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How Is AML Treatment Effectiveness Monitored?

How Is AML Treatment Effectiveness Monitored? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment effectiveness be monitored over time? Expert Dr. Ellen Ritchie explains when testing is typically done following AML treatment, which methods are used for monitoring, and when retesting may be appropriate.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here.

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

Transcript:

Katherine:

Once a patient has begun treatment, how do you monitor whether it’s working?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, one of the more frustrating things about being an AML patient, is you don’t know right off the bat whether or not that you have gone into remission. So, what happens is you receive the chemotherapy, and the day you start chemotherapy is really day one. And somewhere around day 14, you’re at your lowest point. So, your blood counts are low, and you often feel really terrible, and you really wonder, is this working? But unfortunately, I can’t really tell you. Some institutions do bone marrow biopsies if you have intensive chemotherapy on day 14, or if you’re getting venetoclax (Venclexta) therapy somewhere around day 21 to look and see whether they still see leukemia cells, but the utility of that is different per institution.

The real test of whether chemotherapy x, is at the end of about 28-35 days, are your blood counts coming up, and are you making normal blood cells. Are you making platelets, which are the part of the blood that clots the blood? Or are you making neutrophils, which are the important cells needed to help you fight infection. So, the real proof of a remission, is are your platelets over 100,000? Is your neutrophil count over 1,000? And when we look in the bone marrow around that time, do we see normal cells developing and no leukemia?

Katherine:

How often should testing take place? And should patients be retested over time?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, the bone marrow biopsy is done frequently once you have a diagnosis of acute leukemia. So certainly, it’s done upon diagnosis of the disease.

And as I mentioned earlier in certain institutions, about halfway through your chemotherapy cycle, they’ll do a bone marrow biopsy to see whether or not they see any residual leukemia cells. That’s not done everywhere, and it’s done differently depending upon institutions sometimes. At the end of the chemotherapy treatment, if you recover your blood counts, we do a bone marrow biopsy to confirm a remission. If by day 35, we haven’t seen that your blood counts are recovering, we may do a bone marrow biopsy to see whether or not we see leukemia cells in there, or early recovery. So, you’re definitely going to have bone marrows at those time points. If you’ve gone into remission, it depends on what we’d do next as to when you would have another bone marrow biopsy. So, if you’re going to bone marrow transplant you may have one more biopsy, just prior to going into transplant, and another biopsy at the end of the first month after transplant.

If you’re going to have what we call ongoing therapy, roughly every three or four months, we may do a bone marrow biopsy to determine whether or not the remission is holding. If during ongoing therapy, we see that there is blood count abnormalities that we weren’t expecting, that might be a reason that we would do a bone marrow biopsy. And that’s unpredictable as to when that would be.

What Is Low-Intensity AML Therapy?

What Is Low-Intensity AML Therapy? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How does low-intensity AML therapy differ from high-intensity AML therapy? Expert Dr. Ellen Ritchie provides a comparison of the administration methods, side effects and reviews which AML patients low-intensity and high-intensity therapy are right for.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

You mentioned earlier, Dr. Ritchie, low-intensity therapy. Could you tell us about the types of treatment options?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, I’ll go – high-intensity therapy or intense chemotherapy always has to be given really in a hospital. And if you don’t start it – if you can start certain intensive chemotherapies, like daunorubicin and cytarabine (Vyxeos), which is also intensive, in the outpatient setting, but by day seven or eight, you end up in the hospital. And in intensive chemotherapies, you lose your hair, there’s GI toxicities, you’re at high risk of developing infections and you need a lot of transfusion. And for even young people, it’s a difficult therapy for which you’re in the hospital, and 90-some percent of patients are on IV antibiotics.

So, it’s intensive chemotherapy because it has to be given in a hospital setting and requires intensive supportive care. Low-intensity therapy can be given in the outpatient setting. So, at the present time you can get a drug like azacitidine (Vidaza), for example, which is an injection that you get seven days in a row.

Unfortunately, you have to come to the doctor’s office every day for those injections, but once you’ve had the injection, you can go home. Combined with venetoclax (Venclexta) which is an oral agent. So, an oral agent can be given at home.

You need close supervision in the physician’s office when you’re on this type of therapy, but you don’t need the constant support that you need if you are getting intensive chemotherapy. So, it can be done, in the comfort really of your home and with your family. You will have to come in and have transfusions potentially as an outpatient, nearly everyone does. And there’s always the risk that you develop a fever and if you do, you have to come into the hospital for IV antibiotics.

But in general, low-intensity means not so much support needed in a hospitalized setting, and the tolerability of this particular chemotherapy in the outpatient setting.

AML Targeted Therapies, What’s Available and How Do They Work?

AML Targeted Therapies, What’s Available and How Do They Work? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

There are several targeted therapies approved for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Expert Dr. Ellen Ritchie provides insight about recent approvals, how these therapies work, and shares details about newer therapies currently being studied for the treatment of AML.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

You touched upon this earlier, but what targeted therapies or treatments are available for AML patients?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, there have been many recent FDA approvals of drugs that are targeted. One, is the FLT3 inhibitors. And the two that are available are Midostaurin, which is most commonly – was the first drug that was really added to intensive chemotherapy.

And clinical trials show that in those FLT3-positive population that patients had an overall better outcome if midostaurin (Rydapt) were added to intensive chemotherapy. There’s also a drug called gilteritinib (Xospata), and this drug is also a FLT3 inhibitor that was tested in patients who had refractory leukemia. They could either get real chemotherapy regimen or they could get gilteritinib. And it turns out in the FLT3-positive patients, the gilteritinib was superior to the strong chemotherapy. So that’s been approved for patients who have refractory, or disease that didn’t really respond to initial therapy, that is IDH – or is FLT3-positive.

Then there’s the IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors that have also been approved, and a small proportion of AML patients will be positive for IDH1 or IDH2 mutations.

The IDH1 inhibitor ivosidenib (Tibsovo), is available and can be used to treat patients if you know up front, they have an IDH1 inhibitor. So, that’s a regimen where the single agent can be used to treat an IDH1 mutated patient who’s newly diagnosed. Those patients are also eligible for many clinical trials now, where they’re combining that particular drug with other agents, in an effort to improve outcome. For IDH2 positive patients, there’s a drug called enasidenib (Idhifa). And this drug is used mainly in patients in the second line setting. But it specifically targets IDH2. And patients go into remission sometimes for a prolonged period of time. So, these drugs are FDA approved, and they’re treating targetable mutations.

TP53 mutations are a particularly bothersome mutation because it confers a poor outcome. And I’m happy to say that we have clinical trials now that are available that actually target TP53 mutations.

So, there are – there is therapy available for that type of mutation that was

not available before through the clinical trials. And I expect in coming years that we’re going to see more and more targeted therapies develop in AML which can be used potentially in combination with what we’re already using as backbones to enhance the outcome of patients with this disease.

Katherine:

Well, how do targeted therapies work?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, targeted therapies work on – it’s sort of complicated. The targets which are available, IDH or the FLT3 is really on the outside of the cell and it is a drug which is targeted directly to the FLT3 on the outside of the cell.

It works quite well in the peripheral blood, where you see the blast oftentimes disappear. The big concern always is how well it’s working getting deep into the marrow. But it’s looking at the target on the outside of the cell. IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors work on particular chemicals which are involved in the kreb cycle, and those of you that took high school chemistry may have memories buried in the deep parts of your brain of learning the kreb cycle. And this is a fundamental metabolic cycle inside cells, and if you have a mutation, an IDH1 or IDH2, you’re unable to go through that full kreb cycle in the appropriate way. And that is something that leads to you having a cancer, in this case AML. So, these drugs actually interfere with what’s happening in that kreb cycle, and allow you to make more normal cells.

Factors to Consider When Choosing an AML Treatment

Factors to Consider When Choosing an AML Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What test results and factors should be considered when choosing an acute myeloid leukemia (AML) treatment? Expert Dr. Ellen Ritchie explains how test results impact AML prognosis and treatment – and other factors that come into play when determining a treatment approach.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

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

Dr. Ritchie:

Well, when a patient has AML, if they are a fit patient, if it will help us determine after initial induction, whether to cure the patient we need to do a bone marrow transplant, or we can just continue with chemotherapy.

And those are really important things to determine. So, if you have a good prognosis AML, if you have an AML that has certain translocations like inversion 16 or 821, or if you have a CEPBA mutation or you have an NPM1 mutation, and that’s all you have, you may do particularly well with chemotherapy treatment alone. And you won’t need to have a bone marrow transplant.

If you have certain other mutations, we know that the only way that we’re going to cure you, is with a bone marrow transplant. And if you are fit, when we finish induction and even as we’re doing induction, we’re preparing you for a bone marrow transplant down the line.

One disadvantage, just to mention about the molecular testing, is it doesn’t come back as quickly as some of the other testing. So that you will have already started induction chemotherapy most generally before the mutational testing comes back. Which can be anywhere – depending upon the institution, between seven and 21 days. So, it takes time for those results to be available.

