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MPN Research and Optimism About Curative Therapies

MPN Research and Optimism About Curative Therapies from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) researcher Dr. John Mascarenhas discusses why he’s excited about the future of care for patients with essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), and myelofibrosis (MF).

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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An Overview of ET, PV and MF Treatment Options


Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Before we close, Dr. Mascarenhas, let’s talk about research. Are there new developments that you’re excited about?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

Absolutely. So, what I’m heavily interested in and involved in is clinical investigation and moving the field forward, and there are many people out there that are similarly involved and they’re doing really excellent work. So, I am super jazzed and enthusiastic and optimistic, and it’s what gets me work every day and inspires me is all of the effort that is happening. And, it’s a continuum. So, it’s not just one person trying to try a different drug here and there. It’s really a bringing together of many different people because these are rare diseases.

Many different people from many different institutions that have different areas of expertise, but have a common goal of translating from laboratory informed data, so, not just taking a dart and throwing it at the dartboard and hoping it sticks. But actually taking data that we learned from the lab and leveraging that information to develop therapies that are informed, that are targeted, that are personalized and going through a process of evaluating them to get them into the clinic, with the goal of, and I would say ambitiously, our goal these days is moving beyond trying to make patients feel better, which is an important goal, but it’s really can we really target the disease in a more effective way to induce remissions, to, dare I say, cure patients. So, I think the ambitious goal of the clinical investigators and laboratory investigators that are active in MPN research today is really one looking for an understanding at the basis of the biology of the  disease to develop curative therapies. And, I am optimistic that that will happen.

And, I don’t mean happen in a hundred years from now. I mean happen in our lifetime. So, that’s where we’re going. There’s a lot of very exciting drugs, oral and intravenous drugs and they target very different types of aspects of the disease, and I think patients and physicians will see that maybe those drugs are used best in combination. So, the idea of using one drug, waiting for it to fail and using another drug is really old news, and much of oncology is combination therapy. So, taking drugs that have different targets or mechanisms of action and non-overlapping toxicity to try to better target and delete what’s called the myelofibrosis stem cell that’s the basic issue here, which we don’t effectively delete other than transplant. So, our goal would be to put bone marrow transplanters out of business.

 

What To Expect When Starting MPN Inhibitor Therapy

What To Expect When Starting MPN Inhibitor Therapy from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Changing a treatment approach for your essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF) can be intimidating. Dr. John Mascarenhas, a myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) specialist, shares tips and advice for beginning a new therapy.

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

And we have another question from Craig that we received earlier. “I’m currently receiving regular phlebotomies for PV, but my doctor is considering switching me to inhibitor therapy. What can I expect, and are there side effects that I should be concerned about?”

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

So, for some patients, therapeutic phlebotomy is all that they need, and they do very well with it, and they don’t need to take a therapeutic like a JAK inhibitor or hydroxyurea, which is a non-specific treatment.

But some patients do. So, some patients where if their risk score is higher and their risk for thrombosis, that may be an appropriate indication. And some patients have a lot of symptoms with their PV. So, not all PV patients present and behave the same way. Some patients have a very low symptom burden. Some patients have a very significant symptom burden. Itching, for example can be a very annoying and very troublesome symptom for patients with PV.

And, if you don’t have PV or you don’t know someone with PV, you may not understand or realize the negative impact of having intractable itching, often associated with taking a shower or warm water.

And, that can really detract from quality-of-life and cause a lot of anxiety. So, that’s an example of where sometimes a JAK inhibitor like ruxolitinib can be really lifesaving in terms of restoring quality-of-life and functionality to a patient.

Usually, drugs like ruxolitinib are very well-tolerated too, which we’re fortunate about. There’s not a lot of toxicity associated with them. So, for example, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair falling out with chemotherapeutics, you really don’t see with ruxolitinib or Jakafi. Easy bruising, headaches and some dizziness up front sometimes may be seen. They’re usually low-grade and they’re usually fleeting. And usually, the benefit, the feel-good aspect of it outweighs toxicity that can be seen with the drugs. They are immunomodulatory drugs. So, ruxolitinib or Jakafi may increase, to some small extent, but likely, real extent, infectious complications like shingles, urinary tract infections, upper respiratory infections. So, sometimes there is this increased risk. It’s often outweighed by the benefit of the drug.

But there are risks that are associated, and of course the results are not guaranteed. So, I always warn patients, be careful when you look at the package inserts or talk to the physicians. Risks are risks. They’re not guaranteed. So, most patients don’t have these toxicities, but one is at risk for toxicity whenever they take any medication.

An Overview of ET, PV and MF Treatment Options

An Overview of ET, PV and MF Treatment Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Treatment for essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), and myelofibrosis (MF) can vary greatly. Dr. John Mascarenhas breaks down the treatment types and the goals of treatment for each type of myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN).

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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What Are the Benefits of MPN Inhibitor Treatment?


Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Depending on the patient, it seems like ET or PV may be easily managed. So, how are they treated? Let’s start with essential thrombocythemia or ET.

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

So, ET is a disease in which first and foremost, we’re trying to reduce the risk of thrombosis, clotting, and/or hemorrhage bleeding. So, typically, ET patients are risk stratified by low risk or high risk.

It’s almost simply based on their age, whether they’ve had a clot in the past, and some systems now even incorporate other factors like mutation status. And, you tailor the treatment based on their risk score. So, low risk ET patients don’t necessarily need to be treated. They can be followed expectantly and watched. The height of the platelet count does not predict thrombotic risk. So, we don’t treat the platelet count per se. A high-risk patient is at high risk for clotting. So, these patients almost invariably are getting aspirin at a baseline, and they are often on cytoreductive therapy. And sometimes, that is chemotherapy like hydroxyurea. Sometimes it’s a non-chemotherapeutic option and like anagrelide, and sometimes it’s a biologic therapy like interferon alfa either 2a, Pegasys, or 2b ropeginterferon. And, these are therapies that have rationale, that have clinical data, that have demonstrated reduction in risk of clotting, which again is the reason why we treat high-risk ET patients.

Katherine Banwell:                  

And, what about PV, polycythemia vera?

Dr. Mascarenhas:     

So, in polycythemia vera, it’s similar to ET. We risk stratify patients low and high risk based on age and clotting histories. And whether you’re low or high risk, we give PV patients aspirin or at least once daily, and we look to keep their hematocrit below a threshold of 45 percent. And sometimes in women, we even go lower, to 42  percent. But the idea is that controlling the hematocrit, which is one of the red blood cells indices, you reduce the risk of having clots, and that’s been shown actually many years ago and reinforced in a very well-known study called the CYTO-PV study in Italy documented that if you keep the hematocrit less than 45 percent, so, stringent control versus allowing for less stringent control between 45 to 50, that you reduce by fourfold the number of cardiovascular events that can occur.

So, we know that controlling the hematocrit is important, and that can be done, again, with hydroxyurea, interferon, and ruxolitinib.

The JAK2 inhibitor has also proved specifically for patients who had an intolerance or refractory hydroxyurea, but also importantly as a drug that can address, probably better than most drugs in this field, the symptom burden that could be problematic for some of those patients. But, it’s really about controlling the hematocrit.

Katherine Banwell:                  

Yeah. Since myelofibrosis is a progressive condition, I imagine that makes it more difficult to manage. So, what else is available for patients with myelofibrosis?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

The first line of treatment is typically a JAK inhibitor, although I would say that there are a subset of patients – well, there are patients we sometimes meet that have very low risk disease. They don’t have those clinical variables we discussed before that could uptick their risk score, and some of those patients can be watched.

