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How to Play an Active Role in Your CLL Treatment Decisions

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

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to explore the factors that guide CLL treatment decisions, including your role in making those decisions. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. And at the end of this program, you will receive a link to a program survey. This will allow you to provide feedback about your experience today, and it will help us plan future webinars.

Finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Refer to your own healthcare team. All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Matthew Davids. Dr. Davids, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Davids:                  

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                  

My pleasure.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s definitely a multidisciplinary team.

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

How do patients find out about these clinical trials?

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

Katherine:                  

With CLL, what are the goals of treatment?

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Davids:                 

It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much.

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

Advocating for Key AML Testing: Advice From an Expert

Advocating for Key AML Testing: Advice From an Expert from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Hetty Carraway, an AML specialist at Cleveland Clinic, shares advice on advocating for yourself when diagnosed with AML, underscoring the importance of asking questions, and including your caregiver as part of the conversation.

Dr. Hetty Carraway is Director of the Leukemia Program at Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Carraway cares for patients with acute leukemia and bone marrow failure states. Learn more about Dr. Carraway, here.

See More From INSIST! AML

Related Resources:


 Treatment Approaches in AML: Key Testing for Personalized Care

 New AML Therapies vs. Traditional Chemotherapy: What’s the Difference?

 Understanding Risk in AML: How Molecular Testing Affects Treatment Options

Transcript:

Katherine:

What advice do you have for patients when it comes to asking for appropriate testing and speaking up in their own care?

Dr. Carraway:            

This is so important. I think patients are leery to stir the pot or be difficult. I think coming from a place of inquiry, teach me about this, that, or the other thing, help me understand this, that, or the other thing – I would like you to show me why this decision or talk with me about why this decision versus another decision might be better for me compared to somebody else.

I can’t underscore the importance of advocating for yourself and asking questions about why am I getting this drug? What are the side effects to this drug? What is my prognosis? What is different about my case versus somebody else’s situation? How do I best prepare myself in getting ready for the therapy that I’m about to go through?

Those are all important questions that patients should ask. They should certainly have people, if possible in their family be advocates for them. I welcome that, and I think that that’s a really important part of going through this type of therapy for any patient. Your physician should welcome having your involvement in that. Don’t be shy about that. It’s your health, and any investment in that the most important people in that is inclusive of you and your caregivers. They should be a welcome part of the team.

Understanding AML Induction and Consolidation Therapy

Understanding AML Induction and Consolidation Therapy from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Hetty Carraway, an AML specialist at Cleveland Clinic, provides an explanation of the role of induction and consolidation therapy in AML patients.

Dr. Hetty Carraway is Director of the Leukemia Program at Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Carraway cares for patients with acute leukemia and bone marrow failure states. Learn more about Dr. Carraway, here.

See More From INSIST! AML

Related Resources:


 Treatment Approaches in AML: Key Testing for Personalized Care

 New AML Therapies vs. Traditional Chemotherapy: What’s the Difference?

 Understanding Risk in AML: How Molecular Testing Affects Treatment Options

Transcript:

Katherine:

Would you define induction therapy and consolidation therapy and tell us what the differences are?

Dr. Carraway:            

For most patients that are diagnosed with an acute myeloid leukemia, over the last 30 to 40 years we’ve used an intensive chemotherapy regimen that we call induction. Induction means that we’re trying to get the leukemia into remission with an intensive chemotherapy regimen. Classically, that has been two agents; one, a cytarabine based regimen along with an anthracycline, either idarubicin, danorubicin, or some anthracycline that’s similar.

Now, the cytarabine based therapy is a continuous infusion over seven days. The anthracycline is given over three days as an intravenous IV push, and so that’s why it’s kind of been nicknamed seven and three – seven days of cytarabine and three days of another anthracycline.

Now, that has constituted the induction intensive regimen in the hospital with the idea that that leukemia gets under control and goes away. More recently for patients, they can receive therapy that is not this inpatient, in-hospital, induction chemotherapy but rather use oral therapy combining with venetoclax, which is a Bcl-2 inhibitor, along with azacitidine, which is either IV or subcutaneous given to patients over seven days. The oral, venetoclax is every day.

That type of induction can also be given and is now an outpatient regimen and more often offered to patients that are older, over the age of 75.

That, too can be considered induction with the idea that once a patient is diagnosed with leukemia this regimen is started, and after one month or even two months on venetoclax plus azacitidine patients’ leukemia can get into what we call remission, where the blast percentages are less than 5 percent. Then, normal hematopoiesis of platelets being greater than 100,000 and a neutrophil count greater than 500 or 1,000, and the patient is then transfusion-independent.

In general, induction chemotherapy is that first round of chemotherapy that’s trying to get the leukemia under control.

Consolidation chemotherapy is when you use subsequent cycles of chemotherapy to keep the leukemia under control because we know that if we don’t continue to give some continuation of therapy that the small, little seeds of leukemia will re-emerge and leukemia will relapse.

