English Patients Denied Access to Ipilimumab

Among the more interesting discoveries in recent years have been two breakthroughs in the management of malignant melanoma. One drug, vemurafenib, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, acts specifically in patients who carry the BRAF (V600E) mutation. The second drug ipilimumab, offered commercially from Bristol-Meyers Squibb as Yervoy, is a monoclonal antibody that acts by blocking CTLA-4, thereby enhancing T-cell response to tumor antigens. While vemurafenib has a somewhat narrow target population, ipilimumab targets may extend to a broader range of melanoma patients and will likely find a role in other cancers.

The data supporting ipilimumab’s use in advanced melanoma was reported in a 2010 Phase III trial, which provided a superior median survival for those treated with the drug over those who received a placebo. Superior one and two-year survivals were also reported. Unfortunately, this did not rise to the level that met the standards of the English watchdog organization, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). The chief executive of NICE did admit that the drug could “potentially be very effective for a small percentage of patients.” Unfortunately, under current NICE guidelines, that small percentage of patients will not have access to the drug.

This is not the first time that a drug, found effective for the treatment of a subpopulation of patients has been denied approval based upon cost efficacy and the comparatively limited population of patients who stand to gain.

The role of Avastin in breast cancer represents a similar dilemma for those patients who might benefit but cannot afford the out-of-pocket expenses. Indeed, NICE originally denied approval to bortezomib, a highly active drug for the treatment of multiple myeloma, based upon similar cost considerations.

What ipilimumab, Avastin and bortezomib have in common is that they are harbingers of the coming conflict between patients-in-need and society’s capacity to cover the increasing costs of cancer therapy. Cost efficacy questions will only be resolved when we have the capacity to identify likely responders prior to therapy, enabling us to use drugs only in those patients with the highest expectations of response. Marginal overall benefits that come at high price will continue to fail until we redouble our efforts to refine the process of drug selection for individual patients. Janet Woodcock, MD, from the FDA once said, that we need “a critical path” from bench to bedside to guide clinical decisions. The human tumor primary culture functional analyses that we employ can provide that critical path and we would hope limit the need for the broad-brush policy decisions that are being handed down by NICE and similar entities both here in the U.S. and abroad.

Ovarian Cancer Therapy

For many years I have been interested in the ovarian cancer literature. After all, it was our group that originally developed the platinum plus gemcitabine doublet and tested it through a Phase II trial conducted by the Gynecologic Oncology Group (GOG). The study’s results were reported in Gynecologic Oncology in 2006.

I then watched with interest as the GOG 182 five-arm clinical trial unfolded. This international study of over 4,000 patients randomly mixed and matched drug combinations but provided no evidence of superiority of one arm over another. The final conclusion of the manuscript that reported these results (Bookman, MA., Brady, MF, McGuire, WP, et al. J Clin Oncol 27: 1419-1425, 2009), stipulated that carboplatin plus taxol remained the “gold standard” for advanced epithelial ovarian carcinoma. A study of over 900 patients that compared carboplatin plus gemcitabine to carboplatin plus paclitaxel induction (Gordon A, Teneriello M, Lim, P, et al Clinical Ovarian Cancer, 2, 2:99-105, 2009) again provided comparable outcomes between arms yet carboplatin plus taxol remains the “gold standard.”

To this collection of published experiences, we now add the report by Sandro Pignata and co-investigators from the MITO-2 Phase III trial (Pignata, S., Scambia, G., Ferrandina, G., et al. J Clin Oncol 29: 3628-3635, 2011). This clinical trial conducted by Italian investigators compared carboplatin plus taxol to carboplatin plus pegylated liposomal doxorubicin (PLD) known in the U.S. as Doxil. Four hundred and ten patients were randomized to each arm of the trial. The results revealed numerical superiority for the carboplatin plus PLD arm in terms of median progression-free survival (19 months vs. 16.8 months) and numerical superiority for overall survival for the carboplatin plus PLD over the carboplatin plus taxol arm (61.6 vs. 53.2 months). However, these results did not achieve statistical significance. Therefore, the authors conclude that carboplatin plus taxol “remains the standard first-line chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.” While they do grant that, based on toxicity, carboplatin plus PLD could be considered as an alternative therapy.

With the GOG 182 study, the Gordon study (comparing carboplatin plus gemcitabine) and the most recent Pignata study comparing carboplatin plus PLD all establishing activity for several first-line regimens, why is it that the gynecologic oncologists continually return to carboplatin plus taxol as the “gold standard?”

Is there not ample evidence that several regimens provide similar results and survivals? Is there not evidence that the toxicities differ? Why can’t the gynecologic oncologists get off the dime? Why can’t they admit that several treatment regimens are appropriate and indicated for the malignancy? Why can’t they admit that some patients may, in fact, do better with one treatment over another?

And, finally, why can’t they admit that using laboratory analyses to determine a patient’s functional profile has the potential to select amongst these regimes to provide the best outcomes for the majority of patients?

Faster than the Speed of Light

Last week, scientists at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory located outside Geneva, Switzerland, conducted an experiment, the results of which now challenge one of the most fundamental principles of modern physics. I speak of Albert Einstein’s 1905 declaration that the speed of light is an absolute and that nothing in the universe could travel faster.

E = MC2, the principle under which nuclear energy and weapons have been developed, as well as all of the corollaries of the theory of relativity were called into question when a series of sub atomic particles, known as neutrinos traveled from Switzerland to Italy at a speed that was 1/60 of a billionth of a second faster than the speed of light. What has followed has been a flurry of interest by departments of physics all over the world. Confronted with this new finding, these investigators will diligently seek to reproduce or refute the findings.

This was not the first time that someone challenged the primacy of Einstein’s 1905 theory. Indeed, during the 1930s, for largely political and anti-Semitic reasons, the Nazi party attempted to disprove Einstein. Yet, all of the political meanderings, personal vendettas and intellectual jealousy could not unseat Einstein’s guiding principle. That is, until objective evidence in the form of the CERN experiments came to the fore.

Science — however lofty — and scientists — however highly regarded — dwell in the same realm as all the rest of us mere mortals. Their biases and preconceived notions often cloud their vision. Comfortable with a given paradigm, they hold unyieldingly to its principles until they are forced, however unwillingly, to relinquish their belief systems in favor of a new understanding. I write of this in the context of laboratory-based therapeutics – a field of scientific investigation that has provided firm evidence of predictive validity. These technologies have improved response, time to progression and survival for patients with leukemia, ovarian, breast and lung cancers, as well as melanoma and other advanced malignancies. Thousands of peer-reviewed published experiences have established the merit of human tumor primary cultures for the prediction of response. Investigations into the newest classes of targeted therapies are providing new insights into their use and combinatorial potential.

Yet,  while the physicists of the world will now rise to the challenge of data, the medical oncologists and their academic counterparts refuse to accept the unimpeachable evidence that supports  the validity of assay-directed therapy. Perhaps if our patients were treated at CERN in Geneva,  their good outcomes would receive the attention they so richly deserve.