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What Should You Know About CLL Genetic Testing?

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

Katherine:                

How is this different from genomic testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

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

Katherine:                  

Okay. And what is a chromosome change?

Dr. Woyach:              

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

Katherine:              

Have there been advances in testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

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

What Is CLL and How Is It Diagnosed?

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

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

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

See More From INSIST! CLL


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What Should You Know About CLL Genetic Testing?

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What Does It Mean to Have High-Risk CLL?

 

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

What are the steps involved in reaching a diagnosis?

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

CLL Clinical Trials Explained

CLL Clinical Trials Explained from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

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

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

What’s involved in patient participation in clinical trials?

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

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

An Expert’s View on Promising CLL Approaches

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

What about – oh, go –

Dr. Mato:                   

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

Is My CLL Treatment Working?

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

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

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

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

Factors That Guide a CLL Treatment Decision

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

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

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

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


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An Expert’s View on Promising CLL Approaches

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CLL Clinical Trials Explained

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

How are side effects taken into consideration?

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

An Overview of Current CLL Treatment Approaches

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

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

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

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

Factors That Guide a CLL Treatment Decision

Is My CLL Treatment Working

CLL Clinical Trials Explained

Transcript:

Katherine:                  

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

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

What about monoclonal antibodies? How do these treat CLL?

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

Do inhibitors need to be taken indefinitely?

Dr. Mato:                   

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

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

CLL Treatment: Finding the Best Option for YOU

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

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

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

Download Program Resource Guide

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

What are the steps involved in reaching a diagnosis?

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

Katherine:                  

How is this different from genomic testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

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

Katherine:                  

Okay. And what is a chromosome change?

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

Have there been advances in testing?

Dr. Woyach:               

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

Do patients need to be retested over time?

Dr. Woyach:               

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

Katherine:                  

What exactly are prognostic factors? Would you define that?

Dr. Woyach:               

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

Yeah. It makes sense.

Dr. Woyach:               

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

How can patients stay informed about CLL?

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

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

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

Katherine:                  

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

Dr. Woyach:               

Of course. It’s my pleasure.

Katherine:                  

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

Which CLL Treatment Approach Could be Right for You?

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

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

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


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CLL Treatment Decisions: What Path is Best for YOU?

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

Transcript:

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

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

So, how is a treatment path determined?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treatment Approaches in AML: Key Testing for Personalized Care

Treatment Approaches in AML: Key Testing for Personalized Care from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

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.

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 here.

Download Program Resource Guide

See More From INSIST! AML

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How is Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Treated?

 

Effective AML Combination Treatment: Pairing Old and New Therapies

 

Confused About AML Genetic Testing and Treatment? What You Need to Know

Transcript:

Katherine:                   

Welcome to INSIST! AML. A program focused on empowering patients to insist on better care. Today we’ll discuss the latest advances in AML, including the role of genetic testing and how this may affect treatment options. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. And joining me is Dr. Naval Daver. Welcome, Dr. Daver. Thank you so much for being here. Would you introduce yourself?

Dr. Daver:                    

Hello. Yeah. Thank you very much, Katherine. It’s a pleasure to join this discussion and meeting. I’m the Associate Professor in the Department of Leukemia at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. I focus on the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia and MDS, including the development of a number of clinical trials that are using targeted therapies and immune therapies for this disease. And with the great and dramatic progress, we’re seeing in acute myeloid leukemia; I think it is now more important than ever for patients to be aware of the options and be able to select the most appropriate therapy with their physicians.

Katherine:                   

Before we get into the discussion about AML, a reminder that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your own healthcare team. Dr. Daver, I know the field of AML research is advancing rapidly. Would you give us an overview of the current treatment types in AML?

Dr. Daver:                    

There has been dramatic progress in the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia, especially in the last three years. We’ve had eight new drugs approved for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia. The most progress I think that has happened so far is in the identification of particular molecular mutations and targeting those mutations with targeted therapies.

The mutations that are most important right now and have target options for FLT3 mutations, F-L-T-3, and the drugs that have been USDA-approved for this are an agent called Midostaurin, which is a first-generation FLT3 inhibitor and combination chemotherapy.

And then, more recently, another agent called Gilteritinib, as a single agent in relapse refractory FLT3 AML. The other mutational group that is also very important, and therapeutically needs to be checked, is IDHN1 and IDH2. And there are now two IDH inhibitors, IDH1 inhibitor, Ivosidenib, and IDH2 inhibitor, Enasidenib, both of which have been approved by the United States FDA for relapse patients with IDH1, IDH2 mutations. So, I think it’s really critical now to check for particular molecular mutations and to appropriately add the particular targeted therapy or select the particular targeted therapy in patients who have the mutation.

The other major area of advancement, and probably, if not the most important breakthrough that has happened, is the development of a new drug called Venetoclax. This is a BCL2 inhibitor. It’s new in AML, but in fact, it has been used for many years in CLL, which is chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

And this drug, in combination with Azacitidine in the frontline setting in older patients with AML who are not good candidates for intensive induction, has shown very high response rates, almost 70 percent CR-CRi, which is more than double of the 20 to 25 percent we were getting with Azacitidine alone.

And it’s now been approved by the US FDA and, in my opinion, and many of the experts really is the new standard of care and should be used in all older patients who are not good candidates for intensive chemotherapy given both the very high response rates, as well as now mature data showing significantly improved overall survival and a good tolerability.

So, there are many other breakthroughs. But I think these targeted agents, and Venetoclax, probably are the most impactful today.

And we’re focusing a number of new combinations building around this.  

Katherine:                   

What are common mutations in AML?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. So, the most common mutation in AML is F-L-T-3, FLT3 mutation. This is both prognostically important mutation, presence of an FLT3 in a newly diagnosed AML, has been shown in many large publications by the German Cooperative Group, British Cooperative Group, our group, and others, is associated with an inferior survival.

Also, now, on top of that, it is also a therapeutically important mutation in addition to having negative prognostic value because the addition of FLT3 inhibitors seems to dilute, to a large extent, the negative prognostic value.

So, we believe that if we can identify FLT3 mutations at FLT3 inhibitors, we can definitely improve the outcome of those patients. The second most common is what we call NPM1 mutation, and that tends to occur with FLT3. About 55 percent of patients with an FLT3 mutation will have a coopering NPM1.

NPM1 is very interesting. With NPM1 mutation is present on it’s own without a FLT3, it’s actually associated with favorable outcome. It’s a favorable prognostic marker. However, if NPM1 is present with a FLT3, and especially if the FLT3 has a high quantity, high allelic load, then the NPM1 loses its favorable impact. So, now we’re kind of moving beyond just; do you have one mutation or not, which is what we thought 10 years ago, to; well, yes, you have this mutation, but what about the core-occurring mutation and even beyond. What about the burden, or what we call the variant allele frequency of that mutation?

So, for good or bad and I think it’s good in the end because it’s going to improve the patient outcomes, that we are getting more, more in-depth and there’s no longer quote, unquote, AML.

So, there’s a lot more granularity and analysis that is required even before starting treatment. And this is the thing that, in the community, we’re educating the doctors a lot, is that it’s okay to wait four to six days, especially if the patient does not have a very proliferative leukemia, to get the important bloodwork to identify the appropriate molecular and chromosome group.

So, that we can select the right treatment which will improve outcome rather than just rushing into standard treatment and missing a particular molecular chromosome group.

Katherine:                   

True. It might not be – the genetic testing might not be right for everyone.

Dr. Daver:                    

Right. Right.

Katherine:                   

What is genetic testing in AML?

Dr. Daver:                    

So, genetic testing in AML is basically what we call molecular profiling.

So, it’s looking at the presence of particular molecular mutations. For example, at MD Anderson, we do what we call 81 gene panel. So, this looks at 81 different genes for mutations in the bone marrow of newly diagnosed acute myeloid leukemia. Now, how did we come up with 81 genes? So, this was actually done by literature analysis and review of previously published preclinical and translational studies, and we basically selected all mutations that had been shown to occur in two percent or more of thousands of AML patients. And we found 81 such mutations. So, that any mutation that had a two percent or higher frequency in known published or public databases was included.

