What Can You Do to Improve Your Odds Against Cancer?

I sometimes joke with my patients that a new diagnosis of cancer rarely provides them enough time to get an MD or PhD. Yet it is that level of preparation that may be required to answer the myriad questions that lie ahead.

Although it’s a joke, it is only partly in jest. Unlike buying a house or a car for which one’s life experiences can prepare you, medicine is opaque, complicated and ever changing. At the bleeding edge of medical complexity sits medical oncology and its dizzying array of genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, epigenomics and metabolomics. Not only is it difficult for patients to keep up with all the changes, it is increasingly beyond the ken of their doctors who have spent entire careers training in the specialty, many of whom may have an MD and a PhD.

So how can patients improve their odds when the obstacles seem so daunting?

notebook-clipart-red-spiral-notebookMy first recommendation is that you develop a personal diary or record book of the procedures, staging studies, pathologic diagnosis, tumor markers, and physician recommendations. This can be accomplished by requesting that your doctors provide either electronic or physical copies of CT scans, pathology reports, blood tests and other clinically relevant information. While there has been some controversy surrounding their overuse, I am a believer in the simple blood tests used as barometers of your cancer with names like CEA, CA19.9, CA125, CA27.29, and CA 15.3. Although they are not perfect, they are easy to obtain, relatively inexpensive and can be repeated regularly to assess progress with therapy.

The second thing that I recommend is that you gain a working knowledge of your diagnosis. While there are no lung cancer search resultsperfect sources of information, the internet can provide useful basic information as a starting point. Begin by obtaining from your doctor the most accurate definition of the cancer. If it is breast cancer, is it infiltrating ductal or lobular? Are you ER positive? Is your tumor HER-2 positive? If it is stomach cancer, is it intestinal type or diffuse, etc? This will facilitate your searches, as well as your future conversations with consultants.

Once you know what you’ve got, the next thing you will need to know is where it is. That is what is known as your stage. The older classification used Roman Numerals I-IV with local disease (early) as stage I and metastatic (disseminated) as stage IV. The more modern system is known as TNM, where T stands for tumor size (1-4), N stands for lymph involvement(1-3), and M stands for metastatic involvement (0 or 1). Most contemporary pathology reports include TNM staging. With the diagnosis and stage established, you now know what you have and where it is.

This is where it gets interesting. Now, what do you do about it?

It is at this point that therapeutic choices must be made. Most physicians will rely upon standard established guidelines. Among the most widely used guidelines are those published by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network known as NCCN. While these guidelines can be useful, they can also be stultifying, limiting patients to what might be considered the lowest common denominator of care. While they may be better than haphazard treatment selection, they may very much miss the mark for your unique needs.

Here the process degenerates into a plethora of confusing choices.

Should you have genomic profiling? If so, should it be based on a tissue biopsy, circulating cell free tumor analysis, or even the newer urine tests that measure the presence or absence of abnormal genes? All of these technologies have merit and over the coming years the best ones will shake out. Despite these tests being widely touted (and profitable for the purveyors), none of these test have been put to formal trials that establish their capacity to influence survival. This is interesting because many of these tests have obtained insurance and Medicare coverage without even remotely rising to this standard. Nonetheless, these tests can be used for specific diseases like lung and leukemia where actionable targets are known to exist. Beyond that, caveat emptor (buyer beware).

One of the problems with genomic profiles is that they do very good job of telling you what the problem may be, but a very bad job at telling you the solution. It is a rare genomic mutation that comes with a drug to treat it. Most of the findings wind up asking more questions rather than providing more answers.

With the diagnosis established, the stage known and in certain circumstances molecular profiles complete, it is time for you to choose treatments and the centers that will provide them. Many seek the care of academic centers. These centers may offer clinical trials as a first line therapy for those who meet criteria.

NCI Clinical TrialsIt should be remembered that clinical trials are conducted in three principal formats. Phase I trials examine brand new drugs. These trials determine the safety of the drugs at different dose schedules. Phase II trials take the established safe doses and develop experience in each type of disease, e.g. lung versus colon versus breast. Phase III trials then compare the new drugs with existing treatments to see if there is any real improvement.

