Practicing Clinical Oncologists to the Rescue

Cancer patients and their physicians can find themselves at the wrong end of many scientific discoveries. For example, the drug capecitabine, sold commercially as Xeloda, was originally marketed at a daily dose of 2500 mg/m2 given for two weeks.

This schedule developed by the pharmaceutical investigators, is known as the maximum tolerated dose (MTD) and it performed well against other regimens for breast and colon cancer. With an FDA approval in hand, oncologists began administering the drug on the recommended schedule.

MTD2It did not take long before physicians and their patients realized that 2500 mg/m2/day was more than many patients could tolerate. Hand-foot Syndrome (an inflammation of the skin of palms and soles), mucositis (oral ulcers) myelosuppression (lowered blood counts) and diarrhea were all observed. Immediately clinical physicians began to dose de-escalate. Soon these astute practitioners established more appropriate dose schedules and the drug found its rightful place as a useful therapeutic in many diseases.

What was interesting was that activity continued to be observed. It appeared that the high dose schedule was simply toxic and that lower doses worked fine, with fewer side effects.

Modern targeted agents have been introduced over recent years with dose schedules reminiscent of capecitabine. The drug sunitinib, approved for the treatment of renal cell carcinoma, is given at 50 mg daily for four weeks in a row, followed by a two week rest. Despite good activity, toxicities like mucositis and skin rash often set in by the third week. What remained unclear was whether these schedules were warranted. A recent report in the Annals of Oncology examined this very question. In a retrospective analysis of patients with kidney cancer the physicians found that lowering the dose of sunitinib preserved activity but reduced toxicity.

As a practitioner, I have long reduced my patient’s schedule of sunitinib to two weeks on, one week off or even 11 days on, 10 days off. In one patient that I treated for a gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST), I achieved a durable complete remission with just 25 mg/day, given seven days each month, a remission that persists to this day, seven years on.

We are in a new world of targeted therapy, one in which very few people understand the kinetics, pharmacodynamics and response profiles of patients for novel drugs. In our laboratory, favorable dose response curves often suggest that many agents could be administered at lower doses. More interestingly, some patients who do not carry the “targets” for these drugs nonetheless respond. This has broad implications for multi-targeted inhibitors like sunitinib that can influence multiple targets simultaneously.

As so often happens, it is the nimble clinical physicians with their feet on the ground, confronting the very real needs of their patients who can outmaneuver and outthink their academic colleagues. The trend toward consolidation in medicine and the absorption of clinical practices into hospital groups all using standardized algorithms has the risk of stifling the very independence and creativity of practicing oncologists that has proven both effective and cost-effective for our patients and our medical system at large.

Stalking Leukemia Genes One Whole Genome at a Time

An article by Gina Kolata on the front page of the July 8, Sunday New York Times, “In Leukemia Treatment, Glimpses of the Future,” tells the heartwarming story of a young physician afflicted with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Diagnosed in medical school, the patient initially achieved a complete remission, only to suffer a recurrence that led him to undergo a bone marrow transplant. When the disease recurred a second time years later, his options were more limited.

As a researcher at Washington University himself, this young physician had access to the most sophisticated genomic analyses in the world. His colleagues and a team of investigators put all 26 of the University’s gene sequencing machines to work around the clock to complete a whole genome sequence, in search of a driver mutation. The results identified FLT3. This mutation had previously been described in acute leukemia and is known to be a target for several available small molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitors. After arranging to procure sunitinib (Sutent, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals), the patient began treatment and had a prompt and complete remission, one that he continues to enjoy to this day.

The story is one of triumph over adversity and exemplifies genomic analysis in the identification of targets for therapy. What it also represents is a labor-intensive, costly, and largely unavailable approach to cancer management. While good outcomes in leukemia have been the subject of many reports, imatinib for CML among them, this does not obtain for most of the common, solid tumors that lack targets for these new silver bullets. Indeed, the article itself describes unsuccessful efforts on the part of Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens, to probe their own genomes for effective treatments. More to the point, few patients have access to 26 gene-sequencing machines capable of identifying genomic targets. A professor of bioethics from the University of Washington, Wiley Burke, raised additional ethical questions surrounding the availability of these approaches only to the most connected and wealthiest of individuals.

While brute force sequencing of human genomes are becoming more popular, the approach lacks scientific elegance. Pattern recognition yielding clues, almost by accident, relegates scientists to the role of spectator and removes them from hypothesis-driven investigation that characterized centuries of successful research.

The drug sunitinib is known for its inhibitory effect upon VEGF 1, 2 and 3, PDGFr, c-kit and FLT3. Recognizing the attributes of this drug and being well aware of C-KIT and FLT3’s role in leukemias, we regularly add sunitinib into our leukemia tissue cultures to test for cytotoxic effects in malignantly transformed cells.  The insights gained enable us to simply and quickly gauge the likelihood of efficacy in patients for drugs like sunitinib.

Once again we find that expensive, difficult tests seem preferable to inexpensive, simple ones. While the technocrats at the helm of oncology research promise to drive the price of these tests down to a level of affordability, everyday we wait 1,581 Americans die of cancer. Perhaps, while we await perfect tests that might work tomorrow, we should use good tests that work today.