Essential Testing in AML: How Results Impact Care & Treatment Choices

Essential Testing in AML: How Results Impact Care & Treatment Choices from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What tests should follow an AML diagnosis and why? Dr. Hetty Carraway, an AML specialist of Cleveland Clinic, reviews the essential testing for patients with AML and explains how those test results may inform treatment decisions.

Dr. Hetty Carraway is Director of the Leukemia Program at Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Carraway cares for patients with acute leukemia and bone marrow failure states. Learn more about Dr. Carraway, here.

Download Program Resource Guide

See More From INSIST! AML

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Navigating AML Treatment Decisions

Insist! AML Resource Guide

Transcript:

Katherine:      

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell. Today, we’ll discuss how you can be proactive by insisting on better AML care and personalized treatment options. Joining me is Dr. Hetty Carraway.

Welcome, Dr. Carraway. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Carraway:            

Hi. My name is Dr. Hetty Carraway. I’m one of the physicians at the Cleveland Clinic. I work as the Director of the Leukemia Program, and I spend most of my time caring for patients with acute leukemia and bone marrow failure states.

Katherine:                  

Thank you.  Let’s start with the basics. What essential testing should AML patients undergo following a diagnosis?

Dr. Carraway:            

This is a pretty standard workup for patients that have this diagnosis of acute leukemia.

For most of our patients we always evaluate with a peripheral blood count including a complete blood count with differential, typically a comprehensive metabolic panel, and looking at a test called a uric acid, which looks at the cell turnover and the cellular debris in terms of the burden on the kidney. We often will get a bone marrow biopsy with aspirate for patients, and in the diagnosis of leukemia typically that’s already been done.

There are tests that are sent off of that aspirate called a test for chromosomes, whether it’s comprehensive cytogenetics or FISH, for fluorescence in situ hybridization. We’re often testing using a study called NGS or next generation sequencing looking for specific mutations of genes known to be important in the pathogenesis of leukemia.

Furthermore, we often get a test called flow cytometry from that aspirate looking at the markers on top of the leukemia cells that help us to identify the blast population. So, I would say those by and large are the tests in the bone marrow biopsy that we get, which are innumerable and detailed.

They often take some time to get back, so at the time of the diagnosis patients know that they have a diagnosis of leukemia, but those additional chromosome tests or mutation testing that can take up to two weeks if not longer to get back. And so, it’s important to follow up on that information later on and say, has that testing come back? If so, how does that change any of what the decisions are moving forward?

Katherine:                  

Genetic testing can often be confused with molecular testing. What’s the difference between the two, and why should patients undergo the testing?

Dr. Carraway:            

The chromosome testing and the mutational testing help us to really classify the risk in terms of the leukemia itself, whether or not that leukemia is responsive to chemotherapy alone, or if it means that there’s a higher likelihood of that leukemia not being controlled with leukemia only.

In that setting, we often then move towards transplant for curative intent in addition to the chemotherapy. The reasons to get the information is to really help us better tailor the therapy for each individual patient. That information really does help us guide not only the upfront therapy for some patients but even the long-term therapy. It can be incredibly overwhelming to have too much information at the get-go, so in some senses it’s better to have these pieces as they unfold over time.

For other patients, they want to know what exactly the plan is going to be A to Z from day one. That is of course more challenging now that it just takes time to get this information. I think what they need to know is that we’re working hard to get that information.

As soon as we get it, we don’t hold back. We reveal and share that information and come together to say, this is what this data or information means, and these are some of the choices that we either recommend that you consider, and these are the risks and benefits to those considerations.

Katherine:                  

Let’s look at something that is similar to what you’ve just been talking about. How do test results impact treatment and overall care?

Dr. Carraway:            

They really can. When you asked me how come chromosome or genetic information is different than mutational information, the chromosomes can help us to figure out where patients land in terms of prognosis. That information is different than the mutational testing. Both of those pieces can help us figure that out.

The mutational test, I will tell you, does help us figure out are there targets on the leukemia that allow us to use therapy that’s directed to that mutation. The key example I’ll give is a mutation in a gene called FLT3. That particular mutation has an agent now that is F.D.A. approved called Midostaurin, and so once we know that a leukemia harbors a FLT3 mutation we often add a drug called Midostaurin to the backbone therapy that is used for patients.

Now, that’s important, and now there are more and more genes that when mutated we have novel therapies that direct against that specific tag that’s on the leukemia and helps to improve eradication of the disease or control of the disease if you will.

That’s different than the genetic information when we’re looking at chromosomal changes that may allow us to say in the rare instances of  favorable cytogenetics like a translocation of chromosome 15 and 17 consistent with APL, the treatment for that type of leukemia,  acute promyelocytic leukemia, is very different than what we do for the majority of other leukemias.  

The prognosis for that leukemia is also very different. It helps to tailor the regimens, and it helps to select specific therapy that may be helpful to each individual patient.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Carraway, you just mentioned FLT3. Would you tell us about the common mutations in AML and how these may impact treatment options?

Dr. Carraway:            

There’s a multitude of mutations that we’re now following in patients. The way that we follow them is by doing this next generation sequencing test at the upfront time at diagnosis.