And interestingly, there are a subset of patients that can have an indolent or slow form of the disease where they don’t have aggressive changes in their disease, their blood counts, their symptoms, their spleen, and don’t need immediate treatment. Most patients would benefit from a JAK inhibitor, although there are a subset of patients where their issue is less simple in spleen burden and it’s more anemia.

So, we take those patients where anemia’s the focus, we look at their erythropoietin level, which is their endogenous hormone level that regulates red blood cell production. If it’s low, we give them a lab-based form of erythropoietin, something called Procrit or Aranesp. If it’s high, we will move on. We can use a drug called danazol, which is a synthetic male androgen which can improve hemoglobin levels in 20 to 40 percent of patients. Or, we can use a drug called lenalidomide, which is an immunomodulatory drug. And, more recently, there’s a drug in testing called to luspatercept, which is an active activin receptor ligand trap. So, there is a growing armamentarium of drugs that can be used to try to alleviate the anemia which is present and can be a significant issue in about a quarter of patients with myelofibrosis upfront at time of diagnosis or about 75  percent through the course of their disease. So, that’s an unmet need that still requires attention and may alter the treatment plan for a given patient.

Katherine Banwell:                  

What about stem cell transplants?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

So, we relegate stem cell plant transplants for those patients as mentioned before that are higher risk because we think that the potential benefit-to-risk ratio is in favor of transplant.

Transplant is really a modality that is the only modality that offers the potential for cure, but it’s also a modality that poses a significant risk of morbidity and mortality associated with it. So, it has to really be taken very seriously. It can’t be the kind of treatment you would think of as a last resort at the last minute. Once you see a transplanter, if they’re interested in that therapy and see it early on in the disease course, in my opinion, to start that dialog and then figure out when is the optimal time to employ a bone marrow transplant, which is not a surgical procedure. It’s often thought to be surgical. It’s not a transplant of an organ. It’s a transplant of hematopoietic cells. So, it’s really an infusion of stem cells that then end up in the person’s bone marrow, and they create a whole new hematopoietic system and immune system. And with that, you can have an immune system that then goes after the myelofibrosis stem cells.

That’s called graft-versus-leukemia effect. But with that included graft-versus-host disease, which is when the new graft, the new immune system doesn’t always recognize well the person’s own tissues, whether it’s the liver, or the lung, or the skin, and you can have immunologic reactions to that.

So, that’s a complex discussion. But, transplant, typically for patients less than 70 years of age who have high-risk myelofibrosis or even up to 75 if they have a good performance status and as we said don’t have a lot of comorbid issues with a goal of cure. So, if you have someone where their goal is to try to maximize their time out of the hospital and they’re not focused on longevity, their focused on quality of life, that may not be an appropriate patient for transplantation.

So, I think a very upfront, honest and a transparent discussion with the patient about what to expect with transplant, what are the pros and cons, what are the risks involved, and importantly does it match up with their expectations or their desires.

What Are the Benefits of MPN Inhibitor Treatment?

What Are the Benefits of MPN Inhibitor Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

MPN expert Dr. John Mascarenhas shares an overview of how inhibitor therapy works to treat myelofibrosis (MF) and the benefits of this type of treatment.

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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What Are the Considerations When Choosing Myelofibrosis Therapy?


Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Mascarenhas, what is inhibitor therapy and how does that work?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

So, inhibitor therapy in general are usually oral drugs for the most part, small molecule inhibitors that are geared and usually specific but not totally specific because then they can have off-target effects, but geared to inhibiting usually an enzyme that is overactive or is contributing to the pathophysiology of the disease.

I think in MF, probably one of the best examples is a JAK2 inhibitor. So, there are a number of JAK2 inhibitors that have been in clinical testing. There are two that are approved, ruxolitinib and fedratinib which are excellent drugs in inhibiting JAK2 protein itself in the cells that could be either upregulated or hyperactive in the signaling pathway, and it quiets down a signaling pathway in the hematopoietic cells that leads to a lot of the manifestations of the disease, namely symptoms and spleen.

So, one of the clear benefits of JAK inhibitors that was established many years ago and reinforced by multiple drugs that are either approved or in late-stage testing is these drugs are excellent in improving the symptom burden in the patients and reducing their spleen. Unfortunately, as a class, we’ve not seen these drugs induce remissions or cure patients. So, there’s still interest in developing, obviously, non-JAK inhibitor therapies. But inhibitors in general are inhibiting proteins that are either inappropriately activated or part of a cascade of signaling molecules that are contributing to the disease.

And they are not chemotherapeutic, which might be an important point to make. In past days, we’ve relied heavily in hematologic malignancies in using chemotherapies which are nonspecific and just kill dividing cells whereas inhibitors typically are targeted, and in some sense, it’s personalized to the disease with toxicity profiles that are usually quite distinct from the traditional chemotherapies that we use.  

 

How Do MPNs Progress From One Disease to the Next?

How Do MPNs Progress From One Disease to the Next? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Understanding how essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF) are connected may be confusing to patients. Dr. John Mascarenhas, an expert in myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), provides an overview of how the conditions are defined and how they may progress from one condition to the next.

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Which Tests Do You Need Following an MPN Diagnosis?


Transcript

Katherine Banwell: 

As we move through today’s program, which is going to cover the three classic MPNs, polycythemia vera, essential thrombocythemia and myelofibrosis. So, for someone who has one of these conditions, can you help us understand how one may progress to the next?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, these are a very heterogeneous or variable group of diseases that are under an umbrella called the myeloproliferative neoplasm. So, MPNs can really present and behave and have very different clinical courses. So, I think it’s very important for patients to realize that these are rare diseases, that that has a complexity to it because they don’t always have the ability or the privilege to know other patients or people in their lives that may have these diseases. So, it could be very frightening from a level of feeling isolated or alone with a diagnosis like this and not having familiarity, but also, that these are vague diagnoses in the sense that when you have breast cancer, one can kind of conceptualize that there is a mass in the breast, for example, and that that can be staged. It can go to the lymph nodes in the armpit, it could spread below. And people can kind of understand that concept. I think it’s a little bit more challenging when you talk about MPNs because it’s a little bit more abstract.

These diseases are within the bone marrows at diagnosis. So, they’re not staged in a physical way, and they are complex because they can lead to high blood counts, low blood counts, different types of symptoms, and the approaches really have to be personalized. They are all three interrelated because there are commonalities. So, there are certain clinical commonalities and also biologic commonalities. So, for example, the JAK2 mutation, the JAK2V617F mutation is seen in all three diseases. So, it’s not specific to one or the other.

It’s more common in polycythemia vera, but in about 50 percent of patients with ET, and 50 percent of patients with MF, you can see this mutation. So, the mutation alone doesn’t really tell us what the disease is. It just tells us you have one of these diseases. And, there are other mutations. So, a bone marrow biopsy then becomes integral in helping subtype the patient and then create that treatment plan and that outlook that’s specific for that disease.

And as you mentioned, to make it even more complicated, these diseases can overlap not just biologically, but in a continuum. So, patients with ET or polycythemia vera can progress in some cases to myelofibrosis. And, all three diseases in a minority of patients can progress or evolve into acute myeloid leukemia, which is a more aggressive form of bone marrow cancer.

