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Making Myeloma Treatment Decisions at Every Stage of Care

Making Myeloma Treatment Decisions at Every Stage of Care from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Mark Schroeder, of Siteman Cancer Center, reviews the types of treatment approaches available for patients with myeloma, discusses how therapies are chosen and why, including in the relapsed and refractory setting. Dr. Schroeder also shares an update on new and emerging myeloma therapies.

Dr. Mark Schroeder is a hematologist at Siteman Cancer Center of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Dr. Schroeder serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Schroeder, here.

See More from Engaging in Myeloma Treatment Decisions

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Related Resources:

Expert Advice for Newly Diagnosed Myeloma Patients

The Role of a Myeloma Specialist on Your Care Team

How Is a Myeloma Patient in Active Treatment Monitored?

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s webinar. Today’s program is about how to actively engage in myeloma treatment decisions at every stage of 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. Mark Schroeder. Dr. Schroeder, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?  

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Yeah. Hi, Katherine. Thanks for having me. I’m Dr. Mark Schroeder. I’m an Associate Professor of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. 

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to join us. As I mentioned, this webinar is about actively engaging in myeloma care decisions. So, I’d like to start with this important question, why is it essential for patients to play a role in their care and treatment decisions? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Yeah, I mean patients are – a patient should be actively involved in decisions with their doctor. As a physician, doctors are thinking about “What is the best treatment for their disease or their cancer?” and patients, I think, have a role in trying to guide the doctor in terms of what outcomes they are seeking from treatment, what is there lifestyle like that we could potentially guide treatment around. Patients have different goals. Sometimes in cancer, we’re going for curative therapies. Sometimes we’re not, and quality of life is more important. Having an actively engaged patient ensures that your doctor is trying to tailor treatment to you.  

The patient who is educated also helps to bring resources to their physician about – sometimes physicians may not know of all the clinical trials that are ongoing or potentially even therapies. But have a patient ask about certain studies or ask about certain therapies, it helps to open a conversation with your physician to discuss those and to kind of talk through why it may or may not be a good idea for them in particular. 

Katherine Banwell:

Well, thank you. That helps guide us as we begin our conversation. As a patient, engaging in your care starts with understanding your diagnosis, so I’d like to go through some definitions. What is multiple myeloma? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Multiple myeloma is a blood cancer. It’s a cancer in particular of a blood cell called a plasma cell. Everybody has normal plasma cells in their body. It’s part of your immune system that responds to infections; they are also cells that respond to vaccinations.  

And when a plasma cell becomes a cancer, it often forms a cancer called multiple myeloma. And that cancer results often times in damage to bones, low blood counts or anemia, potentially kidney problems, or possibly seeing high levels of calcium.  

Katherine Banwell:

What about smoldering myeloma? What is that? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

So, smoldering myeloma is a stage that happens prior to the development of myeloma that is causing organ damage. I talked about the damage to bones, kidneys, blood cells – that is called the CRAB criteria. The C stands for calcium, the R renal, A anemia, and B bones. We define myeloma by having damage to one of those four essential systems.  

Smoldering myeloma can happen when we actually see plasma cells that look like myeloma – that look like cancer cells, but they’re not causing the CRAB features of multiple myeloma. And there is a chance that sometimes that smoldering form of myeloma, it’s not causing any damage, but it can evolve and change into myeloma. 

Katherine Banwell:

What is MGUS?  

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

MGUS is a stage that happens prior to smoldering myeloma. We know that MGUS which stands for monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance – it’s a mouthful. That’s why we like to say MGUS.  

Katherine Banwell:

Yes. 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

But it’s a protein that can be detected in your blood. Sometimes that protein does not mean you have a cancer. We can detect proteins like that in blood in patients who have, say, autoimmune diseases, and they’re at low levels. It’s just an immune response; it’s produced by those plasma cells that can be cancerous, but sometimes plasma cells grow because they’re stimulated – they’re overstimulated.  

And so, that monoclonal protein of MGUS can be detected in the blood, but we don’t see an increase in the number of cells in the bones that are classic for myeloma. But we know that about 1 percent of patients who have MGUS, every year, 1 percent might progress on to develop multiply myeloma. So, it’s a risk factor; it’s on the spectrum of disease from MGUS to smoldering myeloma to myeloma.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. And how is asymptomatic myeloma monitored?  

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

So, asymptomatic patients, I would consider those are the patients who have smoldering myeloma, so they don’t have the high calcium, the renal issues, anemia, or bone problems. And typically, those patients are followed up about every three to six months, depending on where they fit in kind of that spectrum of MGUS to smoldering myeloma to myeloma.  

Sometimes patients who have clinically identified myeloma and it presents very heterogeneous sometimes. They may not have a lot of organ involvement or organ damage, and maybe they’re frail, they’re elderly. And it may be appropriate also to observe patients who actually have some of the findings of myeloma, but the disease doesn’t seem to be as aggressive. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Let’s talk about the different phases of therapy for myeloma, and I’m going to ask you for some more definitions. What is induction therapy? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Induction therapy is the first treatment that we’re starting for myeloma. It’s oftentimes a combination of a number of chemotherapies that our goal is to get control of the cancer quickly, so reduce the burden of the cancer in a patient’s body.   

Oftentimes, when patients present with myeloma, that’s when the burden of cancer is the highest. So, induction therapy is a combination often of three or four different drugs given over the course of about three to four months to treat the myeloma and get initial control.  

Katherine Banwell:

What about consolidation therapy? What is that?  

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

So, after you have had a response to induction therapy, your oncologist might talk about, “Well, let’s deepen that response.” That’s when we think about consolidation. So, it’s going to be poten – most of the time is a change of therapy from the three or four drugs that you were treated for in the myeloma. An example of consolidation would be going through a stem cell transplant or more chemotherapy after stem cell transplant. So, that’s a change in therapy, and it ends up deepening the response, killing more of the cancer. 

Katherine Banwell:

And what about maintenance therapy?  

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

So, after you have gone through induction, you have control of the myeloma, we’ve deepened that response with consolidation, we know that myeloma is a cancer that tends to come back. And we know from experience that continuing some of the drugs that we used in induction at low doses are effective to try and prevent it from progressing or coming back, and it extends that period of time – and that’s maintenance therapy. It’s using some of the drugs we used to initially treat myeloma at lower doses to continue to suppress low levels of the cancer. 

Katherine Banwell:

Thank you for that. There are a number of treatments for myeloma patients. Can you talk about the types that are available? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Yeah. So, the classes of – actually there is lots of drugs approved for treating myeloma but also recently approved.  

And we classify them into big categories. One of the categories is called immunomodulatory drugs – those are drugs like Revlimid and pomalidomide, or even thalidomide which was one of the first immunomodulatory drugs. Those are oral drugs that work on a specific pathway in the myeloma that leads to the myeloma cell dying. Another class of drugs are called proteasome inhibitors. Those include drugs like bortezomib or carfilzomib. Those drugs are often given under the skin or in the vein, and we know that they work really effectively on their own, but also when we combine them with an immunomodulatory drug like Revlimid or pomalidomide, the effect is even better. Another class is steroids. Steroids are kind of one of the first drugs used to treat this cancer, and steroids are effective at treating myeloma cells.   

Plasma cells are responsive to steroids. One of the first treatment regimens used to treat myeloma were traditional chemotherapies, and those are usually reserved for later on. You might think of traditional chemotherapy that causes hair loss, nausea, vomiting, low blood counts. Those, decades ago, were used to treat myeloma, but now we have effective oral, IV, or injection into the skin that don’t cause a lot of the traditional chemotherapy side effects but are very effective at treating the myeloma. And then another major class of drugs are considered immunotherapies. So, these are treatments that are engineered to either stimulate the immune system to go attack the myeloma, or maybe it’s even using part of your own immune system to engineer it to go attack the myeloma. 

Examples of those are called bispecific antibodies which kind of binds to the myeloma but binds to an immune cell, brings them together, or a CAR-T cell which takes your own T cells genetically modifies them to attack the cancer. 

Katherine Banwell:

And there is also a bone marrow transplant. Is that right? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

That’s right, yeah. I neglected – so, bone marrow transplant has been around for a while in myeloma. And despite it being around for so long and really good therapies being approved for myeloma, it’s still a standard treatment for myeloma. And bone marrow transplant in myeloma uses a traditional chemotherapy called melphalan that is associated with the chemotherapy side effects we talked about. But the advantage of bone marrow transplant is that it prolongs the time before the myeloma comes back and needs other treatments, and that’s why we do it. It can be toxic, but it can prolong the time before a patient needs another line of therapy.  

Katherine Banwell:

We know that everyone’s diagnosis is different. So, how do you determine a treatment plan for an individual patient? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

So, it depends in terms of the patient – initially, I will evaluate patients and determine how fit they are. Is it a patient that I think is strong enough to undergo a stem cell transplant? Is that going to be a benefit to them? That’s not necessarily a factor of just age, but it’s also, are they doing well functionally, or do they have any other medical problems like heart disease or kidney problems? Those things play into my decision on a treatment initially with patients. So, whether you’re fit or unfit will help to guide what your treatment is going to be in general. Fit patients are somebody that could undergo multiple treatments, go through a transplant, have minimal toxicity, and recover fully after more intensive treatments.  

Whereas, unfit may need more assistance, and we tend to reduce the intensity of treatments. It doesn’t mean the treatments, if you’re unfit, are less effective – they can be very effective. But our goals for treatment change in that situation. And we’re looking for responses but also looking for quality of life. And then it changes also depending on the genetics of the myeloma. Our treatment for patients who have genetic changes that are high risk will change compared to those that have what are called standard risk genetic changes.  

So, that is an important point to discuss with your oncologist if you have – Do I have standard risk or high-risk genetic changes in my cancer? And does that effect my treatment? And then also, treatment in somebody who is being treated a second time or third time or beyond for their myeloma depends on what treatments you had before and how effective they were.  

And what were your toxicities or side effects from those treatments? So, all those factors play into a decision of treatment for an individual.  

Katherine Banwell:

Oh, that’s great information. Let’s discuss what happens after treatment. How is the effectiveness of a treatment monitored? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

When you are initially diagnosed with myeloma, we will perform testing of blood. We look for that monoclonal protein or protein in the blood that is produced by the cancer cells. That protein level will be used to monitor the response of the cancer, and that’s a blood test – that’s called a serum protein electrophoresis. Also, initially, we’ll have x-rays of the bones, or it might be a CT scan or an MRI or PET scan that’s used to document if there is any bone damage. And oftentimes when we’re following up, we follow the bloodwork to look for reduction in that protein level.  

We may follow up additional x-rays to see if there are new areas in the bones that are damaged or if prior areas have responded to the treatment. And then oftentimes a bone marrow biopsy is used to document if you are in a complete remission which means that the protein we detected before or the cancer cells in the bone marrow cannot be detected after treatment. 

