Cancer Patients: Cure the Curable, Treat the Treatable and Avoid Futile Care

During my interview with Jeff Michaels on the March 28, 5:00 P.M. Fox News, we explored the themes of my current book, Outliving Cancer. One of the points that most interested my interviewer was the appropriate use of our laboratory platform for the selection of therapy. He asked, “Are there some patients for whom there is no cure?” I responded by explaining what it is, that our laboratory test is designed to do: “Cure the curable, treat the treatable, and avoid futile care.” Jeff Michaels stopped me and asked that I might repeat what I had just said. It seemed that my succinct description resonated.

However simple this distillation of our work may seem, I realized it was actually rather profound. After all, we are confronting an escalating crisis in medicine. How do we meet the needs of a growing population of cancer patients with shrinking resources? How do we allocate treatments to those most likely to respond and finally, how do we avoid the misadventures of toxic and ineffective therapies for those destined to fail chemotherapeutic intervention? On every level, laboratory models can assist us. For those patients with early stage breast cancer, ovarian cancer, small cell lung cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and many leukemias, the expectation of a cure is well within our reach. These patients must receive the very best treatments from the start.

The larger population of patients we confront are those with diseases like gastric, colon, non-small cell lung, recurrent breast, recurrent ovarian or sarcoma for whom cures are less likely and effective therapies must be tolerable so that they can provide benefit without undue toxicity. These are the patients for whom cancer can become a “chronic disease.”

Finally, we must all confront patients for whom treatments offer little likelihood of benefit, yet significant risks of toxicity. These heavily pretreated patients, or those who present with refractory malignancies like pancreatic, kidney cancer or melanoma – represent a special subset. Here the role of the physician is to decide that almost Shakespearean question, “To treat or not to treat.”

This is a particularly delicate circumstance as it forces the doctor, the patient and the family to confront the most difficult question of all, “Am I dying?” The answer is “maybe.” Without seeming flip, every patient no matter what diagnosis, has some chance of response to therapy. If we examine the performance characteristic of our laboratory analyses, they consistently double response rates. With this group however a doubling of response rate may still provide a rather low likelihood of meaningful benefit. If the laboratory finds drug resistance in this group, it is a near certainty that the patient will not respond.

However distressing this data may be, it may be comforting to know that the patient has left no stone unturned. For those patients where a treatment appears active, despite their diagnosis or treatment history, then the discussion surrounding tolerance, toxicity and realistic likelihood of benefit can be undertaken intelligently. This is the embodiment of rational therapeutics.

The Tumor Micro Environment

As I was reading the October 1 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, past the pages of advertisement by gene profiling companies, I came upon an article of very real interest.

While most scientists continue to focus on cancer-gene analyses, a report in this issue from a collaboration between American and European investigators provided compelling evidence for the role of tumor associated inflammatory cells in metastatic human cancer. (Asgharzadeh, S J Clin Oncol 30 (28)3525–3532 Oct 1, 2012) Through the analysis of children with metastatic neuroblastoma, they found that the degree of infiltration into the tumor environment by macrophages had a profound effect upon clinical outcome. This study confirmed earlier reports that macrophage infiltration is an integral part and potential driver of the malignant process.

Using immunohistochemistry and light microscopy the investigators scored patients for the number of CD163(+) macrophages, representing the alternatively activated (M2) subset within the tumor tissue. They then examined inflammation related gene expressions to develop a “high” risk, “low” risk algorithm and applied it to the progression free survival in these children.

Highly significant differences were observed between the two groups. This report adds to a growing body of literature that describes the interplay between cancer cells and their microenvironment. Similar studies in breast cancer, melanoma and multiple myeloma have shown that tumor cells “co-opt” their non-malignant counterparts as they drive transformation from benign to malignant, from in-situ to invasive and from localized disease to metastatic. These same forces have the potential to strongly influence cellular responses to stressors like chemotherapy and growth factor withdrawal. While we may now be on the verge of identifying these tumor attributes and characterizing their impact upon survival, these analyses represent little more than increasingly sophisticated prognostics.

