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The Making of A Cancer Activist

Joel Nowak is a prostate cancer patient and well-known cancer activist.

Tell us about your own prostate cancer journey and how you came to cancer activism.

Mr. Joel Nowak: Part of my journey to being an advocate pertains not only to having prostate cancer and recurrence but also to the fact that I had multiple primary cancers. I currently have five different primary cancer diagnoses.

I was treated initially for prostate cancer at the end of 2001. I had a Gleason 3 + 4 with a PSA of only 4. I had surgery. I went back in five years and my PSA went crazy, up into the 80s.

At that point, it was a recurrence. We did a bunch of scans. We identified a couple of lymph nodes in the prostate bed, as well as a very significant and large tumor in my kidney. At that moment, the assumption was that I had a prostate cancer tumor in the kidney and that the kidney had stopped functioning and was basically dead. I had a nephrectomy, which is the removal of the kidney. We found out that it was a different diagnosis: clear cell renal cancer.

Looking back, I see that prostate cancer recurrence saved my life because that’s how I found out that I had renal cancer. If it weren’t for my prostate cancer recurring, I would not be here today.

I was in my early 50s, so I was fairly young at the time. I knew I was metastatic with prostate cancer and had been diagnosed with another primary cancer. Knowing that I was metastatic weighed very heavily on me. There was no way to use that C-word—cure—which I don’t like to use. I looked desperately for people in a similar situation. I refer to it as looking like me, but I don’t mean physically. I mean people in their 50s, with a kid in high school, a kid in college, and metastatic prostate cancer that was incurable and possibly terminal.

I found myself becoming angrier and angrier.

Not only did I have metastatic cancer, but also I felt very alone in the sense that I couldn’t find anybody in a similar situation. I went from one cancer support group to another. Though I lived in metropolitan New York where there are options, I still could never find anybody I could relate to directly, someone with a similar experience. I found plenty of older men who were worried about whether or not they would make it to their grandchild’s wedding and things like that, but for me, that had no relevance. I became more isolated, lonelier, and angry.

One night, I was inappropriate with the group leader of one support group. I was overly aggressive and blamed that person for what I perceived as my situation. Instead of reacting to my aggression, the person just sat back in their chair, looked at me, and said, “Why don’t you do something about it?” I went home and discussed it with my wife who tried to stabilize me. “Why don’t you,” she said. I got angrier at first and just stewed for a while.

It has been 10 years, but when I went to bed that night I thought I was going to die within a few years. It’s common for many men with recurrence or metastatic cancer to wonder if they’re going to die in a year or two. I felt terrible and angry. I’m not really an angry person, but I had become a very hostile person.

When I woke up the next morning, I decided that I didn’t want to live my life feeling that way. I was going to find a way to let go of that anger and do something about it. That’s how I got involved with activism.

You decided to channel all the fear, anger, and anxiety into something positive.

Mr. Nowak: Yes. I think that’s what it was. I’m not saying that I still don’t have moments; I do. And since then, I’ve had two additional primary cancer diagnoses. One of them was a rare cancer. But the prostate cancer was the only one that caused that kind of emotional response, probably because that is the only one, so far, that is metastatic.

I spend a lot of time with prostate cancer, but I also work with other cancers—metastatic, advanced, and progressed prostate cancer.

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The Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project

Dr. Eliezer Van Allen, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, a clinician at Dana-Farber/Partners Cancer Care, and an Associate Member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, focuses on computational cancer genomics, using new technology in precision medicine, and resistance to targeted prostate cancer therapies.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about the Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project, a nationwide genomic research study for men with advanced or metastatic prostate cancer.

What is the Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project?

Dr. Van Allen: The Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project is a patient-driven research initiative whereby we researchers partner directly with patients to dramatically expand the scope of our understanding prostate cancer genetics. We try to fill in all of the missing gaps that are currently a challenge in our field. Hopefully, we’ll learn what drives advanced prostate cancer, how to treat it more effectively, come up with new drugs, and understand the differences between more indolent cancers and those that progress in the metastatic setting. Essentially, I want to answer the questions I had during my initial clinical observations way back when.

You say you want to partner directly with the patients. How does that disrupt the normal clinical trial process? Normally, patients would access trials through their doctors?

Dr. Van Allen: Exactly. That’s what I’ve done during my postdoctoral training and in my junior faculty stage. That’s what we all do: we devise the research project, write a bunch of protocols and consent forms, and get them approved in our hospitals. Then we rely on the doctors and research teams to approach patients. They consent their patients to the studies that are already defined and set in stone. We use that to research. That’s obviously been a driving force for many modern discoveries. It’s a remarkable thing.

And that’s how we have to lay the first genetic maps of prostate cancer and cancers in general. This project flips genomics on its head. We’ve been working with prostate cancer patients to build a project with, by, and for men with advanced prostate cancer, their families, caregivers, and loved ones in order to resonate with patients. We are creating a mechanism such that patients can consent without leaving their home and participate without necessarily living near an academic medical center. This helps expand the scope of what we were able to learn in new ways.