Katherine Banwell:

Why is it essential for patients to share any symptoms or issues they may be having with their healthcare team during and after treatment? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Yeah, I mean, the treatments for multiple myeloma, they are typically continued in patients, and as we continue these treatments, side effects happen.  And as a physician, we can support patients through side effects. It may be as simple as adding a medicine to help with nausea. It may be modifying the dose of the treatments.  

So, it’s important to kind of monitor for things like, “I’m having a rash or diarrhea” or “I am getting nausea,” and letting us know right away. What the bad outcome would be if a patient is taking a medicine doesn’t let us know about side effects and decides to stop the medicine. Obviously, if you’re not taking a chemotherapy medicine, it’s not going to be effective to treat your cancer. That happens sometimes. So, having a good communication with your physician and your team of medical providers is important so that we can modify treatment. There are lots of alternatives for adjustments in the treatment that can be made that can be just as effective as the treatment you started on. 

Katherine Banwell:

So, communication is key. 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Yes. For sure, for sure. 

Katherine Banwell:

If treatment is successful, then when is a patient considered in remission? And what does remission mean? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Remission – there are gradients on remission in myeloma. And we can have a partial remission which means we kill about half of the cancer cells. We can have very good partial remissions, or we can have complete remissions. And those equate to the depth of response or how well the myeloma responded. Those are measured by bloodwork, bone marrow biopsy, and may be repeat imaging or x-rays. So, if you have a complete remission, that means, we can’t detect that protein in the blood that was detected before, or protein that was detected in the urine, and we can’t detect the cancer cells on a bone marrow biopsy. We know that the deeper your remission or response to treatment, that equates typically with a longer time before the cancer may come back or need other therapies.   

Myeloma is a type of cancer that tends to come back, so we have very effective therapies, and sometimes, these therapies can get the myeloma to a state that we can’t detect one in a million cancer cells, but it tends to come back. And so, complete remissions means that, “Yes, it’s a good chance that the myeloma is not going to come back for years for you, but you still need to be monitored. You’re not necessarily cured of the cancer.” 

Katherine Banwell:

Unfortunately, relapse can occur after treatment as you’ve been talking about. And sometimes, a patient’s disease doesn’t respond to therapy, and that’s called refractory disease. What are the indicators that a patient’s disease may have relapsed?  

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Yeah, so we would typically be following a patient about every three months. Somebody that has gone through the initial induction, consolidation, maybe they’re on maintenance therapy, or maybe they’re on active therapy for after they have relapsed from a myeloma. Each of those visits every three months, we are monitoring bloodwork, we’re monitoring the monoclonal protein that the myeloma produces.  

Or if it doesn’t produce much of that protein, we’re monitoring other parameters, so urine testing or maybe even imaging like a PET scan. And we’re looking for consistent rises in that number, and we’re looking for, not necessarily a little rise in the protein, but incremental continuous rise – that suggests that the myeloma is starting to grow again, and it’s growing on the current treatment, and we need to switch gears and try a different treatment. There are some patients who – that protein, the myeloma or the myeloma cancer doesn’t die to treatments – that’s refractory. So, we try a treatment, and there’s just no response. We don’t see a drop in the protein in the blood, we still see a good burden of the myeloma in the bone marrow biopsy. And those patients, that’s also an indication to try a different treatment.   

Katherine Banwell:

You mentioned that myeloma often returns, so how typical is it for a patient to relapse? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Yeah, I would say that’s the norm for patients with myeloma. There are reports in patients who undergo things like stem cell transplant, that maybe 10 percent of patients might be out 10 years without detection of their myeloma, but that’s not the norm. So, most patients who are diagnosed with myeloma will go through periods of treatment and hopefully periods of remission – the majority go into periods of remission to myeloma where it’s not very active, but the myeloma tends to come back. 

Katherine Banwell:

If a person is relapsed or refractory, how are they typically treated? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

So, when they relapse, it depends on their prior treatment. So, if the myeloma is not responding to a drug, then it is, from the physician’s perspective that’s treating you, a good idea to change the type of chemotherapy drug that you’re on. Any time, whether it’s diagnosis or relapse, clinical trials are appropriate to engage with and potentially even use as primary treatment. All clinical studies in myeloma or for cancer in general are typically engineered around active treatments for the cancer. And so, those studies in myeloma when you’re having the cancer relapse, say, early in the course of your cancer, those studies typically are geared to use drugs that are approved by the FDA. Later in the lines of treatment, maybe you’ve had to progress after four lines of treatment, but trying to move them earlier, and they’re very active in the fourth line.  

So, you could potentially have access to an active treatment moved earlier in the treatment through a clinical trial. There is also a long list of other approved myeloma therapies. There is a good handout, I think, through the NCCN for patients for myeloma that lists a lot of the approved myeloma therapies and kind of guides patients. It’s a good resource book that I would point any of the listeners to. 

Katherine Banwell:

Oh, that’s a great idea. Thank you for that. What about emerging therapies for myeloma? What approaches are showing promise? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

So, I think the biggest news in myeloma, and across a lot of cancers now, are immunotherapies. We know in myeloma – now we have two CAR-T cells –  

Now a CAR-T cell is engineering your own immune cell called a T cell to express a receptor on its surface that binds to the myeloma, and then those immune cells go and kill the myeloma. That’s a form of immunotherapy.  

There’s two CAR-T cells for treating myeloma after the myeloma has come back four times, has needed four treatments. Those are very active in that line of therapy, and we can see response rates over 80 percent in patients who otherwise weren’t responding to other approved therapies for myeloma.  

On the other hand, there are other immunotherapies that are used earlier in the treatment course of myeloma. One that is not incorporated more frequently for the initial treatment is a drug called daratumumab – it’s an antibody. It’s a protein that binds to the surface of myeloma and stimulates the immune system to react against the myeloma. And so, it’s not a traditional chemotherapy, but it’s using your own immune system to attack the cancer.  

And then a third one that’s probably just as – it looks just as potentially effective as CAR-T cells are called bispecific antibodies. And that would use a protein similar to daratumumab which is an antibody, but it uses parts of antibodies to bind to – it could be two different proteins – one expressed on a T cell, the other one expressed on the myeloma cells. And when it binds, it brings those two cells together and causes your own immune system to attack the myeloma. Those are also very effective, and within the next month or two, there will be a bispecific antibody approved for treating patients with myeloma. 

Katherine Banwell:

Oh, that’s great news. Any others?  

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Yeah, well – I mean, the other potential – there are other immune cells called natural killer cells that are also in clinical trials for development to attack myeloma, and potentially even engineering those natural killer cells to attack myeloma.  

There are other antibodies; sometimes the antibodies of protein bind a specific target on the surface of the myeloma. I mentioned one – daratumumab – but there is a whole list of others that are in clinical development. The one other antibody – or two, couple of other antibodies that are approved for treating myeloma are isatuximab which also binds to CD38. And another one called elotuzumab which binds to a protein called CS1 or SLAMF7 on the surface of myeloma.  

That’s more information than you probably wanted or needed, but those antibody therapies can be very effective in treating myeloma. There is another antibody therapy that has a payload of a toxin on the antibody, and it binds to BCMA or B-cell maturation antigen.  

That’s the same antigen that the bispecific antibodies as well as the CAR-T cells are targeting on myeloma surface, and so that is potentially one that is approved by the FDA also to treat myeloma.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. Let’s go to some audience questions. PEN community member, Mark, sent in this question prior to the program, “When is the right time for a clinical trial? When everything else is refractory?” 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

No, I think clinical trials should be – you should engage your oncologist to talk about clinical trials right from the beginning. We typically think about clinical studies – they could be interventional where we’re actually giving a treatment. Some clinical trials are observational where we’re trying to learn about disease course in response to traditional therapies. Either of those may have direct benefit to the patient, or maybe it doesn’t affect the patient, but it affects future patients with myeloma.  

There are clinical studies like I mentioned that are moving therapies that are approved, but they’re approved after patients have been treated four or five times for their myeloma, and they’re now being moved earlier in the treatment. Some of those are at the initial treatment of myeloma in that induction phase. And so, we think that maybe by using some of these newer therapies or that immunotherapy class earlier on in the treatment of myeloma could result in deeper responses. We don’t know if it’s going to result in cures or that long remission beyond five or 10 years, but that’s the hope. If we can move the therapies earlier and prevent the cancer from becoming resistant to multiple treatments, maybe we can lead to longer remissions and longer survival of cancer patients. So, engage with your oncologist from the beginning through all of your treatment lines about clinical trials, is what I would say.  

Katherine Banwell:

Well, how can patients find out about clinical trials and what might be right for them? Where should they start?  

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

I mean, starting with your physician and having that conversation is a good start, but there are resources for patients. The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation MMRF has good resources. There is a – called Myeloma Crowd that also has resources for patients with myeloma and social support for patients with myeloma to try to find and match you with a clinical trial. And then if you’re really academic and interested in doing your own homework online, all clinical studies in the United States, even internationally, are registered on a website called clinicaltrials.gov. Clinicaltrials.gov is – it can be searched, so you can search for myeloma; you can search for a specific drug.  

That will tell you, where are the studies being done, who are the study personnel, who should I contact to find out about the study? Unfortunately, not everybody can travel for treatment for their myeloma, and the best chance of potentially participating in a research study is to initially talk with your oncologist about it. There may be a larger center nearby that you can visit to consider clinical trials.  

Clinical trials that are trying to use the new immunotherapies would be a great option, but they may not be offered in, say, a community oncology practice. You have to have the infrastructure to conduct those studies. And if you have the resources to be able to travel, then finding something on clinicaltrials.gov and – I’ve had patients do the legwork and talk with their local oncologist and get referred to a center that actually has a study that they’re interested in participating.  

But a lot of times, studies are going to have you visit the center for all the screening tests and all the procedures for study. 

Katherine Banwell:

Right, so you have to know that you have the time available as well as the resources. 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Right, and the resources to do it. Yeah.  

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. Trevor had this question, Dr. Schroeder, “My myeloma is considered high-risk. What treatment options are available to me, and are there clinical trials specifically for high-risk disease?” 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Yeah, great question. High-risk myeloma happens in about a quarter of patients, so one in four patients will have high-risk myeloma at the diagnosis. And it’s important because we know that when we say high-risk, that means that the myeloma is going to potentially come back sooner after treatments. It doesn’t mean that the treatment you’re going to be given is less effective, but it has a high propensity to come back sooner.  

