Every Cancer Patient’s Outcome is Important

Clinical oncologists can be divided into different camps. There are those who see patient outcomes as a means-to-an-end. Each clinical response provides a data point and when those data points reach critical mass they become reportable. These are the trialists. They see the world through a utilitarian lens. They use aggregate data, through sufficient patient accrual, to achieve significance. This, they hope, will lead practice-changing observations. Trialists populate academic centers and an ever-expanding number of “mega medical groups” that are now gobbling up private oncology practices. They apply metrics to gauge success, as their focus has moved away from individual patient needs toward the achievement of a “greater good” for the population as a whole. Statistical significance is the currency of their realm and clinical protocols their preferred tool.

In the other camp reside physicians, that dwindling cadre of doctors whose principal focus is the good response of each individual patient. They are the practitioners who eke out a living in an environment of diminishing returns. Having relinquished both autonomy and income over recent years, their one remaining reward is the benefit they can bring to each patient. With neither the desire nor ability to publish their results, individual patient survival becomes their paramount goal. Their job is to alleviate suffering, provide comfort and sponsor the health of their clients. Patients preparing to meet with a cancer specialist should consider carefully who is treating them – and why.

I was reminded of this when a 48-year-old gentleman recently requested an opinion. He had presented to an emergency room with a month-long history of sharp abdominal pain. The CT scan revealed extensive intra-abdominal disease, which upon endoscopic biopsy, proved to be of gastric (stomach) origin. He was immediately referred to an accomplished university-based clinical investigator for consultation.

Metastatic gastric cancer is a very difficult disease to treat. One bright spot has been the discovery that 20 percent of patients carry an epidermal growth factor receptor (HER-2) mutation that enables them to receive Herceptin-based therapy. As luck would have it, this patient did not carry the HER-2 mutation. The university investigator explained that there were limited treatment options. In light of his metastatic presentation, the doctor felt that aggressive, multi-agent chemotherapy might only engender toxicity. The patient was offered either single agent 5-FU for palliation or the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial. The patient considered his options and chose to seek an opinion with me.

20 percent response rateI reviewed the patient’s status and explained that while the opinion of the university investigator was valid it might underestimate the patient’s individual chance of response. I explained that gastric cancer statistics, like all medical statistics, are population based. That is, a 20 percent response rate does not mean that every patient gets 20 percent better, but instead, that 20 out of every 100 respond while 80 do not. Our job was to find out which group he belonged to.

The patient decided to undergo a biopsy and submitted tissue to Rational Therapeutics for EVA-PCD® analysis. The results were strikingly favorable with several drug combinations revealing both activity and synergy. After careful comparison, I recommended the combination of a Cisplatin, Taxotere and 5-FU (DCF), a regimen originally developed at the MD Anderson almost 10 years earlier.

On March 12th, the patient began treatment on an every-other-week schedule. As he did not circulate tumor markers like CEA or CA 19-9, there was no easy measure of his response so I elected to repeat the PET/CT after just two cycles. Much to my delight, the patient had achieved a complete remission with resolution of all measurable disease, including the bulky abdominal masses, numerous lymph nodes and the stomach. As I described the remarkable PET/CT results, the patient’s wife began to weep. Her husband, the father of their two young children, wasn’t dying after all. He was no longer a grim cancer statistic. With mother’s day approaching, this was the first good news that they had received in six months. At once, the patient began to discuss business trips, travel plans and family outings. He breathed a slow sigh of relief as he realized that, once again, he had a life.

Good outcomes, even in the worst diseases, occur in all oncology practices. Every doctor can regale you with the story of a patient who responded beautifully and went on to survive years beyond everyone’s expectations. The reason we remember these stories is because they occur so infrequently. Complete remissions in metastatic gastric cancer are vanishingly rare. That is the reason that the university investigator offered single agent 5-FU. It’s easy, nontoxic, well tolerated, but it also cures no one. The rationale is well established: Why poison patient’s you cannot cure? Playing the averages, this strategy is a winner. Yet, on an individual patient basis it may, in fact, be a very big loser.

What are we to do with the “non-average” patient? What about the outliers? Should we not, at least, try to find them? We do it with stocks, racehorses, Indy-drivers, real-estate investments and every underdog sports team in every league. It’s the outliers after all that we call winners.

Cancer patients are not clinical trial subjects. They are unique individuals with their own very unique biology. Every patient is an experiment in real time, an “N of 1.” We must respect the dignity of each individual and we are duty-bound to apply every tool at our disposal to assist him or her in the pursuit of his or her own very personal best outcome – providing truly personalized cancer treatment. This patient did not have a 20 percent response. Instead, he was one of the fortunate few who responded very well. And for him that response was 100 percent.

