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What Should You Know About CLL Genetic Testing?

What Should You Know About CLL Genetic Testing? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) diagnosis and disease management, genetic testing plays a key role. Dr. Jennifer Woyach explains what is examined in CLL genetic testing, the timing and administration of testing, and testing advances.

Dr. Jennifer Woyach is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Institute. Find out more about this expert here. 

See More From INSIST! CLL


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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Before we get deeper into our conversation about genetics, there are a few terms that patients are often confused by. As a primer, I thought we could start by defining some of these terms. First, what is genetic or molecular testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, all cancer cells will have a collection of mutations or abnormalities in the DNA that either make the cell a cancer cell or make it behave in a certain way. And so, these mutations are referred to as the genetic abnormalities of the CLL cells. So, when we talk about genetic testing in CLL, we use it to mean a number of things. We can use it to look specifically for types of mutations so types of genetic abnormalities.

 We also sometimes use that as a kind of catch-all term like genetic or molecular testing also to refer to looking at changes in the chromosomes inside of a CLL cell. That’s also called cytogenetic testing. And then, we also use a number of tests in CLL where we look at specific, not necessarily abnormalities, but just changes in the cell that can indicate a certain type of behavior.

Katherine:                

How is this different from genomic testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, genetic and genomic testing, I think, are usually used interchangeably. But sometimes, we use them in different contexts but they really mean the same thing in this case.

Katherine:                  

Okay. And what is a chromosome change?

Dr. Woyach:              

So, as you might remember from biology class maybe a long time ago, as it was for me, inside a cell, so a normal cell or a cancer cell, you have the nucleus, which holds the DNA.

And the DNA is organized into chromosomes. And so, when a cell goes through division, it takes those chromosomes, copies them and then, breaks them apart into two different cells. So, changes can happen in the level of the DNA itself. So, a mutation where one base is changed to something different. So, that would be just like a single nucleotide change. And that’s something you’re not going to see as a change to a chromosome. Another thing that can happen in CLL and in other cancers, too, is that during that process of cell division, an entire chromosome could be duplicated. It could be absent.

More commonly, parts of chromosomes can change. This is all because cancer cells just do a very poor job of editing their division.

An in normal cells, there are multiple steps along the way from the process of copying the genes to copying the chromosomes to doing the division. And every step along the way, if something happens incorrectly, which happens a lot, the cell usually just dies. But a cancer cell is not going to do that because it has so many signals that keep telling it to stay alive that it can tolerate a lot of different abnormalities. And so, you end up with cells that are just very different from what you would see normally.

Katherine:                  

All right. Well, that’s a great way for us to start. Let’s go into the discussion of the relationship between testing and CLL. How is testing administered?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, almost all testing, in terms of molecular genomic testing in CLL, can be done on a blood sample. So, that’s one important thing.

The CLL guidelines recommend that testing for certain prognostic factors be done before the administration of therapy. So, at the very least, before somebody starts treatment, they should have these tests performed. In my practice and I think most CLL specialists find it really helpful to do these tests, not necessarily just at the time of treatment but really at the time of diagnosis or the time we first see the patient because CLL is a very heterogenous disease, which means that it behaves very differently in different people. So, there are some people that are diagnosed and will go 10 or 20 years before they need any treatment.

And many don’t need treatment at all. Whereas other people are very likely to need treatment within the first few years after diagnosis. Some of the genetic tests that we do can help counsel patients on where they’re likely to fall in that spectrum.

And so, I think that’s helpful for people to know early on in the disease course. But really, the tests can be performed at any time before treatment

Katherine:              

Have there been advances in testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

Absolutely. I think in every cancer, we’ve learned so much more about the biology of the disease, specific mutations that cause specific behaviors of cells, and really much more in CLL about the common genetic changes and what those means to response to therapy.

What Is CLL and How Is It Diagnosed?

What Is CLL and How Is It Diagnosed? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What exactly is chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and what factors help determine a diagnosis? Dr. Jennifer Woyach explains how CLL originates and transforms, the tests involved in diagnosis, and shares a common misconception about CLL.

Dr. Jennifer Woyach is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Institute. Find out more about this expert here. 

See More From INSIST! CLL


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What Should You Know About CLL Genetic Testing?

What Tests Should CLL Patients Insist They Receive?

What Does It Mean to Have High-Risk CLL?

 

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Well, Dr. Woyach, let’s start by understanding CLL. Would you briefly walk us through what CLL actually is?

Dr. Woyach:               

Sure. CLL is a cancer of the blood, the lymph nodes, and the bone marrow.

And it happens when a particular type of white blood cell called a B lymphocyte acquires genetic mutations and transforms into a cancer cell. And then, over time, those cancer cells continue to grow and divide. And they can cause symptoms such as enlarged lymph nodes if the cells get stuck in the lymph nodes and continue to grow there. It can cause a high white blood cell count, which usually doesn’t cause any symptoms but is one of the things that we see often in CLL. And then, it can also cause the bone marrow to not be able to produce normal cells because it can get so infiltrated or so full of CLL cells.

And this can cause things like anemia, which is lowering of the red blood cell count and thrombocytopenia, which is lowering of your platelet count.

Katherine:                  

What are the steps involved in reaching a diagnosis?

Dr. Woyach:               

CLL is an interesting disease because it’s one of the only cancers that does not require a biopsy of something for a diagnosis.

So, we can, actually, make the diagnosis of CLL based on the peripheral blood. So, just a blood draw in somebody’s doctor’s office. Usually, CLL is diagnosed in the asymptomatic stage. So, somebody goes to their primary care doctor, has blood drawn usually for another reason, and is found to have a high white blood cell count or sometimes even a fairly normal white blood cell count but a high percentage of lymphocytes. That certain type of cancerous white blood cell. So, the next step in the diagnosis then is something called peripheral blood flow cytometry, which is a specialized test where we look at the markers or antigens on the surface of white blood cells.

So, there is kind of a code of these markers on the surface of all of your blood cells that can tell what type of cells they are. So, for CLL in particular, we’ll see that the cells express some of the normal markers we would see on a normal B lymphocyte.

Things like CD19, CD20, CD23. But they also express a marker called CD5, which is found on normal T lymphocytes but shouldn’t be found on B lymphocytes.

And so, this collection of surface markers can make the diagnosis of CLL. Sometimes, we do need to do extra studies like a bone marrow biopsy or a lymph node biopsy. But often times, those are not necessary at the time of diagnosis.

Katherine:                  

When you meet with patients, Dr. Woyach, what are some common misconceptions that you hear about?

Dr. Woyach:               

I think the biggest thing that I hear, and granted I see a lot of patients after they’ve been diagnosed by someone, gone to see an oncologist and then, come to me after, but one of the common things that I hear is that somebody has told them along the way that they have the good type of cancer, which I think is not a very helpful thing to hear as a patient because, of course, no cancer is a good type of cancer.

I think it’s important to note that CLL is one that has a lot of treatment options and usually extended survival. But I think that’s one of the most common misconceptions that I hear.

How Can You Advocate for the Best Breast Cancer Care?

How Can You Advocate for the Best Breast Cancer Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Breast cancer expert Dr. Julie Gralow explains how you can advocate for the best metastatic breast cancer care, through speaking up, utilizing care team members and taking key steps to achieving better care.

Dr. Julie Gralow is the Jill Bennett Endowed Professor of Breast Medical Oncology at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. More about this expert here.

See More From INSIST! Metastatic Breast Cancer


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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

For patients who may be hesitant to speak out for themselves and advocate for their own care and treatment, what advice do you have?

Dr. Gralow:                

You have a whole team who’s behind you, and I’m the MD on the team, but I’ve got a nurse practitioner, and a nurse, and a scheduler, and a social worker, and a nutritionist, and a physical therapy team, and financial counselors. I’ve got a whole team who works with me. And so, a patient might be hesitant to speak up during the actual appointment with their physician. It’s a short amount of time. I would recommend come into it with written-down questions because things go fast. You don’t get a lot of time with your doctor.

Things go fast, but don’t come in with 25 questions, either. Pick your top few that you want to get taken care of this visit because if you come in with 25 or 30, you’re going to lose the answers to most of them. Maybe bring somebody with you who’s an advocate and a listener for you who could be taking notes, so you can process and you don’t have to write it down, or ask if you can record it. It’s really important if you’re newly diagnosed or maybe there’s a progression and you’re going on a new treatment. That’s okay too.

But, I would also say you have a whole team behind you, so sometimes, if you don’t have time or if you’re hesitant to speak up in your doctor’s visit, you can ask the nurse, or maybe you can ask the social worker for help, even. See if there’s support groups around.

Interestingly, we’ve got a peer-to-peer network where patients can request to talk to somebody else who’s matched to them by some tumor features, and their stage, and things like that. Maybe finding somebody else who’s gone through something similar, and somebody independent to talk to instead of relying on your family.