It is critical to recognize the functions of these different types of trials. Phase I studies classically have no therapeutic intent (your benefit is secondary to their measurement of your ability to tolerate the drug).

Phase II trials seek evidence of clinical activity by disease, but your specific disease may not be right for that drug.

Finally, Phase III allows a comparison of standard treatment to the new one. Many of these drugs do not make the grade and fall off the development wagon. In addition, you must be willing to be randomly assigned.

It is here that my approach diverges from those outlined. I have long maintained that each patient is unique and that their cancers must be treated individually. Recognizing that no genomic, proteomic or transcriptomic platform can answer the very complex questions of therapeutic response, we at Rational Therapeutics have developed functional analyses through the use of the EVA-PCA assay, which studies each patient’s tumor by exposing it to the drugs of interest. The most active, least toxic combinations are then recommended. In a report at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting of 2013, we showed a 2.02 higher response rate (P < 0.001) and a 1.44 improvement in one year survival (P < 0.02) for patients who received assay-guided therapy. This established the predicative validity of the functional approach.

It is important for patients to realize that cancer is an unbalanced system, not just an abnormal cell. Cancer as a disease goes beyond the cell or even the tumor to affect the body itself. Alterations in immunity, metabolism and physiology contribute to the good or bad outcomes of every patient. Patients should seek to normalize their lifestyle, improve their diets, maintain an active exercise program, reduce their weight to lean body weight, and may in some circumstances consider nutritional supplements and/or appropriately selected natural products that may augment their wellbeing.

The human body is a complicated machine and each part resonates with every other part. A good diet, a good night’s sleep and avoidance of an unhealthy lifestyle, as much as they may sound like your mother’s advice, is indeed very good advice.

Every cancer patient has the right to get better. As a patient, you should take charge of your cancer and make smart decisions. Afterall, no one is more interested in saving your life than you.

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 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.”

Every Cancer Patient’s Outcome is Important

Clinical oncologists can be divided into different camps. There are those who see patient outcomes as a means-to-an-end. Each clinical response provides a data point and when those data points reach critical mass they become reportable. These are the trialists. They see the world through a utilitarian lens. They use aggregate data, through sufficient patient accrual, to achieve significance. This, they hope, will lead practice-changing observations. Trialists populate academic centers and an ever-expanding number of “mega medical groups” that are now gobbling up private oncology practices. They apply metrics to gauge success, as their focus has moved away from individual patient needs toward the achievement of a “greater good” for the population as a whole. Statistical significance is the currency of their realm and clinical protocols their preferred tool.

In the other camp reside physicians, that dwindling cadre of doctors whose principal focus is the good response of each individual patient. They are the practitioners who eke out a living in an environment of diminishing returns. Having relinquished both autonomy and income over recent years, their one remaining reward is the benefit they can bring to each patient. With neither the desire nor ability to publish their results, individual patient survival becomes their paramount goal. Their job is to alleviate suffering, provide comfort and sponsor the health of their clients. Patients preparing to meet with a cancer specialist should consider carefully who is treating them – and why.

I was reminded of this when a 48-year-old gentleman recently requested an opinion. He had presented to an emergency room with a month-long history of sharp abdominal pain. The CT scan revealed extensive intra-abdominal disease, which upon endoscopic biopsy, proved to be of gastric (stomach) origin. He was immediately referred to an accomplished university-based clinical investigator for consultation.

Metastatic gastric cancer is a very difficult disease to treat. One bright spot has been the discovery that 20 percent of patients carry an epidermal growth factor receptor (HER-2) mutation that enables them to receive Herceptin-based therapy. As luck would have it, this patient did not carry the HER-2 mutation. The university investigator explained that there were limited treatment options. In light of his metastatic presentation, the doctor felt that aggressive, multi-agent chemotherapy might only engender toxicity. The patient was offered either single agent 5-FU for palliation or the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial. The patient considered his options and chose to seek an opinion with me.