A couple of years ago, while trying to define the genetic maps of local and advanced prostate cancer, we launched the first of these patient-driven projects at the Broad Institute in metastatic breast cancer. Using social media, patient outreach, advocacy partners, and patients themselves describing what it means to participate in these projects, that study enrolled over 4,000 women and men with metastatic breast cancer. Given that we’re thrilled when the average study to define the genetic maps of prostate cancer enrolls 100 patients over the course of years, if not decades, that number in such short time is remarkable. As we developed that project, I immediately thought of prostate cancer.

Rather than doing a top-down research project whereby we start with an idea in a researcher’s head, we go through the hospital and the doctors, and eventually, the patients, we’re starting with the patients. They’re talking directly to the researchers and building up. That is the ethos of this project.

This is not a traditional, academic project whereby we generate all the data, sit on it in our own little groups while we try to make sense of it, and eventually make it available to the larger community. Rather, as soon as we have a nominal amount of data, we make it immediately available to any researcher around the world who wants to use it. We’re trying to create a resource that anyone could use. The first 100 patients with genetic and clinical data have been made available for researchers pre-competitively. We don’t wait and publish these results in an academic journal or any other medium first.

Publishing in a traditional academic journal can restrict access for patients. If they want to read to read the results, they have to pay $30 to download the article.

Dr. Van Allen: Exactly.

If someone reading this wants to participate, what do they do?

Dr. Van Allen: If you have advanced prostate cancer, simply go to mpcproject.org. There, the homepage describes what’s involved. When you click the “count me in” button, it sends you on what we hope is a very quick journey through a few basic questions. Then, it asks for your permission or consent to participate in this project. There are a few more simple questions after that.

Soon after you register, you’ll receive a box that contains a saliva kit that the patient will spit in and return to get their inherited DNA information. Additionally, there’s a liquid biopsy kit, which is a vial that you bring to your doctor’s appointment to collect a liquid biopsy of your tumor. Then you return the sample to us.

When we receive those materials, we perform genetic profiling and access the medical record data. We de-identify everything to make sure it’s private, so nothing is exposed. We build a cohort and learn as we go.

Each step of the process has been vetted, scrutinized, criticized, and modified based on patient feedback such that we hope it resonates with this group. Part of this is actually iterating as we go. This is a research project. We’re not a clinical lab, so at the moment at least, we do not return results to individuals. But we do regularly engage with patients to share aggregate results of anything we learn in real time.

Patients won’t have access to the results of their tests?

Dr. Van Allen: Right. Unfortunately, we can’t provide individualized results, at the moment at least, because it’s beyond the scope of this project. It’s something we’re very interested in trying to explore. It creates many additional complexities. There is a holy patient/doctor relationship that we want to respect. That being said, often men will ask what’s in it for them and ask why would I want to do this?

We try to share aggregate results as regularly as possible. Patients can take those aggregate results, or any sort of interesting findings, to their doctor to consider if it’s relevant to them. Also, it’s a beautiful thing to see how patients themselves get when it comes to helping others: This is for the brothers, the sons, the patients that come after me, and I want to contribute. I want to help solve this puzzle, even if I may not see it in my lifetime. That altruistic aspect is genuinely great.

They do get to participate.

Dr. Van Allen: Yes. They’re just surprised that folks like myself, or anyone in the research world, is even talking to them. But patients are the most powerful people in this world. They have the power to really make these kinds of change

I think most people would want to participate if it’s easy to do. Are you providing detailed information about the kinds of tests you’re running so that if patients wanted to repeat them with their own doctor they could?

Dr. Van Allen: We’re doing whole exome sequencing, which looks at all the coding region of the genome on the tumor and the inherited DNA.

We are also piloting sending in liquid biopsies. One emerging technology that’s arrived over the last couple of years is the ability to detect circulating DNA that has shed from the tumor into the blood. That is an important advance for this project because most men with metastatic prostate cancer will not have had a biopsy of their tumor at the time of metastatic disease. They may have had a prostate biopsy years, if not decades, before but that tumor from way back when isn’t an accurate snapshot of what the tumor is like in the metastatic setting. Detecting a tumor in relative real time using blood is something we’re pretty excited to explore as part of this project.

For the men we sequence, we do our best effort to track down their tumor block. We go through every precaution to ensure that we don’t exhaust the tumor biopsy and that clinical care comes first. If there’s ever a need for it down the road, that’s the number one priority. We’re exploring how to use these liquid biopsies to help us in this project.

Do you handle the liquid biopsies?

Dr. Van Allen: Yes, it’s the Broad Institute.

Can anyone participate? Can non-Americans participate?

Dr. Van Allen: At the moment, we are approved so that anyone from the United States and Canada can participate. Anyone in other parts of the world can complete the survey and provide some of the patient-reported data, but we don’t currently have permission to do the subsequent genomic profiling for them. In our soft launch, we’ve scanned through self-reported information from almost 200 patients. That has already initiated some ideas for research projects we never would have imagined.

This patient-reported data is quite valuable. Anyone who, at the moment, may not be eligible by virtue of not qualifying from a regulatory perspective for our institutional review board can still contribute to this project in a meaningful way.

