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Conversations With Prostate Cancer Experts


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Dr. Michael Morris’s Clinical Trial: Combining Taxotere + Xofigo

Dr. Michael J. Morris is a medical oncologist who specializes in prostate cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City where he serves as the Prostate Cancer Section Head.

He spoke with Prostatepedia about a clinical he’s running that looks at combining Taxotere (docetazel) and Xofigo (radium-223).

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What attracted you to medicine in the first place? Why did you become a doctor?

Dr. Michael Morris: I came to medicine from a somewhat different background than many physicians. I grew up in a family that’s heavily focused on the humanities—history, culture, and literature. I inherited those genes from my family, but I also had a real scientific interest that I found to be equally compelling.

In college, I divided my time between literature and science. What attracted me to medicine was that it perfectly merged humanism and science – both patient care and research require an understanding of the history of a patient, his disease, and his treatments. The challenge of medicine is to creatively conceive how biology can be brought to bear to alter these for an individual and the field.

Have you ever had any patients over the years whose stories have changed how you view either the art of medicine or your own role?

Dr. Morris: Many people feel absolutely devastated when they get prostate cancer, which for many people can be a chronic disease. The anxiety provoked by a cancer diagnosis, and even by a detectable or rising PSA can be existential. One of my patients was a Vietnam War veteran. He had been through his share of battles before, and saw more than a few of his closest friends not live past early adulthood. For him, prostate cancer was a reminder to him of what he had survived already. He felt that he was lucky to have lived long enough to face prostate cancer as the primary threat to his life. He took his prostate cancer journey as the next opportunity to lead, to teach, and to be in charge of and help so many people through their disease. Even in our waiting room, he was guiding people and keeping everybody’s anxiety in line. That made a huge impression. People who have faced risks before can be incredibly helpful to those who are not experienced with the helplessness and fear that a cancer diagnosis provokes. We have a lot of first responders in our practice, and their experience managing risk and anxiety can be very helpful to those without those skills. They can help the care providers as much as the patients, too.

From a clinical trial standpoint, I’m struck by the selflessness of so many of our patients. They understand that their treatments are the result of the efforts of patients on studies who have preceded them, and they’re willing to volunteer so that we can learn how to best treat those patients who will follow them. They’re saying, “I’m going to give my body to a clinical trial so that the next generation of prostate cancer patients can learn from my experience.” That’s inspiring.

Talk to us about your Phase III trial combining Xofigo (radium-223) and Taxotere (docetaxel). Why this particular trial? Why now?

Dr. Morris: In general, my research focus is where nuclear medicine and medical oncology intersect. That is, looking at drugs that you can deliver systemically, that are targeted to either the prostate cancer cell itself or to the host organ of most metastatic disease which is bone. And that also means looking at combining those drugs with other drugs that can help patients either feel better or survive longer.

This trial comes out of a long history of work, trying to combine radioligand therapy, which are essentially liquid systemic radioactive drugs, with other systemic treatments, to target both the cancer cell itself and bone, which is the host organ to most metastatic disease.

Xofigo (radium-223) is a known, life-prolonging radioactive agent that targets metastatic disease to bone. Since most metastatic disease in prostate cancer is in the bones, you can really encompass most of the disease by targeting that one bony compartment. Within the bone is the cancer itself, and the chemotherapy is used to target the prostate cancer cell. It’s a concept of dual targeting, both the environment that the cancer is hosted in and the cancer itself. That’s why we’re using these two agents, one of which targets bone and the other cancer, and both of which prolong survival independently, to see if those effects can be amplified by giving them together.

What will you be doing step by step?

Dr. Morris: The first thing is, a man has got to qualify for the trial, which means that he has to have predominantly bone metastases because that is the target for the Xofigo (radium-223).

The second thing is that he can’t have a significant amount of soft tissue disease in either the lungs or the liver. He has to have progressed through standard testosterone-lowering agents, such as Zytiga (abiraterone) or Xtandi (enzalutamide). If that patient is otherwise a chemotherapy candidate, then the treatment involves giving chemotherapy once every three weeks and then the Xofigo (radium- 223) once every other chemotherapy dose, so every six weeks. They’re both IV agents. That’s the essence of the treatment of the study.

Xofigo (radium-223) is a unique radioactive drug. It emits an alpha particle, which releases a lot of energy in a very tiny distance, only a few cell-lengths deep. It has virtually no side effects, so it’s a well-tolerated, life-prolonging treatment.

Chemotherapy is standard first-line chemotherapy in the form of Taxotere (docetaxel). It’s given every three weeks. It’s life-prolonging as well, and is a member of a class of taxane-based chemotherapy.

What are the side effects like for that?

