Pigment, Color and Cancer

An interesting story reported by National Public Radio on November 12 described the origins of color in biology. Andrew Parker, a biologist from London’s Natural History Museum, described the development of sightedness in living organisms.

Until 600 million years ago animals were sightless. Then predatory organisms developed vision and used it to pursue prey. From that point color became an integral part of biological existence. Colors could attract mates, serve as camouflage, protect against predators and attract other organisms such as pollinating bees.

One of the more interesting aspects of the discussion was the fact that vertebrates have no capacity to produce the color blue. Indeed green is also quite difficult. So how, one might ask, do butterflies, peacocks and people with blue eyes create the appearance of the color blue? The answer is quite interesting and may be instructive when we examine other biological phenomena.

Pigments, known as biochromes, are substances produced by living organisms that have the capacity to absorb or reflect light o220px-Lightmatter_flamingo2f specific wavelengths. Their chemical structure captures the energy of the light wave resulting in the excitation of electrons to higher energy states. Among the colors commonly found are heme porphyrins, chlorophyll, carotenoids, anthocyanins, and betalains. While it is comparatively easy for plants to produce a broad spectrum of colors, animals have a more limited palate. They can borrow pigments from other species, like the flamingo whose pink hue is borrowed from the shrimp it eats. It seems however, that blue and green pose unique problems and must be created through an ingenuous melding of chemical biochromes and what is known as “structural pigmentation.”

The wings of a bluebird or those of a Morpho butterfly use specialized structures that are capable of capturing light at just the right angle. In so doing, they selectively reflect light and combine specific wavelengths with chemical pigments to create the illusion of color. Blue butterflies and green parrots are, in reality, sophisticated illusionists.

So what of other biological phenomena, specifically cancers? Quite a lot it seems. We have come to think of cancer as a product of genetic information. Our linear thinking with origins in cancer biology dating to the 1950s has long held that biological phenomena reflect the presence (or absence) of genes. The principal known as Central Dogma dictated that DNA produced RNA, that RNA produced protein and that protein produced function.

Our tidy principles were dealt their first blow by the discovery of epigenetics and then by small interfering RNAs. Most recently noncoding DNAs have further clouded the picture. It seems that the behavior of cancers may be every bit as deceptive as the bright blue hue that we ascribe to our avian and insect brethren.

Like butterflies or birds, cancers cloak themselves in a mixture of genetic and structural elements. While their behavior may appear to reflect genetic aberrancies, it may be structural (e.g. micro-environmental) perturbations that confer their unique biology. One can no more grind up and extract a parrot’s wings to find blue pigment than can we grind up and extract the genetic information of cancer to recreate its cobrilliance-clipart-canstock1498651mplexity. This however has not prevented the reductionists among us from trying. Unfortunately for them, cancers are demonstrably more complex than their genetic makeup.

Like a bird or a butterfly we must witness the creature in its entirety to grasp its function and behavior. Genomic analyses conducted in a vacuum cannot define the complexity of cancer biology. To create successful cancer treatment outcomes, we need to determine cellular phenotype. And, the EVA-PCD assay is quintessentially phenotypic. This is why the functional profile resulting from the EVA-PCD assay can identify accurate targets and select therapies.

The Cost of Chemotherapy Comes Home to Roost

NY TImes rotatedMedical care in the United States is a $2.7 trillion industry. That translates into almost $8,000 per person per year. One of the most expensive aspects is cancer care. This has caught the attention of the medical oncology community. A highly touted editorial in the October, 2012 New York Times described the unwillingness of physicians at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to add a new and expensive drug to their formulary. The authors opined that the new drug provided outcomes similar to those for an existing drug, yet cost twice the price.

A subsequent editorial in the Journal of Clinical Oncology from MD Anderson (Cancer Drugs in the United States: Justum Pretium – The Just Price) further examined the cost of cancer therapy, profit margins and some of the drivers. Among the points raised was the fact that the monthly cost of chemotherapy had more than doubled from $4,500 to $10,000 in just one decade. Furthermore, of twelve anticancer drugs approved in 2012, only three prolonged survival and for 2 of 3 by less than two months. Despite these marginal benefits, nine of the twelve drugs were priced at more than $10,000 a month.
60 Minutes
This caught the attention of the media with 60 Minutes recently conducting an interview with the authors of the New York Times editorial. While Lesley Stahl pointedly decried the rather marginal 4 – 6% markups that many physicians apply to cover their costs of chemotherapy drug administration, there are in fact much darker forces at work.

