Tag Archive for: watch and wait

How Are MPN Treatments Changing for Low-Risk vs High-Risk Patients?

How Are MPN Treatments Changing for Low-Risk vs High-Risk Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How do MPN treatments vary for low-risk and high-risk patients? MPN expert Dr. Claire Harrison from Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital in London explains how treatment differs for these patients and changes that she would like to see for care of some patients. 

See More from Best MPN Care No Matter Where You Live

Related Resources:

How Can MPN Patients Stay Up to Date With New Treatments?

How Can MPN Patients Become More Proactive in Their Care?

Advice for Hesitant MPN Clinical Trial Participants


Transcript:

Dr. Nicole Rochester: 

How are treatment strategies changing for low-risk and high-risk patients with MPN?

Dr. Claire Harrison: 

It’s complicated because we need to think across the entities, and we don’t have an answer to that for patients with MPN unclassified. And we don’t actually have a good answer to that for this entity called pre-fibrotic myelofibrosis, which does appear and is strongly recognized in the new diagnostic criteria. But for ET, for example, low-risk patients I mentioned triple-negative, calreticulin, M-positive, young patients, platelets less than 1500, not too much changing their queries about aspirin or not, and then for PV patients, we haven’t really changed all kind of high-risk criteria and for both ET and PV, the questionnaire is, should we use the treatment above aspirin or above aspirin and venesection. 

And for the most part, that would be hydroxycarbamide, hydroxyurea (Hydrea), which is the commonest treatment used worldwide or interferon, and these are the right treatment for some patients and not the right treatment for other patients, so some patients can be very fixated on interferon is the absolute best, but there is no clear evidence of that, and there are some patients who interferon is not the right treatment, but low versus high risk becomes even more important for myelofibrosis patients.

And here, we’re thinking about using a risky strategy like transplantation for those patients who have higher risk disease, and we’re using, as I mentioned to you, these molecular markers and newer prognostic tools to stratify patients. And it is important to remember as a patient if someone puts your data into a prognostic tool and that comes up with five years, but it doesn’t mean to say five years on the dot your time’s up, that’s an average. And if we put your data into a slightly different tool, we might get something else. So for the most part, we make decisions like transplants, we are learning more about transplantation and outcomes from that, and then in some countries, some treatments are used for patients who fall into intermediate or high-risk categories, and some clinical trials are based on that as well. I would want to say about myelofibrosis, and something I think I would really like to see changed, not changing yet, but changed, is that we should be able to intervene for patients with a low-risk disease. If my myelofibrosis patients have breast cancer, we would not be going there, then you’ve got low-risk disease, we’ll put you on watch and wait, watch and wait is really hard for our patients, we know that I can see you nodding.

You know that too, right? So if these were patients with breast cancer we would not say, we’ll just watch and wait. So I would really like to see in the next five to 10 years a treatment that we could use earlier in the disease course, but there is nothing at the moment, but we’re looking at that. The other thing we’re looking at, if we’ve got a minute or so is the different endpoint, so we’re trying to understand what does it mean if your allele burden, so the amount of abnormal genes you’ve got goes down, the amount of bone marrow fibrosis you’ve got goes down. And again, this is something we’ll collect in a clinical trial, but also from real-world data. 

Clinical Trials As a CLL Treatment Option: What You Should Know

Clinical Trials As a CLL Treatment Option: What You Should Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Should you consider participating in a CLL clinical trial? In this webinar, Dr. Adam Kittai provides an overview of the clinical trial process and addresses common misconceptions. Dr. Kittai shares an update on the latest advances in CLL research and discusses key advice for patients considering trial participation.

Dr. Adam Kittai is a hematologist and an assistant professor at the The Ohio State University
Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James. Learn more about Dr. Kittai, here.

Download Guide

See More from CLL Clinical Trials 201

Related Resources:

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options

Setting CLL Treatment Goals WITH Your Team

Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to discuss the latest research advances in chronic lymphocytic leukemia and discuss the role of clinical trials in patient care. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click that link to access information to follow along during the webinar. At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link a link to a program survey. This will allow you to provide feedback about your experience today and it will help us plan future webinars.  

Finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your health care team about what might be best for you. Okay, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Adam Kittai. Doctor, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?  

Dr. Kittai:

Thanks for having me. My name is Dr. Kittai, I’m an Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University, and I specialize in research and clinical research in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.   

Katherine:

Great. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.  

Dr. Kittai:

Happy to be here.  

Katherine:

I understand that CLL researchers met recently at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, also known as ASCO, to share their research. Are there highlights from the meeting that patients should know about?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, so this time of year, there are two main conferences actually that are very important to the CLL groups at large, as well as the oncology community. So, there’s ASCO and then there’s EHA, the European Hematology Association. And in general, there was a lot of exciting things at both of these conferences. 

In CLL, we have two main treatments that we’re really focused on. One is called the BTK inhibitors, which is ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, and zanubrutinib that you may have heard about. And the other treatment regimen is called venetoclax, and that’s usually paired with something called obinutuzumab. So, right now we’re either using the BTK inhibitors or the venetoclax as our frontline therapies. And typically, when patients progress on either one of those treatments – their disease gets worse – we switch to the other one. 

And so, what I’m getting to be that right now, that paradigm of starting with one therapy – the BTK inhibitors or the venetoclax – and then switching to the other, or vice versa, is being challenged. How that’s being challenged is combining the two medications together to see if combining them together is better than giving them sequentially. So, I think this is the primary research that’s being looked at in the world of CLL and we got some updates to show that the combination of the BTK inhibitors, plus the venetoclax, is looking quite good. It’s looking like it’s inducing deep remissions in some of our patients.  

Some of the challenges here though that we still need to figure out is that a lot of these combinations are leading to more toxicity. So, ultimately, I think we’re going to have a discussion about who is the appropriate patient for the combination, as opposed to giving it sequentially. 

There’s also a lot more research going on, looking at what we call randomized trials, which we’ll get to in a second, to determine if the combination is better than giving it sequentially. Right now, we just have what we call single-arm studies that kind of show safety and how well the trial works. But really, the definitive clinical trials – and once again, we’ll get to this a little bit later – are going to be randomized study where we randomize patients to the combination versus the sequential therapy to determine if doing it together is better than doing it sequentially.  

So, I would say that this new treatment paradigm of combining our two main treatments up front is looking quite good. We’re worried about some of the toxicities when we combine these medications, and we’re still not quite sure if combining them is the right approach, if it actually is superior to giving them sequentially. So, I think that’s the name in research right now for CLL, whether or not combination therapy is better than sequential therapy. The jury is still out, but some of the new data we saw was exciting. 

Katherine:

So, how can patients stay up to date on research like this as it develops? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, great question. So, for one, you can talk to your physician. A lot of the physicians will go to either ASCO or the European Hematology Association and be able to come back with some of this data to share with their patients. And then also, there’s a lot of smaller conferences that local oncologists will go to get highlights from these particular conferences, where they also will come back to the patient to let them know some of this highlighted research. I think that’s probably the easiest way for patients to get access to this research. And Google’s our friend, right? And so, a lot of things are available on Google if you know where to look for them. 

Katherine:

Right. So, a key part in moving forward with CLL research is clinical trials, right? So, for people who may not know the term, what is a clinical trial? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah. So, a clinical trial is an experiment where patients are enrolled to receive a treatment that is either new or new in a new setting – so, an old treatment in a new setting – and we’re looking to see whether or not the treatment leads to improved outcomes for our patients.  

Katherine:

Why would a CLL patient consider participating in a trial? What’s the benefit for them? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, great question again. The benefit of a clinical trial is two-fold. One is that by participating in a clinical trial, we are collecting data to determine what’s best for patients moving forward. [00:07:06] So, in a way, by participating in a trial, you’re contributing to the benefit of CLL patients in the future to help us determine what’s best for everybody moving forward. That’s one reason to go on a clinical trial. Another reason to go onto clinical trials is that it allows for access to therapies that may not be available otherwise, which may work better than what we already have and may be safer.  

Katherine:

Right. So, I’d like to walk through a few common questions that patients have about clinical trials. And here’s a concern we received from a patient prior to the webinar. “I’m nervous that I will receive a placebo if I join a clinical trial.” So, first of all, would you define a placebo?  

Dr. Kittai:

Sure. A placebo is usually a sugar pill or something that has no effect. That’s what a placebo is.  

Katherine:

And is it true then, would a patient possibly get a placebo in a CLL clinical trial? 

Dr. Kittai:

Not typically. So, in terms of clinical trials for CLL, we have a lot of treatments that are effective and safe in CLL. And so, we don’t typically design trials where you’re not getting some kind of active therapy. It would be extremely rare, and I don’t know of any trials currently that involve patients getting a placebo for CLL. Because it wouldn’t be ethical for us to enroll a patient on a trial where they would get a placebo instead of active therapy. 

Katherine:

Right. That makes sense. Here’s another question from an audience member, and I think this is probably a common concern for patients. “Is a clinical trial only something I should consider if there are no other options?” 

