Cancer Patients, Genetic Testing and Clinical Outcomes

Two years ago in this blog, I described a young man with an aggressive non-small cell lung cancer. Following his diagnosis he was screened for EGFR mutation (the target of Erlotinib [Tarceva]) and ALK gene rearrangement (the target of Crizotinib [Xalkori]). Found negative for both, his options were limited to chemotherapy.

When I met the patient, a PleurX catheter had already been inserted to remove fluid that was rapidly re-accumulating in his right chest. This provided access to cancer-laden fluid and offered an excellent opportunity for EVA-PCD® laboratory analysis.

The results showed the expected resistance to Erlotinib (for which no mutation was found) but very high activity for Crizotinib. When he returned for follow-up we repeated a second analysis. The results were identical. One possibility was that the patient carried a second mutation sensitive to this class of drugs, like ROS-1 or MET, both targets of Crizotinib. However, at the time, MET and ROS-1 gene testing was not readily available. I referred the patient to a colleague who was conducting Crizotinib trials. Fluid was re-aspirated and submitted to a different reference lab for genomic analysis. The finding: The original laboratory test had been erroneous. The patient was indeed, ALK gene rearranged.

After a course of chemotherapy, he qualified for and responded beautifully to single-agent Crizotinib. In my blog, I examined how our functional profile more closely approximated the patient’s biology (phenotype) over the genomic profile (genotype). However appealing these genomic tests may be, they can only identify potential targets for therapy that may or may not be relevant to a patient’s ultimate clinical response.

A year later, a female patient with a mucinous adenocarcinoma presented with brain metastases. An EVA-PCD analysis revealed relative chemotherapy resistance and no activity for Erlotinib (Tarceva). She was found EGFR non-mutated. Unfortunately, there was insufficient tissue for the EVA-PCD to test Crizotinib.

During subsequent Cyber-Knife treatment for her brain metastases, a specimen of tumor showed the ALK gene rearrangement and the patient started Crizotinib. She responded promptly.

At the one-year point, signs of progression appeared in the opposite lung, but while she continued to experience good response in the original sites, a repeat biopsy was performed. This time the EVA-PCD functional profile revealed no activity for Crizotinib, but identified activity for the combination of Platinum and Vinorelbine. We combined these two drugs with the Crizotinib and she remained in remission for an additional year. Low blood counts forced us to withhold chemotherapy and her disease progressed. She was referred to a clinical trial with a second-generation ALK inhibitor. By the second month, her disease had progressed rapidly.

Cancerous cells from a bronchoscopic biopsy were submitted for analysis. The finding: No ALK gene mutation. Instead her tumor carried a MET mutation. The patient now rapidly progressing will require immediate therapy, but what?  Fortunately, a small sample of fluid aspirated from the lung provided adequate cells for analysis. The results are striking since they confirm persistent activity for Crizotinib. The patient has now been re-challenged with Crizotinib and we await clinical follow-up.

Taken together, these cases offer interesting insights. The first reflects the medical community’s preternatural faith in genomics. We, as a society, have so completely accepted the accuracy and predictive validity of genetic tests, that no one seems willing to scrutinize the data for its ultimate accuracy. This may not be serving our patients well, as both these cases exemplify. An error that missed the ALK gene re-arrangement in the first patient almost cost this young man his life, despite our protestations. Then, an error in this woman’s analysis serendipitously led to her response to the right drug for the wrong reason, her gene results notwithstanding

We forget at our peril, that all tests are fallible. Clinicians must recognize that highly sophisticated analyses using the most advanced technologies still function within the infinitely complex confines of human biology. The crosstalk, redundancy and promiscuity of human cellular circuitry remain demonstrably more complex than our best artificial neural networks. Genomic analyses and companion diagnostics now dictate who can and who cannot receive drugs, but as can be seen here, these wonders of modern science are not perfect predictors. They have the potential to deprive patients of life-saving treatment while subjecting others to drugs with little chance of benefit. Physicians must remember to be artful as we apply the science of our trade.

The False Economy of Genomic Analyses

We are witness to a revolution in cancer therapeutics. Targeted therapies, named for their capacity to target specific tumor related features, are being developed and marketed at a rapid pace. Yet with an objective response rate of 10 percent (Von Hoff et al JCO, Nov 2011) reported for a gene array/IHC platform that attempted to select drugs for individual patients we have a long way to go before these tests will have meaningful clinical applications.

So, let’s examine the more established, accurate and validated methodologies currently in use for patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer. I speak of patients with EGFR mutations for which erlotinib (Tarceva®) is an approved therapy and those with ALK gene rearrangements for which the drug crizotinib (Xalkori®) has recently been approved.

The incidence of ALK gene rearrangement within patients with non-small cell lung cancer is in the range of 2–4 percent, while EGFR mutations are found in approximately 15 percent. These are largely mutually exclusive events. So, let’s do a “back of the napkin” analysis and cost out these tests in a real life scenario.

One hundred patients are diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer.
•    Their physicians order ALK gene rearrangement     $1,500
•    And EGFR mutation analysis     $1,900
•    The costs associated $1,500 + $1,900 x 100 people =    $340,000
Remember, that only 4 percent will be positive for ALK and 15 percent positive for EGFR. And that about 80 percent of the ALK positive patients respond to crizotinib and about 70 percent of the EGFR positive patients respond to erlotinib.

So, let’s do the math.

We get three crizotinib responses and 11 erlotinib responses: 3 + 11 = 14 responders.
Resulting in a cost per correctly identified patient =     $24,285

Now, let’s compare this with an ex-vivo analysis of programmed cell death.

Remember, the Rational Therapeutics panel of 16+ drugs and combinations tests both cytotoxic drugs and targeted therapies. In our soon to be published lung cancer study, the overall response rate was 65 percent. So what does the EVA/PCD approach cost?

Again one hundred patients are diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer.
•    Their physicians order an EVA-PCD analysis    $4,000
•    The costs associated: $4,000 x 100 people =    $400,000
•    With 65 percent of patients responding, this
constitutes a cost per correctly identified patient =     $6,154

Thus, we are one quarter the cost and capable of testing eight times as many options. More to the point, this analysis, however crude, reflects only the costs of selecting drugs and not the costs of administering drugs. While, each of those patients selected for therapy using the molecular profiles will receive an extraordinarily expensive drug, many of the patients who enjoy prolonged benefit using EVA/PCD receive comparatively inexpensive chemotherapeutics.

Furthermore, those patients who test negative for ALK and EGFR are left to the same guesswork that, to date has provided responses in the range of 30 percent and survivals in the range of 12 months.

While the logic of this argument seems to have escaped many, it is interesting to note how quickly organizations like ASCO have embraced the expensive and comparatively inefficient tests. Yet ASCO has continued to argue against our more cost-effective and broad-based techniques.

No wonder we call our group Rational Therapeutics.