The cost of cancer drug development reflects the expense of human subject trials, cost of R & D, the regulatory burden, as well as an extraordinary new drug failure rate. Fully 50% of new agents fail at Phase III (the last and most expensive type of study). Phase III trials cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. An article in Forbes magazine stated that the average drug approved by the FDA now costs, not the one billion dollars often cited but instead five billion dollars when one factors in the failures against the rare successes.

Drug development begins with a novel idea, a small molecule and a few preliminary results. At this point the expenses are low but the drug is of little commercial value. As one moves from cell lines to animal models, the price goes up but the value remains low. The cost of formulation, toxicology and animal studies continue to add up but doesn’t influence interest in the agent. Then come human studies as the Phase I trials begin. Specialized institutions across the United States accept contracts with the pharmaceutical industry to examine the tolerability of the drug. I use that term advisably as the intent of Phase I trials is only to determine safety not efficacy. If the drug proves tolerable, it then moves to Phase II to explore it’s activity against cancer. This is where the money starts flowing.

Phase II clinical trials are conducted by university medical centers. Each patient accrued costs the pharmaceutical sponsors from $25,000 to more than $50,000 per patient. As drugs are tested in many schedules against many diseases it can take hundreds or even thousands of patients for statistical analysis. Nonetheless, a successful Phase II trial showing meaningful benefit in a cancer population generates a buzz and the drug’s value begins to gain traction. With hundreds of millions already expended, the final testing pits the new drug against an existing standard in one or more Phase III trials. Endpoints like progression-free-survival must then fold into overall survival if the drug has any hope to gain full approval by the FDA. These registration triaus-money-with-black-backdrop-1024x640ls at the national or international Phase III level cost up to $100,000 per patient and most of the participating institutions are university-based medical centers or their affiliates.

So, why do chemotherapy drugs cost so much? While it may be convenient to point fingers at the pharmaceutical industry, private practitioners or the smaller institutions, the university medical centers and their affiliates have added greatly to the costs of drug development as have the increasingly byzantine regulatory standards that have so encumbered the process that it is now increasingly only a rich man’s game.

We applaud the investigators at Memorial Sloan-Kettering for focusing attention upon this important matter. We applaud 60 Minutes and the authors of the Journal of Clinical Oncology editorial for their exploration of the same. While the willingness of these physicians to raise the issue is laudable, the solution may be somewhat more complex than these authors have been willing to admit. Before we vilify private practitioners who have time and again proven to be more efficient and less expensive purveyors of cancer care than their university brethren we should examine other drivers.

To wit, a review of one of the NY Times editorial author’s conflicts of interest statement listed in the 2012 American Society of Clinical Oncology proceedings revealed that his co-presenters at this national meeting disclosed fully 16 separate pharmaceutical affiliations for employment or leadership positions, consultant or advisory roles, stock ownership, honoraria, research funds, expert testimony, or other remuneration. With the research community enjoying these levels of compensation, it must be surmised that the costs of clinical trials reflect in part these expenditures. When one adds to this, the increasingly burdensome regulatory environment, the cost of cancer chemotherapy development appears to have plenty of blame to go around.

A Tribute to Loretta Stamos 1939 – 2014

RAN & Loretta cropped lo res

Dr. Nagourney and Loretta Stamos

On Monday, September 22, 2014, we lost a great ally and a better friend.

Loretta Stamos lost her own fight with cancer, the very disease that she had worked so tirelessly to defeat. I first met Loretta in 1995 when her brother Jake was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. His physicians didn’t offer much hope. At our meeting, I explained my approach to cancer therapy using each patient’s cells to select drugs (EVA-PCD functional profile).

“Let’s do it,” said Loretta.

“Now?” I asked.

“Why not?” she replied. As I would come to know over our 20 year friendship, Loretta didn’t mince words and was not one to take no for an answer.