Patient Considerations That Impact MPN Treatment Decisions

Patient Considerations That Impact MPN Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can personal choices play a role in your MPN care? Dr. John Mascarenhas reviews factors that should be considered, including lifestyle and overall health, when choosing therapy for essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF).

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell:

Outside of testing, what other factors should be considered when choosing treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

I think patient expectation. So, sometimes physicians and family will impose what they want for a patient, and that may not be what the patient really wants. So, I have learned over the years that it’s crucial to make sure that you understand the patient and what the patient’s expectations, desires, and that’s influenced by the life they’ve lead or the remaining life that they want to live and their own personal religious and spiritual beliefs.

So, I think knowing your patient and understanding what their expectations are, it’s fundamental, and sometimes, it’s overlooked. So, understanding that, I think, is very crucial. And then, dividing what are the objectives of the treatment in a given patient? Is it really to improve anemia in some patient versus perhaps a different patient, it may be to improve their quality of life and reduce their symptom burden. And then in other patients, it may be purely trying to cure the disease with therapies that may be aggressive, which may not be appropriate for an older patient where toxicity could outweigh any potential benefit of survival or longevity. So, you really have to have a discussion with the patient or caregivers, and then define what are the goals in that individual to personalize that approach for that patient.

Katherine Banwell:                  

Right. Right. And, there’s the patient’s overall health, comorbidities, other things like that?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

Yeah, because we are not treating a disease in isolation usually. So, patients come with baggage posed of past diseases, current diseases.

And sometimes patients are not “fit” for certain types of therapies because they may be sick or they may have organ dysfunction that would make certain types of treatment approaches ill-advised because the toxicity could be higher. So, absolutely, you need to know their comorbid index, how much comorbidities they have and also their performance status, how active and how well they are in general.

Katherine Banwell:                  

Are there specific biomarkers that may affect prognosis or treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

So, yes and no. I mean, I think that’s an area of intense interest and research. So, we have identified certain biomarkers that have, as I mentioned, prognostic significance, and that may influence treatment decisions. So, patients who have, for example, as we discussed next-generation sequencing and we see their mutations that are present, if they have an accumulation of high molecular risk mutations, that may give us a sense that perhaps that patient may not enjoy the full benefit and duration of benefit of, for example, a JAK inhibitor as another patient that has a less complex disease.

And, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the therapy is not appropriate for the patient. But it may help us plan and be prepared to move on to the next therapy sooner or to be more vigilant for changes that would tell us it’s time to move on. So, I think they help us maybe get a general sense of things and put things into perspective. They don’t always necessarily inform us on a change in therapy immediately or the next or the most immediate therapy. But I do think that that will change because I would predict in the next five to 10 years, I think that the number of available drugs for myelofibrosis, for example, will likely double from what it is now. I think we will have an armamentarium to choose from, and what we will learn from trials that are ongoing is there may be certain profiles, mutations, chromosomal profiles, other clinical variable profiles that we will learn from these trials that will help us to find upfront, “Well, this profile really should go with his medication. That profile should go with that medication.”

An early of example that would be we’re learning that not all patients with the JAK2 mutation are created equal, that you can have different burdens of JAK2 mutation.

And, patients with low burden JAK2 mutation, for example, may fare better with up a specific JAK to inhibitor like pacritinib than patients who get treated with other JAK inhibitors like ruxolitinib.

So, there are differences even within patient defined by mutation that may help us predict which of the JAK inhibitors, as an example, may be more appropriate as a first-line therapy. So, I think that will evolve more so over the next five to 10 years.

What Questions Should Patients Ask About MPN Test Results?

What Questions Should Patients Ask About MPN Test Results? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What should you know about your MPN test results? Dr. Mascarenhas discusses how test results are used, including the importance of genetic mutations and risk stratification when analyzing results.

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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An Overview of ET, PV and MF Treatment Options


Transcript

Katherine Banwell: 

Some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests. So, what key questions should they ask their physician about testing?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

Well, I think it’s important that the patients feel empowered to understand sort of where the field is and what key questions you would ask a physician, hematologist who’s taking care of you. So, I think all patients should be aware of their diagnosis, the name of the diagnosis, the subtype, but also do they have any of the key driving mutations, the JAK2 mutation, the calreticulin mutation, the MPL mutation, and that’s usually done off of a bone marrow biopsy sample, but it can be done off peripheral blood. And, they may not always know that it’s done. So, I think having a discussion with the position to understand there are criteria that exist called the World Health Organization criteria that are updated frequently and should set a standard throughout the world of how you diagnose and establish these diagnoses.

So, I think it’s important for physicians to be able to convey to the patients with confidence, “We follow these criteria and you have these criteria and we’ve done this testing that shows that you have these mutations.” And not just regurgitate what they found, but help them understand and navigate with that means, which again, I will point out that sometimes we don’t know. But, I think it’s important for physicians to convey sometimes that some of the findings that they may see, for example, patients look on portals these days and they can look at their labs and stuff like that. And, we don’t always have a terrific answer or an informed answer for everything that we get back. And, we will potentially in 10 years from now, but sometimes at the moment, we don’t. But, I think a discussion about the meaning of the labs that are obtained is probably good for the patient to understand what’s being done.

Katherine Ba:nwell:

Absolutely. It sounds like each person’s situation is unique and should be considered before making any treatment choices. Can you talk about how the results of these tests may affect prognosis and treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:     

So, we do have risk stratification systems that we use for essential thrombocythemia, polycythemia vera, and myelofibrosis. I’ll talk about myelofibrosis because that’s probably a little bit more of a complex and sophisticated model. It’s also changing, and we update it frequently. And, these models are imperfect, so I always warn patients to not put all of their money in one basket when we talk about risk stratification. They broadly help us understand where a patient is in their disease course. So, for example, in myelofibrosis, historically, the DIPSS, the Dynamic International Prognostic Scoring System is used, which considered five clinical variables that have been shown to be independently prognostic. So, at age over 65, the presence of blasts or circulating immature cells in the peripheral blood, anemia, hemoglobin less than 10, symptoms, fevers, night sweats, weight loss or a high white count over 25,000, you those points up.

And patients can do this online. There are calculators that you can calculate your DIPSS score. And, you’ll see that there are four different risk groups that range from low risk to high risk, and they are associated with median survivals. We now know that mutations influence those, have influence on prognosis. So, there are a group of high molecular risk mutations like ASXL1, SRSF2, IDH1/2. So, there are mutations that also have prognostic significance, and we incorporate them into the decision-making.

And, essentially, and this is where I think patients have to be very careful, physicians have to be very careful with conveying this. With these risk models whether they are clinical variable risk models or these integrated molecular risk models, each category is associated with a median survival, that’s based on retrospective studies. But that doesn’t tell the patient specifically what they should expect in terms of survival. And, I always fear that patients, when they look at these things, or even physicians when they convey them that they may inadvertently misrepresent or convey what those really mean.

And, I think the purpose of those risk stratifications is really to help guide a risk adapted treatment approach that’s reasonable and is weighted for benefit to risk of the disease. So, for example, if you have advanced disease with a high-risk score of intermediate to or higher, bone marrow transplant in certain patients may be a warranted therapy to consider. So, they really help inform treatment.

 

Which Tests Do You Need Following an MPN Diagnosis?