Dr. Morris: Primarily fatigue, but some patients can have tingling in their fingers and toes as well, and sometimes changes in taste. A very small number of patients can have their white blood cell counts suppressed.

How long are you going to be following these men while they’re on these two agents?

Dr. Morris: Patients receive a total of six doses of Xofigo (radium-223) and no more than ten doses of chemotherapy. After that, they’ve completed the treatment portion of the protocol, and they could go on, if they needed, to any other treatments. But we follow them for the rest of their lives.

Are there any fees associated with the trial? I’m assuming the Xofigo (radium-223) and the Taxotere (docetaxel) are provided.

Dr. Morris: The Xofigo (radium-223) is provided by the study, and the patient is responsible for the docetaxel, which is standard chemotherapy.

What else do you hope to learn from this study?

Dr. Morris: There are a whole host of innovative biomarkers and science that is built into this trial, so we learn as much as we can about each patient as they’re treated.

We’re looking at circulating tumor cells and cell-free DNA. We’re looking at the impact of the treatment using novel imaging techniques. We’re looking at quality of life. There’s a whole component of the study that will allow us to learn as much about the prostate cancer and the efficacy of the drugs as well.

Those will be covered under the trial as well, right?

Dr. Morris: Absolutely. Those are all covered by the study.

Is that information shared with the patient?

Dr. Morris: Any information we gather in real-time can be shared with the patient. Some of the scientific aspects of the trial will only be performed after the trial is done, so results from those will be delayed until after the study. But as we learn new information, we pass it on to our patients.

Join us to read the rest of this month’s conversations.


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Clinical Trial: Free Genetic Testing

Dr. Heather Cheng is an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Director of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Prostate Cancer Genetics Clinic.

Prostatepedia spoke with her about a clinical trial she’s running that looks at inherited genetics of men with metastatic prostate cancer.

What attracted you to medicine?

Dr. Heather Cheng: There are a couple of things I love about medicine and especially oncology. One is getting to know patients, finding out what’s most important to them as people, and using that information to help guide discussions and decisions about their treatment in a way that is true to what is most important to them. These days I guess you call this shared decision-making. That’s the most rewarding part about what I do.

Have you had any patients over the years who have changed how you see your own role or how you view the art of the medicine?

Dr. Cheng: I have a lot of patients who fit those criteria. My interest in this area started when I was a first-year Hematology and Oncology fellow. I was in the clinic and it was when we were at the beginning of this wave of new exciting drugs that prolong survival, such as Zytiga (abiraterone) and Xtandi (enzalutamide).

I met this patient who was 43 years old; he had new, aggressive metastatic prostate cancer. His disease blew through every one of the new drugs. It was extremely humbling and disappointing because we were so excited about these drugs, but they didn’t do much to slow his disease. And it was heartbreaking because he was so young. He had a family history of cancer but not prostate cancer. He had a teenaged son. We had a lot of discussions about the effect of his disease on his son. I wondered if there was something genetic, something that was making his cancer so aggressive. And then, what could this mean for his son? His memory has stuck with me.

When I think about the work and research that I do, it’s not just for the individual patient in front of me. I’m also thinking about how we can improve things and advance the field so things can be better for the next generation. How can we make progress as quickly and with as much positive impact as possible?

I met another patient who had a great effect on me. He had just been diagnosed with high-risk prostate cancer, Gleason 9. He was planning to get radiation. As part of a research study, we offered to sequence the DNA of his cancer because he had an unusual appearance of his cancer– ductal histology. He was kind and generous enough to volunteer and participate. It wasn’t going to affect his treatment, but he agreed to help us learn more.

In his cancer, we found a mutation in the BRCA2 gene, the one that many people may have heard of because of its association with breast and ovarian cancer risk. There was suspicion that the mutation could be inherited, so we brought him back for dedicated genetic testing for inherited cancer risk. And, it turns out he did have an inherited version of that mutated BRCA2 gene. He was the first person in his family to be found to carry the mutated version of BRCA2. Neither he nor his family would have known until later if we had not looked in his tumor.

After this, some of his relatives had genetic counseling and were also tested. The sister who had breast cancer had a recurrence and was found to carry the BRCA2 mutation. This information was important for her because it offers additional treatment opportunities for her cancer that might not have otherwise been considered. His daughter was also found to carry the BRCA2 mutation and after learning of this, had a mammogram and was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s still curable, so she’s going through treatment, but it is possible that she might not have known until much later otherwise.

The importance of test results can extend to relatives in a way that might help more than one person, not just the person that I see in the clinic, but other members of their family. I do want to be clear that these mutations are not found in most people— even those with cancer—but for the people who have these mutations, it can be life saving information for their family members.

What will you be doing, and what can men expect to happen, during your clinical trial?