A simple two drug combination was recommended for Jake, but his physicians declined. Loretta asked if I would assume his care. As I was out-of-network for his HMO, each time we treated her brother, Loretta generously covered the chemotherapy costs. After two cycles of treatment, the pleural fluid stopped accumulating. Jake gained weight and returned to some of his normal activities.

The in-network physicians began to realize that they were on the wrong side of this equation and suddenly offered to continue the treatments at their facility. Jake’s cancer ultimately progressed. His extensive metastatic disease involving his lung and bones was too aggressive for even the best chemotherapy to cure. Despite the sad loss, we had succeeded in showing that every patient deserved the chance to get better regardless of their insurance or finances.

Loretta wondered what would have happened if she had not been there to help. I explainRAN_LS_JS2 lo resed that the laboratory analyses were too costly for me to donate. Though they came in at a fraction of the price of a single dose of chemotherapy, many insurers refused to cover them. Loretta said, “I’m going to make sure that people who need these tests will never be denied.” And the Vanguard Cancer Foundation (VCF) was born.

Months of work, committee meetings and planning sessions culminated in a “A Night in Brazil,” a gala benefit that raised $100,000. John Stamos, Dave Coulier and Bob Saget turned in stellar performances as the MCs and a great time was had by all. More importantly, for the first time we could to say to patients, “We can find the treatment that’s right for you and if you can’t afford it, we’ll give it to you.” With each passing year the fund grew as did the number of patients we could help.

John and Loretta Stamos w-Sarah AmentoWhat a luxury to never turn a patient away. What an opportunity to help uninsured and younger patients. What a pleasure to see the good responses, even in some patients considered previously “untreatable.” I was overwhelmed by Loretta’s dedication and the kindness that she and the VCF members showed to patients in need. Every year we would recognize Loretta and her family for their hard work and generous contributions, and every year Loretta would say that she did this because “I made her brother smile.”

There is a silver lining to even the darkest cloud. It was Loretta who put it most poignantly when she defined the mission of the Vanguard Cancer Foundation as providing lifesaving care to “persons of worth but not of means.” The most fitting tribute of all for this noble soul is the more than 400 patients who can thank Loretta Stamos for a second chance at life.

New Diagnostic Test for the Early Detection of Lung Cancer

I was invited to discuss a new diagnostic test for the early detection of lung cancer by Gerri Willis of Fox Business News’ Willis Report.
An Italian clinical study presented at the September 2014 European Respiratory Society described 82 patients with abnormal chest x-rays. Patients breathed into a machine that measured the temperature of the exhaled air. Forty of the patients ultimately proved to have cancer and 42 did not, as confirmed by subsequent biopsy. They found a correlation between the temperature of the exhaled breath and presence of lung cancer. They also found that long term smokers had higher breath temperatures, as did those with higher stage disease.

For a variety of reasons, a test as simple as breath temperature seems unlikely to be highly specific. After all, the temperature of the exhaled breath could reflect infection, inflammation, or even activity level, as vigorous exercise can raise the body’s core temperature. Nonetheless, the fact that there is any correlation at all is of interest.

PET scan lung cancerWhat might underlie these findings? Accepting the shortfalls of this small study, it is an interesting point of discussion. First, cancer is a hyper metabolic state. Cancers consume increased quantities of glucose, proteins, and lipids. PET scans measure these phenomena every day. Second, cancer is associated with hyper vascularity. Up-regulation of VEGF could cause hyperemia (increased capillary blood flow) in the airways of lung cancer patients, resulting in the finding. Finally, cancer, in and of itself, is an inflammatory state. Inflammation reflects increased metabolic activity that could manifest as a whole body change in basal temperature.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the US, constituting 27% of all cancer deaths. Despite the over 224,000 new diagnoses and 160,000 deaths, the five-year survival for lung cancer today at 17% has not changed in several decades. Nonetheless patients who are detected early (Stage I) have a greater than 50% five-year survival.

We know from the National Lung Cancer Screening Trial published in 2010, that early detection by CT scans can reduce mortality from this disease by 20%. In the cancer literature, that is huge. The problem is that screening CTs are comparatively expensive, inconvenient, expose patients to radiation and are themselves fraught with false positives and false negatives. Furthermore, it is estimated that that broad application of spiral CT’s could cost over $9 billion a year. Thus, simple, non-invasive screening techniques are sorely needed.