20 percent response rateI reviewed the patient’s status and explained that while the opinion of the university investigator was valid it might underestimate the patient’s individual chance of response. I explained that gastric cancer statistics, like all medical statistics, are population based. That is, a 20 percent response rate does not mean that every patient gets 20 percent better, but instead, that 20 out of every 100 respond while 80 do not. Our job was to find out which group he belonged to.

The patient decided to undergo a biopsy and submitted tissue to Rational Therapeutics for EVA-PCD® analysis. The results were strikingly favorable with several drug combinations revealing both activity and synergy. After careful comparison, I recommended the combination of a Cisplatin, Taxotere and 5-FU (DCF), a regimen originally developed at the MD Anderson almost 10 years earlier.

On March 12th, the patient began treatment on an every-other-week schedule. As he did not circulate tumor markers like CEA or CA 19-9, there was no easy measure of his response so I elected to repeat the PET/CT after just two cycles. Much to my delight, the patient had achieved a complete remission with resolution of all measurable disease, including the bulky abdominal masses, numerous lymph nodes and the stomach. As I described the remarkable PET/CT results, the patient’s wife began to weep. Her husband, the father of their two young children, wasn’t dying after all. He was no longer a grim cancer statistic. With mother’s day approaching, this was the first good news that they had received in six months. At once, the patient began to discuss business trips, travel plans and family outings. He breathed a slow sigh of relief as he realized that, once again, he had a life.

Good outcomes, even in the worst diseases, occur in all oncology practices. Every doctor can regale you with the story of a patient who responded beautifully and went on to survive years beyond everyone’s expectations. The reason we remember these stories is because they occur so infrequently. Complete remissions in metastatic gastric cancer are vanishingly rare. That is the reason that the university investigator offered single agent 5-FU. It’s easy, nontoxic, well tolerated, but it also cures no one. The rationale is well established: Why poison patient’s you cannot cure? Playing the averages, this strategy is a winner. Yet, on an individual patient basis it may, in fact, be a very big loser.

What are we to do with the “non-average” patient? What about the outliers? Should we not, at least, try to find them? We do it with stocks, racehorses, Indy-drivers, real-estate investments and every underdog sports team in every league. It’s the outliers after all that we call winners.

Cancer patients are not clinical trial subjects. They are unique individuals with their own very unique biology. Every patient is an experiment in real time, an “N of 1.” We must respect the dignity of each individual and we are duty-bound to apply every tool at our disposal to assist him or her in the pursuit of his or her own very personal best outcome – providing truly personalized cancer treatment. This patient did not have a 20 percent response. Instead, he was one of the fortunate few who responded very well. And for him that response was 100 percent.

Why Do Cancer Surgeons Cure More Patients Than Medical Oncologists?

Surgery remains the most curative form of cancer treatment. While the reasons for this are many, the most obvious being earlier stage of disease and the better performance status of the patients, there are other factors at work. Surgeons tend to be rugged individualists, prepared to make life and death decisions at a moment’s notice. The surgeon who enters the pelvis expecting an ovarian cyst only to find disseminated ovarian cancer must be prepared to conduct a total hysterectomy and bilateral ovary removal if he/she is to save the patient’s life. It is these types of aggressive interventions that have that revolutionized the treatment of advanced ovarian cancer.

What of the medical oncologists who, with the exception of leukemia and some lymphomas, confront diseases that are difficult to eradicate and for which treatments can be toxic? Trained as incrementalists, they do not expect cures so much as palliation. Their role is not to make hard decisions, but instead to rely upon precedence. Educated in the school of small advances, these physicians are not rewarded for individual successes but they are harshly criticized for any departures from community standards.

Deprived of the opportunity to make bold decisions, medical oncologists follow opinion leaders who instruct them to accrue to standardized protocols. As meaningful advances are few and far between, enormous numbers of patients must be accrued to provide sample sizes with any hope of achieving statistical significance. Among the most disturbing examples of this approach was a trial reported in patients with inoperable pancreatic cancer. The study compared single agent gemcitabine to gemcitabine plus erlotinib. The trial achieved an improvement in survival that led the FDA to approve the two-drug combination. Yet, the actual improvement in median survival was a mere 10 days. The authors beamed, “To our knowledge, this randomized phase III trial is the first to demonstrate statistically significantly improved survival in advanced pancreatic cancer by adding any agent to gemcitabine.” (Moore, MJ et al J Clin Oncol, 2007). To the average observer however, a clinical trial that required 569 patients to improve median survival from 5.91 months to 6.24 months (10 days) would hardly seem cause for celebration.