The reason why we’re doing that is because those mutations can regress with therapy, or they can progress where you gain additional mutations that happen as the disease progresses. Even if it’s responding to therapy or as it loses response to therapy and reemerges, it may reemerge with different mutations. As a result of that, it may change what therapy we select. Our ability at this point in being to recommend exactly at what time points we are checking the next generation sequencing we’re still learning right now as to what are the key times to do that testing.

In general, most institutions are doing that next generation sequencing at the time of diagnosis, and then also for some patients before they go to bone marrow transplant and even after bone marrow transplant.

For some of those patients that unfortunately relapse, we’re also making sure to retest the next generation sequencing mutation testing to see are there new mutations that have come about that weren’t there before?

Katherine:                 

I understand there’s something called IDH. 

Dr. Carraway:            

You were also asking about what other mutations besides FLT3 happen in patients with AML. FLT3 is one such mutation. NPM1 is another mutation that often it frequents patients that have AML. Those two mutations happen in about 30 percent of patients with AML. There are other mutations such as DNMT3A, ASXL1, and TET2 that we typically see in patients with MDS or even a pre-leukemia state called CHIP. For other patients, we have mutations that are targetable like IDH1 or IDH2.

Those two mutations happen in probably 10 percent to 15 percent of patients diagnosed with AML. Why are those important? They’re important because we have oral medications that are pills that patients can take. In the relapse setting for many patients after induction or intensive chemotherapy, they can use these oral therapies to try and control their leukemia. These are pretty exciting. 

All of these oral therapies have been approved in the last two to three years in the space of leukemia, so it’s been a game-changer in terms of identifying these mutations and then identifying drugs that target those mutations. It’s really changed the landscape for patients with AML. It’s new information, and that’s why as patients you want to hear about this so you know what questions to ask and you know, can you tell me, am I a candidate for one of these oral medications that is now available for patients with AML?

Katherine:                  

Dr. Carraway, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Carraway:            

Thank you for the opportunity to be here. 

Katherine:                  

And thank you to our audience. I’m Katherine Banwell.

Navigating AML Treatment Decisions

Navigating AML Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What factors can help determine the best treatment path for your AML? This animated video walks through important considerations that may help in navigating treatment decisions, including how genetic testing results, treatment goals and patient preference can impact your choice.

See More From INSIST! AML

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Transcript:

Hi, I’m Gina. I’m a nurse practitioner and I specialize in acute myeloid leukemia, or AML.

When diagnosed with AML, it’s important to take steps to get a deeper understanding of your disease, and the available treatment options, so that you can feel confident in your care decisions.

Before we walk through the important steps to decide on a treatment path, I want to remind you that this video is intended to help educate AML patients and their loved ones and shouldn’t be a replacement for advice from your doctor.

OK, let’s get started.

The first step is to understand your diagnosis, so that you can find out what treatments are available to you. Unlike solid tumor cancers, such as lung or breast cancer, AML is not staged. Instead, your physician will use lab testing, including blood and bone marrow tests, to determine the subtype of your AML and if you have any chromosomal abnormalities to determine if your AML is low, intermediate or high-risk.

Knowing your risk can impact your prognosis and help establish the best treatment option for you. If you don’t know your subtype, ask your doctor for the information and if you may need further testing to reach a more accurate diagnosis.

Testing that identifies characteristics unique to YOUR AML can impact your treatment options and determine if a targeted therapy or immunotherapy might be more effective. These tests include:

  • Molecular testing
  • Cytogenetic analysis (or karyotyping), and
  • Fluorescence in situ hybridization also known as a FISH test

Before you start any treatment, it’s essential to insist that you have had relevant testing.

Next, you should understand treatment goals. The first goal of AML therapy is to get into remission. The second goal is to maintain that remission.

Induction therapy, or the first phase of treatment, is meant to induce remission. This first-line treatment kills as much of the disease as possible and returns blood counts back to normal.

Consolidation treatment, also referred to as post-remission therapy, is used to prevent leukemia cells from returning and maintain remission. In some patients, stem cell transplant acts as a consolidation therapy. In others, additional treatment options to maintain remission can be explored.

The next step is to consider your treatment options with your doctor. It’s important to understand the approaches available for YOUR individual disease. AML treatments can include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Stem cell transplant
  • Immunotherapy
  • Clinical trials, which may provide access to treatments that are not yet approved.

Or, you may receive a combination of one or more of these treatments.

Once you understand the therapies that are available to you, it’s time to talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of each option. Your doctor will also consider your age, overall health, and existing conditions before suggesting a treatment course.

So, what questions should you address when discussing your treatment goals with your doctor? Consider asking:

  • Is stem cell transplant a viable option for you?
  • Can you tolerate high-intensity therapy or is low-intensity therapy better for you?
  • How will the treatment impact your quality of life and lifestyle?
  • Are there short or long-term treatment side effects that may occur after you have completed treatment?
  • What is the plan if the first approach to treatment isn’t effective?
  • Is there a clinical trial that might be right for you?
  • Is there a member of the team, such as a social worker, that can help you understand the potential treatment costs? And is there access to financial resources that can help you if needed?