The use of exhaled breath to diagnose cancers has been under in development for decades. Recently, investigators from The Cleveland Clinic and others from Israel have reported good results with a microchip that measures the concentration of volatile organic compounds in the breath and provides a colorimetric score. With several hundred patients the receiver-operating curves (ROC, a technique that gauges the sensitivity and specificity of a test) in the range of 0.85 (1.0 is perfect) are quite favorable. Although these techniques have not yet gained broad application, they are extremely interesting from the standpoint of what it is they are actually measuring.

For decades, the principal focus of scientific exploration in cancer has been genomic. Investigators at Boston University and others at MD Anderson in Texas have used genomic and methylation status of oro-and naso-pharyngeal swabs to identify the earliest hallmarks of malignant transformation. To the contrary, the breath tests described above measure phenomena that fall more in the realm of metabolomics. After all, these are measures of cellular biochemical reactions and identify the transformed state at a metabolic level.

Though still in its infancy, metabolomics reflects the most appealing of all cancer analyses. Examining cancer for what it is, rather than how it came to be, uses biochemistry, enzymology and quantitative analyses. These profile the tumor at the level of cellular function. Like the platforms that I utilize (EVA-PCD), these metabolic analyses examine the tumor phenotype.

I applaud these Italian investigators for using a functional approach to cancer biology. This is a highly productive direction and fertile ground for future research. Will breath temperature measurement prove sensitive and specific enough to diagnose cancer at early stage? It is much too early to say, but at least for now, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Cancer Centers and Advertising: The Truth Be Told

Screen shot 2014-08-06 at 5.08.23 PMSome of the most interesting literature on cancer comes from journals that are not directly involved in the field. I was reminded of this by an article that appeared in the June 17, 2014 Annals of Internal Medicine entitled “What Are Cancer Centers Advertising to the Public?”

The authors examined the types of clinical services that are promoted by commercial advertising. They reviewed advertisements that appeared in the top media markets during the year 2012, including both television and magazine ads. They excluded duplicates, public service announcements, fund raising and research subject recruitment. Of 1,427 total advertisements, 409 were considered to be unique ads that promoted clinical programs at 102 different cancer centers.

Screen shot 2014-08-06 at 5.13.29 PMTo analyze the content, the investigators developed a “code book” that included four domains; the types of clinical services, information provided, the use of emotional advertising appeals and the use of patient testimonials. Among the centers analyzed, 59% were for profit and the same percent were accredited by the Commission on Cancer. Sixteen percent were NCI designated centers. Advertising was also characterized by region of the United States. The results are interesting and instructive.

Of the 409 unique clinical advertisements, 88% promoted treatment. This was demonstrably higher than the percentage promoting cancer screening at 18% or supportive services at only 13%. While the benefits of therapies were described in 27% of the ads, the risks were only mentioned in 2%. Emotional appeals were frequent with 85% of the ads evoking hope for survival. Cancer was often described as a fight or battle, and the use of fear (of death, etc.) was found in fully 30% of the advertisements.

Screen shot 2014-08-06 at 5.15.28 PMIn their discussion, the authors pointed out several interesting findings. Among them, the “frequent use of emotional appeals and scarce mention of risk of services or quantification of benefit.” They also found “that NCI designated centers more frequently used emotional appeals related to survival or potential for cure.” These same centers “omitted information about risks, benefits and alternatives with similar frequency as non-NCI designated centers.” They concluded that “emotional appeals coupled with incomplete information are being widely used to promote services even among the nation’s most prestigious cancer centers.” Interestingly while only 5% of cancer centers in the United States are NCI designated, fully 16% of the clinical cancer advertising in 2012 was conducted by NCI-designated centers, a three-fold higher use.

What are we to gather from this analysis? First a journal like the Annals of Internal Medicine, removed from the direct delivery of cancer care, has the gravity to review processes that would rarely be reported in the oncology literature. Second, NCI designated (academic) cancer centers, who claim to eschew dissemination of unsScreen shot 2014-08-06 at 5.23.56 PMubstantiated information, appear to be the very centers that engage in such promotion. As the authors note, “clinical advertisements that use emotional appeal uncoupled with information about indications, benefits, risks, or alternatives may lead patients to pursue care that is either unnecessary or unsupported by scientific evidence.”