Medical oncologists have become so accustomed to these marginal advances that they are unmoved to depart from standard protocols lest they be accused of breeching guidelines. This might be acceptable if chemotherapy provided meaningful benefits, but the extremely modest advantages provided by even the best clinical trials scream for medical oncologists to think, well, more like surgeons.

While community oncologists think it heresy to step around a National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guideline, investigators at the best institutions, the opinion leaders, have begun to question the merit of blind protocol accrual and come to recognize that many critical questions cannot be easily answered through the current trial process. Questions such as the role of liver resection for colon cancer patients with disease spread to the liver or the role of additional chemotherapy after that liver surgery, simply may not lend themselves to randomized trials. In a review of the topic by one of the leading investigators in the field, Dr. Nancy Kemeny from Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York examined this dilemma, “The management plan for each patient should be decided by a multidisciplinary team, it may not be possible or ethically defensible to perform large randomized adjuvant trials comparing chemotherapy with surgery alone or comparing modern chemotherapy with older regimens. It may be reasonable to extrapolate from adjuvant trials and meta-analyses showing predominantly disease-free survival benefit. Each decision on postoperative chemotherapy should be viewed in context of prior treatment, surgical preference and individual patient characteristics.”

How refreshing. Finally a clinical investigator has recognized that patients must be managed on an “individual basis” regardless of what the clinical trial data does or does not support.

The concept of personalized medicine flies in the face of contemporary guideline driven treatment. Individualized care is on a collision course with the NCCN. It is time for medical oncologists to reclaim the high ground in doing what is right for patients, using resources that enable them to make smart decisions and to eschew standardized care. In cancer, the dictum “one size fits all” is more accurately “one size fits none.”

Is It Ethical to Deny Cancer Patients Functional Analyses?

The ethical standards that govern human experimentation have become an important topic of discussion. Clinical trials are conducted to resolve medical questions while protecting the rights and well-being of the participants. Human subject committees known as Institutional Review Boards (IRB’s) not only confront questions of protocol design and patient protection but also the appropriateness of the questions to be answered. The Belmont Report (1979) defined three fundamental principles i) respect for persons, ii) beneficence and iii) justice. These have been incorporated into regulatory guidelines codified in the code of federal regulations like 45 CFR 46.111. One historical experience offers an interesting perspective upon contemporary oncologic practice.

With advances in cardiac surgery in the1970s and 1980s, in both valvular and coronary artery bypass, an alarming amount of post-operative bleeding was being observed. To address this complication an enzyme inhibitor named Aprotinin was developed by Bayer pharmaceuticals. The drug works by preventing the body from breaking down blood clots (thrombolysis). This is critical for the prevention of postoperative bleeding. Concerns regarding its safety led to Aprotinin’s temporary withdrawal from the market, but those have been resolved and the drug is again available.

After Aprotinin’s introduction, clinical trials were conducted to test its efficacy. Initial results were highly favorable as the drug consistently reduced post-op bleeding. By December 1991, 455 patients had been evaluated providing strong statistical evidence that Aprotinin reduced bleeding by more than 70 percent. Despite this, trialists continued to accrue patients to Aprotinin versus “no treatment” studies. By December 1992, more than 2,000 patients had been accrued and by October of 1994, the number had increased to more than 3,800 patients. Yet the 75 percent risk reduction remained entirely unchanged. Thus, 3,400 patients at untold cost and hardship were subjected to the risk of bleeding to address a question that had long since been resolved.

