Rallying the Troops to Confront Cancer

The recent blog “Stand Up To Cancer Research!” described some of the pitfalls of modern cancer research and the clinical trial process. It has engendered an active discussion. It may be helpful to address some of issues raised. For those of you who did not have the opportunity to read that blog, it defined the difficulty that many patients encounter when they seek experimental treatments. Clinical trials are often only available at select centers, sometimes at great distances from patient’s homes. There can be rigid inclusionary and exclusionary criteria, and the pre-entry evaluations e.g. re-biopsy, CT/PET, etc. can be daunting, time consuming and inconvenient. Travel and accommodations may come at great personal expense.

I penned the blog, in part, to remind patients that they are ultimately in control of the process. One patient asked how can “we stand up to the system” describing herself a consumer while “they’ve got the goods.” This is the frustration many people feel. It should be remembered, however, that a substantial portion of research support comes from tax dollars and charitable donations. These are your dollars. If the system is not working, then those responsible must be held accountable. The American public has the power of the vote. Patient advocates can approach and lobby their representatives and demand improvements in the clinical trial process. To wit, the level of scrutiny and restriction upon access to new drugs must be re-examined. There is an army of well-trained clinical oncologists capable of delivering experimental drugs today. Not just the fully vetted, just-about-ready-for-prime-time agents currently found in phase III trials, but the really new exciting drugs. Once a drug has passed Phase I and found to be safe in patients, open up the accrual process. “Compassionate use” has virtually disappeared from the lexicon of cancer research. Twenty years ago I made a discovery in the laboratory. Working with the pharmaceutical company and the FDA, we were almost immediately granted access to a yet-to-be approved agent. The combination proved so effective that today it is one of the most widely used regimens in the world. That would not happen today. We simply cannot get access to the best drugs for our patients.

Microscope Detail2-lo resWith the industrialization of medical care, growth of mega-medical systems and the increasing role of government, medicine must be viewed through a different lens. Changes in cancer research will require changes in cancer policy, and policy comes from political power. Cancer patients will need to identify legitimate spokespeople to take their concerns forward to their elected officials. While the current clinical trial process slowly grinds out new development, even the smartest, fastest trials take years to change practice. Every day, more than 1,500 cancer patients die in the United States alone. Cancer patients do not have time for clever doctors to pose interesting questions while they suffer the slings and arrows of ignoble, ineffective therapy. It is time for a change in cancer research, and patients must be the instrument for that change.

Stand Up to Cancer Research! The Downside to Clinical Trials.

As the practice of medicine has moved from a profession to an industrial undertaking, this most human of experiences has fallen prey to the dictates of the American business model. Patients are no longer the purchasers of medical care and services, but instead, the consumers of those goods and services that meet the needs of the purveyors. Whether this is a governmental entity, academic institution, or pharmaceutical company, individuals have become cogs in the wheel of the medical-industrial complex.

Cancer from dictionaryThis has become glaringly apparent in the field of cancer research. Cancer patients were once, for better or worse, in charge of their own destinies. They could choose their surgeon, oncologist, and institution, even to some degree the treatments that they wished to undergo. As the HMO model came into play, patients were increasingly told what doctor, what treatment, and what hospital. The capacity of individuals to make decisions was eliminated in favor of standardized care, cost guidelines and treatment protocols. While much of the academic community described this as progress with adherence to standardized protocols, these protocols have not provided superior outcomes in most settings. Instead, they offer hospital administrators the opportunity to anticipate costs, allocate resources, codify drug administration and regulate care delivery.

Recent experience has brought several disturbing examples to the fore. Working in the laboratory, we have been able to select candidates for new combinations, sometimes years before these regimens became broadly available. We then identify centers with access to these drugs under protocol. Many of the drugs have well-established safety records from prior phase 1 and 2 clinical trials, but have not achieved full FDA approval. When several of our patients with lung cancer revealed sensitivity to a regimen that we had identified years earlier (Kollin, C et al Abs 2170, Proc AACR, 2005) we immediately explored sites offering this combination of an oral agent with an IV antibody. The closest we could find was in Colorado. The injection, a widely established monoclonal antibody, FDA approved for gastrointestinal cancer, was not yet approved for lung cancer while the pill had been administered safely in hundreds of patients. Indeed, the combination had also been safely administered to dozens of patients by the time we inquired. Nonetheless, to participate in this potentially life-saving treatment my patients were forced to commute from LA to Colorado every other week.

It would have been quite easy, once the patients were formally accrued, for them to return to California and receive the same drugs under our care. After all, we were the ones who identified them as candidates in the first place and we were very familiar with the trial. Despite this, the rigidity of the protocol forced these lung cancer patients to become frequent fliers. The good news was that the treatments worked.

More recently a patient, who had failed experimental therapy for advanced uterine carcinoma at a large academic center in Texas, returned to LA five years ago to seek my assistance. A lymph node biopsy at the time revealed exquisite sensitivity to a drug combination developed and published by our group and she achieved a prompt complete remission. She has since relapsed and required additional chemotherapy. My concern for her long-term bone marrow tolerance, with repeated exposure to cytotoxic drugs, led me to seek alternatives. Her EVA-PCD functional profile had revealed excellent activity for PARP inhibitors. Here, I thought, would be the solution to her problem. After all, the PARP inhibitors had been in development for years. Several had revealed compelling activity in clinical trials and they are well tolerated. Despite this, no PARP inhibitor has been FDA approved.

When we pursued opportunities to accrue the patient to one of the PARP inhibitor trials, however, she did not qualify. Having received low dose Carboplatin several months earlier she ran afoul of an exclusion criterion in the protocol that dictated no platinum exposure for six months. “Six months?” I exclaimed. Few cancer patients can wait six months to start treatment and virtually no cancer patients can wait six months once they have relapsed. I was flabbergasted.