And that’s how we’re able to analyze for the mutation. So, it’s still possible that there may be some very rare mutations that are present, and those may be important for research. But they don’t change our treatment decision today. And so that’s what we call genetic profiling. Some people call it molecular mutation analysis. Some people call it next-generation sequencing.

But basically, this is looking for mutations in particular genes that are known to occur in AML. Now of those 81 genes; and some people do a 100 gene panel, some do 50, so those are variables; but among those, there are four or five that are most important: the FLT3, as we discussed, where we can use FLT3 inhibitors; IDH1 and two, because we can use IDH1 and IDH2 inhibitors; TP53 is a very important mutation because it has very high risk and adverse prognosis.

And there are now new drugs coming that may be very effective in TP53. So, we are checking for that. Those drugs are in trials, but the trials are showing very promising data and could be a great option if a patient is known to have a TP53.

Those drugs are Magrolimab, CD47 antibody, and APR-246. So, these are the four most important therapeutic mutations.

There are also some mutations that have prognostic value even though we cannot target them. These include mutations like RUNX1, DNMP3A, ASXL1.

One does not need to know the list. But the point is that these mutations may help determine whether a patient falls into intermediate-risk group or high-risk group, which then impacts the decision as to whether we need a stem cell transplant or not. So, it really is important to get this molecular profiling. It’s actually available in the United States commercially. And any clinic or hospital is able to actually order it. And insurance will cover it in 100 percent of the cases.

Katherine:                   

Wow, that’s great. What should – when should patients be tested, and how is testing done?

Dr. Daver:                   

Yeah. So, the basic testing for any suspected new acute leukemia is to get a bone marrow biopsy. That has to be done.

That should be done very quickly because all of the information that will be generated to make the treatment decision will come off the bone marrow biopsy.

Katherine:

What about retesting, Dr. Daver? Is that necessary?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. So, retesting is necessary in – not for everything, I think.

But let’s say someone had treatment induction and relapsed a year later. So, we would definitely retest: 1) to confirm with the bone marrow’s relapsed AML, get the blast percentage because we need that before restarting treatment, so we know what was the starting point to know how the patients doing after treatment if he’s responding. 2) Molecular testing, for sure, should be repeated. We usually repeat the molecular testing such as FLT3, IDH1, IDH2, because there are drugs that can target these mutations in a relapse.

And more interestingly, we actually have published, and other groups have also published, that there are some patients who may not have those mutations at baseline but may actually acquire or have detectible mutations at relapse. So, if you don’t have FLT3 at baseline, your physician may assume that the FLT3 is not there, not do mutational testing. But in fact, that may not be true. So, it is important to retest about 15 percent, one five percent, in our publications can acquire a detectible FLT3. Which is critical because this could then change your treatment.

IDH1 and two are rarely lost or acquired, but we have seen a few five percent or so cases of that. So, it’s still better to check for that. And then TP53 we check for because now we have these new research clinical trials, phase one, two, that are showing some very encouraging activity in TP53. So, these are probably the main things to retest for.

There’s also some new clinical data emerging with a new drug called menin inhibitor that targets a particular chromosome abnormality, MLL rearrangement. This is again in a phase one setting, so the data may not be widely disseminated. But we’re seeing some very encouraging activity with menin inhibitors.  

And so, we are 100 percent checking for the MLL rearrangement chromosome, which can be done on FISH, or routine chromosome.

And if that is there then trying to get on one of the menin inhibitor trials, they’re opening about 25, 30 centers with different menin inhibitors, would be a very, very good option because we think these will be the next molecular or chromosome-targeted breakthrough in AML.

Katherine:                   

We’ve been discussing how molecular testing results lead to targeted therapy. How do targeted therapies work?

Dr. Daver:   

Targeted therapy means that we’re targeting a particular mutation. Now we may be targeting in different ways. So, some of the drugs, like FLT3 inhibitors, these are the most established and oldest targeted therapies in acute myeloid leukemia, been in development for about 18 to 20 years, work by blocking a particular receptor, the FLT3 receptor.

That receptor, when blocked, removes the growth and proliferation signal to the leukemia blast. And that receptor is much more preferentially and heavily expressed on the surface of the acute myeloid leukemia cell as compared to the normal, healthy myeloid or lymphoid cell. So, basically, we are shutting down the growth signals, resulting in eventual death of the leukemia blast and that’s how FLT3 inhibitors work. So, it’s a more of a direct activity resulting in cell death over a few days and quick action. On the other hand, we have what also is called targeted therapies but act very differently. These are IDH1, IDH2 inhibitors.

So, when you use an IDH1 or two inhibitor, they do go to the IDH1 and two receptor on the surface of the acute myeloid leukemia cell, but actually, they don’t result in the death of the cell. They actually cause what we call differentiation.

So, they promote that immature abnormal leukemia cell to undergo maturation and become a normal myeloid cell, which, over time, will die because normal cells have a finite lifespan, and they will die. As compared to leukemia blasts, which can live on much, much, much longer. And so, this process is called differentiation. So, FLT3 inhibitor, very different direct cell death. IDH inhibitor, very different from most maturation differentiation of immature cells to mature cells and takes longer. So, this is important clinically because with FLT3 inhibitors. We see responses quickly, one to two months. IDH inhibitors it takes longer, three to five months.

And so, targeted therapy is not one and all the same. You may be targeting a particular receptor, but the modality of action downstream may be very different.

Katherine:                   

What’s the treatment regimen for targeted therapies, and how long are patients treated with these types of therapies?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. I mean, that’s an area of big research. There’s no one field of answer yet for – and I don’t think there will be.

Of course, eventually. So, it really depends on; 1) What setting we’re using it in? Newly diagnosed, relapsed AML. In relapsed AML, with most targeted therapies, whether you’re use is a single agent, like FLT3, IDH1, IDH2, TP53, MLL-targeted agents, the goal is to get a patient to transplant.

Transplant, meaning allogeneic stem cell transplant using a sibling donor or a match-generated donor.

Because in relapsed AML without transplant, irrespective of the genetics and chromosomes, all relapsed AML have very poor outcome. The survival is only 20 percent or less without transplant.

If we can get a patient to transplant, we do have a good chance of long-term survival. So, the goal is transplant. And we usually use a targeted therapy for short, finite period, two to four months, to get a remission, get to transplant, hope that will cure the disease.

In front line, it’s quite different. We’re using induction chemotherapy with FLT3 inhibitors. In some research trials, we’re adding IDH1 and two inhibitors. We’re using Venetoclax, which is a kind of a targeted therapy.

Also, the BCL2 in combination with hypomethylating agents. And here, the targeted therapy is often used indefinitely. At least for one or two years. But in our approach and our guidelines, we continue the FLT3 inhibitor, IDH1 or two inhibitor or Venetoclax, as long as patient is tolerating it and does not have disease progression.

So, these are being used kind of similar to CML, chronic myeloid leukemia, where we use tyrosine kinase inhibitors or myelofibrosis, where you use jak inhibitors. They don’t cure the disease, but they continue to control the disease as long as you take them.

And in the end, we call this functional cure.

If somebody takes a FLT3 inhibitor and lives 20-plus years, semantically, he was never a cure, like an infection gets cured. But functionally, to me, he lived a normal life, and he was cured.

Dr. Daver:                    

And so, that’s how we’re using those inhibitors in the frontline setting different from the relapse setting.

Katherine:                   

How do these newer therapies differ from more traditional chemotherapy?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. Dramatically different. Completely different from traditional chemotherapy. So, to put it in more layman terms, traditional chemotherapy is like a nuclear bomb. Right? You – There’s a lot of things there in the marrow. You don’t know what’s good. You don’t know what’s bad. Blow it all up and hope that, when the new plants grow, the good ones grow and the bad ones were kill. And, in fact, this is true, to a large extent. Traditional chemotherapy, not to put it down, is actually been curative in a large population of AML for the last three decades. Our group and British MRC and Polish, and many groups have published up to 50 to 65 percent cure rates, especially in younger patients, below 65, with traditional chemotherapy.