Katherine:

Outside of test results, Dr. Ritchie, what other factors should be considered when choosing treatment?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, you want to choose whether a patient is most likely to benefit from intense induction chemotherapy. With strong chemotherapies where the backbone of those therapies would be an anthracycline, like daunorubicin (Cerubidine) or cytarabine (Liposomal), or daunorubicin or idarubicin (Idamycin PFS), together with cytarabine. And these are intensive chemotherapies. Versus, non-intensive chemotherapy which is able to be done as an outpatient, more frequently. And it is something that is gentler for a patient, they’re less likely to have severe toxicity. And the backbone of those regimens is using a drug called azacitidine (Vidaza) or decitabine (Inqovi), together with a second drug called venetoclax (Venclexta).

So, these are the two backbones, there may be clinical trials or there may be targetable aspects of your leukemia, which drugs would be added to either of those backbones. But those are the two backbones. And I also like to identify those patients that may not benefit from chemotherapy at all. And so, it’s very important, I think to really get to know your patient. And I spend time with my patient, particularly on the first visit, to understand not only their physical health, but their mental health. How good is their cognition, what is their mood, are they depressed, or are they happy people? And what is their circumstance? Do they have people to support them? Do they live close to family? Is a caregiver able to come, with an elderly patient for example, to visits?

Those, and whether or not they’re living alone and need tremendous support. So that’s really important to determine and helps me to choose what the best therapy might be. And also, concurrently what I can do to shore up the patient to do better with whatever therapy that I’m giving them. I.e., if you’re depressed, let’s work on that, or if your blood pressure is too high, or if you are – your diabetes is out of control at the same time that I’m seeing you, to try and fix those particular problems. In older patients I often do sort of a miniature version of the geriatric assessment. And in trials that have been so far, the most important aspects of the geriatric assessment, are really what is your cognitive function? Do have a mild dementia, or do you not have a mild dementia? Because dementia may be or mild dementia may be associated with poorer outcome.

The other is, are you able to do what we call the incidental tasks of daily life. So, you know fundamental tasks are really brushing your teeth and combing your hair, and dressing yourself. But are you able to do your cooking and your shopping and your banking and those things? Patients who have trouble doing their cooking and shopping and banking, and those types of activities, that also has been associated with a poor overall survival in AML. So, it’s really important to determine all of those aspects and if there are any deficiencies, to really know that the only therapeutic choice for that particular patient would be a low-intensity therapy.

Understanding Personalized Medicine for AML

Understanding Personalized Medicine for AML from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What should you know before deciding on treatment for YOUR AML? AML specialist Dr. Ellen Ritchie reviews key factors that guide treatment choices, including biomarker testing results, and shares advice for partnering with your team to advocate for the best care.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

As we begin to talk about personalized therapy and AML, let’s start with the basics. How would you define personalized medicine?

Dr. Ritchie:

Personalized medicine, to me is really, it’s a difficult question. It’s trying to find the best treatment for a particular patient. And it’s looking at biologic issues, what kind of cancer, what type of AML is it, what are the specific mutations or chromosomal abnormalities. But it’s also looking at the person. Is the patient active or not active? Do they have lots of other diseases like diabetes and coronary artery disease? Or pulmonary disease, or are they completely healthy?

Or, do they have support at home? If they’re sick at home is there someone who can take care of them, versus a situation where you’re older and alone and you have no real family member to rely on. So, all of these things are very important in making a personalized decision as to how you treat a patient.

Where Do Clinical Trials Fit Into an AML Treatment Plan?

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:

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

Dr. Wang:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:

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

Dr. Wang:

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Wang:

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

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

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

Katherine:

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

Dr. Wang:

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

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

Katherine:

What is biomarker testing?

Dr. Wang:

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:

What is a genetic mutation?

Dr. Wang:

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

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

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

Katherine:

How do biomarkers affect AML treatment choices?

Dr. Wang:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should you know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR AML? AML specialist Dr. Ellen Ritchie reviews key factors that guide treatment choices, including biomarker testing results, and shares advice for partnering with your team to advocate for the best care.

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here: weillcornell.org/ekritchie.

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Expert Advice for AML Patients When Making Treatment Choices

Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized AML therapy for your individual disease, and why it’s essential to insist on key testing. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program, contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during this webinar. 

Finally, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Ellen Ritchie. Dr. Ritchie, would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Ritchie:

Hello, my name is Dr. Ellen Ritchie, and I am an attending with a Leukemia service, and an assistant director since, for the last 15 years. 

And I treat mainly Acute Myeloid Leukemia, Myelodysplastic syndromes, which are kind of a pre-Leukemia; and Myeloproliferative diseases. And have a particular interest in the treatment of older patients with AML.  

Katherine:

Excellent, well thank you so much for joining us today. As we begin to talk about personalized therapy and AML, let’s start with the basics. How would you define personalized medicine? 

Dr. Ritchie:

Personalized medicine, to me is really, it’s a difficult question. It’s trying to find the best treatment for a particular patient. And it’s looking at biologic issues, what kind of cancer, what type of AML is it, what are the specific mutations or chromosomal abnormalities. But it’s also looking at the person. Is the patient active or not active? Do they have lots of other diseases like diabetes and coronary artery disease? Or pulmonary disease, or are they completely healthy? 

Or, do they have support at home? If they’re sick at home is there someone who can take care of them, versus a situation where you’re older and alone and you have no real family member to rely on. So, all of these things are very important in making a personalized decision as to how you treat a patient. 

Katherine:

Well, it sounds like, each person’s AML is unique. So, let’s help our audience be clear about basic testing. What tests are necessary to help understand a patient’s specific disease at diagnosis? 

 Dr. Ritchie:

I mean certainly it’s important to do a physical exam and to find out what the general health of the patient is. In order to evaluate an AML, or any other Leukemia, I look at the peripheral blood smear. To look at what I think the type of Leukemia might be that I am dealing with. There are some Leukemias that have particular way that they look like Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia for which there is a designated therapy which works.  

And you can tell that just by looking at a peripheral blood slide. The next test is always a bone marrow biopsy. Patients are not delighted that that is a test, but it is a test that can be done in the office, usually within 15 to 20 minutes. And that test gives us a lot of information. It gives us information about what type of AML it is, what are the markers on the outside of the cell, it gives us information about the chromosomes inside the Leukemia cell. Are there missing chromosomes, or rearranged chromosomes? And if there are, that can be very relevant to the prognosis. And lastly, it’s sent for a particular mutations or markers. So, we look for IDH3 mutations, we look for FLT3 mutations, we look for IDH1 and IDH2 mutations, and we do an entire myeloid panel. Which is about 44/45 genes that are most commonly mutated in patients with AML.  

So that’s the initial work up for any AML patient. 

Katherine:

You mentioned markers Dr. Ritchie. What is genomic, or bio marker testing? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, we’re looking really at most specifically at mutations inside individual genes that might be in your Leukemia cell. So, there are some mutations actually that confer a better prognosis. Like NPM1 or CEPBA, those can be more positive type of prognosis than some of the others.  

But we’re also looking for markers that might be targetable with certain therapies that we have. So, if you have a FLT3 ITD or TKD, we actually have particular drugs which can target those particular mutations. There are also drugs that are FDA approved to treat IDH1 and IDH2 mutations. 

There are certain mutations that have a relatively poor prognosis, like TP53 for which there are clinical trials which are available, which specifically are meant to target patients who have those sorts of mutations. And there’re other clinical trials using the FDA approved drugs that I just mentioned, for FLT3, for IDH1 and IDH2 and combining it with other agents to try and improve outcome in AML patients. 

Katherine:

Some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests, so what key questions should they be asking their physician about testing? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, physicians, they – financial coverage of the mutational testing is not uniform across the country and across insurances. So, Medicare and different Medicare insurances and some of the private insurances all vary in their coverage.  

So, in my clinic, I am asking – I prefer the test that we do in house at Cornell. But it’s important that I ask, what will their insurance cover. And make sure that I send the appropriate testing that will be covered by insurance. There are some insurances that will not cover this type of testing. So, it is a real question for the patient, when you go to see the doctor to say, are you going to do mutational NGS testing?  

And, will my insurance cover this? Hopefully most – if Medicare adopts the coverage of these types of mutational testing, it’s often true that private insurance will eventually pick this up. But it’s a murky field and it’s really important to talk to your doctor about this. The cost of the bone marrow biopsy, and the chromosomal evaluation is nearly always covered by insurance.  

Katherine:

Okay, that’s really great advice, thank you. How do the results of these tests affect prognosis and treatment? 

Dr. Ritchie:

Well, when a patient has AML, if they are a fit patient, if it will help us determine after initial induction, whether to cure the patient we need to do a bone marrow transplant, or we can just continue with chemotherapy.  

