The Frustrating Reality – When a Tumor Sample isn’t Sufficient for Testing

A dying leukemia cell

A dying leukemia cell

The principles underlying the Rational Therapeutics EVA-PCD platform reflect many years of development. Recognizing the importance of cell death measures — apoptotic and non-apoptotic — our laboratory dismissed growth-based assays. The closure of Oncotech, the principal purveyor of proliferation-based assays, illustrates the demise of a failed paradigm in the study and testing of human tumor biology. A second principal of our work is the need to examine all of the operative mechanisms of cell death (autophagic, necrotic, etc.). Laboratories that measure only one mechanism of cell death (e.g. caspase activation as a measure of apoptosis) miss important cell responses that are critical to the accurate prediction of clinical response. The third principle of our work is the maintenance of cells in their native state.

These fundamentals provide the basis of our many successes, but also a constraint. Because we do not propagate, subculture or expand tissues, we can only work with the amounts of tissue provided to us by our surgeons. While some labs propagate small biopsy samples into larger populations by growth to confluence, this introduces irreconcilable artifacts, which diminish the quality of sensitivity profiles. Avoiding this pitfall, however, demands that a tissue sample be large enough (typically 1cm3) to provide an adequate number of cells for study without growth or propagation.

This is the reason our laboratory must request biopsies of adequate size. The old computer dictum of “garbage in, garbage out” is doubly true for small tissue samples. Those that contain too few tumor cells, are contaminated, fibrotic or inadequately processed will not serve the patients who are so desperately in need of therapy selection guidance. As a medical oncologist, I am deeply disappointed by every failed assay and I am more familiar than most with the implications of a patient requiring treatment predicated on little more than intuition or randomization.

We do everything within our power to provide results to our patients. This sometimes requires low yield samples be repeatedly processed. It may also set limitations on the size of the study or, in some circumstances, forces us to report a “no go” (characterized as an assay with insufficient cells or insufficient viability). Of course, it goes without saying that we would never charge a patient for a “no-go” assay beyond a minimal set up fee (if applicable). But, more to the point, we suffer the loss of an opportunity to aid a patient in need.

Cancer patients never undergo therapy without a tissue biopsy. Many have large-volume disease at presentation, so it is virtually always possible to obtain tissue for study if a dedicated team of physicians makes the effort to get it processed and submitted to our laboratory. The time and energy required to conduct an excisional biopsy pales in comparison to the time, energy and lost opportunities associated with months of ineffective, toxic therapy.

What is Cancer Research?

According to Wikipedia, cancer research is “basic research into cancer in order to identify causes and develop strategies for prevention, diagnosis, treatments and cure.” At face value this seems self-evident, yet “cancer research” means different things to different people.

Most cancer patients think of cancer research as the effort to achieve the best possible outcome for individual patients. Taxpayers and donors to charitable organizations also tend to view the process through the lens of therapeutics. But patient treatment is but a small part of cancer research. One of the largest cancer research organizations, the American Cancer Society, was the subject of an investigative report by Channel 2 in Atlanta, Georgia. They found that this billion dollar organization spent 32% of the money it raised on raising money. What of the other 68%? How much of that money actually goes to patient care? When one factors in education, transportation, administration, PR, salaries and basic research, actual patient care support is close to the bottom of the list.

More instructive is an examination of how people engaged in cancer research define their work. On one side are clinical investigators (trialists) who administer the treatments developed in the laboratories of scientists after pre-clinical analyses. On the other side are the basic researchers whose job it is to answer questions and resolve scientific dilemmas. They are granted enormous amounts of money to delve into the deepest intricacies of cancer biology, genomics, transcriptomic and proteomics in an effort to better understand the etiology (causation) of this dreaded disease.

Well Tray Closeup2 small In examining this disjointed field, I considered my own area of work. I am a clinical investigator who also conducts research in a laboratory. As such, I straddle the fence between basic research and clinical science. This is increasingly dangerous ground, as the gap between scientists and clinicians grows wider by the day. Most clinical investigators have, at best, a passing understanding of molecular biology, and most molecular biologist have absolutely no idea what clinical medicine is. This is unfortunate, for it is the greater blending of science with clinical therapy that will lead to better outcomes. Pondering this dichotomy I recognized that my job is first and foremost to save lives and to alleviate suffering. For me, the laboratory is a means to an end. It is a tool that I use to resolve clinical questions. What drug, what combination, what sequence? These questions are best answered in the laboratory, not in patients, wherever possible.