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

Why Oncologists Don’t Like In Vitro Chemosensitivity Tests

In human experience, the level of disappointment is directly proportional to the level of expectation. When, for example, the world was apprised of the successful development of cold fusion, a breakthrough of historic proportions, the expectations could not have been greater. Cold fusion, the capacity to harness the sun’s power without the heat and radiation, was so appealing that people rushed into a field about which they understood little. Those who remember this episode during the 1990s will recall the shock and dismay of the scientists and investors who rushed to sponsor and support this venture only to be left out in the cold when the data came in.

Since the earliest introduction of chemotherapy, the ability to select active treatments before having to administer them to patients has been the holy grail of oncologic investigation. During the 1950s and 60s, chemotherapy treatments were punishing. Drugs like nitrogen mustard were administered without the benefit of modern anti-emetics and cancer patients suffered every minute. The nausea was extreme, the bone marrow suppression dramatic and the benefits – marginal at best. With the introduction of cisplatin in the pre Zofran/Kytril era, patients experienced a heretofore unimaginable level of nausea and vomiting. Each passing day medical oncologists wondered why they couldn’t use the same techniques that had proven so useful in microbiology (bacterial culture and sensitivity) to select chemotherapy.

And then it happened. In June of 1978, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a study involving a small series of patients whose tumors responded to drugs selected by in vitro (laboratory) chemosensitivity. Eureka! Everyone, everywhere wanted to do clonogenic (human tumor stem cell) assays. Scientists traveled to Tucson to learn the methodology. Commercial laboratories were established to offer the service. It was a new era of cancer medicine. Finally, cancer patients could benefit from effective drugs and avoid ineffective ones. At least, it appeared that way in 1978.

Five years later, the NEJM published an update of more than 8,000 patients who had been studied by clonogenic assay. It seemed that with all the hype and hoopla, this teeny, tiny little detail had been overlooked: the clonogenic assay didn’t work. Like air rushing out of a punctured tire, the field collapsed on itself. No one ever wanted to hear about using human tumor cancer cells to predict response to chemotherapy – not ever!

In the midst of this, a seminal paper was published in the British Journal of Cancer in 1972 that described the phenomenon of apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death.  All at once it became evident exactly why the clonogenic assay didn’t work. By re-examining the basic tenets of cancer chemosensitivity testing, a new generation of assays were developed that used drug induced programmed cell death, not growth inhibition. Cancer didn’t grow too much, it died too little. And these tests proved it.

Immediately, the predictive validity improved. Every time the assays were put to the test, they met the challenge. From leukemia and lymphoma to lung, breast, ovarian, and even melanoma, cancer patients who received drugs found active in the test tube did better than cancer patients who received drugs that looked inactive. Eureka! A new era of cancer therapy was born. Or so it seemed.

I was one of those naive investigators who believed that because these tests worked, they would be embraced by the oncology community. I presented my first observations in the 1980s, using the test to develop a curative therapy for a rare form of leukemia. Then we used this laboratory platform to pioneer drug combinations that, today, are used all over the world. We brought the work to the national cooperative groups, conducted studies and published the observations. It didn’t matter. Because the clonogenic assay hadn’t worked, regardless of its evident deficiencies, no one wanted to talk about the field ever again.

In 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for suggesting that the universe contained other planetary systems. In 1634, Galileo Galilei was excommunicated for promoting the heliocentric model of the solar system. Centuries later, Ignaz Semmelweis, MD, was committed to an insane asylum after he (correctly) suggested that puerperal sepsis was caused by bacterial contamination. A century later, the discoverers of helicobacter (the cause of peptic ulcer disease) were forced to suffer the slings and arrows of ignoble academic fortune until they were vindicated through the efforts of a small coterie of enlightened colleagues.

Innovations are not suffered lightly by those who prosper under established norms. To disrupt the standard of care is to invite the wrath of academia. The 2004 Technology Assessment published by Blue Cross/Blue Shield and ASCO in the Journal of Oncology and ASCO’s update seven years later, reflect little more than an established paradigm attempting to escape irrelevance.

Cancer chemosensitivity tests work exactly according to their well-established performance characteristics of sensitivity and specificity. They consistently provide superior response and, in many cases, time to progression and even survival. They can improve outcomes, reduce costs, accelerate research and eliminate futile care. If the academic community is so intent to put these assays to the test, then why have they repeatedly failed to support the innumerable efforts that our colleagues have made over the past two decades to fairly evaluate them in prospective randomized trials? It is time for patients to ask exactly why it is that their physicians do not use them and to demand that these physicians provide data, not hearsay, to support their arguments.

The Avastin Saga Continues

We previously wrote about bevacizumab (Avastin) and its approval for breast cancer. The early clinical trials revealed evidence of improved time to disease progression. This surrogate measure for survival benefit had, over recent years, gained popularity, as time to disease progression is a measure of the impact of a given treatment upon the patient’s response durability. It was hoped and believed that time to progression would be an early measure of survival.

Unfortunately, the survival advantage for the Avastin-based therapies in breast cancer has not met statistical significance. As such, careful review by the oncology drug committee of the FDA lead to a unanimous decision to remove Avastin’s indication in breast cancer. Avastin has not been removed from the market, but instead, cannot be promoted or advertised, nor do insurers necessarily reimburse it. This decision, however, will have a very big impact on Medicare patients and many others who are in managed care programs (HMOs).