And those are really important things to determine. So, if you have a good prognosis AML, if you have an AML that has certain translocations like inversion 16 or 821, or if you have a CEPBA mutation or you have an NPM1 mutation, and that’s all you have, you may do particularly well with chemotherapy treatment alone. And you won’t need to have a bone marrow transplant. 

If you have certain other mutations, we know that the only way that we’re going to cure you, is with a bone marrow transplant. And if you are fit, when we finish induction and even as we’re doing induction, we’re preparing you for a bone marrow transplant down the line.  

One disadvantage, just to mention about the molecular testing, is it doesn’t come back as quickly as some of the other testing. So that you will have already started induction chemotherapy most generally before the mutational testing comes back. Which can be anywhere – depending upon the institution, between seven and 21 days. So, it takes time for those results to be available.  

Katherine:

Outside of test results Dr. Ritchie, what other factors should be considered when choosing treatment? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, you want to choose whether a patient is most likely to benefit from intense induction chemotherapy. With strong chemotherapies where the backbone of those therapies would be an anthracycline, like Daunorubicin or Cytarabine, or Daunorubicin or Idarubicin, together with Cytarabine. And these are intensive chemotherapies. Versus, non-intensive chemotherapy which is able to be done as an outpatient, more frequently. And it is something that is gentler for a patient, they’re less likely to have severe toxicity. And the backbone of those regimens is using a drug called Azacitidine or Decitabine, together with a second drug called Venetoclax. 

So, these are the two backbones, there may be clinical trials or there may be targetable aspects of your Leukemia, which drugs would be added to either of those backbones. But those are the two backbones. And I also like to identify those patients that may not benefit from chemotherapy at all. And so, it’s very important, I think to really get to know your patient. And I spend time with my patient, particularly on the first visit, to understand not only their physical health, but their mental health. How good is their cognition, what is their mood, are they depressed, or are they happy people? And what is their circumstance? Do they have people to support them? Do they live close to family? Is a caregiver able to come, with an elderly patient for example, to visits? 

Those, and whether or not they’re living alone and need tremendous support. So that’s really important to determine and helps me to choose what the best therapy might be. And also, concurrently what I can do to shore up the patient to do better with whatever therapy that I’m giving them. I.E., if you’re depressed, let’s work on that, or if your blood pressure is too high, or if you are – your diabetes is out of control at the same time that I’m seeing you, to try and fix those particular problems. In older patients I often do sort of a miniature version of the geriatric assessment. And in trials that have been so far, the most important aspects of the geriatric assessment, are really what is your cognitive function? Do have a mild dementia or do you not have a mild dementia? Because dementia may be or mild dementia may be associated with poorer outcome. 

The other is, are you able to do what we call the incidental tasks of daily life. So, you know fundamental tasks are really brushing your teeth and combing your hair, and dressing yourself. But are you able to do your cooking and your shopping and your banking and those things? Patients who have trouble doing their cooking and shopping and banking, and those types of activities, that also has been associated with a poor overall survival in AML. So, it’s really important to determine all of those aspects and if there are any deficiencies, to really know that the only therapeutic choice for that particular patient would be a low-intensity therapy. 

Katherine:

You touched upon this earlier, but what targeted therapies or treatments are available for AML patients? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, there have been many recent FDA approvals of drugs that are targeted. One, is the FLT3 inhibitors. And the two that are available are Midostaurin, which is most commonly – was the first drug that was really added to intensive chemotherapy. 

And clinical trials show that in those FLT3 positive population that patients had an overall better outcome if Midostaurin were added to intensive chemotherapy. There’s also a drug called gilteritinib, and this drug is also a FLT3 inhibitor that was tested in patients who had refractory leukemia. They could either get real chemotherapy regimen or they could get gilteritinib. And it turns out in the FLT3-positive patients, the gilteritinib was superior to the strong chemotherapy. So that’s been approved for patients who have refractory, or disease that didn’t really respond to initial therapy, that is IDH – or is FLT3 positive.  

Then there’s the IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors that have also been approved, and a small proportion of AML patients will be positive for IDH1 or IDH2 mutations. 

The IDH1 inhibitor Ivosidenib, is available and can be used to treat patients if you know up front, they have an IDH1 inhibitor. So, that’s a regimen where the single agent can be used to treat an IDH1 mutated patient who’s newly diagnosed. Those patients are also eligible for many clinical trials now, where they’re combining that particular drug with other agents, in an effort to improve outcome. For IDH2 positive patients, there’s a drug called Enasidenib. And this drug is used mainly in patients in the second line setting. But it specifically targets IDH2. And patients go into remission sometimes for a prolonged period of time. So, these drugs are FDA approved, and they’re treating targetable mutations.  

TP53 mutations are a particularly bothersome mutation because it confers a poor outcome. And I’m happy to say that we have clinical trials now that are available that actually target TP53 mutations.  

So, there are – there is therapy available for that type of mutation that was not available before through the clinical trials. And I expect in coming years that we’re gonna see more and more targeted therapies develop in AML which can be used potentially in combination with what we’re already using as backbones to enhance the outcome of patients with this disease. 

Katherine:

Well, how do targeted therapies work? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, targeted therapies work on – it’s sort of complicated. The targets which are available, IDH or the FLT3 is really on the outside of the cell and it is a drug which is targeted directly to the FLT3 on the outside of the cell. 

It works quite well in the peripheral blood, where you see the blast oftentimes disappear. The big concern always is how well it’s working getting deep into the marrow. But it’s looking at the target on the outside of the cell. IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors work on particular chemicals which are involved in the kreb cycle, and those of you that took high school chemistry may have memories buried in the deep parts of your brain of learning the kreb cycle. And this is a fundamental metabolic cycle inside cells, and if you have a mutation, an IDH1 or IDH2, you’re unable to go through that full kreb cycle in the appropriate way. And that is something that leads to you having a cancer, in this case AML. So, these drugs actually interfere with what’s happening in that kreb cycle, and allow you to make more normal cells. 

Katherine:

You mentioned earlier Dr. Ritchie, low-intensity therapy. Could you tell us about the types of treatment options? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, I’ll go – high-intensity therapy or intense chemotherapy always has to be given really in a hospital. And if you don’t start it – if you can start certain intensive chemotherapies, like Vyxeos, which is also intensive, in the outpatient setting, but by day seven or eight, you end up in the hospital. And in intensive chemotherapies, you lose your hair, there’s GI toxicities, you’re at high risk of developing infections and you need a lot of transfusion. And for even young people, it’s a difficult therapy for which you’re in the hospital, and 90-some percent of patients are on IV antibiotics. 

So, it’s intensive chemotherapy because it has to be given in a hospital setting and requires intensive supportive care. Low-intensity therapy can be given in the outpatient setting. So, at the present time you can get a drug like Azacitidine, for example, which is an injection that you get seven days in a row. Unfortunately, you have to come to the doctor’s office every day for those injections, but once you’ve had the injection, you can go home. Combined with Venetoclax which is an oral agent. So, an oral agent can be given at home. You need close supervision in the physician’s office when you’re on this type of therapy, but you don’t need the constant support that you need if you are getting intensive chemotherapy. So, it can be done, in the comfort really of your home and with your family. You will have to come in and have transfusions potentially as an outpatient, nearly everyone does. And there’s always the risk that you develop a fever and if you do, you have to come into the hospital for IV antibiotics. 

But in general, low-intensity means not so much support needed in a hospitalized setting, and the tolerability of this particular chemotherapy in the outpatient setting.  

Katherine:

Once a patient has begun treatment, how do you monitor whether it’s working? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, one of the more frustrating things about being an AML patient, is you don’t know right off the bat whether or not that you have gone into remission. So, what happens is you receive the chemotherapy, and the day you start chemotherapy is really day one. And somewhere around day 14, you’re at your lowest point. So, your blood counts are low, and you often feel really terrible, and you really wonder, is this working? But unfortunately, I can’t really tell you. Some institutions do bone marrow biopsies if you have intensive chemotherapy on day 14, or if you’re getting Venetoclax therapy somewhere around day 21 to look and see whether they still see Leukemia cells, but the utility of that is different per institution.  

The real test of whether chemotherapy x`, is at the end of about 28-35 days, are your blood counts coming up, and are you making normal blood cells. Are you making platelets, which are the part of the blood that clots the blood? Or are you making neutrophils, which are the important cells needed to help you fight infection. So, the real proof of a remission, is are your platelets over 100,000? Is your neutrophil count over 1,000? And when we look in the bone marrow around that time, do we see normal cells developing and no Leukemia? 

Katherine:

How often should testing take place? And should patients be retested over time? 

Dr. Ritchie:

So, the bone marrow biopsy is done frequently once you have a diagnosis of Acute Leukemia. So certainly, it’s done upon diagnosis of the disease. 