Those patients with high-risk myeloma still benefit from a lot of treatments that we have for myeloma, but there are clinical trials geared to try and increase treatment in patients with high-risk myeloma to try to change the fact that their cancer comes back sooner than somebody who doesn’t have the high-risk features by using a novel chemotherapies or novel drugs to try to improve responses. So, there are for sure clinical studies, either at – potentially at initial diagnosis or at the time of relapse that could be entertained for patients with high-risk myeloma. And I would encourage you to seek those out for sure.  

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. Great. Thank you. And please continue to send in your questions to questions@powerfulpatients.org, and we’ll work to get them answered on future programs. As we close out our conversation, Dr. Shroeder, I wanted to get your take on the future of myeloma. What makes you hopeful? 

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

Well, I am hopeful – just within the last five years, there have been a number of new drugs approved for myeloma. They are approved for later lines of therapy, but they are being moved earlier in the treatment. And within the last 10-20 years, we’ve seen an improvement in the survival of patients with myeloma. As these new therapies are in development, as they’re being moved earlier in the treatment line, I’m very hopeful that survival and potentially cure for this cancer is possible. The only way that we’re going to get to that point is through clinical research and for patients to partner with their physicians and to consider clinical trials because that is the only way that new drugs get approved and are available to other patients with myeloma. So, I’m excited about what is approved; I’m excited about what’s coming through the pipeline to treat myeloma.  

Katherine Banwell:

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

Dr. Mark Schroeder:

You’re welcome, Katherine. It was a pleasure.  

Katherine Banwell:

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

Relapsed and Refractory Myeloma Defined

Relapsed and Refractory Myeloma Defined from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Myeloma expert Dr. Krina Patel reviews the difference between relapsed and refractory myeloma and how these distinctions may impact care and treatment.

Dr. Krina Patel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Lymphoma/Myeloma at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Dr. Patel is involved in research and cares for patients with multiple myeloma. Learn more about Dr. Patel, here.

Related Resources:

Expert Advice for Newly Diagnosed Myeloma Patients

The Role of a Myeloma Specialist on Your Care Team

Myeloma Induction and Consolidation Therapy Defined

Transcript:

Katherine:  

Dr. Patel, could you define what relapsed myeloma is?

Dr. Patel:     

Yes, so as of today, for the majority of our patients we can’t cure myeloma to the point where we treat it, and it’s gone forever, right? I’m hoping one day we get there. And we’re getting better, but we’re not there yet. However, myeloma’s very, very treatable. So, what relapsed means is that, once you’ve had initial therapy after you’ve been diagnosed, our goal is to get that myeloma to as low as possible level so that it hibernates as long as possible. But eventually, that myeloma’s going to start waking back up. So, when it does, that’s called a relapse. That now, the proteins are coming up, the myeloma cells are growing and we need to do something to knock it back down again. So, that’s relapsed disease.

Katherine:

How is that different from refractory myeloma?

Dr. Patel:

That’s a great question. We talk about relapsed refractory all the time for myeloma. So, refractory actually means that your myeloma started waking up while on a certain medication. So, if you were on no medicines and then your myeloma came up, that’s considered relapsed. That’s not refractory. However, biggest example I can give you is when patients are on maintenance therapy after stem cell transplant, for instance. When they’re all on maintenance and their myeloma starts coming up while on maintenance, then they are considered refractory to that drug; so, if it’s lenalidomide (Revlimid), if it’s bortezomib (Velcade), whichever one it is.

So, any time the myeloma’s coming up while on active treatment, you become refractory. So, we talk about triple refractory or penta-refractory, and what that really means is how many drugs is your myeloma refractory to.

So, if you’re refractory to a proteasome inhibitor plus an immunomodulatory drug plus a CD38 antibody, right – I can give you examples of all of those, but basically different categories –then you’re considered triple refractory. And the more refractory it is, the harder it is to treat and the more novel therapies we need.

Katherine:

So, if a patient is taking three or four different drugs, how can you pin it down to know which drug or all of them are causing the refractory myeloma?

Dr. Patel:

So, it would be all of them. Let’s say, salvage therapy. You’re on three different medications or four different medications, usually three. We would say, if the myeloma’s coming up while you’re on all of them, you’re technically refractory to now all those medications.

Katherine:

All of those. Okay, all right.

How Could Clinical Trials Fit Into Your Myeloma Treatment Plan?

How Could Clinical Trials Fit Into Your Myeloma Treatment Plan? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Considering a clinical trial? Dr. Omar Nadeem, a myeloma specialist, shares advice for talking to your doctor about trials, including key questions to ask your physician about proposed treatments.

Dr. Omar Nadeem is the Clinical Director of Myeloma Cellular Therapies Program and Director of Myeloma and Plasma Cell Pathways at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Nadeem, here.

See More from Thrive Myeloma


Related Programs:

Updates in CAR T-Cell Therapy for Myeloma from ASH 2021

Updates in CAR T-Cell Therapy for Myeloma from ASH 2021

The Latest in Myeloma Research: Updates from ASH 2021

The Latest in Myeloma Research: Updates from ASH 2021

Myeloma Treatment: When Should a Clinical Trial Be Considered? 


Transcript:

Katherine:

As ASH comes to a close, it’s always important to remember that these research advances wouldn’t be possible without patients participating in clinical trials. So, for patients who may be thinking about a clinical trial, when should they consider a trial and what should they be asking their doctor about?

Dr. Nadeem:

Those are great questions and very relevant questions. I think clinical trials come in many baskets. They come in the trials I just described, which are looking at established combinations and then looking to see if the addition of another agent, which is FDA approved, could lead to better results. So, those are some examples of trials where you’re trying to really advance the field by using what we already have available and studying it in either different phases of myeloma therapy or in different combinations.

Those types of trials, I think, are always very important and useful, and from a patient perspective, it should alleviate that anxiety of going on to a study that doesn’t have a track record, per se. And a lot of those trials are done in the newly diagnosed, or the first relapse setting, etcetera.

When you’ve had multiple relapses, though, we know that the disease is still not curable. So, you start to see the benefit of each treatment become shorter and shorter as patients go through their myeloma therapy, and that’s where some of these newer, exciting – especially immunotherapy drugs that are currently under study really, really are promising.

So, I think from a patient perspective, a lot of times that discussion – you’re looking at an agent that’s approved but they might not have the efficacy that we’re seeing in some of the studies.

And I think you have to discuss with your physician at that time to see whatever the clinical trial that we’re discussing or thinking about for a particular patient, what is different about it? Why is it something that they would be thinking about for their individual case? Then really, what is the expectation?

I think what we’re seeing now with all these updated results is that some of these response rates, for example, with bispecific antibodies, which is a form of immunotherapy that we’re studying quite a bit in myeloma, they look twice as good if not three times as good as some of these single agent drugs that were FDA-approved.

So, even though you might want to get the true and tested that’s been studied and cleared, the results that we’re seeing with some of these studies are so much better. So, that’s how the field moves forward. So, I think the discussion with your primary physician is key to see which particular trial, is one available, and two, what they think might be best for that particular situation.

The Latest in Myeloma Research: Updates From ASH 2021

The Latest in Myeloma Research: Updates from ASH 2021 from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Myeloma specialist, Dr. Omar Nadeem, shares promising research advances in myeloma from the 2021 American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting. Dr. Nadeem discusses the future of personalized medicine for myeloma, as well as positive results from a clinical study on quadruplet therapy.

Dr. Omar Nadeem is the Clinical Director of Myeloma Cellular Therapies Program and Director of Myeloma and Plasma Cell Pathways at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Learn more about Dr. Nadeem, here.

See More from Thrive Myeloma


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Transcript:

Katherine:

Personalized medicine for myeloma is slowly becoming more of a reality for patients. Can you provide an update in testing in myeloma? Are there specific markers that you’re looking for when considering patient care?

Dr. Nadeem:

So in multiple myeloma, right now the only targeted therapy that’s in development is looking at venetoclax (Venclexta), and that’s in patients that have the t(11;14) translocation.

So, this has been studied for a while, both as single agent and in combinations and the big BELLINI study, which is looking at it in combination with bortezomib (Velcade) and dexamethasone (Decadron), really has had a lot of buzz over the last few years because there was a toxicity signal with the venetoclax arm.

But now with, again, updated results, etcetera, you’re starting to look to see which are the patients that benefited and which are the patients that didn’t.

And it’s becoming very, very clear that patients that have the t(11;14) translocation tend to benefit tremendously with the combination of venetoclax and bortezomib and dexamethasone. It’s really the patients that don’t have t(11;14) or high BCL2 expression, which is something that they’re also studying, those are the patients that didn’t benefit.

So, really fine tuning that to that particular population and using a combination like that is, I think, an example of where things are headed in myeloma. However, outside of that right now with where things stand, we don’t have targeted therapy to that extent beyond that.

Katherine:

Dr. Nadeem, with the ASH meeting closing out 2021, what are you excited about in myeloma research right now?

Dr. Nadeem:

We’re seeing very impressive results with using quadruplet therapies for newly diagnosed multiple myeloma patents. So, they get a combination of a CD38 monoclonal antibody like daratumamab (Darzalex), and then combining it with our typical agents. So immunomodulatory, drugs, proteasome inhibitors, and steroids. So, an update at this meeting with the phase-2 GRIFFIN trial, which was presented by my colleague Dr. Jacob Laubach, basically giving an update after 24 months of maintenance therapy.

This trial looked at a combination of dara plus RVD, which is lenalidomide, bortezomib, and dexamethasone, with transplant and maintenance, for patients with newly diagnosed myeloma. And what we’ve seen with each update of this study, that the response rates with the quadruplets are significantly better with the triplet. And more notably, we’re seeing very high rates of minimal residual disease negativity in favor of the quadruplet, which usually translates into a greater prognosis for patients.

So, median PFS is still not reached for this particular study, but you can start to see now that the curves are starting to separate and hopefully with longer follow up, we’ll see even a clearer result showing that patients that receive a quadruplet therapy at the newly diagnosed phase of their myeloma therapy benefit tremendously. So, this was a really important update at ASH this year.

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

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

What should you know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR myeloma? Myeloma expert Dr. Saad Usmani reviews essential testing that may help guide treatment decisions, and discusses the impact of risk stratification on myeloma care. Dr. Usmani also provides an overview of treatments in development, the importance of clinical trials, and shares why he’s hopeful about the future of myeloma research.

Dr. Saad Usmani is the Chief of Myeloma Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Learn more about Dr. Usmani, here.

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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 care for your myeloma and why you should insist on essential testing. 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. Okay. Let’s met our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Saad Usmani. Dr. Usmani, would you introduce yourself please?

Dr. Usmani:

Certainly. Thank you for inviting me, Katherine. I’m Saad Usmani. I’m the incoming chief of myeloma at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Katherine:

Excellent. Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to join us today. Before we delve into the discussion, let’s start by defining a term that we’re hearing more frequently. What is personalized medicine?