Which Tests Do You Need Following an MPN Diagnosis? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

After a diagnosis of essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF), what testing should take place? Dr. John Mascarenhas shares an overview of essential and in-depth testing for patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs).

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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MPN Treatment: What Is the Role of Biomarkers?


Transcript

Katherine Banwell: 

What tests are necessary to help understand a patient’s specific disease at diagnosis?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Usually, the blood counts are the first opening door test that allows some understanding of, again, either an abnormal production of red blood cells, platelets or under production of these cells. And, that’s really where often the evaluation begins. And then, there are further blood tests that often are done.

And I would say almost indefinitely or almost definitely one should have a bone marrow biopsy that helps categorize the type of myeloproliferative neoplasm because there can be overlap in how the blood counts can look from one disease to the next and overlap in the mutations like the JAK2 mutation. So, sometimes, the blood counts and the molecular testing are not enough, and a bone marrow biopsy looking under the microscope at the different types of cells, the proportion of cells, whether there’s fibrosis where there’s others other types of cells that shouldn’t be there and they’re looking at the chromosomes and the flow cytometry, these are associated tests. As well as almost probably anywhere anyone goes at this point, they’re going to get next-generation sequencing, which is looking at multiple genes and mutations, and that gives a more broader, deeper sense of the disease.

So, those really become the integral parts. In some cases, patients will end up getting imaging of their abdomen to see if they have an enlarged spleen or enlarged liver.

Although that’s not always necessary, that is often part of the workup. So, it’s bloodwork, it’s bone marrow biopsy, sometimes imaging is usually the cornerstone.

Katherine Banwell: 

And, what is molecular or biomarker testing?

Dr. Mascarenhas:    

So, molecular testing today really means – at one point, it really meant looking at PCR for specific gene mutations.

So, for example, we would look at the JAK2 and we would say, “In a given person, is this gene mutated?” We all have JAK2 gene, but in patients with these diseases, they’re more commonly mutated which means altered in the blood cells. And, it’s very important for a patient to understand not in every cell in their bodies, but in their blood cell compartment. And, that helps us understand and start characterizing their disease, and sometimes that mutation can be measured. It can be at a low level. It could be a high level. And, that’s all put together in trying to understand the molecular basis of these diseases.

Today, next-generation sequencing has really taken over and that’s looking at more than just one gene.

Its sequencing could be 40 genes, it could be 200 genes, to get a sense of the complexity of the disease and looking for certain mutations which are considered biomarkers that can portend prognosis or I think increasingly, we’ll see may inform treatment decisions and may even be targets themselves of therapies.

Katherine Banwell:              

Right. Should all patients diagnosed with ET, PV, or MF undergo biomarker testing? Is that necessary?

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

I would say it’s part of the modern evaluation and management of patients today. I don’t think that that was true 10 years ago. But, I think the field has matured. I will say I’m the first person to acknowledge to patients that we get a lot of information back, and the truth is we don’t often know what to do with all of that information. So, sometimes we get information back that can cause anxiety because you can see mutations in genes. But they don’t always inform us on how to educate the patient about their disease or tell us what to do with the treatment.

So, there is still a lag as there normally would be between the testing of the results that we get, and then the actual knowledge of what to do with that. And, that’s still a process that’s in evolution.

What Is Personalized Medicine for ET, PV & MF?

What Is Personalized Medicine for ET, PV & MF? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

MPN expert Dr. John Mascarenhas defines personalized medicine and how the approach is used in patients with essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera, (PV) and myelofibrosis (MF).

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Transcript

Katherine Banwell: 

Before we delve into our discussion, let’s start with a term we’ve been hearing a lot about recently. How would you define “personalized medicine?”

Dr. Mascarenhas:    

So, it’s a good question because I think it’s poorly defined in many ways because it can mean different things I think to different people. And, it’s a definition that’s in evolution. So, I think at its core, personalized medicine tries to embody the concept of creating an evaluation and management plan that is specific of tailored to that patient on multiple levels.

On a personal level, on an objective level of what the patient’s objectives are with their therapy or their disease, and then on a biologic level in terms of the type of disease, and now increasingly, on a molecular level. So, in some cases, it may be personalized therapeutics that are specific or targeted to certain mutations that the patient may have. And, that’s kind of where things are evolving from a treatment perspective. And to me, personalized medicine should be the goal of any interaction with a patient that you have to personalize the approach. Because, every patient that we meet is quite different and distinct from the next patient, and their own sensitivities, understandings and desires can be quite different. So, you want to personalize that approach to that patient at the most basic level.

Which MPN Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know Resource Guide

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PEN-136_0921_ResourceGuide_F

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Using Your Voice to Partner in Your Prostate Cancer Treatment Decisions

Using Your Voice to Partner in Your Prostate Cancer Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can prostate cancer patients work to become partners in their care? Expert Dr. Tomasz Beer discusses “shared decision-making” in prostate cancer care and offers his perspective about the patient role in treatment decisions.

Dr. Tomasz Beer is Deputy Director at OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. Learn more here: https://www.ohsu.edu/people/tomasz-m-beer-md-facp.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

The term “shared decision” is being used lately when talking about patient care. What does this term mean for you?

Dr. Beer:                     

Well, you know, at some level in my view, at least in the United States, virtually all medical decisions are shared decisions. We have a culture of advising our patients about their options, perhaps recommending a course of action, if it’s clearly preferable in our judgment to other options, but really involving patients in those decisions and taking serious consideration of the patient’s personal preferences and values.

And oftentimes in cancer care, especially when we’re dealing with noncurative treatments, treatments that are designed to keep the cancer at bay, perhaps shrink it, prevent or reduce cancer-related symptoms, protect quality of life, we really need to understand each individual patient’s willingness to undergo treatments, take on treatment-related risks, and their personal priorities. Is it their goal to live as long as possible and accept more risks? Is it their goal to focus on the quality of life today and avoid risks to the extent possible and only take them on when they’re absolutely necessary?

These are the kinds of discussions that we have with patients every time we consider a treatment change. So, to me, shared decision-making is really what we do with every patient and almost every visit. In some cases, it’s particularly important because there are areas in medicine where there’s really equipoise, and we don’t have a very clear recommendation one way or another.

Prostate cancer screening is an example for that. We all would dearly love to believe that early detection of prostate cancer is helpful, but early detection of prostate cancer comes with its own harms, the risk of overdetection, overdiagnosis, overtreatment, all because we pick up not just the aggressive cancers but also very slow-moving cancers that are not life-threatening. And so, folks undergoing cancer screening really need to know upfront what they’re getting into and make a decision about their view of the balance between the risks and the benefits. That’s a classic example of shared decision-making.

Katherine:                  

What is the role of the patient in making treatment decisions?

Dr. Beer:                     

Well, I think that the role of the patient is absolutely critical. I mean, they’re the ones receiving the therapy, and there are many things that we look for from our patients. To me, the most important is a clear understanding of their options and the reality within which we operate, having a set of hopes that are forward-looking, hopeful, and optimistic but also grounded in reality, so that good decisions can be made based on reasonable expectations. No. 2, a clear and honest articulation of the priorities, and that can be difficult.

You know, sometimes it’s hard to balance priorities. We obviously want to live as long as possible with a good quality of life. But what if the choice is better quality of life with a shorter lifespan or a longer lifespan but more side effects? And that’s really hard to sort out for some folks. And in my experience as a physician in the trenches, I can also tell you that sometimes the goals of the patients and the goals of their loving spouses and families are a little different.