A fair number of people travel for medical procedures. If someone travels to the United States for radiation, for example, could they have the samples collected at a United States institution and therefore participate in that way?

Dr. Van Allen: For now, the study can only collect samples and medical records from residents of the United States and Canada. We are actively investigating methods for including international patients.

Is there a fee to participate, or is this free for men?

Dr. Van Allen: Free.

Is there anything else you think men should know about the project?

Dr. Van Allen: We’ve been concerned about patient interest and openness. In our first project for breast cancer, the social media footprint was quite high. The social media chatter is noticeable and folks feel pretty comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and opinions about their disease. Even though incidents of disease is roughly the same in the United States for breast and prostate cancer, the social media footprint for prostate cancer is the complete opposite.

As we geared up for our soft launch, we were curious to see if we’d end up with the same number of participants, even if we weren’t seeing any social media chatter. People don’t talk about this disease. Indeed, on the first version of the saliva kit that we mail out to the patients, metastatic prostate cancer project was printed on the box. Men asked us to take that off the box. We didn’t understand why. One guy explained: “I don’t want the mailman to know I have prostate cancer.”

It’s that kind of challenge we’d like to help overcome. We want to make men feel more comfortable talking about this disease amongst friends, families, and coworkers. We hope this project can be the mechanism to help men open up about it. It’s encouraging that in the first ten days we’ve accrued an almost identical number of patients as we did with the breast cancer soft launch a couple of years ago. Nobody talks about prostate cancer on Twitter and Facebook, at least in open settings. We’re very curious to learn how patients become comfortable talking about this disease and about this project.

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The Genomic Revolution Comes To Prostate Cancer

Dr. Oliver Sartor, the Laborde Professor of Cancer Research in the Medicine and Urology Departments of the Tulane School of Medicine, is one of the leading researchers in advanced prostate cancer today. He is also the editor-in-chief of Clinical Genitourinary Cancer and the author of more than 300 scientific papers.

Dr. Sartor puts this month’s conversations about prostate cancer genomics into context for us.

“We can divide genomics into two different categories. The first category is germline genomics, which is the DNA with which you’re born. It’s clear that about 12% of people with advanced prostate cancer will have alterations in their inherited DNA, in particular in genes involved with DNA repair. Most common of these alterations are BRCA2. There are a variety of others that are somewhat prevalent, including ATM, CHEK2, and BRCA1. There are others that are more rare.

The implications of these germline mutations are significant for the patient: in certain configurations they may predispose a cancer to be sensitive to certain therapies, such as PARP inhibitors or platinum-based chemotherapy or (rarely) immunotherapy. There is more complexity, but knowing the germline mutation helps the informed clinician make decisions. In my practice, we test all patients with advanced prostate cancer for these germline mutations. (A National Comprehensive Cancer Network guideline suggests the same approach.)

These germline mutations represent the DNA with which you’re born. That DNA is going to have repercussions if also mutated in your family members. Men who have some of these DNA repair mutations have an increased risk of prostate cancer. In addition, there is a small increased risk of pancreatic cancer and male breast cancer for those with some of the germline mutations. Around 30% of men with BRCA2 will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime, but that cancer is more likely to be aggressive if diagnosed. With regards to females, it’s particularly important. Females with DNA repair defects are more likely to have breast and ovarian cancer. Female with DNA repair mutations, in particular BRCA1/

BRCA2, ought to consider having their breasts or ovaries removed at an appropriate time. Prophylactic surgery has been demonstrated to be potentially life-saving for those individuals. The risk of breast cancer may be as high as 70% and the risk of ovarian cancer may be as high as 40%.

Thus, for these germline mutations there are implications for treatment and implications for the patient’s family.

We should be doing prostate cancer screening earlier in men with these DNA repair defects for prostate cancer; we should be doing biopsies at a PSA of 3 or higher, and perhaps even lower, for younger men known to be at risk. Starting screening at age 45 has been suggested by some. In addition to germline genomics, we need to also talk about somatic genomics. Data indicates that about 60% of individuals who have a DNA repair germline mutation are likely to have another second genetic mutation occur within their tumor. In addition, many of the tumors can acquire an alteration in their tumor DNA even when the germline is normal.

Taken together, about 20 to 25% of men may have DNA repair mutations in their tumor’s DNA. That makes them particularly sensitive to certain therapies such as the PARP inhibitors, as I mentioned earlier, or platinum chemotherapy. When you have two DNA repair mutations in the same cell, the likelihood of response to these agents appears fairly high.

There are also other DNA defects of considerable interest, such as alterations of the mismatch repair genes MSH-2 and MSH-6. When these alterations do occur, there is a potentially increased probability of responding to immunotherapy such as the new PD-1 inhibitors.

Overall, the guiding light today in genetics in my practice is to look at both the germline DNA and the tumor DNA. I choose to look at the tumor DNA circulating free DNA (cfDNA) tests, in particular the Guardant Health assay. The ability of other assays to corroborate the Guardant Health findings is not yet clear. There is clear data to indicate that different assays give different results, but nevertheless, I think in the early exploratory phase we’re in now, it’s important to begin to test patients in order to better understand their genomics and hopefully guide us towards better therapies. This will happen part of the time but certainly not all of the time.