It can also be really helpful to talk to a therapist or a psychologist about your fears, and sometimes, you want to be strong for your family, strong for your children and all, but you need a safe space with somebody that you can just express your fears and your anger if that’s what’s going on, or your depression or anxiety to while you’re trying to hold a strong face for others in your family. So, I would encourage patients to look at who is the whole team and talk to the other members of the team as well, and sometimes, they can help advocate.

Also, find somebody who might be able to come to your appointments with you, somebody who will help you advocate or remind you – “Didn’t you want to ask this question?” – or be another set of ears that you can process it with afterwards.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Gralow, we’ve covered a lot of useful information today for patients. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Gralow:                 

Thank you, Katherine.

Katherine:                  

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

CLL Clinical Trials Explained

CLL Clinical Trials Explained from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What are the phases of clinical trials in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and what happens during each phase? Expert Dr. Anthony Mato explains the phases, criteria for trial selection, and addresses patient fears.

Dr. Anthony Mato is Director of the CLL Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more here.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


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An Expert’s View on Promising CLL Approaches

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

For people who don’t understand how treatment approvals work, which would you give us an overview of the stages of clinical trials?

Dr. Mato:                   

Sure. I’m very involved in clinical trials at my center. There are different phases of clinical trials. And so, the way that I think about them would be – let’s focus on Phase I through III, because those are probably the most relevant ones for patients. The purpose of a Phase I trial is really to define the dose of the drug and confirm that it’s safe or not. We get very, very preliminary data about activity of the drug, but the major question that’s being asked is, “Is this drug safe?”

Phase II is – and I should also add that Phase I trials are relatively small. So, it’s a small number of patients where we’re trying to find the right dose. By the time we get to Phase II, we know the drug is likely safe. We have a lot of information about its side effect profile. We might have a hint that it’s active. And so, the purpose of a Phase II trial is to expand the size of the trial, have more patients recruited, get more information about safety but then get more information about activity.

Of course, there’s no comparator generally in a Phase II trial. So, it’s not like I’m asking this drug versus another drug. And the end of a Phase II trial, we know the drug is active, we know it’s safe. And if it appears to be active, we’re feeling confident that it may be better than a standard of care which leads to Phase III where the drug is compared directly in oftentimes what we call a randomized study to a standard of care.

So, the trial that I mentioned earlier, FCR versus FC would be a great example of a randomized, controlled trial where a new therapy would, in that case, the FCR, was compared to the old therapy, the FC.

In the more modern era, there have been several trials. I example I might mention is the RESONATE trial where ibrutinib was compared head-to-head to an antibody called ofatumumab. Patients who were enrolled were either randomized by a coin flip through a computer to one arm or the other. And then those arms are compared directly to help define a standard of care.

So, that’s kind of the basics of clinical trials, and at our center and many centers around the country, we participate in Phase I, II, and III trials trying to ask different questions that are important to our patients.

Katherine:                  

Well, speaking of patients, they’re very often fearful of participating in a clinical trial. What do you say to them to make them feel more comfortable with the idea?

Dr. Mato:                   

I mean, I think the most important thing to highlight is all of the standards of care that we’re using today, ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, idelalisib (Zydelig), duvelisib (Copiktra), venetoclax (Venclexta), these were all just drugs a few years ago that were studied in the context of clinical trials.

And so, our current standards of care are very new on the scene from clinical research. It’s very important to have a conversation with your doctor about the intent of a particular clinical trial. I think most patients are fearful of placebos or blinding where they don’t know what they’re getting, or it’s possible that they’re not getting any treatment at all.

In oncology and particularly CLL, the chances of a clinical trial having a placebo or blinding are very low. We very rarely ever participate in such studies. And so, that should provide reassurance to the patient that they know what they’re getting, they know they’re dose, their oncologist knows what they’re getting, and oftentimes, many clinical trials have mechanisms called crossover built into them. Meaning, that if you’re getting A versus B, and you get B, and it doesn’t work, you often have opportunity to cross over to A.

Clinical trials in CLL are the reason why there’s been so much innovation over the last several years, the reason why we can talk about six and seven approvals of drugs within half a decade.

And many of the drugs that we have at our centers will likely become standard of care in the near future. So, it gives us access to important drugs a little bit in advance of when they might be available for patients through FDA approval. So, it a lot of hope; it’s a lot of innovation. And the major message I would say to patients is don’t think of a clinical trial is for when all options have run out, but oftentimes there are great trial options that are aiming to improve the current standard of care in the frontline and also the relapsed/refractory settings.

Katherine:                  

What’s involved in patient participation in clinical trials?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, the process is called informed consent, and so, if you’re interested in a clinical trial, you have a conversation with your oncologist to review the study, the schedule, the screening procedures. If you’re interested, you sign an informed consent and then begin a process of doing some testing, oftentimes scan, blood work, EKGs, bone marrow biopsy, to try to identify whether or not you’re a good candidate for the study.

Clinical trials are often more rigid than standard of care meaning you have to follow a strict schedule. You have to report everything, side effects, or successes related to the clinical trial. And oftentimes, a clinical trial is performed at the particular center that you signed the consent. And so, if you came to our center at MSK, odds are you would have to have treatment at our center in order to participate in that trial.

Once you’re enrolled on the trial, you’re on a strict schedule. You work with the physician and a research team, often a nurse directly who specializes in clinical trials to help ensure that you’re monitored appropriately and that the trial is successful for the patient.

An Expert’s View on Promising CLL Approaches

An Expert’s View on Promising CLL Approaches from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

As chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) research continues to expand, new and promising treatment approaches have emerged. Dr. Anthony Mato shares information on developing therapies, including inhibitor, immunotherapy, and antibody options. 

Dr. Anthony Mato is Director of the CLL Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more here.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


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Is My CLL Treatment Working

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CLL Clinical Trials Explained

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Let’s get into developing research. Let’s get into developing research and what it can mean for patients. What new approaches are showing promise?

Dr. Mato:                   

Wow, that’s a loaded question, because there are so many possible answers. There are new versions of the current standards of care, different classes like BTK inhibitors or PI3K inhibitors which have the potential to be very active but better tolerated.

So, that’s one big group of new agents in development. There are several agents in development that appear to be effective in the setting of resistance to the current standards of care. There are classes of immunotherapies that allow us in different ways to use the immune system of the patient to fight cancer directly, so not necessarily targeting the cancer cell but targeting the immune system to make it do its job to filter out the cancer.

There are new antibodies in development. And that’s just a little slice of what’s in development for CLL and new combinations of course of the current standards of care which when put together could be even more effective. So –

Katherine:                  

What about – oh, go –

Dr. Mato:                   

Sorry. I was just going to add that so many different possibilities available that not every center can participate in all of these types of research, but it’s amazing for patients to know how many different new options are in development that maybe even better than the current approaches.

Katherine:                  

Right. What kind of side effects might be involved with the emerging treatments? What might people expect?

Dr. Mato:                   

That’s a hard question to answer, because the purpose of the clinical research is to help define the side effects associated with these newer drugs. And so, while we have a hint from early data or from Phase I data what a side effect profile might look like for a new drug, part of the consenting process is to help gather information not only about a drug’s activity but also about its side effect profile.

So, when we consent a patient, there is a little bit of an unknown about side effects, and we have sometimes very limited information that we can share about the activity. So, it’s not easy to just group these together and say these are the newest side effects to worry about. That’s really the purpose of the studies that I’m mentioning and the general idea of clinical research.

Katherine:                  

And that makes sense. How is research into the genetics of CLL providing a better understanding of how a patient’s individual disease may behave?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, just a few years ago, the basic genetic studies for CLL included just a few chromosomal markers that we could easily or sometimes not so easily test. At our center, for example, and it’s not unique, we’ll be able to look at the over 400 different mutations associated with hematologic malignancies. The more information we get, the more we realize that although under the microscope a CLL cell may look like another CLL cell, biologically, they’re very different.

They’re driven by different genetic mutations, and knowledge of those pathways that are important for an individual CLL will oftentimes, will hopefully in the future guide how therapy is selected for patients.

Is My CLL Treatment Working?

Is My CLL Treatment Working?  from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

During chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment, specific blood tests and diagnostic measurements are examined to gauge a patient’s treatment response. Dr. Anthony Mato details the specific criteria that are assessed while monitoring a therapy. 

Dr. Anthony Mato is Director of the CLL Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more here.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


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An Expert’s View on Promising CLL Approaches

Factors That Guide a CLL Treatment Decision

CLL Clinical Trials Explained

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

How do you monitor to see if a treatment is working, and what if the patient doesn’t respond to any of the treatments?

Dr. Mato:                   

Yeah, so, we response criteria, and so, they’re largely very simple measures. We perform a physical examination before and after treatment to see if the lymph nodes and spleen are decreasing in size. We measure the white blood cell count to verify that it’s going down. We look for normal parameters of normal functioning bone marrow like improvement in the hemoglobin or the platelet count.