We applaud the authors of this Annals of Internal Medicine article for their unbiased and informative analysis. We must all strive to provide patients practical and actionable information about cancer and its treatment. It appears from this study that the practice of self-promotion crosses all lines of cancer care delivery from the most august academic institutions to the for-profit cancer centers. As with all activities in life, cancer patients are to be reminded of the ancient Roman admonition “Caveat Emptor” (Buyer Beware!).

With an EVA-PCD Assay, It Can Be That Simple

Shortly after I left the university and joined a medical oncology group, one of the junior members of the practice asked if I would cover for him during his summer vacation. Among the patients he signed over to me was a gentleman in his 60s with what he described as “end-stage” chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). As the patient had already received the standard therapies, second line regimens and experimental drugs available at the time, the physician had run out of options. My charge was to keep him comfortable. I asked if it would be all right for me to study his cells in my lab and the doctor agreed.

CLL 130611.06I met the patient the next day. He was a very pleasant tall, slender black man lying in bed. He had lost a great deal of weight making the already enlarged lymph nodes in his neck appear that much more prominent. As I was engaged in the study of CLL as my principal tumor model, I asked if I might examine his circulating CLL cells as part of our IRB-approved protocol. He graciously obliged and I obtained a few ccs of blood. We were deeply ensconced in tumor biology analyses and his cells were used to explore membrane potentials, DNA degradation and glutathione metabolism as correlates with drug response profiles by EVA-PCD analysis. A large number of those studies have since been published.

What struck me about the patient’s EVA-PCD profile was the exquisite sensitivity to corticosteroids. Corticosteroids in the form of prednisone, Medrol, Solu-Medrol and Decadron are the mainstays of therapy for lymphoid malignancies like CLL. Everyone receives them. Indeed this patient had received them repeatedly including his first line chlorambucil plus prednisone, his second-line CHOP and his third line ESHAP. It was only after he had failed all of these increasingly intensive regimens that he finally moved on to an experimental agent, homoharringtonine, a drug that finally received FDA approval in 2012, after almost 40 years of clinical development. Unfortunately for him homoharringtonine did not work and it seemed we were well beyond conventional therapies, or were we?

I pondered the corticosteroid sensitivity finding and decided to start the patient on oral prednisone. It would be another two weeks before his physician returned and there really weren’t many options. The patient responded overnight. The lymph nodes melted away. The spleen diminished. He began to eat and gained weight. Within a few days he felt well enough to go home. I discharged the patient and remember writing his prednisone prescription, 40 mg by mouth each morning.

A week later, my colleague returned from his retreat in the Adirondacks. He inquired about his patients and surmised that this gentleman, no longer in the hospital, had died. I explained that he had been discharged.

“Discharged . . . how?” he asked. I described the findings of our EVA-PCD study, the sensitivity to steroids and the patient’s miraculous clinical response to this, the simplest of all possible treatments. The physician then turned to me and said “Prednisone . . . hmmm . . . I could have done that.”

I am reminded of this story almost daily. It is emblematic of our work and of those who choose not to use it. Good outcomes in cancer do not occur by chance. They also do not require blockbuster new drugs or brilliant doctors. They require individualized attention to the needs of each patient.

A recurring theme, exemplified by this patient among others, is that cancer cells can only defend themselves in a limited number of ways. Once a selection pressure, in a Darwinian sense, is removed (e.g. corticosteroids were not used during the homoharringtonine treatments) the surviving cells, sensitive to steroids, re-emerge to be identified and captured in our laboratory platform.

It is remarkable how often heavily pretreated patients with ovarian cancer are found sensitive to Taxol after they had received it years earlier, but not since; or breast cancer patients who fail every new agent only to prove responsive to CMF, the earliest of all of the breast cancer drug combinations developed in the 1970s. Our job as oncologists is to find those chinks in armor of cancer cells and exploit them. The EVA-PCD platform, in the eyes of some, may not be groundbreaking . . . it just happens to work!


Truly Personalized Cancer Care

In the mid 1980s, it became apparent to me that cancer did not result from uncontrolled cell proliferation, but instead from the lack of cell death. Yet, cancer research labored for almost a century under the erroneous belief that cancer represented dysregulation of cell proliferation. Today, we confront another falsehood: the complexities and redundancies of human tumor biology can be easily characterized based on genomic analyses.

