Platinum Resistance is in the Eye of the Beholder

I was recently apprised of an online conversation surrounding the treatment of platinum refractory and platinum resistant ovarian cancer. To clarify our terminology, platinum refractory disease refers to cancer that progresses during platinum therapy. This would be considered the most platinum resistant of the ovarian patients. The term “platinum resistant” developed over the last two decades, by Markman and others, is used to describe patients who initially respond to platinum-based chemotherapy and then relapse within six months of treatment.

While platinum refractory seems intuitively obvious, it has been suggested that platinum resistance is somewhat more arbitrary.  That is, what if one relapses one month versus five months, or seven months after treatment. In fact, studies conducted by investigators at Memorial Sloane-Kettering under Dr. David Spriggs, suggest that platinum resistance is a continuum extending from six months continuing out to 24 months and beyond. The longer the “platinum-free interval” the better the chance of response to combinations like carboplatin plus Taxol. Within the scope of this discussion I am in general agreement. However, as I describe below, this is, by far, not the whole story.

I am composing this particular blog in response to a comment that I encountered in a recent chat room discussion. The individual took an extremely strong stance stipulating that no medical oncologist should re-challenge a patient with a platinum-based regimen if they fall within the category of platinum refractory or platinum resistant. This statement is absolutely, positively WRONG.

Platinum resistance is mediated by DNA repair enzymes. These enzymes recognize and respond to platinum adducts and excise the DNA residues, replacing them with the appropriate base pairs. While this confers resistance to single agent platins, a degree of resistance which is largely is unaffected by the addition of taxanes, platinum resistance actually opens up an Achilles heel for treatment of these patients. Drugs like the antimetabolites (Gemcitabine, 5-FU), as well as the topoisomerase inhibitors become collaterally more active in those tumors with the most active DNA repair capacities. This is the reason why we have consistently observed responses in both platinum resistant and platinum refractory patients utilizing the combination of cisplatin and gemcitabine, as we reported in the original paper describing this combination in 2003 (Nagourney, R et al, Gyn Onc, 2003). Our response rate of 50 percent in heavily pre-treated and platinum resistant patients was confirmed by investigators in Ohio who reported similarly good results in patients with p-glycoprotein positive/platinum resistant disease (Rose, P, Gyn Onc 2003).  To formally test this hypothesis we conducted a national clinical trial with the GOG, which treated platinum resistant and platinum refractory patients with the combination of cisplatin plus gemcitabine. This trial provided the longest-time-to-progression for this population (six months) in the history of the GOG (Brewer et al, Gyn Onc 2006). These observations were subsequently reported in our textbook (Deoxynucleoside Analogs in Cancer Therapy, GPeters [ed] Humana Press 2006).

Similar results have been reported for Folfox in recurrent ovarian patients by Greek investigators (Pectasides, D et al, Gyn Onc 2004). To examine this phenomenon, one of the great investigators of antimetabolite chemistry, William Plunkett, conducted an instructive series of experiments in which they showed that platinum resistant ovarian cell lines expressed high levels of the DNA repair enzyme ERCC1. When these investigators blocked the ERCC1 expression with siRNA, the cell lines became resistant to the cisplatin plus gemcitabine combination, indicating beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is the cells’ own DNA repair capacity that makes it sensitive to this drug doublet.

I write this blog because it is critically important for patients and doctors alike, to understand the chemistry of these agents and their interactions. While platinum resistance may indeed confer clinical resistance to platinum, carboplatin plus Taxol and related combinations, platinum resistant tumors may actually be more sensitive to intelligently administered drug combinations. Using our laboratory platform to measure the chemosensitivity and synergy for drug combinations we have identified numerous platinum resistant and platinum refractory patients who have had dramatic and durable response to re-challenge with platinum based therapies that employ these synergistic combinations. This is why we are extremely interested to study platinum resistant patients. After all, platinum resistance is in the eye of the beholder.

Chemosensitivity Testing – What It Is and What It Isn’t

Several weeks ago I was consulted by a young man regarding the management of his heavily pre-treated, widely metastatic rectal carcinoma. Upon review of his records, it was evident that under the care of both community and academic oncologists he had already received most of the active drugs for his diagnosis. Although his liver involvement could easily provide tissue for analysis, I discouraged his pursuit of an assay. Despite this, he and his wife continued to pursue the option.