So, this is not bad. People always get depressed with leukemia. But if you look at solid tumors, I mean, they have never achieved cure rates above 10 to 15 percent till the last decade or so. So, we were still getting 60, 65 percent cure rate. Two out of three.

So, traditional chemotherapy has done great work. But it was that approach. Just nuclear explosion. Take it all out, and hope good stuff comes.

Now the targeted therapy’s like a sniper. It’s actually looking for the particular leukemia cells and trying to take them out one by one with minimum collateral damage to your healthy bone marrow cells, which are important to produce red cells, platelets, white cells. So, guess what? There’s much less toxicity. You don’t see the hair loss with these agents. You don’t see the mouth sores and mucositis. GI complications are much less; infection risk is usually less.

Not to say they don’t have their own side effects. Unfortunately, even the targeted therapies have unique side effects. But, in general, those side effects are much less impactful in a negative quality-of-life way and much more manageable and tolerable. So – And, in the end of the day, they’re actually often more effective.

So, for example, with the FLT3 inhibitor, the study that was done with Gilterinib and Quizartinib, two very potent FLT3 inhibitors, was looking at a single-agent FLT3 inhibitor versus three-drug, high-intensity combination nuclear chemotherapy. And if I told this to any layperson, they would say, oh my God, that’s completely unfair comparison. You’re going to use three drugs, IV chemo, strong chemo, and compare it to one oral targeted pill. There’s no way the pill can be even equal, leave apart, win.

But guess what? The targeted therapy actually won. It not only was equal. It doubled the response rates, it reduced the toxicities and early mortality and led to improved overall survival, the gold standard. So, this shows that even though they are sniper, they can actually be much more effective with less toxicity. So, it’s a win-win. Better, tolerable, and more effective. Now the next stage within then decade, we think, it’s not one or the either, it’s really a combination. So, we’re reducing the dose of chemotherapy. So, we’re not making it as nuclear as it was. It’s still intense. But much more tolerable. And we’re compensating for that by adding the targeted therapy.

And, in fact, in the end, we expect much higher responses and survival with much better tolerability and lower early mortality. But I don’t think we’re at a stage where traditional chemotherapy is gone. Maybe 10, 12 years from now, as many more developments come, we’ll get there. But I think it still has a role, especially in the younger AML patients.

Katherine:                   

Dr. Daver, you mentioned the – some common side effects of chemotherapy. What about some of the newer therapies? Do they also have side effects?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, every therapy we have in leukemia has a side effect. There’s no drug I can mention that is just devoid of them. Of course, some are less, and some are more. So, to be more specific, I think, for example, IDH1, IDH2 inhibitors, these are probably one of the most tolerable treatments we have in all of leukemia treatment. In general, they don’t cause much myelosuppression. Meaning, drop in blood counts. They don’t cause hair loss. They don’t cause mouth sores and GI upset in majority of people.

They’re always some patients who may. But what they can cause are two things: Number one, is they can cause what we call the differentiation syndrome.

And differentiation syndrome means the blasts that are going from the immature state to the mature state; in that process, they can cause an inflammatory reaction. And this can manifest with fever and cough, and chest pain, hypoxia. It’s something that’s actually very, very easily treatable, giving steroids for three or four days will take care of it. But many times, people were not aware of this. And so, often, we saw this was missed in the community.

So, that’s one specific example. With the FLT3 inhibitors, sometimes we see that they can cause more prolonged drop in blood counts, and count recovery can be delayed. Or we can sometimes see that they may cause some cardiac signals; increase in cardiac intervals. Again, something that, with close monitoring, bloodwork, keeping the electrolytes normal, can be managed. But I don’t want to go through the whole list. But the point is that there are specific and unique side effects that can be seen with particular targeted therapies.

And again, this is a learning curve where we have done these trials for eight to 10 years. So, we became familiar. But when the drug is approved, it’s a – it’s kind of a night-and-day situation in the community. They didn’t have the drug yesterday. They have it today. But there may not be any learning curve there. So, I think that’s where a lot of education and interaction with our colleagues is now coming into play.

But also, patients, I think, need to take this a little bit into their own hands, and also read about the label, read about the drug. So that, if they have side effects, if they actually ask their doctor and say, do you think this could be differentiation? I read about it. Yeah, most people will at least think about it. And I think this could be helpful to make sure that things are not missed. So, we do want patients to be more interactive and kind of  take things into their own hand. Because there are so many new drugs out there that their doctors may not be fully familiar yet.

Katherine:                   

Well, let’s talk about patient advocacy. What are some of the key tests that patients should ask for after they’ve been diagnosed?

Dr. Daver:                    

Yeah. Absolutely. So, I think the key things that patients should want to get the information is: 1) Knowing the bone marrow blasts.

I mean, that’s really basic. Just knowing what leukemia it is. What are the blast percentage? 2) Is, I think, chromosome analysis is very critical to get that information and to make sure we’re not missing acute promyelocytic leukemia, or core-binding factor leukemia, which have different treatments and very favorable outcomes, and would never, in general, never require a allogenic transplant. At least in majority of cases.

And 3), which is the one where we still see that it may sometimes not be available or be missed, is molecular testing.

I think it’s very critical to request molecular testing. And among molecular testing, especially FLT3, maybe IDH1 and IDH2, and TP53.

So, I think these are the most important data sets. Cytogenetics, key molecular mutations, bone marrow blasts, and confirmation of the type of leukemia before we embark on any treatment.

Katherine:                   

How can patients feel confident, do you think, in speaking up, and becoming a partner in their care?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. I mean, this is always a touchy area because physicians may feel that this is kind of encroaching on their territory or telling them what to do. And this is always a major challenge. I think when you go for the clinic visits, just to have a list of your questions written down and having them prepared and prioritizing them.

I always say, have your top-three questions ready.

We’ll try to do the others. But we’ll do the top three. And I think, when you have a new diagnosis of AML, the top three should be: what is the type of leukemia I have, and what are the bone marrow blasts? Number one. Do we have any chromosome and molecular information? Number two. And number three: Are there any specific treatments for my specific AML based on that chromosome molecular information? Or do we need additional information, and can we wait for that safely? I think these are the three very reasonable questions which, I think again, most leukemia experts will automatically be discussing this.

But, I think, for a patient, I think that’s important information to make sure they get before proceeding. If there’s time, the fourth question will be: Is – Are – Do we have a choice between high intensity, low intensity? And if we do, what are the pros and cons? In some cases, there may be a choice. In some cases, it may very clear that high intensity is the way to go, or low intensity is the way to go. But still, I think it’s often good to discuss that with your physician.

So, these are probably the four things one can bring up reasonably without the physician feeling that this is going to take forever, and I cannot discuss this. And then a lot of the AML treatment happens in-patient. So, there will be a lot of time for additional discussion. I tell my patients that, look, once we get the basics and the treatment decided, which is what we do in clinic, then you’ll be in the hospital most of the time. If it’s induction chemo for four weeks. Even if it’s Venetoclax, often they’re admitted for five to seven days, they will have more time then to discuss with the physician, the nurses, on a daily basis, and get more of the nitty-gritty.

Things like diet, exercise, lifestyle. Can I meet friends? I think you should not try to bring those things up right in the first visit. Because that may dilute the key information. So, I think staggering it, keeping in mind that many physicians are extremely busy, and getting that information in pieces over time, is probably productive for you and for the doctor.

Katherine:                   

With Covid-19 affecting all our lives right now, what should AML patients be considering at this time?

Dr. Daver:   

There’s a lot of guidelines on general approaches to managing things in COVID. And all of those guidelines heavily center, as we would think intuitively, on precautions.

Hand washing, minimizing contact, avoiding crowded places, trying to get treatment, potentially locally, if there are equivalent options available. We have not changed any of our frontline – we discuss this a lot every week in our faculty meeting.