In a 2005  analysis, Dean Fergusson et al, decried that it should have been evident to anyone who cared to review the literature that Aprotinin’s efficacy had been established. Further accrual to clinical trials beyond 1991 only exposed patients to unwarranted risk of bleeding, and had no possible chance of further establishing the clinical utility of the intervention. This stands as a striking lack of consideration for patient well-being. Fergusson’s review raises further questions about the ethics of conducting studies to prove already proven points. With this as a backdrop, it is instructive to examine functional profiling for the prediction of response to chemotherapy.

Beginning in 1997, a cumulative meta-analysis of 34 clinical trials (1,280 patients), which correlated drug response with clinical outcome was reported. Drug sensitive patients had a significantly higher objective response rate of 81 percent over the response rate of 13 percent for those found drug resistant (P < 0.0000001). This was met by the ASCO/Blue Cross-Blue Shield Technology Assessment published in Journal of Clinical Oncology (Schrag, D et al J Clin Oncol, 2004) that cried for further clinical trials. A subsequent meta-analysis correlated the outcome of 1929 patients with leukemia and lymphoma against laboratory results and again showed significantly superior outcomes for assay directed therapy (P <0.001) (Bosanquet AG, Proc. Amer Soc Hematology, 2007). In response, a second ASCO Guideline paper was published in 2011. (Burstein H et al J Clin Oncol, 2011) Although the authors were forced to concede the importance of the field, they concluded that “participation in clinical trials evaluating these technologies remains a priority.” Most recently we conducted a cumulative meta-analysis of 2581 treated patients that established that patients who receive laboratory “sensitive” drugs are 2.04 fold more likely to respond (p < 0.001) and 1.4 fold more likely to survive one year or more (p <0.02) (Apfel C. Proc Am Soc Clin Oncol 2013).

Slide Detail-smallEach successive meta-analysis has concluded, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that human tumor functional analyses (e.g. EVA-PCD) identify effective drugs and eliminate ineffective drugs better than any other tool at the disposal of cancer physicians today. Not unlike those investigators who continued to accrue patients to trials testing Aprotinin, long after the result were in, oncologists today continue to clamor for trials to prove something which, to the dispassionate observer, is already patently obvious. If we now pose the question “Is it ethical to deny patients functional analyses to select chemotherapy?” the answer is a resounding No!

Rallying the Troops to Confront Cancer

The recent blog “Stand Up To Cancer Research!” described some of the pitfalls of modern cancer research and the clinical trial process. It has engendered an active discussion. It may be helpful to address some of issues raised. For those of you who did not have the opportunity to read that blog, it defined the difficulty that many patients encounter when they seek experimental treatments. Clinical trials are often only available at select centers, sometimes at great distances from patient’s homes. There can be rigid inclusionary and exclusionary criteria, and the pre-entry evaluations e.g. re-biopsy, CT/PET, etc. can be daunting, time consuming and inconvenient. Travel and accommodations may come at great personal expense.

I penned the blog, in part, to remind patients that they are ultimately in control of the process. One patient asked how can “we stand up to the system” describing herself a consumer while “they’ve got the goods.” This is the frustration many people feel. It should be remembered, however, that a substantial portion of research support comes from tax dollars and charitable donations. These are your dollars. If the system is not working, then those responsible must be held accountable. The American public has the power of the vote. Patient advocates can approach and lobby their representatives and demand improvements in the clinical trial process. To wit, the level of scrutiny and restriction upon access to new drugs must be re-examined. There is an army of well-trained clinical oncologists capable of delivering experimental drugs today. Not just the fully vetted, just-about-ready-for-prime-time agents currently found in phase III trials, but the really new exciting drugs. Once a drug has passed Phase I and found to be safe in patients, open up the accrual process. “Compassionate use” has virtually disappeared from the lexicon of cancer research. Twenty years ago I made a discovery in the laboratory. Working with the pharmaceutical company and the FDA, we were almost immediately granted access to a yet-to-be approved agent. The combination proved so effective that today it is one of the most widely used regimens in the world. That would not happen today. We simply cannot get access to the best drugs for our patients.