There is more to the story of prostate cancer genetics. We’ve looked at androgen receptor mutations that can have implications for a response to Androgen Receptor directed therapy, such as Xtandi (enzalutamide), Zytiga (abiraterone), and Erleada (apalutamide). We’re dissecting a number of permutations that occur. It’s a complex scenario, because very few men have only one mutation. Most have multiple mutations. And in most cases, these mutations are not targetable with current therapies. This is very important for people to know.

Everybody thinks if they get a genomics test that means they’ve got a treatment. It’s not the case. Many times we get the genomics results and find that there are no known treatments we can use for that man’s particular alteration. That said, there is a subset of men who will have informative genomics while many more people will have non-informative genomics.

There is a final issue I’d like to discuss. There is currently a bit of a debate amongst physicians over the utility of PARP inhibitors such as Lynparza (olaparib) as compared to platinum chemotherapy. But it is noteworthy that platinum-based chemotherapies are inexpensive compared to PARP inhibitors. This does not require a clinical trial. (Most men will access PARP inhibitors through a clinical trial, although sometimes insurance companies are willing to try.)

As it turns out, neither the platinum-based chemotherapies nor the PARP inhibitors will be effective forever, so we do need strategies to manage patients after PARP inhibitors or platinum-based chemotherapies fail. Currently, that space is unexplored. We have to gather much more data before we can make conclusions about those with underlying DNA repair defects who have failed platinum-based chemotherapy or PARP inhibitors.

This is an area of active and important investigation that represents a conundrum for many patients today. I’ve got a patient right now going through this. We’re debating what to do next. I’ve tried to be as honest as I can when I say, “I don’t know what to do, but we’ve got to try something.”

We are in the middle of a revolution, but the parts and pieces are not yet clear. For some, understanding tumor genetics at the current level is helpful. For others, it is perplexing and expensive.

Join us to read this month’s conversations about prostate cancer genomics.

(Already a member? You can read all conversations in your copy of April’s Prostatepedia.)


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3 or Fewer Prostate Cancer Mets

Dr. Piet Ost is a radiation oncologist at Ghent University in Belgium. His work focuses on post-surgery radiation therapy and metastasis-directed therapy for oligometastatic prostate cancer, or a cancer recurrence with three or fewer metastases.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about treating men with so few metastases after treatment.

Can you define oligometastatic prostate cancer?

Dr. Ost: First of all, if your doctor talks about oligometastatic disease, I think it’s very important to ask them what they mean by that? When we look through literature, there are several definitions used.

Some people use oligometastatic while others use oligorecurrence, synchronous metastases, or low volume metastases. Many of these probably mean the same, but there is no uniform definition.

In 1995, Hellman and Weichselbaum first defined oligometastases as metastases limited in number and location. These tumors have not developed the full capacity for metastatic growth. It could be an issue with the metastases—or the seed—or it could be an issue with the soil—the environment in which the metastases started to grow. That’s the biological definition.

This is not very useful as a clinician. What is limited? Is that a certain number? If you look through literature, many clinicians define it as up to three metastatic lesions with no more than two different organs involved. That is probably the most used definition, but there are alternatives. Some say that it’s only one metastasis while others say it’s as many as five or even 10 in case of brain metastases. Some say there has to be a certain amount of time between primary diagnosis and the occurrence of metastasis.

There’s a lot of confusion throughout the literature. If you read an article, you have to look at their definition. When doctors talk to each other, and when patients talk to each other, they all use the word oligometastatic, but it might be that they’re talking about a different disease.

Is there any sort of restriction on where those metastases are located—for example, in only the pelvic area?

Dr. Ost: At this time, I don’t think so. It’s a biological phenotype. We care less where the metastasis occurs. For example, we have had patients with unique lung mets at the time of recurrence where we remove those lung mets, and then these patients remain disease-free for many months or even years.

Normally, when you have a patient with lung mets, those are visceral mets, and their prognosis is supposed to be very poor no matter what. There appears to be a subset of patients with a limited number of metastases, even visceral metastases, who still benefit from removing or irradiating the metastases. We have several of those cases documented already. It’s not about the location. It’s something about the biology, and that is the big problem at this time.

Currently, when we propose a certain oligometastatic or metastasis directed therapy to a patient, we don’t know if the metastases we see and treat are the only ones there, or if three months after we remove or eradiate them, there will be 20 new metastases. We don’t know that at the start. This shows us that imaging is still far from perfect and sometimes we only see the tip of the iceberg.

When we look at the distribution or pattern of metastases in recurrent prostate cancer with Choline PET/CT and PSMA PET/CT imaging, we see that, after receiving prior prostate cancer treatment, the majority of patients relapse first in the lymph nodes.

