Triple Negative Breast Cancer: Worse or Just Different?

The term “triple negative breast cancer” (TNBC) is applied to a subtype of breast cancers that do not express the estrogen or progesterone receptors. Nor do they overexpress the HER2 gene. This disease constitutes 15 – 20 percent of all breast cancers and has a predisposition for younger women, particularly those of black and Hispanic origin. This disease may becoming more common; although, this could reflect the greater awareness and recognition of this disease as a distinct biological entity.

On molecular profiling, TNBC has distinct features on heat maps. The usual hormone response elements are deficient, while a number of proliferation markers are upregulated.  Not surprisingly, this disease does not respond to the usual forms of therapy like Tamoxifen and the other selective estrogen response modifiers known as SERMs. Nonetheless, TNBC can be quite sensitive to cytotoxic chemotherapy. Indeed, the responsiveness to chemotherapy can provide these patients with complete remissions. Unfortunately, the disease can recur. Complete remission maintained over the first three to five years is associated with a favorable prognosis, with recurrence rates diminishing over time and late recurrences more often seen in estrogen receptor-positive cancers.

Triple negative breast cancer is not one, but many diseases.

MTOR-pathway-ger Among the subtypes are those that respond to metabolic inhibitors such as the PI3K and mTOR directed drugs. Another subset may respond to drugs that target epidermal growth factor. There are basal-types that may be somewhat more refractory to therapy, while a subset may have biology related to the BRCA mutants, characterized by DNA repair deficiencies and exquisite sensitivity to Cisplatin-based therapies. Finally, a last group is associated with androgen signaling and may respond to drugs that target the androgen receptor.

Some years ago, we used the EVA-PCD platform to study refractory patients with breast cancer and identified exquisite sensitivity to the combination of Cisplatin plus Gemcitabine in this patient group. We published our observations in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and the combination of Cisplatin or Carboplatin plus Gemcitabine has become an established part of the armamentarium in these patients.

The I-SPY-2 trial has now used genomic analyses confirming our observations for the role of platins in TNBC. This iSignal_transduction_pathways.svgn part reflects the DNA repair deficiency subtype associated with the BRCA-like biology. More recently, we have examined TNBC patients for their sensitivity to novel therapeutic interventions. Among them, the PI3K and mTOR inhibitors, as well as the glucose metabolism pathway inhibitors like Metformin. Additional classes of drugs that are revealing activity are the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors, some of which are moving forward through clinical trials.

One feature of triple negative breast cancer is avid uptake on PET scan. This reflects, in part, the proliferation rate of these tumors, but may also reflect metabolic changes associated with altered glucose metabolism. In this regard, the use of drugs that change mitochondrial function may be particularly active. Metformin, a member of the biguanide family influences mitochondrial metabolism at the level of AMP kinase. The activity of Metformin and related classes of drugs in triple negative breast cancer is a fertile area of investigation that we and others are pursuing.

When we examine the good response of many triple negative breast cancers to appropriately selected therapies, the potential for durable complete remissions and the distinctly different biology that TNBC represents, the question arises whether TNBC is actually a worse diagnosis, or simply a different entity that requires different thinking. We have been very impressed by the good outcome of some of our triple negative breast cancer patients and believe this a very fertile area for additional investigation

Platinum Resistance is in the Eye of the Beholder

I was recently apprised of an online conversation surrounding the treatment of platinum refractory and platinum resistant ovarian cancer. To clarify our terminology, platinum refractory disease refers to cancer that progresses during platinum therapy. This would be considered the most platinum resistant of the ovarian patients. The term “platinum resistant” developed over the last two decades, by Markman and others, is used to describe patients who initially respond to platinum-based chemotherapy and then relapse within six months of treatment.

While platinum refractory seems intuitively obvious, it has been suggested that platinum resistance is somewhat more arbitrary.  That is, what if one relapses one month versus five months, or seven months after treatment. In fact, studies conducted by investigators at Memorial Sloane-Kettering under Dr. David Spriggs, suggest that platinum resistance is a continuum extending from six months continuing out to 24 months and beyond. The longer the “platinum-free interval” the better the chance of response to combinations like carboplatin plus Taxol. Within the scope of this discussion I am in general agreement. However, as I describe below, this is, by far, not the whole story.

I am composing this particular blog in response to a comment that I encountered in a recent chat room discussion. The individual took an extremely strong stance stipulating that no medical oncologist should re-challenge a patient with a platinum-based regimen if they fall within the category of platinum refractory or platinum resistant. This statement is absolutely, positively WRONG.

Platinum resistance is mediated by DNA repair enzymes. These enzymes recognize and respond to platinum adducts and excise the DNA residues, replacing them with the appropriate base pairs. While this confers resistance to single agent platins, a degree of resistance which is largely is unaffected by the addition of taxanes, platinum resistance actually opens up an Achilles heel for treatment of these patients. Drugs like the antimetabolites (Gemcitabine, 5-FU), as well as the topoisomerase inhibitors become collaterally more active in those tumors with the most active DNA repair capacities. This is the reason why we have consistently observed responses in both platinum resistant and platinum refractory patients utilizing the combination of cisplatin and gemcitabine, as we reported in the original paper describing this combination in 2003 (Nagourney, R et al, Gyn Onc, 2003). Our response rate of 50 percent in heavily pre-treated and platinum resistant patients was confirmed by investigators in Ohio who reported similarly good results in patients with p-glycoprotein positive/platinum resistant disease (Rose, P, Gyn Onc 2003).  To formally test this hypothesis we conducted a national clinical trial with the GOG, which treated platinum resistant and platinum refractory patients with the combination of cisplatin plus gemcitabine. This trial provided the longest-time-to-progression for this population (six months) in the history of the GOG (Brewer et al, Gyn Onc 2006). These observations were subsequently reported in our textbook (Deoxynucleoside Analogs in Cancer Therapy, GPeters [ed] Humana Press 2006).

Similar results have been reported for Folfox in recurrent ovarian patients by Greek investigators (Pectasides, D et al, Gyn Onc 2004). To examine this phenomenon, one of the great investigators of antimetabolite chemistry, William Plunkett, conducted an instructive series of experiments in which they showed that platinum resistant ovarian cell lines expressed high levels of the DNA repair enzyme ERCC1. When these investigators blocked the ERCC1 expression with siRNA, the cell lines became resistant to the cisplatin plus gemcitabine combination, indicating beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is the cells’ own DNA repair capacity that makes it sensitive to this drug doublet.

I write this blog because it is critically important for patients and doctors alike, to understand the chemistry of these agents and their interactions. While platinum resistance may indeed confer clinical resistance to platinum, carboplatin plus Taxol and related combinations, platinum resistant tumors may actually be more sensitive to intelligently administered drug combinations. Using our laboratory platform to measure the chemosensitivity and synergy for drug combinations we have identified numerous platinum resistant and platinum refractory patients who have had dramatic and durable response to re-challenge with platinum based therapies that employ these synergistic combinations. This is why we are extremely interested to study platinum resistant patients. After all, platinum resistance is in the eye of the beholder.