This is discussed especially, as you know, because Houston currently is a major center affected heavily by COVID, and so, we have discussed whether we should move in a universal way to lower-intensity therapy for all patients. And we haven’t. And there’s pros and cons to that. When we do induction chemotherapy higher intensity, we, in fact, admit our patients for 28 days.

o, actually, even though it’s high intensity, the patient is more protected because they are in the room. Isolation rooms, sometimes. And they have minimum contact with outsiders. So, with COVID, actually, there’s very little opportunities or chances for them to get it. But the chemo is intensive. So, if they did get COVID, then it could be much more difficult or risky, or even fatal. On the other hand, low-intensity therapy is good because it’s low intensity and the risk of COVID, the frequency may or may not be changed; we don’t know. But the intensity we think could be lower because the immune system has not been suppressed.

However, low-intensity therapy very often is given outpatient. And so, then you have the benefit of lower intensity but the risk that you are going to be driving back and forth to the medical center, getting bloodwork, exposed to people in the waiting room, this and that. So, what we decided, after a lot of discussion among a big leukemia expert faculty in our group, was that we will still decide the optimum treatment based on the leukemia chromosome, molecular, age, fitness of the patient like we’ve always done.

And then we just have to try to encourage the patients to do as much precautions as possible. The other thing with the COVID, I think is very important is that, even though you may not be able to travel to your academic institution nearby because it’s harder to travel now, it’s still a good idea to try to get a consultation. We are doing a number of phone or email consultation, either directly with the patient, and even more frequently with their community doctor.

So, I get every day, four or five emails from academic even, and community physicians just saying, I have this patient, new AML, relapsed AML, whatever the case may be, here’s the mutation chromosome information, and I was going to do this. But the patient asked that I run this by one of my top academic colleagues. So, maybe MD Anderson. Some, I’m sure, are talking to Sloan. Some are, I know, are talking to Dana Farber. Cornell, whatever it may be. So, you can always request that. And maybe 100 percent of physicians may or may not do that.

And we’re seeing this collaboration actually. One of the positive things of COVID is we’re seeing these collaborations becoming better and better over time.

Katherine:                   

Oh, excellent. If a patient does need to go to clinic for a visit, what safety measures are in place?

Dr. Daver:   

Yeah. So, there’s a few things we’re doing in clinic is; one is we have staggered our clinics. So, instead of having everybody come at 9:00 or 10:00 a.m., and having 30 people in the waiting room, we really have more time slots.

And we ask people to come three of them at a time in the waiting room. We’re minimizing it three to five patients at most

Of course, there’s a lot of sanitization, dispensation units everywhere, encouraged to use those. The other important thing which, unfortunately, is a double-edged sword, is that we have had to minimize the number of friends, relatives, spouses, that can come with patients.

In fact, the policy at MD Anderson, like most cancer centers, is that nobody is allowed with the patient unless the patient is physically really impaired, as in wheelchair-bound or cannot go to the restroom. Of course, there are exceptions. But generally, I know, and I actually benefit a lot from it too, when patients have their family because the emotional support also helps our medical team to get information across. The patient may be sometimes stressed and forget things. So, what we’re doing more and more is doing phone calls.

So, what I would recommend is, as soon as doctor comes in, say, hey, doctor, can I call my daughter or my wife? I want her to listen to everything. Perfect. I don’t mind. There’s a speaker on. Good.

So, that helps with communication. But those are the big changes we have done from the clinic perspective. Still seems to be working relatively smoothly. We’re still seeing almost about the same number of patients in clinic that we were before COVID. And we have, fortunately, and knock on wood, not seen big numbers of leukemia patients with COVID. And we think the primary reason is because leukemia patients are just very cautious from the beginning. Even before COVID, they knew the risks, and we want them to continue that as much as possible.  

Katherine:

Dr. Daver, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Daver:   

Thank you very much. Always a pleasure.

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners.

To learn more about AML and to access tools to help you become a more proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell – Thank you, Dr. Daver.

Ask Your Doctor About These Essential Genetic Tests for CLL

Ask Your Doctor About These Essential Genetic Tests for CLL from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Genetic testing results can impact a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s treatment options and provide a deeper understanding into their disease. Dr. Steven Coutre, a CLL specialist, reviews essential tests and explains their role in CLL care.

Dr. Steven Coutre is a Professor of Medicine in the Hematology Department at Stanford University Medical Center. Learn more about this expert here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Steven Coutre:

In terms of testing for CLL, additional testing, of course, diagnostically, it’s generally not a challenge. It’s very straight-forward. A test that we call Flow Cytometry on a blood sample is usually sufficient to establish the diagnosis. Very, very uncommonly would a bone marrow exam be needed, for example. And in routine practice, also, we don’t necessarily give CT scans to establish a diagnosis or even to, as people say, stage the disease. It really isn’t necessary in most cases.

However, we do have a staging system that correlates with the extent of the disease and that’s simply based on our exam and blood counts, but people also want more information. They wanna know how they’re gonna do, specifically. So, we can add additional tests, genetic testing as people often call it, that can further subdivide individuals into groups that give you additional information on how you might do, meaning if you’re without symptoms, and an observation is recommended, you wanna know, “Well, how long is it gonna be before I need treatment?” Although our staging system gives that information, we can refine that further.

One test is the so-called FISH test, which looks at specific chromosome abnormalities, and the second test that’s generally used is called the IGHV Mutation Assay. That’s really looking at what’s called the mutational status of your immunoglobulin genes. So, it’s really those two broad categories that are most relevant.

Now, we don’t necessarily advocate doing that testing on everyone at the time of diagnosis. Certainly, not everyone who is without symptoms, where we’ve already decided that treatment is not indicated. So, as you can imagine, you can do that testing. You might come up with a profile that’s less favorable. And then, instead of the watch and wait approach, or as folks like to call it, “watch and worry approach,” you worry even more. But then, of course, if you have a favorable profile, then you’re happier. You’re more pleased.

However, we don’t do anything differently regardless of what those tests show, at least at current state. Compared to a decision that’s already been made about treat or not treat. We do, however, strongly advocate getting that testing at the time of treatment, and sometimes, repeating some of the testing with subsequent treatment, when you require treatment, say, a second time, in some cases. So, very important to have a discussion about these tests and what information you will get from them.

Well, we’ll often see patients who are coming for another opinion about their disease. Perhaps they’ve been recently diagnosed, and they have been advised for observation, so, it’s, of course, natural to ask whether that’s a reasonable approach. And in that context, other testing often comes up in the conversation. Perhaps they had the testing done, the FISH, and the mutational testing, and they wanna know what it means, or actually we see some results that have been obtained and we ask them about it. And there’s very often confusion, or really lack of information about what they mean.

So, we really try to discuss that issue. That issue of testing with each and every patient, whether or not they’ve had it done, really trying to let them know what it means. That way they’re fully informed, and in some cases, people feel very strongly that they would like to have it done, even through they realize that we’re not gonna act on it at that point. So, I think pretty much for all patients, it should be part of the initial discussion.

Again, in terms of genetic testing are these tests that I discussed. It’s important to understand what information they give you so you understand why your physician may be making a distinction between one therapy versus another. It is very, very important to get that testing, if somebody is talking about using chemotherapy, for example, hopefully. That’s quite uncommon. But with our newer agents, we know that they work broadly despite those other features.

Nevertheless, I think it’s important for a patient to at least expect the discussion about these tests. We’re not asking you to go to your physician and ask that they be done in all cases, but really understand perhaps why your physician recommended that they not be done at that particular time. 

Advocate for These CLL Genetic Tests

Advocate for These CLL Genetic Tests from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Genetic testing results can influence a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s treatment options and provide a more in-depth understanding into their disease. Dr. Philip Thompson, a CLL specialist, reviews key tests that CLL patients should advocate for.

Dr. Phillip Thompson is an Assistant Professor in Medicine in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about this expert here.

See More From INSIST! CLL


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What Do Genetic Tests Reveal About My CLL Treatment Options?


Transcript:

Dr. Philip Thompson:

I would say that I see a lot of patients that have previously seen an oncologist closer to home and then traveled to MD Anderson for a second opinion. And so, I can say that over the last three or four years, there’s definitely a significant change in the awareness of physicians in general about doing genetic testing for CLL.

So, in particular, almost everybody will get a FISH test, which I didn’t always see three or four years ago. And more patients are now having IGHV mutation status analysis done. The thing that I see that is very rarely done, though, is what we call next-generation sequencing, or NGS, that looks for mutations in individual genes, and most importantly, in the TP-53 gene that I mentioned.