Dr. Cheng: You can learn about the study from your doctor, support group, or by visiting our website, http://www.GentlemenStudy.org. There is information about the study. You can consent online, confirm that you have metastatic prostate cancer, and check that you’re interested in genetic testing for cancer risk.

There is a questionnaire that many take about 40 minutes to complete, that asks about your knowledge of genetics, basic health, family history of cancer, and demographic information about where you live.

You can upload supporting information about your diagnosis, or you can check a box saying you’d like help from the research team to gather that information on your behalf. Because there are strict privacy laws around medical records, you need to give permission to our team to get medical information for the study on your behalf.

To be eligible, you must have metastatic prostate cancer and must live in the United States. There’s one other exclusion, which is that if you have some blood disorders such as leukemia, we cannot be sure that the test results are valid.

If you meet criteria, you will be mailed a saliva kit, a medical-grade genetic test through Color Genomics, with instructions on how to provide a saliva sample. Follow the instructions carefully and then mail the kit back. Results are typically available within 4 weeks. You will have access to a genetic counselor following your results, and you are invited to follow up in person to our clinic if you live in the area. If you don’t live near us, we can direct you to resources to find a genetic counselor for in-person visit or by telehealth.

The testing for this study is not recreational testing. It is not the same as Ancestry.com or 23andMe. This is clinical, medically appropriate testing if you have metastatic prostate cancer.

Do you share this information with their doctor, or is it up to them to share the information with their doctor?

Dr. Cheng: We strongly encourage participants to share the results and information with their doctors, but our ethical board does not allow us to do this for participants without their specific consent.

Are there any fees for patients?

Dr. Cheng: There is no fee for the patient.

It sounds similar to the process for the Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project, except I don’t think they share their results.

Dr. Cheng: Yes, it is similar to that project. The difference is that the patient or the participant gets results that apply to them individually. The Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project, which is fantastic and an important and innovative study, is de-identified, and the patient doesn’t get individual-level results back.

Their goal is to amass as much data as they can for research.

Dr. Cheng: Correct, yes.

Are you also cataloging the information that you collect?

Dr. Cheng: Yes.

What will you do with the data that you collect?

Dr. Cheng: We’ll be looking at demographics, the proportion of people who have mutations (pathogenic variants), information about family history, and validated measures of knowledge, distress measures and satisfaction with testing.

If patients consent to re-contact, they will be contacted at the conclusion of the study. If there are other follow-up studies, they can opt to learn about those. There will also be an invitation for those who agree to subsequent studies, like treatment studies or PARP-inhibitor studies, for example.

We’re still learning about certain genes, such as ATM mutations and CHEK2 mutations. As we learn more, we may want to update participants on what the field has learned. There are still many important questions that the field needs to answer, and patient engagement and participation will make this happen more quickly. There will be opportunities for those downstream studies.

How many patients are you looking for, overall?

Dr. Cheng: The plan was for 2,000. We have sent kits out to over 350. We still have room for participation!

Join us to read the issue and learn how to participate in Dr. Cheng’s study.

 


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Frontiers In Prostate Cancer Genomics

Dr. Felix Feng is a physician-scientist at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) keenly interested in improving outcomes for patients with prostate cancer. His research centers on discovering prognostic/predictive biomarkers in prostate cancer and developing rational approaches to targeted treatment for therapy-resistant prostate cancer. He also sees patients through his prostate cancer clinic at UCSF.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about the state of genomics for prostate cancer today.

Not a member? Read the rest of this month’s conversations about prostate cancer genomics + prostate cancer genomics clinical trials.

What would you like prostate cancer patients to know about the state of genomics for prostate cancer today?

Dr. Feng: Genomics is becoming an important reality for patients with prostate cancer. We’ve talked about genomics for years in the context of research and possible advances for patients, but we are now reaching the era when these advances are being used in clinical practice or being assessed in clinical trials.

For patients with metastatic prostate cancer, patients with alterations and mismatch repair genes should be treated with immunotherapy (checkpoint blockade) at some point in the course of their treatment. At some point in their treatment, patients who have alterations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes or other DNA repair genes should also enroll on a trial involving a PARP inhibitor.

There are many other trials testing specific biomarkers for selection for patients. For example, a few years ago, Prof. Johann de Bono presented the results of a study looking at an AKT inhibitor for patients with PTEN deleted prostate cancers. That’s currently being explored in a Phase III trial, and we’re eagerly awaiting the results of that.

In addition, the presence of androgen receptor (AR) splice variants is being used to select patients for studies. These need to be tested out. Some are molecular biomarkers rather than genomic biomarkers. But for patients with metastatic prostate cancer, we can point to definite examples where science is becoming clinical reality.