And trying to help us – as physicians, our primary responsibility is to address the patient’s goals, but we all know that what we really want for our patients is a consensus of all the people they love that are important to them so that everyone can be supportive and on the same team. Those differences can be really stressful.

So, another thing that I look for in my patients and try to help with is building a family and friend support network that’s aligned, that’s on the same team, really. And then really strong communication with the physician or the provider about how things are going, letting us know about side effects honestly, and many people do that, but some people are afraid to share side effects for fear that their treatment might be taken away. And that honest, straightforward communication is really important for the best decision-making. And then, you know, of course, knowledge about the treatments and understanding of what we’re talking about is helpful, but actually, to me, it’s not the most important thing.

Having read the detailed papers on docetaxel chemotherapy while helpful, is not as important as having a really clear understanding of one’s values and priorities and a candid assessment of one’s quality of life and the ability to share that with a physician. I can cover the technical medical stuff, but what I can’t do is guess what’s important to my patients.  

 

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

Which MPN 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 MPN? MPN expert Dr. John Mascarenhas reviews key factors–including essential testing–that guide treatment decisions for essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), and myelofibrosis (MF). Dr. Mascarenhas also provides an overview of available treatment types and why he’s hopeful about the future of MPN research.

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, 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 therapy for your MPN and how you might benefit from key 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.

All right. Let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Mascarenhas. Welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Thanks for having me. My name is John Mascarenhas. I am an associate professor at the Icahn School of Medicine here at Mount Sinai in New York City, and I am a clinical investigator in myeloproliferative neoplasms, and I direct the Adult Leukemia Program here.

Katherine:

Excellent. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us today. Before we delve into our discussion, let’s start with a term we’ve been hearing a lot about recently. How would you define “personalized medicine?”

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, it’s a good question because I think it’s poorly defined in many ways because it can mean different things I think to different people. And, it’s a definition that’s in evolution. So, I think at its core, personalized medicine tries to embody the concept of creating an evaluation and management plan that is specific of tailored to that patient on multiple levels.

On a personal level, on an objective level of what the patient’s objectives are with their therapy or their disease, and then on a biologic level in terms of the type of disease, and now increasingly, on a molecular level. So, in some cases, it may be personalized therapeutics that are specific or targeted to certain mutations that the patient may have. And, that’s kind of where things are evolving from a treatment perspective. And to me, personalized medicine should be the goal of any interaction with a patient that you have to personalize the approach. Because, every patient that we meet is quite different and distinct from the next patient, and their own sensitivities, understandings and desires can be quite different. So, you want to personalize that approach to that patient at the most basic level.

Katherine:

Yeah. Well, that’s really helpful as we move through today’s program, which is going to cover the three classic MPNs, polycythemia vera, essential thrombocythemia and myelofibrosis. So, for someone who has one of these conditions, can you help us understand how one may progress to the next?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, these are a very heterogeneous or variable group of diseases that are under an umbrella called the myeloproliferative neoplasm. So, MPNs can really present and behave and have very different clinical courses. So, I think it’s very important for patients to realize that these are rare diseases, that that has a complexity to it, because they don’t always have the ability or the privilege to know other patients or people in their lives that may have these diseases. So, it could be very frightening from a level of feeling isolated or alone with a diagnosis like this and not having familiarity, but also, that these are vague diagnoses in the sense that when you have breast cancer, one can kind of conceptualize that there is a mass in the breast, for example, and that that can be staged. It can go to the lymph nodes in the armpit, it could spread below. And people can kind of understand that concept. I think it’s a little bit more challenging when you talk about MPNs, because it’s a little bit more abstract.

These diseases are within the bone marrows at diagnosis. So, they’re not staged in a physical way, and they are complex because they can lead to high blood counts, low blood counts, different types of symptoms, and the approaches really have to be personalized. They are all three interrelated because there are commonalities. So, there are certain clinical commonalities and also biologic commonalities. So, for example, the JAK2 mutation, the JAK2V617F mutation is seen in all three diseases. So, it’s not specific to one or the other.

It’s more common in polycythemia vera, but in about 50 percent of patients with ET, and 50 percent of patients with MF, you can see this mutation. So, the mutation alone doesn’t really tell us what the disease is. It just tells us you have one of these diseases. And, there are other mutations. So, a bone marrow biopsy then becomes integral in helping subtype the patient and then create that treatment plan and that outlook that’s specific for that disease.

And as you mentioned, to make it even more complicated, these diseases can overlap not just biologically, but in a continuum. So, patients with ET or polycythemia vera can progress in some cases to myelofibrosis. And, all three diseases in a minority of patients can progress or evolve into acute myeloid leukemia, which is a more aggressive form of bone marrow cancer.

Katherine:

Well, let’s turn to testing. And, you did just mention this. You touched on it a moment ago. What tests are necessary to help understand a patient’s specific disease at diagnosis?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Usually, the blood counts are the first opening door test that allows some understanding of, again, either an abnormal production of red blood cells, platelets or under production of these cells. And, that’s really where often the evaluation begins. And then, there are further blood tests that often are done.

And I would say almost indefinitely or almost definitely one should have a bone marrow biopsy that helps categorize the type of myeloproliferative neoplasm because there can be overlap in how the blood counts can look from one disease to the next and overlap in the mutations like the JAK2 mutation. So, sometimes, the blood counts and the molecular testing are not enough, and a bone marrow biopsy looking under the microscope at the different types of cells, the proportion of cells, whether there’s fibrosis where there’s others other types of cells that shouldn’t be there, and they’re looking at the chromosomes and the flow cytometry, these are associated tests. As well as almost probably anywhere anyone goes at this point, they’re going to get next-generation sequencing, which is looking at multiple genes and mutations, and that gives a more broader, deeper sense of the disease.

So, those really become the integral parts. In some cases, patients will end up getting imaging of their abdomen to see if they have an enlarged spleen or enlarged liver.

Although that’s not always necessary, that is often part of the workup. So, it’s bloodwork, it’s bone marrow biopsy, sometimes imaging is usually the cornerstone.

Katherine:

And, what is molecular or biomarker testing?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, molecular testing today really means – at one point, it really meant looking at PCR for specific gene mutations.

So, for example, we would look at the JAK2 and we would say, “In a given person, is this gene mutated?” We all have JAK2 gene, but in patients with these diseases, they’re more commonly mutated which means altered in the blood cells. And, it’s very important for a patient to understand not in every cell in their bodies, but in their blood cell compartment. And, that helps us understand and start characterizing their disease, and sometimes that mutation can be measured. It can be at a low level. It could be a high level. And, that’s all put together in trying to understand the molecular basis of these diseases.

Today, next-generation sequencing has really taken over and that’s looking at more than just one gene.

Its sequencing could be 40 genes, it could be 200 genes, to get a sense of the complexity of the disease and looking for certain mutations which are considered biomarkers that can portend prognosis or I think increasingly, we’ll see may inform treatment decisions and may even be targets themselves of therapies.

Katherine:

Right. Should all patients diagnosed with ET, PV, or MF undergo biomarker testing? Is that necessary?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

I would say it’s part of the modern evaluation and management of patients today. I don’t think that that was true 10 years ago. But I think the field has matured. I will say I’m the first person to acknowledge to patients that we get a lot of information back, and the truth is we don’t often know what to do with all of that information. So, sometimes we get information back that can cause anxiety because you can see mutations in genes. But they don’t always inform us on how to educate the patient about their disease or tell us what to do with the treatment.