The task at hand remains the elucidation of those attributes and features that characterize each patient’s tumor response to injury toward ultimate therapeutic response. To address this level of complexity, we need the guidance of more global measures of human tumor biology, measures that incorporate the dynamic interplay between tumors cells, their stroma, vasculature and the inflammatory environment.  These are the “real-time” insights that can only be achieved using human tissue in its native state. Ex vivo analyses offer these insights. Their information moves us from the realm of prognostics to one of predictives, and it is after all predictive measures that our patients are most desperately in need of today.

American Association of Cancer Research 2012

In my last blog, I described my recent attendance at the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) meeting held in Chicago. This is the premier cancer research convention for basic and translational research. The AACR was the original cancer research organization that pre-dated its sister organization – the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The focus of the AACR meeting is basic research and the presentations are often geared toward PhD level scientific discovery. I find this meeting the most informative for it provides insights into therapy options that may not arrive in the clinical arena for many years.

Among the presentations was a discussion of NextGen genomic analysis allowing an entire human genome to be sequenced within 24 hours. Mapping genetic elements has enabled investigators at the University of Pennsylvania to explore acute leukemia patients at diagnosis and at the time of recurrence. Based upon mutation analysis, different subsets of patients are observed. Mono and Oligo-clonal populations yield new subpopulations following cytoreductive therapy, wherein a small percentage of tumor cells survive and repopulate as the dominant clone.

The NextGen genomic analysis serves as the basis for new solid tumor studies in which breast biopsies are obtained, before and after therapy with aromatase inhibitors, to examine the clonality of the surviving populations.

William R. Sellers, MD, vice president of Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research Oncology, described a high throughput robotic technology capable of conducting tens of thousands of combinatorial mixtures to determine drug interactions. What I found most interesting was the observation by this investigator that, “Cell culture remains the most effective means of testing drug combinations.” We agree wholeheartedly.

New classes of lymphoma therapies are in development that target B cell signaling pathways. A prototypic agent being Ibrutinib, the Bruton’s tyrosine kinase inhibitor.

Additional developments are examining SYC as a target for small molecule inhibitors.
Our growing understanding of immune regulation is enabling investigators like James Allison to trigger tumor specific immunity. Agents like ipilumimab (AntiCTLA4), combined with other classes of small molecules and/or antibodies directed toward CD28, PD1, and ICOS regulation have the potential to change the landscape in diseases that extend from melanoma to prostate and breast.

The meeting had innumerable sessions and symposia that were geared toward or touched upon the field of metabolomics. As cells jockey for survival they both up- and down-regulate pathways essential to not only energy production but to the biosynthesis of critical metabolic intermediates. The regulation of PKM2 (pyruvate kinase isoenzyme) is now recognized as a pivotal point in the cell’s determination of catabolism (energy production), over anabolism (biosynthesis), with Serine concentrations playing an important regulatory role.

The PI3K pathway is an area of rapidly growing interest as new compounds target this key regulatory protein complex. Both selective and non-selective (pan PI3K) inhibitors are in clinical testing. Paul Workman’s group was honored for their seminal work in this and related areas of drug development. We reported our findings on the dual PI3K/mTOR inhibitor BEZ235 (Nagourney, RA et al Proc AACR, 2586, 2012).

The double-edged sword of immune response was deftly covered by Dr. Coussens who described the profound tumor stimulatory effects of T-cell, B-cell and Macrophage infiltration into the tumor microenvironment. Small molecules now in development that down-regulate macrophage signaling may soon show promise alone or in combination with other classes of drugs.

The RAS/RAF pathway becomes ever more complex as we begin to unravel the feedback loops that respond to small molecule inhibitors like Erlotinib or Vemurafanib. Investigators like Dr. Neal Rosen from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center have long argued that simple inhibition at one node in a cascade of signaling pathways will absolutely change the dynamic and redirect up and down stream signals that ultimately overcome inhibition. Strategies to control these “resistance” mechanisms are being developed. Once again we find that simple genomic analyses underestimate the complexity of human systems.

Among the regulatory topics at this year’s meeting was a special symposium on the development and testing of multiple novel (non-FDA approved) compounds in the clinical trial setting. There will need to be a new level of cooperation and communication forged between academia, regulatory entities and the pharmaceutical industry if we are to move this process forward. I am encouraged by the early evidence that all three are recognizing and responding to that reality.

The themes of this year’s meeting included:
1. A renewed focus on the biochemistry of metabolism
2. Clear progress in field of tumor immunology
3. The growing recognition that human tumors exist as microenvironments and not isolated single cells.

