Lots of Heat No Light – ASCO Technology Assessment Update 2011

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”

This famous line from Shakespeare’s Henry V, describes the Battle of Agincourt and England’s unexpected victory over the French. Not unlike Henry V a small coterie of relatively underfunded and embattled investigators around the world continue to fight an entrenched medical community who refuse to relinquish their grip on the clinical trial process.

Their re-review updated from 2004, sheds no new light on the field, as the authors conclude that their 2004 recommendations stand without modification.

The authors, to their credit, have updated their database to include cell death endpoints. They cite the ovarian cancer study by Dr. Ian Cree, that assigned 180 patients, (of which 147 were evaluable), with recurrent disease, and reported a response rate of 40.5 percent for assay directed versus 31.3 percent for physician choice, yet failed to achieve significance. The reasons for this trial’s failure however were obvious, as it was underpowered and more importantly allowed the physician’s choice arm to include Dr. Cree’s own drug combinations as the trial accrued. This left Dr. Cree in the uncomfortable position of having to compete with himself.

More disturbing is their dismissal of a paper by Selma Ugurel, MD, from Clinical Cancer Research 2006 in which, patients with metastatic melanoma received assay-directed treatment for this otherwise chemo resistant and lethal disease. Patients found drug sensitive in the laboratory had a response rate of 36.4 percent, while those found drug resistant had a response rate of only 16.1 percent (a two-fold improvement). The overall survivals were similarly improved with assay-directed patients 14.6 months vs. drug resistant patients of 7.4 months. Again a doubling. Furthermore these results achieved statistical significance.

The ASCO group concludes with the comment, “However, the investigator did not compare the two interventions.” As I know this paper well, and was extremely impressed that some of the responders went out to 30 months, I find the ASCO group’s insouciance surprising.

This reminds me of an old joke by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. It seems that he had watched a television program where a man caught bullets shot from a gun with his bare teeth. Seinfeld went on to say, that despite being immensely impressed by this man’s prowess, he just couldn’t seem remember his name. “What do you got to do to impress people”?

As I am familiar with the Ugurel paper, I have been very impressed with these investigators completing a study by dint of their dedication to the field. Stranded without funding or cooperative group support, laboratory-based therapeutics remains unconfirmed, not by the unwillingness of the investigators but by the unwillingness of the cooperative and funding agencies to test the hypotheses.

While we squander billions of dollars on genomic analyses that are increasingly leading us nowhere, these ASCO study groups and their colleagues continue to refuse to formally evaluate human tissue studies. In light of the lack of improvement in survival for most cancers over the past 50 years, despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars on research, perhaps assay-directed therapy is just the solution that medical oncology needs.