So, those are some of the measures we use, and we put them together. And of course, just asking a patient how do they feel, do they feel better, are the symptoms that were associated with the CLL improving, and if the answer is yes, that would be considered responding disease. We also sometimes do measures like CAT scans to measure internal masses or internal lymph nodes and a bone marrow biopsy to verify that all the CLL cells are gone.

So, that’s the basics of a response assessment, and we also venture now into a new territory called MRD, or minimal residual disease, where we’ll be able to look beyond the traditional response assessment. Sometimes, it measures at a measurement of one in a million cells to verify that there’s no evidence of CLL present. If a therapy’s not working, fortunately – well, first I’ll say that with the modern therapies that we’ve already mentioned, response rates exceeded 90 percent.

So, it very, very infrequent that we have a patient where we pick the appropriate therapy where it doesn’t work for them. But if one is not working, then we do have measurements of resistance, and we can try to tell why a therapy maybe not working and switch them to an alternate class. And oftentimes, that will solve the problem.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Mato, you mentioned the term MRD. What does that mean?

Dr. Mato:                   

It stands for minimal residual disease. That’s using technology like flow cytometry or PCR or sequencing to take a deep look in the bone marrow and the blood for the presence or absence of CLL.     

So, when I perform a bone marrow biopsy, a pathologist with their eyes might count one hundred cells. With MRD testing we could look at 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 cells to see if there’s any CLL present, much more than the human eye or the human brain could process.

Factors that Guide a CLL Treatment Decision

Factors That Guide a CLL Treatment Decision from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When making a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment decision, several factors come into play. Dr. Anthony Mato explains how he partners with patients to find the best fit for their specific CLL.

Dr. Anthony Mato is Director of the CLL Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more here.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

An Expert’s View on Promising CLL Approaches

Is My CLL Treatment Working

CLL Clinical Trials Explained

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

So, with all of these options, how do you then decide which class might be right for an individual patient?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, you think about the patient. You think about their medical history, their comorbidities, their preferences, and then you try to focus on their disease biology, their genetic factors, their molecular factors, and also what therapies they’ve had. So, if I had a patient who had ibrutinib (Imbruvica) previously, I’m not going to give them acalabrutinib if they were resistant, for example. So, it’s not just one thing. It’s multiple things that have to be taken into account in order to make a decision.

And, of course, for me as an oncologist, the hardest part is that there have not been many trials comparing the newest therapies to one another. So, I can’t tell you what’s better ibrutinib or acalabrutinib (Calquence) by a head-to-head comparison. I can’t tell you whether you should start with ibrutinib before venetoclax (Venclexta) or venetoclax before ibrutinib not because we’re not very interested in having those studies performed. But they have not been performed at this point in time.

The only thing I can tell you based on prospective data from a head-to-head comparison is that we do have direct data comparing acalabrutinib which is a BTK inhibitor to idelalisib (Zydelig) in the relapsed/refractory setting. And by all measures, acalabrutinib was better tolerated and more effective. So, we have some very early head-to-head data but not as much as we need in order to make these decisions for patients.

Katherine:                  

How are side effects taken into consideration?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, all of these drugs although they are targeted, and they’re oral, and they’re relatively easy compared to chemotherapy are not without side effects. And so, each of these classes have their own unique side effects. BTK inhibitors can be associated with increased bleeding risk or atrial fibrillation or infection. PI3K inhibitors can be associated with lung or liver or colon damage. BCL-2 inhibitors might be associated with lowering of the blood counts and infection risk or something called tumor lysis syndrome.

So, we try to, if you had a side effect to one, not pick a drug with the exact same side effect profile, for example. And we also think about medical history for patients. So, if I had a patient who was on blood thinners and has poorly controlled atrial arrhythmia like AFib, I might not start them on a BTK inhibitor. If I patient who has active Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis that’s poorly controlled, I might not start them on a PI3K inhibitor. And if I have a patient who’s near dialysis because of chronic kidney disease, and I’m worried about further tumor lysis syndrome, I might not start them on a BCL-2 inhibitor.

So, you kind of weigh a patient’s medical history, their prior therapies, and their response and toxicities, and then make a decision on what’s the best fit for patients.

Katherine:                  

Well, what kind of testing is involved to make sure you have the best approach?

Dr. Mato:                   

Well, there are several tests that we think about using or we do use, and they’re mostly genetic and prognostic tests. And so, what we like to do is look at the CLL cells beyond looking at them under a microscope to try to identify the genetic markers that drive the biology of CLL. So, for example, if I have a patient who has deletion 17p which is one of the more feared chromosome abnormalities, I know right off the bat chemotherapy’s not a good fit for that patient. But I can do quite well with a BTK inhibitor like ibrutinib.

An Overview of Current CLL Treatment Approaches

An Overview of Current CLL Treatment Approaches from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatments are available now? Dr. Anthony Mato reviews treatment classes and explains how they work to combat CLL.

Dr. Anthony Mato is Director of the CLL Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more here.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

Factors That Guide a CLL Treatment Decision

Is My CLL Treatment Working

CLL Clinical Trials Explained

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

To help patients understand more about the types of treatment currently available, let’s review the treatment classes and discuss how they work to fight CLL.

Well, and let’s start with chemo. Some patients are probably familiar with the term FCR. What does that stand for, and how does work?

Dr. Mato:                   

Sure. FCR is a name for three chemotherapies that are combined together.

So, this is fludarabine, cyclophosphamide which are two cytotoxic chemotherapies combined with the monoclonal anti-CD20 antibody rituximab (Rituxan), so two traditional chemos plus an immunotherapy called rituximab that have worked together synergistically and have been quite effective over a prolonged people of time for treating patients with CLL. FCR was originally developed at MD Anderson.

But a very important CLL trial called CLL8 confirmed that FC plus rituximab was better than FC by itself, so a trial that demonstrated improvement in progression-free survival but also in overall survival advantage. And so, this became the standard of care more than a decade, and it has been a very common chemotherapy combination for patients.

Katherine:                  

What about monoclonal antibodies? How do these treat CLL?

Dr. Mato:                   

Great question. So, right now, we have several monoclonal antibodies that are approved in CLL.

They all target the same cell surface marker called CD20. And so, the way antibodies work in general in these patients, in our patients is that we identify a cell surface marker. In this case, it’s the protein CD20, and these antibodies are able to target that specific cell surface marker, bind to it, and in a way act as a flag for the immune system to destroy these cells.

So, an antibody like rituximab may be able to destroy a cell directly, or it may flag the cell to be destroyed within the immune system within the spleen, for example. So, different mechanisms of action but it’s a targeted therapy because it focuses on a specific protein that’s largely expressed on the cancer cells relative to other cells within the body.

Katherine:                  

There are also a variety of inhibitor treatments. What are they, and what exactly are they inhibiting?

Dr. Mato:                   

Yeah, so the kinase inhibitors are probably some of the most important drugs developed for CLL to date.

And we have different classes. One group would be BTK inhibitors which stands for Bruton tyrosine kinase, another would be PI3K inhibitors. Another class would be a BCL-2 inhibitor which is a little bit different. Essentially, the way to think about inhibitors are that they identify key molecules within a cell that are very important for either cell survival or cell signaling. These are the molecules that tell cells to either migrate or to hone in on a particular area or to amplify signaling to allow them to survive.

So, a drug like ibrutinib (Imbruvica) or acalabrutinib (Calquence), which are BTK inhibitors block this BTK signal and interrupts a very important survival signal in the cell, kind of causes it to go haywire in many ways, and then allows those cells to slowly die over time. PI3K inhibitors like idelalisib (Zydelig) or duvelisib (Copiktra) do the same. They block a very important and parallel signaling pathway to BTK that cause a very similar effect.

And then venetoclax (Venclexta), which is a BCL-2 inhibitor works a little bit differently. So, CLL cells are very primed to actually die except that there are signals in place that block that process called apoptosis, and so venetoclax blocks the blocker of that signal, sort of inhibits the inhibitor to cell death and allows that natural process of cell death to occur in CLL cells.

And so, they’re kind of targeting different pathways, but they’re able to stop the cell in a way. This is very different than cytotoxic chemotherapy like the FC which targets all dividing cells. Here we’re targeting cells where those particular enzymes are most important.

Katherine:                  

Do inhibitors need to be taken indefinitely?

Dr. Mato:                   

That’s a great question, and that’s something that we’re still working out. Right now, BTK inhibitors and PI3K inhibitors are all given as continuous therapies. That’s not to say that they couldn’t be stopped, but they haven’t been studied in a way that allows us to stop them. So, there’s not a lot of evidence to support that.

 BCL-2 inhibitors, venetoclax, were studied as either as continuous therapies or as what we call a time-limited therapy, either 12 months in the frontline or 24 months in the relapsed/refractory setting. And so, they can be given for a fixed-duration period and then stopped.

