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

American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) Meeting 2011

The Sunday, April 3, 2011, experimental and molecular therapeutics session at the AACR 102nd annual meeting included our presentation on signal transduction inhibitors. Using MEK/ERK and PI3K-MTOR inhibitors we explored the activities, synergies and possible clinical utilities of these novel compounds.

The findings were instructive. First, we saw a good signal for both compounds utilizing the Ex-vivo Analysis of Programmed Cell Death (EVA-PCD) platform. Second, we saw disease-specific activity for both compounds. For the MEK/ERK inhibitor, melanoma appeared to be a favored clinical target. This is highly consistent with our expectation. After all, many melanomas carry mutations in the BRAF gene, and BRAF signals downstream to MEK/ERK. By blocking MEK/ERK, it appeared that we blocked a pathway fundamental to melanoma progression. Indeed, MEK/ERK inhibitors are currently under investigation for melanoma.

For PI3K inhibitors, the highest activity was observed in uterine cancers. This is interest, because uterine carcinomas are often associated with a mutation in the PTEN gene. PTEN is a phosphatase tumor suppressor that functions to block activation of the PI3K pathway. Thus, mutations in the tumor suppressor unleash PI3K signaling, driving tumors to grow and metastasize. Blocking PI3K provided a strong signal, indicating that this approach may be very active in tumors associated with these oncogenic events.

The third point of interest in our report was, perhaps, its most important. Specifically, that we can explore those diseases where MEK-ERK, PI3K and mTOR signaling are less established targets. Cancers of the lung, ovary, colon or breast all manifested profiles of interest. When we combined both pathway inhibitors in a process we call horizontal inhibition, renal cell carcinoma popped up as the best target. These results, though exploratory, suggest a superior approach for drug development, allowing us to identify important leads much faster than the clinical trial process.

Targeted Therapies — The Next Chapter

Within this blog, we have intermittently reviewed the concept of targeted therapies. To reiterate, these are classes of drugs that target specific pathways considered tumorigenic. Among the pathways initially targeted were the epidermal growth factor receptor and the closely related HER2. Shortly after the introduction of EGFr and HER2 directed therapies came the development of drugs that target another critical pathway, mTOR.

Hundreds of compounds are now under development intended to more accurately hone in on the pathways of interest in patients’ tumors. Regrettably, the medical community continues to apply old clinical trial methods to this newest era of drugs. While the selective application of drugs like: Tarceva for EGFR mutants, Herceptin for HER2 over-expressers, and Crizotinib for EML4-ALK mutants, are much more effective in patients with these gene expressions, these are a select few examples of linear thinking that bore fruit.

That is, this gene is associated with this disease state and can be treated with this drug.

Many, if not most cancers will prove to be demonstrably more complicated. Genomic trials can only succeed if we first know the gene of interest and second know that its (over) expression alone is pathogenetic for the disease entity. Even meeting these conditions is likely to result in comparatively brief partial responses due to the crosstalk, redundancy and complexity of human tumor signaling pathways — the “targets” of these new drugs.

To address these complexities, functional analytic platforms that examine outcomes, not targets, are needed. This bottom-up approach has now enabled my team to explore the activity of novel compounds. When investigators develop interesting “small molecules,” we examine the disease specificity, combinatorial potential and sequence dependence of these compounds in short-term cultures to provide meaningful insights that can then be addressed on genomic and proteomic platforms. This reduces the time required to take these new agents from bench to bedside. We cannot solve tomorrow’s questions using yesterday’s mindsets

New Drugs Are Not Always Better Drugs

The most common form of renal carcinoma is the clear cell variant. These tumors are driven by mutations in the VHL gene and are associated with hyper-vascularity. Understanding the pathogenesis of this disease has enabled researchers to develop new classes of drugs that target VEGF, both at the protein level (Bevacizumab) and at the tyrosine kinase level (sorafenib, sunitinib, etc.). An additional class of drugs targets the intracellular metabolic pathway known as mTOR. Patients newly diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma of the clear cell type are treated with drugs that target these pathways. However, responses occur in the minority of patients. It is unclear why some patients respond to these interventions while others fail.

The EVA-PCD™ analysis is equally applicable to classic cytotoxic drugs and the newer classes of targeted agents, which include Sunitinib and Sorafenib and the rapalogs like Everolimus and Temsirolimus. This enables our lab to explore whether renal cell carcinoma patients are likely to respond to vascular or mTOR targeting classes of drugs. Interestingly, patients who do not respond to these classes of drugs may nonetheless have sensitivity to cytotoxic chemotherapeutic agents. One example currently undergoing therapy is a 51 year old male who was presented in February 2009 with widely metastatic renal cell carcinoma, and a destructive lesion of the right femur requiring open surgical stabilization. Tissue removed from the patient’s femur at the time of the orthopedic surgery was submitted for an EVA-PCD™ analysis. The results were highly instructive, indicating clear resistance to the VEGF targeting agents and the rapalogs but substantial sensitivity to a novel combination of cytotoxic drugs. The patient received an opinion from a renowned renal cell expert who immediately placed him on sunitinib (Sutent™). When he failed sunitinib he was then placed upon Everolimus (Afinitor). Again the patient failed to respond. Progression of his disease was heralded by brain metastases that required both neurosurgery and cranial irradiation. He then revealed rapidly progressive pulmonary metastases as well as large painful bilateral axillary lymphadenopathy and large painful subcutaneous lesions. In light of the patient’s failure of targeted agents, he was treated with a three-drug combination identified to be active in the EVA-PCD™ analysis. The response to date has been dramatic, with complete resolution of subcutaneous lesions and lymph nodes , and objective improvement in the pulmonary metastases by CT scan. The patient remains on therapy, with continued excellent response.

This is but one example of an unexpectedly good response to classic cytotoxic drugs following a failure to respond to the newest classes of targeted agents. These experiences reinforce the need for cancer therapies to be individualized. They also remind us, as physicians, that it is the good outcome of the patient not the therapy applied that constitute successful application of the healing arts.