Remember that you have a role in making decisions regarding your care. Insist that all of your questions are answered when making a decision with your healthcare team. If you don’t feel supported or you don’t feel heard by your healthcare team, then it is always best to seek a second opinion.

Finally, once you have gathered all the information, it may be helpful to talk it out with people you trust, such as a partner, friend or family member, to help you make a decision that you feel confident about.

Now, how can you put this information to work for you?

  • Ensure that you have an accurate understanding of your diagnosis.
  • Make sure you have had appropriate testing to establish your subtype and risk.
  • Understand your treatment options and talk with your doctor about what’s best for YOUR AML.
  • Remember, you are a partner in your care and have an active voice in finding the best treatment for you.

Visit powerfulpatients.org/aml to learn more about AML.

Confusing CLL Terms Defined

Confusing CLL Terms Defined from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is FISH testing? What is IGHV? Physician assistant Danielle Roberts explains the meaning of these often confusing terms and their role in disease monitoring and CLL treatment decisions.

Danielle Roberts is a physician assistant with the Bone Marrow Stem Cell Transplant (BMT) team at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. Learn more here.

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Transcript:

Danielle Roberts:    

So, a FISH test is a test from your either blood in your bloodstream or from your bone marrow biopsy. And it stands for florescence in situ hybridization. And this is a highly specific test that looks at the chromosomal changes with CLL. This can be done in the peripheral blood or in the bone marrow.

And it’s important to remember that when we consider genetic testing and CLL, we aren’t talking about inherited genes, but the abnormalities that occur within the CLL itself.

So, an IGHV test is a mutational test that stands for the immunoglobulin heavy-chain variable gene locus. This can also be done in the peripheral blood and the bone marrow biopsy. This test can help us determine treatment options as well as help with determining what high-risk features there are for your particular disease.

So, 17p deletion is the deletion of the long arm of chromosome 17. This can be seen at initial diagnosis or it can be acquired later on in disease progression. So, for all patients this is one of the more important tests that if you’re going to ask your doctor if you’ve had, you should ask at a diagnosis. If you’ve relapsed later on, you should ask again if that mutational status is being observed or checked in your follow-up testing.

17p deletion is something that can be acquired along the course of your disease progression. It is not always seen at initial diagnosis but can be acquired if you are relapsed or refractory. Therefore I recommend that every time you’re having peripheral blood for flow or if you’re having bone marrow biopsies, especially if it’s for treatment planning purposes, you should advocate to your physician team to make sure that this test is being performed as it will drive – or as it can drive treatment decision-making.

Practical Advice for Coping with a CLL Diagnosis: What’s Next?

Practical Advice for Coping with a CLL Diagnosis: What’s Next? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

After receiving a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), patients can have a variety of concerns. Physician assistant Danielle Roberts shares her top three pieces of practical advice for patients to move forward. 

Danielle Roberts is a physician assistant with the Bone Marrow Stem Cell Transplant (BMT) team at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. Learn more here.

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Transcript:

Danielle Roberts:       

My recommendations if I could have three things that I would recommend all patients with CLL do, 1.) It would be to have your financial information kind of in line or know how to find that. Unfortunately, a lot of the medications that we use to treat disease are incredibly expensive. However, there are really good patient assistance programs out there. In order to be able to apply for patient assistance programs you do have to submit your financial information to them. So, I would really suggest that you have access or be able to know where to find that.

I would also really recommend you talk to your family members in so that they understand what’s – where you are with your treatment and what’s going on. As a physician’s assistant, one of the questions I generally get is when they bring in a family member or somebody who has not been along in their journey for their treatment, if they’re asking lots of questions, that was and kind of diagnosis. So, I encourage people to talk about that at the beginning, so everybody understands where they are and what the plan for the future is going to be.

And then the last thing that I always recommend to everybody is to understand that not one treatment is right for everybody. Understand that things are going to change and we’re all going to grow and we’re going to learn with the process. But if you don’t tell your healthcare team what’s going on, we can’t help you. And we say that there is no such thing as a bad question to us. You’re never bothering us. That’s what we’re here for. Rather you tell us, even if it may be something you feel is minor, ahead of time so that we can address it and work towards a solution, if there needs to be one.

How Will I Know if My AML Treatment is Working?

How Will I Know if My AML Treatment is Working? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

During acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment, specific tests help to gauge a patient’s treatment response. Dr. Pinkal Desai details how diagnostic tests are used in monitoring the efficacy of an AML therapy

Dr. Pinkal Desai is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and a hematologist specializing in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Desai, here.

Download Program Resource Guide

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What Is the Patient’s Role in Making AML Treatment Decisions?

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Once a patient has started treatment, how do you know if it’s working? How do you gauge that?

Dr. Desai:                   

When a patient begins treatment, whatever their regimen is, for the most part, it takes about a month to get into remission. So, initially, with any treatment we would use, the blood counts will actually go down. Everything is down, down, down. That’s important, and it’s good, actually, because if we can’t wipe out these cells, then we’re not going to. The patient’s not going to go into remission. It’s good that these blood counts drop and they keep like that for a month.