Microscope Detail2-lo resWith the industrialization of medical care, growth of mega-medical systems and the increasing role of government, medicine must be viewed through a different lens. Changes in cancer research will require changes in cancer policy, and policy comes from political power. Cancer patients will need to identify legitimate spokespeople to take their concerns forward to their elected officials. While the current clinical trial process slowly grinds out new development, even the smartest, fastest trials take years to change practice. Every day, more than 1,500 cancer patients die in the United States alone. Cancer patients do not have time for clever doctors to pose interesting questions while they suffer the slings and arrows of ignoble, ineffective therapy. It is time for a change in cancer research, and patients must be the instrument for that change.

Stand Up to Cancer Research! The Downside to Clinical Trials.

As the practice of medicine has moved from a profession to an industrial undertaking, this most human of experiences has fallen prey to the dictates of the American business model. Patients are no longer the purchasers of medical care and services, but instead, the consumers of those goods and services that meet the needs of the purveyors. Whether this is a governmental entity, academic institution, or pharmaceutical company, individuals have become cogs in the wheel of the medical-industrial complex.

Cancer from dictionaryThis has become glaringly apparent in the field of cancer research. Cancer patients were once, for better or worse, in charge of their own destinies. They could choose their surgeon, oncologist, and institution, even to some degree the treatments that they wished to undergo. As the HMO model came into play, patients were increasingly told what doctor, what treatment, and what hospital. The capacity of individuals to make decisions was eliminated in favor of standardized care, cost guidelines and treatment protocols. While much of the academic community described this as progress with adherence to standardized protocols, these protocols have not provided superior outcomes in most settings. Instead, they offer hospital administrators the opportunity to anticipate costs, allocate resources, codify drug administration and regulate care delivery.

Recent experience has brought several disturbing examples to the fore. Working in the laboratory, we have been able to select candidates for new combinations, sometimes years before these regimens became broadly available. We then identify centers with access to these drugs under protocol. Many of the drugs have well-established safety records from prior phase 1 and 2 clinical trials, but have not achieved full FDA approval. When several of our patients with lung cancer revealed sensitivity to a regimen that we had identified years earlier (Kollin, C et al Abs 2170, Proc AACR, 2005) we immediately explored sites offering this combination of an oral agent with an IV antibody. The closest we could find was in Colorado. The injection, a widely established monoclonal antibody, FDA approved for gastrointestinal cancer, was not yet approved for lung cancer while the pill had been administered safely in hundreds of patients. Indeed, the combination had also been safely administered to dozens of patients by the time we inquired. Nonetheless, to participate in this potentially life-saving treatment my patients were forced to commute from LA to Colorado every other week.

It would have been quite easy, once the patients were formally accrued, for them to return to California and receive the same drugs under our care. After all, we were the ones who identified them as candidates in the first place and we were very familiar with the trial. Despite this, the rigidity of the protocol forced these lung cancer patients to become frequent fliers. The good news was that the treatments worked.

More recently a patient, who had failed experimental therapy for advanced uterine carcinoma at a large academic center in Texas, returned to LA five years ago to seek my assistance. A lymph node biopsy at the time revealed exquisite sensitivity to a drug combination developed and published by our group and she achieved a prompt complete remission. She has since relapsed and required additional chemotherapy. My concern for her long-term bone marrow tolerance, with repeated exposure to cytotoxic drugs, led me to seek alternatives. Her EVA-PCD functional profile had revealed excellent activity for PARP inhibitors. Here, I thought, would be the solution to her problem. After all, the PARP inhibitors had been in development for years. Several had revealed compelling activity in clinical trials and they are well tolerated. Despite this, no PARP inhibitor has been FDA approved.

When we pursued opportunities to accrue the patient to one of the PARP inhibitor trials, however, she did not qualify. Having received low dose Carboplatin several months earlier she ran afoul of an exclusion criterion in the protocol that dictated no platinum exposure for six months. “Six months?” I exclaimed. Few cancer patients can wait six months to start treatment and virtually no cancer patients can wait six months once they have relapsed. I was flabbergasted.