What exactly were the protocol designers thinking when they demanded a six-month wash out, fully four, five or six times longer than any protocol I’d ever encountered?  The absurdity of this demand virtually eliminated patients-in-need from consideration. As I considered the dilemma it became increasingly clear. When one examines the thinking behind clinical protocols it becomes evident that they are not designed to help patients or cure cancer. Instead, they are created to answer specific questions. In so doing they further the careers of investigators, expand medical center market share, standardize treatments and simplify the activities of clinical research organizations. Patient outcomes, well-being and convenience are far down the ladder of expectations.

As I pondered the inconvenience, hardship and lost opportunities associated with clinical trial participation for many patients around the United States, I began to wonder whether patients should throw off the yoke of this oppressive system. After all, it is not the academic centers that own the process, it is the patients. It is those brave individuals willing to participate in these studies. It is the patients whose tax dollars support these institutions. It is the patients who purchase either directly or indirectly the drugs they receive and it is the patients that are necessary for the process to succeed.

Patients should demand more user-friendly, convenient, patient-centric therapy programs. Perhaps patients should simply refuse to participate. A ground swell of patient advocacy could re-orient the discussion away from the convenience and ease of the treating physicians and toward the good outcome and ease of the treated patient. While we applaud the investigators for their brilliance and prowess, we forget that no clinical investigator would receive accolades were it not for the hundreds or thousands of patients who martyr themselves at the altar of clinical research. Patients, not their doctors, are the heroes.  Perhaps it is time for cancer patients to stand up to cancer research.

A “Clinical Trial” Too Far

An interesting paper was published in the January 10 NEJM (Abiraterone in Metastatic Prostate Cancer with Previous Chemotherapy, Ryan et al). The study randomized 1,088 hormone-refractory prostate cancer patients to receive abiraterone plus prednisone, or placebo plus prednisone.

Abiraterone works by blocking the syntheses of testosterone (the critical survival factor for prostate cancer cells), both in the adrenal glands and within the tumor cells themselves. The drug had previously been approved for patients who had failed hormone therapy, but was only approved for those who had also failed Taxotere chemotherapy.

The results were so strongly positive in favor of the treatment arm, revealing a significant progression-free survival 16.5 versus 8.3 months (p < .001) and overall survival hazard ratio 0.75 (p = .01) that the monitoring committee invoked early stoppage rules. Virtually all of the other markers of disease also strongly favored the treatment arm. All of this speaks for an effective therapy in hormone-refractory prostate cancer and we applaud their success.

The question remains: Did we really need to conduct this study?

On a biochemical level, abiraterone represents an effective mechanism for androgen ablation. The drug has been established to work well in patients who have failed prior hormone and Taxotere chemotherapy. In that prior exposure to Taxotere would not be expected to substantively influence abiraterone efficacy, the wisdom of committing 1,088 hormone-refractory patients to a “placebo controlled” randomized trial to prove its efficacy in the Taxotere naive population seems questionable.

Prostate cancer generally afflicts older men. While most patients respond to hormonal ablation, hormone-refractory disease develops in virtually all patients over time. A comparatively mild oral therapy like abiraterone represents a demonstrably superior alternative to a comparatively toxic alternative intravenous cytotoxic drug like taxotere. Did we need to marshal a multi-million dollar trial to prove that abiraterone worked in people who had not received Taxotere, when there was absolutely no reason to believe that it wouldn’t?

The reason that this trial was conducted was to meet an increasingly onerous regulatory environment that demands that every use of every drug in every situation be proven with a large and enormously expensive clinical trial.

Registration trials cost between $10,000 and $20,000 per accrued patient. Using these figures, we can guess that this clinical trial cost between $10,000,000 and $20,000,000 to conduct. Those costs must now be recouped from patients and insurers. Thus, the very agency whose purpose is to protect patients and limit the inappropriate use of drugs has created an environment that adds to those expenses and it can be argued, prevents the appropriate use of drugs.

To put this into perspective, let’s examine the female counterpart – breast cancer. Once aromatase inhibitors showed activity in postmenopausal women, they were rapidly incorporated into clinical therapeutics. Dovetailing nicely with the established antiestrogen tamoxifen, these drugs became second line hormonal therapies. While these drugs naturally assumed their roles in hormonal management of breast cancer, no one would ever demand that a breast cancer patient with ER positive cancer first receive chemotherapy before being allowed to use the well-established aromatase inhibitors. Had the FDA demanded that no one could receive anastrozole, letrozole or Aromasin until they had had Adriamycin, there would have been a march on Washington to reverse the policy. It was obvious to all those engaged in the field that these drugs worked and that they would work at different points in hormonal management of the disease.

The physiology of and clinical experience in breast cancer management allowed smart scientists with the approval of the regulatory agencies to “crosswalk” the application of these important agents. It is time for the American public to demand that clinical trials be conducted (and resources allocated) when the questions they address can only be answered through the expenditure of these vast financial and human resources.

There is a Better Way

With several hundred compounds currently in development for the treatment of cancer, how will we scientists and clinical oncologists match these drugs to patients  in need?

Only 8 percent of drugs entering Phase I ever make it through the highly unproductive Phase II and Phase III trial mechanisms to win FDA approval, with 50 percent failing at the Phase III final stage of development!

We can stop this self-defeating strategy and apply selective methodologies to identify the best disease targets for these compounds. According to Joanne Woodcock of the FDA, modern science has provided much more information about the origin of cancer than about its treatment. She has called for a developmental effort in the pursuit of a “critical path,” from bench to bedside.

I believe that Ex Vivo Analysis of Programmed Cell Death (EVA-PCD)® is that critical pathway and can serve to streamline drug development.