So, clinical trials are really how we’ve made all these advances in CLL over the last decade. It’s how we learn about new treatments. It’s how we learn about how to optimize the treatments that we have. I think sometimes patients have a misconception that clinical trials are a last resort, the idea that you’ve exhausted all the standard options and then you go to a clinical trial as your last hope. But I actually like to kind of turn that on its head and say that clinical trials are actually the first resort, the first best option for patients. Whenever patients can get access to a clinical trial at any stage of their disease, I would really encourage them to consider it.

We have quite a few clinical trials now in the frontline setting, meaning as an initial treatment for CLL, including some that are in development and will open soon. And these are the studies that are going to really help us define what the optimal regimens are. What’s the optimal sequence of these different novel agents?

And in CLL, really, we’re at a point where the research on the disease is so mature that when you’re in a clinical trial you’re either going to be on one regimen that you know you’re getting and you know it’s going to be an effective regimen, or you might be in a comparative trial where you could be randomized to one of two or three different regiments, but you know that each one of those regimens is one that we think is a great regimen. We just don’t know which one is optimal for individual patients. So, this is not a situation where there’s placebo-controlled trials where you don’t know if you’re going to get an active treatment or not. CLL is an area where we design our clinical trials so that all patients are going to be benefiting from cutting-edge approaches.

And so, not all patients have access to trials, and that’s okay. Again, we’re fortunate that we have many good options that can be given locally, but I do encourage patients even if they’re only able to travel to a CLL specialist once to have an initial consultation to think about doing that to get a CLL specialist on your team, so to speak. That way they can identify clinical trial options that may be a good fit, and even if not, they can advise on what the optimal treatment options are to receive locally with your own oncologist.

Katherine:                  

How do patients find out about these clinical trials?

Dr. Davids:                 

I do think the best way is through a CLL specialist because certainly they would have a great pulse on the trials, they have available at their own center. They should also have a sense for what trials are available maybe at other centers. Some of that can also be, there’s a great resource through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society where they can help navigate patients toward specific trials that may be applicable to them.

There’s also a website called clinicaltrials.gov. It can be a little challenging if you’re not familiar with it to navigate the site, but it is actually pretty straightforward. You can put in the disease and look at different options for trials based on different drugs, for example. They’ll list the eligibility criteria for the trial. That’s often I find a way that patients can begin to identify whether they may be a candidate. You can’t tell from the website whether you’re definitely a candidate or not. You really need to partner with an investigator who’s on the trial to learn that, but it certainly can be a good starting point to figure out what’s out there.

Katherine:                  

With CLL, what are the goals of treatment?

Dr. Davids:                 

I like to say to patients, “The goals are to make you live longer and live better.” You want to obviously have treatments that prolong life, but you also want to have treatments that are helping with symptoms, and giving patients more energy, and making them feel better, and protecting them from some of the risks of the disease. And so, I think the goals do vary a bit based on the stage of life that patients are at.

I see a lot of patients in their 70s and 80s, and in those patient’s symptom control, having the disease be in a good remission, allowing them to live their life is a good goal. I sometimes see patients in their 40s and 50s, and some of those patients want to be a bit more aggressive and try to do a strategy that will get them a very long-term remission, and even potentially explore potentially curative strategies.

If I have a higher-risk patient with deletion 17p who’s young and fit, and they’ve already had some of the novel treatments, that’s where we start thinking about clinical trials of some of the cellular therapies like CAR-T cells that people may have heard of where you use the T cells from the patient to try to use that as a therapy to kill off the disease. Or even a bone marrow transplant is something that we have used historically in CLL. We don’t use it as often now, but for younger patients with high-risk disease it’s still a consideration to try to achieve a cure of the CLL even though the risks of that are significant.

It sounds like there are several factors to weigh then in making this decision. Lately we’ve been hearing the term “shared decision-making,” which basically means that patients and clinicians collaborate to make healthcare decisions.

And it can help patients take a more active role in their care. What are your thoughts, Dr. Davids, on how best to make this process work?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah, I fully support that model. I think for most patients it’s very helpful to be an important decision maker. Really the patient is the ultimate decision maker to say what they want for their own treatment. And sometimes it’s hard for me to predict what a patient will want for themselves, so I see my role for most patients as providing the information that they need to make the best decision possible for themselves.