In the context of patients with localized prostate cancer or non-metastatic prostate cancer, we’re also seeing a number of advances. There are several tissue-based biomarkers that are now covered in various contexts by insurance companies, and they can be ordered as standard-of-care clinically.

In one of my roles, I chair the Genitourinary Cancer Committee for the Clinical Trials group NRG Oncology. A number of our national trials are Phase II and now also Phase III. The trials that we’re developing incorporate these genomic biomarkers for patient stratification or patient selection. When you start to see genomic markers like Decipher incorporated into NRG or PAM50 trials, it means that, sooner or later, these will become standard-of-care, assuming that the trials are positive.

Are there any open and enrolling clinical trials that either focus on prostate cancer genomics or incorporate genomics into their design that you think men reading this may either want to look into or ask their doctors about?

Dr. Feng: Two of the most promising studies are in patients who have had surgery for prostate cancer and now have a PSA recurrence. They are both actively enrolling.

The first trial that I would highlight is NRG-GU006. This study is open at hundreds of hospitals in the United States and Canada; it takes men who have a PSA recurrence after prostatectomy. We go back, we profile the prostate cancer sample from those patients, and we assess a biomarker called the PAM50 classifier, which we helped validate in prostate cancer as predicting response to hormonal therapy. Patients get stratified by this biomarker and are then randomized to standard-of-care, which is radiation alone, or to radiation plus the next-generation antiandrogen Erleada (apalutamide). They get both genomic testing with the PAM50 classifier and randomization, as well as the opportunity to be on Erleada (apalutamide).

Another trial that is actively enrolling is the NRG-GU002 trial, which takes patients who have very aggressive recurrences of their prostate cancer after surgery, and tests them using the genomic classifier Decipher. In the control arm, those with aggressive disease get randomized to radiation and hormone therapy or radiation and hormone therapy plus chemotherapy with Taxotere (docetaxel).

We and other groups have many other trials in development trying to incorporate these biomarkers, but those are the two trials that are open and accruing.

Who are the lead investigators on these two trials?

Dr. Feng: On NRG-GU006, the co-leads are Dr. Daniel Spratt from the University of Michigan and me. On the NRG-GU002 trial, the lead is Dr. Mark Hurwitz from Thomas Jefferson University.

Is there anything else that patients might want to consider?

Dr. Feng: For patients with metastatic disease, there are a number of PARP inhibitor studies in development right now. We’re looking to move PARP inhibitors into earlier and earlier disease spaces in select patients, largely based on the presence of DNA repair alterations.

This study using the Genentech AKT inhibitor is exciting to me. It’s a Phase III study for patients with PTEN alterations. Not all prostate cancers are the same, but we have traditionally put prostate cancer into one disease. But the many different cancers that comprise prostate disease could be genomically selected or stratified.

That is the future, right? Smaller and more precise categories?

Dr. Feng: Yes.

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Prostate Cancer Genomics

This issue is devoted to the genetics and genomics of prostate cancer, which is one of the most promising and exciting areas of prostate cancer research. Already, this line of investigation is having a major impact. For example, by better defining the genomics of patients entering clinical trials, there can be a marked reduction in the number of patients needed to reach statistical significance. This can potentially reduce the costs of drug development dramatically.

Research into the role of genetics and genomic alterations in the biology and treatment of prostate cancer are still at a much earlier stage than it is for breast cancer. While laboratory studies have discovered a wide range of genes that might act to determine prostate cancer behavior in the clinic, proof that these changes actually determine outcome in the clinic are rather limited. There are even fewer examples where drugs attacking these changes have been FDA-approved for the treatment of prostate cancer.

The PD-1 inhibitor, Keytruda (pembrolizumab) is at present the only example. In 2017, this drug was approved to treat cancers that show mismatch repair or microsatellite instability. These mutations are found in a small proportion of prostate cancer patients.

There are a number of mutations targeted by drugs that are in advanced testing, so this list may expand rapidly. One of the more promising targets is BRCA2. Mutations that alter the function of this gene are known to be involved in breast and ovarian cancer. Cancer cells with these BRCA2 mutations become dependent on the protein, PARP, for their survival and drugs that inhibit PARP can be effective therapy. Studies on patients with advanced prostate cancer show that altered BRCA2 is found in 10-30% of cases. PARP inhibitors have shown significant activity in early clinical trials. Randomized controlled trials needed for FDA-approval are in progress.

Genomic information can also be used to determine how likely prostate cancer is to behave aggressively. This can help identify patients who are likely to do well with active surveillance or to be at low risk for recurrence after an initial attempt at curative treatment.