CLL Treatment: Finding the Best Option for YOU

CLL Treatment: Finding the Best Option for YOU from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How could genetic testing results impact your chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment options and overall care? Dr. Jennifer Woyach discusses essential molecular testing and provides tools for self-advocacy and decision making.

Dr. Jennifer Woyach is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Institute. Find out more about this expert here. 

Download Program Resource Guide

See More From INSIST! CLL


Related Resources

 
 

Which CLL Treatment Approach Could Be Right for You?

 

How Can You Access the Latest CLL Treatment Options?

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Welcome to Insist CLL, a program focused on empowering chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients to take an active role and insist on better care. Today, we’ll discuss the latest advances in CLL, including the role of genetic testing and how this may affect treatment options. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Joining me is Dr. Jennifer Woyach. Welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Woyach:               

Sure. My name is Jennifer Woyach. I’m a CLL specialist from the Ohio State University.

Katherine:                  

Thank you. A reminder, this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your own healthcare team. Well, Dr. Woyach, let’s start by understanding CLL. Would you briefly walk us through what CLL actually is?

Dr. Woyach:               

Sure. CLL is a cancer of the blood, the lymph nodes, and the bone marrow.

And it happens when a particular type of white blood cell called a B lymphocyte acquires genetic mutations and transforms into a cancer cell. And then, over time, those cancer cells continue to grow and divide. And they can cause symptoms such as enlarged lymph nodes if the cells get stuck in the lymph nodes and continue to grow there. It can cause a high white blood cell count, which usually doesn’t cause any symptoms but is one of the things that we see often in CLL. And then, it can also cause the bone marrow to not be able to produce normal cells because it can get so infiltrated or so full of CLL cells.

And this can cause things like anemia, which is lowering of the red blood cell count and thrombocytopenia, which is lowering of your platelet count.

Katherine:                  

What are the steps involved in reaching a diagnosis?

Dr. Woyach:               

CLL is an interesting disease because it’s one of the only cancers that does not require a biopsy of something for a diagnosis.

So, we can, actually, make the diagnosis of CLL based on the peripheral blood. So, just a blood draw in somebody’s doctor’s office. Usually, CLL is diagnosed in the asymptomatic stage. So, somebody goes to their primary care doctor, has blood drawn usually for another reason, and is found to have a high white blood cell count or sometimes even a fairly normal white blood cell count but a high percentage of lymphocytes. That certain type of cancerous white blood cell. So, the next step in the diagnosis then is something called peripheral blood flow cytometry, which is a specialized test where we look at the markers or antigens on the surface of white blood cells.

So, there is kind of a code of these markers on the surface of all of your blood cells that can tell what type of cells they are. So, for CLL in particular, we’ll see that the cells express some of the normal markers we would see on a normal B lymphocyte.

Things like CD19, CD20, CD23. But they also express a marker called CD5, which is found on normal T lymphocytes but shouldn’t be found on B lymphocytes. And so, this collection of surface markers can make the diagnosis of CLL. Sometimes, we do need to do extra studies like a bone marrow biopsy or a lymph node biopsy. But often times, those are not necessary at the time of diagnosis.

Katherine:                  

When you meet with patients, Dr. Woyach, what are some common misconceptions that you hear about?

Dr. Woyach:               

I think the biggest thing that I hear, and grant it I see a lot of patients after they’ve been diagnosed by someone, gone to see an oncologist and then, come to me after, but one of the common things that I hear is that somebody has told them along the way that they have the good type of cancer, which I think is not a very helpful thing to hear as a patient because, of course, no cancer is a good type of cancer.

I think it’s important to note that CLL is one that has a lot of treatment options and usually extended survival. But I think that’s one of the most common misconceptions that I hear.

Katherine:                  

Before we get deeper into our conversation about genetics, there are a few terms that patients are often confused by. As a primer, I thought we could start by defining some of these terms. First, what is genetic or molecular testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, all cancer cells will have a collection of mutations or abnormalities in the DNA that either make the cell a cancer cell or make it behave in a certain way. And so, these mutations are referred to as the genetic abnormalities of the CLL cells. So, when we talk about genetic testing in CLL, we use it to mean a number of things. We can use it to look specifically for types of mutations so types of genetic abnormalities.

We also sometimes use that as a kind of catch all term like genetic or molecular testing also to refer to looking at changes in the chromosomes inside of a CLL cell. That’s also called cytogenetic testing. And then, we also use a number of tests in CLL where we look at specific, not necessarily abnormalities, but just changes in the cell that can indicate a certain type of behavior.

Katherine:                  

How is this different from genomic testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, genetic and genomic testing, I think, are usually used interchangeably. But sometimes, we use them in different contexts but they really mean the same thing in this case.

Katherine:                  

Okay. And what is a chromosome change?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, as you might remember from biology class maybe a long time ago, as it was for me, inside a cell, so a normal cell or a cancer cell, you have the nucleus, which holds the DNA.

And the DNA is organized into chromosomes. And so, when a cell goes through division, it takes those chromosomes, copies them and then, breaks them apart into two different cells. So, changes can happen in the level of the DNA itself. So, a mutation where one base is changed to something different. So, that would be just like a single nucleotide change. And that’s something you’re not going to see as a change to a chromosome. Another thing that can happen in CLL and in other cancers, too, is that during that process of cell division, an entire chromosome could be duplicated. It could be absent.

More commonly, parts of chromosomes can change. This is all because cancer cells just do a very poor job of editing their division.

An in normal cells, there are multiple steps along the way from the process of copying the genes to copying the chromosomes to doing the division. And every step along the way, if something happens incorrectly, which happens a lot, the cell usually just dies. But a cancer cell is not going to do that because it has so many signals that keep telling it to stay alive that it can tolerate a lot of different abnormalities. And so, you end up with cells that are just very different from what you would see normally.

Katherine:                  

All right. Well, that’s a great way for us to start. Let’s go into the discussion of the relationship between testing and CLL. How is testing administered?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, almost all testing, in terms of molecular genomic testing in CLL, can be done on a blood sample. So, that’s one important thing.

The CLL guidelines recommend that testing for certain prognostic factors be done before the administration of therapy. So, at the very least, before somebody starts treatment, they should have these tests performed. In my practice and I think most CLL specialists find it really helpful to do these tests, not necessarily just at the time of treatment but really at the time of diagnosis or the time we first see the patient because CLL is a very heterogenous disease, which means that it behaves very differently in different people. So, there are some people that are diagnosed and will go 10 or 20 years before they need any treatment.

And many don’t need treatment at all. Whereas other people are very likely to need treatment within the first few years after diagnosis. Some of the genetic tests that we do can help counsel patients on where they’re likely to fall in that spectrum.

And so, I think that’s helpful for people to know early on in the disease course. But really, the tests can be performed at any time before treatment

Katherine:                  

Have there been advances in testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

Absolutely. I think in every cancer, we’ve learned so much more about the biology of the disease, specific mutations that cause specific behaviors of cells, and really much more in CLL about the common genetic changes and what those means to response to therapy.

Katherine:                  

The goal of this program, Dr. Woyach, is to provide the confidence and tools for patients to advocate for the essential tests to get the best care personalized to them. Are there specific tests that patients should make sure they have?

Dr. Woyach:               

Yeah. In CLL, I would say there are three that are very, very important before starting treatment. The first is something called the IGHV mutational status.

What that is defined as is the changes in the variable region of the immunoglobulin heavy chain. That’s a big mouthful that doesn’t mean a lot to most people. So, I’ll give you just a little background on what that really means biologically and then, what that means clinically. So, every B lymphocyte, so a normal B lymphocyte and a CLL cell, has receptors on the surface of the cell that allow it to interact with the environment. And in a normal B lymphocyte, this is really important for the immune system. So, bacteria, virus, something is in the body and the B cell surface receptor is going to be able to recognize that that’s not supposed to be there and then, do something about it.

In CLL, the surface receptors don’t do a lot of interacting with the outside environment but they’re still present there. And in a normal B cell development, the B cells are initially formed in the bone marrow.

And at the time that they’re formed, every one of those receptors is exactly the same. So, we can do DNA sequencing on those receptors and you’ll see that every one is identical. So, during a normal development of a B cell, it undergoes this process that’s called somatic hypermutation, which is where those receptors mutate or change. And that’s important because then, they can recognize different things. And so, you end up with this whole repertoire of thousands or millions of B cells that all are a little bit different and can recognize something different.

So, CLL cells, they’re all clonally related to each other. They’re all going to have the same receptor on their surface. And about 60% of the time that receptor is different than the newly born B cells. And so, this is probably a little bit more simplistic than it actually is. But the way we think about that is that those B cells or those CLL cells, which we call mutated because they underwent that mutational process, we think that that means that they come from a more mature initiating cell.