The process of carcinogenesis reflects the accumulation of cellular changes that provide a selective survival advantage to transformed cells.  However, the intricate circuitry that provide these survival advantages, reflect harmonic osolations between DNA, RNA and protein. Put simply, Genotype does not equal Phenotype. It is the phenotype that determines biological behavior and clinical response in cancer. Thus, it is overly simplistic to imagine that a DNA profile by itself can provide more than a fraction of the information required to make individual patient treatment decisions.

Colon cancer

Colon cancer

When therapies are based on genomic analysis, only a portion of the patient’s profile is taken into consideration. These analyses disregard the environmental, epigenetic and proteomic factors that make each of us individuals. Though useful prognostically and applicable in select circumstances where a unique genetic perturbation leads to a clinical response (c-ABL and Imatinib response in CML), genomic analyses provide only a veneer of information.

The Rational Therapeutics Ex Vivo Analysis – Programmed Cell Death™ (EVA-PCD) assay focuses upon the complexity of human tumors by measuring cell death, the end result of all cellular mechanisms of response and resistance acting in concert. By incorporating cell-cell, vascular, stromal and inflammatory elements into the tumor response assessment, the EVA-PCD platform provides a robust surrogate for human tumor response. While much of modern cancer research pursues the question of “Why” cancer arises, the clinical oncologist must confront the more practical question of “How” the best outcome can be achieved.

Assay-directed therapy is truly personalized cancer care providing treatments unique to the individual.


Reblogged from February 2010.

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 Rising Cost of Cancer Research: Is It Necessary?

JCO coverFor anyone engaged in developmental therapeutics and for those patients who need new approaches to their cancers, an editorial in the Journal of Clinical Oncology casts a disturbing light on the field The authors examine the impact of the growing research bureaucracy upon the conduct of clinical trials. They use Thomas Edison, who filed 1,093 U.S. patents, to exemplify successful trial and error research. By inference, they suggest that if Mr. Edison were working today in the modern regulatory environment we would all be reading this blog by candlelight. While much of Edison’s work focused upon household conveniences like light bulbs and phonographs, the principals that underlie discovery work are every bit the same.

Although regulations have been put in place to protect human subjects, the redundancies and rigorous re-reviews have outstripped their utility for the patients in need. The process has become so complex  that it is now necessary for many institutions to use professional organizations to conduct trials that could easily have done in the past by an investigator with a small staff. These clinical research organizations (CRO’s) are under the gun to adhere to an ever growing collection of standards. Thus, every detail of every consent form is pored over sometimes for years. This has had the effect of driving up the cost of research such that the average Phase III clinical trial conducted in the 1990s that cost $3,000 to $5,000 per accrued patient, today costs between $75,000 and $125,000 per patient. Despite this, the safety of individuals is no better protected today than it was 30 years ago when all of this was done easily and cheaply.

While funding for cancer research has increased slowly, the cancer research bureaucracy has exploded. One need only visit any medium to large size hospital or university medical center to witness the expansion of these departments. Are we safer? Do our patients do better? The answer is a resounding “No.” In 2013, according to the authors,  the average patient spent a mere 53 seconds reviewing their consent forms before signing them, while the average parent, signing on behalf of their child, spent only 13 seconds.

The take home messages are several. First, the regulatory process has become too cumbersome. Were this the cost of scientific advance we would accept it as a fact of life, but patients are not safer, trials are not faster and outcomes are not being enhanced. Second, the cancer research process has overwhelmed and undermined cancer researchers. In keeping with Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy, “. . . in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself.”Is there anyone who donates to the American Cancer Society who wants their money to go toward more regulation?

The problem is not with the academic physician. Medical scientists want to do studies. Marching alongside are the patients who are desperate to get new treatments. While many criticize the pharmaceutical industry, it is highly unlikely that these companies wouldn’t relish the opportunity to see their drugs enter the market expeditiously. Standing between patients and better clinical outcomes is the research bureaucracy. Should we fail to arrest the explosive growth in regulatory oversight we will approach a time in the near future when no clinical trials will be conducted whatsoever.

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.”