While genomics promises to revolutionize the treatment of prostate cancer, this revolution requires support from the patient community. The key studies can only be done if patients elect to participate in these trials. For this reason, we made sure to provide you with information on how to become involved in this process.

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Mr. Tony Crispino: Patient + Research Advocacy

Mr. Tony Crispino found out that he had prostate cancer at age 44. In the years since his treatment, he has become an outspoken prostate cancer advocate. Today, he runs a support group for other patients in Las Vegas, Nevada and is a Patient Advocate at Southwest Oncology Group (SWOG) where he works with leaders in prostate cancer research on cutting-edge clinical trials.

He spoke with Prostatepedia about his own journey as well as ways in which you can get involved in advocacy.

How did you find out that you had prostate cancer?

Mr. Crispino: Like most, I was asymptomatic. I was 44 years old and had no reason to believe that I had cancer. I wasn’t even aware that I had a PSA test taken, and I was unaware of what PSA was. It was by chance that I’d had a diagnostic PSA, which was at 20, and then I found out that I had stage IIIB disease.

Which treatment path did you take?

Mr. Crispino: Being diagnosed in 2006, I had fewer options than patients have today. We didn’t have Zytiga (abiraterone), Xtandi (enzalutamide), or Erleada (apalutamide) then. The path I chose was not considered standard-of-care yet, but eventually, it became that for guys with locally advanced disease. I read papers from Harvard, Stanford, UCSF, UCLA, and more, and I decided that a multimodal approach was reasonable. So radiotherapy, hormonal therapy, and participation in research trials were all reasonable. Today, I would likely be offered Zytiga (abiraterone) [per STAMPEDE], six cycles of Taxotere (docetaxel) [per CHAARTED], or both. But I am fortunate to have a good outcome with what I chose. I have not been treated since 2010, and I have a durable remission.

Has the prostate cancer journey changed you in any way?

Mr. Crispino: A cancer diagnosis is a life changing experience for most. Nearly all who are diagnosed and their families have a new reality. My well-known mantra to others diagnosed is to stay positive. I followed that rule, and once I came to understand my condition, it was time to take that lemon and make lemonade. My negatives are obvious, but my positives outweigh them. I have done well with advanced disease and that helps as there are many who are not as fortunate, and it becomes more difficult for them to stay positive.

I got involved as an advocate, which has been one of the blessings in my life. I have been actively involved in support, mentoring, research, serving on guidelines panels, and lobbying, and I have authored many physician-facing documents. I would have never had those opportunities without that diagnosis, and I would never have dreamed of being a part of them.

How did you first become involved with prostate cancer patient advocacy?

Mr. Crispino: Almost immediately, I was an online surfer like never before trying to regain control of my life. It was through this method that I became educated, a support group leader, and determined to be a part of cancer treatment as more than a patient. But first I had to experience the support I received from all those who paved the way ahead of me.

What do you do with Us TOO and SWOG?

Mr. Crispino: Us TOO is education and support. I am well equipped to help in these areas, and I have run the Las Vegas chapter for over 10 years.

SWOG is a fantastic experience. There are only four such networks in the National Cancer Institute (NCI) group called the National Clinical Trials Network (NCTN). Being included in clinical trial design and evaluation is a very unique experience that very few patient representatives in this area of research get to participate in. SWOG has led me to my membership in societies like ASCO, participation in guidelines panels for ASCO, AUA, SUO, ASTRO, and being elected to the Prostate Task Force for the NCI.

Why do you continue reaching out to other men with prostate cancer?

Mr. Crispino: I have a great deal of experience across the board. It is not only helpful to the diagnosed patient but rewarding to be able to help others. Reaching out to the patient community allows me to help the physician community and vice versa. It is very fulfilling.

Do you have any advice for other men with prostate cancer?

Mr. Crispino: Get educated. I tell all those I mentor that educated decisions are always better than emotional decisions or passing the decision on to your oncologist. Shared decision making requires that you have some knowledge before a decision.

Beware of bias, as there is plenty of it in the patient and physician communities. Beware of conflicts of interest, as there is plenty of it in the physician community. Even with good intentions, biases and conflicts of interests are common.

Do you have any advice for men with prostate cancer who’d like to get involved with advocacy but aren’t sure how to go about it?

Mr. Crispino: Just do it! Many of the positions I hold are elected and have term limits. This means that someone has to grab the baton and move the effort forward when I move on. Being a part of effective advocacy requires many things.

Become educated through peer groups and reading, and by that I mean, listen to all experiences and take notes.

Lose or limit your biases. This is easier said than done. We all think that our decisions are the best and can apply to everyone in the same way. Strong bias might help in the physician and patient communities, but it’s not a good trait in research and guidelines panels. It can be harmful in support and education communities.