For the basic scientist the task is to answer a question. For them the laboratory is an end unto itself. They use multiple parameters to examine the same question from different angles, seeking to control every variable. A good scientific paper will use genomic (DNA), transcriptomic (RNA), and proteomic (protein expression) analyses until the issues have all been resolved to their satisfaction. In the literature this is known as “elegant” science. The operative term here is control. The scientist controls the experiment, controls the environment, controls the outcome, and controls the publication process. They are in charge.

What of the poor clinical investigator, who must, per force of necessity, be humble. They are not in control of the clinical environment and rarely understand the intricacies of the metabolic, genomic and proteomic events taking place before their eyes. They must approximate, sometimes guess and then act. For the clinician, the laboratory is an opportunity to answer practical real-world questions, not nuanced theoretical principles.

The greatest criticism that a scientist can level at an opponent is a lack of focus, defined as the inability to drill down onto the essence of the question. These scientists sit on study sections, review manuscripts and fund grants. Over decades they have been allowed to define the best research as the most narrowly focused. Incrementalists have out-stripped, out-funded and out-maneuvered big thinkers. While basic researchers examine which residue on the EGFr domain becomes phosphorylated, clinical physicians must do hand-to-hand combat with the end result of these mutations: non-small cell lung cancer.

Medical history instructs that big questions are best answered when prepared minds (William Withering, Ignaz Semmelweis, etc.) pursue scientific answers to real clinical questions. Unfortunately, today’s clinicians have been relegated to the role of “hypothesis testers.” This has led to a profusion of blind alleys, failed clinical trials and the expenditure of billions of dollars on extremely “interesting questions.”

George Bernard Shaw said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Increasingly, cancer research has become two distinctly different disciplines divided by a common name.

The Rising Cost of Cancer Research: Is It Necessary?

JCO coverFor anyone engaged in developmental therapeutics and for those patients who need new approaches to their cancers, an editorial in the Journal of Clinical Oncology casts a disturbing light on the field The authors examine the impact of the growing research bureaucracy upon the conduct of clinical trials. They use Thomas Edison, who filed 1,093 U.S. patents, to exemplify successful trial and error research. By inference, they suggest that if Mr. Edison were working today in the modern regulatory environment we would all be reading this blog by candlelight. While much of Edison’s work focused upon household conveniences like light bulbs and phonographs, the principals that underlie discovery work are every bit the same.

Although regulations have been put in place to protect human subjects, the redundancies and rigorous re-reviews have outstripped their utility for the patients in need. The process has become so complex  that it is now necessary for many institutions to use professional organizations to conduct trials that could easily have done in the past by an investigator with a small staff. These clinical research organizations (CRO’s) are under the gun to adhere to an ever growing collection of standards. Thus, every detail of every consent form is pored over sometimes for years. This has had the effect of driving up the cost of research such that the average Phase III clinical trial conducted in the 1990s that cost $3,000 to $5,000 per accrued patient, today costs between $75,000 and $125,000 per patient. Despite this, the safety of individuals is no better protected today than it was 30 years ago when all of this was done easily and cheaply.

While funding for cancer research has increased slowly, the cancer research bureaucracy has exploded. One need only visit any medium to large size hospital or university medical center to witness the expansion of these departments. Are we safer? Do our patients do better? The answer is a resounding “No.” In 2013, according to the authors,  the average patient spent a mere 53 seconds reviewing their consent forms before signing them, while the average parent, signing on behalf of their child, spent only 13 seconds.

The take home messages are several. First, the regulatory process has become too cumbersome. Were this the cost of scientific advance we would accept it as a fact of life, but patients are not safer, trials are not faster and outcomes are not being enhanced. Second, the cancer research process has overwhelmed and undermined cancer researchers. In keeping with Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy, “. . . in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself.”Is there anyone who donates to the American Cancer Society who wants their money to go toward more regulation?

The problem is not with the academic physician. Medical scientists want to do studies. Marching alongside are the patients who are desperate to get new treatments. While many criticize the pharmaceutical industry, it is highly unlikely that these companies wouldn’t relish the opportunity to see their drugs enter the market expeditiously. Standing between patients and better clinical outcomes is the research bureaucracy. Should we fail to arrest the explosive growth in regulatory oversight we will approach a time in the near future when no clinical trials will be conducted whatsoever.