Dr. Kittai:

So, in my opinion, you should always consider a clinical trial, even if there are other options. And it’s because of those two reasons that I mentioned earlier. Number one, it benefits the CLL community as a whole to participate in the trial so that way doctors and researchers can collect data to improve outcomes for patients with CLL. And also, even though our drugs currently work really well, we don’t know how well they’ll last for, right? So, they still don’t know for certain how long our current drugs are going to work for in the future.  

And we’re always trying to do better. We’re always trying to create some sort of treatment, some sort of treatment paradigm that might be safer, as well as work better, and either of those goals is approvable. All of our drugs come with toxicity, right? And even though they’re really safe and they work really well, we’re hoping to develop something that is even safer and works even better.  

Katherine:

Yeah. It sounds, then, like trials can be considered throughout a patient’s life with CLL. What concerns do you hear from your patients?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, so I think the primary concern I hear about a trial and the difference between going on a trial and standard of care, is that typically for a trial, it does require a little bit more from the patient. Meaning that there’s usually more visits – whether it is to monitor the effect of the new medication or new medication combination on the patient, whether or not it’s affecting their laboratory values or how they’re feeling.  

Or there might be parts of the trial that require invasive procedures. So, for instance, many trials will require bone marrow biopsies where a standard of care won’t. And the reason why the collection of those bone marrow biopsies is important for the trial is to better get an idea of how the treatment is working on a patient’s body.  

So, I think those are the two primary concerns I hear from the patient. Number one, it typically is a bigger time commitment with more visits to the doctor because we have to closely monitor the patients while they’re on trial. And number two is sometimes the trial involves procedures that otherwise wouldn’t be indicated for standard of care.  

Katherine:

Let’s talk a bit about how trials work, starting with the phases. What happens at each phase?  

Dr. Kittai:

There are actually four phases of clinical trials, although three phases are typically what’s talked about. So, Phase I is when we are first introducing the new medication, the combination, or the old medication in a new scenario for the first time in a human being.  

Phase one encompasses a lot of different things. It could be a first in-human phase one, where we’re giving the drug for the first time in a human being. It could be, as I said, the combination of drugs being used for the first time in a human being. Or it could be that we have this drug that works for this other cancer and we’re trying it out on this new cancer. So, we might have experience with this drug in another scenario, but not in the scenario we’re trying to do.  

And the primary purpose of the phase one clinical trial is to see if it’s safe. So, that’s the primary purpose of a phase one clinical trial – see if this new medication, this old medication in this new scenario, or this new combination is safe to use going forward.  

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

We are able to see if it works to a small degree in the phase one trial, but typically these trials are very small with somewhere between 10 to 50 patients. And so, it’s hard to know how well this works by looking at such a small amount of patients.  

Once the Phase I trial goes forward, we usually go onto Phase II. So, one of the other points about Phase I is to determine the correct dose. Usually in phase ones, we increase the dose of the drug slowly until it meets some sort of toxicity cut-off for our patients. So, once that dose is discovered, then we move onto Phase II, and Phase II is usually a small study, usually about 50-100 patients where we’re looking at preliminary efficacy, to see if this drug, this new combination, or the drug in a new scenario, is actually working.   

And so, Phase II will tell us we think it’s working and if it looks good in phase two, it gets moved onto Phase III. Phase III is the final part of the drug development, where if it passes Phase III, it usually gets approved by the Federal Drug Administration. And Phase III is usually a randomized trial where you’re giving the new drug, the combo, or the old drug in a new situation, and you’re comparing it to whatever’s used as standard of care in that particular scenario.  

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

And that’s usually a randomized study where patients are either getting the new thing or the old thing. And then, we’re determining which one works better. Lastly is Phase IV, and this is post marketing. So, after a drug gets approved, the drug company and the FDA requires just a wide scope of just data that’s collected to see how well the drug is working and if it’s safe once it’s brought out to the wider community.  

Katherine:

Okay. You mentioned randomized clinical trials. There are a couple of other clinical trials as well. Would you define them and tell us how they’re different from one another?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah. So, a randomized trial is when you enroll onto a study, and you get randomly assigned to either the experimental arm or the control arm. The experimental arm is that new drug that we talked about. And the control arm is usually the standard of care. So, that’s a randomized study. 

And randomized studies are usually Phase III trials, but they can be phase two in some scenarios as well. You have – usually that’s paired with a randomized control study. So, a control study is just there’s a control arm, that’s what that means. But those usually go hand in hand. Those are usually together.  

And then another trial is the double-blind clinical trial. So, a double-blind clinical trial means that once you’re randomized to either the experimental or the control, neither you nor the physician know what drug you’re taking. And that usually is not used in CLL trials. Usually, we know what drug the patient is assigned to. And the reason why that is, is because oftentimes we’re looking out for specific adverse events or toxicities of the drugs we’re implementing at Phase III.  

And then, also, if you’re getting a triplet versus a doublet, meaning three drugs versus two drugs, it’s very hard to blind somebody to know which drug they’re on because obviously you’re getting three drugs versus two drugs. Or if an infusion is involved in one arm but not in the other arm, you obviously know that you’re getting an infusion versus an oral drug. 

Katherine:

Ah, okay. Are there common clinical trial terms that you think patients should know about? 

Dr. Kittai:

I think we covered most of them. So, knowing that phase one is typically the first in the sequence of events that I would ask your physician if this was a first in human study, right, because that comes with some special considerations knowing that you are the first human to receive a new drug is very important. Versus a phase three study where, you know, you know this drug has already gone through phase one and two in development, meaning it’s been given to a lot of patients, and they’re just looking to see if it’s better than standard of care. So, I think knowing those general concepts about what’s the difference between a phase one and a Phase III study, it’s very different. I think it’s important to keep those in mind when talking about clinical trials and discussing with your doctor.  

Katherine:

Patients often have questions about safety. What are the risks of clinical trial participation?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, so before anybody enrolls onto a clinical trial, you should sit with your doctor to talk about the pros and cons of entering this clinical trial. One of the things that they will talk to you about is what the expected safety of this drug is. So, you might ask yourself, well, if it’s a phase one study, first in human study, how do they know what toxicity to expect? 

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

The answer is that there’s a lot of pre-human studies that occur, both in mice and monkeys and other animals, and researchers often have a good idea of what to expect in human. But there is a lot of unknowns in a phase one clinical trial. And after discussing with your doctor the pros and cons of going on a clinical trial and what side effect profile to expect from whatever drug or combination that you are about to be using, usually you go through a consent.  

Usually, you’ll get a packet, it’s about 10 to 20 pages long, written in a way that patients can understand. And it’ll have a list of toxicities that are associated with the research that is occurring. In terms of knowing what adverse events might happen, the consent is key, because it’ll have those all listed out.  

And also having the conversation with your physician about either what they’ve experienced giving this clinical trial, or what is to be expected after this drug had been introduced pre-humans.  

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. Are there protocols in place to protect patients? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yes. So, remember how we talked about in the phase one trials, we dose escalate the drug until we’ve reached some toxicity limit? There are specifically rules written out in a protocol that the doctor must follow that ensures safety for the patients that enroll in clinical trials. And that dose escalation part where we reach a toxic limit is a key part of those phase one trials that is spelled out before you even enroll.  

Usually, there’s also something called a Data Safety Monitoring Committee, as well as other committees that are looking at patients as they are receiving these drugs and move forward on clinical trials to make sure that the investigators are following the protocol as printed. That if anything happens, they document why it happened and fix the problem before it becomes another problem for a patient. So, there are very specific safety rules and a lot of redundancy to protect our patients, because the number one priority is to protect the patient. 

Katherine:

Yeah. I think you’ve already answered this, Dr. Kittai, but how do you know the medicine is safe before a human trial even begins? 

Dr. Kittai:

The answer is you don’t. There is some risk. As I said, they do test it in animals before they give the drug to humans, and they usually start at the lowest dose possible. But there are certain circumstances where there are surprising side effects that are not expected. And so, when you’re entering a first in human, Phase I trial, that is a specific risk that you do need discussed with your physician about before you enroll. 

Katherine:

Can a patient change their mind once they’ve enrolled in a clinical trial? 

Dr. Kittai:

Always. Always.  

Katherine:

Okay. 

Dr. Kittai:

They can come off the clinical trial at any point if they choose to.  

Katherine:

Okay. Now that we know what trials are and how they work, how can people find out what trials are available to them? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah. So, I’ll come back to this, but once again, talk to your physician. They’ll know what clinical trials are available at whatever site you are seeing them in. If there’s a local academic sector, the academic sector typically has clinical trials available there as well. So, it’s always good to get a second opinion in that regard.  

But one of the open access places that you can find all clinical trials is clinicaltrials.gov. This has all active running clinical trials listed out and anyone can access it. There are other societies out there that often post about clinical trials. So, there’s the CLL Society. It’s a website that you can check out that has a lot of information on there about active clinical trials in CLL. There’s also The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Lymphoma Research Foundation, they all have websites available that have a lot of clinical trials listed and how to access them.  

Katherine:

Are there key questions that you think patients should ask their health care team about participating in a trial?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, for sure. I think one of the key questions to ask is, is the control arm appropriate. So, what do I mean by that? Sometimes people who design a clinical trial will design a trial where the control arm is an easy control arm to beat, meaning that it’s a treatment that we wouldn’t necessarily put you on as standard of care.  