And as I mentioned earlier in certain institutions, about halfway through your chemotherapy cycle, they’ll do a bone marrow biopsy to see whether or not they see any residual Leukemia cells. That’s not done everywhere, and it’s done differently depending upon institutions sometimes. At the end of the chemotherapy treatment, if you recover your blood counts, we do a bone marrow biopsy to confirm a remission. If by day 35, we haven’t seen that your blood counts are recovering, we may do a bone marrow biopsy to see whether or not we see Leukemia cells in there, or early recovery. So, you’re definitely going to have bone marrows at those time points. If you’ve gone into remission, it depends on what we’d do next as to when you would have another bone marrow biopsy. So, if you’re going to bone marrow transplant you may have one more biopsy, just prior to going into transplant, and another biopsy at the end of the first month after transplant. 

If you’re gonna have what we call ongoing therapy, roughly every three or four months, we may do a bone marrow biopsy to determine whether or not the remission is holding. If during ongoing therapy, we see that there is blood count abnormalities that we weren’t expecting, that might be a reason that we would do a bone marrow biopsy. And that’s unpredictable as to when that would be.  

Katherine:

Dr. Ritchie, what advice do you have for patients to help them feel more confident in speaking up and advocating, being a partner in their care? 

Dr. Ritchie:

Well, when you choose a Leukemia doctor, you need to choose someone that you can actually communicate with. Someone who you feel is not allowing you to ask questions, or is not curious about what your life is like, you may wanna think, I wanna check out somebody else.  

Because it’s really important you like the person who’s your doctor, and that you have a trust relationship together. So, it’s really – I tell some patients it’s a marriage of convenience that we have. And that you really have to think of it that way. If someone doesn’t allow you to ask questions or if they are not fully answering your questions in a way that you understand, try and speak up for yourself and make sure that the doctor tries to address that. And if the doctor won’t address those things for you, or you feel like you don’t understand what is being explained to you, then you can think about trying to see someone else. I think it’s really important if you can, to write down as many questions as you have about your disease before you come in. 

Because often what happens is you get there, you’re stunned by the amount of information, and the questions you wanted to ask, you forget. And the next day, you’re like, ugh, I didn’t ask these questions. So, before you come in, if you write questions. Questions about insurance coverage, that may not be something that we go over. Or questions about toxicities, or questions, if I’m gonna lose my hair, do you have the name of a wig facility. All these questions that you might have, put them on a piece of paper, so that they can be addressed when you’re with the doctor. And other things will come up, you’ll have other questions when you’re there, but make sure your fundamental questions are answered. 

Katherine:

Yeah, those are great suggestions. We have a couple of audience questions. Mike wants to know, what does it mean to have high-risk AML? 

Dr. Ritchie:

High-risk AML means that there is something in your chromosomes that are worrisome and may confer a worse outcome. Or that one of the mutations that you have, or the combination of mutations that you have and the genetic testing are poor risk mutations that are associated with poor outcome. So, high-risk, really means a high risk of progression, or a high risk of – it’s a high risk of not going into remission and not being treatable AML. So, these are AMLs we treat aggressively, and if we get a patient into remission, we generally send high-risk patients to a bone marrow transplant. 

Katherine:

The second question is from Craig, he says; I’m currently undergoing treatment for AML, is the Covid-19 vaccine safe and effective? 

Dr. Ritchie:

I recommend the Covid-19 vaccine to everyone, all my patients. A little immunity is better than none. And there is preliminary data, looking at patients with Myeloid malignancies, not Lymphoid, but Myeloid malignancies, where it appears there is an immune response to the Covid-19 vaccine. So, I would suggest that you get the Covid-19 vaccine. Any of them that are available, are good. Whether it’s Moderna, or Pfizer, or Johnson and Johnson. Whatever is available to you, you should go ahead and get. 

Katherine:

Are there any symptoms or issues that AML patients should be looking for post-vaccine? 

Dr. Ritchie:

Post-vaccine, there’s a lot of symptoms that people have. And they can be similar among Myeloid patients. Some of my patients have had no reaction whatsoever, some people have had a really sore arm. 

Some patients are incredibly tired after the vaccine; some patients develop a low-grade fever for a couple of days. Those are really what we watch for. Sometimes when there’s a reaction, we’re hopeful that there’s an antibody being made, or an immune response that’s developing. So, it’s not always a bad thing if you have a reaction. But I don’t think that the reactions of patients of Myeloid malignancies is any different than that of the general public. 

Katherine:

That’s what it sounds like. To close Dr. Ritchie, what would you like to leave the audience with? Are you hopeful about the future of AML treatment? 

Dr. Ritchie:

I’m very hopeful. I’ve worked in this field for 15 years and through the 15 years we have seen a lot of new drugs that have been approved for AML. It’s remarkable, the FLT3 inhibitors, IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors, new formulations of intensive chemotherapy, like Vyxeos, the Pfizer drug; glasdegib – I can never say that one. And most importantly, venetoclax, which has really revolutionized our treatment of low-risk, or not low-risk, but the low intensity patient. 

I see in the future that there is gonna be more – there’s an emphasis on immunotherapy, so I think we’re gonna see more antibody-based therapy that’s going to be approved by the FDA. Maybe it will be used in combination with the drugs that we are already using. There are all sorts of combinations using all the FDA approved drugs in different ways together. So, we can maybe do better with the drugs that we have. And there’s always new targeted drugs which are being tested in AML. So, I think as time goes on, from a molecular perspective it will be even more targeted. And I’m hoping also that there will be oral formulations of a lot of our drugs. So, it’s kind of exciting that there’s an oral form of Decitabine called Inqovi, which is something that could potentially be given in induction therapy right off the bat with Venetoclax for an all-oral regimen at home. 

All of these things are great advances, in my opinion, and I think that the opportunity to treat patients outside the hospital, with more targeted therapy and immunotherapy is gonna be the future. 

Katherine:

Yeah. And the future sounds promising. Thank you so much for joining us today Dr. Ritchie. 

Dr. Ritchie:

Thank you for having me. 

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners.  

To learn more about AML, and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell, thanks for joining us.

Is the COVID Vaccine Effective for CLL Patients?

Is the COVID Vaccine Effective for CLL Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is the COVID vaccine effective for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients? Dr. Paul Barr shares insight about mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness in CLL patients – both for those in remission and those in active treatment.

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

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An Expert’s Perspective on CLL Research Advances

Transcript:

Katherine:

I understand that researchers have been looking into whether the COVID vaccination is as effective in people with CLL. What can you tell us about that? The research?

Dr. Barr:

Sure. Everyone knew this was going to be an important question. We’ve known for a long time that riff CLL responses to vaccines in general aren’t as good as some of the normal population. So, there’ve been a whole host of studies over the years where patients didn’t quite respond as well to flu vaccines or pneumonia vaccines. Nonetheless, we typically recommend standard vaccinations, because there’s can be some degree of response. And our testing isn’t always perfect in terms of how well vaccines work.

So, when it typically, is felt to be a relatively safe procedure, is something we typically recommend.

More recently, we looked at studies on the shingles vaccine, and actually that works better than perhaps the flu shot, for example. Because patients probably were previously exposed to that virus earlier in life when they get vaccinated. So, recall response, which is a little bit easier for the immune system.

So, that brings us up to the COVID vaccines, which is obviously critically important ever on everyone’s mind. And the data’s still early. But what we’ve learned so, far is that, like what we might have predicted, our patients, the CLL patients don’t respond as well to the mRNA-based COVID vaccines.

So, in the media we saw, in the larger 20- and 40,000 patients studies that maybe, 95 percent of patients didn’t experience infection. It looks like in the general population, those vaccines work very well. In a cohort of 160, some CLL patients who are vaccinated early on in Israel, it looked like maybe about 40 percent of patients responded.

For the patients who hadn’t previously been treated but had measurable CLL, maybe about half of patients responded adequately in terms of generating antibodies. So, kind of a flip of a coin. For patients who have been treated and were in remission for more than a year, we’ll say the responses were better, maybe 80 percent or so.

For patients who are on active treatment, even our novel treatments, like the BTK inhibitors or venetoclax (Venclexta), the BCL-2 inhibitor, the responses were pretty poor, 18 or so percent.

So, you can see for patients with active disease, their responses are impaired. For those that are in remission, a little better. For those who are on active treatment, the antibody responses aren’t very good. So, I honestly think this is important information, but tell patients, don’t lose hope.

It’s still important to take the precautions. Some degree of wearing masks and social distancing. They will be better protected if their friends and family around them are vaccinated, and they still may respond to some degree. It’s not like the vaccines aren’t working at all. It’s just that the responses aren’t quite as good as the general population. So, again, another long-winded answer, but hopefully that helps patients understand some of the limitations in vaccinations.

But also that generally things are getting safer in that they still can venture out in society, but still have to take some precautions.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia: Shirley’s Clinical Trial Profile

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia: Shirley’s Clinical Trial Profile from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient Shirley felt she had a different experience not fitting the typical CLL patient demographic. Watch as she shares about her journey as a BIPOC patient, the value of clinical trials, and her advice to other patients for ensuring optimal outcomes.