What exactly were the protocol designers thinking when they demanded a six-month wash out, fully four, five or six times longer than any protocol I’d ever encountered?  The absurdity of this demand virtually eliminated patients-in-need from consideration. As I considered the dilemma it became increasingly clear. When one examines the thinking behind clinical protocols it becomes evident that they are not designed to help patients or cure cancer. Instead, they are created to answer specific questions. In so doing they further the careers of investigators, expand medical center market share, standardize treatments and simplify the activities of clinical research organizations. Patient outcomes, well-being and convenience are far down the ladder of expectations.

As I pondered the inconvenience, hardship and lost opportunities associated with clinical trial participation for many patients around the United States, I began to wonder whether patients should throw off the yoke of this oppressive system. After all, it is not the academic centers that own the process, it is the patients. It is those brave individuals willing to participate in these studies. It is the patients whose tax dollars support these institutions. It is the patients who purchase either directly or indirectly the drugs they receive and it is the patients that are necessary for the process to succeed.

Patients should demand more user-friendly, convenient, patient-centric therapy programs. Perhaps patients should simply refuse to participate. A ground swell of patient advocacy could re-orient the discussion away from the convenience and ease of the treating physicians and toward the good outcome and ease of the treated patient. While we applaud the investigators for their brilliance and prowess, we forget that no clinical investigator would receive accolades were it not for the hundreds or thousands of patients who martyr themselves at the altar of clinical research. Patients, not their doctors, are the heroes.  Perhaps it is time for cancer patients to stand up to cancer research.

Future Cancer Shock: Two Lung Cancer Trials Fall Short of Goal

Hsp90 pathwayTwo related clinical trials were reported in the last several months describing the use of heat shock protein 90 (HSP90) inhibitors in lung cancer. Both trials fell short of their pre-specified endpoints casting a pall upon these drugs. However, the study of HSP90 inhibitors should not be abandoned based on these finding, as this is a fertile area of investigation and offers opportunities for the future.

Human cells marshal many defenses against stress. Thermal injury can damage basic cellular functions by denaturing (inactivating) proteins. The machinery of cells is largely comprised of protein enzymes. Excessive heat coagulates proteins much the same way the albumin of an egg turns white during cooking. The loss of fluidity and function ultimately results in cell death. The heat shock proteins come to the rescue by shepherding these proteins away from injury and protecting them from denaturation. There are many different heat shock proteins found in human cells, but one of the most abundant and active in cancer cells is known as HSP90 for its molecular weight in the range of 90-kilodaltons. Over the last two decades, investigators have explored the use of small molecules to inhibit these important proteins. Among the first compounds to be isolated and applied were derivatives of Geldanamycin. Although Geldanamycin itself is a poison that causes severe liver damage, its derivative 17-AAG, also known as Tanespimycin, has successfully entered clinical trials.

The current studies examined two other HSP90 inhibitors. One Retaspimycin, has been developed by the Infinity Pharmaceuticals. This clinical trial combined Retaspimycin with Docetaxel and compared results with Docetaxel alone in 226 patients with recurrent lung cancer. None of the patients had received Docetaxel prior to the trial. Drugs were administered every three weeks and the efficacy endpoint was survival with a subset analysis focused upon those with squamous cell cancer. The trial fell short of its pre-designated endpoint. Interestingly, the study failed to provide benefit even in patients who were specifically targeted by their tumor’s expression of the K-RAS, p53 or by elevated blood levels of HSP90, the putative biomarkers for response.

The second trial examined a different HSP90 inhibitor developed by Synta Pharmaceuticals. The drug Ganetespib was combined with Docetaxel and the combination was compared with Docetaxel alone. The results just reported indicate that the combination provided a median survival of 10.7 month, while Docetaxel alone provided a median survival of 7.4 month. Although this represented a three-month improvement, it did not meet the pre-specified target.

Taken together these results could dampen enthusiasm for these agents. This would be unfortunate, for this class of drugs is active in a number of human tumors.