We are particularly gratified by the last point.

Our EVA/PCD focus on human tumor aggregates (microspheroids) isolated directly from patients as the most accurate models for chemotherapy selection and drug discovery appears to be gaining support.

The Tyranny of Medical Experts

Over the last several years a number of decisions have been handed down from medical experts, I use the term “handed down” advisedly. Like the Olympian Gods or appellate court judges, these dictates are provided to the unsuspecting medical public as fiats. Among these are the roles of mammograms for women under 50 (not recommended), PSA screening for men (not recommended), and a variety of determinations that seem to many counterintuitive. In the past, similar recommendations have been handed down regarding a series of “unnecessary” tests, the cessation of which could save millions of dollars annually.

These topics were the subject of a recent article by Drs. Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman, members of the faculty at Harvard Medical School. Published in the Saturday, March 31, 2012, Wall Street Journal, their article “Rise of the Medical Expertocracy,” focuses on the new paternalism that has come to define “Best Practices” in the healthcare. What most concerns these authors is the transition from physicians as experts, to governmental entities as experts. With this new bureaucracy comes an entirely new industry dedicated to the generation of medical metrics designed to provide doctors and hospitals report cards on their performance. Like evidence-based medicine, yesterday’s catchphrase for improving treatments, “Best Practices” are now being forced upon practitioners.

Where the purveyors of these approaches have gone wrong, is their misguided attempt to apply average treatments to average patients with the expectation of average outcomes. Despite the appeal of simplified treatment algorithms, there are no average patients and it follows that there are no average outcomes.

In a recent presentation at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting held in Chicago March 31 – April 4, 2012, one of the presenters at the melanoma session described whole genome sequencing on 21 human melanomas. To their chagrin they found 21 completely different phosphoprotein signatures. From the macroscopic to the most microscopic mankind in general and his tumors in particular, distinguish themselves for their unique attributes.

The theme of Drs. Hartzband and Groopman’s article echoes loudly in our study of cancer patients. We will only succeed in saving money and saving lives when we stop banging round pegs into square holes and get down to the challenging, but very doable work of matching each individual to their best treatment option – truly personalized medicine.

English Patients Denied Access to Ipilimumab

Among the more interesting discoveries in recent years have been two breakthroughs in the management of malignant melanoma. One drug, vemurafenib, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, acts specifically in patients who carry the BRAF (V600E) mutation. The second drug ipilimumab, offered commercially from Bristol-Meyers Squibb as Yervoy, is a monoclonal antibody that acts by blocking CTLA-4, thereby enhancing T-cell response to tumor antigens. While vemurafenib has a somewhat narrow target population, ipilimumab targets may extend to a broader range of melanoma patients and will likely find a role in other cancers.

The data supporting ipilimumab’s use in advanced melanoma was reported in a 2010 Phase III trial, which provided a superior median survival for those treated with the drug over those who received a placebo. Superior one and two-year survivals were also reported. Unfortunately, this did not rise to the level that met the standards of the English watchdog organization, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). The chief executive of NICE did admit that the drug could “potentially be very effective for a small percentage of patients.” Unfortunately, under current NICE guidelines, that small percentage of patients will not have access to the drug.

This is not the first time that a drug, found effective for the treatment of a subpopulation of patients has been denied approval based upon cost efficacy and the comparatively limited population of patients who stand to gain.

The role of Avastin in breast cancer represents a similar dilemma for those patients who might benefit but cannot afford the out-of-pocket expenses. Indeed, NICE originally denied approval to bortezomib, a highly active drug for the treatment of multiple myeloma, based upon similar cost considerations.

What ipilimumab, Avastin and bortezomib have in common is that they are harbingers of the coming conflict between patients-in-need and society’s capacity to cover the increasing costs of cancer therapy. Cost efficacy questions will only be resolved when we have the capacity to identify likely responders prior to therapy, enabling us to use drugs only in those patients with the highest expectations of response. Marginal overall benefits that come at high price will continue to fail until we redouble our efforts to refine the process of drug selection for individual patients. Janet Woodcock, MD, from the FDA once said, that we need “a critical path” from bench to bedside to guide clinical decisions. The human tumor primary culture functional analyses that we employ can provide that critical path and we would hope limit the need for the broad-brush policy decisions that are being handed down by NICE and similar entities both here in the U.S. and abroad.