So, I would – and the other thing that often isn’t done is what we call a carrier tag, which is a routine analysis of the chromosomes of the CLL cells. And it requires some special techniques for the lab to get it to work in CLL. But that can actually provide additional information compared to just FISH.

So, I would suggest to a patient, particularly if they’re gonna do a bone marrow biopsy on you, which is an invasive procedure, that you really try to get some clarity around what tests are going to be ordered on that beforehand. And if you’ve just been diagnosed and you’ve got early-stage CLL, you can make an argument about how many of these tests are absolutely necessary to start with. Because the biggest utility in these tests is in determining what type of treatment you’re going to have.

If you’re not immediately going to have treatment, they don’t necessarily change what your oncologist is going to do. They’re going to monitor you over time and see if your disease is getting worse or not. But I still think they’re useful to have the – a lot of them are useful, particularly the IGHV mutation status and FISH are useful to have at initial diagnosis. Because they give you a really good idea of what the biology of this disease is – this patient’s disease is like and how quickly they’re likely to progress, and that may change how frequently you monitor the patient.

But anyway, I would say it’s important to ask them what genetic testing you are gonna get. And that you ask – have an understanding of what can be ordered.

 And in particular, if you’re going to get treatment, you must ask for TP-53 sequencing, FISH for 17-P deletion, and IGHV mutation status because those three things are essential to determine the optimal treatment that you have. And you shouldn’t feel shy about asking, are those things going to be done.   

What Do Genetic Tests Reveal About My CLL Treatment Options?

What Do Genetic Tests Reveal About My CLL Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 
Genetic testing results can influence a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s treatment options and provide a more in-depth understanding into their disease. Dr. Phillip Thompson, a CLL specialist, reviews three important testing results that can impact treatment timing and approaches.
 
Dr. Phillip Thompson is an Assistant Professor in Medicine in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about this expert here.

See More From INSIST! CLL


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How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Dr. Philip Thompson:

So, there are three main things we look at before initiating treatment in a patient.

One is what we call the IGHV mutational status of the patient. And this basically splits people into types of CLL. So-called mutated or unmutated. And this is a relatively complex concept. Basically, what happens in normal B-lymphocyte development, so B-lymphocytes are part of your immune system. Their job is they have a probe on the surface of the cell that looks for invading microorganisms. And when they find an invader, this probe binds to the organism. And then the cell actually undergoes, as part of its normal development, a process of mutation so that it makes the best possible antibody to fight that infection. So that’s a normal process that the B-lymphocyte undergoes when fighting infections.

So, CLL can arise from what we call a mature antigen-experienced mutated B-cell, or it can arise from a naive B-cell that has never gone through that process, in which case, it will have an unmutated IGHV. Now, it’s kind of counterintuitive, but the patients with a mutated IGHV generally have better outcomes. That type of CLL is less proliferative, it doesn’t grow as fast, and it also tends to respond better to certain types of treatment. Particularly, it responds better to chemotherapy than patients with unmutated IGHV.

However, the difference between those two is less important if you’re getting some of the newer therapies. Particularly, it seems like if you receive BTK inhibitors, it doesn’t really matter if you have mutated or unmutated IGHV, patients are responding very well. But I like to know whether they have a mutated or unmutated IGHV because it’s helpful for giving the patient an expectation of how their disease is likely to behave biologically.

But also, if they have a mutated they may be a candidate for chemotherapy-based treatment. Whereas if they have unmutated IGHV, I don’t use chemotherapy for those patients.

 

The second thing is a test called FISH. And FISH looks for chromosome abnormalities. So, we have 46 chromosomes, 23 from our mother and 23 from our father. They contain all of our genetic information. And in malignant diseases, you can have major abnormalities in the chromosomes of the cancer cells. Not in the rest of your body, just in the cancer cells. And they happen because of errors that are made when the cells are replicating their chromosomes.                                                                 

So, in CLL, there are four common abnormalities that we look for in a test called FISH, and they tell us a lot about the patient’s prognosis. And there’s one in particular that we look at that has a major impact on our decision making, and that’s a deletion on Chromosome 17.

So, a missing piece of Chromosome 17. And the reason that that’s important is it tends to be an aggressive form of CLL. It also does not respond to chemotherapy, or if it does, the responses are very, very short-lived. So basically, that’s a contrary indication to receiving chemotherapy for your CLL when you should receive another form of therapy if you have a 17-P deletion.

And then, finally, we look at a type of – we look for individual gene mutations in the cells. And that’s different from IGHV mutational status, although the names are kind of similar.

So, in CLL, there are numerous genes that can be affected by mutations that alter the function of the gene. In some cases, it makes the gene non-functional; in some cases, it changes the function in some way that perturbs the normal functioning of the cell and contributes to the malignant transformation of that cell.

So, the most important one, again, relates to a gene called TP-53. So that’s the gene that is deleted if you lose a piece of Chromosome 17. It’s located on the P arm of chromosome 17. If you mutate that gene, it has the same consequences essentially for the cell as if you delete it by deleting a piece of the chromosome. And the two often go together, so you’ll have a 17-P deletion and a mutation of the TP-53 gene on your other Chromosome 17. Because remember, you have two chromosome 17s. So, if you lose both, it may be even worse than only having one. However, it does seem that if you only have a mutation on the TP-53 gene, but you don’t have a deletion on Chromosome 17, that the responses of those patients to chemoimmunotherapy are still really poor.

So, it’s very important to find out, do you have a TP-53 mutation as well as do you have a deletion on Chromosome 17 before you embark on treatment, particularly if that treatment is going to be chemotherapy. So, those are the three things that we look for before    we start any patient on therapy.

Fact or Fiction? AML Causes & Symptoms


Dr. Daniel Pollyea, an AML specialist, dispels common myths around the causes and symptoms of AML and shares advice so that you can identify credible resources for information. Download the Program Guide here.

Dr. Daniel A. Pollyea is Clinical Director of Leukemia Services in the Division of Medical Oncology, Hematologic Malignancies and Blood and Marrow Transplant at University of Colorado Cancer Center. More about this expert.

See More From the Fact or Fiction? AML Series

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Transcript:

Ross:

I’m Ross Reynolds. Today we’re gonna be debunking some common misconceptions about the causes and symptoms of AML.

And joining me is Dr. Daniel Pollyea. Dr. Pollyea, could you introduce yourself?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. Hi. Good morning, everyone. I’m Dan Pollyea. I’m an Associate Professor of Medicine here at the University of Colorado, where I am the Clinical Director of Leukemia Service.

 

Ross:

I wanna emphasize to you that this program is not a substitute for medical advice, so be sure to consult your healthcare team when it comes to solid information about it. But you will get some background that I think you’re gonna find useful. And you might have some questions as we go along.

 Dr. Pollyea, let’s start out with the basics. What are the causes of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, Acute Myeloid Leukemia, it’s a disease, a cancer of the bone marrow.

And it’s the result of an accumulation of mutation and chromosomal abnormalities that affect the DNA of a precursor cell in the bone marrow, otherwise known as a stem cell.

And those abnormalities accumulate until that cell can no longer properly mature, and it also can’t properly die. And so, a cell like that just makes copy after copy after copy of a cell until it crowds out the whole bone marrow with these sorta useless, immature cells.

And the end result of that is the failure of the bone marrow, which causes all of the problems associated with this disease. So, biologically, that’s sort of what happens to make this disease occur.

 

Ross:

What are some of the myths that you hear from patients that come in and they say, “Oh, this must’ve caused my AML,” but you have to tell them that’s not so?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Right. So, I mean, this is one of the most frustrating issues for patients and their families after diagnosis. I mean, it’s a rare disease, only about 30,000 cases a year in the United States. And so, trying to associate a rare disease with external or environmental factors is difficult to impossible. So, although there are a variety of exposures that probably contribute to this disease, we have very little understanding of what those exposures typically are or how that all works.

