The Good, the Bad and the Good

Two years ago, almost to the day, I met a charming gentleman who had been diagnosed the preceding month with metastatic non small cell lung cancer.

The work-up that confirmed his diagnosis also identified an EGFR mutation. This mutation enabled him to receive the targeted agent erlotinib (Tarceva®) as first line therapy and it provided immediate benefit. An incidental finding in his work-up was a meningioma (a benign brain tumor that often arises in the midline of the brain, in an area known as the falx).

Follow up MRI showed no growth of the meningioma. The patient remained on the same therapy for three months at which time his treating physician decided to consolidate him with chemotherapy. The patient’s tolerance could not have been worse: nausea, malaise, fatigue and a 30 pound weight loss. He requested that I assume his care. After careful consideration, I put him right back on what worked in the first place – erlotinib.

With the exception of a few minor toxicities the patient did beautifully. As we approached his restaging with PET/CT and MRI of the brain, scheduled for August 2012 (his two-year point), he presented to a university medical center with disturbing neurological symptoms. An MRI revealed the meningioma to be much larger than originally found two years earlier. Surgery was scheduled for the following day.

The patient and I discussed his situation by phone as he sat in his hospital room awaiting the surgery. If this were a meningioma, it could be removed. However, if this was related to his lung cancer, then there was an opportunity at hand to determine (using the EVA-PCD® platform) whether the cancer was still responsive to erlotinib or had developed mutations that might confer resistance (e.g., T790M). On the one hand, high dose pulse erlotinib can be effective for CNS disease, so long as resistance has not developed. On the other hand, newer classes of drugs that target T7090M might be required.

We needed tissue for testing, so we could create a functional profile of the tumor, and the surgery was 12 hours away. The patient wanted us to do the study. I wanted to do the study. The problem was that I needed to arrange to get tissue to the lab and time was running short.

With an admirable degree of sleuth work, we identified the surgical resident on duty that evening. We explained our need and he proceeded to explain in great detail that this would never happen. Above and beyond the protocols and standards by which he delivered care, he had 45 other patients to cover, as well as consults to conduct. I hung up disappointed that this opportunity would be missed.

The next morning as I finished hospital rounds I noticed a 6:40 a.m missed call on my cell phone. It was from the hospital where the patient was undergoing surgery. I then received a second call from the same number. It was the attending senior surgeon. He was about to scrub in for the scheduled surgery and offered to assist me in any way he could. He explained that they hoped and believed that this was a benign meningioma. If it was, he would remove it and there would be no need for our involvement. An hour later, communicating via speakerphone in the OR, the surgeon explained that this was indeed adenocarcinoma consistent with the patient’s lung cancer diagnosis. He promised to process the tissue carefully, and then provided his cell phone number so we could communicate. I felt a sense of great relief.

While I cannot say what our laboratory tests will find, the story is both educational and inspirational. The patient is an example of a breakthrough in medical science that provided him an excellent and durable response with comparatively little toxicity. That was the good.

The bad reflected the overworked resident’s insouciance. He was busy, it was late and it appeared that we had confused him with someone who cared. After all, there is no payback to perform above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty medicine. That was sad, for we are now training physicians who are technicians and not healers. They play by the rules and never extend themselves. No one can ding them for doing their job and no one applauds them for doing more.

The really good news was the response of the attending physician. This individual whom I have never met, evidenced an admirable degree of patient advocacy, commitment and compassion. This patient’s good outcome mattered to him and if there was something that I could bring to the table to help this person in need, then he was all there.

We are at a crossroads in medicine. Will we sponsor the healers or promote the technicians? In our laboratory we do everything in our power to provide all the science that we can bring to bear for every patient. The one component that we cannot offer as a service is the art of medicine. That is up to each individual physician.

Stalking Leukemia Genes One Whole Genome at a Time

An article by Gina Kolata on the front page of the July 8, Sunday New York Times, “In Leukemia Treatment, Glimpses of the Future,” tells the heartwarming story of a young physician afflicted with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Diagnosed in medical school, the patient initially achieved a complete remission, only to suffer a recurrence that led him to undergo a bone marrow transplant. When the disease recurred a second time years later, his options were more limited.

As a researcher at Washington University himself, this young physician had access to the most sophisticated genomic analyses in the world. His colleagues and a team of investigators put all 26 of the University’s gene sequencing machines to work around the clock to complete a whole genome sequence, in search of a driver mutation. The results identified FLT3. This mutation had previously been described in acute leukemia and is known to be a target for several available small molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitors. After arranging to procure sunitinib (Sutent, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals), the patient began treatment and had a prompt and complete remission, one that he continues to enjoy to this day.

The story is one of triumph over adversity and exemplifies genomic analysis in the identification of targets for therapy. What it also represents is a labor-intensive, costly, and largely unavailable approach to cancer management. While good outcomes in leukemia have been the subject of many reports, imatinib for CML among them, this does not obtain for most of the common, solid tumors that lack targets for these new silver bullets. Indeed, the article itself describes unsuccessful efforts on the part of Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens, to probe their own genomes for effective treatments. More to the point, few patients have access to 26 gene-sequencing machines capable of identifying genomic targets. A professor of bioethics from the University of Washington, Wiley Burke, raised additional ethical questions surrounding the availability of these approaches only to the most connected and wealthiest of individuals.

While brute force sequencing of human genomes are becoming more popular, the approach lacks scientific elegance. Pattern recognition yielding clues, almost by accident, relegates scientists to the role of spectator and removes them from hypothesis-driven investigation that characterized centuries of successful research.

The drug sunitinib is known for its inhibitory effect upon VEGF 1, 2 and 3, PDGFr, c-kit and FLT3. Recognizing the attributes of this drug and being well aware of C-KIT and FLT3’s role in leukemias, we regularly add sunitinib into our leukemia tissue cultures to test for cytotoxic effects in malignantly transformed cells.  The insights gained enable us to simply and quickly gauge the likelihood of efficacy in patients for drugs like sunitinib.

Once again we find that expensive, difficult tests seem preferable to inexpensive, simple ones. While the technocrats at the helm of oncology research promise to drive the price of these tests down to a level of affordability, everyday we wait 1,581 Americans die of cancer. Perhaps, while we await perfect tests that might work tomorrow, we should use good tests that work today.