There are no villains here. Instead, dedicated physicians empowered to scrutinize the best data could not prove beyond any doubt that the drug improved survival. The time to progression data was favorable and the survival data also trended in a favorable direction. But, the final arbiter of clinical approval — statistically significant survival — was not met.

The physicians who want to provide this for the patients, the company that produces the drug and the patients who believe it offers benefit all have legitimate positions. As Jerome Groopman, MD, once said, in a similar situation with regard to the FDA approval of interleukin 2 (a biological agent with profound activity in a small minority of melanoma and renal cell cancer patients), “I am confronted with a dilemma of biblical proportions, how to help the few at the expense of the many.”

The Avastin saga is but one example of what will occur repeatedly. The one-size-fits-all paradigm is crumbling as individual patients with unique biological features confront the results of the blunt instrument of randomized clinical trials. Our laboratory has been deeply involved in these stories for 20 years. When we first observed synergy for purine analogs (2CDA and fludarabine) with cytoxan, and then recommended and used this doublet in advanced hematologic malignancies (highly successfully, we might add) we were a lone voice in the woods. Eventually, clinical trials conducted at M.D. Anderson and other centers confirmed the activity establishing these treatments as the standards of care for CLL and low-grade lymphoma.

The exact same experience occurred in our solid tumor work when we combined cisplatin plus gemcitabine in pancreatic, ovarian, breast, bladder, lung and other cancers. While our first patient (presumably the first patient in the world) received cisplatin plus gemcitabine for drug-resistant recurrent ovarian cancer in 1995 — providing her an additional five years of life — it wasn’t until 2006 that the FDA approved the closely related carboplatin plus gemcitabine for this indication.

We now confront an even greater hurdle. With our discoveries, using novel combinations of targeted agents, we are years (perhaps decades) ahead of the clinical trial process. We know that patients evaluated in our laboratory with favorable profiles can respond to some of the newest drugs, many of which have already completed Phase I of clinical trials. It is our fervent belief that we could accelerate the drug development process if we could join with the pharmaceutical companies and the FDA to put these hypotheses to a formal test.

Again, there are no villains here. Patients want, and should, receive active drugs. Doctors should be allowed to give them. The drug companies want to sell their agents and the FDA wants to see good therapies go forward.

The rancor that surrounds these emotionally charged issues will best be resolved when we introduce techniques that match patients to active therapies. We believe that the primary culture platform used in our laboratory, and a small number of dedicated investigators like us, may be the answer to this dilemma.

We will redouble our efforts to apply these methods for our patients and encourage our patients to lobby their health care insurers and representatives to sponsor these approaches. To date, we have been unsuccessful in convincing any cooperative group to test the predictive ability of these selection methodologies. In response, I reiterate that I will gladly participate and, to the best of my ability, support at least the laboratory component of any fair test of our primary culture methodologies.

We stand at the ready for the challenge.

The Role of the Platinum Derivatives in Cancer Therapy

The discovery of cisplatinum and the subsequent development of its derivatives (carboplatin and oxaliplatin) represent an interesting saga in modern oncology. When Rosenberg observed in 1960s that platinum electrodes in salt water baths inhibited the growth of bacteria and fungi it lead to the isolation of cis-dichloro diamine platinum (cisplatin). Its application in testicular cancer provided a dramatic leap forward for this heretofore-lethal disease. Subsequent applications in ovary and lung cancers lead to some of the most effective therapies in modern oncology. Although the exact mechanisms of action continue to be investigated, the platination of guanine residues in DNA constitutes the principle mechanism of cytotoxicity.

The use of the human tumor laboratory model has provided us the luxury of exploring the platinum drugs in a wide variety of diseases. Among our published discoveries has been the relative equivalence of the platinum derivatives, as well as their profound synergy with agents like gemcitabine. It is of significant interest that this broadly effective class of compounds — extensively applied in the treatment of lung, colorectal, ovarian and breast cancers, as well as others — remains less active in the hematologic neoplasms. This is in striking counter distinction to nearly all other classes of chemotherapeutics.

Among our most gratifying observations, from the early 1990s, was the clear and profound activity of the platinum derivatives in breast cancers. We feel that our discoveries, outlined in an editorial published in 2000 (The Once and Future Role of Platinum Agents in Advanced Breast Cancer), in no small part have influenced the broad application of platinum in modern breast cancer management.

It was not genius or divine intervention that lead us to these important discoveries, but, quite simply, the use of a validated human tumor model that accurately probed tumor types, leading us to these findings. It is virtually impossible for an unbiased observer to review these contributions and not recognize that the human tumor model has been the conduit by which these discoveries were made.

The proper study of human cancer is human cancer. Our results speak for themselves when it comes to ovarian, breast and hematologic neoplasms, treatments for which can be traced directly to our laboratories.