Define the area in which you think you can be the best advocate. Being an advocate is a broad role. You can lobby and participate in the political side, which I did but I found it wasn’t my niche. You can be a research advocate, a support advocate, a patient-physician liaison, or even an online poster.

Partake in physician-patient group meetings. Whether it’s attending an ASCO, AUA, ASTRO, or coalition meeting, be there. You will see what it’s about and whether it’s for you. This is not always easy as these types of group meetings can require travel. If you cannot do that, you can still be an effective support advocate in various ways. For example, you could advocate online or by attending support groups meetings.

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How You Can Participate in Genomic Research

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 how even those of you in remote areas can participate in nationwide genomic research study for men with advanced or metastatic prostate cancer.

What is it about medicine and caring for patients that keeps you interested and engaged?

Dr. Eliezer Van Allen: There are two answers to that question. One, the scientific answer, is that it’s been so remarkable to see how quickly advances that we’ve learned from studying patients with cancer have immediately translated into the clinic and have impacted my patients’ lives. It’s impacted people I don’t know, and that cycle of innovation is becoming quicker. It’s so exciting. It’s a privilege to be part of that from a professional level.

The other answer is more of a humanistic thing. I went into medicine because of my experiences at Camp Kesem, which is a camp for kids whose parents had cancer. It was a life-changing experience to be involved with that and to help drive it from the beginning. Whether or not any individual therapy works for any of my advanced cancer patients, there’s a human element to this job that’s very profound. That is also a privilege, to be involved with that day-to-day, no matter what.

Camp Kesem is still around, right?

Dr. Van Allen: Yes, it’s growing amazingly. There are over 100 camps now around the country, and thousands of families are involved. It’s wonderful.

Have you had any patients who changed either how you view the art of medicine or your own role?

Dr. Van Allen: Absolutely. At some level, every single patient both challenges and reinforces aspects of what it means to be a doctor and deliver care. Each in their own way has changed the way I think about things. There are obviously some stories that stand out and some experiences.

Some of the patients who’ve had the most catastrophic outcomes and succumbed to the disease in rapid form have taught me the most about what it means to live your life to the fullest, whatever that means to you. I have a lot of respect for them.

It’s a special thing to care for people at the particular moment, when they face big life questions.

Dr. Van Allen: About eight or nine years ago, I wrote a piece for the Journal of Clinical Oncology’s Art of Oncology series. It was about this one patient I had as a first-year fellow who had this positive thinking attitude in the wake of the most potentially catastrophic scenarios up until he passed away. It was such a surreal thing. In that case, it was rare, but I think it teaches you a lot about what it means to be human and how hard this disease is.

What is the goal of the Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project?

Dr. Van Allen: The Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project is a patient-driven research project whereby, rather than expecting the patients to come to us to join and participate in advanced research, we bring the project to their doorstep, and we engage with patients in new ways. We give patients an opportunity to share information about themselves and share their tumor specimens for us to do genetic testing. The goal is building the largest genomic registry of prostate cancer that we can learn from, and in so doing, accelerate that discovery to translation cycle even more.

Can you give us some updates on how the project has been going since you launched?

Dr. Van Allen: We launched this project in January 2018 in a patient population that is known not to talk about their disease in any venue, under any circumstances, to anyone. There’s no social media presence for this disease space, or at least on the surface, and frankly, we would’ve been thrilled had ten people signed up. Our sister project, the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project, has a loud and overt presence of women taking selfies with their saliva kits, so we weren’t sure how this was going to work.

We’re a little past a year from launch and over 700 men have engaged in research, given us consent to access their samples, filled out the patient-reported survey, and joined this Count Me In movement. It’s remarkable, but not only have these 700 men signed up, we’re already at the other end of the cycle of this project now, and we’ve generated complete data sets for the initial wave of these men. By complete data set, I mean genetic, clinical, and patient-reported data, and we’ve put that data out to the entire community in the research setting to learn from.

This proves the principle that we mean what we say when we’re generating data for the community. We’re not trying to build a silo here. This is patient-demanded, and therefore patient-driven, from day one. From every aspect across the board, it’s been remarkable and exciting to see how we’ve done so far.

We are 150% absolutely still looking for patients. We’ll always be looking for patients. Anyone who’s interested should feel comfortable to go to MPCProject.org and click Count Me In.

What kinds of patients should join? Anyone with prostate cancer?

Dr. Van Allen: This project is for advanced or metastatic prostate cancer, which means prostate cancer that’s left the gland. That could be folks with local, regional prostate cancer involved in the lymph nodes, folks with biochemical recurrence only (only PSA detected in the blood), and all the way to patients with heavily pretreated, advanced disease that’s spread to bone, liver, or wherever. Anyone in that spectrum is considered advanced or metastatic from our perspective.