So, there’s a few things that we know pretty well; large doses of radiation, either associated with like industrial accidents like the Chernobyl disaster, or some of the radiation therapies that patients receive for other types of cancer. Other types of chemotherapy that are used to cure other cancers can contribute to this disease in later years.

We know that there are certain precursor conditions that can evolve to AML, so a person with myelodysplastic syndrome, for instance, has a fairly high chance of someday evolving to develop Acute Myeloid Leukemia. But beyond these sort of a few associations, there isn’t a whole lot that’s known or proven.

 

Ross:

Now there is radiation associated with X-rays, and some people think that X-rays can cause AML. Is that true?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah.

So, I mean, I think a priori no because millions of people get X-rays every day, and only 30,000 people a year get AML. So, clearly it’s not a simple association between getting an X-ray and developing AML. But I think that there is an unknown interaction between environmental exposures and a person’s individual genetic makeup that makes a person more or less susceptible to developing something like AML with respect to exposure to the environment or X-rays and things.

So, while you cannot say that getting an X-ray will lead to AML, certainly there are some people who are more sensitive to the damage that’s done by something like an X-ray. And so, the best course of action is to be cautious and judicious about your exposure to these things, but not to not get these things when they are medically necessary.

So, that’s the challenging balance.

 

Ross:

Here’s something else we’ve heard, that weed killers can be a risk factor for AML. Is that true?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

I mean, I think there’s a lot coming out now about weed killers and their association with other types of cancers. Again, I go back to the limitation we have in that in only 30,000 people a year in the United States get AML. Millions of people are exposed to weed killers.

We’re statistically never going to be able to make a clear association. I think that there are certainly some risks for some people. Whether you’re that person who’s more susceptible to developing leukemia or any other cancer because of exposure to a weed killer is impossible to know.

So, like all of these things, I think the advice we have is you have to live your life. You have to do your best to sort of avoid things that you can avoid that you think would be… Or that may cause problems. But not to let those things prevent you from living a normal life.

I know that’s not a satisfying answer, but at the moment that’s the best answer we have.

 

Ross:

Is formaldehyde exposure another risk factor for AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. We think that it is, and kind of along the lines of benzene. But, again, we think that those studies that have shown those types of association show it in very high amounts, amounts that most people in this country would not be exposed to. But I do think, or we do think that there is something to that, to formaldehyde somehow contributing to this.

 

Ross:

What’s the difference between a risk factor for AML and a cause of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, I think risk factors by definition are things that may contribute to AML. And a risk factor for AML by that definition could be walking down the street and having some exposure to radiation from the sun. A cause of AML is something that is a much more solid sort of well-understood factor.

Like I said before, having myelodysplastic syndrome, there is a high chance that that can evolve to Acute Myeloid Leukemia. And if that happens then the MDS, the myelodysplastic syndrome, could be considered or would be considered the cause of your AML. So, very, very different in terms of the amount of evidence that goes into making those determinations

 

Ross:

Is there a genetic component to this? Can this run in a family?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, this is a disease of the genome.

So, I mean, in a lot of respects it is a genetic disease. But the question is very different when you ask is this an inherited genetic disease? Is this disease due to a gene that I inherited from a parent or could pass along to a child?

For many, many years, the answer from the medical community was, “No.” This was not considered to be a disease that clustered in families or that could be inherited. We now know that that’s not necessarily the case. There are some very rare cases where this does seem to travel in families or cluster in families. And we’re now beginning to understand who those people are and what those genes are.

But the vast majority of people with this disease did not inherit a gene to contribute to it and cannot pass this along to a child. This is a random, spontaneous event that occurred within one person’s own body and is not traveling within family. So, we’re learning more and more about this, but really, the vast majority of this is not an inherited genetic condition.

 

Ross:

You’ve mentioned gene mutations. What mutates a gene? What causes that to happen that could lead down the line to AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great question. Most of the time we do not know the answer to that. These gene mutations occur spontaneously, randomly, and we don’t understand why they happen when they do happen.

And I know that’s, again, not a satisfying answer. It’s very frustrating, particularly patients come in, and, “I’ve lived a healthy lifestyle. I’ve done everything right. I exercise. I eat right. How could this have happened?”

These are things that for the most part are out of the control of a person. These aren’t impacted by your diet or your activity levels, what you eat or don’t eat, what you do or don’t do. That’s a real frustration. In the end, in almost all cases we don’t know or understand why these gene mutations or these, I call them mistakes in the body, occur when they occur. We don’t understand them.

And, Dr. Pollyea, someone asked if benzene can be a risk factor for AML.

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, benzene is one of the sort of rare environmental exposure associations that we do have clear associations with AML.

But the level of benzene that a person would need to be exposed to is really something that hasn’t been seen in this country in a very long time.

We’d be talking about like an industrial accident type exposure in almost all cases, so being exposed to a cleaning solution or some other fairly minor exposure to benzene, we don’t think is enough, in most cases, to prompt this disease. But benzene in very high doses, like an industrial accident, yes, that is something that we understand can certainly contribute or cause AML.

 

Ross:                          

Autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, can they increase the risk of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Oh, boy. That is a really interesting one. So, there are papers in the literature that do support those associations. And I know in my own practice I certainly see that trend. So, I do think that there is something there. There is a proven association between autoimmune conditions and myelodysplastic syndrome, which I said before can be a clear precursor condition to AML. So, certainly, that is an association that is a possibility.

It can be a little difficult to tease out whether it’s those diseases that are associated with ultimately developing AML, or the treatments that people get for some of those autoimmune diseases. Those treatments can modulate the immune system in certain ways that may, in fact, contribute or drive the disease. So, that’s a difficult thing to tease out.

But in general terms, yes, I think there are some associations. Now not by a long shot everyone with an autoimmune disease gets AML. It’s a teeny, tiny fraction. But I think there is an association there.

 

Ross:

How easy is it to diagnose AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Well, I mean, I think there’s very clear diagnostic criteria for AML. But I guess that doesn’t really answer the question. And we certainly have patients who come to us after many months of frustration without a clear diagnosis.

So, those scenarios can play out. Many times AML’s a very dramatic presentation, so people get very, very sick very, very quickly with extraordinarily high white blood cell counts and suppression of all the other blood counts that come from the bone marrow like red blood cells and platelets.

In those cases it’s pretty clear that there is a type of acute leukemia going on. There can be some difficulty distinguishing Acute Myeloid from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia; those are sort of like cousins, but very different and treated differently. So, it kinda runs the gamut. I mean, it can be pretty clear, but it’s sometimes missed, so yeah.

 

Ross:

This is a great lead-in to my next question, which is about the symptoms of AML. What should be the warning signs that this might be something you need to get looked at?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Right. So, at presentation, the main symptoms are reflective of the fact that the bone marrow, the organ that makes all the cells of the blood, has failed.

So, that can cause severe anemia. Signs of anemia: a white sort of appearance, feeling dizzy or lightheaded when standing, short of breath, weak, tired, fatigue. Those are all pretty clear presenting symptoms for AML. Because the bone marrow also is responsible for making platelets that clot the blood, some people will present with a bleeding complication, or a very subtle rash made up of these particular red dots. We call that a petechial rash. And that rash can come on when the platelet count gets very low.

Sometimes a person will present with an infection or infections that don’t go away or don’t clear because of decrease in white blood cells, the infection-fighting cells of the bone marrow. Those are made in the bone marrow and can fail in the setting of this disease. So, those are the most common symptoms at presentation, symptoms that are reflective of bone marrow failure.

 

Ross:

You mentioned that sometimes the presentation could be very dramatic, and it sounds like the symptoms are very severe, very quickly. Is that always the case? Is that often the case?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

That is the case in, I would say, a minority of times. That’s usually the case. It’s more often seen in younger patients with AML. Typically, older patients with AML have a more smoldering course and a much less dramatic presentation, although this sort of very dramatic and dangerous presentation can happen in older patients, but it’s probably something like a third of the time that those very dramatic and medical emergency presentations occur.

 

Ross:

How important is early diagnosis?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Well, I mean, it’s crucial. I mean, in particular in those cases where it’s a very dramatic and proliferative diagnosis, or presentation. A quick diagnosis and recognition of this condition is very important because the sooner a person starts effective treatment the better the ultimate outcome is.