And so, I think this is a real question and an honest question that you should ask your physician prior to enrolling on a trial is, is the control arm something you would give me as standard of care. And if the answer is no, you should really consider not going on that trial or talking about why you would want to go on that trial if the control arm is not something they would put you put you on as standard of care.  

Katherine:

Right. 

Dr. Kittai:

That’s, I think, a key question to ask. And again, asking what phase it is and understanding where we are in the development.  

Katherine:

What do you feel are the barriers to accessing clinical trials for patients?  

Dr. Kittai:

So, unfortunately, a lot of clinical trials are at academic centers, and so there are – and the reason that is, is that the academic centers have the infrastructure to run the clinical trial. So, as we have mentioned before, there’s a lot of visits with a lot of extra science and labs that are done associated with the clinical trial. And a lot of those things and the coordination can only be done at large centers that can open clinical trials and know how to run them.  

Similar explanation could be that that safety monitoring committee that I’d mentioned before, where the academic centers have the infrastructure to ensure safety for the patients. So, access to academic centers is a limitation to enrolling in clinical trials. That being said, there are a lot of centers that are associated with an academic center and do have a lot of the clinical trials that are available at the academic center.  

And there are also cooperative groups. These cooperative groups are called Alliance and ECOG and SWOG. And these cooperative groups are national groups that are headed by multiple academic centers in partnership with pharmaceutical companies and they typically run large Phase III medical trials that help redefine standard of care. And those particular clinical trials are often available at private practices as well.  

Katherine:

Oh, that’s great. So, patients don’t necessarily have to think about traveling to a large educational institution then to become part of the clinical trial?  

Dr. Kittai:

Not always. Not always. Typically for the Phase I, the answer is yes. But for Phase III trials, usually there’s a lot of access available for Phase III trials.  

Katherine:

What would you say to patients who may be hesitant about participating in a trial?  

Dr. Kittai:

I would say that it’s important to at least ask about what’s available. And knowing what’s available and the risks and benefits of going on a clinical trial is how you should make the determination if you should go on a clinical trial.  

Remember what I said earlier that the clinical trial is really meant to help improve safety or efficacy. So, we don’t open clinical trials that we are not hoping to improve one of those two things. And so, that is something that we should be able to put in words to you when inquiring about the clinical trial. What is the goal of this trial, and why do you think it’s going to improve safety or efficacy? And the physician who’s talking the trial with you about it should be able to answer those questions for you. So, if you have some hesitance about going in clinical trials, I would say gather your information first before making a final decision.  

Katherine:

Some patients worry about the financial aspect or impact of a clinical trial. Aren’t trials expensive?  

Dr. Kittai:

So, actually, most clinical trials are less expensive than enrolling a standard of care. So, this is actually a benefit of going on a clinical trial. Often times, the drugs in the clinical trial are a cover. So, that’s something to ask too. And so, if somebody’s having trouble getting access to novel therapy that is looking good in a specific cancer, a clinical trial is actually a way to get access to that drug without paying for it.  

Also, all clinical trials when they’re being developed are looked at by the finance committees of the hospital or wherever it’s being developed. All standard of care options are billed through the patient insurance, but all the extra stuff is usually covered by the pharmaceutical company that’s enrolling those patients onto the trial. Or I should say the supporting the clinical trial, excuse me. 

Katherine:

That’s really good information to have.  

We touched on research at the top of the program, but are there other areas of research that you’re excited about and that patients should know about? 

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, so one of the things that I think is being really talked about in cancer care – and medical care in general – is if disparities exist between minority patients and white patients. And I think this is a really, really important topic.   

So, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which had the conference recently, really made this a mainstay point of the conference this year and there were a lot of abstracts that were defining whether disparities exist and hopefully, by defining whether disparities exist, we’re able to target those disparities in order to make outcomes equal for all of our patients.  

So, in the CLL world, one of the things that I alluded to is a lot of our therapies can be really expensive. So, these new therapies are really expensive, they really widen the disparity gap for patients who are minorities, as well as patients who come from socioeconomic status.  

Katherine:

Absolutely. 

Dr. Kittai:

And so, there were two abstracts. One was an oral presentation that looked at the National Cancer Database in ASCO that showed that Black patients do have worse overall survival than white patients. And then, I actually did my own study looking at the SEER database, which also showed the same exact thing. Even when controlling for socioeconomic status.  

So, I think addressing these disparities, making sure that there’s equity amongst our patients, that everyone has access to these drugs and can afford them, especially when they make our patients live longer and are safer than chemoimmunotherapy in CLL is very, very important.  

Katherine:

Dr. Kittai, if a patient feels like they’re not getting equitable care, are there resources available for them?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, so one of the things that I love about the CLL society, is that they have a section called Access an Expert, I believe. So, look on the website, I’m not sure it’s actually called Access an Expert, but it’s a way for all patients to get a second opinion from one of the CLL experts listed on the website. And so, if somebody is feeling like they’re not getting access to the most beneficial treatment, for whatever reason, seeking a second opinion and using the CLL Society’s website to find that second opinion, I think would be a great way for someone who feels that way to get access to the care that they deserve.  

I believe there are other ways to do this through the Lymphoma Research Foundation, as well as LLS. But I know for sure on the CLL Society, there is a link that you can click that you can get access to a second opinion.  

Katherine:

Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up. As we wrap up the program, Dr. Kittai, I’d like to get your final thoughts. What message do you want to leave the audience with related to clinical trial participation?  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah. So, I would say that in the last ten years, there’s been a revolution in the way we treat CLL, and we wouldn’t have gotten here without clinical trials. So, the reason why we have the BTK inhibitors – the ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, and zanubrutinib – and the reason why we have the BCL-2 Inhibitor venetoclax, and the reason why these have changed the way that we treat CLL making our patients live longer with better safety profiles is because of clinical trials. And so, I am a firm believer that if we can enroll a patient onto a clinical trial that’s appropriate, who might benefit from the trial, then they should enroll in the clinical trial if possible.  

So, I strongly encourage everybody to enroll onto clinical trials, to get access to, you know, groundbreaking new therapies. And once again, I want to highlight that the point of a clinical trial is to improve safety or to improve efficacy and that’s why we develop clinical trials and that’s the hope by running it.  

Katherine:

Okay, that’s great advice. Dr. Kittai, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure.  

Dr. Kittai:

Yeah, it’s been a pleasure to you. Happy to be here. 

Katherine:

Thank you.  

And thank you to all of our partners. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. And don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan programs in the future.  

To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for being with us today. 

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options?

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What guides a CLL treatment choice? Dr. Catherine Coombs discusses genetic mutations and factors that may help determine a CLL patient’s therapy .

Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

 

Setting CLL Treatment Goals WITH Your Team

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

Transcript:

Katherine:

There’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to treating CLL, so how do you decide which treatment is right for a patient?  

Dr. Coombs:

I always look at their underlying disease biology. There’s a couple really important tests that I send for all of my CLL patients by the time that they need therapy. The first is to see what their underlying cytogenetics and molecular findings are. There are certain good findings, and then certain bad findings.  

One of the bad findings is having a deletion in the 17th chromosome in the short arm of that chromosome. The chromosomes are the big pieces of DNA within everyone’s cells. There are findings that are common in CLL: a 17p deletion is a poor prognostic feature. There’s a separate test where we can actually identify mutations in a gene called TP53. And these behave largely the same as 17p deletions, so I always check for both. It’s two different tests.  

Oftentimes patients have both of these findings: a 17p deletion and a TP53 mutation. But sometimes you can have the mutation without the deletion and vice versa. That is one finding that’s important when talking about different therapies. The other really important prognostic test is the IGHV gene mutation status. This is another specialized sequencing test. It looks to see if the patient’s heavy chain, if their immunoglobulin protein has undergone something called somatic hypermutation or not.  

It’s actually good to be mutated. What we know about people who are mutated is that they typically have better responses to most therapies and their disease typically is one that grows slower. So, I use those factors and then I have a conversation with the patient. The two main treatment classes that I spoke about – so the BTK inhibitors, those work actually really well and even the people with these bad prognostic features.  

So, people with the 17p deletion, people with the TP53 mutation, they can have disease control for six plus years on a BTK inhibitor, which is really good.  

That was not the case a decade ago when we didn’t have these drugs. That’s something that’s been hugely beneficial for our patients. The venetoclax/obinutuzumab regimen, that still works when people have the 17p or the TP53, but it probably doesn’t work as well.   

I’d mentioned the median time for disease to come back hadn’t been reached yet. It had been reached for that poor risk subset. The expectation for people with that poorest marker is that the median PFS, progression-free survival. So, again, when after someone starts therapy, when the disease then progresses is 49 months. It kind of gives me a rough estimate of, “Gosh, these are your therapy options and based on your underlying biologic factors unique to your disease, this is what you can expect out of therapy A or therapy B.”  

The mutated or unmutated IGHV, similarly, those BTK inhibitors work extremely well, even in people with the bad unmutated finding. I think those are always an option. The other treatment is an option, but the people with that bad finding do have a shorter time until they progress of just under five years.  

Refractory vs Relapsed CLL: What’s the Difference?

Refractory vs Relapsed CLL: What’s the Difference? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is the difference between refractory and relapsed CLL? Dr. Catherine Coombs, a CLL expert from UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, explains.

Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.

See More from Thrive CLL

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CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options?

Transcript:

Katherine:

We received an audience question prior to the program. They asked, “What does it mean to be refractory, and how is that different from relapsing?” 

Dr. Coombs:

I actually just had a conversation about this. I’m not sure that’s formally defined. I have heard one definition suggested is – I think everyone agrees refractory means you did not respond to your last therapy. That’s actually really bad. Most of our therapies work in almost everyone. So, refractory is a term that is generally accepted means no response. So, whatever therapy you’re on, the CLL did not get better, it got worse. That’s refractory.  

Another definition that I’ve heard based on this recent discussion is if you had a short remission duration, such as six months or shorter. Most of the therapies we use should work for quite a while, usually on the order of years. So, some people also consider refractory a short remission duration, six months or shorter.  

Relapse is probably the more common scenario. That’s a patient who has had some type of therapy, but they had a decent response, but that response wore off, more on a normal pace. Again, not on the order of months, but usually on the order of years.  

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When is it time to treat your chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)? Dr. Catherine Coombs reviews the criteria doctors consider when deciding whether it is time to begin therapy. 

Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:

When is it time to treat? What factors do you look at? 

Dr. Coombs:

There’s pretty well-established guidelines for when treatment is indicated. The international workshop for CLL has these published guidelines, so it’s something you could Google. Off the top of my head, the main reasons that I do treatment, which are included in these guidelines, are one, if the patient has low blood counts due to the CLL, so that could be anemia or low platelets. Two, if they have bulky lymph nodes. They actually define bulky as 10 centimeters. So, that’s pretty big.  

Or, if the lymph nodes are being symptomatic in some way, they’re bothering the patient, they don’t have to be that big. Three, if the patient has bulky spleen enlargement or if it’s causing symptoms. The spleen is next to the stomach. So, say some patients may not be able to eat a full meal, that’s another reason we could do treatment.   

Another reason is if the CLL is causing constitutional symptoms. Sometimes these are black and white. One is unintentional weight loss of 10 percent or more of the body weight. The one that’s not always black and white is fatigue. Patients can have fatigue from the CLL, but I’ve found often fatigue can be due to other causes. So, that’s something I consider an important job of mine is to make sure we don’t jump into CLL treatment if say, there’s some other cause for the tiredness, such as, say the thyroid’s off, or there’s a huge amount of stress due to some other factor outside of the CLL.  

Then, some other constitutional symptoms are CLL can cause fever or drenching night sweats. Those two it’s important to make sure that there’s not a concurrent infection because infections can also cause those symptoms. The last indication is patients with CLL can develop autoimmune cytopenias. That’s when the immune system attacks some component of the blood cells. Most commonly that’s an autoimmune anemia or autoimmune thrombocytopenia. That’s the term for low platelets.  

Usually, we can treat that with steroids or occasionally CD-20 by itself like rituximab to calm down the immune system. However, if those immune-based therapies fail the patient, then we could consider treating the CLL to help fix that problem.  

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What treatment options are there for CLL patients? Dr. Catherine Coombs explains the types of CLL approaches available and who they may be appropriate for.

Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.

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What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options?

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Refractory vs Relapsed CLL: What’s the Difference?

Transcript:

Katherine:

Let’s walk through the types of treatments that are used today to treat CLL.  

Dr. Coombs:

So, for the non-watch-and-wait category, that means we are now thinking about therapy. Most of the time that involves a targeted agent.  

We largely are using a lot less in the way of cytotoxic chemotherapy. Not to say there isn’t a role for it, but in my own practice, it’s not something that I have been using in the past several years because it’s highly toxic. It is effective, but it can lead to some long-term toxicities. And it’s also not quite as effective as these new targeted agents. So, those fall into two major classes.   

The first class is a class of drugs called BTK inhibitors. That stands for Bruton’s tyrosine kinase. That’s an important target in the CLL cells, specifically. The CLL cells are a type of B cell. So, BTK is important for the signaling of both normal and cancerous B-cells. When we use drugs to block that protein, that impairs the CLL cells’ ability to multiply. Then we ultimately are able to control the disease with prolonged administration of one of these drugs.  

There are two FDA-approved BTK inhibitors. The first FDA-approved agent is a drug called ibrutinib. And then the newer agent is called acalabrutinib. There’s another drug that you may have heard of called zanubrutinib. That is not technically yet FDA-approved for CLL, but it is occasionally used given that it is FDA-approved for other lymphomas, and it is within the national cancer center network guidelines for CLL treatment.   

The big benefit of these drugs is they work phenomenally well at controlling the CLL. I would say the major downside is that they do have to be taken indefinitely. So, patients ask, “Am I going to be on it forever?” Well, it depends on what you mean by forever. We generally keep patients on these drugs as long as number one, they’re tolerating them, so no bad side effects, and then number two, as long as the CLL is staying under control.  

So, for that 85-year-old patient that I gave as an example, forever may be until the rest of their life. Because they can work for six, seven, eight plus years; so, they’re highly effective. Some patients may go on them and then die from something else years down the road. For the younger patients, or patients who progress faster, we would then put them on something else whenever the drug stopped working, provided that they didn’t have a significant side effect to the drug class. So, that’s a big first class.  

The second large subset of therapies is a drug called venetoclax, which we typically combine with an anti-CD20 drug. The one that we use for patients who are getting their first treatment is called obinutuzumab. Venetoclax is a BCL-2 inhibitor that inhibits this pathway within CLL cells. It’s not unique to CLL cells, but the CLL cells are particularly dependent upon it called apoptosis.  

So, when they get exposed to this drug, the CLL cells just die; they can’t continue living, they die off. So, venetoclax works really exquisitely well at killing off CLL cells. Probably works better when it’s paired with this drug obinutuzumab. That’s how it was approved in the frontline setting: those two drugs together. The big risk of that therapy, essentially, it’s kind of a weird risk, when the CLL cells die too quickly that can cause some problems in the human body because one has to metabolize all the debris left over from these dead cancer cells. The medical term we use for that is tumor lysis syndrome.  

That can actually be fatal if not done in a safe way. Fortunately, when we do it as per the recommendations by the manufacturer, we’ve not had any adverse severe problems from it. It ends up being that the patient has to come in weekly every five weeks to do a slow ramp-up of the drug to kind of slowly kill off the cancer cells so that the body isn’t overwhelmed by the contents of these dead cancer cells.  

The big advantage of this regimen is that because it kills the CLL so well, people can get into very deep remissions. So, instead of being a therapy that people are on indefinitely, it’s designed as a one-year therapy when given as the first therapy. So, it’s one year and then they’re done. People after that are in remission, they’re not on any treatment. They may feel like they don’t have CLL.  

Most of the time the CLL does come back. It depends on does the patient come back for something else? Which does happen when people are older. But it appears that it keeps people in remission for several years. The median, which is how long it takes for half of patients to have their disease come back, the median progression for survival has not yet been reached for the trial that was done using this therapy.  

So, that’s at least three, four plus years that we’ve been able to follow people. So, very attractive in that you’re done, and then you just wait for the disease to come back but largely feel good in the interim.  

Anxious From CLL Watch & Wait? How to Cope.

Anxious From CLL Watch & Wait? How to Cope. from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Many CLL patients who are put on “watch and wait” following a diagnosis. Dr. Catherine Coombs explains this approach and provides advice on how patients can cope with the emotional impact of waiting to treat their disease. 

Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Refractory vs Relapsed CLL: What’s the Difference?

Transcript:

Katherine:

What would you say to a patient who has a lot of anxiety about having to wait for treatment? 

Dr. Coombs:

The first thing I would say is that anxiety is normal. More often patients are anxious than not because it’s really hard to be told you have a leukemia and that we’re not going to do anything about it. I think that’s really hard to hear. The way that I try to counsel people is that my role as the doctor is to do no harm. If you have a leukemia and there’s no proven way to make you live longer by giving therapy early on, if you’re in that early stage of CLL where you’re asymptomatic, by offering therapy, all I could do is make you worse.  

I could give you a new side effect, I could add a new cost burden. Until I have data to prove that that’s going to make your life longer, which we do not have yet (maybe that will be different five to 10 years from now, but we do not have that yet), I could only hurt you. So, that’s not what I want to do. I want to have you live and thrive.  

The better thing to do, based on what we know now and what we know our therapies can and can’t do is to do the watchful waiting. But the anxiety is normal. Depending on how severe the anxiety is, I have had patients meet with – at least at UNC we have something called the Cancer Center Support Program, which is a group of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists that can help talk over what it means to have a cancer diagnosis and not necessarily need therapy.  

Then I also provide education on the other health issues that can come up as part of being a CLL patient even on that watchful waiting program. The thing that we talk about the most is the increased risk for infections, which in the era of the COVID pandemic is a major concern. Luckily, we have a lot of ways to decrease the health risk for COVID, whether it’s due to the administration of vaccines, or monoclonal antibodies, which I think we’ll talk about more later.  

There’re a lot of ways that people can live with it. I do think the anxiety is normal. At least in my own practice, I’ve found that most of the time the anxiety lessens with time. Because it becomes a part of who you are. It doesn’t have to be all of who you are: people can live their lives largely the way they did before with a bit of extra knowledge about things that can come up in the future but may never come up at all.  