The project is basically unending, right?

Dr. Van Allen: That’s the goal, releasing it as fast as we can.

Do you just release the data, or are you also forming collaborations with other institutions or projects?

Dr. Van Allen: We’ll release the data. We’re obviously going to try to learn from it ourselves and use it to come up with perhaps new drug targets, biomarkers, and whatnot, but also we would like to connect with other efforts that are spiritually aligned in any way that’s feasible.

One of the best outcomes would be that some researcher who is in no way affiliated with our project finds our data useful and uses it for their research to inform what they do. We’re already starting to see that happen with our sister projects where there are scientists and labs that we are not affiliated with who are using the data to inform how they think about their research and their projects. All of those outcomes are on the table, and we’re excited to pursue all of them.

Is there anything else you want patients to know about how the project is doing, about further studies you’re doing, or other studies you think people may find interesting?

Dr. Van Allen: This is a patient-driven project. Some of the patients who’ve given us feedback on their experiences so far have also prompted questions that we can ask that we, in our little academic bubble, probably would’ve never thought of. That’s how we’re starting to dive into things that are driven by patient experiences or that we’re observing in the patients who have signed up, down to questions that might seem curious but are illuminating, ones that we hadn’t intended initially.

For example, in the first patient data release, when asked if they had surgery for their prostate, almost half the patients marked: “unknown.” We can compare that to their medical record and sort that out, but it provides a window into something that wasn’t the initial intent of the project. That feedback opened up a lot of interesting questions and opportunities for research that we hadn’t necessarily anticipated up to that point.

Men didn’t know if they’d had prostate cancer surgery or not?

Dr. Van Allen: It may have been the way we asked the question. It may have been that patients were interpreting what they were supposed to answer. We don’t know. The point is that this is not something we initially set out to do, but it is an early example of how patients can guide where the research needs to go.

I just presented this project at the American Urologic Association meeting, and a gentleman came up to me afterwards. He’s had metastatic prostate cancer for four years and a complete response to cancer immunotherapy, and he wanted to know if he was eligible for this project. Not only is he eligible, but he’s an extraordinary case. We want to understand why. This patient is not within 500 miles of an academic medical center, and he would otherwise never be approachable or available to engage in research. We exchanged information, and he’s going to sign up.

Patients may not realize: they have the power to drive this field forward in this unique way. It’s not something that medicine is used to doing. We want to get the message out that this is all starting with patients and their ability to contribute. That will determine how far this goes.

It’s easy for them to participate: go to the website, fill out the forms, and give a blood sample?

Dr. Van Allen: Yes. You don’t even have to do the blood sample if you don’t want to. It’s exactly what you described. Go to the website, click a few buttons. There’s a very simple online consent form. We’ll send you a saliva kit and a blood biopsy kit and take it from there.

Can you still participate even if you’re in a remote area?

Dr. Van Allen: Yes, anywhere in the United States and Canada. For the blood biopsy, we send you a kit, and you bring it to your next lab draw, PSA test, or whatever, and there are instructions in the kit for the phlebotomist. In some cases, phlebotomists have not been willing or able to participate, so we can provide vouchers to patients to do it at a Quest Diagnostics lab or somewhere convenient to them. The intent here is that the patient bears no financial burden in participating.

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NRG Oncology’s Clinical Trials

Dr. Mark Hurwitz, a widely recognized leader in the fields of thermal medicine and genitourinary oncology, is the Vice-Chair for Quality, Safety and Performance Excellence and Director of Thermal Oncology for the Department of Radiation Oncology at The Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Hurwitz talked to Prostatepedia about NRG Oncology and a trial he’s running with them that looks at anti-androgen therapy and radiation therapy with or without Taxotere (docetaxel) in treating patients with prostate cancer that has been removed by surgery.

Why did you become a doctor?

Dr. Hurwitz: Medicine is an extraordinarily rewarding career in regards to being able to help people at important and often critical junctures in their lives. It’s extremely humbling to see strangers walk into my office and put their trust in me to help them through a difficult time in their lives.

It’s an enormous responsibility.

Dr. Hurwitz: It is, but one that comes with many years of training and preparation for a physician to get to the point when we enter practice.

What is NRG Oncology? What has been your involvement with the group?

Dr. Hurwitz: Several years ago, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) mandated the merging of cooperative cancer research groups into fewer but larger groups. One of these groups NRG Oncology, was the result of the merging of the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG) with the Gynecologic Oncology Group and the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABBP). This dynamic new large cooperative research group is primarily supported by the NCI. It’s been exciting and rewarding to be a part of this new larger group putting all our resources together to bring trials to patients.