After a month, generally, is the first look on an average to see where it is, and that kind of depends on the regimen. For intensive chemotherapy, we take a look in the middle, like Day 14, to see did we wipe out all the leukemia? And can we modify treatment so that whatever might be left behind will clean out? For lower intensity treatments, it’s about a month. So, that’s the first sort of real look at whether a patient is in remission.

And again, when I say, remission is a morphologic criteria that we see the blast count are less than 5 percent, and the cells are – the normal cells are back to what is considered within normal limits or normal for that person’s age. And the idea, at that time, is to not only just confirm remission, but like I was saying, how good is the remission.

So, that’s where MRD testing comes into play. You want to see what you want to find, even if it’s by small numbers, what is the percentage of leukemia that’s left behind. 0.01 percent, 0.001 percent. This is important.

The goal is to ultimately get that down to zero, and that’s how we use it during induction, even when they’re going through consolidation, we’re episodically monitoring with bone marrow or blood testing for some of these molecular mutations that is there continued response from where we started off? And once the treatment is done, we are still, we’re seeing these patients on a regular basis, sometimes doing bone marrow biopsies at regular intervals, to again make sure that there is continued response. And can we see something different, or is there an emerging population of cells that are worrisome, and how do we modify our treatments to try to kill these cells?

What Could Emerging AML Treatment Approaches Mean for You?

What Could Emerging AML Treatment Approaches Mean for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

In the changing landscape of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) research, how could emerging treatments impact care for patients? Dr. Pinkal Desai shares information about combination therapies, immunotherapy, and clinical trials, and explains the value of MRD in tracking AML response.

Dr. Pinkal Desai is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and a hematologist specializing in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Desai, here.

Download Program Resource Guide

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Are there emerging approaches for treating AML that patients should know about?

Dr. Desai:                   

So, there are several, and this is where there’s lots of lots of new drugs that have been approved. A lot of drugs in the pipeline. And within the categories, you can divide up where the advances are being made in several categories. So, the first one is, can you make a better induction regimen? So, how can you combine chemotherapy or hypomethylating agent plus venetoclax combination?

Can you add more targeted agents to these bad points to improve the chances of remission and to keep the patients in remission? So, that’s one aspect of it, that this is important.

There’s obviously this whole concept of immunotherapy of AML, where there’s a lot of antibodies treatment or drugs that affect the immune modulation that are being used both in up-front leukemia, in many times in the older patients, itself. There are clinical trials, obviously.

And also, in the relapse setting, there are CAR-T cells being used in leukemia therapy in the relapse setting. This is important, and a lot of new drugs are being used in the relapse setting. So, there’s this whole new sort of portfolio of clinical trials and treatment options for patients.

And the third aspect, which is, I would say, very important and as important as using better drugs, is to be able to quantify how the patients are responding to these treatments. Because we don’t want to start treatment, and then be blind about the kind of responses they’re getting.

There’s a whole new concept, what we call MRD measurements, or minimal residual disease, or measurable residual disease, MRD monitoring. That’s very important. So, when a patient starts with chemotherapy, and then you have subsequent bone marrows, even if they’re in remission, the quality of remission matters. The amount of MRD or amount of leukemia that’s left behind matters. And how do we direct our treatments to clean up that MRD? And how do we monitor this MRD, so that we can see what happens in the future? Many times, MRD can tell us that a patient’s going to relapse six months later. And how do we use that information?

So, these are very important aspects of monitoring of treatment that is important, and to measure MRD, not just by looking at the cells themselves, but using the patient’s own signature of molecular mutations that we found at baseline at the time of diagnosis. And how do we keep an eye on that?

This is another new world and new ways to figure out how best to use new drugs, maintenance approaches, better consolidation approaches, and how do we use MRD to mix all of these together to get the best possible outcome for these patients.

I think we’ve seen tremendous progress in leukemia, just over the last five years. We went from pretty much having two drugs to treat leukemia, chemotherapy, 7 and 3, and some hypomethylating agents, to a flurry of 15 new approvals. We now have targeted therapies. We have new clinical trials. I’m very hopeful that the combination of all of the things that we’re talking about, how to monitor patients, how to best utilize stem cell transplants. We’re entering a new age in leukemia, and I’m hopeful that with the advent of all of these drugs and what we know about leukemia, we can actually have a very good shot now to improve cure rates in leukemia.

AML Treatment Approaches: What You Should Know About Your Options

AML Treatment Approaches: What You Should Know About Your Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What should acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients and care partners know about treatment options? Dr. Pinkal Desai shares information about frontline treatments, targeted therapies, combination therapies, and clinical trials, and explains an important clarification regarding a newly approved oral hypomethylating agent.

Dr. Pinkal Desai is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and a hematologist specializing in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Desai, here.

Download Program Resource Guide

See More From The Pro-Active AML Patient Toolki

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

So, in looking at a treatment plan, we’ve discussed the factors that go into that choice. And then, you’ve also just covered some treatment approaches and who they might be right for. So, you’ve talked about chemotherapy. You’ve talked about stem cell transplant. What about targeted therapies and also clinical trials? Where do they fit in?