Setting CLL Treatment Goals WITH Your Team

Setting CLL Treatment Goals WITH Your Team from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the goals of CLL treatment? CLL expert Dr. Catherine Coombs explains how goals can vary by patient and discusses the benefits of making decisions with your healthcare team.

Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.

See More from Thrive CLL

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Anxious From CLL Watch & Wait? How to Cope.

What Helps Determine a CLL Patient’s Treatment Options?

Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

Transcript:

Katherine:

Appropriate treatment obviously is part of thriving. Before we get into the specifics of CLL treatment approaches, how would you define treatment goals?  

Dr. Coombs:

The first thing to jump into prior to going into treatment goals is asking the question, “Is treatment even needed?” CLL, in contrast to pretty much most other cancers, is not one of the cancers that needs to be treated immediately.  

At least in 2022, there’s no proven benefit to early treatment. That is being questioned now that we have drugs that are much better tolerated. There are some nice clinical trials asking that question again, “Is early treatment beneficial?” At least what we know now is that is not the case. As it turns out, probably up to a third of patients with CLL never need treatment in their lifetime. That means that the disease progresses along usually at a slow pace, and individuals die from something else: any number of other potential causes of death.  

The other two-thirds plus do need treatment at some point in their lifetime. The goals of treatment kind of depend on the patient. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach in my view. I think it depends on what is most important to the patient.  

I’ll give two drastic examples just to show how goals can be different. CLL often is a disease of older individuals. The average age of diagnosis is usually around 70 or so. But many patients have the disease for a few years, if not longer, prior to needing therapy. So, one example patient could be an 85-year-old individual who has had the disease for a decade and finally needs treatment. The goals of that patient may be to control disease, but he or she may not be worried about going into a deep remission, and may be very, totally willing to be on a drug. And definitely in order to control the disease, alleviate disease-related symptoms, but perhaps not get into a deep remission.  

The other patient, just to take it to another far extreme, I work in an academic medical center; I see some very young patients which is not the norm in CLL, but it does happen.  

Say it’s a 40-year-old patient. His or her goals may be very different. They may not like the idea of being on an oral therapy indefinitely or until progression. So, the goals for that patient may be different. They may say, “Gosh, I’d like to do something a bit more intense to be able to be off of therapy.”  

So, I think in the end there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. It generally, for my clinic, comes down to a discussion with the patient talking about what their goals are: is it more important to be off therapy for some period of time and they’re willing to sacrifice a bit more intensive of a schedule? Or are they more appealing to be on a regimen that they’re on indefinitely provided that it still provides disease control and alleviation of the disease-related symptoms.  

Katherine:

What is the patient’s role in setting care goals? 

Dr. Coombs:

I think they should have a huge role; it should be a shared decision between the patient and their cancer doctor. I think at least as of now, there’s not one proven best therapy. We have a number of therapies that work extremely well. But they differ quite a bit with respect to the schedule, the possible side effects profile, and sometimes in the cost, depending upon the patient’s insurance. 

Knowing that there’s not a superior therapy, I think the best approach would be to discuss all of the therapies that are highly effective, and then compare and contrast what those therapies may look like for the patient and then make a shared decision.  

Waldenström Macroglobulinemia (WM) Treatment: Why Timing Is Essential

Waldenström Macroglobulinemia (WM) Treatment: Why Timing Is Essential from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Waldenström macroglobulinemia (WM) is a rare slow-moving disease, so immediate treatment isn’t always necessary. WM expert Dr. Shayna Sarosiek discusses the “watch and wait” period and what criteria may indicate a patient is ready for therapy.

Dr. Shayna Sarosiek is a hematologist and oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where she cares for Waldenström macroglobulinemia (WM) patients at the Bing Center for Waldenstrom’s. Dr. Sarsosiek is also Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Learn more about Dr. Sarosiek, here.

See More From The Pro-Active Waldenström Macroglobulinemia Patient Toolkit

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Understanding Waldenström Macroglobulinemia and How It Progresses 


Transcript:

Katherine:

I understand that many people diagnosed with Waldenstrom’s may not be treated right away. Why is that? 

Dr. Sarosiek:

Yeah, so a lot of patients – actually, the majority of patients don’t need treatment right away for Waldenstrom’s. And even some patients, about 20 percent to 30 percent of patients a decade later still don’t need therapy. Because, as I mentioned, it’s really such a slow-moving disease that often patients will have no symptoms or very few symptoms for many years. And if that’s the case, we really don’t like to introduce treatments earlier than we need to.  

One, because you might introduce a therapy that adds toxicity or side effects that are making the patient feel worse than they currently feel. Two, the other reason we don’t want to treat too often if we don’t need to, is because it’s possible the Waldenstrom’s might become resistant to therapies and then when we truly needed something later, the disease might become resistant to things we used earlier.  

The other reason is, we don’t have any data that shows us that treating early improves survival. We know that patients with Waldenstrom’s have an excellent survival. And that’s only when treating when we need to. So, we don’t have any data that tells us we need to treat early. And so, really, the focus of Waldenstrom’s therapies is just to make sure that our patients maintain a good quality of life with their disease under good control. And we can do that in a lot of cases by not offering therapy early and just doing it when we start to see signs that there is something that needs to be addressed.  

Katherine:

Many of us have heard this term “watch and wait.” What does that mean exactly? 

Dr. Sarosiek:

So, watch and wait generally just refers to a plan to continue to monitor the patient. Often every three months or every four months in clinic, where we might just examine the patient to check for lymph nodes or an enlarged spleen. We ask about symptoms that might perk our ears up or make us think about progression of the disease. And we also check bloodwork.  

That can tell us what’s happening with the Waldenstrom’s. So, really, the exam, talking with the patient, getting labs every few months is a good way for us to keep track of what’s happening with the disease. So, we’re watching closely, but we’re waiting and holding off on therapy until it’s needed. 

Katherine:

Yeah. How do you know when it’s time to begin treatment? 

Dr. Sarosiek:

Great question. So, we have criteria that were designed. That physicians internationally follow to tell us when patients need treatment. Of course, those are just guidelines, so it’s often based on the guidelines and also each individual patient. But, for example, one of the main reasons why patients might require therapy is if a patient has anemia.  

So, we measure that with the hemoglobin. If the hemoglobin’s less than 10, and the patient has symptoms of anemia, then in that case we might need to offer therapy. Another common reason for therapy being initiated might be hyperviscosities. So, if the blood is getting thick, as Waldenstrom’s progresses and the IgM level is high, then in that case blood flow can’t happen appropriately. And so, in that case, we might need treatment.

Another side effect that patients with Waldenstrom’s can have is neuropathy. And so, that’s numbness, tingling, burning, loss of sensation. Usually starting in the toes and working its way up the feet and legs. If that’s progressing rapidly, if it’s causing the patient to not be able to do their usual activities, that’s another reason for treatment. So, we have these clear guidelines that tell us the things that we should be watching out for and then, it helps us to know when it’s an appropriate time to start treatment for patients. 

Thriving With CLL: What You Should Know About Care and Treatment

Thriving With CLL: What You Should Know About Care and Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What does it mean to thrive with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)? CLL expert Dr. Catherine Coombs discusses the goals of CLL care, reviews current treatment options, and shares tools for taking an active role in decisions.

Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.

See More from Thrive CLL

Download Program Guide


Related Resources:

Thriving with CLL Resource Guide

What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment

What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment?

An Overview of CLL Treatment Types

Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today, we’re focusing on how to live and thrive with CLL. We’re going to discuss CLL treatment goals, and how you can plan an active role in your care.  

Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining us is Dr. Catherine Coombs. Dr. Coombs, welcome! Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Coombs:

My name is Catherine Coombs. I am an assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina. My main patient practice is CLL and SLL patients, which make up probably about 80 percent of the patients I see. I do see a couple other types of leukemia and precursor states as well.  

Katherine:

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to join us today; we appreciate it.  

Dr. Coombs:

No problem. My pleasure.  

Katherine:

Since this webinar is part of PEN’s Thrive series, I thought we could start with getting your opinion on what you think it means to thrive with CLL? 

Dr. Coombs:

I’d say the first thing that comes to mind when I hear thriving in CLL is my goal for all my patients, which is to live their lives and enjoy their lives, and to not let CLL take over their lives in any way. But it’s of course important to be knowledgeable and educated about how the disease can impact one’s life. But I think there is a lot of education that can also go with that to help individuals continue to enjoy their lives and do most of the activities they like within reason.  

Katherine:

This helps us guide us through the conversation, so thank you for that. Appropriate treatment obviously is part of thriving. Before we get into the specifics of CLL treatment approaches, how would you define treatment goals?  

Dr. Coombs:

The first thing to jump into prior to going into treatment goals is asking the question, “Is treatment even needed?” CLL, in contrast to pretty much most other cancers, is not one of the cancers that needs to be treated immediately.  

At least in 2022, there’s no proven benefit to early treatment. That is being questioned now that we have drugs that are much better tolerated. There are some nice clinical trials asking that question again, “Is early treatment beneficial?” At least what we know now is that is not the case. As it turns out, probably up to a third of patients with CLL never need treatment in their lifetime. That means that the disease progresses along usually at a slow pace, and individuals die from something else: any number of other potential causes of death.  