I’ve been involved with NRG Oncology since its inception. Predating that, I was involved with both RTOG, as well as the Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB) during my years at Harvard Medical School.

What kinds of trials does NRG oncology run?

Dr. Hurwitz: The focus of cooperative groups, including NRG Oncology, is on conduction of clinical trials to answer important questions that are best addressed by getting multiple centers involved. These tend to be Phase II or Phase III trials involving hundreds, and sometimes thousands of patients, to answer a critical question that experts in a given field see as being one of the most impactful issues to address for a given set of patients.

NRG is also involved in translational science as well. Almost all of our clinical trials have an incorporated translational aspect to them to answer leading-edge questions in regards to some of the pertinent science behind advancing treatment for our patients.

Are the participating institutions limited to within the US?

Dr. Hurwitz: There are international participants. The group does have a North American focus. Therefore, the United States, as well as many Canadian institutions, are very active in NRG, but NRG has branched out to include international institutions outside of North America as well.

Is it difficult to enroll patients in trials?

Dr. Hurwitz: We all in academic medicine seek to engage more patients with involvement in clinical trials. Only a small percentage of patients nationally participate in clinical trials, so there’s a real opportunity to match patients and their needs with the clinical trials that will help advance the field, as well as their own personal care.

Some of the challenges include having appropriate trials available for patients seen within a practice, as well as the time commitment both in terms of the extra time that the physician needs to take to explain trials as well as the resources needed to support the conduction of clinical trials at a given site.

There is also the issue of awareness both on the patient and provider sides as to opportunities for clinical trial participation.

Why should patients consider joining the clinical trial?

Dr. Hurwitz: There are several reasons for patients to consider trials. A trial often provides patients access to leading-edge therapeutic strategies that may not be available off clinical trials.

It also will help provide additional information that will benefit future patients, although our focus is always on the patient who is sitting in front of us.

Also, interestingly enough, there are multiple studies that have looked at the impact of clinical trial participation on patient outcomes, with very consistent findings that patients on clinical trials tend to have better outcomes including survival outcomes than patients not on clinical trials. This is likely due to a number of factors, including the rigorous monitoring of patients on clinical trials as well the follow up after treatment that is done. These patients are followed very closely. There are state-of-the-art treatment guidelines that must be followed on clinical trials to help reduce undesirable variability in patient care. These aspects of clinical trials help to improve outcomes regardless of the particulars of any clinical trial.

Are there certain stages along the cancer journey when a patient should consider a trial?

Dr. Hurwitz: There are clinical trials that are suitable for patients across the whole spectrum of disease severity. In the case of prostate cancer, there are trials for patients with very favorable risk disease for which active surveillance is an option to trials for patients who are on second or third line interventions for metastatic prostate cancer. And everything in between. It’s not a matter of whether a patient has a certain stage of disease. There are questions to be answered at each stage of a given disease for which clinical trials may provide benefit.

Are there any considerations patients should keep in mind as they evaluate trials?

Dr. Hurwitz: People have to gauge the particulars of a trial much like the particulars of any proposed treatment for malignancy in regards to what makes them most or least comfortable with the options before them.

Let’s say a patient participates in an NRG trial. Are they informed of the results once the trial is completed?

Dr. Hurwitz: There have been increased efforts in recent years to disseminate outcomes of trials to patients. It’s a particular challenge in some diseases like prostate cancer where the results may come a decade or more after trial participation.

That’s true.

Dr. Hurwitz: There is an effort regardless of the outcome of the trial to make not just practitioners but patients aware of the results.

Are there interesting NRG prostate cancer clinical trials that you’d like to highlight?

Dr. Hurwitz: I’m happy to highlight NRG-GU002, for which I am privileged to serve as the principle investigator. This trial builds on a prior Phase II single-arm RTOG trial, RTOG-0621, which I led that revealed very promising outcomes with the addition of Taxotere (docetaxel) and hormonal therapy to radiation for patients with adverse risk factors post-prostatectomy. NRG-GU002 builds upon the single-arm Phase II trial as a randomized Phase II into Phase III trial exploring the use of radiation and hormonal therapy with or without Taxotere (docetaxel) in men who fail to achieve a PSA nadir of less than 0.2 nanograms per milliliter after prostatectomy. This is a particularly high-risk group of patients in regards to risk of subsequent treatment failure. We have been very encouraged by the efficacy of Taxotere (docetaxel) in treating prostate cancer. Taxotere (docetaxel) has been shown initially in metastatic prostate cancer and subsequently in locally advanced disease to have a survival advantage—as opposed to using radiation or hormonal therapy alone in the primary treatment setting. Therefore, there is a lot of interest in exploring its utility in the post-prostatectomy setting for high-risk patients.

Join us to learn more information about this trial.