Dr. Usmani:

Personalized medicine is a fancy term to examine different aspects of a patient’s health outside of their cancer diagnosis. And also, the cancer itself – factors that are associated with good response to treatment or an early relapse from treatment. So, it’s a holistic kind of an approach that looks at all of these factors together. Also, looks at the patient’s mental and social well-being and comes up with a game plan for them.

So, I would probably divide the various factors that kind of come into play with the personalized medicine or personalized approach to cancer treatment by taking into account factors that are patient-related, factors that are cancer- or disease-related, and then factors that are related to treatments that they maybe receiving.

So, these three kinds of combined together to form a plan that is unique to that individual patient.

Katherine:

Right. What tests are necessary to help understand a patient’s specific disease both at diagnosis and prior to treatment?

Dr. Usmani:

So, the testing includes – what’s the objective of testing – we do tests to help in diagnosis to assess how much of cancer we’re dealing with and then what kind of cancer we’re dealing with. Even within a given cancer, how much cancer you have and what kind you have is important. Folks can have a little bit of cancer in

terms of burden. But it can be aggressive in its nature. So, you can have King Kong at your door, or it could be the green giant just trying to serve up veggies. Whereas King Kong will bite your head off.

So, with that in mind, there are things that we do such as blood tests to see effects on blood counts, kidneys, liver. We also do certain blood tests to identify what kind of multiple myeloma a patient may have as an example. So, the kind of myeloma protein they’re secreting. The kind of light chain they’re secreting. Then urine tests are done to see if there are any proteins that are leaking through the kidneys if there is kidney damage. Then bone marrow biopsy to a) look at how much myeloma and b) what kind by specific testing that we do on the bone marrow biopsy. And then imaging to see what parts of the bone’s affected.

Katherine:

Great. I’m assuming that these tests will help with the opening of the stages of myeloma.

So, how is myeloma staged?

Dr. Usmani:

So, the staging of myeloma is still a work in progress. The reason why I say that is we have a good way of accessing how much myeloma a patient may have. But if we don’t combine it well with what kind or how aggressive it may be. So, staging in myeloma relies on two blood tests that are serum albumin and serum beta-2 macroglobulin.

And they help us give a good assessment of how much myeloma patients have. And maybe a little bit of information about whether patients may have a bit more aggressive kind. But then you overlay that with cytogenetic information from the myeloma cells that are from the biopsy as well as another blood test called LDH.

If patients have any of the quote unquote high risk features, they are – along with a high level of beta 2 microglobulin, you stage them as stage three. If they don’t have them, they’re stage one. If they have some of the features, they’re kind of in between in stage two. And that’s how we stage multiple myeloma.

Katherine:

You mentioned cytogenetics. What testing is involved in that?

Dr. Usmani:

So, bone marrow biopsy – it’s very broad. But there are two parts to it.

One part is getting the bone marrow aspirated where we insert a needle into the pelvic bone and get parts of the bone marrow – the blood inside the bones out. And look at how much percentage of plasma cells are there. What kind of surface markers or features they have.

And then we look at if those cancer cells have any chromosome abnormalities that are unique to myeloma. And some chromosome abnormalities can be high-risk.

What does high-risk mean? High-risk means if you treat patients in a certain fashion, they have a higher chance of relapsing or a higher chance of the myeloma coming back out of remission. So, we identify those features by way of looking at cytogenetics. And there are different techniques in which we can take a look at that.

Katherine:

And what are those techniques? There’s something called FISH, right?

Dr. Usmani:

Yes.

Katherine:

And flow cytometry and also next generation sequencing?

Dr. Usmani:

Yes. So, and there is also conventional cytogenetics. So, flow cytometry looks at the different proteins that are part of the surface of any cell – any blood cell for that matter. It could also be any other cell as well, not just blood cells.

But in this particular case when we do flow on the blood marrow aspirate, we’re looking for unique features of those myeloma cells. But that does not tell us anything about the chromosomes. Conventional cytogenetics is the old fashion way. It’s a 40 – 50-year-old technique in which you make the cells in a test tube. You make those cells go through cell division. Each human cell has 46 chromosomes or 23 pairs. And when the cells are dividing, those chromosomes kind of line up in the center.

And the old fashion technique of conventional cytogenetics was take a look at the cells when those cells – when the chromosomes are aligned, and see if some parts of the chromosomes are missing or one chunk of one chromosome has attached to the other. That’s the old fashion way. The FISH technique, what it does is it’s geared toward identifying specific abnormalities.

And one part of that particular protein or molecule that goes and attaches to that chromosome has a color-coded probe. So, you can see within a cell different colors light up. And based on those unique features, you can identify “Okay. This cell over here is missing a part of chromosome 17. Or this part of chromosome 14 is attached to chromosome 4.” That’s FISH. So, FISH is very specific. Conventional cytogenetics is not. Next-generation sequencing, there are – that’s a broad term. You can measure different types of nucleic acids: RNA versus DNA. And those different techniques identify specific – they can identify specific mutations in a cancer cell.

So, each of these techniques provide different layers of information for our myeloma patients.

Katherine:

Thank you for that explanation. I appreciate it. How can the results of these tests affect prognosis and treatment?

Dr. Usmani:

So, currently for the most part, we’re treating myeloma patients in a similar fashion. Except for some tweaking based on these quote unquote high-risk features. So, there are certain chromosomes abnormalities that tell us that a patient has a higher chance of relapsing early even if they get the standard of care treatment. So, we try to enroll those patients into a clinical trial or have better optimization of their induction treatment and their maintenance strategy.

So, identifying these high-risk abnormalities is important because our treatment decisions may be modified for that patient’s disease. Or we might be able to get them to a clinical trial sooner than later.

Katherine:

Right. What is risk stratification? And how is it used in patient care?

Dr. Usmani:

So, risk stratification helps us identify people who are going to do well in terms of getting to a good response and maintaining that response and maintaining being progression free or being disease free versus those folks who maybe relapsing sooner. And that’s called risk stratification. So, you are essentially identifying and dividing patients into two different buckets saying, “All right. I have to pay attention to this person a bit more because they can relapse soon. So, I’m going to be keeping an eye on their labs and such very much, much closely.”

Katherine:

Let’s talk about therapy for myeloma patients. How are low-risk patients treated?

Dr. Usmani:

So, typically, the low or standard risk patients are treated with at least a three-drug induction treatment at the time of diagnosis. Or sometimes with four-drugs if you combine an antibody treatment. There are various regimens but the standard of care is at least three drugs. Then for patients who may be eligible for a stem cell transplant, they go on to receive autologus stem cell transplant.

Once they’ve recovered from the stem cell transplant, they go on to maintenance treatment.

And the idea is that the induction along with stem cell transplant for those patients who are eligible gets patients to as deep as a response as possible. And the concept of maintenance is you maintain them in that response and delay the disease from coming back.

Katherine:

Right. And then what about high-risk patients? How are they treated?

Dr. Usmani:

So, for high-risk patients, we typically prefer using a four-drug regimen. Either daratumumab (Daralex) RVd or carfilzomib (Kyprolis) with len dex or KRd as induction treatment for high-risk patients. After the stem cell transplant, most patients would continue both the lenalidomide as maintenance along with the proteasome inhibitor. If f patients had low or standard risk disease, they would only be getting lenalidomide as maintenance. So, here for high-risk patients, you’re adding a proteasome inhibitor.

Katherine:

Right. I see. Okay. And where do clinical trials fit into treatment?

Dr. Usmani:

So, as a clinical researcher, I’m a big proponent of telling my patients that if there’s a clinical trial that’s available to you, it doesn’t matter which stage of disease you’re at. Whether you’re newly diagnosed, or another myeloma has come back. Consider a clinical trial as your first and best option. Talk to physicians about both the standard of care options as well as clinical trial options.

Most clinical trials in myeloma are not someone getting treatment and the other person not getting anything. The trials that we’re doing, patients are getting at the very least the standard of care treatment. So, I would say that the – yeah. I mean, the clinical trials end up being the best option for majority of patients instead of standard of care.

Katherine:

Who is stem cell transplant right for?

Dr. Usmani:

So, stem cell transplant are kind of a misnomer. There is nothing magical about getting your own – collecting your stem cells and giving them back to you. I think the stems cells are – the way that – what they’re really doing is helping the patients bone marrow recover from the melphalan chemotherapy that’s given as part of the stem cell transplant because it’s melphalan, which was our first anti-myeloma medicine discovered back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. That has been a mainstay of treatment of myeloma for six, seven decades now.

But if you give high doses of melphalan, there’s certain side effects. It can damage the stem cells and delay blood count recovery. So, that’s why patients get stem cells. So, in the body of evidence we have, most myeloma patients would be eligible for a stem cell transplant either at the time of diagnosis or if they decide to collect their stem cells and hold it back for the first relapse. That would be the other setting. But age is not a barrier. It’s more about how fit a patient is. And this is where a comprehensive myeloma geriatric assessment becomes important because an eyeball test is not good enough. You need to have more complex assessment of patients. So –

Katherine:

So, this is looking at comorbidities.

Dr. Usmani:

It is looking at comorbidities.

It’s looking at performance status. It’s looking at cardiopulmonary reserve. It’s looking at cognition and mental health as well. So, all of those factors. And obviously besides that, if you don’t have good social support, then going through a stem cell transplant becomes a challenge as well. So, there’s all these factors that kind of come into play together.

Katherine:

Yeah. Dr. Usmani, how is immunotherapy advancing in this field?

Dr. Usmani:

I think that’s the big area of research and clinical therapeutics over the past five or six years is immunotherapies. And it’s a broad umbrella. There are a few things that kind of fall under it – under that category.

So, it includes antibody-based treatments, includes CAR T-cell therapies. Yeah. I mean, it’s a very active area. Again, we can have a one-day seminar just talking about all the advances that are happening in that specific space. But that’s the new frontier. I think that’s the immunotherapies play a big role in finding a cure for myeloma.

Katherine:

You mentioned CAR T-cell therapy. Is it showing a lot of promise in myeloma care and treatment?

Dr. Usmani:

It is in the relapse refractory as in the advance refractory patients as well as in early relapse patients. And we are just starting to do clinical trials in newly diagnosed, high-risk patients. So, yes. It’s showing good promise. One advantage of CAR T-cell therapy is once you get the CAR T-cell therapy, it’s a one and done deal.

You just get CAR T-cell therapy and there’s no maintenance. So, patients really enjoyed that part of being off of therapy. They go into remission and then they don’t have to take anything for months or even a few years. So, I think that’s the biggest excitement about CAR Ts.

Katherine:

Yeah. Once a patient begins therapy, how do you monitor whether a treatment is working?

Dr. Usmani:

So, as part of the diagnostic work up, we typically have identified in the blood using serum protein electrophoresis and serum free light chains. What kind of myeloma proteins these – that particular patient’s myeloma cells are making. And we can monitor them every cycle of treatment. So, every three or four weeks.