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Transcript:

Shirley:

In my late 30s, I started feeling extremely fatigued, and I went to my GYN. She ran a couple of tests, and she has sent me over to a hematologist because she just determined that it was something that she was not knowledgeable about. Then I had a physician contact me after several blood tests, and they had told me that it was a form of cancer, and it was leukemia, and it was called CLL, which is chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

When I heard the word chronic, I immediately thought, “Oh my God, this means like death instantly.” But they had told me that, “No, it was aggressive, but it’s definitely slow-moving,” and I have a great chance of fighting it. I was concerned because I did not feel like I wanted to be a lab rat, because I was told that I did not fit the demographics for having CLL. Most of the individuals were male of Caucasian descent, and they were much, much older than I was possibly in the late 60 to 70s, so I got a lot of stares and it made me feel very uncomfortable. So, I just didn’t want to feel like they were just like, “Okay, this is a different case. We can make a name for.” I wanted to make sure I was getting the best treatment.

I didn’t tell too many people in the beginning because I really didn’t know what was going on, but a lot of people was able to tell because no matter how much the time of sleep I got…I was always tired. The fatigue is just overwhelming. I decided to just remain optimistic about my future, because I know whenever you’re trying to battle any kind of ailment your attitude means a lot, you have to really put it out there into existence that you’re going to get better and you believe it, you have to really believe it in order to put that energy into finding out about the treatments and so forth. My doctors, they gave me a booklet that was maybe about it, and they said to me, “Take this home, study hematology and learn about your disease, how we’re going to be trying to treat it, and you know what you’re going to be feeling and you need to tell us everything if your nose itches, your eyes burn. We need to know everything that happens.”

And I was just not a complaining type of person, so there were plenty of times where I was experiencing like pain on my side and I was just like, “Oh, it’s probably just gas from the medication,” and then later found out that the medication they were giving me was enlarging my spleen, so it was pushing against my stomach, which was causing me an enormous amount of discomfort. So the doctors had to then give me other types of medication to help treat that issue that I was having, so it was definitely a long journey. This was an unusual diagnosis for someone of my heritage. The doctors explained to me that there was no blueprint for my treatment, this was, they were going to be trying things, they had a team of individuals, maybe it was like 10 or 15 of them, and they’re actually studying my case on this big screen in this room.

So it was constant medication, it was constant them trying, running the blood test, you were always, always getting blood tests, they were always giving you observations. Someone was always in your room, at least every two hours, checking to see what was going on. I just remember some time sitting in the hospital was just feeling very overwhelmed and definitely feeling isolated alone. I remember one time I was in so much pain, like my bones were hurting me so bad that I literally was just losing my mind in the bed. So they gave me some morphine, which I’ve never taken before in my life, and I wind up throwing up the chemo medication that they gave me. it was just so bad. So, the nurses and I were really overwhelmed at that point. I remember contacting family members and telling them, “I need to get out of here, I feel like they’re just trying whatever they want to try on me, and I don’t think it’s working. I don’t feel this is the place for me, like I need to really get out of here.”

So my doctor who was actually giving a seminar in Switzerland was just like…he was really amazing. He said to me, he said, “You are my prize patient. I am working every day really hard trying to get you back to being your 100 percent yourself,” He said, “You’re always like a light of sunshine.” The women that he worked with are always looking in the patient portal, and they’re like, “Shirley is coming in,” like, “Oh my gosh, she’s coming today.” And they’re excited because I always maintained a great attitude, and I always came in there dressed up.

So my doctor also recommended it when my treatment, a hospital stay was over for me to practice on taking out walks and exercising, yoga was very good meditation, they told me to get all these apps on my phone and therapeutic massages, those have been like a savior for me. I think having a good support system around you is extremely important, people who understand. Never be afraid to tell people what exactly you are experiencing. The mental fatigue that you go through is really unpredictable, and it’s off because that was not something that they, that no one prepared you for. So my doctor and his colleagues, they were just one of the greatest teams that I have experienced, them being very transparent about what was going on with me, even when I was at one time being very stubborn, I got so upset that I pulled the IV out of my arm and I was like, “You know what, I’m not doing this, I’m tired. I’ve got to get out of this hospital. I can’t stay here.”

I mean, people were just so sick, and this is not me. And they had to assure me, “It is you. You are sick, and you do have a blood cancer, and the sooner you come to terms with that, the more calm you’re going to be in being susceptible to accepting treatment. We’re here to help you, but we need you to tell us if something is not working, you don’t feel good on what’s going on in your body, we need to know.” The blood tests don’t lie, they tell them exactly what’s happening, the doctors know if the treatment is working, they monitor the CLL extremely closely. They were way more advanced at honing in on the type of treatment that I needed, so I was really assured that you’re in the right hands, and after when I started feeling a little bit better, then my trust totally opened up in staff, because I saw that they were excited about my treatment working. They were giving me the three combinations of chemo, and they were like, “This combination is working for you now.”

They started a new trial which was bringing in venetoclax (Venclexta) along with the rituximab (Rituxan), and that is what really started sending me on a better path, getting better. And then once I came off of the rituximab, which was an IV-infused chemo treatment, they decided to just keep me on the pill form of venetoclax, I was able to go into the office, which I was ecstatic about.

Advice I like to give to patients who are considering a clinical trial is definitely ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid, don’t be shy or hesitant and don’t feel like you feel like you’re ignorant. And always address it with a positive attitude. Keep in mind that they are there for your best interests and trying to get your health back to normalcy. Just know that you’re not in it alone. And always find someone that you can always have a conversation with if you don’t feel comfortable. Never be afraid to ask questions and just even if you do look different as opposed to everyone else that… and just get that everyone else that is sick. Don’t feel like you’re in it alone, regardless of how you look for what your demographic background is, just know that the team that’s there that’s in place is always fighting for you, and you can always say no or get a second opinion. That’s very important to know that you have options.

So, never feel afraid to ask about the clinical trials and do your research, it’s important. It’s inspiring to see people on the leukemia organization website that are exercising, they go for runs right after they receive treatment, that inspired me to say, I’m going to out and take the dog out for a walk or go out for a run and help myself get better,” and it works. It works, it really does.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia: Fran’s Clinical Trial Profile

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia: Fran’s Clinical Trial Profile from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient Fran was diagnosed over 20 years ago and has traveled long distances for care. Watch as she shares her CLL journey and the benefits that she’s experienced from seeking out CLL specialists and clinical trials.

“I just think that clinical trials play such an important role in the future…we’ve come such a distance in my 20 years that we would have never come had we not had people that came before me in clinical trials.”

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Transcript:

Fran:

Hi, my name is Fran, and I am 80 years young, just celebrated my birthday. And I have had CLL for 22 years. So, I developed CLL while I was still working as a nurse and as a diabetic specialist within a hospital setting. I was diagnosed as many are, by a simple blood test, having no symptoms. It was really done as part of my military requirement.

And I continued to work and continue my military career. I was a single parent, I am/was a single parent at that time, and I was raising three girls, so I had a busy life, and this was just a sideline as far as my health was concerned. I was in good health, but as the years went on, after two-and-a-half years, my count started to rise again, no symptoms. And the local oncologist that I was seeing decided that it was time for me to begin my first treatment, which was a very simple treatment again, as far as I was concerned, because it was an oral medication that I had no side effects whatsoever from, and it was easy to take once a day, and I did get some improvement in my blood work, of course. It did not put me in remission, but it brought down my numbers a little bit, and I was able to go sort of morally along for another two years when then it became evident again, not because of how I felt, but because of my numbers that I needed additional treatment. This treatment was a little bit more complicated because it was FCR, and that’s chemotherapy intravenous.

But I did say myself, “You need to start paying more attention to this disease,” and I went…I did go for a consultation at a university, about two hours from my home, and the physician was pretty direct with me and saying, “You need to start to pay more attention, get more information, have more testing done regarding the type of CLL you have,” at that point, it was the first time I had heard mutated, unmutated, which I know sounds probably a little crazy with my medical background. But again, I was able to put it in the rear-view mirror, the disease because I felt so well, and/or maybe it was denial.

I was able to come out of retirement and start to teach nursing part-time and work some other jobs. I got married. Life was good, I mean it was even better than good, and my pattern has been that I would get the treatment, get my CLL under control for about three to three-and-a-half years, that was about the time that I started, the numbers started to increase. And so my local oncologist here in Maryland said, “Well, we really need to be looking for something different,” and it was at that time when iguratimod (IGU) had just come out of clinical trials and been approved, so I was in this area, at least one of the first people in their practice to go on iguratimod.