So, there is still a lag as there normally would be between the testing of the results that we get, and then the actual knowledge of what to do with that. And, that’s still a process that’s in evolution.

Katherine:

Right. Some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests. So, what key questions should they ask their physician about testing?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Well, I think it’s important that the patients feel empowered to understand sort of where the field is and what key questions you would ask a physician, hematologist who’s taking care of you. So, I think all patients should be aware of their diagnosis, the name of the diagnosis, the subtype, but also do they have any of the key driving mutations, the JAK2 mutation, the calreticulin mutation, the MPL mutation, and that’s usually done off of a bone marrow biopsy sample, but it can be done off peripheral blood. And, they may not always know that it’s done. So, I think having a discussion with the position to understand there are criteria that exist called the World Health Organization criteria that are updated frequently and should set a standard throughout the world of how you diagnose and establish these diagnoses.

So, I think it’s important for physicians to be able to convey to the patients with confidence, “We follow these criteria and you have these criteria and we’ve done this testing that shows that you have these mutations.” And not just regurgitate what they found, but help them understand and navigate with that means, which again, I will point out that sometimes we don’t know. But I think it’s important for physicians to convey sometimes that some of the findings that they may see, for example, patients look on portals these days and they can look at their labs and stuff like that. And, we don’t always have a terrific answer or an informed answer for everything that we get back. And, we will potentially in 10 years from now, but sometimes at the moment, we don’t. But I think a discussion about the meaning of the labs that are obtained is probably good for the patient to understand what’s being done.

Katherine:

Absolutely. It sounds like each person’s situation is unique and should be considered before making any treatment choices. Can you talk about how the results of these tests may affect prognosis and treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, we do have risk stratification systems that we use for essential thrombocythemia, polycythemia vera, and myelofibrosis. I’ll talk about myelofibrosis because that’s probably a little bit more of a complex and sophisticated model. It’s also changing, and we update it frequently. And, these models are imperfect, so I always warn patients to not put all of their money in one basket when we talk about risk stratification. They broadly help us understand where a patient is in their disease course. So, for example, in myelofibrosis, historically, the DIPSS, the Dynamic International Prognostic Scoring System is used, which considered five clinical variables that have been shown to be independently prognostic. So, at age over 65, the presence of blasts or circulating immature cells in the peripheral blood, anemia, hemoglobin less than 10, symptoms, fevers, night sweats, weight loss or a high white count over 25,000, you those points up.

And patients can do this online. There are calculators that you can calculate your DIPSS score. And, you’ll see that there are four different risk groups that range from low risk to high risk, and they are associated with median survivals. We now know that mutations influence those, have influence on prognosis. So, there are a group of high molecular risk mutations like ASXL1, SRSF2, IDH1/2. So, there are mutations that also have prognostic significance, and we incorporate them into the decision-making.

And, essentially, and this is where I think patients have to be very careful, physicians have to be very careful with conveying this. With these risk models whether they are clinical variable risk models or these integrated molecular risk models, each category is associated with a median survival, that’s based on retrospective studies. But that doesn’t tell the patient specifically what they should expect in terms of survival. And, I always fear that patients, when they look at these things, or even physicians when they convey them that they may inadvertently misrepresent or convey what those really mean.

And, I think the purpose of those risk stratifications is really to help guide a risk adapted treatment approach that’s reasonable and is weighted for benefit to risk of the disease. So, for example, if you have advanced disease with a high-risk score of intermediate to or higher, bone marrow transplant in certain patients may be a warranted therapy to consider. So, they really help inform treatment.

Katherine:

Right. You mentioned a couple of these already. But, outside of testing, what other factors should be considered when choosing treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

I think patient expectation. So, sometimes physicians and family will impose what they want for a patient, and that may not be what the patient really wants. So, I have learned over the years that it’s crucial to make sure that you understand the patient and what the patient’s expectations, desires, and that’s influenced by the life they’ve lead or the remaining life that they want to live and their own personal religious and spiritual beliefs.

] So, I think knowing your patient and understanding what their expectations are, it’s fundamental, and sometimes, it’s overlooked. So, understanding that, I think, is very crucial. And then, dividing what are the objectives of the treatment in a given patient? Is it really to improve anemia in some patient versus perhaps a different patient, it may be to improve their quality of life and reduce their symptom burden. And then in other patients, it may be purely trying to cure the disease with therapies that may be aggressive, which may not be appropriate for an older patient where toxicity could outweigh any potential benefit of survival or longevity. So, you really have to have a discussion with the patient or caregivers, and then define what are the goals in that individual to personalize that approach for that patient.

Katherine:

Right. Right. And, there’s the patient’s overall health, comorbidities, other things like that?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Yeah, because we are not treating a disease in isolation usually. So, patients come with baggage posed of past diseases, current diseases.

And sometimes patients are not “fit” for certain types of therapies because they may be sick or they may have organ dysfunction that would make certain types of treatment approaches ill-advised because the toxicity could be higher. So, absolutely, you need to know their comorbid index, how much comorbidities they have and also their performance status, how active and how well they are in general.

Katherine:

Right. Are there specific biomarkers that may affect prognosis or treatment?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, yes and no. I mean, I think that’s an area of intense interest and research. So, we have identified certain biomarkers that have, as I mentioned, prognostic significance, and that may influence treatment decisions. So, patients who have, for example, as we discussed next-generation sequencing and we see their mutations that are present, if they have an accumulation of high molecular risk mutations, that may give us a sense that perhaps that patient may not enjoy the full benefit and duration of benefit of, for example, a JAK inhibitor as another patient that has a less complex disease.

And, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the therapy is not appropriate for the patient. But it may help us plan and be prepared to move on to the next therapy sooner or to be more vigilant for changes that would tell us it’s time to move on. So, I think they help us maybe get a general sense of things and put things into perspective. They don’t always necessarily inform us on a change in therapy immediately or the next or the most immediate therapy. But I do think that that will change because I would predict in the next five to 10 years, I think that the number of available drugs for myelofibrosis, for example, will likely double from what it is now. I think we will have an armamentarium to choose from, and what we will learn from trials that are ongoing is there may be certain profiles, mutations, chromosomal profiles, other clinical variable profiles that we will learn from these trials that will help us to find upfront, “Well, this profile really should go with his medication. That profile should go with that medication.”

An early of example that would be we’re learning that not all patients with the JAK2 mutation are created equal, that you can have different burdens of JAK2 mutation. And, patients with low burden JAK2 mutation, for example, may fare better with up a specific JAK to inhibitor like pacritinib than patients who get treated with other JAK inhibitors like ruxolitinib.

So, there are differences even within patient defined by mutation that may help us predict which of the JAK inhibitors, as an example, may be more appropriate as a first-line therapy. So, I think that will evolve more so over the next five to 10 years.

Katherine:

Dr. Mascarenhas, what is inhibitor therapy and how does that work?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, inhibitor therapy in general are usually oral drugs for the most part, small molecule inhibitors that are geared and usually specific but not totally specific because then they can have off-target effects, but geared to inhibiting usually an enzyme that is overactive or is contributing to the pathophysiology of the disease.