I do try to steer patients a bit in the directions that I think they should be thinking. I’m not going to necessarily present a laundry list of things to patients. I’m going to try to narrow it down to what I think are the most reasonable choices for a patient to make.

I feel that’s part of my job. I do still have patients who just say, “Just tell me what to do,” and I respect that, too. Not all patients want to be part of shared decision making, and they just want me to decide, and that’s fine. But I do find that most patients like the idea of having a voice and being the one to decide, and that way I can help to guide them, but ultimately, it’s up to them.

Katherine:                  

Well, speaking of patients having a voice, are there questions that patients should consider asking when they’re thinking about a proposed treatment plan?

Dr. Davids:                 

Yeah. I think some of the key ones revolve around basic stuff, but sometimes it’s hard to think of it in the moment. But thinking about, what are the risks of this therapy? What are the specific side effects that are most common? When you look at a package insert or you look at a clinical trial consent form, you’re going to see 100 different side effects listed. I always promise patients, “You won’t have every single side effect that’s listed here, but you may have a couple of them.” And again, my role often is to identify which are the more common side effects that we see and how can those be managed?

And then, I think often you’re just asking simply about what are the potential benefits of this therapy? What are the odds that I’m going to get into remission? How long is this remission likely to last?

And then, something that is often challenging for patients to think about – it can be challenging for me as well – is to think about what’s the next step? So, I think a good question to ask is, “If I choose Therapy A, what happens if I need therapy again in a few years? What are the options at that point?” because we’ve been talking so far mostly about what we call frontline therapy, making that initial choice of treatment. But then, once you get into what we call the relapse setting, a lot of the decision of what to receive at that point depends on what you got as the first therapy. And so, trying to think at least one step ahead as to what the next options are I think can be helpful, certainly for the physicians but also for the patients.

Katherine:                  

Do you have any advice to help patients speak up when they’re feeling like their voice isn’t being heard?

Dr. Davids:                 

That’s always a challenging situation, but I encourage patients not to be shy about asking questions.

There’s often an imbalance in terms of the information where the oncologist may know more than the patient about a particular condition. And so, I think reading up and trying to educate yourself as much as you can. Whenever possible, including a family member or friend as part of the visit to also help advocate for you. And then, if you’re not being heard the way that you think you should be, thinking about seeking out another provider who may be able to listen more.

And sometimes that can be again helpful to have a touchpoint with a CLL specialist who may be able to reinforce some of what you’re thinking. If what you’re reading online or seeing online is different from what your oncologist is telling you, that may be a sign that it’s good to get a second opinion and just make sure you’re on the right track.

Katherine:                  

All really helpful advice, Dr. Davids. Before we end the program, what are your thoughts about the future of CLL treatment and research?

Dr. Davids:                 

I’m very optimistic about where things are right now. We’ve gotten to this point where we have so many different effective options, so it’s fun for us to now design this next wave of clinical trials to really try to optimize the outcomes for patients.

One area I’m particularly interested in is a concept called MRD, which we haven’t talked about yet, but minimal residual disease is a way to look even at a molecular level for tiny amounts of CLL that may be left behind after treatments. And so, one of the things I’m particularly excited about is the idea eventually of using what we call MRD-guided therapy.

So, we talked before about continuous treatment. We talked about what we call fixed-duration treatment where everyone gets a year or everyone gets two years. MRD-guided therapy would actually allow us to vary the length of therapy depending on how a particular patient responds. So, some patients may need one year of a particular combination, but other patients may need two years. This could be a way to really individualize therapy for particular patients. It’s also a way to monitor patients who are in remission after they’ve stopped therapy.

And so, there’s another wave of trials looking at, should we be intervening early when patients develop recurrence of their MRD rather than waiting until they’re having progression of the disease? There’s still a lot of unanswered questions about these sorts of approaches, but I think it’s going to help us get even better at treating CLL.

All of this is contingent though upon the fact that patients continue to be interested in clinical trials and enrolling in trials so that we can really push the boundaries and learn even more about the disease. So, again, if no other message comes through, it’s really to think about clinical trials as a way to continue to improve outcomes for all patients with CLL. I think it’s a great situation where both the individual patient who’s participating in the trial can stand to benefit, but then also you can really be giving back and helping others.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much.

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. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. Don’t forget to take the survey immed – don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan programs for 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 joining us.