Even though it’s not comfortable geographically, but to begin to look for a specialist and…so three years into iguratimod, I did that. I went to a university hospital setting, about three hours from my home and had way more thorough work-up, but more a work-up that included more tests that were able to give a clearer picture of my CLL, where it was at that point. And this group of doctors at this university setting said, Well, you were on track to maybe another year, and iguratimod to the end of the line as far as treatment for you, and you probably need to be looking at perhaps venetoclax (Venclexta) as your next option.

And I discussed actually with one of the local oncologists about going to see a specialist, and he encouraged me, he did not discourage me, he said, “We’d like to continue, we can play a role here, but we understand where you’re coming from.”

I am so glad that I made the decision, I did, because there is no doubt that this decision at the end of the iguratimod journey for me. I was going to be faced with another crossroads of where do I go from here as far as treatment, and I am quite sure had I not made the decision to go to a research university setting with a specialist that really is heavy into research.

I’m not sure that I would have…I would have ended up on a clinical trial, I’m not sure…I could have navigated all that myself, even with my medical background. Sure, enough the iguratimod did come to an end. And as I did, I was truly, really ready for venetoclax and a physician specialist, CLL specialist that had been at the university setting that I went to, as I mentioned, for my care, he had left that university and moved on a little further away from where I live, I contacted him just for an opinion, and he said, “Well, why don’t you come to see me?” I was in Florida at the time, and so I said, “Okay,” I would. And I did. And he broached the clinical trial.

The benefits definitely outweigh the risks for me. I didn’t realize that I was one of the first 10 or 12 people to take this drug, but I don’t think it would have made any difference because I knew that I had faith, first of all, in my physician and his knowledge, I had faith in the drug as they explained it to me, it was a new way of addressing mutations, and I just felt that this was a good pathway to be on, and that the risks, I felt would be handled by my physician and I would be watching for them, so…I do feel in my case, it was definitely worth the risk. I would say though, that people should really think and read and get as much information as they can about the specific trial that they’re considering, but know that there are just some questions, especially early on, that can’t be answered because they don’t know the answers.

I believe wholeheartedly in trials, and I would say that you have to deal with the, I think the emotion and the fear, the trepidation, this is something new, and try to work through that and concentrate on the positive. I just think that clinical trials play just such an important role in the future that you know of all of medicine, but particularly CLL we’ve come such a distance in my 20 years that we would have never come had we not had people that came before me, in clinical trials. On the other hand, I think you really do need to think about not only the immediacy, but the intermediate and the long range. What do I do if this happens or that happens? That I have to think of this.

This is part of my life now. This is something I have to commit to.

So it’s given me years with my family, with my girls, with my grandchildren, I’m getting to see kids off to college, into high school, Bob and I, my husband have had years that I never thought that I would have.

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

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

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

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

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Related Programs:

Myeloma Treatment Decisions: What Should Be Considered?

What Standard Testing Follows a Myeloma Diagnosis?

Which Myeloma Patients Should Consider a Stem Cell Transplant?


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:    

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

Dr. Rafael Fonseca:   

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

That’s a great question.

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

No, and that would be awful.

Dr. Fonseca:               

Absolutely.

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Fonseca:               

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

Katherine:                  

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

Treatment Approaches in AML: Key Testing for Personalized Care

When it comes to Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), genetic testing (or biomarker testing) is essential in helping to determine the best treatment approach for YOU. In this program, AML expert, Dr. Naval Daver reviews key decision-making factors, current AML treatments and emerging research for patients with AML.

About the Guest:
Dr. Naval Daver is an Associate Professor in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. More about Dr. Daver: https://faculty.mdanderson.org/profiles/naval_daver.html

What Factors Impact CLL Treatment Options?

What Factors Impact CLL Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What are the factors that impact chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment options? Dr. Lindsey Roeker notes important considerations that play a role in providing personalized care.

Dr. Lyndsey Roeker is a hematologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Roeker here.

Download Guide

See More From INSIST! CLL


Related Resources

 
Why Should CLL Patients Speak Up About Treatment Side Effects?

Why Should CLL Patients Speak Up About Treatment Side Effects?

the COVID-19 Vaccination Safe for CLL Patients in Treatment?

Is the COVID-19 Vaccination Safe for CLL Patients in Treatment?

How Can I Tell if My CLL Treatment is Effective?

How Can I Tell if My CLL Treatment is Effective?


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

What about the impact of testing, overall? Why is it so important?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, as we’ve moved from a disease that was really only treated with chemoimmunotherapy, to one that has targeted drugs available, knowing your IGHV mutational status really impacts what your frontline treatment options are. That’s the major therapy-defining risk factor. The other mutations help you know what to expect. So, for patients who have deletion of 17p or TP53 mutation, it’s possible that the treatments are going to, overall, work for a shorter period of time.

All that being said, every person is an individual, and it’s hard to predict exactly how long someone’s going to respond, from an individual basis. So, what I tell my patients is, “I could tell you what 100 of people with exactly your same disease would do, on average, but I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen for you. And that’s a journey that we’re going to take together and really understand over time.”

Katherine:                  

What are other important factors to consider, like a patient’s age, that can help them access the best treatment for their CLL?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, age is important. Other medical problems is actually a very important consideration.

So, these medications have different side effect profiles and behave differently in different people. So, the BTK inhibitors, specifically ibrutinib is the one that we have the most data on, has cardiovascular side effects, so it can cause atrial fibrillation. It can cause high blood pressure. So, for patients who have preexisting heart disease, or preexisting atrial fibrillation that has been hard to control, or blood pressure that has been hard to control, for those people, I think adding in a BTK inhibitor can be a bit more of a higher risk situation than in somebody without those preexisting problems.

Venetoclax (Venclexta) is a pill that causes the cell to burst open rapidly, and it kills cells very quickly. Because of that, the major side effect is called tumor lysis syndrome, and tumor lysis syndrome is basically the cell opens up and all of the salt inside of it goes into the bloodstream.

And that salt can actually be really hard on the kidneys. So, for people who have kidney problems, venetoclax can be somewhat more challenging to use and just requires a higher level of vigilance. So, for patients who have preexisting kidney disease or the idea of a lot of monitoring and things like that, is more challenging. Then maybe the BTK inhibitors are a better choice.

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

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

What do you need to know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR CLL? Dr. Lindsey Roeker discusses the role of key CLL tests, including biomarker testing, reviews emerging research, and provides tips for partnering with your care team to advocate for the best care. 

Download Guide

See More From INSIST! CLL


Related Resources

 

An Overview of CLL Treatment Types

What Should CLL Patients Know About Clinical Trial Treatment Options?

What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment?


Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized CLL treatment for your individual disease, and why it’s essential to insist on key testing. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information, to follow along during the webinar.

At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link to a program survey. Please take a moment to provide feedback about your experience today, in order to help us plan future webinars. And finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Joining me today is Dr. Lindsay Roeker. Dr. Roker, thank you so much for joining us. Would you introduce yourself?

Dr. Roeker:                 

Absolutely. So, my name is Lindsey Roeker, and I am a member of the CLL program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Katherine:                  

Excellent, thank you. Let’s start at the beginning. How is CLL diagnosed?

Dr. Roeker:                 

Absolutely. So, for most patients, CLL is diagnosed after a routine blood test shows a high white blood cell count. That’s kinda the most common way that we find people entering into our clinic. Other things that people can notice is they have lumps or bumps that they’ve felt in their neck or under their armpits. Those are some other symptoms that can lead to the diagnosis, but often once a patient finds that their white blood cell count is high, some additional testing is done, and the diagnosis of CLL is made.

Katherine:                  

What are some common symptoms of CLL? You mentioned the lumps and bumps.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Yeah. So, often in early stages, the lumps and bumps in the neck are the most common that people recognize, but fevers or chills, night sweats, where patients are waking up drenched, having to change their pajamas, or weight loss without trying, are some other symptoms that can raise some alarm bells and make people start looking for something.

 And CLL can be a diagnosis that can be found through that, as well.

Katherine:                  

What is watch and wait?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, after diagnosis, about two-thirds of patients enter this period of watch and wait, and what that means is we have good data to say that treating CLL before it’s causing symptoms doesn’t help people live better or live longer. And for that reason, we use the approach of watch and wait, and what that really means is you see your doctor a few times a year. I see people every three to four months. And you have your labs checked, have a physical exam, and through that process, just ensure that there are no symptoms that the CLL is causing that warrant therapy.

Katherine:                  

That’s very helpful. Thank you for that. Now, what tests are necessary to help understand a patient-specific disease, both at diagnosis and prior to treatment?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, a diagnosis flow cytometry is the first test done, and what that means is, you take all of your white blood cells in your blood, and you run them through a fancy machine that puts them into buckets. So, you have a bucket of your normal neutrophils, a bucket of your normal lymphocytes, and then you find this bucket of cells that look somewhat unusual. And those have a specific look, if you will, and if they look like CLL cells, that’s how we make the diagnosis.