Dr. Desai:                   

Right now, if somebody’s diagnosed with new AML or newly diagnosed leukemia, and they are eligible for intensive chemotherapy of the approved agents, the one targeted therapy that does make a difference is midostaurin, which is a FLT3 inhibitor.

And patients who do have a FLT3 mutated leukemia, the standard of care is treatment with intensive chemotherapy in combination with midostaurin. So, this is where chemotherapy’s combined with the backbone of the targeted therapy.

There are clinical trials of other targeted therapies that are being combined with frontline treatment. That frontline treatment might be intensive chemotherapy or more of the hypomethylating-based therapy, which is what we call lower intensity therapy. So, these are where the clinical trials are asking the question that can be just how midostaurin was combined with chemotherapy.

Can we combine other targeted therapies with the backbones that currently exist? Chemotherapy or lower intensity hypomethylating agents. And can we combine them to improve the chances of going into remission and staying in remission?

I would say clinical trials are extremely important. Almost any stage of leukemia, whether it’s a new diagnosis, whether it’s second-line or relapse, it’s important, because these questions that are being asked are very relevant. How do we improve upon the existing known remission rates and survival in leukemia?

There are targeted therapies available for IDH inhibitors that are being combined. There is also a newly approved BCL2 inhibitor, venetoclax, which is used in combination with hypomethylating agents, that have shown survival advantage over single agent.

Hypomethylating agents, anybody who’s older, we are now combining the venetoclax with hypomethylating agents for what we call lower intensity induction treatment. And there are several others in the making. We have TP53 inhibitors.

As we talked about this, that leukemia is not one diagnosis, really. AML has several, several, several subtypes, and once we find out what makes that particular patient’s leukemia tick, and if you have a targeted inhibitor towards it, it’s logical that you would want to combine it with what the backbone of treatment is, and that’s where clinical trials are extremely important in asking most relevant questions and improving patient survival. 

Katherine:

Dr. Desai, I learned that oral azacitidine was recently FDA approved. What does that approval mean for patients and who is it right for?

Dr. Desai:                   

So, oral… So, azacitidine. For patients who may or may not know this, azacitidine has been approved in the IV or subcutaneous formulation for treatment of myelodysplastic syndrome and leukemia.

And this is, when I was saying that there is a lower intensity treatment of hypomethylating agents, that’s one of the drugs, azacitidine. And we use it for induction treatment in patients who do not qualify for intensive chemotherapy in AML.

So, oral azacitidine has been currently approved for older patients who have gone through intensive chemotherapy.

The trial was done in patients who did not have prior hypomethylating exposure of any kind, so people who had not seen any IV or subcutaneous azacitidine, they had leukemia, they get the intensive chemotherapy, finish the induction part, and the, what we call, consolidation part, which is the cleaning up with more additional cycles of chemotherapy.

Once that is done, the old standard of care was to not do anything, so these are obviously for patients who are not transplanted. So, once somebody, just to give a background on this, if somebody’s in remission and they’re transplant eligible, we make a decision whether they should go for transplant or they should get some more chemotherapy rounds. Both are consolidation of some kind, transplant or chemotherapy.

So, let’s say somebody went through induction, got into remission, and it was decided that they’re not candidates for transplant, or the patient didn’t want to go through a transplant, and you go for the consolidation. And the old standard was, after that, to do nothing. And oral azacitidine was tested in this situation, where half the patients got oral azacitidine as maintenance. It was given as pills, to take it for two weeks out of a 28-day cycle.

So, every month, you take it for 14 days. And half of them didn’t get the drug, oral azacitidine. And the drug was recently approved for FDA for having a survival advantage over the standard of care, which is to do nothing after consolidation is over.

So, in other words, this is currently available for patients, older patients, who’ve gone through induction chemotherapy, and/or consolidation, and then finished it. Then, you start this oral azacitidine for keeping this remission going on longer. And that’s where the niche of this drug is.

It is very, very important to understand that oral azacitidine has a very different kinetic in the body than IV azacitidine. So, I think people, many times, get confused between is IV the same as oral? They are totally different drugs and have a different way it affects the bone marrow.

So, they’re not to be interchanged for that indication. Oral azacitidine has been strictly approved for maintenance of remission, post-chemotherapy.

What Is the Patient’s Role in Making AML Treatment Decisions?

What Is the Patient’s Role in Making AML Treatment Decisions? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What role do acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients have in their treatment decisions? Dr. Pinkal Desai explains factors that go into decision-making and how patients may help guide the treatment option that’s best for them.

Dr. Pinkal Desai is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and a hematologist specializing in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Desai, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

What is the patient’s role in this decision?

Dr. Desai:                   

I think it’s important for patients to understand why the decisions are being made or what goes into the decision-making. Because the patients would appreciate, if they know, that these are the genetic subtypes, and this would be the best sort of approach for them.

So, from a patient’s side, their role is, 1) to understand all the factors that go into the decision-making. And the second aspect, which is important, is their own values and their own decision on what treatment they would like to have. 

So, there are – sometimes, it’s very white and black. There are many times where it’s a gray zone, in the sense that there is a best treatment that’s available, that the oncologist would discuss, but it’s also possible to choose between two different kinds of therapy options.