I would say in general terms that applies to all AML patients, but certainly there’s some degrees of variation. So, there’s some AML patients that when I hear about their case on the phone from a referring doctor, it’s appropriate to see them next week in the clinic.

So, it’s not always a medical emergency, but we would never, even in those next-week-in-the-clinic patients, this isn’t something that can wait for weeks or certainly months. This is something that needs to be addressed fairly quickly.

 

Ross:

What are the best ways to manage those symptoms?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Right. So, I mean, at presentation, all those symptoms, the best way to manage those are to start treatment as quickly as possible. So, impacting the underlying cause of this disease is the most important and critical factor to getting a person feeling better because all of these problems stem from the disease in the bone marrow, and so everything else that you do to sort of help a person’s symptoms are Band-Aids when you’re not talking about getting to the root cause.

So, that’s at presentation. Now once we start treatment, there are many potential side effects to any number of treatments. And it all is dependent on what treatment you’re getting and other things about you that will make this a significant problem in some cases. And in that setting, we do have ways that we can aggressively manage a person’s side effects.

 

Ross:

Can you manage all of the symptoms? Or can people still be experiencing symptoms even after they’re in treatment?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Absolutely. So, a person with this disease, depending on how long they’ve had it and some of the features, may not be feeling back to their baseline self for potentially weeks or months after treatment starts in the best-case scenario. So, that can be very frustrating, but a person needs to sort of be able to continue to have a good outlook and stay positive.

Because we are able in many cases to make a big impact on this disease and return a person to their pre-disease quality of life.

 

Ross:

What are some of the myths that you hear, Dr. Pollyea, about the treatment? Some things that people come in to you saying they think that it helps, but there’s no science to back that up?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

So, myths about treatment, so many people have a lot of preconceived notions about the intensity of a therapy that they’re going to be asked to withstand. And although sometimes we do treat this disease very intensively, that’s not always the case, and now we have some very effective lower-intensity regimens that can be used in a variety of different scenarios.

There are a lot of people who have a lot of preconceived notions about a stem-cell transplant or a bone-marrow transplant and whether or not they would be eligible for this based on maybe what they’ve heard from friends or family, or what they’ve seen in the internet.

And those are often incorrect. And so, keeping an open mind about treatment options, and discussing those in detail with your doctor are really, really important.

 

Ross:

You mentioned sometimes it presents in young people, sometimes in older people. What’s sort of typical?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

This is a disease of predominantly older patients, so the median age of presentation is 68. So, that means that over half of the patients are over 68 years old at diagnosis. So, while this does happen, can happen in younger patients, that’s really an unusual situation. This disease is, like I said, it is predominantly a disease of older patients.

 

Ross:

There are some patients who I understand think that supplements can deal with the symptoms of AML. Is that accurate?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

You know, I mean, I think the supplement question is always a challenge. A lot of these supplements, or most of these supplements have never been tested with the rigor of treatments that we’re accustomed to in the medical establishment.

That being said, I won’t deny that some of the supplements can help patients based on what patients’ experiences are and what they tell me. I think what’s really important is just be very open and honest with your doctor about the supplements that you’re taking or want to take to ensure that there are no sort of unanticipated interactions with treatments.

Because I think most doctors are very open to having their patients care for themselves in the ways that they’ve become accustomed to, and they know their bodies very well, and we’re very open to that. But there are sometimes that a drug or a supplement might have a bad interaction with the treatment.

And so, a good example in my practice is antioxidants. So, there’s a lot of literature, a lot of interest in antioxidants as cancer-prevention treatment.

And a lot of that is not well-established, but still I don’t see much harm. But when it comes time to treating a cancer, that’s a very different situation. When we give a patient treatment to try to kill the cancer cells, many times we’re trying to provoke oxidation. That’s part of how these drugs and these treatments work.

So, if you’re taking those treatments, but also at the same time taking antioxidants, there’s the potential you could sort of be cutting your therapy off at the knees, fighting it with one hand behind your back. So, for the period of time when my patients are getting an active treatment, I ask that they don’t take it antioxidant.

And they can resume that in the future in the hopes of preventing another cancer. But the time to prevent with an antioxidant isn’t appropriate when you’re dealing with an active cancer. So, that’s just one example.

 

Ross:

Fatigue could be a symptom of AML, but there are a lot of causes of fatigue.

How do you differentiate between something that really could be AML and something that isn’t?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. That’s a challenge because I think these are, as I said, older patients. And older patients have a lot of other medical problems. And older people get fatigued, just that’s unfortunately part of the normal aging process. So, we would usually make an assumption that a person’s fatigue and diagnosis is due to the leukemia, the anemia as a result of the leukemia.

But as we successfully treat a patient if they are responding based on their numbers and other objective criteria, but the fatigue is not improving then I think that’s where we would start to look at other contributing factors, and there can be many, so having an open mind at that point is important.

But at the beginning, this is such a monster of a disease, it’s so overwhelming, I think the focus is usually on assumption that the fatigue is due to the disease or to a treatment associated with this disease.

 

Ross:

This question: is loss of appetite a symptom of AML?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. I definitely see that, hear that, so sometimes people come in and they say that. Sometimes it may not be a loss of appetite, but an extreme weight loss, so a lot of different types of cancer, including AML, can cause that, just basically unintentional weight loss.

A person’s not trying to lose weight. They’re eating what they think is their normal amount and they’re losing tremendous amounts of weight. So, those are both potential presenting symptoms with AML. And loss of appetite, unfortunately, can be associated with some of the treatments for this disease. And taste changes, things not tasting good, can all contribute to that as well, so those are all challenges that our patients face.

 

Ross:

How important is to get a second opinion? I mean, are all doctors like you pretty much on the same page when it comes to symptoms and treatment?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

So, this is a challenge. So, the answer to the second question first is unfortunately, no. A lot of this hasn’t quite been standardized. And some doctors, oncologists, cancer doctors, they’ll predominantly be treating the things that are common: colon cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer. And they will probably only have a few cases of acute leukemia a year.

And so, their approach to this is going to be different than somebody who spends all day seeing patients with AML and thinking about AML.

So, a second opinion is a very nice thing to be able to do. The problem with this disease is that most times it doesn’t afford that opportunity. So, with other conditions you have some time to go out, read about it, talk to some different doctors, get a good plan together.

With AML, often that’s not a possibility. A person is so urgently sick that you have to sorta deal with the resources where you are. The best recommendation I have there, if you do find yourself in a situation where there’s not a lot of expertise is to ask your doctor to just call somebody in the region or email somebody in the region who may have that expertise.

And most doctors all over the country have that sort of resource or partner that they will go to and talk the case through with them, and maybe a transfer to one of those high-volume centers is appropriate.

And maybe that’s not a possibility or appropriate, but maybe you would benefit from just talking… Maybe your doctor would benefit from talking this through. But in cases where it’s not such a dramatic presentation, then yeah, for sure, I think a second opinion can be appropriate. But this isn’t something that can be sort of drawn out for long period of time.

 

Ross:

You know, when you find out something like this, your tendency might be to jump on the web and start searching for AML. How do you vet those sources that you look at? How do you figure out that their – what would be a sign that they’re bogus sources?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. I mean, I think this field is so rapidly changing and the treatment that we have, that I would, for the most part, assume that what you’re finding on the web is not relevant and is not an up-to-date resource. So, the resources that I listed, the NCCN, UpToDate, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, I should mention.

A very important resource that has up-to-date information, and they have even phone numbers for patients and their families to call to get connected with the proper people in a particular city, so that is a really important resource. But I’d be really, really cautious about what you find on the internet because things are changing so fast in this field. There’s a lot of outdated and misinformation on the internet.

 

Ross:

Well, then there’s outright scams. One of the things you mentioned before we went on is be cautious if someone’s asking you to put money upfront, or if it’s a nonmedical facility. What are some things that people should watch out for?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. So, one of the things that is so important in our area is clinical trials and participating in clinical trials. Patients who opt to do this and receive experimental therapies can sometimes get the treatment of the future, get a drug that’s not currently available through the FDA, but may have a lot of promise.