Faster than the Speed of Light

Last week, scientists at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory located outside Geneva, Switzerland, conducted an experiment, the results of which now challenge one of the most fundamental principles of modern physics. I speak of Albert Einstein’s 1905 declaration that the speed of light is an absolute and that nothing in the universe could travel faster.

E = MC2, the principle under which nuclear energy and weapons have been developed, as well as all of the corollaries of the theory of relativity were called into question when a series of sub atomic particles, known as neutrinos traveled from Switzerland to Italy at a speed that was 1/60 of a billionth of a second faster than the speed of light. What has followed has been a flurry of interest by departments of physics all over the world. Confronted with this new finding, these investigators will diligently seek to reproduce or refute the findings.

This was not the first time that someone challenged the primacy of Einstein’s 1905 theory. Indeed, during the 1930s, for largely political and anti-Semitic reasons, the Nazi party attempted to disprove Einstein. Yet, all of the political meanderings, personal vendettas and intellectual jealousy could not unseat Einstein’s guiding principle. That is, until objective evidence in the form of the CERN experiments came to the fore.

Science — however lofty — and scientists — however highly regarded — dwell in the same realm as all the rest of us mere mortals. Their biases and preconceived notions often cloud their vision. Comfortable with a given paradigm, they hold unyieldingly to its principles until they are forced, however unwillingly, to relinquish their belief systems in favor of a new understanding. I write of this in the context of laboratory-based therapeutics – a field of scientific investigation that has provided firm evidence of predictive validity. These technologies have improved response, time to progression and survival for patients with leukemia, ovarian, breast and lung cancers, as well as melanoma and other advanced malignancies. Thousands of peer-reviewed published experiences have established the merit of human tumor primary cultures for the prediction of response. Investigations into the newest classes of targeted therapies are providing new insights into their use and combinatorial potential.

Yet,  while the physicists of the world will now rise to the challenge of data, the medical oncologists and their academic counterparts refuse to accept the unimpeachable evidence that supports  the validity of assay-directed therapy. Perhaps if our patients were treated at CERN in Geneva,  their good outcomes would receive the attention they so richly deserve.

Is Rationed or Rational Medical Care In Our Future?

We are witness to a sea change in medicine. Doctors and nurses are being replaced by “healthcare providers;” medical judgment is being phased out in favor of therapeutic algorithms; and the considered selection of treatments is giving way to rigid therapy guidelines. All the while, the regulatory environment increasingly precludes the use of “off label” drugs. It is understandable why insurers, governmental entities and hospital chains might welcome these changes. After all, once therapies have been reduced to standardized formulae, one can predict costs, resource allocations and financial exposures to the twentieth decimal place. For many medical conditions, these approaches will provide adequate care for the majority of patients.

But, what of the outliers? What of those complicated disease entities like cancer, whose complexity and variability challenge even the best minds? How do we bang the round peg of cancer therapy into the square hole of formulaic care?

There are several answers. The first is the least attractive: In this scenario, predicated upon cancer’s incidence in an older population, at the end or beyond their productive (and reproductive) years, we simply don’t allocate resources. Most civilized modern societies haven’t the stomach for such draconian measures and will seek less blunt instruments.

The second is a middle of the road approach. In this scenario, standardized guidelines that provide the same treatment to every patient with a given diagnosis are developed. Every medical oncologist knows the drill: FOLFOX for every colon cancer, Cytoxan plus Docetaxel for every breast cancer and carboplatin plus paclitaxel for ovarian cancer. The treatments work adequately well, the schedules are well established, the toxicities are well known and no one is cured. The beauty of this approach is that the average patient has an average outcome with the average treatment. By encompassing these regimens into standardized algorithms, we may soon be able to eliminate physicians entirely — first, with nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants and, ultimately, with computers. What is perhaps most surprising about this scenario has been the willingness of the medical oncology community to embrace it, a sort of professional self-induced extinction. At the time of this writing, this is the predominant model and is becoming increasingly entrenched under the auspices of NCCN and related guidelines. The operative term being guidelines, in as much as these “guidelines” are rapidly becoming “dictates.”