The other two-thirds plus do need treatment at some point in their lifetime. The goals of treatment kind of depend on the patient. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach in my view. I think it depends on what is most important to the patient.  

I’ll give two drastic examples just to show how goals can be different. CLL often is a disease of older individuals. The average age of diagnosis is usually around 70 or so. But many patients have the disease for a few years, if not longer, prior to needing therapy. So, one example patient could be an 85-year-old individual who has had the disease for a decade and finally needs treatment. The goals of that patient may be to control disease, but he or she may not be worried about going into a deep remission, and may be very, totally willing to be on a drug. And definitely in order to control the disease, alleviate disease-related symptoms, but perhaps not get into a deep remission.  

The other patient, just to take it to another far extreme, I work in an academic medical center; I see some very young patients which is not the norm in CLL, but it does happen.  

Say it’s a 40-year-old patient. His or her goals may be very different. They may not like the idea of being on an oral therapy indefinitely or until progression. So, the goals for that patient may be different. They may say, “Gosh, I’d like to do something a bit more intense to be able to be off of therapy.”  

So, I think in the end there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. It generally, for my clinic, comes down to a discussion with the patient talking about what their goals are: is it more important to be off therapy for some period of time and they’re willing to sacrifice a bit more intensive of a schedule? Or are they more appealing to be on a regimen that they’re on indefinitely provided that it still provides disease control and alleviation of the disease-related symptoms.  

Katherine:

That leads me to my next question, which is what is the patient’s role in setting care goals? 

Dr. Coombs:

I think they should have a huge role; it should be a shared decision between the patient and their cancer doctor. I think at least as of now, there’s not one proven best therapy. We have a number of therapies that work extremely well. But they differ quite a bit with respect to the schedule, the possible side effects profile, and sometimes in the cost, depending upon the patient’s insurance. 

Knowing that there’s not a superior therapy, I think the best approach would be to discuss all of the therapies that are highly effective, and then compare and contrast what those therapies may look like for the patient and then make a shared decision.  

Katherine:

I have a follow-up question to what we were talking about a moment ago. What would you say to a patient who has a lot of anxiety about having to wait for treatment? 

Dr. Coombs:

The first thing I would say is that anxiety is normal. More often patients are anxious than not because it’s really hard to be told you have a leukemia and that we’re not going to do anything about it. I think that’s really hard to hear. The way that I try to counsel people is that my role as the doctor is to do no harm. If you have a leukemia and there’s no proven way to make you live longer by giving therapy early on, if you’re in that early stage of CLL where you’re asymptomatic, by offering therapy, all I could do is make you worse.  

I could give you a new side effect, I could add a new cost burden – Until I have data to prove that that’s going to make your life longer, which we do not have yet (maybe that will be different five to 10 years from now, but we do not have that yet), I could only hurt you. So, that’s not what I want to do. I want to have you live and thrive.  

The better thing to do, based on what we know now and what we know our therapies can and can’t do is to do the watchful waiting. But the anxiety is normal. Depending on how severe the anxiety is, I have had patients meet with – at least at UNC we have something called the Cancer Center Support Program, which is a group of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists that can help talk over what it means to have a cancer diagnosis and not necessarily need therapy.  

Then I also provide education on the other health issues that can come up as part of being a CLL patient even on that watchful waiting program. The thing that we talk about the most is the increased risk for infections, which in the era of the COVID pandemic is a major concern. Luckily, we have a lot of ways to decrease the health risk for COVID, whether it’s due to the administration of vaccines, or monoclonal antibodies, which I think we’ll talk about more later.  

There’re a lot of ways that people can live with it. I do think the anxiety is normal. At least in my own practice, I’ve found that most of the time the anxiety lessens with time. Because it becomes a part of who you are. It doesn’t have to be all of who you are: people can live their lives largely the way they did before with a bit of extra knowledge about things that can come up in the future but may never come up at all.  

Katherine:

Let’s walk through the types of treatments that are used today to treat CLL.  

Dr. Coombs:

So, for the non-watch and wait category, that means we are now thinking about therapy. Most of the time that involves a targeted agent.  

We largely are using a lot less in the way of cytotoxic chemotherapy. Not to say there isn’t a role for it, but in my own practice, it’s not something that I have been using in the past several years because it’s highly toxic. It is effective, but it can lead to some long-term toxicities. And it’s also not quite as effective as these new targeted agents. So, those fall into two major classes.  

The first class is a class of drugs called BTK inhibitors. That stands for brutons tyrosine kinase. That’s an important target in the CLL cells, specifically. The CLL cells are a type of B-cell. So, BTK is important for the signaling of both normal and cancerous B-cells. When we use drugs to block that protein, that impairs the CLL cells’ ability to multiply. Then we ultimately are able to control the disease with prolonged administration of one of these drugs.  

There are two FDA-approved BTK inhibitors. The first FDA-approved agent is a drug called ibrutinib. And then the newer agent is called acalabrutinib. There’s another drug that you may have heard of called zanubrutinib. That is not technically yet FDA-approved for CLL, but it is occasionally used given that it is FDA-approved for other lymphomas, and it is within the national cancer center network guidelines for CLL treatment.  

The big benefit of these drugs is they work phenomenally well at controlling the CLL. I would say the major downside is that they do have to be taken indefinitely. So, patients ask, “Am I going to be on it forever?” Well, it depends on what you mean by forever. We generally keep patients on these drugs as long as No. 1 they’re tolerating them, so no bad side effects, and then No. 2 as long as the CLL is staying under control.  

So, for that 85-year-old patient that I gave as an example, forever may be until the rest of their life. Because they can work for six, seven, eight plus years; so, they’re highly effective. Some patients may go on them and then die from something else years down the road. For the younger patients, or patients who progress faster, we would then put them on something else whenever the drug stopped working, provided that they didn’t have a significant side effect to the drug class. So, that’s a big first class.   

The second large subset of therapies is a drug called venetoclax, which we typically combine with an anti-CD20 drug. The one that we use for patients who are getting their first treatment is called obinutuzumab. Venetoclax is a BCL-2 Inhibitor that inhibits this pathway within CLL cells. It’s not unique to CLL cells, but the CLL cells are particularly dependent upon it called apoptosis.  

So, when they get exposed to this drug, the CLL cells just die; they can’t continue living, they die off. So, venetoclax works really exquisitely well at killing off CLL cells. Probably works better when it’s paired with this drug obinutuzumab. That’s how it was approved in the frontline setting: those two drugs together. The big risk of that therapy, essentially, it’s kind of a weird risk, when the CLL cells die too quickly that can cause some problems in the human body because one has to metabolize all the debris left over from these dead cancer cells. The medical term we use for that is Tumor Lysis Syndrome. 

That can actually be fatal if not done in a safe way. Fortunately, when we do it as per the recommendations by the manufacturer, we’ve not had any adverse severe problems from it. It ends up being that the patient has to come in weekly every five weeks to do a slow ramp-up of the drug to kind of slowly kill off the cancer cells so that the body isn’t overwhelmed by the contents of these dead cancer cells.  

The big advantage of this regimen is that because it kills the CLL so well, people can get into very deep remissions. So, instead of being a therapy that people are on indefinitely, it’s designed as a one-year therapy when given as the first therapy. So, it’s one year and then they’re done. People after that are in remission, they’re not on any treatment. They may feel like they don’t have CLL.  

Most of the time the CLL does come back. It depends on does the patient come back for something else? Which does happen when people are older. But it appears that it keeps people in remission for several years. The median, which is how long it takes for half of patients to have their disease come back, the median progression for survival has not yet been reached for the trial that was done using this therapy.  

So, that’s at least three, four plus years that we’ve been able to follow people. So, very attractive in that you’re done and then you just wait for the disease to come back but largely feel good in the interim.  

Katherine:

When is it time to treat? What factors do you look at? 

Dr. Coombs:

There’s pretty well-established guidelines for when treatment is indicated. The international workshop for CLL has these published guidelines, so it’s something you could google. Off the top of my head, the main reasons that I do treatment, which are included in these guidelines, are 1.) If the patient has low blood counts due to the CLL, so that could be anemia or low platelets. 2.) If they have bulky lymph nodes. They actually define bulky as 10 cm. So, that’s pretty big.  

Or, if the lymph nodes are being symptomatic in some way, they’re bothering the patient, they don’t have to be that big. 3.) If the patient has bulky spleen enlargement or if it’s causing symptoms. The spleen is next to the stomach. So, say some patients may not be able to eat a full meal, that’s another reason we could do treatment.  

Another reason is if the CLL is causing constitutional symptoms. Sometimes these are black and white. One is unintentional weight loss of 10 percent or more of the body weight. The one that’s not always black and white is fatigue. Patients can have fatigue from the CLL, but I’ve found often fatigue can be due to other causes. So, that’s something I consider an important job of mine is to make sure we don’t jump into CLL treatment if say, there’s some other cause for the tiredness, such as, say the thyroid’s off or there’s a huge amount of stress due to some other factor outside of the CLL.  

