The Avastin Saga Continues

We previously wrote about bevacizumab (Avastin) and its approval for breast cancer. The early clinical trials revealed evidence of improved time to disease progression. This surrogate measure for survival benefit had, over recent years, gained popularity, as time to disease progression is a measure of the impact of a given treatment upon the patient’s response durability. It was hoped and believed that time to progression would be an early measure of survival.

Unfortunately, the survival advantage for the Avastin-based therapies in breast cancer has not met statistical significance. As such, careful review by the oncology drug committee of the FDA lead to a unanimous decision to remove Avastin’s indication in breast cancer. Avastin has not been removed from the market, but instead, cannot be promoted or advertised, nor do insurers necessarily reimburse it. This decision, however, will have a very big impact on Medicare patients and many others who are in managed care programs (HMOs).

There are no villains here. Instead, dedicated physicians empowered to scrutinize the best data could not prove beyond any doubt that the drug improved survival. The time to progression data was favorable and the survival data also trended in a favorable direction. But, the final arbiter of clinical approval — statistically significant survival — was not met.

The physicians who want to provide this for the patients, the company that produces the drug and the patients who believe it offers benefit all have legitimate positions. As Jerome Groopman, MD, once said, in a similar situation with regard to the FDA approval of interleukin 2 (a biological agent with profound activity in a small minority of melanoma and renal cell cancer patients), “I am confronted with a dilemma of biblical proportions, how to help the few at the expense of the many.”

The Avastin saga is but one example of what will occur repeatedly. The one-size-fits-all paradigm is crumbling as individual patients with unique biological features confront the results of the blunt instrument of randomized clinical trials. Our laboratory has been deeply involved in these stories for 20 years. When we first observed synergy for purine analogs (2CDA and fludarabine) with cytoxan, and then recommended and used this doublet in advanced hematologic malignancies (highly successfully, we might add) we were a lone voice in the woods. Eventually, clinical trials conducted at M.D. Anderson and other centers confirmed the activity establishing these treatments as the standards of care for CLL and low-grade lymphoma.

The exact same experience occurred in our solid tumor work when we combined cisplatin plus gemcitabine in pancreatic, ovarian, breast, bladder, lung and other cancers. While our first patient (presumably the first patient in the world) received cisplatin plus gemcitabine for drug-resistant recurrent ovarian cancer in 1995 — providing her an additional five years of life — it wasn’t until 2006 that the FDA approved the closely related carboplatin plus gemcitabine for this indication.

We now confront an even greater hurdle. With our discoveries, using novel combinations of targeted agents, we are years (perhaps decades) ahead of the clinical trial process. We know that patients evaluated in our laboratory with favorable profiles can respond to some of the newest drugs, many of which have already completed Phase I of clinical trials. It is our fervent belief that we could accelerate the drug development process if we could join with the pharmaceutical companies and the FDA to put these hypotheses to a formal test.

Again, there are no villains here. Patients want, and should, receive active drugs. Doctors should be allowed to give them. The drug companies want to sell their agents and the FDA wants to see good therapies go forward.

The rancor that surrounds these emotionally charged issues will best be resolved when we introduce techniques that match patients to active therapies. We believe that the primary culture platform used in our laboratory, and a small number of dedicated investigators like us, may be the answer to this dilemma.

We will redouble our efforts to apply these methods for our patients and encourage our patients to lobby their health care insurers and representatives to sponsor these approaches. To date, we have been unsuccessful in convincing any cooperative group to test the predictive ability of these selection methodologies. In response, I reiterate that I will gladly participate and, to the best of my ability, support at least the laboratory component of any fair test of our primary culture methodologies.

We stand at the ready for the challenge.

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.

3 Responses to The Avastin Saga Continues

  1. Targeted therapies, such as Avastin, were originally designed with the goal of replacing chemotherapy, to reduce the serious morbidities associated with standard high-dose chemotherapy. Although targeted therapies may be somewhat less toxic, most of them have been found to have very modest efficacy, at least when used as single agents in treating patients with advanced disease. They have therefore mainly been used in combination with standard chemotherapy or radiation protocols.

    It is becoming more apparent to administer drugs to patients with certain types of cancer on a weekly schedule. The advantage of low-dose chemotherapy is the possibility of combining it with anti-angiogenic drugs as well as other types of targeted therapies, such as those that target specific signal-transduction molecules or with antitumor vaccines.

    Blood vessel cells are less likely than tumor cells to become resistant to chemotherapy, so if cancer cells become drug resistant, these medicines should still be able to shrink tumors by destroying their blood supply. When administering both anti-tumor and anti-angiogenesis drugs, the endothelial cells (involved iin angiogenesis) are the first in the tumor to undergo cell death (apoptosis).

    Adding Avastin, which only goes after VEGF-sensitive cancer cells, you need to go after other pro-angiogenic factors which can substitute for VEGF: FGF, PDGF, ephrin A1, angioprotein 1, IL-8, etc. And with Taxol promoting an increase of IL-8, how effective is it with Avastin? With the low-dose protocol having an anti-angiogenic effect, you really wouldn’t need to add a drug like Avastin into the mix.

  2. Sonia says:

    Dr. Nagourney – very insightful thoughts You continue to lead the way for matching the right therapy to the right patient to their benefit (which I assume will be impossible for physicians to chose in an empirical way; with advent to numerous options and new generation targeted therapies).

    My question was – Do you test for XL-184 ? (Targeting cMET and VEGFR among other targets) specifically ?

    I understand it avoids some of the limitations of avastin like tumor rebound, targeting two + targets at a time and thereby presumably more effective to certain class of tumors (like prostate, ovarian etc)?

    2. Combinations of targeted agents like mek inhibitor + braf inhibitor or Irinotecan + pi3k inhibitor – is it possible to test ‘combinations’ through your platform that shows sensitivity

    • My understanding is that cabozantinib (XL184) works in much the same way as the taxane drugs, including Taxol. It targets part of the cell cytoskeleton called tubulin. Tubulin is used to build microtubules, which in turn make up the cell’s structure. Destroying it kills the cell, but cancer cells eventually evolve mechanisms to pump out the drugs that do this (resistance). Resistance to anti-tubulin therapies, like Taxol, is a huge problem in many cancers. They see this as another way to get to the tubulin. The PPAR-gamma compound does this in a different way from the taxanes, which might mean it could overcome the resistance that tumor cells often develop to chemotherapy (and you wouldn’t need Avastin). Most of the drugs like Taxol affect the ability of tubulin to form into microtubules. This doesn’t do that — it causes the tubulin itself to disappear.

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