And they tend to be less aggressive, more slow growing. The other 40% of patients, if you look at the receptor on their surface, it’s exactly the same as the new B cells in the bone marrow. And we call those IGHV unmutated because they haven’t done that mutational process. And they behave very differently. So, in mutated CLL, only about half of people will ever need therapy in their lives. An average time from diagnosis to first treatment is about 10 years. In contrast to those patients who have unmutated IGHV, basically, all of those people will need therapy at some point in their lives. And average time from diagnosis to first treatment is about three years.

So, you can see how it really breaks people up into two very different categories of disease.

So, that’s the first test and one that’s really important. That’s also one that doesn’t change during the course of the disease. So, if somebody is diagnosed with mutated CLL, it’s always mutated. So, the next marker that’s important is, actually, chromosome changes. So, we know that there are a few different recurrent chromosome abnormalities in CLL that are common and important prognostically. So, one of these is a deletion of part of chromosome 13. It’s called a 13q deletion. It indicates, again, very slow growing CLL. Patients how have normal chromosomes also are very good disease biology.

Some people have an extra copy of chromosome 12. That’s called trisomy 12 and that’s an intermediate marker. And then, there are two markers that are associated with a little bit more aggressive CLL. One is a deletion of proto chromosome 11. That’s called an 11q deletion.

And the other one is a deletion of proto chromosome 17 called a 17p deletion. These are all abnormalities that are important to test for. And the way that we test for these is something called FISH testing. And FISH stands for fluorescence in situ hybridization. And it’s a way to use an antibody to look for specific abnormalities in the CLL cells. So, that’s important. And another thing that can be done at specialized centers is something called stimulated cytogenetics. So, I mentioned to you with FISH testing, we’re looking for specific abnormalities with antibodies. But the things that we don’t test for we’re not going to see.

So, if they have a chromosome change that we don’t have an antibody looking at, we’ll never detect it. And we know that patients with CLL who have what’s called a complex karyotype, which is three or more chromosome abnormalities, they also have more aggressive disease.

So, like I said, at specialized centers, we can do what’s called a stimulated karyotype, which is where we look at all of the chromosomes. So, that’s FISH testing and karyotype. And then, the last thing is, actually, doing DNA sequencing for a specific mutation called a TP53 mutation. And TP53 is an important tumor suppressor protein. And it is mutated quite commonly in CLL. About eight to ten percent of patients at the time of first treatment and, actually, up to about forty percent of people later on in the course of the disease. Most of the time, we see TP53 mutations occur at the same time as 17p deletions. About 80% of the time, those occur together but they can occur on their own.

So, that’s the third test that’s often helpful, especially prior to starting treatment.

Katherine:                  

Do patients need to be retested over time?

Dr. Woyach:               

Yeah. So, for the TP53 mutation and for FISH, it’s important to test for those before each line of therapy. Because those are so important in indicating disease biology and, specifically, with the 17p deletion and TP53 mutation, those indicate patients that are likely to not have as good of a response to treatment. It’s always important to check for those prior to therapy.

Katherine:                  

We have a patient question. I have 17p deletion. Should I be worried?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, 17p deletion is usually associated with more aggressive disease biology almost always associated with that unmutated IGHV. The reason I bring that up is there are a very small subset of patients who have 17p deletion and mutated IGHV who, actually, have pretty indolent or slow growing disease.

People who don’t, which is the majority of them with 17p deletion, do have a shortened time to treatment and shortened survival with most of our current therapies. There have been a lot of advances though in the treatment of 17p deleted CLL. And may of our newer therapies can very much prolong the remission time in the lives of patients with 17p deletion.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Woyach, how do these chromosomal changes affect disease progression and prognosis?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, the markers that are associated with more aggressive disease biology usually are going to be associated with people that need treatment within the first few years after diagnosis, especially those people who have 17p deletion, 11q deletion, unmutated IGHV.

Katherine:                  

What exactly are prognostic factors? Would you define that?

Dr. Woyach:               

Sure. Prognostic factors, and I mentioned three of them, the IGHV, FISH, and the TP53 mutation, are ones that have been studied extensively and shown that the presence of this marker or some change in this marker is associated with a change in the biology of the disease or in the response to therapy.

Katherine:                  

How does the identification of these changes or mutations affect treatment options?

Dr. Woyach:               

Well, right now, we’re lucky in CLL because we have a lot of treatment options. I would say the most important changes when we’re talking about somebody with CLL that is about to start their first treatment is the decision of whether chemotherapy is ever appropriate. So, almost everybody with CLL now is treated exclusively with targeted therapies.

So, nonchemotherapeutic options. There are some people who are young, and in CLL terms that means under the age of 65, who have mutated IGHV and who otherwise have good genetic list disease. So, normal chromosomes of the 13q deletion, no TP53 mutation. That small subset of patients, actually, has the potential to be cured with a specific type of chemotherapy. It’s called FCR or fludarabine, cyclophosphamide, rituximab. So, for those young, healthy patients, it’s really important to know those risk factors to know if they are in that group that has that potential for cure.

The converse to that is if patients don’t fall in that group, they probably shouldn’t receive chemotherapy as their first treatment because it’s not as effective as our other therapies.

Katherine:                  

Yeah. It makes sense.

Dr. Woyach:               

And then, even in the future with first and other treatments with novel therapies, we know that patients with 17p deletion and TP53 mutation tend to have a shorter response time. And so, what I use that for in my practice is I know that those are people that I really have to be sure that we’re following them closely, taking any signs of progression seriously, and always have a back up plan for what we’re going to do if this treatment doesn’t work.

Katherine:                  

We have another question from a patient who wants to know if their children will inherit CLL. Is there any link between inherited mutations and CLL?

Dr. Woyach:               

That’s a very, very common and really important question. I would say of the hematologic cancers, CLL is one with higher linkage in families, which means that people with CLL are more likely to have another family member with CLL though it’s still not very common.

And it’s very different from breast cancer or the solid tumors where we know that these specific mutations indicate families that are going to have risk of disease. There has actually been a lot of study over the years of families that tend to have multiple people with CLL. Unfortunately, there really have not been genes identified that are the reason for those family linkages. I think there has been only one family that I know of where they’ve actually found a gene that was likely the cause of multiple family members’ illnesses. So, yeah, there is no indication to test family members.

I tell people do not worry that you’re going to pass this to your children or your grandchildren. CLL is not something that we should be using as like a marker of whether you should have kids or should have anything like that.

So, maybe a little more likely in family members but not enough to really be worried about that.

Katherine:                  

What are the differences or difference between inherited and acquired genetic mutations?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, inherited mutations are those that you get from your parents. And there are lots of inherited mutations that, actually, can predispose to cancer. Specifically, I mentioned the TP53 mutation and CLL cells. Well, there are also people who inherit a TP53  mutation have risk factors for multiple cancers. And CLL, specifically, every mutation that we talk about is an acquired mutation. So, that’s also known as a somatic mutation. So, they’re mutations in the cancer cells. But if you did DNA sequencing of the normal cells, they would not be there.

Katherine:                  

We have a question from a patient. If I have FCR, does that rule out me using a targeted therapy later on?

Dr. Woyach:               

Absolutely not. And, actually, all of the studies of the targeted therapies, all of the early studies were done in people who previously had had chemotherapy. Most of them had received FCR. So, certainly, receiving chemotherapy doesn’t mean that you can’t get a targeted therapy later on.

Katherine:                  

What are other factors that are important to consider when deciding on a treatment route?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, besides the genetic factors we talked about, other things are age and very closely related to age is fitness status. So, how active is somebody? How able are they to do all of their normal activities? Are there other health problems that we need to be concerned about when thinking of treatment?

As well, certain medications can influence treatment choices, specifically, with oral therapies where there might be drug interactions. And then, also a lot of the decision of frontline therapy is patient preference right now. So, do people prefer to have a time limited therapy? Do they prefer to have an indefinite therapy? Do they prefer an all p.o. regimen or a mix of p.o. and IV? So, there are definitely a lot of considerations when thinking about frontline treatment.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Woyach, what do you feel is the patient’s role in this conversation about treatment approaches?

Dr. Woyach:               

I think that, obviously, the patient is the most important part of the talk of treatment indications. Like I mentioned, sometimes we have the discussion of chemotherapy versus a targeted therapy. More often, the discussion is we have three approved frontline CLL therapies right now. We have two BTK inhibitors or Bruton’s tyrosine kinase inhibitors, ibrutinib, acalabrutinib.

And then, we have a BCL-2, venetoclax, that’s given in combination with an antibody called obinutuzumab. These are very different treatments in terms of side effects, [inaudible] [00:28:13] how they’re administered, how often they’re administered, just as an example. The BTK inhibitors are pills. And they’re meant to be given indefinitely. So, you start them with plans that you’re not going to stop them, unless the patient doesn’t tolerate them or they stop working. And so, with that type of regimen, you have the kind of burden of being on treatment for a long period of time.

But on the flipside, it’s very easy to start treatment. So, if you decide you want a BTK inhibitor, I write a prescription for it, it comes to your house, you start it. I usually see patients monthly for the first six months and then, we go to every three months. It’s very easy to start treatment.