As I sat across from the patient, with his complicated treatment history in hand, I was forced to admit that he looked the picture of health. Wearing a pork pie hat rakishly tilted over his forehead, I could see few outward signs of the disease that ravaged his body. After a lengthy give and take, I offered to submit his CT scans to our gastrointestinal surgeon for his opinion on the ease with which a biopsy could be obtained. I then dropped a note to the patient’s local oncologist, an accomplished physician who I respected and admired for his practicality and patient advocacy.

A week later, I received a call from the patient’s physician. Though cordial, he was puzzled by my willingness to pursue a biopsy on this heavily treated individual. I explained to him that I was actually not highly motivated to pursue this biopsy, but instead had responded to the patient’s urging me to consider the option. I agreed with the physician that the conventional therapy options were limited but noted that several available drugs might yet have a role in his management including signal transduction inhibitors.

I further explained that some patients develop a process of collateral sensitivity, whereby resistance to one class of drugs (platins, for example) can enhance the efficacy of other class of drugs (such as, antimetabolite) Furthermore, patients may fail a drug, then be treated with several other classes of agents, only then a year of two later, manifest sensitivity to the original drug.

Our conversation then took a surprising turn. First, he told me of his attendance at a dinner meeting, some 25 years earlier, where Dan Von Hoff, MD, had described his experiences with the clonogenic assay. He went on to tell me how that technique had been proven unsuccessful finding a very limited role in the elimination of “inactive” drugs with no capacity to identify “active “drugs. He finished by explaining that these shortcomings were the reason why our studies would be unlikely to provide useful information.

I found myself grasping for a handle on the moment. Here was a colleague, and collaborator, who had heard me speak on the topic a dozen times. I had personally intervened and identified active treatments for several of his patients, treatments that he would have never considered without me. He had invited me to speak at his medical center and spoke glowingly of my skills. And yet, he had no real understanding of what I do. It made me pause and wonder whether the patients and physicians with whom I interact on a daily basis understand the principles of our work. For clarity, in particular for those who may be new to my work, I provide a brief overview.

1.    Cancer patients are highly individual in their response to chemotherapies. This is why each patient must be tested to select the most effective drug regimen.

2.    Today we realize that cancer doesn’t grow too much it dies too little. This is why older growth-based assays didn’t work and why cell-death-based assays do.

3.    Cancer must be tested in their native state with the stromal, vascular and inflammatory elements intact. This is why we use microspheroids isolated directly from patients and do not grow or subculture our specimens.

4.    Predictions of response are not based on arbitrary drug concentrations but instead reflect the careful calibration of in vitro findings against patient outcomes – the all-important clinical database.

5.    We do not conduct drug resistance assays. We conduct drug sensitivity assays. These drug sensitivity assays have been shown statistically significantly to correlate with response, time to progression and survival.

6.    We do not conduct genomic analyses for there are no genomic platforms available today that are capable of reproducing the complexity, cross-talk, redundancy or promiscuity of human tumor biology.

7.    Tumors manifest plasticity that requires iterative studies. Large biopsies and sometimes multiple biopsies must be done to construct effective treatment programs.

8.    With chemotherapy, very often more is not better.

9.    New drugs are not always better drugs.

10.   And finally, cancer drugs do not know what diseases they were invented for.
While we could continue to enumerate the principles that guide our practice, one of the more important principles is humility. Medicine is a humbling experience and cancer medicine even more so. Patients often know more than their doctors give them credit for. Failing to incorporate a patient’s input, experience and wishes into the treatment programs that we design, limits our capacity to provide them the best outcome.

With regard to my colleague who seemed so utterly unfamiliar with these concepts, indeed for a large swath of the oncologic community as a whole, I am reminded of the saying “There’s none so blind as those who will not see.”

The Unfulfilled Promise of Genomic Analysis

In the March 8 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, investigators from London, England, reported disturbing news regarding the predictive validity and clinical applicability of human tumor genomic analysis for the selection of chemotherapeutic agents.

As part of an ongoing clinical trial in patients with metastatic renal cell carcinoma (the E-PREDICT) these investigators had the opportunity to conduct biopsies upon metastatic lesions and then compare their genomic profiles with those of the primary tumors. Their findings are highly instructive, though not terribly unexpected. Using exon-capture they identified numerous mutations, insertions and deletions. Sanger sequencing was used to validate mutations. When they compared biopsy specimens taken from the kidney they found significant heterogeneity from one region to the next.