And that’s the most noninvasive way of seeing if the treatment is working. The second obviously important thing is if someone has symptoms. If they have kidney damage, if they have bone pain, all of those things start improving as you’re getting treatment. And then in some patients, we’re also looking at imaging like PET CT scans at certain time points. And at some point, we do also look at the bone marrow biopsies to see what’s really going on in the factory.

Katherine:

We often hear the term MRD, or minimal residual disease used in the myeloma space. So, what is it exactly and how is it used in patient care?

Dr. Usmani:

So, minimal residual disease is a way to measure how much myeloma is left over in a given patient.

And historically, we were simply looking at the serum proteins and the light chain levels along with just the morphology of the bone marrow to see if – kind of determine a response. But we can have a much deeper assessment of how many cancer cells as a leftover from a bone marrow biopsy by different measurements. Someone can be in a complete response with M-Spike is gone. The light chains have normalized.

Yet they can still have 10,000 – 100,000 myeloma cells still in the bone marrow. And just using the bone marrow biopsy the way that we used to, we won’t be able to see them. We’ll just see, “Oh, these look like normal plasma cells.” So, using next generation sequencing and flow cytometry, we can look at normal myeloma cells at a very deep level – one out of one million.

But these tests are highly specialized. And especially the flow cytometry requires a lot of expertise. The NGS requires good sampling at the time of diagnosis as well as subsequent specimen.

Katherine:

Here’s a question we received from a viewer before the program. Mary writes: “I was just diagnosed with MGUS, and I’m obviously very concerned. What should I be looking for and how often should I check in with my doctor?”

Dr. Usmani: That is a very good question. MGUS is a precursor disease to myeloma and other class cell muscle disorders. And based on the original homestead county data from the mayo clinic, if there were 100 folks who had MGUS, one out of 100 every year would – there’d be one percent likelihood of them progressing to myeloma or some other plasma cell disorder.

So, the overall risk say in the next 20 years for a given patient is fairly low. And what we look at when we’re determining how frequently to check the blood or see the patient is the value of that M-spike.

If it’s a high value, if it’s two or three, we’ll be checking the labs more frequently every three months or so. Maybe seeing them every six months for the first year or two. If the M-spike value is very low, it’s one gram or less, we might be just checking labs once or twice a year and seeing patients once a year. But I would highly recommend in addition to seeing your regular hematologist who diagnosed you with this MGUS to do seek an opinion at a myeloma center of excellence.

Katherine:

Okay. If a patient is interested in participating in a clinical trial, what question should they ask their doctor?

Dr. Usmani:

The question that they should ask each time when you’re at that fork is can you please share with me what clinical trial options I have and compare them. Give me more information about “How do they compare with the standard of care treatments that are being offered?” And if you do not have any clinical trial options, would it be worthwhile, to again seek an opinion at a myeloma center of excellence to see if there are clinical trials available.

And in today’s day and age, you can have a virtual consult with a myeloma center of excellence. You don’t have to even go in. You can just chat with an expert on video and see if a clinical trial maybe right for you.

Katherine:

Are there common misconceptions you hear from patients concerning clinical trials?

Dr. Usmani:

Yeah. I think the most common perception patients have is “Oh, I’m going to be used a Guinea pig for something that hasn’t been used in humans before.”

Katherine:

In a human before. Exactly.

Dr. Usmani:

So, most of the clinical trials are not first in human trials. Yes. We do have first in human trials where we are using novel treatments in some instances.

But there is strong rational and safety guardrails built around that. And if you’re participating in a first in human study, it’s highly likely that the other treatments have stopped working and there might not be other options. However, majority of trials that patients end up participating in are getting at least the standard of care treatment. So, I think it’s very clear to kind of communicate this to patients that, “Hey, you are going to be getting a standard of care treatment even if you go on the quote unquote control arm. It’s not that you’re getting placebo.”

So, I think clarifying what the protocol is, giving patients information kind of alleviates some of those concerns. But that’s the most common misconception people have.

Katherine:

If patients are concerned about voicing their concerns and I think many of us are, why should they feel like they’re a partner in their care?

Dr. Usmani:

Well, that’s the only way that they will feel empowered. And we have to remember why we’re doing this, right? So, we’re doing this so that we can alleviate the burden of this disease from our patients and give them as good of quality of life as possible. And it’s a partnership. And in that partnership, the patient is the most important partner. Everyone else – it’s like you’re the main character.

The patient’s the main character in the movie. And all of us are supporting cast around them. I think that’s how you have to approach it. That’s how – that’s why it’s very important. And of course, patients – we’re not expecting our patients to read the papers and be knowledgeable about everything. But have a general sense of what to expect and it will be – so, having a more educated patient helps them deal with treatments better and have realistic expectations of what’s to come.

Katherine:

Right. As I mentioned at the start of this program, Dr. Usmani, patients should insist on essential myeloma testing prior to choosing a treatment. As we conclude, I think it’s important to point out that some patients may not know if that can even receive these important tests. So, what key question should they ask their physician about them?

Dr. Usmani:

So, you should be asking your physician about what kind of myeloma you have? What stage of myeloma you have? How much involvement in the bones you have? Do you have any chromosome abnormalities or any features of disease that put you at a higher chance of the myeloma coming back?

As you ask these questions, your physician will be prompted to think about “Okay. Am I missing something in my work?” And you can always ask is there anything else you need to do in terms of testing to give you a better idea of how best to approach my treatment and follow up.

Katherine:

I’d like to close by asking about developments in myeloma research and treatment.

What’s new that you feel patients should know about?

Dr. Usmani:

Oh, my. We can spend a long time with this answer. I would say that we understand what’s driving myeloma as a disease. We have a better understanding of what’s going on with the rest of the immune system and the bone marrow microenvironment where the myeloma cells live. So, the treatments that are being developed right now are trying to combine different ways in which you can shut the myeloma cell down by targeting those abnormalities or those abnormal pathways. And also, to harness the patient’s immune system to go after the cancer cells. So, combining what we’re calling immunotherapy with small molecule or more cancer directed treatments.

So, I think that’s kind of where the field is headed. And it’s – these are smarter strategies, smarter treatments. And we’re moving away from old fashioned conventional chemotherapies.

Katherine:

Dr. Usmani, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s just been a pleasure.

Dr. Usmani:

It’s been my privilege. Thank you so much for inviting me to this.

Katherine:

Thank you. And thank you to all of our partners.

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

 

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What Should You Ask Your Doctor About Myeloma Testing?

What Should You Ask Your Doctor About Myeloma Testing? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Testing and test results may affect your myeloma care and treatment. Dr. Nina Shah, a myeloma expert, shares key questions to ask your doctor about testing and reviews testing techniques for myeloma. 

Dr. Nina Shah is Associate Professor of Medicine in the Fepartment of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and treats patients at the Hematology and Blood and Marrow Transplant Clinic at UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Shah, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

If a patient wants testing beyond the standard, what should they be asking their doctors for?

Dr. Shah:

Well, thankfully a lot of these tests can be done as a standard. We actually have some approved testing for it. So, the most important thing is to ask the doctor at all. For example, the patient may ask, 1.) “When will my next bone marrow biopsy be?” and 2.) “When I get that bone marrow biopsy, will you be looking at cytogenetics and FISH?” and 3.) “When you get the bone marrow biopsy, will you be also looking for minimal residual disease?” And finally, “What technique will you use to look for that minimal residual disease?” There are different ones that the patients might find useful to know about.

Katherine Banwell:

What are some of the different techniques?

Dr. Shah:

There are a variety of ways that we can look for minimal residual disease. One of them is called flow cytometry. What that is is you send all the cells that are in the bone marrow through a chute, and in that chute you can sort of detect one or however many cells that are – that have a specific characteristic on their cell surface.

You think of it as a bunch of balls with lollipops sticking out of it. And based on the characteristics of those lollipops, you can tell if there are any plasma cells or myeloma cells. Another thing we do with minimal residual disease, another technique, is called the next-gen sequencing or NGS.

And for that, we need to know the specific DNA sequence that is very personal to your myeloma cells. So, your particular plasma cell or the cancer cell will have a sort of sequence, a specific sequence that can be identified when you’re first diagnosed. And if you have access to that tissue, that can be sent off to the company, and they use that as sort of a template or a measure – an individual identification. And then, they scan the subsequent bone marrow samples against that to see if there’s any sequence that matches that original one, and that’s the way you can detect one in a million positive cells, if there are any. 

How Are Cytogenetics Used in Myeloma Care?

How Are Cytogenetics Used in Myeloma Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Myeloma expert, Dr. Nina Shah, explains cytogenetics and how results of these tests affect care and treatment for myeloma patients.

Dr. Nina Shah is Associate Professor of Medicine in the Fepartment of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and treats patients at the Hematology and Blood and Marrow Transplant Clinic at UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Shah, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

What is cytogenetics, and how is it used in myeloma patient care?

Dr. Shah:

We use the term cytogenetics and FISH sort of interchangeably, and really what it is, is the DNA characteristics of the bad plasma cells. So, the myeloma cells, and a lot of them may have changes in their DNA that are what we call clonal, meaning that they’re in a significant percentage of those cancer cells, or they might be non-clonal, which are less significant. But it’s the way the DNA is put together or maybe cut and pasted so that it changes the characteristics and maybe the aggressiveness of the disease.

Katherine Banwell:

What is the goal of this in-depth testing? Are there specific markers you’re looking for?

Dr. Shah:

When we look for things like cytogenetics and send FISH testing, we look to see if patients have changes that might make their disease may be more aggressive.

For example, it may cause their plasma cells, the myeloma cells, to grow faster or more aggressively. So, we look for changes that might, for example, have a deletion of a certain chain that puts the brakes on tumors, or it may have a translocation, which is when the chains sort of do-si-do together and that makes the cells grow faster. 

An Expert’s Hopeful Outlook on Myeloma Research and Treatment

An Expert’s Hopeful Outlook on Myeloma Research and Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Myeloma expert Dr. Nina Shah shares why she’s hopeful about research and treatment, including immunotherapy and CAR T-cell therapy.

Dr. Nina Shah is Associate Professor of Medicine in the Department of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and treats patients at the Hematology and Blood and Marrow Transplant Clinic at UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Shah, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Is there emerging myeloma research that you feel patients should know about? And what are you excited about?

Dr. Shah:

There are so many aspects of myeloma treatment and the patient’s journey that we have been looking at. One of the things that I’m most excited about and I do a lot of research in is immunotherapy, which includes both CAR T-cell therapy as well as natural killer cell therapy and bispecific T-cell engager and other novel immunotherapies.

