The Changing Landscape in Non-small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)

In October 2012, we published a study of patients with metastatic NSCLC whose treatment was guided by EVA-PCD laboratory analysis. The trial selected drugs from FDA approved, compendium listed chemotherapies and every patient underwent a surgical biopsy under an IRB-approved protocol to provide tissue for analysis.

The EVA-PCD patients achieved an objective response rate of 64.5 percent (2-fold higher than national average, P < 0.0015) and median overall survival of 21.3 months (nearly 2-fold longer than the national average of 12.5 months).

Non-small cell lung cancer

Non-small cell lung cancer

The concept of conducting biopsies in patients with metastatic NSCLC was not only novel in 2004, it was downright heretical. Physicians argued forcefully that surgical procedures should not be undertaken in metastatic disease fearing risks and morbidity. Other physicians were convinced that drug selection could not possibly improve outcomes over those achieved with well-established NCCN guidelines. One oncologist went so far as to demand a formal inquiry. When the hospital was forced to convene an investigation, it was the co-investigators on the IRB approved protocol and the successfully treated patients who ultimately rebuffed this physician’s attempt to stifle our work.

With the publication of our statistically superior results and many of our patients surviving more than 5 years, we felt vindicated but remain a bit battle scarred.

I was amused when one of my study co-authors (RS) recently forwarded a paper authored at the University of California at Davis about surgical biopsies and tumor molecular profiling published by The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. This single institution study of twenty-five patients with metastatic NSCLC reported their experience-taking patients with metastatic disease to surgical biopsy for the express purpose of selecting therapy. Sixty four percent were video assisted thoracic (VATS) wedge biopsies, 16 percent pleural biopsies, 8 percent mediastinoscopies, 12 percent supraclavicular biopsies and 8 percent rib/chest wall resections. Tissues were submitted to a commercial laboratory in Los Angeles for genomic profiling.

The authors enthusiastically described their success conducting surgical procedures to procure tissue for laboratory analysis. Gone was the anxiety surrounding the risk of surgical morbidity. Gone were the concerns regarding departure from “standard” treatment. In their place were compelling arguments that recapitulated the very points that we had articulated ten years earlier in our protocol study. While the platforms may differ, the intent, purpose and surgical techniques applied for tissue procurement were exactly the same.

What the Cooke study did not describe was the response rate for patients who received “directed therapy.” Instead they provide the percent of patients with “potentially targetable” findings (76 percent) and the percent that had a “change in strategy” (56 percent) as well as those that qualified for therapeutic trials (40 percent). Though, laudable, changing strategies and qualifying for studies does not equal clinical responsiveness. One need only examine the number of people who are “potential winners” at Black Jack or those who “change their strategies” (by changing tables/dealers for example) or, for that matter, those who qualify for “high roller status” to understand the limited practical utility of these characterizations.

Nonetheless, the publication of this study from UC Davis provides a landmark in personalized NSCLC care. It is no longer possible for oncologists to decry the use of surgical biopsies for the identification of active treatments.

As none of the patients in this study signed informed consents for biopsy, we can only conclude that the most august institutions in the US now view such procedures as appropriate for the greater good of their patients. Thus, we are witness to the establishment of a new paradigm in cancer medicine. Surgical biopsies in the service of better treatment are warranted, supported and recommended. Whatever platform, functional or genomic, patient-directed therapy is the new normal and the landscape of lung cancer management has changed for the better.

The Meaning of Meaningful Improvement in Lung Cancer

When asked to define what constituted pornography in his 1964 Supreme Court decision (Jacobellis versus Ohio 1964) Justice Potter Stewart stated, “I know it when I see it.” When I reviewed an article on the changing landscape of clinical trials in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) (Shifting patterns in the interpretation of phase 3 clinical trial outcomes in advanced non-small cell lung cancer: The bar is dropping, Sacher A. G. et al, J Clin Oncol May 10, 2014), Justice Stewart came to mind.

The authors selected 203 NSCLC trials from a total of 245 studies conducted between 1980 and 2010. They compared how often the studies met their endpoints with how often the study authors’ called the results “positive.” Among the findings, it seems that earlier studies (before the year 2000) were geared for overall survival, while later studies (after 2000) overwhelmingly favored progression free survival. Although patient survivals changed little, the number of trials reported as successful increased dramatically.