And this is the way that we fight this disease. We’ve recently had an onslaught of approvals for AML and that’s because the patients being willing to participate in sanctioned clinical trials. So, participating in a sanctioned clinical trial is crucial, and it’s always a recommendation of all leukemia doctors.

When you participate in a conventional clinical trial, you’re asked to sign a consent form that explains what you’re doing and why. There is a confirmation that this has been vetted by an institution’s regulatory board that is prioritizing the safety and well-being of you, the patient. This has been approved by the FDA as a clinical trial. Nobody would ever ask you to pay money. That’s not ethical to participate in a clinical trial. Insurance covers whatever standard of care. And the clinical trial covers anything that isn’t.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re not being asked to sign a consent form, where a clinical trial has not been reviewed by a regulatory board, where your doctor is not a leukemia specialist, where the FDA has not sanctioned the treatment, all of those are alarm signs.

Because there are people out there that are preying on patients in a desperate situation, a very difficult time in their life, and giving them sort of false hope and leading them down paths that are not legitimate.

One easy thing to do to sorta check to see if a clinical trial is legitimate is to go onto clinicaltrials.gov.

This is a resource set up by our national healthcare system that now feeds in every legitimate clinical trial from all over the world, needs to be registered on clinicaltrials.gov. So, if you can’t find your clinical trial on clinicaltrials.gov, I would have a lot skepticism and caution about that.

 

Ross:

Like what advice do you have for people when they’re first diagnosed? What are the first things they should try to do?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

Yeah. I mean, that reaction is totally normal and natural. I mean, many times these people are perfectly healthy or have been perfectly healthy, and this news is a complete shock.

And so, it is normal and appropriate to have some period of grieving for the healthy life that you are losing. But I would also, while giving yourself that time to grieve, first, draw on your support system, your family, your friends. Allow them to help you. Accept that assistance that they have. And to be optimistic because we are getting so much better at treating this disease.

I had mentioned before, there has been an onslaught of approvals for drugs in this area the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades. We have new tools and weapons in our arsenal that we couldn’t have dreamed of even a few years ago.

We in our community are very excited and hopeful about the future and we hope that that will translate ultimately to patients, but being depressed or being down, being scared, all of that is normal.

All of that is expected. Anyone would feel like that. Allowing yourself to have those feelings and emotions is important, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of doing what you need to do to fight this disease.

 

Ross:

It sounds like you’re hopeful about new treatments for the disease. How about a cure? What’s the science? What’s the medical science say about that? Are we getting any closer to that?

 

Dr. Pollyea:

We are getting closer to curing this in more cases. So, like I mentioned before, as bad as this is, we can already cure some subsets of patients. There’s one type of Acute Myeloid Leukemia called Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia, APL. It’s an uncommon form of AML, less than 10 percent.

But we can cure close to 99 percent of people with APL. And APL, 15 years ago, was universally the worst form of acute leukemia to get. So, that dramatic 180 that we’ve seen in APL, we are hoping to translate into other forms of AML.

Some other forms of AML have cure rates as high as 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent in the right setting. Sometimes we can cure patients with a stem cell transplant fairly reliably. So, we are very, very hopeful about our ability to continue to make progress and cure more and more and more of these patients. That’s the future that we see.

 

Ross:

Dr. Pollyea, thank you so much. And thank you so much for ending on such a positive note. We really appreciate it. And thank you for joining us for this program today.

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

ASH 2018 – Tools for Staying Up-to-Date on CLL Research

CLL patient advocate, Lee Swanson, interviews Dr. Anthony Mato, Director of the CLL Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center about the exciting news for CLL patients at the ASH 2018 meeting.


Transcript: 

Lee Swanson:

Hello.  I’m Lee Swanson at the American Society of Hematology conference in San Diego joined right now by Dr. Anthony Mato from Memorial Sloan‑Kettering in New York.  And, Doctor, CLL, what’s come out now at this conference about CLL that patients want to know about?

Dr. Mato:

This has been a very exciting ASH meeting for patients with CLL.  There’s been a couple of big themes, but probably the largest is the comparisons of novel agents to chemoimmunotherapy combinations.  We saw two presentations looking at ibrutinib and rituximab as compared to the chemo combo FCR, which is a standard of care for patients who are young and fit, and we also saw a comparison of ibrutinib with or without rituximab, the antibody, compared to bendamustine Rituxan.

The overlying theme of the two presentations is that the patients who received ibrutinib tended to do better, certainly in terms of progression‑free survival and even in terms of overall survival with regards to the FCR comparison.  So a big theme is that there are fewer and fewer patients who are the right candidates for chemoimmunotherapy, and it appears that BTK inhibitors, at least as of this moment, will be the standard of care frontline for patients with CLL.

Dr. Mato:

So the good news and the bad news:  You don’t have to do chemotherapy.  On the other hand, chemotherapy is a defined six‑, seven‑month regimen.  Does this mean you’re taking a pill forever?

Dr. Mato:

Based on the current way that ibrutinib has been studied and labeled that means you’re on a long‑term‑‑it’s a long‑term commitment to ibrutinib.  There have been updates at the meeting of ibrutinib‑based and venetoclax‑based combination therapies where there is the hope that giving ibrutinib with a partner, for example, or venetoclax with a partner will allow us to treat to a fixed duration and then stop for patients, and that duration would either be based on some predetermined time point or on depth of response based on response criteria or minimal residual disease criteria.

So right now it’s a long‑term commitment, especially frontline.  In the long‑term I think we’re headed toward the direction where we can define which patients may stop sooner and then be retreated.

Lee Swanson:

If you stop, can you be retreated with the same?

Dr. Mato:

That’s a great question.  There’s not a lot of information about that, but there’s no reason biologically to think that that wouldn’t be a problem.  Specifically, if you stop in the setting of responding disease it’s not likely you’ve required resistance to that drug, and so retreatment should be a reasonable strategy.  We’re at Memorial Sloan Kettering now designing many trials that will try to answer those questions and allow us to stop either monotherapies by themselves or combinations to treat to a depth of response and then stop, so that’s something we’re really interested in.

Lee Swanson:

So if a patient gets a diagnosis now from‑‑sometimes from a primary care physician, of CLL what’s the conversation they should have?

Dr. Mato:

From the primary care physician?  Well, I think the primaries are great at identifying an elevated white blood cell count and the signs and symptoms of CLL even making the diagnosis.  Flow cytometry is readily available now to anyone who wants to order it.  I think the conversation with a primary care physician should be who should that patient see as a CLL expert to help guide the observation period which is important, as many patients are not treated initially, and also to help them to be informed as to how the field is changing.  Because the progress is so rapid you really need to have someone who is focused in on this area to help guide that particular management strategy long term.

Lee Swanson:

It’s important to get to a specialist, at least get a communication with a specialist.

Dr. Mato:

Exactly.  And of course the local oncologist and the internist are very important in terms of patient management, but ultimately there could be somebody who could help drive that‑‑some of the more important decisions based on the newest standards.

Lee Swanson:

So all of these things coming out, how does a patient keep up on what’s going on?

Dr. Mato:

That’s a really great and difficult question to answer because there’s so many different sources of information, some more reputable than others on advances in the field.  I think that probably the best source is having a physician, a trusted provider who is up to date, who can help interpret some of the more complicated findings from the research studies.  But in addition there are patient organizations and professional societies who are reputable, who provide up‑to‑date, very reasonable recommendations, either through their websites or through the literature that they provide for patients.

I think trying to avoid just general Google searches for advice on management of CLL is a good idea to not do.  I find that oftentimes things that get posted online can be just one‑off examples where somebody’s either extremely happy with care or very unhappy with an event, and it may not necessarily be representative for all patients.  So I would say professional societies, CLL focus, patient organizations, and then of course having a care team that’s very focused and very specialized in the area so that they can interpret what can be complicated.

Lee Swanson:

Okay.  Thank you very much, Doctor.  Appreciate your time.

Dr. Mato:

Thank you very much.  Yep.

Lee Swanson:

This is Lee Swanson.  I’m at the American Society of Hematology conference in San Diego.

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