And I think these are interesting, because they allow for the patient’s own immune system sometimes to be used to kill the myeloma. And that’s something that is spring-boarding the way we treat myeloma to give patients better outcomes with less toxicity, if you can believe that. So, we’re really excited about that.

The other thing I’m really excited about is patient experience research that we’re doing. We now know that multiple myeloma patients live for maybe over a decade, and those patients are on a marathon of treatment; and how that treatment is a part of their life is very important in their experience as a patient. So, we’re trying to make that easier for patients as they go through, for example, transplants or maybe immunotherapy to give them more information, more control and more ability to talk about their symptoms with their provider and their care team.

How Does Myeloma Testing Affect Care and Treatment?

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Blood and urine tests, bone marrow biopsy and imaging tests are all standard following a myeloma diagnosis, but what about more in-depth testing?

Because the terminology around biomarker testing varies, can you help break this down for patients, and how this in-depth testing is referred to in myeloma?

Donna:

So, biomarkers is a term that is commonly tossed around in many different cancer diagnoses and it means different things. But in general, it’s characteristics that can inform us about a diagnosis, about a patient’s prognosis and about their response to treatment. So, this can include things that we measure in the bloodwork, in the urine, even imaging. These are all things or markers that we look at to determine a patient’s either, like I said, response or risk stratification.

Katherine:

What about cytogenetics? What is that exactly and does that fit under the umbrella of biomarker testing?

Donna:

Yeah, so cytogenetics is a genetic snapshot of a patient’s cancer. So, it will give us a sense of how the disease will – the characteristics of how it will behave. But again, it’s just a snapshot and it’s not a precise science but certain mutations or certain genes will kind of inform us like “This might be maybe a more aggressive form and we need to do X, Y and Z.”

Katherine:

Which of these more in-depth tests are necessary in myeloma? Let’s start with the FISH test.

Donna:

So, FISH is a cytogenetic technique. So, what we do is, when we do the bone marrow, we send that off and we look at the genetics. Like I said, it’s a snapshot. And certain mutations will put patients in different risk stratifications, so we normally do this at the time of diagnosis and then with each relapse.

Katherine:

It seems that all of the test results can aid in determining outpatient’s risk. So, why is risk stratification so important?

Donna:

So, risk stratification is important.

It will give us a sense of how a patient might respond to certain treatments. Maybe a patient won’t respond as well to a stem cell transplant as someone with standard risk. So, we take this into account, but in this current time, in 2021, we don’t typically change our treatments according to risk. That’s why clinical research is very important because we’re studying right now patients with high-risk cytogenetics, do they do they better on certain therapies.

Katherine:

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

Donna:

So, someone who might have high-risk cytogenetics, we might want to be maybe more aggressive with our therapy. So, we might change how we want to maintain a patient. Usually, after a stem cell transplant, we give patients maintenance therapies. So, patients who have high-risk disease, we might change our strategy and have a more aggressive regimen in that maintenance setting. And with patients with higher risk, we probably will monitor them very, very closely in case – looking for signs for relapse. 

How Will I Know If My Myeloma Treatment Is Working?

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Once on therapy, how is the disease monitored, and how do you know if the treatment is working?

Dr. Fonseca:

Well, fortunately, we use the same markers. Once a person is in therapy, we will be monitoring. We monitor at least on a monthly basis of those myeloma protein markers. Once a person reaches a great level of response, sometimes we complement that with an analysis of the bone marrow. Of course, it’s more invasive, so we don’t like to do a lot of them, but we do them as needed. As we go forward and monitor patients, we will be looking for signs that those proteins remain in a low level as stable as an indicator that the disease is under control.

Now, if I saw someone and then I start seeing that there’s an increased concentration of those proteins or we see something else clinical, we might need to do a little bit of a regrouping and test again in great detail to determine if the person is experiencing regrowth and the disease is so-called relapsed.

Katherine:

Why is it so important for patients to speak up when it comes to symptoms or treatment side effects?

Dr. Fonseca:

Well, that’s a great question. If you don’t speak about them, we don’t know about them. It seems very obvious, but then we cannot make the proper adjustments. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I already talked about dexamethasone, but a common drug we use is something called bortezomib. Bortezomib is a proteasome inhibitor.

That’s a mouthful, but it’s one of the key type of drugs we use. It’s given as an injection under the skin. Not to be confused, by the way, with daratumumab. Faspro is the name of that medication, so not to be confused with that is bortezomib, which we have been using for many years.

Bortezomib has a potential toxicity that is called peripheral neuropathy. If patients have peripheral neuropathy, that can go from very mild where you have some numbness and tingling, to the more extreme cases that it’s associated with pain, discomfort, even weakness and disability.

Well, if we don’t know that’s happening, then we can’t react to it and we can’t adjust doses or switch to something different altogether. You can imagine now we have more options, but in the old days, I always tell patients, “You might be tempted not to say anything about this because you might be thinking, boy, this is working. I don’t want to interfere with my treatment. I can live with the peripheral neuropathy.” But if it gets worse, despite the fact that the treatment is working, the person might have a very significant impingement on their quality of life.

More so now that we have so many alternatives, it’s important not to get us into a path that we might reach a point of an irreversible chronic complication from treatment.

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

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:    

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to explore how to engage with your healthcare team when diagnosed with myeloma, and we’ll discuss the patient’s role in care decisions. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Rafael Fonseca. Dr. Fonseca, welcome, and would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Rafael Fonseca:   

Yes, of course. Happy to do that. Thank you very much, Katherine.  

I am a hematologist/oncologist, but I specialize in the area of multiple myeloma. I work at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. I currently serve also as interim executive director for the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center that is at large across the Mayo Clinic enterprise. But at heart, I’m a myeloma doctor and I love to take care of myeloma patients. I devote my research and the rest of my academic activities to the field of myeloma.

Katherine:                  

Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us today. Let’s start with a question that’s on the mind of many of our audience members. We’re hearing that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe, but how effective is it for myeloma patients?

Dr. Fonseca:               

Thank you. I think that’s a fundamental question. It’s hard to know precisely how to gauge effectiveness when it comes to vaccination because historically, we know that is done by measuring antibodies and there’s a number of publications that are addressing this.

The concern has been two-fold. One is that because the disease itself is something that starts from the person’s immune cells become cancerous, that perhaps that would prevent them from having a very good response. Number two, and perhaps more importantly, will the treatments that are used for myeloma, etc. or lymphoma, can they interfere with our ability to mount an effective immune response? I think the response is mixed right now. I think I tell all my patients the upside is much better than the downside. I think we have a good record now of the safety of this product. I encourage everyone to get their vaccination.

I think it’s important to discuss this with your healthcare provider because sometimes people say, “Should I stop a little bit so that I can get a better response?” While it’s theoretically possible, we don’t want people to stop treatment if they don’t have to do that. Just my very last quick comment, the good news is that the community transmission is clearly going down as more and more people have participated in the vaccination.

We have more people who now have participated in this level of immunity that we have in the community. Hopefully, for patients as well as for their families, the risk of contracting this will continue to decrease.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. We can only hope. Well, let’s learn a little bit more about the disease itself. Dr. Fonseca, to level set with our audience, can you help us understand myeloma?

Dr. Fonseca:               

I’m happy to do so. Multiple myeloma is a cancer form of the bone marrow that arises when the cells that under normal circumstances protect us by the formation of antibodies. These are called the plasma cells. They become malignant. Myeloma is the last stage of a process where a plasma cell can go through a benign tumor or benign phase, if you may, something we call the monoclonal gammopathy, which by the way is quite common. About two percent of people over the age of 50 have this abnormality. Think of it like the colon polyp, a precursor condition.

There’s an intermediate stage that we call smoldering multiple myeloma, which is just more growth, but not quite at the level that it creates problems for the individual.

Then lastly, what we just simply call multiple myeloma, and that is when the growth of those cells becomes of such magnitude that a person starts having problems or starts having symptoms related to that. These cells live predominantly inside the bones in the space we call the bone marrow. They can do a number of things that actually lead to the symptoms and to the clinical presentation. As they grow in the bone marrow, they take some of that real estate.

A person may experience fatigue and that is because they have anemia.

The myeloma cells are also very characteristic because they can erode into the structure of bones, so destruction of bone is another feature that we see in patients with myeloma. That can be either seen on x-rays or sometimes people will present with symptoms related to bone pain or discomfort with movement or weight bearing. Those are signs that we look for.

Lastly, the myeloma cells product proteins and some of the fragments of those proteins can be damaging to the kidneys. Occasionally, people will present with decreased kidney function and sometimes outright failure of the kidneys. Those are the common presentations. It is a disease that mostly affects people in their 70s. It is not something that you can detect through routine testing; it’s just indirectly we start seeing abnormalities and then we do the right testing. If anyone is hearing this, of course, they need to have a detailed discussion with their own provider.

Katherine:                  

Of course, yeah. When a person is diagnosed with myeloma, they usually have a whole healthcare team. Who is typically on that team?

Dr. Fonseca:               

Absolutely. Let me start by saying the key to the successful management of myeloma is to have a well-organized team. It’s a disease that requires an integrated approach that usually brings around the patient a physician.

As part of my team, we also have advanced practice providers. We work with nurse practitioners that help us do the longitudinal care of patients. We have the nursing team. Every time I meet a new patient, I make it a point to bring my nursing team into the room so they can put a name and a face together, as patients will be interacting, of course, with a nursing team through the portal and the various visits. We have a team that is in charge of the chemotherapy administration. That is usually a separate a nursing team that is in charge of the administration of the medications. But we really don’t stop there.

We have pharmacists who help us review the medications for our patients. Very importantly, we have social workers that help us address psychosocial needs, as well as some of the practicalities that become inevitable when one deals with a serious diagnosis like multiple myeloma.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Lately, we’ve been hearing this term, “shared decision making,” which basically means that patients and clinicians collaborate to make healthcare decisions, and it can help patients to take a more active role in their care.

I’d like to get your thoughts, Dr. Fonseca, on how best to make this process work.

Dr. Fonseca:               

We are very fortunate to live in this time of medicine, where ultimately, we recognize that the patient is the person expert. It is the patient decisions that should drive what is to be done in a situation. Whenever I interact with patients, I tell them, “Listen, I’m going to be like your counselor. I will provide you with options of what I think is reasonable. I will go to different degrees of effort in trying to convince you one way or another for a particular intervention. But at the end of the day, I only do a good job if I present you with the options and the pros and cons of those various approaches.”

I weave that into my language on every single conversation we have with patients. I think we’re way past the time where a physician would come and say, “This is what you’re going to do,” or “This is what will happen.” My language always includes, “I would recommend this.”

“I think the next best step for you to consider would be X, Y, or Z.” But ultimately, I look at patients and not infrequently at the person next to them, a family member or a close friend, and I say, “You’re the boss and with the person next to you providing additional support, comment, and guidance, we can together reach the best decision of what should proceed.” I think we’re incredibly fortunate because patients have access to sophisticated information, especially patients that have serious conditions such as would be cancer and, in my case, myeloma.

