Ovarian Cancer Therapy

For many years I have been interested in the ovarian cancer literature. After all, it was our group that originally developed the platinum plus gemcitabine doublet and tested it through a Phase II trial conducted by the Gynecologic Oncology Group (GOG). The study’s results were reported in Gynecologic Oncology in 2006.

I then watched with interest as the GOG 182 five-arm clinical trial unfolded. This international study of over 4,000 patients randomly mixed and matched drug combinations but provided no evidence of superiority of one arm over another. The final conclusion of the manuscript that reported these results (Bookman, MA., Brady, MF, McGuire, WP, et al. J Clin Oncol 27: 1419-1425, 2009), stipulated that carboplatin plus taxol remained the “gold standard” for advanced epithelial ovarian carcinoma. A study of over 900 patients that compared carboplatin plus gemcitabine to carboplatin plus paclitaxel induction (Gordon A, Teneriello M, Lim, P, et al Clinical Ovarian Cancer, 2, 2:99-105, 2009) again provided comparable outcomes between arms yet carboplatin plus taxol remains the “gold standard.”

To this collection of published experiences, we now add the report by Sandro Pignata and co-investigators from the MITO-2 Phase III trial (Pignata, S., Scambia, G., Ferrandina, G., et al. J Clin Oncol 29: 3628-3635, 2011). This clinical trial conducted by Italian investigators compared carboplatin plus taxol to carboplatin plus pegylated liposomal doxorubicin (PLD) known in the U.S. as Doxil. Four hundred and ten patients were randomized to each arm of the trial. The results revealed numerical superiority for the carboplatin plus PLD arm in terms of median progression-free survival (19 months vs. 16.8 months) and numerical superiority for overall survival for the carboplatin plus PLD over the carboplatin plus taxol arm (61.6 vs. 53.2 months). However, these results did not achieve statistical significance. Therefore, the authors conclude that carboplatin plus taxol “remains the standard first-line chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.” While they do grant that, based on toxicity, carboplatin plus PLD could be considered as an alternative therapy.

With the GOG 182 study, the Gordon study (comparing carboplatin plus gemcitabine) and the most recent Pignata study comparing carboplatin plus PLD all establishing activity for several first-line regimens, why is it that the gynecologic oncologists continually return to carboplatin plus taxol as the “gold standard?”

Is there not ample evidence that several regimens provide similar results and survivals? Is there not evidence that the toxicities differ? Why can’t the gynecologic oncologists get off the dime? Why can’t they admit that several treatment regimens are appropriate and indicated for the malignancy? Why can’t they admit that some patients may, in fact, do better with one treatment over another?

And, finally, why can’t they admit that using laboratory analyses to determine a patient’s functional profile has the potential to select amongst these regimes to provide the best outcomes for the majority of patients?

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.

So What Happened to the PARP Inhibitors in Breast Cancer Anyway? ASCO 2011

Many of you may recall that we described our studies with the small molecules BSI201 (iniparib) and AZD2281 (olaparib) (Nagourney, et al. ASCO 2011). Based upon the exciting Phase II data reported by Dr. Joyce O’Shaughnessy, first at the ASCO meeting, then in the NEJM, describing the remarkable efficacy of BSI201 (iniparib) combined with carboplatin and gemcitabine in triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), we initiated a study of both iniparib and olaparib in human breast cancer specimens. Our results were reported at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting.

Despite the enthusiasm that surrounded Dr. O’Shaughnessy’s initial observations, the confirmatory clinical trial using iniparib combined with carboplatin and gemcitabine, then compared with carboplatin and gemcitabine did not achieve statistical significance. That is, the trial was negative and the combo of inabirib with carboplatin plus gemcitabine was not proven superior.

So, what happened? Quite a few things.

It turned out that BSI201, a member of the benzamine chemical family, at physiological concentrations achievable in humans is not a PARP inhibitor. This, in retrospect, should have been obvious because a full-dose PARP inhibitor, plus a potent combination of carboplatin plus gemcitabine would not likely be tolerable if PARP inhibition were achieved.

Second, the patients receiving the drug are probably not a homogeneous population. That is, some TNBC patients may be similar to the BRCA patients, while others may not have the DNA repair deficiencies associated with PARP inhibitor response.

Finally, it was our group that originally reported the carboplatin plus gemcitabine combination in breast cancer, as a split-dose doublet in 2008 (Nagourney, Clin Breast Cancer Research, 2008). We observed, in that original clinical trial, that even a lower starting dose of gemcitabine (i.e. 800mg/ml2 vs. the O’Shaughnessy 1000 mg/m2) resulted in significant toxicity and in our concluding comments in that paper, we suggested 600mg/ml2. At 1000 mg/m2, Dr. O’Shaughnessy’s trial nearly doubled our recommended dose in this patient population.

While our abstract did not receive the fanfare of the clinical trial, it was, in fact, remarkably prescient. We, like other investigators, entered into our original studies of these molecules believing iniparib to be a PARP inhibitor. To our surprise, and, in retrospect, to our credit, a direct comparison of olaparib (AZD2281) to inapaprib (BSI201) revealed no correlation. We described this in our abstract, “Of interest, BSI201 & AZD2281 activity did not correlate in parallel analyses (R = 0.07, P > 0.5).”  Thus, our human tumor primary culture analysis scooped the ASCO investigators. Unfortunately, it appears they weren’t listening.

So, what have we learned? First, we’ve learned that iniparib is not a true PARP inhibitor.

Second, we learned that the combination of platins plus gemcitabine in breast cancer is synergistic, highly active and can be toxic (particularly at the doses chosen for this trial).

Finally, we learned that TNBC, indeed all breast cancers, even more to the point, all cancers in general, are heterogeneous. That is precisely why the use of human tumor primary culture analyses are so instructive and should be incorporated into clinical trials for these and other targeted agents.

Emerging Therapies in Breast Cancer: a Focus on Triple Negative Disease

As our understanding of breast cancer biology continues to advance, this disease has come to be understood as many different diseases. Original categorizations based on histology lead to lobular versus ductal subtypes. Thereafter, recognition of estrogen and progesterone status, and finally HER2 status provided further subcategorizations. Over the past decade, molecular subtypes have characterized this disease into a series of signatures characterized by luminal, basal and other groupings with distinct prognoses. Within the context of these categories, the triple negative breast cancers have emerged as an important target. These patients whose tumors do not mark for estrogen, progesterone, or HER2 on immunohistochemical or FISH analyses, appear to carry features that segregate them into a BRCA1-like biology. This is of great interest clinically for it offers the opportunity to treat these patients with drugs found active in the BRCA mutant populations. Among the most active drugs in these patients are the PARP inhibitors. The excellent results with PARP inhibitors and BRCA mutants have been followed by striking response and survival data combining PARP inhibitors with carbo-platinum and gemcitabine. PARP inhibitors by inhibiting DNA damage response can enhance the effects of ionizing radiation, mustard alkylators, topoisomerase inhibitors, platins, and intercalating agents. We have explored the biology of PARP inhibitors in breast and other cancers. In these investigations, our lab to applies the EVA-PCD™ platform to understand how PARP inhibitors enhance the effects of drugs and drug combinations. To date, we have observed good activity for the PARP inhibitors as single agents in BRCA1 positive patients, and in some triple negative patients. More interesting, will be the results combining the PARP inhibitors with mustard alkylators, platins, and drug combinations to optimize PARP inhibitor combinations. This work is ongoing in triple negative and BRCA positive patients as well as other tumor types where the PARP inhibitors may prove useful in the future.