The other type of treatment, the Venetoclax plus with the obinutuzumab regimen, that’s the BCL-2 inhibitor with an antibody, it’s a finite therapy. So, people are treated for a year and then, they go off treatment. The flipside of that is they’re a lot more time intensive in the beginning. So, you have the IV therapy with the obinutuzumab. Venetoclax you, actually, have to ramp up the dose so patients have to come in weekly for the first five weeks and they have to come in monthly for their infusions. So, it’s much more time intensive upfront but then, you get to stop treatment. And so, those are considerations that I can’t answer for somebody.

I don’t know which one people would prefer and people prefer different things. So, we spend a lot of time talking about all of the different scenarios and what’s going to make the therapy work best for the patient.

Katherine:                  

How can patients stay informed about CLL?

Dr. Woyach:               

There is a lot of good information about CLL that’s available online through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

They have a number of resources for lots of different cancers, including CLL. There are a number of different patient centered websites. One is called the CLL Society. There are others that are heavily moderated, provide a lot of good information, and tend to stay on topic with CLL current developments and don’t get into the weeds too much I would say.

Katherine:                  

If there are side effects, what would some of the side effects be for these targeted therapies?

Dr. Woyach:               

So, it depends on the drug. So, BTK inhibitors, specifically, ibrutinib can cause some joint and muscle pain, some rashes, diarrhea, heart burn. Those are things that tend to, if they’re going to happen, usually happen earlier on in treatment and tend to get better over time. It can also cause high blood pressure. It can cause an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation.

So, those are things we watch out for with ibrutinib. Acalabrutinib really has all of the same side effects but for many of them, they don’t occur as often. And then, the tradeoff there is ibrutinib is given once a day and acalabrutinib is given twice a day. With venetoclax plus obinutuzumab with that regimen, you get a lot more hematologic toxicity. So, you see more lowering of the good white blood cell count, which is, obviously, a risk for infections. That regimen comes with a risk of something called tumor lysis syndrome, which is where the cells can break down too quickly and cause damage to the kidneys, damage to the heart.

It can also cause some GI disturbance like some diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, things like that. I see there are a lot of side effects. And, of course, when I’m talking to a patient about treatment, we go over them in more detail than that. But I think the important thing is with all of these therapies, we do have ways to manage these side effects.

One thing I think is important for patients to remember is your doctor doesn’t know you’re having side effects unless you tell them. So, we know that people have these side effects. But if you don’t tell us that you’re having diarrhea or heart burn or things like that, we can’t help with it. And we have a lot of medicines that can help these things.

Katherine:                  

That’s a good point. Are there emerging treatments patients should know about?

Dr. Woyach:               

Yeah. There are a lot of really exciting things going on in CLL right now. And CLL is a disease that has been completely transformed in the last five to ten years and is poised to do so again. So, I mentioned these therapies that we use for frontline treatment and there are clinical trials now combining them together. So, these agents work so well on their own. Are they going to be even better if we add them together?

There are also newer target therapies, different targets that we are finding increasingly important in CLL, as well as a modality called CAR-T cells, which most people have heard of where we take patients’ own T cells, modify them in the lab and then, give them back with a goal of getting those cells engineered to kill CLL cells.

These are all things that are not ready for prime time in CLL yet but are available in clinical trials. And I think one other thing I’d really like to put a plug in for is clinical trials in CLL because right now, we’re at a point where our therapies are really very good. But if people just do those treatments, we are never going to figure out which one is the best or figure out, for specific types of patients, which treatment is the best. And so, I advocate that any of my patients that are eligible for clinical trials should consider them because that’s how we make progress in the disease from an altruistic sense.

That’s how we make things better for everybody. That’s one way a patient can think about it. But more personally than that, being in a clinical trial gives somebody the opportunity to get a treatment that they otherwise wouldn’t get that might be better than our standard of care therapies.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Woyach, as a researcher in the field, why are you hopeful?

Dr. Woyach:               

I am so hopeful in CLL because there is so much that we’re learning every day about the biology of the disease, about specific mutations and other genetic factors that are important and really can be targeted by new drugs. Paralleling our understanding of the disease, there also are many more techniques to make these targeted therapies that kill cancer cells selectively while sparing normal cells and making our drugs even more tolerable.

And I think both the targeted therapies like this and the potential of combining them, figuring out sequences that are best but then, also these newer modalities where we, actually, get the immune system involved like the CAR-T cells. They’re making CAR NK cells now. And just lots of other strategies that could be used together with targeted therapies to, hopefully, cure the disease.

Katherine:                  

Thank you for taking the time to join us today and sharing all of this information with the patients. We appreciate it.

Dr. Woyach:               

Of course. It’s my pleasure.

Katherine:                  

Please take a moment to fill out our survey. It helps us as we plan upcoming programs. And thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit Powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell.

Which CLL Treatment Approach Could be Right for You?

Which CLL Treatment Approach Could be Right for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Which CLL treatment approach might be best for your individual disease? This animated video walks through important considerations that help guide treatment decisions, including genetic testing results, lifestyle factors and patient preference. 

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

CLL Treatment Decisions: What Path is Best for YOU?

 How to Be A Partner in Your CLL Care  Key CLL Treatment Decision-Making Factors

Transcript:

Hi, I’m Christy. I’m a nurse practitioner and I specialize in chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. With a variety of available treatment options, CLL patients often wonder which approach might be best for their individual disease.

Before we walk through the information that goes into choosing a treatment approach, I want to remind you that this video is intended to help educate CLL patients and their loved ones and shouldn’t be a replacement for advice from your doctor.

So, how is a treatment path determined?

CLL physicians will typically consider several key factors to help guide the decision.

When many CLL patients are first diagnosed, their medical team may use an approach called “watch and wait” or “active surveillance.” This means that treatment won’t begin immediately. Their healthcare team will monitor their CLL via in-person visits and lab testing. And, some patients may never even need treatment, depending on their individual situation.

But, if bloodwork indicates advanced disease, enlarged, bothersome lymph nodes develop, or, if symptoms like fatigue and night sweats are negatively affecting a patient’s daily life, then it may be time to treat the CLL.

Physicians typically consider a patient’s age, overall health, and existing conditions before they suggest an approach. There are also several tests on the CLL cells that may help guide treatment decisions.

Physicians use immune globulin heavy chain gene, also known as IGHV, mutational analysis to determine whether a patient is IGHV mutated or unmutated.

In IGHV mutation analysis testing, being “mutated” is a favorable finding. 

If a patient’s IGHV status is mutated, and, depending on other factors such as age and overall health, the physician may recommend a treatment called FCR. FCR stands for the drugs used in this approach, which are two chemotherapy drugs combined with a targeted treatment that is a monoclonal antibody.  

However, it is important to realize that due to side effects and other risks, chemotherapy is not for everybody. Non-chemotherapy treatments work very well for IGHV mutated patients as well as unmutated patients.

If a patient has unmutated IGHV, then a targeted treatment or a clinical trial might be more effective.

Molecular testing, also known as genetic testing, can identify specific genes, proteins, chromosome changes, and other factors unique to your CLL.

The results can provide your healthcare team with information related to prognosis, risk and which therapy may be most effective in treating your disease.  

One of the most widely used tests is call a FISH test and it looks for specific changes in the chromosomes of your CLL cells.  These specific changes can help understand how well certain treatments are likely to work for you. 

For example, patients with the chromosome abnormality “17p deletion” may have higher-risk disease and will not respond well to chemotherapies such as FCR. An oral targeted treatment approach or a clinical trial will be more effective in patients with 17p deletion.

There are several types of targeted treatments that are currently approved to treat CLL including:

  • Monoclonal Antibodies, which work by targeting specific proteins on cancer cells.
  • And, Kinase Inhibitors, which work by blocking proteins that tell the cancer cell to grow and survive.
  • A combination of treatment approaches may also be considered.

Before you start any treatment, it’s essential to ask your doctor if you have had relevant CLL genetic testing, including FISH testing, and what the results could mean for you.

Finally, one of the most important factors that your healthcare team will consider is YOUR treatment goals. 

It’s very important to consider a treatment’s course and potential side effects.

With the many options available today to treat CLL, you will be able to get effective treatment. How your treatment choice affects your other health conditions and your lifestyle is essential.

Remember, you are a partner in your care and have an active voice in finding the best treatment for you.

When treatment is discussed may be a good time to consider a second opinion or a consult with a specialist.  If you don’t feel supported or an active member of your team, then it is always best to get another opinion if you are able.

So, how can you put this information to work for you and help improve your care?

  • Talk to your physician about what you’ve learned.
  • Ask about testing mentioned in this video and whether you need to be retested over time.
  • Discuss clinical trials with your physician.
  • Visit credible resources to stay up to date on CLL information.

Visit powerfulpatients.org/cll to learn more about CLL.

Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment and Research News

Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment and Research News from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

As metastatic breast cancer testing approaches continue to expand, new and promising treatments have emerged. Dr. Lisa Flaum shares information on recently approved treatment options and the role of genetic markers in accessing targeted therapy. 

Dr. Lisa Flaum is a Medical Oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more here.

See More From The Pro-Active Breast Cancer Patient Toolkit

Related Resources:

 

Transcript:

Dr. Flaum:                  

There are a lot of new and promising treatments for metastatic breast cancer. So, the treatments in general and the novel treatments and studies really vary based on the subset of metastatic breast cancer. So, when we’re making our treatment decisions, a lot of it is defined by those markers. So, if someone has a tumor that is hormone receptor, estrogen and progesterone receptor positive, and HER2-negative, the mainstay of treatment is typically drugs that target estrogen and often partnering drugs that target estrogen with other more novel or newer treatments.

So, just in the last five plus years, there have been a number of new drugs and even new drug categories that we didn’t have previously. So, for that population of the estrogen receptor positive tumors, the biggest breakthrough over the last number of years has been a class of drugs called CDK4/6 inhibitors. So, that includes drugs like Ibrance, Kisqali, Verzenio. And they’ve emerged as a very important and effective and often a recommendation for our first-line treatment for these patients combined with anti-estrogen therapies that have vastly improved outcomes for patients. So, a much higher percentage of patients respond to these drugs, the duration of the responses has extended quite a bit. And importantly, patients tend to tolerate this drug class really, really well.

 So, for many patients starting out with that diagnosis, this type of drug class is going to be part of the discussion. Even in the last year, another drug category has emerged with approval of a new drug called alpelisib, which is something called at PI3 kinase inhibitor. So, again, back to defining the options based on the molecular profile of the tumor. So, this newer oral drug also partnered with anti-estrogen therapy, has been an important breakthrough for the treatment of patients who harbor this specific molecular abnormality. So, important to define whether that’s an option by some of these molecular testing.

There’s also newer drugs and studies of newer drugs that affect the estrogen receptor in different ways than some of our traditional medications.

And this is an ongoing area of significant research. So, that’s the estrogen receptor positive tumors.

For patients who have HER2-positive tumors, these are tumors that tend to be more aggressive, that tend to require more aggressive upfront treatment, which usually involves drugs that specifically target HER2. So, again, defining what’s driving the tumor and hopefully having drugs available that can target that specific abnormality. So, HER2 targeted drugs have evolved quite a bit over the last couple of decades.

Initially, we just had a drug called Herceptin and then a drug called Perjeta or pertuzumab was developed. Then more recently a drug called Kadcyla. And then even in just the last six to 10 months, two new drugs that target that HER2 protein. One of them is called tucatinib, the other one is called Enhertu. They’re not necessarily appropriate for the first line of treatment, but really sort of expands our toolbox in terms of how we treat these types of tumors. And these are developments that have occurred, for one of the drugs, just in the last six months, and the other within the last year. So, a lot of progress.

And then for the third subset of tumors, which are the triple-negative tumors, those are the ones that do not over-express estrogen, do not have estrogen or progesterone receptors, and don’t overexpressed HER2. This has been historically an area of unmet need. So, tumors where we can’t use anti-estrogen therapies, we can’t use HER2 targeted drugs. And so, the main stay has always been chemotherapy. And even for this subset, we’ve had progress.

So, one of the drug classes that’s been approved in the last couple years for triple-negative breast cancers is immunotherapy. So, immunotherapy has gotten a lot of press. It’s been really breakthrough treatment for a lot of different cancers, has lagged behind to some degree in breast cancer, but has become now one of the early treatment options for people with metastatic disease, specifically those that harbor a molecular marker, an immune marker, something called PD-L1. So, another example of the tumor’s biology dictating potentially one of the treatment options.

There have been other drugs that have been approved for triple-negative breast cancers in women who have BRCA mutation, so who have germline genetic predisposition to breast cancer. And that opens another array of treatment tools that have been approved in the last few years. And then more recently, just over the last six months, another drug that’s been approved for triple-negative breast cancer, which is a drug called sacituzumab, again, not first treatment, but something that defines potentially future lines of treatment. So, big picture, there has been a lot of progress that increasingly alters our treatment tools for patients and allows us to have sequential treatments that can be effective if their given treatment is no longer effective.

Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Decisions: Which Path is Best for You?

Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Decisions: Which Path is Best for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 For each metastatic breast cancer patient, there are several variables to consider to access the best treatment path. Dr. Lisa Flaum explains key factors to consider, and discusses how the risks and benefits are weighed when making treatment decisions for an individual patient.

Dr. Lisa Flaum is a Medical Oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more here.

See More From The Pro-Active Breast Cancer Patient Toolkit

Related Resources:

 

Transcript:

Dr. Flaum:                  

So, when we’re determining a treatment approach, there are a number of variables. So, to some degree, based on a patient’s individual characteristics, their age, their other health issues, may guide what treatments are available or indicated or even desirable from a patient’s standpoint. To some degree, the locations and extent of disease are important. So, if someone has cancer and that’s causing a particular symptom, with bony sites being a particular example, there may be a role for something targeted; Something like radiation, and in rare cases, surgery to target a specific symptomatic or worrisome spot of metastatic cancer.

In general, the mainstay of treatment for metastatic breast cancer is what we call systemic treatment or medical treatment, treatment that’s going to go everywhere and treat the cancer wherever it is. In some situations, we may be deciding between more or less aggressive treatment, and the locations and sites of disease may be important in determining that. If someone has extensive disease, for instance in a vital organ like the lung, the liver, the brain, we may start with something more versus less aggressive to try to get it better under control quickly. Whereas people with more limited metastatic disease may be able to start with something less aggressive.

And then beyond that, a lot of the decision-making is based on those molecular markers that I alluded to, which are defined by the hormone receptor status. So, whether the tumor expresses those estrogen and progesterone receptors, and whether the tumor over-expresses HER2. And then to a lesser degree, based on other markers that may be defined by additional tests.

So, every treatment discussion we have is a two-way street. So, our job is to present the data, present options, present recommendations. And often, we have an opinion on where we would fall and if there are a number of different options. But to me, it’s a collaborative discussion. And if there are options, it’s weighing what potential benefit do we get from a single option or from adding something to that particular option versus what are the downsides? And some of it is discussion about logistics. Do we do something IV versus oral? Is there a particular side effect that we’re hoping to avoid, such as hair loss? Which of course, we’re trying to avoid. Some treatments may have a higher likelihood of working, but a higher likelihood of causing hair loss. That may factor into our decision.

So, whether it’s the first decision point when we’re deciding on preliminary therapy or future decision points as we go through this journey, there is always a discussion about this is where we are, these are what our options are. Here’s how we’re going to weigh the pros and cons. And then it comes back to a collaborative decision about how we weigh the risks and rewards and where we’re going with an individual patient.

So, clinical trials are always part of at least the conversation, so they’re always a consideration at each step of our discussion. So, from a preliminary treatment standpoint, we’re always going to go through here are our standard options. Here’s, again, what we think is most appropriate. And if there’s a clinical trial that’s appropriate in that scenario, we’ll lay that out there as an option. So, a clinical trial is always worth discussing. It’s always worth asking that your doctor, “Is a clinical trial appropriate for me at this point?” But it’s not always the right recommendation.

So, there are a lot of scenarios, especially at the beginning of treatment for metastatic disease where we have so many options, and so many new and novel treatment options and drugs that have been approved fairly recently that have defined the standard of care, that the standard is going to be often what we recommend. And a clinical trial may be something that we would use if that treatment fails to work or at some future point down the line. And at other points in time, we have very good, appropriate clinical trials that could be indicated at any step along the way. So, it’s worth the discussion. Whether it’s the recommendation or not depends on the circumstances, it depends on the time. What we have today was very different than what we might’ve had available six months ago and six months from now. But clinical trials are out there, and if the location that a patient is going doesn’t have access to clinical trials, it’s always reasonable to ask too, “Should I be going somewhere else to see if a clinical trial is appropriate?”

Essential Testing Following A Metastatic Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Essential Testing Following a Metastatic Breast Cancer Diagnosis from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Following a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, what tests are essential? Dr. Lisa Flaum reviews the role of key tests, and the impact of molecular (genetic) test results on treatment decisions.

Dr. Lisa Flaum is a Medical Oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more here.

See More From INSIST! Metastatic Breast Cancer

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Should You See a Breast Cancer Specialist?

Are You Prepared for Your Breast Cancer Appointment?

What Do Breast Cancer Patients Need to Know About COVID?

 

Transcript:

Dr. Flaum:                  

When someone has either a diagnosis or a suspected diagnosis of metastatic cancer, meaning a diagnosis of cancer that has spread somewhere outside of the breast. And the most important initial step is establishing a tissue diagnosis. So, we could have our suspicions based on imaging, based on symptoms, but the most important thing is to confirm it. And usually that confirmation involves some type of tissue biopsy. So, collecting cells, examining them under the microscope, making sure that the diagnosis in fact, is cancer. Making sure that the cancer has spread from the breast, which is something that is definable under the microscope for the most part. And then evaluating various molecular markers within the tumor itself that are critical to guiding treatment.