As you start reading, you’ll find that people talk about monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis, which is MVL, CLL, and SLL, and a lot of times, it’s confusing because you start reading, and there are all of these – kind of lingo around it. So, what we’re looking for with flow cytometry is how many cells are in the peripheral blood? If it’s fewer than 5,000 per microliter – so, your doctor will talk to you; they’ll either say five or 5,000, depending on what units they’re using.

If it’s lower than that, and you don’t have any lumps or bumps or lymphadenopathy, meaning enlarged lymph nodes, that’s when we make the diagnosis of monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis.

So, that’s kind of a pre-cancer diagnosis. Then, CLL, the diagnosis, is made in any patient who has greater than 5,000 cells per microliter, or five, if you’re using that unit, and that’s when the diagnosis of CLL is made. If people have lymph nodes that are enlarged, and there are CLL or SLL cells inside of them, but not a lot of involvement in the blood, that’s when we make the diagnosis of SLL, which is small lymphocytic lymphoma. So, CLL and SLL are really the same disease; it’s just where they manifest, primarily. So, whether it’s mostly in the blood, that’s CLL, or mostly in the lymph nodes, and that’s SLL.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Nope. So, that’s the flow cytometry test, and that’s kind of the test that leads to the diagnosis.

Katherine:                  

Got it. What about FISH and TP53 mutation?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, at diagnosis, I often do this testing. Depending on which provider you go to, you may do it at diagnosis or closer to the time of needing treatment. But FISH is basically a test that looks for big changes in the chromosomes. So, if you remember back to high school biology and you see all of those chromosomes laid out, what FISH is looking for is big changes in those chromosomes. So, is there an entire arm of one of the chromosomes missing? And that’s what FISH does.

There’s also something called karyotyping, or in some institutions, they use something called SNP array. These are more refined tests that look for additional changes in the DNA. So, FISH is kind of a targeted look at a few different chromosomes, whereas karyotype or SNP array looks at all of the chromosomes. Then, there is TP53 mutational testing, and that is done through a bunch of different testing, often next-generation sequencing is what we use.

And we basically use a fancy spellcheck to see if there’s any misspellings, if you will, in TP53.

And TP53 is a gene that we use. It’s called the guardian of the genome. So, its job is basically to make sure that our cells are reproducing. They keep all the genes in working order. If TP53 is missing or misspelled, it doesn’t work as well, and that’s when people can get more issues with their CLL. It tends to be CLL that behaves a little more aggressively.

Katherine:                  

What about IGHV mutation status?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutation status is a really important feature because it really is, of all of the things, what helps us understand the best way to go about therapy. And IGHV mutational status is basically a signature of the CLL that helps you understand how mature or immature the CLL cells are.

In general, mature cells tend to behave a little bit more predictively, and in ways that behave a bit better with therapy. So, the more mature cells are actually mutated IGHV, and I know that’s backward, because usually we think of mutated as being back. But in this case, mutated is actually those cells that are a bit more mature, and that just has to do with how white blood cells develop in our body. If it’s IGHV-unmutated, those tend to be the more immature cells that can behave a little more erratically.

Katherine:                  

Which tests need to be repeated over time?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutational status never changes, so that one does not need to be repeated. TP53 mutational status, FISH, and karyotype or SNP array, are ones that I tend to repeat before we start any therapy. So, at the time that you’re going to start your frontline therapy, and then if you have the disease come back and need to be treated again, I usually repeat those tests because those can change over time.

So, that’s both FISH, karyotype or SNP array, and the TP53 mutational testing.

Katherine:                  

Okay. So, it sounds like it’s important for patients to make sure they’ve had this testing. What do the test results reveal about a patient’s prognosis?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutational status, like I said, really helps us understand how to approach therapy. In general, CLL is a disease that we are increasingly managing with targeted medicines, so drugs that really manipulate the cell biology to either stop the growth of cells or kill the cells so that they pop open. And that has been a trend that has taken place over the last six or seven years, and definitely has revolutionized the treatment of CLL. There is still a small minority of patients, the patients who have IGHV-mutated disease, and are younger, and have fewer other medical problems, that can still be good candidates for chemotherapy.

And the reason that I say that is because in general, chemotherapy for those young, mutated patients cures a subset of patients, so when we look at long-term studies of FCR, which is a combination of chemo and immunotherapy, there are a subset of patients who have a really long period where their disease doesn’t come back, to the point that we call them cured or functionally cured. That’s obviously a word that has a lot of emotional charge around it, and it’s hard because there’s always the possibility of the disease coming back in the future.

But because of those long-term outcomes, we know that there’s some patients that can really have long-term benefit from chemoimmunotherapy.

For IGHV-unmutated patients, and especially for patients with TP53 mutations or deletion of 17p, chemoimmunotherapy really is not the right answer, with all of the medications that we have available to us now.

Katherine:                  

We have an audience question. Mike wants to know, “What does it mean to have high-risk CLL?”

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, great question, and the interesting thing is that I think the answer to that question is evolving. So, deletion of 17p, deletion of 11q, and TP53 mutation have historically been markers of more aggressive disease or unfavorable CLL. In the era where we only had chemo and immunotherapy, we know that patients had less great outcomes. We know that the treatments tended to not work as well, and patients had disease that tended to come back faster, and things like that.

 That’s all evolving in the era of targeted agents. We have some indication that probably patients who have more aggressive underlying disease biology, meaning disease that’s going to behave less well, kind of regardless of what we treat it with, certainly may derive less benefit, meaning that the treatment will work for less long. That being said, these treatments are still really effective for our patients who have traditionally high-risk disease. So, I think it still remains to be seen, in terms of long-term outcomes and what to expect for patients that have these traditionally high-risk characteristics.

Katherine:                  

So, now that we understand how these tests affect prognosis, let’s discuss how they can affect treatment options. Let’s run through a few potential results so we can understand how you might approach each patient type. If someone has deletion 17p, what is the approach?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, there are two totally reasonable frontline treatment options.

So, BTK inhibitors, which are – the current approved ones are ibrutinib and acalabrutinib, are completely a reasonable approach in the frontline setting, meaning the first treatment that someone gets, and those are pills that you take daily. For ibrutinib, it’s once a day. For acalabrutinib, it’s twice a day, for as long as they’re working. And the idea is, with this approach, you keep on those medicines, and they keep the disease suppressed. So, that’s the first option.

The second totally reasonable option is a combination of venetoclax and obinutuzumab. So, venetoclax is a pill and obinutuzumab is an IV medicine, and the way that this was studied was a total of one year of therapy. So, from the time you start until you’re done with all of your treatments, that’s a one-year course. And the drugs have different side effect profiles, and depending on other medical problems, patient preference about, let’s just take a pill and that’s easy, versus the combination of pill and IV medicines, either can be a completely reasonable choice.

It just depends a lot on patient and doctor preference.

Katherine:                  

What about the TP53 mutation?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, both of those treatment options seem to work very well for TP53-mutated patients. We had that discussion about the possibility of chemoimmunotherapy for a small minority of patients, and for patients with a TP53 mutation, using chemoimmunotherapy up front is probably not the correct answer. It’s better to go with one of the targeted drug approaches.

Katherine:                  

You mentioned, Dr. Roeker, the IGHV mutated and unmutated. How would you approach each patient type, if a patient is IGHV unmutated?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV-unmutated is the same discussion. Chemoimmunotherapy is probably not going to provide a durable, meaning it’s not going to last for a long time. We’re not going to achieve that potential cure. So, for those patients, either the BTK inhibitor approach, or the venetoclax/Obinutuzumab approach is completely a reasonable one to take.

Katherine:                  

And if they’re IGHV-mutated?

Dr. Roeker:                 

IGHV-mutated patients who are young and don’t have a lot of other medical problems, that’s when we add in the third option of chemoimmunotherapy. For many patients, it’s not wrong to choose either a BTK inhibitor or venetoclax/Obinutuzumab, but it does add in that third potential option of chemoimmunotherapy.

Katherine:                  

Are there other markers that patients should know about?

Dr. Roeker:                 

I think those are the big ones.

So, TP53 mutation status, FISH, and karyotype kind of gets you most of them. Some centers do additional next-generation sequencing of other genes that have been associated with higher-risk disease, though really understanding how to interpret those results still remains somewhat unclear, and that’s still an area of research that people are doing, to really understand what those other mutations really mean for people.

Katherine:                  

What about the impact of testing, overall? Why is it so important?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, as we’ve moved from a disease that was really only treated with chemoimmunotherapy, to one that has targeted drugs available, knowing your IGHV mutational status really impacts what your frontline treatment options are. That’s the major therapy-defining risk factor. The other mutations help you know what to expect. So, for patients who have deletion of 17p or TP53 mutation, it’s possible that the treatments are going to, overall, work for a shorter period of time.

All that being said, every person is an individual, and it’s hard to predict exactly how long someone’s going to respond, from an individual basis. So, what I tell my patients is, “I could tell you what 100 of people with exactly your same disease would do, on average, but I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen for you. And that’s a journey that we’re going to take together and really understand over time.”