If the patient is eligible, for example, for both intensive and non-intensive treatment, then what would they prefer based on what’s going on in their life? Whether they want to be hospitalized for 30 days for intensive induction or not? Do they want to do this out-patient? A lot of these things are important, and they have to be involved with this.

The third aspect, which is very important from a patient standpoint, is the need for transplant. So, patients who are younger and transplant eligible for leukemia that has a higher risk of coming back, we do recommend a stem cell transplant, so that the patients have to understand the process of stem cell transplant.

Sometimes, it’s slam dunk that a transplant is needed, but there are certain times where you could or could not go for it, and this is where the patient’s choices and values are extremely important, that once they hear all of this information, they would decide whether they should or should not go for stem cell transplant.

Choosing an AML Treatment Path: What Should You Consider?

Choosing an AML Treatment Path: What Should You Consider? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What should be considered when choosing an acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment path? Dr. Pinkal Desai explains the factors that are considered to determine the best treatment for an individual patient.

Dr. Pinkal Desai is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and a hematologist specializing in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Desai, here.

Download Program Resource Guide

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Transcript:

Dr. Desai: 

Now, in terms of how we decide treatment, so, there is the leukemia aspect of it, of the biologic indicators of leukemia, and there’s obviously the patient. Because everybody is different. There are patients who are coming in at various ages, like you said. Age is a very important thing to look at, because if you’re younger, the patient’s younger, then they’re usually eligible for what we call intensive chemotherapy. And if the patient is older, they may not be able to handle intensive chemotherapy, and in which case, the induction treatment or the first treatment, we call induction treatment, is basically the treatment we give to get you into remission.

So, the induction treatment decision is based largely from a patient aspect on age.

Whether to go with intensive induction chemotherapy, or with lower intensive chemotherapy, depending on the person’s age.

Now, age is… There is a loose definition of what is considered older age, but we generally say over 75, patients cannot handle intensive chemotherapy. Under 75, under 70 for sure, they’re eligible for intensive chemotherapy, but it’s a biological continuum. So, there are patients who are much healthier, even at older ages, and much older at younger ages. So, we take into consideration not just the age, but also what else do they suffer from? Do they have other comorbidities? Is the heart okay? Do they have kidney damage? Do they have lung damage from previous comorbid illness? And that all goes into figuring out what kind of treatments can they handle.

And that’s the patient aspect of it. Then there’s the biologic aspect of the leukemia itself. Leukemia, the chromosome type. There are leukemias that respond extremely well to intensive chemotherapy. So, you’d figure that kind of treatment for it. Within the molecular subclassification, as we said, there are mutations in certain genes, like FLT3 and IDH. There are targeted treatments towards that, so we look at all of these genes to figure out what is the best mix of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, lower intensity therapy, to look at and combine so that we can have the best chance of being in remission, and to continue to be in remission.

What Are the Goals of AML Treatment?

What Are the Goals of AML Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When it comes to acute myeloid leukemia (AML), what are the goals of treatment? Dr. Pinkal Desai defines the role of remission and the specific goals of treatment for AML patients. 

Dr. Pinkal Desai is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and a hematologist specializing in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Desai, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:      

Dr. Desai, when deciding on a treatment approach with a patient, I imagine you have to consider a number of factors, like a patient’s age and their overall health. Let’s walk through these considerations, and we’ll start with treatment goals. What does that mean, exactly?

Dr. Desai:                   

So, the first treatment goal is to get into remission. Patients with leukemia will have abnormal blood counts, they don’t feel well, they have a risk of infection, and all of that is only going to get better if you can get into remission.

And remission means that the bone marrow has a blast count less than 5 percent. Now, remember, we talked about if it was over 20, it’s considered diagnosis of AML. So, we want it gone under 5 percent, preferably zero. And we want all the blood counts that are abnormal to normalize back to what it would be for a normal person.

So, that’s the sort of definition of remission, and we want to get there, because ultimately, patients feel extremely good once they go into remission. They feel fine. The risk of infection goes away. It is absolutely important for long-term quality of life and survival. The first goal is to get into remission.

The second goal is to keep that remission going, for as long as possible, and also increase the chances of cure.

So, going into remission does not mean that a patient is cured of leukemia. It means that we’ve taken the first step of knocking the leukemia down to its knees, but there are still a few cells that are hanging out, and they’re still hiding. And the rest of the treatment and approach is to try to kill these cells and improve the chances of cure. So, and generally we say, once you get into remission you stay in remission, and when you’re past that five-year mark, we say leukemia is cured.

So, the first goal is get into remission. Second, keep yourself in remission, and that’s the whole sort of few things that we look at.

Understanding Risk in AML: How Molecular Testing Affects Treatment Options

Understanding Risk in AML: How Molecular Testing Affects Treatment Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How does molecular testing impact acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment options? Dr. Pinkal Desai discusses molecular testing and how results may help determine the best treatment path for patients.

Dr. Pinkal Desai is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and a hematologist specializing in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Desai, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:      

Dr. Desai, is there a high-risk and a low-risk AML? And if so, what are the indicators?