I think in MF, probably one of the best examples is a JAK2 inhibitor. So, there are a number of JAK2 inhibitors that have been in clinical testing. There are two that are approved, ruxolitinib (Jakafi) and fedratinib (Inrebic), which are excellent drugs in inhibiting JAK2 protein itself in the cells that could be either upregulated or hyperactive in the signaling pathway, and it quiets down a signaling pathway in the hematopoietic cells that leads to a lot of the manifestations of the disease, namely symptoms and spleen.

So, one of the clear benefits of JAK inhibitors that was established many years ago and reinforced by multiple drugs that are either approved or in late-stage testing is these drugs are excellent in improving the symptom burden in the patients and reducing their spleen. Unfortunately, as a class, we’ve not seen these drugs induce remissions or cure patients. So, there’s still interest in developing, obviously, non-JAK inhibitor therapies. But inhibitors in general are inhibiting proteins that are either inappropriately activated or part of a cascade of signaling molecules that are contributing to the disease.

And they are not chemotherapeutic, which might be an important point to make. In past days, we’ve relied heavily in hematologic malignancies in using chemotherapies which are nonspecific and just kill dividing cells whereas inhibitors typically are targeted, and in some sense, it’s personalized to the disease with toxicity profiles that are usually quite distinct from the traditional chemotherapies that we use.

Katherine:

Well, outside of inhibitor therapy, let’s review other treatments for patients. Depending on the patient, it seems like ET or PV may be easily managed. So, how are they treated? Let’s start with essential thrombocythemia or ET.

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, ET is a disease in which first and foremost, we’re trying to reduce the risk of thrombosis, clotting, and/or hemorrhage bleeding. So, typically, ET patients are risk stratified by low risk or high risk.

It’s almost simply based on their age, whether they’ve had a clot in the past, and some systems now even incorporate other factors like mutation status. And, you tailor the treatment based on their risk score. So, low risk ET patients don’t necessarily need to be treated. They can be followed expectantly and watched. The height of the platelet count does not predict thrombotic risk. So, we don’t treat the platelet count per se. A high-risk patient is at high risk for clotting. So, these patients almost invariably are getting aspirin at a baseline, and they are often on cytoreductive therapy. And sometimes, that is chemotherapy like hydroxyurea (Hydrea). Sometimes it’s a non-chemotherapeutic option and like anagrelide, and sometimes it’s a biologic therapy like interferon alfa either 2a, PEGASYS, or 2b ropeginterferon. And, these are therapies that have rationale, that have clinical data, that have demonstrated reduction in risk of clotting, which again is the reason why we treat high-risk ET patients.

Katherine:

And, what about PV, polycythemia vera?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, in polycythemia vera, it’s similar to ET. We risk stratify patients low and high risk based on age and clotting histories. And whether you’re low or high risk, we give PV patients aspirin or at least once daily, and we look to keep their hematocrit below a threshold of 45 percent. And sometimes in women, we even go lower, to 42 percent. But the idea is that controlling the hematocrit, which is one of the red blood cells indices, you reduce the risk of having clots, and that’s been shown actually many years ago and reinforced in a very well-known study called the CYTO-PV study in Italy documented that if you keep the hematocrit less than 45 percent, so, stringent control versus allowing for less stringent control between 45 to 50, that you reduce by fourfold the number of cardiovascular events that can occur.

So, we know that controlling the hematocrit is important, and that can be done, again, with hydroxyurea, interferon, and ruxolitinib. The JAK2 inhibitor has also proved specifically for patients who had an intolerance or refractory hydroxyurea, but also importantly as a drug that can address, probably better than most drugs in this field, the symptom burden that could be problematic for some of those patients. But it’s really about controlling the hematocrit.

Katherine:

Yeah. Since myelofibrosis is a progressive condition, I imagine that makes it more difficult to manage. So, what else is available for patients with myelofibrosis?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

The first line of treatment is typically a JAK inhibitor, although I would say that there are a subset of patients – well, there are patients we sometimes meet that have very low risk disease. They don’t have those clinical variables we discussed before that could uptick their risk score, and some of those patients can be watched.

And interestingly, there are a subset of patients that can have an indolent or slow form of the disease where they don’t have aggressive changes in their disease, their blood counts, their symptoms, their spleen, and don’t need immediate treatment. Most patients would benefit from a JAK inhibitor, although there are a subset of patients where their issue is less simple in spleen burden and it’s more anemia.

So, we take those patients where anemia’s the focus, we look at their erythropoietin level, which is their endogenous hormone level that regulates red blood cell production. If it’s low, we give them a lab-based form of erythropoietin, something called PROCRIT or Aranesp. If it’s high, we will move on. We can use a drug called danazol, which is a synthetic male androgen which can improve hemoglobin levels in 20 to 40 percent of patients. Or, we can use a drug called lenalidomide, which is an immunomodulatory drug. And, more recently, there’s a drug in testing called to luspatercept, which is an active activin receptor ligand trap. So, there is a growing armamentarium of drugs that can be used to try to alleviate the anemia which is present and can be a significant issue in about a quarter of patients with myelofibrosis upfront at time of diagnosis or about 75 percent through the course of their disease. So, that’s an unmet need that still requires attention and may alter the treatment plan for a given patient.

Katherine:

What about stem cell transplants?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, we relegate stem cell plant transplants for those patients as mentioned before that are higher risk because we think that the potential benefit-to-risk ratio is in favor of transplant.

Transplant is really a modality that is the only modality that offers the potential for cure, but it’s also a modality that poses a significant risk of morbidity and mortality associated with it. So, it has to really be taken very seriously. It can’t be the kind of treatment you would think of as a last resort at the last minute. Once you see a transplanter, if they’re interested in that therapy and see it early on in the disease course, in my opinion, to start that dialog and then figure out when is the optimal time to employ a bone marrow transplant, which is not a surgical procedure. It’s often thought to be surgical. It’s not a transplant of an organ. It’s a transplant of hematopoietic cells. So, it’s really an infusion of stem cells that then end up in the person’s bone marrow, and they create a whole new hematopoietic system and immune system. And with that, you can have an immune system that then goes after the myelofibrosis stem cells.

That’s called graft-versus-leukemia effect. But with that included graft-versus-host disease, which is when the new graft, the new immune system doesn’t always recognize well the person’s own tissues, whether it’s the liver, or the lung, or the skin, and you can have immunologic reactions to that.

So, that’s a complex discussion. But, transplant, typically for patients less than 70 years of age who have high-risk myelofibrosis or even up to 75 if they have a good performance status and as we said don’t have a lot of comorbid issues with a goal of cure. So, if you have someone where their goal is to try to maximize their time out of the hospital and they’re not focused on longevity, they’re focused on quality of life, that may not be an appropriate patient for transplantation. So, I think a very upfront, honest and a transparent discussion with the patient about what to expect with transplant, what are the pros and cons, what are the risks involved, and importantly does it match up with their expectations or their desires.

Katherine:

Right.

We have a question from Mike that we received prior to the program. He wants to know, “What does it mean to have high-risk myelofibrosis?”

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, high-risk can be defined different ways. For example, if you’re using the DIPSS score, it means that you have enough of those points to put you in a category that would suggest that your disease is more likely in a shorter time period to cause significant morbidity and mortality than someone who has low risk disease. So, it’s really, as we said before, we don’t stage myelofibrosis like stage I, II, III, and IV metastatic disease. But we risk stratify patients. We put them in these categories, and that helps to decide what treatments may be more appropriate. And as we were discussing, transplant is a therapy if you’re a high-risk patient and you’re inclined and you don’t have a lot of comorbidities, and you’re not very advanced in age. That may be a treatment that is appropriate for a high-risk patient, a high risk for having a bad outcome of the disease within a shorter period of time.

