Are New Cancer Drugs Always Better?

Few cancers instill a greater sense of fear in the medical oncologist that metastatic renal cell carcinoma, the most common form of which is known as clear cell cancer. This type of kidney cancer — driven by a mutation in a gene know as VHL — spreads rapidly, metastasizes to almost any and all organs and historically responded to almost no therapies. The development of Interleukin-2 (IL-2) in the 1980s offered a glimmer of hope. Yet, even this breakthrough ultimately yielded complete and durable responses in a mere 10 percent of patients.

By focusing on the hyper-vascular nature of this disease, investigators then developed a second line of defense that attacked the blood supply of these cancers. Following the introduction of Avastin, a number of small molecule VEGF inhibitors were introduced. Most recently, a class of drugs known as mTOR inhibitors gained popularity by providing objective responses and showing evidence of improved survival.

But what happens when all the really “hot new drugs” fail to provide benefit?

This was a question I confronted in a charming, 68-year-old neurologist who traveled to visit me from Stanford University where he received highly appropriate, yet unfortunately ineffective therapy. The patient presented in July 2010 with rapidly progressive kidney cancer that had overtaken his lungs. He was started on oral Sutent (the treatment of choice). His management was complicated by a hemolytic anemia. When I met the patient in October, I was concerned that he could not survive long enough to take on another treatment, no matter how effective it might ultimately prove to be.

As a physician, he beseeched me to study his tumor in the hope of finding any therapy to salvage him from his rapidly deteriorating course. A small biopsy was obtained with the help of one of our surgical colleagues. The results were striking — no evidence of activity for sorafenib, sunitinib (Sutent), nor the Rapalogs (Rapamycin derivatives). In one fell swoop, all of the newest therapies were swept aside with little likelihood of benefit. Despite the established literature, this patient was clearly sensitive to chemotherapeutics. It was evident to me that the treatment outline, a combination of three drugs, could provide meaningful clinical benefit if the patient could tolerate even the most modest associated side effects. With the kind cooperation of the treating physician in Northern California, our recipe was followed to a T.

The treating oncologist pulled no punches in his description of this patient’s prognosis. Nonetheless, he kindly assisted in the management of the treatment we described. While the cancer-related hemolytic anemia raged, and the patient fought for air, the treatments were delivered. Too ill to leave the hospital, his entire first course of therapy was delivered on an inpatient basis.

For several weeks, we anticipated the worst. And then, a phone call from a chipper-sounding patient. Breathing comfortable, his chest x-ray had cleared, his anemia had resolved and he was being readied for discharge. A short time later, an abdominal ultrasound revealed measurable improvement in the kidney cancer, further confirming objective response.

The patient, now home, could not be happier. The excellent outcome is as gratifying as it is unexpected. There is no question that no one else would have given this treatment. And there is further no question that the patient would not be alive today had he not received it. There are many lessons to be learned from this experience. Among them, that every patient deserves the opportunity to get better; that laboratory analyses can identify unexpected options for patients, even with the worst malignancies; that new drugs aren’t always better drugs; and finally, that nothing succeeds like success.

About Dr. Robert A. Nagourney
Dr. Nagourney received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston University and his doctor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, where he was a University Scholar. After a residency in internal medicine at the University of California, Irvine, he went on to complete fellowship training in medical oncology at Georgetown University, as well as in hematology at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. During his fellowship at Georgetown University, Dr. Nagourney confronted aggressive malignancies for which the standard therapies remained mostly ineffective. No matter what he did, all of his patients died. While he found this “standard of care” to be unacceptable, it inspired him to return to the laboratory where he eventually developed “personalized cancer therapy.” In 1986, Dr. Nagourney, along with colleague Larry Weisenthal, MD, PhD, received a Phase I grant from a federally funded program and launched Oncotech, Inc. They began conducting experiments to prove that human tumors resistant to chemotherapeutics could be re-sensitized by pre-incubation with calcium channel blockers, glutathione depletors and protein kinase C inhibitors. The original research was a success. Oncotech grew with financial backing from investors who ultimately changed the direction of the company’s research. The changes proved untenable to Dr. Nagourney and in 1991, he left the company he co-founded. He then returned to the laboratory, and developed the Ex-vivo Analysis - Programmed Cell Death ® (EVA-PCD) test to identify the treatments that would induce programmed cell death, or “apoptosis.” He soon took a position as Director of Experimental Therapeutics at the Cancer Institute of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. His primary research project during this time was chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He remained in this position until the basic research program funding was cut, at which time he founded Rational Therapeutics in 1995. It is here where the EVA-PCD test is used to identity the drug, combinations of drugs or targeted therapies that will kill a patient's tumor - thus providing patients with truly personalized cancer treatment plans. With the desire to change how cancer care is delivered, he became Medical Director of the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial in 2003. In 2008, he returned to Rational Therapeutics full time to rededicate his time and expertise to expand the research opportunities available through the laboratory. He is a frequently invited lecturer for numerous professional organizations and universities, and has served as a reviewer and on the editorial boards of several journals including Clinical Cancer Research, British Journal of Cancer, Gynecologic Oncology, Cancer Research and the Journal of Medicinal Food.

4 Responses to Are New Cancer Drugs Always Better?

  1. Vikram Patel says:

    What a remarkable finding and the result of an approach to cancer care that has not been widely implemented. It seems there are more and more targeted therapies being developed. However, we also need tests to identify patients who are likely to benefit from such therapies. To this end, the approach described in this story is a step in the right direction.

    • Thanks for your comment. Coincidently we just received this individual’s CT reports from the treating physician in northern California. He described it as “a massive” response “like a lymphoma” The patient is doing so well that he is now be considred for a nephrectomy (kidney removal). Apparently he is now regularly going to the gym. A great outcome indeed.

      As to the need for testing targeted therapies, I could not agree more. In fact, our laboratory has pioneered the use of functional analyses for targeted agents. Our initial results identified the EGFr inhbitor Gefitinib for lung cancer, 2 years before the FDA approved the drug for this disease. Our success in treating patients who were found senstive to this agent in the EVA/PCD studies allowed us to choose responders long before the EGFr mutation analysis had been developed. With our intial response rate for Erlotinib in lung cancer patients chosen by assay of 100% (Nagourney RA, etal Proc ASCO, 2007) we felt confident that this was an important area of work to pursue. We are now testing several dozen such agents regularly to know how they will best be used in the future once the FDA approvals are obtained over the coming decades.

  2. John M. Friedberg, M.D. says:

    As of January 16, my response continues.

    I just completed a three mile walk today, January 16, 2011.

    Two months ago I couldn’t walk from my hospital bed to the bathroom.

    I have gained back some of the twenty pounds I lost; I enjoy a voracious appetite and increasing energy and my CT scan a week ago showed resolution of extensive chest metastases and reduction in kidney tumor size.

    I remain on Cisplatin, Gemzar and Xeloda. And to think I was once a nihilist about chemotherapy.

    Thank you Dr. Nagourney!

  3. Pingback: Renal Cancer Patient Update « Dr. Robert A. Nagourney – Rational Therapeutics – Blog

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