As an example, when I work with general internal medicine residents that work with me learning about hematology, I sometimes tell them, “You’re gonna walk into a room. Are you gonna be seeing what I say, this is like a tennis match between professionals. Are you gonna see the level of questions that patients are going to be asking me? They’re going to be asking me about the latest study that was presented at this meeting and the P value and this and that.”

“I can guarantee you that you would not have the tools to be able to address all those questions, simply because there’s such an in-depth understanding of the disease.” I realize this is not everyone. I’m giving you an extreme example. There are individuals that need additional support, more resources. But just to interact with someone who has such commitment to understand their disease and to help us by that understanding make the right decision makes my job so much more rewarding.

Katherine:                  

What do you think is the role of a patient then in their care?

Dr. Fonseca:               

I think it needs to be … I’m describing in some detail and there’s a lot to unpack there. Of course, patients are dealing with a very serious diagnosis. It’s okay to have periods where they are in a pause moment and they’re reflecting of what their facing, and that they can gather information from close family members.

I think we, as providers and the medical team, need to deliver a message that provides clear options for them as far as what the best next phase of their treatment or their management might be, including observations or supportive care. But the patient ultimately is a person who has to make that decision. I frequently get the question, and this is not surprising, and it happens all the time. A patient tells me, “What would you do if this was a family member?” I always tell them, “I always talk to you as if you were my family member, as if you were my brother, my mother, my father.

So, I try to live deeply to that fiduciary responsibility I have to your well-being. I recognize that there are circumstances, and that’s part of the finesse and the art of medicine, that I have to help a little bit more walk you through that step. Sometimes, it’s just human that one may want to say, I just want to disconnect. Maybe I’m not the person that wants to go and read in detail. But perhaps I have my daughter or my son who are helping me and understand better where things are.”

I think one of the key aspects of my role is to make sure that I have a sense that the person has a good understanding to be able to make an informed decision. At the end of it all, if the person decides to proceed in such way that doesn’t necessarily align with what I’m trying to do, I’m deeply respectful of that choice. I will go to extra lengths. So, if someone is foregoing treatment, when I know their treatment has a high likelihood of improving their quality of life, relieve a symptom, or improve survival, I don’t think I would do a good job if I don’t present why that’s so important. But ultimately, it is the patient’s decision.

Katherine:                  

Related to what you’ve just been speaking about, we have a question from the audience. This one is from Sarah. Her question is, “What advice do you have for caregivers? How can I be supportive during appointments?”

Dr. Fonseca:               

That’s a great question.

I have experienced this both as a physician, as well as a caregiver myself to someone who has had a cancer. I think I’m gonna say that there are several roles that caregivers play. Some of them are obvious and I’m gonna call them practical or perhaps even pedestrian, you know, organizing the activities of every day. That’s important, but a lot of people can do that. The second role is to be in assistance for the knowledge that is needed for some of this decision making. Sometimes patients can be overwhelmed, and we need some support and some vetting and peer process from a trusted and loved person so you can go through that.

That is very helpful, but what is essential, and the number one thing is you are first and foremost the loving family member or friend of that individual who is living through a very profound human experience. I think the first role of a caregiver has to be to express that role.

I, myself, reflect on moments where perhaps in a quick, reactive way I wanted to solve some of the immediate practicalities and what was needed most was a direct support. Even if I face a situation today, if I was, again, a caregiver for someone with a serious diagnosis with cancer, I would start with that priority. Number one, you are the support and the loving person. Number two is I will try to provide information. And number three, hopefully you can help with meals and the driving and what have you. But there’s many more people who can come and help in that regard. Not a lot can do the first part.

Katherine:                  

Right, absolutely. Yeah, those are excellent points. Let’s talk about treatment goals. What are the goals of myeloma treatment from a clinical perspective?

Dr. Fonseca:               

I’ve been very fortunate, also, to live through this era when we have seen a plethora of studies and new drugs being approved for the treatment of myeloma.

When I first started, I used to say no one wanted to do myeloma because we didn’t have good treatments. People wanted to study leukemia, lymphoma. It just turns out that this is probably one of the most vibrant areas of hematology from a science and from a clinical research perspective, of course. If I see young patients who have multiple myeloma, I have essentially two goals. The first one is to induce the deepest possible response I can do so in a safe manner. I also repeat, “in a safe manner.” But I really have the goal to try to induce the deepest response possible because that has translated and continues to translate, and in many ways proven to be associated with an improvement on their longevity and the time we can control the disease.

And it leads me to second goal, and that is that I firmly believe there is a subset of myeloma patients that are cured from their disease.

Now, this is possible because of the availability of these new treatments. I will only be able to say that in 10 and 15 years from now, when we have monitored patients for a long period of time, and we have been able to see that became true. But by all indicators, we have patients that are living many, many years without the disease coming back. I think that would be important. Now, we have patients that with more advanced age sometimes it’s difficult to propose some of the most intense form of treatments like stem-cell transplants.

We don’t do a lot of that in individuals over the age of 72 just because the toll that it takes on a person is very high, and the risks become higher. But still, in that population, providing the best treatment possible becomes a goal because I think more and more, we’re seeing patients in that age category that can start to get close to what normal life expectancy would be. It’s not there. It’s not perfect, but you start to get close. Lastly, if someone asked me, I have that balance between quantity and quality, the good news in myeloma, if you do it right, quantity and quality go hand in hand.

So, effective treatment provides symptom relief and provides durability of responses.

Katherine:                  

That’s excellent. What other factors do you consider when determining a treatment approach?

Dr. Fonseca:               

The human experience that comes to the bedside as we consider treatments is so multi-factorial and multi-complex that all that needs to be brought into consideration. Whenever I walk into the room, I tell residents usually the medical part can be resolved pretty quick, but we’re reading how much we can communicate? What’s the level of understanding? What do I understand about the support system for this person? Is there someone who can drive to the treatment center? Is there someone perhaps whose other medical conditions would create certain challenges in how they’re gonna be treated?

This person is telling me they do daily hikes for four miles. Well, that’s different from someone who I see comes into the clinic and has to use a cane. We try to integrate all of that information to make the right decisions. I’ve made a lot of my career in the early years working and showing how, for instance, genetic factors are important. I’ve come to realize later in my career and through some of the very elegant work that other colleagues have done, that these factors are just as important in determining the ultimate outcome of patients. Whenever I talk about that clinical experience, there’s two things I always tell the residents.

I use the residents a lot because I think it’s a good example of how we aspire to interact with patients. Number one is every single encounter is a final exam. You have to put your best foot forward. Every single encounter should be considered a final exam. Number two is when I walk into that room, there are three things I do, particularly the first time I meet a person.

Number one is connect, right? We cannot have a conversation and I’m not gonna be able to move forward unless we have a human connection and I have gained the trust of the patient and the family members that are there. That’s number one. The second point is decide. That is usually okay, we’re gonna do this treatment or that. That is a small part. Most of the time for me, that’s a very small fraction of the time and of the mental energy that I consume. There’s cases that are more complicated, but most of the time it’s pretty straightforward. So, it’s connect, decide do very small, and then on the other end is explain.

So, that’s how I can connect. I propose we do this, and then why we are gonna do it and what can you expect. If you can do those three things, I think that goes a long way in establishing a fruitful and a productive relationship with a patient and their families.

Katherine:                  

I would suspect that you also take into consideration the patient’s health, their age, maybe test results, side effects, things like that?   

Dr. Fonseca:               

Of course. So, we look at the medical record and with the advent, of course, of the electronic record and all the tests that we do, our consideration is quite complex. We have to look at all those factors, and the age, and comorbidities. It’s rare that we would take one factor alone that would trump everything else. We usually have to integrate the information. The same is true when we manage myeloma patients and we’re monitoring their protein levels and their response to treatment. I tell patients, they ask me, “What would you do? What’s the magic number for this or that?”

I say, “It’s a little bit like you’re flying a Cessna plane and you have all these dials in your dashboard, and that’s how we manage the situation is the integration of all of that information.”

Katherine:                  

Right. Can you help us understand, Dr. Fonseca, how test results may affect treatment options?

Dr. Fonseca:               

Sure. Happy to do that. In myeloma, we are very fortunate in that we have, and it’s not the topic for today, but we have the best biomarker that exists for any cancer. That is that we can measure the proteins that are associated with the growth of the cells. We have multiple tests that we can do. We do them in the blood and we do them in the urine. They’re simple tests that have been done for decades now that allow us to monitor how a person is doing with regards to their disease. I use the following analogy. Myeloma cells live inside the bones, as I mentioned, in the bone marrow.

They don’t come out into the blood. So, we cannot measure them. Indirectly, we can measure how many they are and how they are behaving by measuring this protein. I use an analogy of imagine you’re walking in a street, and you see smoke coming out of a building. There are two things you can do. First is you diagnose that there is a fire inside the building, right? We see that with myeloma by measuring these abnormal proteins.

Then as a firefighting team comes on, you can gauge whether they’re making progress or not by the amount of smoke that comes out. That’s exactly what we do when we monitor myeloma. We monitor the M-Spike, the serum free light chain, the urinary proteins. That’s how we make those determinations.

At the same time, we do that, we have to look indirectly at the rest of the body. We have to look at the kidney function. We have to look at the blood counts. We have to look at the hemoglobin and the red cell count because that can (A) start on the wrong foot because of the myeloma itself, but (B) can also suffer as a consequence of our treatment.

It is, again, that idea of having the multiple dials in the dashboard that allow us to reach our practice. We have to be adjusting. So, if we measure the proteins and we’re doing great, but then at the same time we see we’re suffering in blood counts, and we may need to adjust those as we provide supportive treatment. If we don’t see the proteins go down, then that may mean we need to change to a different form of treatment or that the person is unfortunately a refractory or relapsing to something.

So, that’s how we integrate the test results into our management.

Katherine:                  

What sort of questions should patients consider asking about their treatment plan?

Dr. Fonseca:               

I think it’s important that patients understand a few things. They can be described in multiple ways. Number one is, of course, what? What is it that is being used? I think that includes a description of what to expect, the practicalities, the names of the medications, their side effect profile, and what to report when you use those medicines. I think that’s very important because if you’re empowered with that information, you’re gonna be better off as you react for symptoms that may come along. I always tell patients when you have a cancer diagnosis, your self-awareness goes through the roof because we’re gonna be paying attention to everything, every skin change, every pain we have.

