Cancer Patients Take Heart: The Power of Public Opinion

A January 27, 2014, report on National Public Radio brought recent discussions into sharper focus. Though the story was unrelated to cancer, the lessons learned provide a road map for cancer patients in their pursuit of the most effective, least toxic treatments.

The condition known as “clubfoot” (talipes equinovarus) is a congenital deformity that afflicts one of every 1,000 births in the US. The abnormal internal rotation of the ankle is highly debilitating if not corrected shortly after birth. For decades, orthopedic surgeons used complex surgical procedures that disrupted the ankle structure and realigned the bones. Despite numerous surgeries, this rarely corrected the deformity resulting in chronic arthritis and gait disturbances. The costs were significant and the loss of productivity for those afflicted even greater, yet the dilemma remained unresolved.

PonsetiInto the fray came Dr. Ignacio Ponseti. Ponseti, the son of a Spanish watchmaker, had gained a unique perspective on structural integrity working in his father’s shop. Fleeing the Spanish Civil War he came to the US to practice orthopedic surgery at the University of Iowa. Recognizing the poor outcomes for clubfoot surgery, he took it upon himself to rethink the problem. After all, newborns have flexible ligaments. These ligaments, he reasoned, could be re-trained through a series of casts that were replaced serially over months after birth. Once the foot was in better alignment, the children were placed in a boot to retrain the joint into its normal alignment. Not surprisingly, this simple, noninvasive, inexpensive method was eschewed by the orthopedic professionals. Undaunted, he continued to practice his art, with excellent results year after year. Dr. John Herzenberg, a Baltimore-based practitioner of the Ponseti method was quoted: “People were falling over themselves to do fancy invasive surgery, and this one strange old guy, who speaks softly with a Spanish accent in Iowa, was getting sort of ignored by the drumbeat of people who were in favor of surgery.” Despite its obvious appeal and its manifest successes, this technique remained largely in Iowa for 50 years.

And then came the Internet. When a child born with clubfoot in 2000 was recommended for standard surgery, her mother went online to examine all the options and came across Dr. Ponseti. She traveled to Iowa for an opinion. Convinced that Dr. Ponseti’s approach was superior, this brave mother took the leap and undertook the Ponseti method. Dr. Ponseti completely corrected the child’s foot. Horrified that her daughter would have suffered a life of misery without this brilliant breakthrough, this young mother took it upon herself to get the word out. Using the Internet, she created a Yahoo Support Group called “No Surgery 4 Clubfoot.”  Families with afflicted children could now find out about this technique and identify practitioners who used it.

Voting with their feet, parents took their children to centers that applied this simple, relatively noninvasive approach. Over time, the academic community and their adherents to invasive surgery found themselves on the wrong side of patient referrals. Demanding better outcomes for their children, parents charted a new course for their medical care and forced their doctors to agree or be left behind. With a 97% success rate today, virtually every orthopedic surgeon in America practices the Ponseti method. Indeed, it is now recommended by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

I relate this story to cancer patients as they confront similar resistance. While marginally effective therapies are promoted by many academic centers, simple, comparatively easy techniques are available that can empower patients in treatment selection. Just like the clubfoot parents, cancer patients must demand access to treatment options and explore every lead.

The Internet has offered an entirely new platform for cancer patients to communicate their experiences, recommend physicians, educate friends and family members and change referral patterns. The power to change the way cancer is treated in America today is within the grasp of the patients themselves. Just like Dr. Ponseti, who knew that his method worked and just like his patients who avoided the pain and suffering they would have otherwise endured, patients enlightened about better ways to treat cancer need to communicate and take charge of their disease.

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.

Synergistic Drug Combinations Provide Better Outcomes for Cancer Patients

Among the most sought after attributes of chemotherapy drug combinations is drug synergy. Synergy, defined as supra-additivity wherein the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, reflects an elegant interaction between drugs predicated on their modes of action. While some synergistic interactions can be predicted based upon the pharmacology of the agents, others are more obscure.

We have extensively examined the synergy between classes of drugs based on known modes of action. But, in some circumstances, our studies have been purely exploratory. Among our most successful findings have been:

  1. Alkylating agent plus purine analogs (cytoxan & fludarabine)
  2. Platin plus antimetabolites (cisplatin & 5FU; cisplatin & gemcitabine)
  3. Dual antimetabolite combinations (gemcitabine & capecitabine)
  4. Natural products plus anti-metabolite (Doxil & gemcitabine; vinorelbine & capecitabine)

More recently, we have explored the interaction between signal transduction inhibitors. The results of these investigations have been the subject of numerous presentations at international meetings.

The application of synergy analyses may represent one of the most important applications of our functional profiling platform; enabling us to explore both anticipated and unanticipated favorable interactions. Equally important may be our capacity to study drug antagonism wherein two effective drugs counteract each others’ benefits. This phenomenon, characterized by the whole being less than the sum of the parts, represents a major pitfall for clinical trialists who simply combine drugs “because they can.”

These analyses are revolutionizing the way our group applies newer classes of drugs and has the potential to accelerate drug development and clinical therapeutics. Good outcomes require good drugs, but better outcomes require good combinations. Intelligent combinations are a principle focus of the work at Rational Therapeutics. We strive everyday to identify the best outcomes for patients.