Non-small cell lung cancer

Non-small cell lung cancer

Progression-free survival measures how long it takes for a patient to fail treatment. That is, for the disease to worsen on therapy. Its use increased after 2000 when Docetaxel, for the first time, provided a survival advantage in recurrent disease.

The FDA’s willingness to accept progression-free survival for drug approval was originally based on their expectation that the benefit would be “substantial and robust” but they did not define the term. One group has suggested that improvements should be of the magnitude of 50 percent. Another went even further suggesting a doubling of the survival advantage.

Unfortunately, the trend has been just the opposite. Trials from the 1980s on average gave a 3.9 month improvement, which fell to a meager 0.9 months after 2000.

What are patients and their physicians to make of these trends? First, the large clinical trials, that are so common today, are much more likely to achieve significance. The troubling corollary is that statistical significance is not the same as clinical relevance. The “publish or perish” climate, combined with the skyrocketing cost of drug development has placed inordinate demands upon investigators and their sponsors to achieve “positive results.” Fearing failure, many pharmaceutical companies sponsor “safe” trials that provide incremental advances but few breakthroughs.

Meaningful advances in oncology are generally quite evident. The first use of Interferon alpha for the treatment of hairy cell leukemia provided a response rate of 100 percent and earned a lead article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) with only seven patients!

Similarly the 57 percent response rate for Crizotinib in ALK positive lung cancer required only 82 patients for a place in the NEJM. Unfortunately, the failure of contemporary investigators to identify more “paradigm changing therapies” has forced many to lower the bar.

The clear solution to the problem is the better selection of candidates for therapy. Despite advances in molecular biopsy a paucity of truly effective companion diagnostics exist. Outside of EGFR, ALK, and ROS-1, it is anybody’s guess how to manage the vast majority of non-small cell lung cancer patients.

While we expand our armamentarium and develop better companion diagnostics, today we can apply measures of cellular response (as found in an EVA-PCD assay)
that capture all of operative mechanisms of sensitivity for all classes of drugs. While it is not always possible to know why a patient will respond, it is possible to know that they will respond. In the words of Judge Stewart, when it comes to a responsive lung cancer patient “I know it when I see it.”

Outliving Hospice

Outliving CancerFor those of you who have read my book Outliving Cancer you will recognize the chapter entitled “Outliving Hospice.” It is the description of one of my lung cancer patients.

The saga began in 2005, when this gentleman with metastatic lung cancer under the care of the Veteran’s Administration in Los Angeles presented to our group requesting a biopsy for an EVA-PCD assay to select therapy. Diagnosed some months earlier his lung cancer had progressed following first line platinum-based chemotherapy. He was deemed untreatable and placed on hospice.

At his request, one of our surgical colleagues conducted a biopsy and identified a treatment combination borrowed from work done some years earlier by Japanese investigators. It worked perfectly for a year allowing him to return to a normal life.

At year two however, he relapsed. At that point, we confronted a dilemma – would we accept the inevitability of his progressive disease, fold our tent, and allow the patient to return to hospice care; or conduct yet another biopsy to determine the next line of therapy? If you have read the book, then you know how the story plays out. The new biopsy revealed the unexpected finding that the tumor had completely clocked around to an EGFR-driven cancer, highly sensitive to erlotinib (Tarceva). Placed upon oral Tarceva, he has been in remission ever since.

When I saw Rick, two weeks ago at our six month routine follow up he provided a copy of his February 2014 PET/CT scans which, once again, RickHelm Small Imagerevealed no evidence of progressive disease. With the exception of the skin rashes associated with the therapy, he maintains a completely normal life. During our discussion he apprised me of an interesting fact. His survival, now approaching 10 years, according to him, constitutes not only the longest survivorship for any patient under the care of the Los Angeles VA, nor any patient under the care of the VA in California, no, he is the longest surviving actively treated metastatic non-small cell lung cancer under the care of the Veteran’s Administration. Period! While I cannot, with certainty, vouch for this fact, I am quite certain that he is among the best outcomes that I have seen.

There are several points to be gleaned. The first is that every patient deserves the best possible outcome. The second is that hospice care is in the eye of the beholder. The third is that patients must take charge of their own care and demand the best possible interventions available. As an aside, you might imagine that a federal agency responsible for the costly care of tens of thousands of lung cancer patients every year would pay attention to results like Rick’s. Might there be other patients who could benefit from Ex-Vivo Analysis for the correct selection of chemotherapeutics?  One can only wonder.

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.