Similar degrees of heterogeneity were observed when they compared these primary lesions with the metastatic sites of spread. The investigators inferred a branched evolution where tumors evolved into clones, some spreading to distant sites, while others manifested different features within the primary tumor themselves. Interestingly, when primary sites were matched with metastases that arose from that site, there was greater consanguinity between the primary and met than between one primary site and another primary site in the same kidney. Another way of looking at this is that your grandchildren look more like you, than your neighbor.

Tracking additional mutations, these investigators found unexpected changes that involved histone methyltransferase, histone d-methyltransferase and the phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN). These findings were perhaps among the most interesting of the entire paper for they support the principal of phenotypic convergence, whereby similar genomic changes arise by Darwinian selection. This, despite the observed phenotypes arising from precursors with different genomic heritages. This fundamental observation suggests that cancers do not arise from genetic mutation, but instead select advantageous mutations for their survival and success.

The accompanying editorial by Dr. Dan Longo makes several points worth noting.  First he states that “DNA is not the whole story.” This should be familiar to those who follow my blogs, as I have said the same on many occasions.  In his discussion, Dr Longo then references Albert Einstein, who said “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Touché.

I appreciate and applaud Dr. Longo’s comments for they echo our sentiments completely. This article is only the most recent example of a growing litany of observations that call into question molecular biologist’s preternatural fixation on genomic analyses. Human biology is not simple and malignantly transformed cells more complex still. Investigators who insist upon using genomic platforms to force disorderly cells into artificially ordered sub-categories, have once again been forced to admit that these oversimplifications fail to provide the needed insights for the advancement of cancer therapeutics. Those laboratories and corporations that offer “high price” genomic analyses for the selection of chemotherapy drugs should read this and related articles carefully as these reports portend a troubling future for their current business model.

A New Target in Breast Cancer Therapy

In many ways the era of targeted therapy began with the recognition that breast cancers expressed estrogen receptors, the original work identified the presence of estrogen receptors by radioimmunoassay. Tumors positive for ER tended to be less aggressive and appear to favor bone sites when they metastasized. Subsequently, drugs capable of blocking the effects of estrogen at the estrogen receptor were developed.  Tamoxifen competes with estrogen at the level of the receptor. This drug became a mainstay with ER positive tumors and continues to be used today, decades after it was first synthesized.

Recognizing that some patients develop resistance to Tamoxifen, additional classes of drugs were developed that reduced the circulating levels of estrogen by inhibiting the enzyme aromatase, this enzyme found in adipose tissue, converts steroid precursors to estrogen.  Despite the benefits of these classes of drugs known as SERMS (selective receptor modulators), many patients break through hormonal therapies and require cytotoxic chemotherapy.

With the identification of HER-2 amplification, a new subclass of breast cancers driven by a mutation in the growth factor family provided yet a new avenue of therapy – trastuzumab (Herceptin). For HER-2 positive breast cancers Herceptin has dramatically changed the landscape. Providing synergy with chemotherapy this monoclonal antibody has also been applied in the adjuvant setting offering survival advantage in those patients with the targeted mutation.

Reports from the San Antonio breast symposium held in Texas last December, provide two new findings.

The first is a clinical trial testing the efficacy of pertuzumab. This novel monoclonal antibody functions by preventing dimerization of HER-2 (The target of Herceptin) with the other members of the human epidermal growth factor family HER-1, HER-3 and HER-4. In so doing, the cross talk between receptors is abrogated and downstream signaling in squelched.

The second important finding regards the use of everolimus. This small molecule derivative of rapamycin blocks cellular signaling through the mTOR pathway. Combining everolimus with the aromatase inhibitor exemestane, improved time to progression.

While these two classes of drugs are different, the most interesting aspect of both reports reflects the downstream pathways that they target. Pertuzumab inhibits signaling at the PI3K pathway, upstream from mTOR. Everolimus blocks mTOR itself, thus both drugs are influencing cell signaling that channel through metabolic pathways PI3K is the membrane signal from insulin, while mTOR is an intermediate in the same pathway. Thus, these are in truest sense of the word, breakthroughs in metabolomics.