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Where Do Clinical Trials Fit Into an AML Treatment Plan?

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:

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

Dr. Wang:

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

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

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

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

Shared Decision-Making, Advice for Partnering With Your AML Team

Shared Decision-Making, Advice for Partnering With Your AML from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert Dr. Eunice Wang reviews how shared decision-making impacts overall care by keeping the individual patient and their unique circumstance in mind when determining a treatment path. Dr. Wang discusses the importance of reviewing clinical factors as well as having honest conversations, giving the patient a voice in their care. 

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about shared decision-making. In your opinion, how is this concept best put into practice?

Dr. Wang:

So, shared decision-making is the process where the physician is no longer dictating the care, and telling patients, “This is the best therapy for you,” and just plowing forward with it. Shared decision-making is really what we want in all of our relationships in our lives, which is sitting down and incorporating many points of view, including both the patient’s wishes and desires as well as those that he or she feels is important to his or her care.

It involves time. It does – it may involve multiple clinic visits. It involves sitting back and having the physician say, “This is the information, this is the data. What is important to you? What is going to work with your particular home situation and family situation and dynamic?”, and then, together, coming up with a decision about care that is individualized for the patient. We talked about individualizing the targeted therapy for the biology of the disease.

Shared decision-making is individualizing the treatment decision for the individual patient and their particular circumstance, and that is best done by sitting down with the patient, looking them in the face, not by looking at your phone, or staring at that computer screen, or reading off some diagnosis from a piece of paper. It’s really involving having those honest conversations.

That’s how things used to always be in medicine, is that it always used to be a decision where the doctor and you would talk and come to a decision, potentially. We’ve kind of gotten away from that with all the electronics and technology, and I think the shared decision-making is a conscious effort by individuals and groups to bring that back in case. It’s very important for AML. AML is a disease that affects largely older individuals, so if you’re in your 60s and 70s and 80s, I can tell you right now that each one of those individuals who have lived decades of life have a certain way that they want to live whatever time they have left.

Katherine:

Of course. Well, when considering a treatment plan, what key questions should patients be asking?

Dr. Wang:

They should be asking – it should be – they should be asking, “How is this going to affect my daily life?” They should be asking questions – “Do I have to be in the hospital? How – do I need to come to the clinic? If I have to come to the clinic, how many times do I have to come to the clinic?”

In my part of the world, it – sometimes even the season in which they’re being diagnosed can impact what disease treatment they want because certain times of the year, travel back and forth in different weather conditions can be difficult. They need to be asking not the question of – that we get asked a lot like, “What would you do if this was your father or your mother?”, but I wouldn’t know.

I turn that around and I say, “But, you’re not my father and you’re not my mother, and if you were my father or my mother, I would ask my father or my mother, ‘What is going to work for you? What are your goals? Do you want aggressive therapy? Do you want to go for high risk/high benefit, or do you want something that’s just going to make you be able to be outpatient for longer, and really what is the most important thing for you and your family right now when we look ahead as to the treatment path?’”

Katherine:

Why is it important for patients to feel like they have a voice in their treatment decisions?

Dr. Wang:

It’s important for them to have a voice in their treatment decision because it is their – first of all, it’s their life, it’s their body. They are the ones that are going to be getting the therapy, suffering the consequences, and making the decisions that can impact not only them, but their loved ones, so – and, I find that the more they understand the disease process, the more they understand and can communicate to me their wishes, the more satisfied we are in care. I’ve had individuals tell me early on in the process where maybe, in a different patient, I would have suggested a second or third treatment – I’ve had them say to me, “I’m done. I’m not – thank you very much.” And, we all have to respect that.

It makes people more satisfied with their care. It makes people feel like they are making – they are guiding the path. They’re not just doing what their husband wants or what their doctor wants. I never want to have a patient say, “Well, I went and got chemo, Dr. Wang, because you wanted me to get chemo.” I don’t want you to get chemo, and I feel like if you have that understanding, I think patients are much more likely to pursue therapy and for the therapy, I think, to be successful or not. But, regardless of whether it’s successful medically, it needs to be successful emotionally for that patient and for that family.

AML Research and Emerging Treatment Options: An Expert’s Perspective

AML Research and Emerging Treatment Options: An Expert’s Perspective from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert Dr. Eunice Wang shares exciting advances in the field of AML research, particularly in targeted therapies related to the TP53 and NPM1 mutations. 

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:

What specifically are you excited about in terms of AML research and emerging treatment options?

Dr. Wang:

I am really excited about the advent of newer targeted therapies. Right now, we only have targeted therapies for probably about three mutations out of the many, many mutations that we know exist in AML. So, we know that there certainly are patients that have specific mutations, such as TP53 mutations, or patients who have very complicated series of DNA damage, that just don’t do well with any of our therapies.

I’m looking forward to another bunch of targeted therapies – these inhibitors called menin inhibitors – that might be useful for treating patients that have mutations in NPM1 gene or other chromosome abnormalities.

I’m also really looking forward to us being able to finally unleash the power of the immune system for treatment of AML with a few novel agents coming down the pike which have, for the first time, started to show that immune modulation can work in AML patients.

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

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:

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

Dr. Wang:

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Wang:

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Wang:

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

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

Katherine:

What is biomarker testing?

Dr. Wang:

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

What is a genetic mutation?

Dr. Wang:

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

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

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

Katherine:

How do biomarkers affect AML treatment choices?

Dr. Wang:

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

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

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

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