That is mainly in the pelvic lymph nodes. If we look at all the patients that we screen for now, 70% have nodal recurrences, 25% have bone metastases, and 5% have visceral mets. If we look at all of those recurrences, two thirds of those relapses are what we call oligometastatic, meaning up to three metastatic spots. We don’t believe that there is a true limitation on the organs. How it evolves is actually a fingerprint of the disease.

When you start, you don’t know whether it’s a true oligomet. We cannot predict at this time how the disease will evolve.

How do you normally treat oligomets? With radiation or surgery? How do you decide which is most appropriate?

Dr. Ost: We still counsel our patients on the standard options. For patients with upfront metastatic disease, the landscape has changed dramatically where we now introduce Androgen Deprivation Therapy (ADT) plus Taxotere (docetaxel) or ADT plus Zytiga (abiraterone) as a standard of care.

We still do not know if these options are helpful in treating the primary tumor and its mets with metastatic-directed therapy. In situations with upfront oligometastatic disease, we counsel our patients that the standard of care is systemic drugs while the addition of any metastatic-directed therapy is one big question mark. We do not advise it outside clinical trial.

The situation is a bit different in the recurrent setting. In the recurrent setting, there’s a gray zone. For example, the older data said that starting ADT for a PSA relapse following primary therapies—just starting ADT—is not advised; it’s better to wait and see and do a delayed ADT at the time of symptomatic progression.

Now with the very sensitive imaging, we see mets earlier at PSA relapse. What should we do with these? Do we still say the standard of care is wait and see, ADT, or something else? Because new imaging created this gray zone, all of a sudden we saw a boom in these oligometastatic patients, so we decided to do a clinical trial in this setting.

In our paper published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO), we randomized our patients to wait and see. One group had surveillance while starting ADT, and the other group had surgery or radiotherapy to the mets followed by surveillance. In that study, we found that surgery or radiotherapy is better at postponing further progression to polymetastatic disease rather than just observing patients.

We have an alternative now in counseling patients: metastaticdirected therapy with either surgery or radiotherapy. We know that it’s very safe, because we did not see any grade 2 or higher toxicity, which is a positive thing to tell men with prostate cancer. We can offer you something without a whole lot of toxicity. We still have to tell you this was a Phase II trial. The endpoint was time to progression.

I’m still not sure that giving metastatic-directed therapy will change your disease in the long run, that it will make you live any longer compared with immediate ADT or surveillance. It’s still too early to tell. We try to counsel our patients with these different options.

Join us to read the rest of Dr. Ost’s comments. (Subscribers can read the conversation in their March issue of Prostatepedia.)


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Dr. Piet Ost: Why Medicine?

Dr. Piet Ost is a radiation oncologist at Ghent University in Belgium. His work focuses on post-surgery radiation therapy and metastasis-directed therapy for oligometastatic prostate cancer, or a cancer recurrence with three or fewer metastases.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about what drew him to medicine.

Why did you become a doctor?

Dr. Piet Ost: It was a bit by coincidence. I planned to be an airline pilot, but due to some medical issues with my eyes, I was not allowed to fly. I’ve always had a big interest in anything scientifically sound where you can start with science and build up from there. I found evidence-based medicine interesting from the beginning. So I started an alternate plan to become a doctor. I enrolled in medical school and became more interested in getting patients involved in the science, in applying evidence-based medicine. How can we do that? Where are the big gaps in science?

In medical school, I realized that there are so many unanswered questions that patients ask on a daily basis. You just have to tell them what we know now, but that there are many things that we still do not know or fully understand. That communication process has helped me a lot in talking to patients. They helped me grow in this process once I graduated.

Subscribe to read Dr. Ost’s comments on oligometastatic prostate cancer.


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Dr. Charles Ryan: Why Oncology?

Dr. Charles J. Ryan is the Clinical Program Leader for Genitourinary Medical Oncology at the University of California, San Francisco Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

He primarily treats men with advanced prostate cancer. His research focuses on novel therapies for advanced prostate cancer.

Not a member? Join us to read Dr. Ryan’s conversation in our March issue on cancer recurrence.

Why did you become a doctor?

Dr. Ryan: I grew up in a medium-sized city called Appleton, Wisconsin. My father was the first medical oncologist and the first prescriber of chemotherapy in our town. He never did a fellowship because they didn’t exist when he finished his training.

I’m the youngest of four kids. By the time I was in junior high school, all of my siblings had gone away. My mother is a nurse, and she was working for hospice in our community. Sitting around the dinner table, it was just the three of us.

The dinner conversation was frequently about cancer, hospice, medicine, and things like that. That’s what shaped me at the time. I decided to become a physician in college, but I had given a lot of thought to oncology and medicine well before making the decision.

I guess medicine is the family business?

Dr. Ryan: Yes. It is sort of a family business. When I started my medical training, I felt a kinship with the medical oncologists I interacted with at the University of Wisconsin. I was randomly assigned to work in an oncology clinic and a prostate cancer clinic. I just felt like: these are my people. The timing was right for me to make a decision. It’s what I wanted to do with my life. I found the disease itself biologically compelling, and the emergence of new therapies and the community of physicians and researchers who worked on it were an interesting group of people. It was a natural decision.