So, in addition to the tissue diagnosis, the other important first step is what we call cancer staging. So, establishing the extent of the tumor within the body, which typically involves some type of scans, which may be variable depending on the situation or depending on the physician often could be a CT scan and a bone scan, maybe a PET scan. There may be an MRI.

So, a number of different tests that help us establish where the tumor is at baseline, so we can better understand the anatomy, but also to follow down the road to establish whether any given treatment is working. There are also maybe discussions of other types of molecular testing beyond what we determined in terms of the traditional biologic markers. You might hear the terms next generation sequencing tests like Foundation, Guardant, Tempus, which better define the cancer’s biology, which increasingly is becoming useful in terms of targeting treatment to someone’s specific cancer.

So, the molecular tests are looking at a few different things. So, first and foremost from a breast cancer standpoint, the most important basic molecular markers are what we consider to be the four main receptors, which is the estrogen and progesterone receptor, which dictates whether a given tumor is driven by estrogen and importantly dictates whether anti-estrogen therapy is going to be an appropriate component of the treatment. The other basic marker is called HER2, which is a protein that’s over-expressed.

In about 20% of breast cancer patient cells, and it’s also very critical in terms of guiding treatment. For specific types of breast cancer, once we know those preliminary molecular markers, then there’s an array of other types of anomalies within the tumor itself that could help to guide specific treatment. So, a couple of examples, and I can talk about that when you talk about treatment. If someone has a genetic predisposition to breast cancer with a BRCA mutation, there’s a specific treatment that might be appropriate. More recently, there’s another abnormality that can be detected by these tests called a PI3-Kinase mutation that identifies a population of patients who could be appropriate for another type of targeted therapy. So, for an individual, knowing what their particular profile is, whether or not those treatments are going to be indicated right at the beginning of treatment or maybe something that we use down the road. Inevitably, they’re going to help us understand what our tools are when we’re helping to make those decisions.

What Could Advances in Breast Cancer Research Mean for You?

What Could Advances in Metastatic Breast Cancer Research Mean for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What should metastatic breast cancer patients know about emerging approaches to treatment and care? Dr. Julie Gralow reviews developments in metastatic breast cancer research, including advances in genetics, subsetting disease and personalized medicine.

Dr. Julie Gralow is the Jill Bennett Endowed Professor of Breast Medical Oncology at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. More about this expert here.

See More From INSIST! Metastatic Breast Cancer

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What Could Metastatic Breast Cancer Genetic Testing Advances Mean for You?

What Are Essential Genetic Tests for Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients?

Metastatic Breast Cancer: Debunking Common Misconceptions

 

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

There have been so many advances in breast cancer research. What are you excited about in research right now?

Dr. Gralow:                

Well, every single drug that’s been approved, every single new regimen that’s been approved in breast cancer is the direct result of clinical trials, and this is a major part of my career, is to help patients get access to clinical trials and run important clinical trials that could lead to new discoveries – is this regimen better? What’s the toxicity?

Because until we have a cure for breast cancer, we need to do better, and we need to research better treatment options. So, doing trials, having access to clinical trials where you can participate, help move the science forward is key.

I think where we’re moving with breast cancer is the more we’re understanding the patient and the tumor, the more we’re realizing every single breast cancer is different, actually, and whereas when I started my training 20-plus years ago, breast cancer was breast cancer – we weren’t even using HER2 yet, we were just learning how to use estrogen receptor, and we kind of treated everything the same – now, we’re subsetting, and subsetting, and subsetting. Even in triple negative breast cancer now, which is about 18-20% of breast cancer, we’re subsetting.

Does that triple negative breast cancer have PD-L1, which is associated with being able to get immunotherapy drugs? Does it express androgen receptor? Because sometimes, even a breast cancer that doesn’t have estrogen or progesterone receptor can express the androgen receptor, like prostate cancer, and we can use some prostate cancer drugs. So, even triple negative breast cancer we’re subsetting and subsetting, and could that triple negative breast cancer be associated with a BRCA1 or 2 mutation, and then we can use the PARP inhibitors?

So, I’m actually really excited about that we’re learning more and more, and subsetting, and not treating breast cancer as one size fits all, and if we can better tailor the treatments to the patient and the tumor, that we are going to get to the point where I can tell my patients yes, we can get cures in metastatic breast cancer.

What is the Role of Genetic Testing in Breast Cancer?

What is the Role of Genetic Testing in Breast Cancer? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Breast cancer expert Dr. Julie Gralow discusses the role of genetic testing in metastatic breast cancer care, reviewing the impact of inherited–and acquired–genetic mutations on treatment options.

Dr. Julie Gralow is the Jill Bennett Endowed Professor of Breast Medical Oncology at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. More about this expert here.

See More From INSIST! Metastatic Breast Cancer

Related Resources:

 

What Could Metastatic Breast Cancer Genetic Testing Advances Mean for You?

What Are Essential Genetic Tests for Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients?

Metastatic Breast Cancer: Debunking Common Misconceptions

 

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

All right. Dr. Gralow, when you meet with patients, what are some of the more common misconceptions that you hear related to diagnosis?

Dr. Gralow:                

Well, I think people do confuse – especially at an early diagnosis – that the metastases, the travel to the local lymph nodes, is not the same as a metastatic breast cancer, so we spend some time talking about how it’s still curable and not considered a distant metastasis if the lymph nodes are in the armpit or up above the collarbone, and so, that’s something that we spend some time talking about.

This whole term of “metastatic recurrence” – unfortunately, when you start looking online and get your information from Dr. Google, you read right away that it’s no longer curable, and in 2020, yes, that’s true. That’s probably the most specific statement that we can make. We are not going with curative intent, which means we treat for a defined amount of time, and then all the disease goes away, and we stop treatment, and then you go on with your life, and it never comes back. That would be cure.

But, I think it’s really important to point out that much of metastatic breast cancer can be highly treatable, and what we hope to do – and certainly, at least a subset of metastatic breast cancer – we want to convert it more to what we would call a chronic disease, and so, think of it more like hypertension, high blood pressure, or diabetes. These are diseases that we generally don’t cure with treatment, but that we can control with drug therapy, which sometimes has to be adjusted, and if we don’t control it, we can get some bad complications.

So, that’s not all metastatic breast cancer, unfortunately – we can’t convert all of it to something where we can use a therapy for a long time that keeps it in check and where you have a pretty good quality of life – but we’re hoping that more and more, we’re getting targeted therapies and more specific treatments to patients so that we can convert more patients to a more chronic kind of situation.

Katherine:                  

Many people are confused about genetic testing. They often think that it relates to ancestry or physical traits like hair and eye color. What’s the role of genetic testing in breast cancer?

Dr. Gralow:                

Well, you can do genetic testing of the patient’s inheritance, which is how most people think of genetic testing, and that’s actually really important and increasingly important in metastatic breast cancer to do your own inheritance. Have you inherited a gene that was associated with how your cancer developed? Because now, we actually have a class of drugs called PARP inhibitors that are approved for tumors that have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation with them. Most of those mutations were inherited, but not all. Sometimes they can develop as well.

So, now, when my patient – if she didn’t previously have genetic testing for an inherited risk for breast cancer either coming from mom or dad’s side of the family, a lot of people do have that up front, especially if they’re younger at diagnosis or they have a lot of family members with breast cancer. If she didn’t have that genetic testing done previously, at the time of the metastatic occurrence, I’m going to recommend that that be done because knowing if the cancer is associated with one of these DNA repair genes – BRCA1, BRCA2, some other genes – we have a new treatment option, which is an oral pill that actually is highly effective if the tumor has a mutation in one of these.

But, we can also – so, that’s genetic testing of the patient’s own DNA, but we can also do what we call genetic testing – or genomic testing, if you will – of the genes of the cancer. What were the changes in the DNA at the gene level that caused a normal breast cell over time to develop into a cancer cell that’s now growing without responding to our body’s checks and balances? So, what were those mutations, deletions, or amplifications in the tumor itself?

So, we’ve got the patient’s genetics, we’ve got the tumor’s genetics, and both of those come into play when we’re making our best treatment recommendations and trying to understand what the right approach is.

Katherine:                  

How is testing administered?

Dr. Gralow:                

So, for our inherited testing, those gene changes can be found in every cell in the body, so we can do that from a simple blood test where we just look at the blood cells. We can actually do it with our sputum and with a cheek swab, even. You can get enough of the DNA from the inside of the mouth to do that.

For a tumor’s genetics, we need some of the tumor, so that’s either done with a biopsy into the metastatic site or, as I mentioned before, increasingly, we’re exploring the potential for a liquid biopsy – so, drawing some blood and then trying to find pieces of the tumor that are shed into the blood.