Katherine:                  

These are really great points, Dr. Roeker. Now, we’ve talked about this a little bit. What are other important factors to consider, like a patient’s age, that can help them access the best treatment for their CLL?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, age is important. Other medical problems is actually a very important consideration.

So, these medications have different side effect profiles and behave differently in different people. So, the BTK inhibitors, specifically ibrutinib is the one that we have the most data on, has cardiovascular side effects, so it can cause atrial fibrillation. It can cause high blood pressure. So, for patients who have preexisting heart disease, or preexisting atrial fibrillation that has been hard to control, or blood pressure that has been hard to control, for those people, I think adding in a BTK inhibitor can be a bit more of a higher risk situation than in somebody without those preexisting problems.

Venetoclax is a pill that causes the cell to burst open rapidly, and it kills cells very quickly. Because of that, the major side effect is called tumor lysis syndrome, and tumor lysis syndrome is basically the cell opens up and all of the salt inside of it goes into the bloodstream.

And that salt can actually be really hard on the kidneys. So, for people who have kidney problems, venetoclax can be somewhat more challenging to use and just requires a higher level of vigilance. So, for patients who have preexisting kidney disease or the idea of a lot of monitoring and things like that, is more challenging. Then maybe the BTK inhibitors are a better choice.

Katherine:                  

How do you monitor whether a treatment is working?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, a lot of it has to do with the CBC, so your normal blood count, and what we’re looking for is improvement in hemoglobin and improvement or normalization of platelet count. And for many people, those, either anemia or low platelets, are the symptoms that drive people to be treated in the first place, so we’re looking for those parameters to get better.

With a lot of people with CLL, totally understandably, because it’s the number that’s the most abnormal, really focused on white blood cell count. 100% understandable.

I always tell people that that’s actually the part of the CBC that I care least about, and the reason is that, for patients on BTK inhibitors, we expect to see the white blood count actually get higher before it gets less high. That’s actually just a sign that the drug is working and it’s pulling CLL cells from the lymph nodes into the bloodstream. So, that’s actually a good sign that it’s working, and that lymphocyte count, at least in the beginning, isn’t a great marker of how well the drug is working.

The other thing that’s important is the physical exam, so looking for whether any lymph nodes that were enlarged have normalized or gone away, and also feeling the sides of the spleen, because the spleen can become enlarged with CLL, and it’s important to make sure that’s normalizing, as well.

And then the last piece is talking to people, so making sure that if they were having fatigue, or fevers, or night sweats before they started treatment, to make sure that those symptoms have gone away. And that’s kind of the three things that I use. I use the blood counts, the physical exam, and the interview with a patient to really understand how their disease is responding.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Roeker, why is it important for patients to speak up if they’re experiencing side effects? I know that they sometimes feel like they’re bothering their healthcare team.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Thank you for that question, because it’s really important point. Side effects are easiest to manage when you catch them early. So, when people have, for instance, muscle pain or joint aches, I have lots of tricks up my sleeve to help people, but I need to know about it. So, if people don’t tell me until they have joint pain that’s so bad that they’re not able to exercise or not able to get out of bed easily in the morning, that’s taking it – it’s gone on for a while at that point, and it’s pretty far down the line.

First of all, you wouldn’t have had to suffer for that long because we have ways of fixing it, and second, it’s always harder to fix a problem once it’s further down the line than earlier on. So, I talk to people about what side effects they might experience and what to expect, and then we talk about different management strategies to really nip it early so that we’re not dealing with a really huge problem down the line.

Katherine:                  

We have a question from our audience. Maria asks, “I just found out that I will need to undergo treatment again. I was previously treated with FCR. Does that impact my options now, going forward?”

Dr. Roeker:                 

Great question. So, FCR was a really common treatment strategy before we had all of the drugs that we have available now. We have good data to say that both BTK inhibitors and venetoclax-based treatments work after chemoimmunotherapy. In fact, those were the patients in whom these drugs were really initially studied, so we actually know better in that group of patients how they’re going to work, than in the patients who have never been treated with them, in terms of the amount of data and the long-term follow-up that we have.

So, most likely, your provider will still talk to you about kind of the two therapeutic option being a BTK inhibitor-based approach versus a venetoclax-based approach, and either are completely appropriate in that setting.

Katherine:                  

We have another question from our audience. Eileen is currently in active treatment for her CLL, and she wants to know, “Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for her?”

Dr. Roeker:                 

Great question. So, here is my take on COVID vaccines. We have great data on the safety of these vaccines, so the risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction is very, very low, less than one in a thousand. We know that it can cause some irritation at the injection site, so pain in your arm. We know that it can cause some kinda flu-like, blah symptoms for a couple of days, totally fine to take ibuprofen and kinda get yourself through that period.

But from a safety perspective, I don’t have concerns about these vaccines. There’s a lot of social media coverage on long-term implications that are either not based on data, at all, and just speculation, and people who are trying to raise alarm, or people who are really bringing up bad things that are happening to people really far out from the vaccine. And I think it’s really hard to attribute that to the vaccine. Obviously, any time there is a new technology, there’s the possibility of things happening, and we’re going to know more with time, but I think, overall, from a scientific perspective, there is no data that makes me worried about the safety of this vaccine.

The efficacy question, I think, is more of an open question, and the reason I say that is two-fold. The first is, we know that patients with CLL who get other vaccines, some get 100% coverage, some get zero percent coverage, and some are somewhere in between.

And it’s hard to predict who is going to fall where. So, that’s the first piece. The second piece is, we’ve looked at patients who had CLL and got COVID, and we saw if they made antibodies, which is kind of a marker of an immune response, and it’s not consistent that every patient who got COVID makes antibodies.

So, the combination of those two pieces of data makes me question exactly how well they’re going to work. So, what I’m telling my patients is, “Definitely go ahead and get it. I think it’s safe. And then pretend that you didn’t get it.” So, I know that’s hard advice to hear, but continue wearing a mask, continue social distancing, and continue to wash your hands. And then, every interaction you have is a risk-benefit discussion or decision. So, that’s different for every person, but in general, I recommend that people continue being cautious.

Once the whole population around you is vaccinated and we have less virus circulating in the community, that’s when it’s going to be substantially safer. So, definitely, I recommend that people get it, regardless of whether you are on watch and wait, getting treatment, have just finished treatment, whatever it is, but I do think there’s reason to be cautious even after getting vaccinated.

Katherine:                  

Are there symptoms or issues CLL patients should be looking out for, post-vaccine?

Dr. Roeker:                 

Not particularly, beyond what people are getting in kind of the general population. If you’re having a lot of those kind of flu-like symptoms, just talk to your provider to make sure that ibuprofen is safe, because if your platelets are really low, that can cause bleeding. But Tylenol is typically pretty safe, and talk to your doctor about which medicines are kinda best for you to take in that situation, but no particular concerns in patients with CLL.

Katherine:                  

Okay. Thank you for the clarification. As I mentioned at the start of this program, patients should insist on essential CLL testing. As we conclude, I think it’s important to point out that some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests, so how can they take action?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, the next time you’re at your doctor, ask, “I just want to know more about the prognosis of my CLL, and can we talk through the genetic markers of my disease, to help me understand what to expect?” That’s kind of code for, “Let’s go through all of these test results,” and it also – if you have a provider who doesn’t routinely test them at diagnosis, and for instance, just tests before treatment, they can also kind of give you their sense of when they do the testing, so you know what to expect. And I think that’s an important discussion to have with your provider, for sure.

Katherine:                  

Are there key questions that patients should ask their physicians?

Dr. Roeker:                 

I’m always impressed with the questions that people come up with. I think one of the best is, what should I expect, based on what we’re doing now? It’s always a hard question to answer because, obviously, for any patient, it’s so individualized, but I think understanding what to expect, as a general sense, is a good way to approach both treatment and prognosis, and all of those kinds of things.

Katherine:                  

I’d like to close by asking about developments in CLL research and treatment. What’s new that you feel patients should know about?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, there are a lot of exciting drugs coming up in CLL. We have the BTK inhibitors, ibrutinib and acalabrutinib approved. We have more BTK inhibitors with different side effect profiles that are in development.

And there’s also a new class of drugs called noncovalent BTK inhibitors, which seem to work well, even when prior BTK inhibitors have stopped working. So, that’s a really exciting development. There is also just lots of studies about how we combine drugs to maximize efficacy while minimizing side effects, and all of these studies that are underway are really looking at refining how we approach treatment so that we can treat people very effectively but also minimize their side effects.

And as we have more results available, the treatment paradigm for CLL is going to continue to shift and evolve, and I think there are a lot of exciting things coming, and there’s definitely a lot of reason to be hopeful, that the future of CLL is even brighter than the present.

Katherine:                  

It all sounds very promising, Dr. Roeker. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Katherine:                  

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