Join us to read Dr. Ryan’s thoughts on Xtandi (enzalutamide) and Zytiga (abiraterone.)


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Imaging Metastatic Prostate Cancer

Dr. Eric Rohren is the chair of the department of radiology at Baylor College of Medicine.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about imaging metastatic prostate cancer.

Subscribe to read Dr. Rohren’s comments on radium therapy + imaging. Members can read the interview in their March 2018 issue of Prostatepedia.

In terms of imaging, what kinds of scans can determine if a man has metastases (mets) anywhere in his body?

Dr. Eric Rohren: X-ray has been around for a long time and still has a role to play. It’s easy to obtain, it’s cheap, and it has low radiation exposure. We still rely on a good old-fashioned chest or bone X-ray, depending on the patient’s symptoms.

These days, most patients with any type of malignancy, and specifically prostate cancer, are managed in a couple of ways.

One way is a CAT scan. CAT scan is a 3-D imaging technique that uses X-rays that can take images of the body, chest, abdomen, and pelvis. Most patients with newly diagnosed prostate cancer or treated prostate carcinoma have undergone a CAT scan at some point in the course of their disease. CAT scans can show us the prostate gland, lymph nodes, liver, and many of the different organs where cancer may be hidden.

To supplement that, patients with prostate cancer often get a bone scan, which is a nuclear medicine technique. In a bone scan, we inject radioactive material that goes to the skeleton, and most strongly so in areas where there’s increased skeletal turnover, where something in the bone is inciting a reaction. It may go to benign things like healing fractures, arthritis, and various areas of injury. But the radioactive material also goes to areas of metastatic disease in the skeleton, and it localizes most particularly in those areas, lighting up on these bone scans.

Rather than just a particular region of the body, a bone scan shows us from the top of the head all the way down to the feet, which is nice. We get a look at the entire skeleton, and we can look for the little spots that are lighting up that may indicate the presence of metastatic disease in the skeleton.

CAT scans and bone scans are very widely used. A bone scan is a little bit better than a CAT scan in looking for these bone metastases, so the two really augment each other in detection of the disease.

Beyond these, we do have some newer imaging techniques coming into play. There’s a way of doing a bone scan with PET scanner. A PET scanner is another nuclear medicine technique that is more sensitive than a standard nuclear medicine camera, and it acquires a CAT scan at the same time. You can look at the images on the nuclear medicine technique overlaid on the CT scan to see where exactly the activity is and what it’s due to.

We can also use some agents with PET scanning to look at the skeleton. A so-called fluoride PET/CT bone scan seems to have many advantages over a conventional bone scan in terms of detecting smaller disease, more sites of disease, and things like that. MRI is also used in some cases.

Traditionally, MRI is used to evaluate specific areas, so if there’s pain in a particular area such as the skeleton,

MRI is a great way to do that. MRI is also used to look directly at the prostate gland and at the prostate bed after prostate surgery or after other therapy in the pelvis. It can be very good at detecting small volumes of disease. The problem with PET scanning and MRI scanning is that they are less accessible, although MRI is in most places now, and most major areas have access to a PET scanner.

Then there’s the issue of cost. Both techniques are costly. We need to determine if the added cost is justified by the additional information that those scans provide.

Beyond these techniques, the exciting thing for nuclear medicine is the new developments on the horizon. As we discover more about the molecular nature of disease, why cancer forms, and what makes and defines a cancer cell, those molecular discoveries can be translated into imaging studies that we can then use with PET scanning to be even more sensitive for detection of disease.

For example, there are several new molecular tracers in the United States that are approved for imaging of prostate cancer. Choline and Axumin (FACBC) are both agents approved in the United States for use with PET/CT.

Internationally, people are moving to a compound called prostate surface membrane antigen (PSMA) that can image prostate carcinoma. It seems to be even better than Choline or Axumin. The data is still a little bit undetermined at this point, but there’s a lot of excitement around these newer agents being able to seek out cancer in very small volumes anywhere it occurs in the body.

Then I guess the question becomes: when do you treat?

Dr. Rohren: Yes. That is very much the question. As we discover more and more sites of disease and smaller sites of disease, the question becomes: do we need to treat those aggressively or conservatively? We’re discovering new things about tumor biology, and we need to understand how that gets translated into the best appropriate therapy for patients.

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Living With Neuroendocrine Prostate Cancer

Stan P. has neuroendocrine prostate cancer. He spoke with Prostatepedia about his experiences with this aggressive form of prostate cancer.

How did you find out that you had prostate cancer?

Stan P: It was a PSA taken by my primary physician. It was taken kind of late. It came out to be 6.2, which is fairly high. After that, I started consulting around trying to find a doctor to treat me. That was back in 2006.

How did you find out that you had neuroendocrine prostate cancer? Was that when you were first diagnosed or was that after you’d been on some kind of treatment?

Stan P: I was taking Zytiga (abiraterone) for almost two years. The physician was also running blood tests. One of the substances in the blood test that stood out was this bone-specific alkaline phosphatase. It started to go up while at the same time my PSA was undetectable. It had reached undetectable status about a year after taking Zytiga (abiraterone).