Katherine:

Right.

And we have another question from Craig that we received earlier. “I’m currently receiving regular phlebotomies for PV, but my doctor is considering switching me to inhibitor therapy. What can I expect and are there side effects that I should be concerned about?”

Dr. Mascarenhas:

So, for some patients, therapeutic phlebotomy is all that they need, and they do very well with it, and they don’t need to take a therapeutic like a JAK inhibitor or hydroxyurea, which is a non-specific treatment.

But some patients do. So, some patients where if their risk score is higher and their risk for thrombosis, that may be an appropriate indication. And some patients have a lot of symptoms with their PV. So, not all PV patients present and behave the same way. Some patients have a very low symptom burden. Some patients have a very significant symptom burden. Itching, for example can be a very annoying and very troublesome symptom for patients with PV.

And, if you don’t have PV or you don’t know someone with PV, you may not understand or realize the negative impact of having intractable itching, often associated with taking a shower or warm water.

And, that can really detract from quality of life and cause a lot of anxiety. So, that’s an example of where sometimes a JAK inhibitor like ruxolitinib can be really lifesaving in terms of restoring quality-of-life and functionality to a patient.

Usually, drugs like ruxolitinib are very well-tolerated too, which we’re fortunate about. There’s not a lot of toxicity associated with them. So, for example, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair falling out with chemotherapeutics, you really don’t see with ruxolitinib or Jakafi. Easy bruising, headaches and some dizziness up front sometimes may be seen. They’re usually low-grade and they’re usually fleeting. And usually, the benefit, the feel-good aspect of it outweighs toxicity that can be seen with the drugs. They are immunomodulatory drugs. So, ruxolitinib or Jakafi may increase, to some small extent, but likely, real extent, infectious complications like shingles, urinary tract infections, upper respiratory infections. So, sometimes there is this increased risk. It’s often outweighed by the benefit of the drug.

But, there are risks that are associated, and of course the results are not guaranteed. So, I always warn patients, be careful when you look at the package inserts or talk to the physicians. Risks are risks. They’re not guaranteed. So, most patients don’t have these toxicities, but one is at risk for toxicity whenever they take any medication.

Katherine:

Yeah. Before we close, Dr. Mascarenhas, let’s talk about research. Are there new developments that you’re excited about?

Dr. Mascarenhas:

Absolutely. So, what I’m happily interested in and involved in is clinical investigation and moving the field forward, and there are many people out there that are similarly involved and they’re doing really excellent work. So, I am super jazzed and enthusiastic and optimistic, and it’s what gets me work every day and inspires me is all of the effort that is happening. And, it’s a continuum. So, it’s not just one person trying to try a different drug here and there. It’s really a bringing together of many different people because these are rare diseases.

Many different people from many different institutions that have different areas of expertise, but have a common goal of translating from laboratory informed data, so, not just taking a dart and throwing it at the dartboard and hoping it sticks. But actually taking data that we learned from the lab and leveraging that information to develop therapies that are informed, that are targeted, that are personalized and going through a process of evaluating them to get them into the clinic, with the goal of, and I would say ambitiously, our goal these days is moving beyond trying to make patients feel better, which is an important goal, but it’s really can we really target the disease in a more effective way to induce remissions, to, dare I say, cure patients. So, I think the ambitious goal of the clinical investigators and laboratory investigators that are active in MPN research today is really one looking for an understanding at the basis of the biology of the disease to develop curative therapies. And, I am optimistic that that will happen.

And, I don’t mean happen in a hundred years from now. I mean happen in our lifetime. So, that’s where we’re going. There’s a lot of very exciting drugs, oral and intravenous drugs and they target very different types of aspects of the disease, and I think patients and physicians will see that maybe those drugs are used best in combination. So, the idea of using one drug, waiting for it to fail and using another drug is really old news, and much of oncology is combination therapy. So, taking drugs that have different targets or mechanisms of action and non-overlapping toxicity to try to better target and delete what’s called the myelofibrosis stem cell that’s the basic issue here, which we don’t effectively delete other than transplant. So, our goal would be to put bone marrow transplanters out of business.

Katherine:

Well, that’s a great plan. I hope that that can happen one day. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Mascarenhas. We appreciate you taking the time.

Dr. Mascarenhas:

My pleasure.

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners.

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

 

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.

See More From Engage AML


Related Resources:


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.

How Can You Engage in Your CLL Care?

How Can You Engage in Your CLL Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients become more engaged in their care? Dr. Paul Barr explains steps that patients can take to activate shared decision-making with their provider for optimal care.

Dr. Paul Barr is Professor of Hematology/Oncology at University of Rochester Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Barr, here.

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Related Resources:

 

An Expert’s Perspective on CLL Research Advances

Transcript:

Katherine:

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

Dr. Barr:

So, I honestly think shared decision-making is not just useless term. This is something we actually really use in our clinics, and it’s very important for the care of CLL patients, where we have patients who do very well for a long period of time. And there are a lot of different management decisions and a variety of treatment options that we have to discuss.

So, when we have that luxury, it’s really important to help educate patients on the different options and to better understand what their goals of care are, so they can help us decide what’s best for them. When we’re deciding just, one example is that, when we’re deciding on various treatments, we can use agents that are given orally, taken at home, but patients may be on them for many years.

Alternatively, we have fixed duration regimens, but may involve trips to the infusion center. And a lot of these different treatments all work very well. So, involving the patient in that decision making process, makes the process that much easier for the patient and enables you just to take better care of them over the long run.

Katherine:

What is the role of the patient to making treatment decisions?

Dr. Barr:

Well, I think that the role of the patient is really to be their own advocate. Take all the information and then, help us make decisions together. And to just be very honest about what they want from, not just a simple decision about a treatment, but from their overall care. To really just to be as involved as possible and to make sure all of their concerns are heard, all of their questions are answered.

Katherine:

For those who might have trouble speaking up for themselves, what advice do you have for them?

Dr. Barr:

Oh, I would say, especially for our patients with CLL, often there are many,

many appointments along the way, where there may not be urgent decisions being made and there are opportunities to slowly learn more to ask questions. So, as much as possible, try not to be intimidated by that visit to the cancer center, which obviously can be anxiety provoking, but to develop a relationship with your hematologist, your oncologist, your care team so, that they can take better care of you.

I honestly think it works best when you slowly get to know your team, understand the field, some of the decisions that need to be made and that the team only wants what’s best for you. So, yeah, I honestly think it’s – think of it as a process. It’s not a one-time visit where you have to get everything out and get everything answered. It should be a relationship.

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

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

How can you actively participate in your myeloma care and treatment decisions? Engaging with your healthcare team is essential and may lead to better overall outcomes. In this program, Dr. Rafael Fonseca provides tips for how best to advocate for yourself or a loved one, as well as tools for making treatment and care decisions.

Dr. Rafael Fonseca is the interim director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Center and serves as the director for Innovation and Transformational Relationships at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. Learn more about Dr. Fonseca here.

See More From Engage Myeloma

Download Guide


Related Programs:

Myeloma Treatment Decisions: What Should Be Considered?

What Standard Testing Follows a Myeloma Diagnosis?

Which Myeloma Patients Should Consider a Stem Cell Transplant?


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.