Then, some other constitutional symptoms are CLL can cause fever or drenching night sweats. Those two it’s important to make sure that there’s not a concurrent infection because infections can also cause those symptoms. The last indication is patients with CLL can develop autoimmune cytopenias. That’s when the immune system attacks some component of the blood cells. Most commonly that’s an autoimmune anemia or autoimmune thrombocytopenia. That’s the term for low platelets.  

Usually, we can treat that with steroids or occasionally CD-20 by itself like rituximab to calm down the immune system. However, if those immune-based therapies fail the patient, then we could consider treating the CLL to help fix that problem.  

Katherine:

We received an audience question prior to the program. They asked, “What does it mean to be refractory, and how is that different from relapsing?” 

Dr. Coombs:

I actually just had a conversation about this. I’m not sure that’s formally defined. I have heard one definition suggested is – I think everyone agrees refractory means you did not respond to your last therapy. That’s actually really bad. Most of our therapies work in almost everyone. So, refractory is a term that is generally accepted means no response. So, whatever therapy you’re on, the CLL did not get better, it got worse. That’s refractory.  

Another definition that I’ve heard based on this recent discussion is if you had a short remission duration, such as six months or shorter. Most of the therapies we use should work for quite a while, usually on the order of years. So, some people also consider refractory a short remission duration, six months or shorter.  

Relapse is probably the more common scenario. That’s a patient who has had some type of therapy, but they had a decent response, but that response wore off, more on a normal pace. Again, not on the order of months, but usually on the order of years.   

Katherine:

There’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to treating CLL, so how do you decide which treatment is right for a patient?  

Dr. Coombs:

I always look at their underlying disease biology. There’s a couple really important tests that I send for all of my CLL patients by the time that they need therapy. The first is to see what their underlying cytogenetics and molecular findings are. There are certain good findings, and then certain bad findings.  

One of the bad findings is having a deletion in the 17th chromosome in the short arm of that chromosome. The chromosomes are the big pieces of DNA within everyone’s cells. There are findings that are common in CLL: a 17p deletion is a poor prognostic feature. There’s a separate test where we can actually identify mutations in a gene called TP53. And these behave largely the same as 17p deletions, so I always check for both. It’s two different tests.  

Often times patients have both of these findings: a 17p deletion and a TP53 mutation. But sometimes you can have the mutation without the deletion and vise versa. That is one finding that’s important when talking about different therapies. The other really important prognostic test is the IGHV gene mutation status. This is another specialized sequencing test. It looks to see if the patient’s heavy chain, if their immunoglobulin protein has undergone something called somatic hypermutation or not.  

It’s actually good to be mutated. What we know about people who are mutated is that they typically have better responses to most therapies and their disease typically is one that grows slower. So, I use those factors and then I have a conversation with the patient. The two main treatment classes that I spoke about – so the BTK Inhibitors, those work actually really well and even the people with these bad prognostic features. So, people with the 17p deletion, people with the TP53 mutation, they can have disease control for six plus years on a BTK inhibitor, which is really good.   

That was not the case a decade ago when we didn’t have these drugs. That’s something that’s been hugely beneficial for our patients. The venetoclax/obinutuzumab regimen, that still works when people have the 17p or the TP53, but it probably doesn’t work as well.  

I’d mentioned the median time for disease to come back hadn’t been reached yet. It had been reached for that poor risk subset. The expectation for people with that poorest marker is that the median PFS, progression-free survival. So, again, when after someone starts therapy, when the disease then progresses is 49 months. It kind of gives me a rough estimate of, “Gosh, these are your therapy options and based on your underlying biologic factors unique to your disease, this is what you can expect out of therapy A or therapy B.”  

The mutated or unmutated IGHV, similarly, those BTK inhibitors work extremely well, even in people with the bad unmutated finding. I think those are always an option. The other treatment is an option, but the people with that bad finding do have a shorter time until they progress of just under five years.  

Katherine:

Dr. Coombs, why should patients feel confident in speaking up and being a partner in their care? Do you have any advice for helping them find their voice? 

Dr. Coombs:

Great question. I think a patient is their own best advocate. We as their physicians always try to advocate for them, but we often don’t know what their wishes and desires are. I think through speaking to what’s important to you, that can help me know a little more about what path we should take. There’s not always one right path.  

I’ve talked about these two great treatment options we have. I had one patient who loved fishing and he just didn’t want to be in the infusion center. That’s the person that should go on the oral drug, where he doesn’t have to come to and from as often. 

If you tell us about your goals and your desires, that helps us also be your top advocate because then we have a little more background for what’s important to you. I think that’s my main thought. We’re here for you, but we need to know what you value the most. We don’t always know that.  

Katherine:

When should a patient consider a second opinion or a consultation with a specialist? 

Dr. Coombs:

I never discourage a second option. I’m a CLL specialist, but I’ve had patients ask for a second opinion. I’m always enthusiastic about it. If a patient feels that they need another set of eyes on their case. I’ve learned some things from some of my patients who have seen specialists in different areas of the country or locally. We have Duke down the street. Sometimes different providers just have different perspectives.  

Or, sometimes the patient just needs to hear something again if it doesn’t sound right to them. I’ve had patients for example who are one watchful waiting who really just had trouble believing. “I have leukemia, and you’re really telling me to do nothing.” But then they hear it from someone else and it just helps it sink in. I’d say the answer is anytime. Anytime you think you need another set of eyes on the case.  

But I would say especially for people in the community. I do think there’s a lot of value in seeing a CLL specialist once if it’s something that you’re interested in and your insurance pays. I think the community docs have one of the hardest jobs, and I don’t think I could do it. There are so many different cancers that they have to know about. I think, if anything, I have the easy job; I have one tiny slice of the pie that I know a ton about. Not to say they don’t do great jobs; I’m actually phenomenally impressed with most of the community.  

However, they have so much to know, often you can maybe get a little more of a unique view on CLL by seeing a CLL expert. If that’s in your interest. But certainly not mandatory, especially if your goal is to stay away from doctors.  

Katherine:

COVID is of course another factor that impacts a patient’s ability to fully thrive with CLL in today’s world. Many CLL patients are concerned about the effectiveness of the COVID vaccines and their ability to make enough antibodies to fight the virus. So, what do we know about how effective the COVID vaccines are for people with CLL? 

Dr. Coombs:

The COVID vaccines – we were fortunate in being able to build on some earlier research. Even prior to being able to look at the data for COVID vaccines, there have been studies looking at vaccines in general in CLL. That’s actually been a long-term established issue, which is that based on earlier studies we knew most vaccines were not as efficacious in individuals with CLL compared to people without.  

That’s due to this underlying immune deficiency. Since then, they’ve done studies looking at COVID specifically, and we have found lower rates of production of antibodies in individuals with CLL compared to regular, non-CLL controls. There have been a few different studies looking at this. I think the things that have been seen universally is that the CLL patients that are the most severely affected are those that are actively on therapy or have had recent anti-CD20. The CD20 drugs really wipe out the ability to make antibodies probably for a year, if not up to two years.  

The other drug class that can really hamper the ability to make antibodies are these BTK inhibitors. Then, venetoclax to some extent, it’s often paired with the CD20, so it’s hard to tease out the effect. But it likely hampers the ability to make antibodies as well, but just not as much as the CD20, which it’s often given concurrently with.  

CLL patients who have never had therapy can make a decent amount of antibodies, but still quite a bit less than an age-matched control. So, someone also your age without CLL. That was a lot of data based on the original two vaccine series. The Leukemia Lymphoma Society did a study that I actually referred a lot of my patients to, where they collected samples, looked at antibody levels, and they found that giving the booster did seroconvert a good amount of patients who were negative that then became positive for antibodies.  

That’s one of the reasons I’ve really encouraged the booster. This is now talking about the third shot. Now there’s this whole separate discussion about doing a fourth shot. I think the data’s a little too early to say it’s definitely helpful. But I think it’s certainly unlikely harmful. The vaccines don’t quite work as well. I feel very strongly they’re not harmful.  

Not to say any shot can’t cause some issue occasionally. But I think that’s very, very rare. I always encourage my patients to get the vaccine, but I separately say, “Gosh, I wouldn’t use this as an end-all cure because it may not work at its 100 percent efficacy level due to the underlying CLL, and worse when you’re under treatment.” 

Katherine:

We had another audience member send in a related question: “I’ve heard there is a treatment to help boost COVID antibodies. What is it and how can I get access to it?” 

Dr. Coombs:

I was going to bring that up actually, then I figured there was probably another question coming. I’m hugely enthusiastic about the drug that this person is speaking about. It’s called Evusheld. E-V-U-S-H-E-L-D. It got this emergency use authorization designation in December of 2021, so it’s pretty new. The idea behind this drug is that “Gosh, we know that not everyone is going to mount an effective immune response to vaccines, based on their own immune system, inability to make good levels of antibodies.”  

So, it’s two antibodies that were manufactured as this drug. So, it’s a drug that’s actually two different antibodies. It ends up being in two different vials, so you get two shots. It provides really remarkable protection against COVID. They’re long-acting antibodies, so they last for six months.   

The publication from the study that led to this being released showed an approximately 80 percent reduction in COVID for the people who got the shot as opposed to the people who got the placebo.  