The physician saw this one level going up, so he prescribed an F18 sodium bone scan along with a couple of other specialized blood tests. One of the blood tests was LDH, which I think detects cellular injury. Another was chromogranin A that detects neuroendocrine tumors. The third one was CEA, carcinoembryonic antigen, a marker for colon and thyroid cancer.

The one that stood out was the chromogranin A. It was high. At the same time, the F18 scan showed two neuroendochrine tumors. One was in the ileum (the end of the small intestine) and the other one was in the C5 vertebrae. With the undetectable PSA, these results from the scan, and some of the blood results, the physician suggested that it was probably neuroendocrine, which I didn’t even understand at the time.

He said something about adenocarcinoma being differentiated into this neuroendocrine tumor. From that point, his recommendation was to try some platinum-based chemo. I was not feeling any symptoms. I was not in any pain, and I was still doing my normal thing. He recommended that I undergo Xofigo (radium-223).

Were you still on the Zytiga (abiraterone) at this point or did he take you off the Zytiga?

Stan P: I was still on Zytiga (abiraterone) when all this happened. He took me off later because my kidneys started to show side effects from it—high creatinine. He took me off of that to see if it would lower the creatinine levels, and it did, so he kept me off it. I continued to take an androgen agonist (degarelix), which I’m still taking.

What was your initial reaction when you heard all this? Did you immediately start researching about neuroendocrine prostate cancer? How did you respond?

Stan P: I had no idea what a neuroendocrine tumor was. I didn’t even know what a PSA was. I got this medical explanation, and then when I started delving into it on the Internet, I found out that only 1% of the prostate cancer patients get this or have this condition. Then I knew it was serious.

There really are no cures. I consulted with two other prostate specialists. One was the chief of hematology and the other was the chief of prostate cancer research at a teaching hospital. One doctor said that he treats this through standard-of-care treatment, which means platinum-based chemo. The other doctor told me to go back on the Zytiga (abiraterone), which really didn’t make any sense. My understanding is that this neuroendocrine tumor does not have any androgen receptors. But the real issue is there aren’t many doctors around who spend a lot of time with this type of cancer.

What is your current doctor’s plan going forward?

Stan P: I just went through six months of Xofigo (radium-223) and completed that at the end of March. The recommendation has been to wait for three months and get a scan then. In the meantime, I take Firmagon (degarelix). During the six months on Xofigo (radium-223), I had a couple of scans. One was a technetium-99 bone scan, which was performed after two treatments with Xofigo (radium-223).

The strange thing was they only found one neuroendocrine cancer in the ileum. They did not find the one at the C5 vertebrae. Maybe the F18 was oversensitive to the scan. I don’t know.

At the same time, I entered a clinical trial for C11 Acetate PET/CT scan. They were giving me these C11 Acetate PET/CT scans every month, and I decided I should stop doing that because it was affecting my blood counts too much. I had two C11 Acetate PET/CT scans, and both were uneventful. They didn’t find anything, which I kind of expected because my PSA is undetectable. They did not detect any of the neuroendocrine tumors either.

Since ending the Xofigo (radium-223), I have not had any scans. I’m waiting another month, and then I’ll get another scan to see the effect of that. During the time I was undergoing Xofigo (radium-223), the blood tests were becoming much more positive. The bone-specific alkaline phosphatase went down to normal levels. That indicated that maybe the tumor was not growing anymore. The plan right now is to just stay on Firmagon (degarelix) and get another scan in another month. Treatment will be scheduled then.

Do you have any advice for other men who have been told that they have neuroendocrine prostate cancer?

Stan P: First, make sure you actually have a neuroendocrine tumor. Then consult with a doctor who specializes in neuroendocrine prostate cancer. I found a nationwide list on the site carcinoid.org. And just keep the faith. I have a positive outlook that something’s going to come to help me either put off the growth of this tumor or to cure it. I keep looking, and that’s about all I can do. Just keep the faith.

What about any advice for doctors treating patients like you?

Stan P: I would recommend that the doctors educate themselves on the ongoing clinical trials for this disease. Even if they don’t know about any while the patient is visiting them, they should at least tell the patient that they will do research themselves. I’m sure doctors have a better way of finding these things out than the layman.


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Small cell? Or neuroendocrine cancer?

AparicioDr. Ana Aparicio is an Associate Professor in the Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

Prostatepedia spoke with her about rare but highly aggressive forms of prostate cancer.

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How did you become involved in such a specialized subset of prostate cancer research?

Dr. Aparicio: I was very frustrated by the fact that we treat homogeneously a disease that we perceive in the clinic to be heterogeneous. It drives me crazy that different people walk into the clinic with different diseases and yet we do the same thing to each and every one of them. This ends up meaning that many large Phase III trials are an enormous resource expense. It’s difficult to advance the field. I had remarkable responses for patients with Yervoy (ipilimumab) and yet the Phase III trial was negative. I felt like that was wrong. We should be smarter about what we’re doing. We need to understand the heterogeneity of prostate cancer and incorporate that understanding into clinical trials. Otherwise, it’s going to take us 200 years to make a difference in this disease.