So, I think having a bit of that proactive discussion becomes important as they think about the treatments that they want. I think the how-to on the practicalities are very important. The best where the nursing team and the pharmacists help us a lot too. Do you take the medicines at night? Do you take them with meals? Is there something that you shouldn’t be mixing? How much time would it take for me to get a refill? It’s different to get a medication from a specialty pharmacy versus your down-the-street Walgreens. So, all of those things are important that patients, again, participate in the understanding.

If not them, at least the caregivers that are a part of this team. I think it’s important that patients ask also some brief descriptions of (A) the biology of the disease. If I have myeloma, what type of myeloma do I have? Does that matter as far as what treatments I’m going to be using? What treatment options may be available to me because of my specific subtype? We have subsets of myeloma that have options that are not available to others.

Also, I think it’s important that patients also ask a sense from the physicians as to where they are. I’d like to describe this a little bit more. Sometimes, patients ask us specific questions about, am I in a complete response? Am I in a very good partial response? What is a PFS? Those terms work very well when we talk about clinical trials, but they don’t necessarily describe in a great way the situation for an individual patient. I’d use a lot more objectives than I’d use technical terms when I describe where patients are. I say, “You have an excellent response. You have a very deep response.”

Then I’d provide more details if they want. “Yes, you’re MRD-negative at 10 to the -6.” But sometimes I find that it’s harder for patients to understand where they are if they completely focus on the staging system or the response criteria, etc. Because maybe a VGPR, a very good partial response, doesn’t sound very good.

But then you can be in a very good partial response for 15 years and it doesn’t matter. You my want to be in an MRD-negative status, but you still have a good outcome. That’s why the general description of the status by a physician becomes important.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

In general, my answer is going to be yes. This is not self-serving. I think myeloma has become so complex that trying to integrate at least once, or if not, in some infrequent basis, an opinion of a myeloma specialist becomes important. This is no one’s fault. If you’re a community oncologist somewhere where myeloma represents only a small fraction of your practice, I can guarantee you, you cannot stay on top of the literature. I cannot stay up with everything that goes on with myeloma, even though that’s what I do 100% of the time.

I get an email every week with all the articles, all the publications, and I have to integrate that. I have to think, okay, does this matter or not? I go to the professional meetings. I see all the abstracts and I still feel like I’m missing out. How could you do that if that is only a small fraction of your practice? I’m sure that the same applies for other cancers, breast and colon. You can’t move. You cannot uproot yourself and leave your community and your family, but I think there should be ways by which patients at least have an opinion from someone who has more expertise. Fortunately, there are many centers across the nation now that have that expertise for the management of myeloma.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Fonseca, we have a question from a newly diagnosed myeloma patient. Barbara says, “I am just about to begin my first myeloma treatment. What can I expect?”

Dr. Fonseca:

Thank you, Barbara, for the question. I think if you start on treatment, first of all I hope they already went through a good description of what the treatments are, the frequency by which you’re gonna have to go to the center, and also what are the toxicities to look out for.

One of the most common toxicities that we face and one of the most challenging parts of initial treatment is the use of steroids. So, we use dexamethasone as part of every single regimen we use for myeloma. I tell patients, “Dexamethasone is a simple drug at first glance, but it’s oftentimes the most complicated part of treatment.”

The human brain works at triple speed when you’re on dexamethasone. So, it’s hard to sometimes be able to sleep properly. People can become anxious and even the sweetest person in the world can become a little bit edgy on dexamethasone.

I always say Mother Teresa on dexamethasone would be an edgy person. Just be patient. Work with the team. Just know that on the other side of treatment there is a return to normal life.

Our goal as we embark on treatments and, for instance, is I see patients that are going to go through transplant, I tell them, “Our goal is you finish, you recover, and you go back to your life. You back to work. You go back to your family, your kids, your sports.” That’s really what we strive for when we treat patients with myeloma.  

Katherine:                  

Yeah. Once on therapy, how is the disease monitored and how do you know if the treatment is working?

Dr. Fonseca:               

Well, fortunately, we use the same markers. Once a person is in therapy, we will be monitoring. We monitor at least on a monthly basis of those myeloma protein markers. Once a person reaches a great level of response, sometimes we complement that with an analysis of the bone marrow. Of course, it’s more invasive, so we don’t like to do a lot of them, but we do them as needed. As we go forward and monitor patients, we will be looking for signs that those proteins remain in a low level as stable as an indicator that the disease is under control.

Now, if I saw someone and then I start seeing that there’s an increased concentration of those proteins or we see something else clinical, we might need to do a little bit of a regrouping and test again in great detail to determine if the person is experiencing regrowth and the disease is so-called relapsed.           

Katherine:                  

Why is it so important for patients to speak up when it comes to symptoms or treatment side effects?

Dr. Fonseca:               

Well, that’s a great question. If you don’t speak about them, we don’t know about them. It seems very obvious, but then we cannot make the proper adjustments. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I already talked about dexamethasone, but a common drug we use is something called bortezomib. Bortezomib is a proteasome inhibitor.

That’s a mouthful, but it’s one of the key type of drugs we use. It’s given as an injection under the skin. Not to be confused, by the way, with daratumumab. Faspro is the name of that medication, so not to be confused with that is bortezomib, which we have been using for many years.

Bortezomib has a potential toxicity that is called peripheral neuropathy. If patients have peripheral neuropathy, that can go from very mild where you have some numbness and tingling, to the more extreme cases that it’s associated with pain, discomfort, even weakness and disability.

Well, if we don’t know that’s happening, then we can’t react to it and we can’t adjust doses or switch to something different altogether. You can imagine now we have more options, but in the old days, I always tell patients, “You might be tempted not to say anything about this because you might be thinking, boy, this is working. I don’t want to interfere with my treatment. I can live with the peripheral neuropathy.” But if it gets worse, despite the fact that the treatment is working, the person might have a very significant impingement on their quality of life.

More so now that we have so many alternatives, it’s important not to get us into a path that we might reach a point of an irreversible chronic complication from treatment.

Katherine:                  

No, and that would be awful.

Dr. Fonseca:               

Absolutely.

Katherine:                  

Before we end the program, Dr. Fonseca, have there been any recent developments in myeloma treatment in research that make you hopeful? 

Dr. Fonseca:               

Absolutely. I would say that the one area of work that makes me most hopeful is what we’re seeing with immunotherapy. We have seen that both as the ASH meeting, as well as the ASCO meeting in this year, where people are presenting updates with the various clinical trials with either bi-specific antibodies or CAR T cell therapy as a new avenue for the treatment of myeloma.

In fact, at the last ASH meeting, we had 14 presentations of different compounds or different constructs that are active. I think the future is bright in that regard. We’re seeing their application right now. A lot of these updates have also been made as ASCO.

We’re seeing the update of the treatment of treatments with fairly advanced and aggressive disease where we can still show very significant responses. I participate in some of these trials. I can tell you in my institution, using some of the bi-specifics, I see patients who have previously exhausted all of their options and now are MRD negative at 10 to the -6.

If we’re seeing that in the very advanced disease, I cannot wait to see what happens when we start using these treatments in either early relapse and why not in the near future as frontline part of our therapy? I think to me, that whole field of T-cell engagers, where there’s bi-specifics or the CAR T cells remains one of the most exciting areas for future research.

Katherine:                  

How can patients stay up to date on information like this?

Dr. Fonseca:               

I think what we alluded to before is very important to work with groups like yours and other patient support organizations that can keep them up to date. I think they’re doing a very good job at also providing updates post some of the large meetings. I know there’s a lot of patients out there that are very sophisticated that will even join the medical meetings. That happens with some frequency; that they want to learn, and patients that go and ask me details about the statistics of the trial. That’s a whole spectrum, right?

But at the minimum, I would say a strong connection with a support group, or a patient support organization becomes an imperative as you deal with this. Also, that would help you because with this whole concept of the information not always being complete and truthful, that can be scary as well, too.

If someone goes and just looks for, I would say even some of the resources that are out there in a textbook today, just keep in mind that textbook was probably written five years ago, and it represents the studies of about 10 or 15 years ago. How that relates to you, it’s very distant. So, it is because of this continuous process of research that we know better what’s going on at the present time.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.

Katherine:                  

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

What Standard Testing Follows a Myeloma Diagnosis?

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:

What standard testing follows a myeloma diagnosis?

Dr. Richter:

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Richter:

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

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

Katherine:

I see. How do test results affect treatment choices?

Dr. Richter:

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

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

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

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

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

What Should You Know About Myeloma Treatment Options?

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

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

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

Download Program Resource Guide

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Transcript:

Katherine:                        

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

Dr. Forsberg:             

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Forsberg:             

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

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

Katherine:                  

What about maintenance therapy, how does that fit in?

Dr. Forsberg:             

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Forsberg:             

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

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

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

What Key Tests Should Follow a Myeloma Diagnosis?

 

What Key Tests Should Follow a Myeloma Diagnosis? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the key tests that should take place following a multiple myeloma diagnosis? Dr. Peter Forsberg details the appropriate tests, including imaging and blood tests, that may aid in assessing the risk and informing treatment options.

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

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How Do Myeloma Test Results Guide Prognosis and Treatment?

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What Are Key Factors in Myeloma Treatment Decisions?

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

What testing should take place following a myeloma diagnosis?

Dr. Forsberg:             

So, after a patient is diagnosed with myeloma, or with suspected myeloma, a number of tests take place to both understand the myeloma. Get some sense for how aggressive the myeloma might be and understand what may be being caused by the myeloma at any given time. So, that involves a number of blood tests. It involves checking urine, doing at least one 24-hour collection of urine. Doing imaging, tests to look at the skeleton or different areas of the body for myeloma involvement.

And a bone marrow biopsy and what’s called an aspirate.

So, all those tests together are used to help confirm myeloma, to understand what’s going on with it and then to understand some of the characteristics of it that might be important over time.

Some of the more complicated tests when people are initially diagnosed with myeloma to get their head around are some pretty important blood tests that we monitor pretty closely.

Things called the serum protein electrophoresis and serum light chain assays. And basically, those are tools that help us measure antibodies. Myeloma is a disease; it comes from cells that make antibodies or fragments of antibodies. And by measuring those, we can understand the myeloma, we can give it some names. And then we can also measure it over time. So, those can seem a little bit impenetrable to patients when they’re first diagnosed, but they’re pretty important for patients and for people treating the myeloma to understand where the myeloma stands and how things are going.

Katherine:                  

What about genetic testing?

Dr. Forsberg:             

So, the main way that we use genetic testing in multiple myeloma is through something called, cytogenetics. And cytogenetics is a way for us to evaluate chromosomes. Chromosomes are in cells and that’s where genetic material is contained. And in myeloma, some of the main vents that drive myeloma cells to change from normal plasma cells come through changes in chromosomes.

And so, those chromosome changes that can be detected with different tests, sometimes they’re called karyotyping or what’s called FISH can give us a sense for some of the changes that may drive the myeloma or have driven it in the first place.