Katherine:

It sounds like patients could ask their doctors about where they might be able to access this? 

Dr. Coombs:

Yeah. I think the best person to ask would be your CLL doctor. Because the drug, unless things have changed recently, it’s largely being focused for immunosuppressed individuals. Primary care doctors may not necessarily know a lot about it, but most oncologists are the ones who should have access to it. So, I would say ask your CLL doctor. If you’re in a smaller site that doesn’t have it, they may know in your geographic region where it could be gotten. 

Katherine:

As we close out this conversation, Dr. Coombs, I wanted to hear why you feel patients should be hopeful about the potential to thrive with CLL? 

Dr. Coombs:

There’s just so many reasons to be hopeful. CLL, I’d say more than – obviously it’s the cancer I’m focused on, but I think more than almost any other cancer has had advances that have really changed the lives of our patients in the last decade. And that’s only going to get better.  

We have therapies that work phenomenally well and can get you into remission, get the CLL under control, and let you just live your life as you wish; almost as though the CLL is not there. Though, it is in the background and your doctor can counsel you on special precautions needed. The drugs we have are phenomenal, but we only use them when we need them. Again, we don’t want to give you something you don’t need. But when you need it, the options we have are really phenomenal and they work well.  

They have some side effects, but I’d say they’re much better than the side effects of the older fashion drugs we used to use a decade-plus ago. The disease is there, we have better ways to control it, and I think there’s plenty of reasons to live your life, enjoy your life, thrive. We’ll take care of the CLL with all these tools in our toolbox when we need to.  

Katherine:

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

Dr. Coombs:

It’s been my pleasure, thank you.  

Katherine:

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. Thanks for joining us 

What Is Watch and Wait in CLL?

What is Watch and Wait in CLL? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients often experience watch and wait, but what is it? Watch to learn about watch and wait and what CLL patients can expect during this period.

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Transcript:

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients will often have a period of monitoring called watch and wait. Watch and wait is also known as watchful waiting or active surveillance. During watch and wait, CLL care providers check blood counts and perform medical examinations on a regular basis to gauge whether any disease progression of concern occurs.

One of the reasons that CLL is sometimes referred to as a “good cancer” is due to the fact that many CLL patients remain in watch and wait for a period of years rather than months. Though some CLL patients refer to watch and wait as “watch and worry,” CLL research has proven active surveillance as optimal for some CLL disease states. This strategy of watch and wait is the standard of care when a patient experiences no symptoms and only has small changes in blood counts.

Brian Hill, MD, PhD:

“We’re taught in much of medicine and in much of cancer that early diagnosis and early treatment is very important. And it is very important for many conditions – breast cancer or we’re taught let’s get our mammograms.

And have an early detection and immediate treatment to cure breast cancer. Similarly, colon cancer – get your colonoscopy, get your diagnosis sooner rather than later. And have surgery so you can have a higher likelihood of a cure. In the case of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, it’s never been shown despite multiple attempts over many decades, that treating someone with CLL is – earlier, is going to impact the outcomes and the big picture. But we do know that treating CLL earlier can lead to more side effects earlier.

So, in other words, if you feel fine and your blood counts are just a little abnormal, and there’s not compelling indication to treat, we can safely observe patients until an indication for treatment exists.”

CLL care providers will monitor blood counts and symptoms carefully to determine when a patient should move from watch and wait to active treatment.

What Is Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)?

What is Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

CLL stands for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, but what is it exactly? Watch to learn how CLL develops and hear from CLL expert Dr. Jennifer Woyach and patient Adrian.

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Transcript:

CLL is a blood cancer called chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which originates in the bone marrow of patients. Genetic mutations in the blood become leukemic, multiply into CLL cells, and bring on the condition of CLL. CLL is counted as the most common adult leukemia type among countries in the Western world. For the most part, CLL impacts older adults at an average diagnosis of age 70 with slightly more men impacted compared to women with CLL.

Dr. Jennifer 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.”

Adrian (CLL Survivor): “It happened as a bit of a shock to me, actually. I’ve been quite healthy quite well earlier that week. I’d gone walking in the mountains in Switzerland, but I collapsed one day on the way home from work, and was diagnosed with pneumonia. And during that illness, they realized that my immune system wasn’t working too well, and then my lymphocyte count was high, and I was diagnosed with CLL. I was put on watch and wait, which for some people can last a decade or more, but for me, it only lasted 15 months.”

Sometimes referred to as a “good” cancer among cancer types, many CLL patients stay in an active surveillance period of “watch and wait” for several years.

Will CLL Watch and Wait Be Redefined for Patients?

Will CLL Watch and Wait Be Redefined for Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Watch as CLL specialist, Dr. Nadia Khan from Fox Chase Cancer Center explains the current watch and wait strategy for CLL patients and ongoing studies exploring earlier interventions for patients with high risk disease features.

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Transcript:

Mary Leer:

Karen asks, with many new therapies available, will watch and wait be redefined for CLL patients? 

Dr. Nadia Khan:

What an excellent question, Karen. Currently, the strategy for CLL patients is to institute therapy when there is likely to be a benefit with the intervention, and there are studies that are ongoing looking at earlier intervention with oral therapy, and once we see the readout for patients with particularly high-risk features. I think it is possible that we’ll have an alternative strategy for those patients. 

Thankfully, our CLL patients live very long lives, and what we’ve come to see over decades of treatment experience with our CLL patients is that early intervention to date has not resulted in longer…longer survival. So at this point, it’s not something that’s recommended, but we may have more information soon. 

When Is It Time to Treat Waldenström Macroglobulinemia?

When Is It Time to Treat Waldenström Macroglobulinemia? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Waldenström macroglobulinemia (WM) is a condition that may not require treatment right away. WM expert Dr. Jorge Castillo explains the watch-and-wait period and discusses factors that may indicate treatment is necessary.

Dr. Jorge Castillo is Clinical Director at the Bing Center for Waldenström Macroglobulinemia Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Learn more about Dr. Castillo, here.

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Current Waldenström Macroglobulinemia Treatment Approaches


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Help us understand when it’s time to treat. Certain patients, as you said, don’t really need treatment right away because they’re asymptomatic. So, which patient type should begin to get treatment?

Dr. Castillo:               

That’s really the most important aspect of the discussion, I would say, because from my perspective – you know, I’ve been doing this for almost a decade, seeing probably 3,000, 4,000 patients with Waldenstrom’s in my career, I think one of the most important decisions is when to treat.

A number of our patients will be asymptomatic, and they will remain asymptomatic for years. So, really, treatment initiation in this scenario is not reasonable. Number one, we don’t cure the disease. Number two, patient have a long survival. I’m talking about 15, 20 years of survival in a large proportion of patients. So, a treatment that is going to last a year is not going to change a 20-year survival, so we don’t extend the survival of our patients in most cases.

Katherine:                  

Right. If a patient has been on watch and wait, how do you know when it’s time to begin therapy?

Dr. Castillo:               

Yeah, so essentially, when we see patients in whom we decide to monitor, right, watch and wait, which is monitor them, we follow them over time, and we see them sometimes every three months or every six months, and we get bloodwork.

We do bloodwork on those patients to look at the hemoglobin, just to see if there’s anemia or not, to look at the IgM to see if it gets too high or not. And if the IgM is too high, sometimes, we’ll have the patients have eye examinations on a yearly basis to make sure that there’s no changes in the vessels in the back of their eyes, in their retinas. That’s an indication of hyperviscosity. And every time we see them, not only do we look at the numbers, which I think is important, but we also look at the symptoms.

So, I classically ask my patients, “How’s your energy level, how well you’re doing, still able to do everything you want to do? Any numbness in your feet? Right? Any nosebleeds, any headaches, any blurred vision, right? Any lumps? So, I just go over this list of different symptoms that patients can experience. Are you having fevers? Are you having night sweats? Are you losing weight for no reason? Right? So, it’s a monitoring process.

Just to clarify further, for example, a patient can come to see me with anemia, and I know that Waldenstrom’s causes anemia, as I said before. But it is my duty as a doctor to make sure that there’s no other reason why the patient might be anemic. So, even though in the scenario, which is very likely that the disease is causing this problem, I still need to make sure that it is not something else driving this anemia for the patient, and then the anemia is severe enough. You know, some patients say, “Yeah, I’m a little tired, but I’m still able to do everything I want to do.”

So, really that’s a very minor process. And there are people who tell me, “You know what, I cannot play with my children anymore, right, because I’m so tired,” then that’s a different process. So, the severity of the symptom and how related to the disease it is, that combination is what really tells us who needs to be treated or not.

So, what I would say in terms of treatment timing for Waldenstrom’s patients, it’s not that you need treatment and then you don’t need it, and then you need it. It’s not like that. It’s more like you don’t need it; you don’t need it; and then it is reasonable to treat. And there is a period in which it’s reasonable to treat, and that period can last sometimes months to years. Some patients can decide to be treated a little earlier in the process with less symptoms. And some patients can decide to be treated a little bit later with more symptoms.

So, it has to do a lot with the patients, how they feel, how they’re tolerating the symptoms, how dangerous or potentially threatening those symptoms are. And that’s a conversation that it needs to take place between the doctor and the patient, understanding the patient’s preferences.

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