I think of it in the following way. I take all of the prostate cancers and peel away the most aggressive ones. I then look to see how that relates to the rest of the disease. If we peel back in that way, we will start to understand the disease.

So then the work you’re doing can potentially change not only how we treat patients, but also how we design clinical trials?

Dr. Aparicio: Yes.

What is neuroendocrine prostate cancer?

Dr. Aparicio: Neuroendocrine prostate cancer is a histological definition of a prostate cancer variant. The prostate is composed of glandular tissue. When a pathologist looks at your garden-variety prostate cancer under the microscope, she sees it is composed of groups of glands. That is why it’s called adenocarcinoma: adeno meaning of or relating to the glands, carcinoma referring to the cancer arising from epithelial tissue. It’s cancer and not normal prostate tissue, but you can still recognize the glandular structures. Prostate adenocarcinomas respond very well to hormonal therapies.

On the other hand, small-cell prostate cancers basically look like sheets of cancer cells under the microscope. There is no glandular formation of any sort. These are small, round cells that have small amounts of cytoplasm (the gel-like material surrounding the nucleus) so their nuclei look very prominent. Small-cell cancers often express neuroendocrine markers, which are a type of protein expressed by a number of different tissue types and in a number of different cancers. Neuroendocrine markers are in no way specific to small-cell prostate cancers, but because the small-cell prostate cancers express them frequently, the other name that is given for small-cell prostate cancers is ‘poorly differentiated neuroendocrine prostate carcinoma.’ Many garden-variety prostate adenocarcinomas (those composed of groups of glands) also express these neuroendocrine markers. Again, the word neuroendocrine is not specific to small-cell cancers. Small cell refers to sheets of cells that are small with little amounts of cytoplasm.

The presence of small-cell cancer morphology on a surgical specimen or a biopsy is often associated with atypical clinical features for prostate cancer and a poor response to hormone therapies.

Garden-variety prostate adenocarcinomas most often spread to the bone and make round sclerotic (hardening) or osteoblastic bone metastases that show on a CT scan like a white patch.

In contrast, small-cell prostate carcinomas are often associated with what we call lytic (relating to disintegration) bone metastases, which show on a CT scan like a dark, punched-out hole. And that’s when the carcinomas go to the bone because they often don’t even show up in the bone. Men with small-cell cancer morphology can have exclusive visceral metastases, meaning their cancer has only gone to the liver, lymph nodes, or lung. They might also have bulky tumor masses, including bulky and symptomatic primary prostate tumors or bulky liver or lymph node masses. While they don’t respond well to hormonal therapies, small-cell prostate cancers often respond to chemotherapy.

A problem we ran into was that we would often find these atypical clinical features that I just described, but under the microscope where we expected to find small-cell prostate carcinoma morphology to justify chemotherapy, we didn’t. What happens when we see those atypical clinical features, but the biopsy doesn’t show small-cell morphology? Our experience shows that those people don’t do well with hormone therapies. In other words, when we do a biopsy and we find small-cell carcinoma morphology, we know that those cancers need to have chemotherapy sooner rather than later, as opposed to treatment with hormonal therapy. They need early chemotherapy as well; so we coined the term aggressive variant prostate cancers, which are tumors that share clinical features with small-cell cancers but may have different morphologies under the microscope. When we do a biopsy, they might look like adenocarcinoma, but they behave like small-cell cancer.

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Diagnosing Neuroendocrine Prostate Cancer

Prostatepedia spoke with Dr. Himisha Beltran, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, about diagnosing neuroendocrine prostate cancer.

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How is small-cell or neuroendocrine prostate cancer diagnosed? Biopsy? Imaging?

Dr. Himisha Beltran: Small-cell or neuroendocrine prostate cancer is diagnosed by tumor biopsy. The pathologist typically makes the diagnosis by looking at the morphologic features of the cancer under a microscope and may perform additional testing to look at expression of neuroendocrine markers or classical prostate markers to support the diagnosis.

One of the reasons why neuroendocrine prostate cancer was thought to be so rare was that doing metastatic biopsies on patients already diagnosed with prostate cancer was just not done in the clinic. It is only recently that we are recommending biopsies to look for neuroendocrine prostate cancer in select patients with aggressive clinical features and low PSA levels. Biopsies are also being considered to look for other emerging molecular targets. There are now several prostate cancer clinical trials targeting different mutations and alterations.

An obvious next step is to try to diagnose neuroendocrine prostate cancer noninvasively. Imaging is a noninvasive way to detect different cancers, but there hasn’t been any sort of imaging tool yet that can really identify these patients. We’re starting to see clues that there may be some molecular markers that are expressed that might help future research in this area. Another noninvasive approach we have been investigating is the use of liquid biopsies that include circulating tumor cells as well as circulating tumor DNA to see if there are clues that can help us identify these patients without a biopsy. This is still in research development.

 

 

 

 

 

Read the rest of Dr. Beltran’s comments on neuroendocrine prostate cancer.