The Molecular Origins of Lung Cancer

I had the luxury of attending the AACR-IASLC Joint Conference on Molecular Origins of Lung Cancer; Biology, Therapy and Personalized Medicine held in San Diego earlier this month. I say luxury, for as my schedule closes in on me and I sometimes find myself working 13-hour days, it can be difficult to take even a couple of days away to attend meetings. But this conference was too good to pass up (hats off to Marge Foti and all the AACR staff for all their great work).

This symposium organized by David Carbone and Roy Herbst, brought together a broad spectrum of sophisticated scientists and international investigators, as well as community members and fundraising organizations who had the opportunity to present a special session on patient advocacy.

The meeting began with a keynote address examining microRNAs and lung cancer presented by Frank Slack from Yale University. He examined the growing recognition that lung cancer arises not only from gene mutations but also from small fragments of RNA that can up- or down-regulate normal genes in abnormal ways. This was the topic of discussion for many subsequent presentations.

As an aside, many of the readers will know that I am generally underwhelmed by genomic analyses for the prediction of cancer response. The fact that normal genes can function abnormally under the control of these small RNA sequences is just one more example of the genotype–phenotype dichotomy that cannot be adequately examined on static contemporary genomic platforms.

Many presentations examined the molecular biology of lung cancer with important distinctions being drawn between adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinomas. While adenocarcinomas reveal a growing number of targets – EGFR, ALK, ROS, RAS, and others – all the subject of small molecule inhibitors; squamous cell carcinomas provide fewer opportunities for the use of these classes of drugs.

One of the interesting discussions was the frequent mutation of LKB1 in lung cancers. Work going back several years by John Minna, a pioneer in this field, identified changes in this metabolic regulator as a common finding in lung malignancies.

Additional presentations examined chemoprevention, molecular pathology, new mechanisms to categorize lung cancer subtypes, and a very interesting discussion of field cancerization. In a particularly interesting analysis, Ignacio Wistuba from M.D. Anderson, showed that molecular changes in the surface epithelium of the lung bronchioles recapitulated the molecular biology of the final tumor in a step-wise manner, inversely related to the distance to the tumor. That is, starting at the main bronchi, one or two mutational changes were detected. Moving closer to the site of the tumor, additional mutations were accumulated. Finally arriving at the site of the established malignancy, all of the constituent mutations associated with this particular cancer became manifest; a saltatory slide into cancer presumably associated with exposure to carcinogens.

Among the other exciting presentations were updates on redox-based approaches to cancer presented by Kenneth Tew and Garth Powis.

Jeff Engelman presented an update on a new class of agents that target the RAS pathway. This is ongoing work that he and his group have reported on over the last several years. We have been engaged in related work using an MEK/ERK inhibitor similar to the compound that Dr. Englemen reported on at this meeting. It is exciting indeed to see early clinical results with this class of compounds, for we have identified many patients who might benefit from this pathways’ inhibition. We wait with great anticipation for FDA approval of these compounds so that our patients currently being identified as candidates in the laboratory may soon receive these treatments.

Ovarian Cancer National Alliance 2011

The July meeting of the OCNA included a lecture by John Hays, MD, from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), entitled “Decision time: what is the right choice of chemotherapeutic agent(s)? Dr. Hays, part of the molecular signaling section at the NCI, reviewed literature on the topic. He described the need for prospective clinical trials to validate retrospective and in vitro results.

He then examined data from three technologies, the Oncotech extreme drug resistance test, Precision Therapeutics ChemoFX test and the ATP-based chemosensitivity test.

I found it odd that Dr. Dr. Hays spent time examining the EDR technology of Oncotech in as much as it is no longer offered and reflects proliferation-based studies, which have since largely been discredited.

The ATP assay was reviewed using the results of a study published by Dr. Ian Cree in which 180 patients received either assay-directed (ATP) or physician choice. This study actually provided an improvement for patients who received the ATP-based treatment but failed to achieve significance. Thus, it failed largely because it was underpowered.

But this reflected a more concerning aspect of the study.  It seems that the “physician choice” arm increasingly applied the best drug regimens developed in Dr. Cree’s own laboratory. As the trial continued to accrue, an increasing proportion of patients received Gemcitabine-based doublets (which were very new at the time) based upon Dr. Cree’s observation of activity for these novel combinations. This had the uncomfortable effect of forcing Dr. Cree to compete with himself. Had Dr. Hays been truly interested in examining this study as I have, he might have noticed the good control group response rate partly reflected the application of Dr. Cree’s’ own observations.

Indeed, when during my many attempts to conduct a prospective study with the GOG, I was at the very last moment confronted with a study design similar to Dr. Cree’s, (e.g. they could incorporate any treatment they chose, including those that I developed), my statistician demanded that I forego the pleasure, as he could see only too well that the trial had become impossible to power. You see, there was no true control arm for statistical comparison.

The final portion of Dr. Hays’ presentation was the ChemoFX assay. This technology propagates tissue biopsies to confluence and then conducts measurement of drug-induced cell death. With substantial funding largely provided by venture capital, Precision Therapeutics has leapt into the GOG with a series of trials. Should this hybrid technology fail to provide prospective results that meet significance, it will be a damaging blow to this unfairly maligned area of investigation. While I wish the ChemoFX investigators luck, a failure on their part could be harmful to the field. Their reliance on propagated, sub-cultured tissues grown to monoculture has been a concern to me since they first arose in the last few years as participants in the field. We await the results of their trials with great anticipation.

What is interesting in Dr. Hays’ review is not so much what he said, but what he didn’t say.

First, he did not mention the seminal work of Dr. Larry Weisenthal, a pioneer in the field.

Second, he did not describe the nearly 2,000 retrospective, yet statistically significant correlations in the literature in a wide variety of diseases. He neglected to mention that one of the most widely used regimens for breast and ovarian cancer was developed using the same human tumor culture analyses that he decries. If he actually treats patients, he no doubt uses the cisplatin gemcitabine doublets developed using one of these platforms.

Finally, Dr. Hays has failed evidence-based medicine 101. He has forgotten that in life-threatening illnesses where prospective clinical trial data is not available, in accordance with the dictates of evidence-based medicine, one should use the best available data to guide treatments.

There is a wealth of data supporting laboratory based drug selection.  Presentations like that described do not add to the discourse.