The final approach, and the one I find most appealing, is that which utilizes the clinical, scientific, laboratory and technical acumen of the physician to the maximum. Combining diagnostic skill with scientific insight, the physician becomes the captain of the ship, who must assume control from the autopilot once the vessel has entered the tempest and use his/her experience and training to guide the patient to a soft landing. This requires the capacity to think and demands an up-to-date knowledge of many disciplines. The judicious application of laboratory-directed approaches can further enhance the skillset, introducing objective data that is then used to guide drug and treatment selections. Predicated upon an understanding of the patient’s tumor biology, cancer therapy becomes an intellectual exercise that draws upon literature, and a knowledge of pharmacology and physiology. Adding the wealth of newly developed signal inhibitors to the mix only enhances the odds of a good outcome.

This approach improves responses and eliminates futile care. It provides patients the opportunity to participate in their own management. Correctly delivered, it would make available to every patient any FDA-approved drug. While it would seem to some that this would open the floodgates of drug use, I would strenuously disagree. It would instead limit drug administration to those patients most likely to respond, a goal currently pursed by virtually every major institution, yet accomplished by none. While a handful of targeted approaches have come to fruition in the last few years — erlotinib for EGFR mutation, and sunitinib in kidney cancers — most of the molecular profiling being done today doesn’t aid in the selection of therapy but instead provides negative information (e.g. RAS in colon cancer, ERCC1 over expression in lung) enjoining the physician against the use of a given agent but then leaving the unfortunate patient to fend for themselves amidst a panoply of randomly chosen options.

This is the approach that I have chosen to adopt in my own care of cancer patients. Our rapidly growing successes in ovarian, breast, lung, melanoma, leukemias and other diseases could and should serve as a model for others.

Why Some Patients Refuse Chemotherapy – And Why Some of Them Shouldn’t

In the June 13, 2011, issue of Time magazine, Ruth Davis Konigsberg described cancer patients who refuse to take potentially lifesaving therapy. Her article, titled “The Refuseniks – why some cancer patients reject their doctor’s advice,” examined the rationale applied by patients who decline chemotherapy. Many of these patients are rational, articulate, intelligent and capable individuals. While there are those who by virtue of religious belief, underlying depression, or loss of loved ones, decline interventions, many of these patients make compelling arguments in favor of their decisions.

When we examine the basis of these patients’ therapeutic nihilism, much of it reflects the uncertainty of benefit combined with the certainty of toxicity. What these patients articulate is the fundamental dilemma confronted by cancer patients, what we might describe as their logical assessment of “return on investment.”

Everything in life is based on probabilities. Will your husband or wife be true? Will you have a boy or a girl? Will you live to see retirement? Will your nest egg be adequate? Cancer medicine is no different.

Will the treatment I’m being offered extend my life long enough to be worth the short- and medium-term toxicities that I will certainly suffer?

While I cannot address this question with regard to surgery or radiation, I feel uniquely qualified to do so in the context of chemotherapy. What, after all, is a chemosensitivity assay? When correctly performed, it is a laboratory test that dichotomizes groups of patients with average likelihoods of response (e.g. 20%, 30%, 40%, etc.) into those who are more or less likely to respond based on the results. On average, a patient found sensitive in vitro has a twofold improvement in response, while those found resistant have a demonstrably lower likelihood of benefit. We have now shown this to be true in breast, ovarian, and non-small cell lung cancers, as well as melanoma, childhood and adult leukemias, and other diseases.

To address the misgivings of the Refuseniks, we might ask the following question: Would you take a treatment that provided a 30 percent likelihood of benefit? How about a 40 percent? 50 percent? 60 percent? 70 percent? Or 80 percent? While many might decline the pleasure of chemotherapy at a 20-30 percent response rate, a much larger number would look favorably upon a 70 percent response rate. On the flipside, a patient offered a treatment with a 50 percent likelihood of benefit (on average), who by virtue of a lab study realizes that their true response rate is closer to 19 percent (based on resistance in vitro), might very logically (and defensibly) decline treatment. These real life examples reflect the established performance characteristics of our laboratory tests (Nagourney, RA. Ex vivo programmed cell death and the prediction of response to chemotherapy. Current Treatment Options in Oncology 2006, 7:103-110.).

Rather than bemoan the uncertainties of treatment outcome, shouldn’t we, as clinical oncologists, be addressing these patients’ very real misgivings with data and objective information? I, for one, believe so.