Dr. Desai:                   

So, in terms of when we talk about risk of leukemia, many patients, when they come, they frequently ask what stage this is, which is generally not how leukemia is categorized, unlike lung cancer, or breast cancer, or any of the solid tumors. Leukemia is in your blood and in your bone marrow, so it’s kind of like all or none to some extent. When we talk about risk in leukemia, we’re talking about what is the chance of this leukemia coming back in the future. So, is the chance high, intermediate, or low?

And that’s how we categorize leukemia, into these three sort of risk categories, low risk, intermediate risk, and high risk. These risk categories are made up.

We decide these based on information from two aspects. One is the chromosomes, which we talked about. There are certain good risks of chromosomal abnormalities as well, where, for example, poor binding factor leukemias, where these leukemias tend to respond very well to chemotherapy. There are some higher risk, that the chances are higher to come back. And then, the middle category of intermediate risk, where it’s sort of in the middle.

The molecular subtype, or the molecular classification of AML is extremely, extremely relevant, because it gives you pretty much your own signature, and the patient sort of specific, personalized risk of whether this is going to have a high, intermediate, or a low risk to come back.

So, it’s a combination of chromosomes, and the molecular subtype, which is extremely important in figuring out the risk category.

Now, in the course of the treatment and decision-making of leukemia, we don’t have – we’ll have the chromosome information quite early, usually within the first two to three days, but the molecular information, some of it comes back pretty fast, like in a couple days from the testing. But many of these tests, the full panel comes back about 14 days after we do the original bone marrow biopsy. Some of these decisions on whether this is high risk or low risk is relevant in the long run. These decisions happen later, and you don’t have to wait for the treatment, obviously. This is more for what happens after a patient goes into remission.

But there are certain molecular genes that are very important in deciding treatment up front, and those we expedite, and they are back usually before treatment decision is made. For example, FLT3 ITD or FLT3 TKB.

These are two genes where the up-front treatment decision changes, depending on the presence or absence of this gene. So, you really, really do want to know this information early on.

Chromosomes you absolutely need it before treatment begins, because there are several options of leukemia treatment that are specific to certain chromosome subtypes. So, that’s like the basic information you need to have before making any treatment plans.

Key AML Testing for Better Care: Understanding Prognosis and Treatment Choices

Key AML Testing for Better Care: Understanding Prognosis and Treatment Choices from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

After an acute myeloid leukemia (AML) diagnosis, additional tests must follow to determine prognosis and treatment options. Dr. Pinkal Desai explains key tests that aid in choosing optimal care for each patient. 

Dr. Pinkal Desai is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and a hematologist specializing in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Desai, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:      

Other than a complete blood count, what additional testing should take place following an AML diagnosis?

Dr. Desai:                

So, a blood count or CBC is just a hint that there might be AML. It’s certainly not diagnostic.

But when you see that there are some abnormalities in blood count, and there might be the presence of these immature cells or blasts in circulation, there is suspicion that this is acute myeloid leukemia. The diagnosis, the gold standard for diagnosis, is a bone marrow biopsy, which is a procedure that can be done out-patient or in the hospital, depending on where the patient is. It takes about 15 minutes, where we take a sample out of the hip bone and look at the cells. This is where bone marrow is being made, so you’re going to exactly where the problem lies, and seeing if the blast count is increased.

So, the diagnosis of AML is established when the blast count is over 20 percent in the bone marrows. And normally, it needs to be less than 5 percent.

And if it’s over 20 percent, that’s the diagnosis of AML. Whether it’s over 20 percent in the bone marrow or in the peripheral blood.

It doesn’t matter, one way or the other. This is a diagnosis of AML, but you do need a bone marrow biopsy to confirm diagnosis of AML.

Katherine:                  

What about genetic or molecular testing? Is that done?

Dr. Desai:                   

AML diagnosis is just one part or the first step of saying somebody has leukemia. There is a slew of other tests that are important, and we generally consider, within the genetic tests, we generally consider two kinds of testing. One is the cytogenetics, or the karyotype analysis, which looks at the chromosomes in our bodies.

So, leukemia can be associated with big chromosomal changes, and that’s important to recognize. And the second one is the molecular testing, and we’ll go over both of them.

The chromosomes, or the karyotypic analysis, the vast majority of leukemia patients have a normal chromosome type, but there are certain recurrent abnormalities in chromosomes that we see in leukemia, and that’s important to know for a variety of reasons: treatment decisions, prognostication.

And the second part of it, the molecular, these are actually genetic routine analysis, and this is not somebody – it doesn’t mean, when we say genetic testing, it’s not the patient’s own normal genetic type. So, we’re not looking for what they have inherited. Most of leukemia is actually a random event, and it’s not inherited. We’re talking about genetic damage that the leukemia cells have within themselves.

It gives us the signature of the leukemia, and it helps us understand what genetic abnormalities are present in the leukemia. There are several panels, 50 to 100 genes, but there’s usually recurrent genetic damage that leukemia cells have.

And you want to know that, because again, like karyotype, this is important in treatment decisions, and also in the prognostication and prediction in the future.