Through our EVA-PCD functional profile we have observed favorable activity and synergy for the HSP90 inhibitor Geldanamycin and its derivative 17-AAG as we reported at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting in 2005 (Nagourney RA et al Proc. AACR, 2005). More importantly, 17-AAG (Tanespimycin) provided objective responses in 22 percent and clinical benefit in 59 percent of patients with recurrent HER2 positive breast cancer after these patients had failed therapy with Herceptin (Modi S. et al, Clinical Cancer Research August 2011). This clearly supports the role of HSP90 inhibition in breast cancer and would suggest that other more carefully selected target diseases could benefit as well.

The function of HSP90 is not completely understood as it influences the intracellular trafficking of dozens of proteins. One of the complexities of this class of drugs is that they protect and enhance the function of both good and bad proteins. After all, the HSP90 protein doesn’t know which proteins we as cancer doctors would like it to protect.

When we apply EVA-PCD analysis to these and other related classes of compounds, we focus our attention upon the downstream effects, namely the loss of cell survival. That is, whatever proteins are influenced, the important question remains “did that effect cause the cells to die?”

Classes of compounds with nonspecific targets like the HSP90 inhibitors will surely be the most difficult to characterize at a genomic or proteomic level: What protein? What gene? Functional platforms like the EVA-PCD offer unique opportunities to study these classes of agents. We are convinced that the HSP90 inhibitors have a role in cancer therapy. It would be unfortunate if these setbacks led us to “throw the baby out with the (hot) bathwater,” thus, slowing or preventing their use in cancer treatment.

Personalized Cancer Care: N-of-1

The New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra famous quote, “Déjà vu all over again,” reminds me of the growing focus on the concept of “N- of-1.” For those of you unfamiliar with the catchphrase, it refers to a clinical trial of one subject.

In clinical research, studies are deemed reportable when they achieve statistical significance. The so-called power analysis is the purview of the biostatistician who examines the desired outcome and explores the number of patients (subjects) required to achieve significance. The term “N” is this number. The most famous clinical trials are those large, cooperative group studies that, when successful, are considered practice-changing. That is, a new paradigm for a disease is described. To achieve this level of significance it is generally necessary to accrue hundreds, even thousands of patients. This is the “N” that satisfies the power analysis and fulfills the investigators expectations.

So what about an N-of-1? This disrupts every tenet of cancer research, upends every power analysis, and completely rewrites the book of developmental therapeutics. Every patient is his or her own control. Their good outcome reflects the success or failure of “the trial.” There is no power analysis. It is an “N” of 1.

This “breakthrough” concept however, has been the underpinning of the work of investigators like Drs. Larry Weisenthal, Andrew Bosanquet, Ian Cree, myself and all the other dedicated researchers who pioneered the concept of advancing cancer outcomes one patient at a time. These intrepid scientists described the use of each patient’s tissue to guide therapy selection. They wrote papers, conducted trials and reported their successful results in the peer-reviewed literature. These results I might add have provided statistically significant improvements in clinical responses, times to progression, even survival. By incorporating the contribution of the cellular milieu into clinical response prediction, these functional platforms have consistently outperformed their genomic counterparts in therapy selection So why, one might ask, have the efforts of these dedicated investigators fallen on deaf ears?

I think that the explanation lies in the fact that we live in a technocracy. In this environment, science has replaced religion and medical doctors have abdicated control of clinical development to the basic scientists and basic scientists love genomics. It is no longer enough to have good results; you have to get the results the right way. And so, meaningful advances in therapeutics based on functional platforms have been passed over in favor of marginal advances based on genomic platforms.

There is nothing new about N-of-1. It has been the subject of these investigators compelling observations for more than two decades. Though functional platforms (such as our EVA-PCD®) are not perfect, they provide a 2.04 (1.62 to 2.57, P < 0.001) fold improvement in clinical response for virtually all forms of cancer – as we will be reporting (Apfel C, et al Proc ASCO, 2013).

It seems that in the field of cancer therapeutics “perfect is the enemy of good.” By this reasoning, good tests should not be used until perfect tests are available. Unfortunately, for the thousands of Americans who confront cancer each day there are no perfect tests. Perhaps we should be more willing to use good ones while we await the arrival of perfect ones. After all, it was Yogi Berra who said, “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”