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Dr. Hashim U. Ahmed on Today’s Focal Therapy For Prostate Cancer

Dr. Ahmed is Professor and Chair of Urology at London’s Imperial College Healthcare.

His research focuses on prostate diagnosis using novel imaging and tissue biomarkers, prostate treatments that reduce the harms of traditional surgery and radiotherapy, and clinical trials and health technology evaluation.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about the current state of focal therapy for prostate cancer.

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What is focal therapy?

Dr. Ahmed: Focal therapy is about targeting the tumor within the prostate with a margin of normal tissue. The tumor is one that we believe that were we to leave it untreated, would progress, grow and spread, and impact the patient’s life at some point. By doing so, we avoid treating the entire prostate. We avoid damaging as much normal little tissue as possible. By damaging as little tissue as possible, we aim to maintain as much function as possible for that particular man, whilst at the same time treating the cancer that would otherwise cause problems in the future.

What are some of the various forms of focal therapy? Focal therapy is an umbrella term, is it not?

Dr. Ahmed: It is an umbrella term. I often joke that there’s almost like a catwalk of treatments that can be used for focal therapy. The traditional ones were cryotherapy, which freezes the tissue, and high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU), which uses very focused ultrasound waves that heat up the prostate. You can use laser, which also heats up the prostate. You can use electrocution of the cells, which is called irreversible electroporation. There are now some new injectable drugs. You can inject hormone drugs or molecules that are activated by PSA, which then kill the prostate cells once they are injected into the prostate. There’s a lot of activity going on.

What I often say is that all of these different modalities are interesting. It’s good to see that commercial bodies are really interested in this field. That shows that the concept has real legs and everybody sees this as a big future, so that everybody’s crowding into the market. Ultimately, these are all tools, if you like— surgical instruments for me to do my focal therapy. No one tool can be applied to all tumors.

Let me take an example. If you had a big prostate with a tumor high up in the gland, there’s no way HIFU would be able to reach it. The ultrasound wave just can’t get that far. Even if it could, by the time it reached the tumor, there would be so much tissue it went through that it would lose its energy. For that particular tumor, an anterior tumor, something like cryotherapy is probably going to be better for that particular man than HIFU. A posterior tumor near the rectum, but contained in the prostate, probably does really well from HIFU at the moment, but could easily be treated in the future using these injectable drugs, if they’re to be efficacious.

Which form of focal therapy is best really does depend on where the tumor is, how big it is, and how big the man’s prostate is. Are there other characteristics within the prostate, for instance, like calcification, which means you can’t see the tumor? Those calcifications might, potentially, deflect the energy. There are a lot of other considerations, but there are quite a lot of things that you can use. I would say the two that are in pole position at the moment, just because they’ve been around for longer and therefore they have a lot of data, and the two that I use routinely in clinical practice, are HIFU and cryotherapy.

For which men is focal therapy usually an appropriate choice?

Dr. Ahmed: Firstly, focal therapy is a choice for the man who wishes to preserve or minimize his risk of genitourinary side effects like incontinence and erectile dysfunction as much as possible. You could argue that everybody wants that, but there are some men who will just have radical treatment and say to me, “I understand that I have side effects, but I just want it sorted out.” There are other men who prioritize minimizing the genitourinary impact that treatments have.

Focal therapy is also a good choice for men who have one index lesion. In other words, they have one tumor that is clinically significant, but at the same time have either no other tumors or one or two clinically insignificant cancers. In those men, we would target the main, biggest, or highest grade tumor because that is the one, studies have shown, that is likely to grow, progress, and metastasize if it was left on its own. The other, smaller, low-risk lesions are the type of indolent disease that a lot of men in the male population have that doesn’t need immediate treatment. You can monitor those after you’ve knocked out the main tumor, for instance.

You wouldn’t want to just knock out those one or two insignificant cancers while you were in there anyway because of potential side effects?

Dr. Ahmed: One of the reasons is it’s difficult to localize one or two millimeters of low-risk disease. In order to treat those, you’d have to end up treating a block of tissue. By the time you’d treated that block of tissue, or two other blocks of tissue, you’re probably at 70 to 80% of the prostate volume.

And if you do that, you might as well just target the whole thing?

Dr. Ahmed: You might as well just treat the whole thing because you’re going to cause as much damage. These small lesions are often not visible on MRI. They’re found on random, systematic biopsies, and you have no idea exactly where they are.

Another consideration is the characteristics of the lesion itself that we would want to treat. It could be one of two things: intermediate Gleason Grade 7, so 3+4 or 4+3. Or, there’s an increasing recognition that high volume Gleason Grade 6 is also something that is better treated immediately than monitored because that is also likely to progress.

For unfavorable, if you like, low-risk disease and intermediate-risk disease where there is one index lesion you can carry out focal therapy. If you can have intermediate-risk disease, which has two or three significant lesions, you would be better served having radical therapy.

What happens if a man gets focal therapy and later his cancer recurs? Can he go on to other subsequent treatments?

Dr. Ahmed: This is quite an important topic now. We know that following focal cryotherapy, focal HIFU, and some of the newer emerging focal therapy modalities that about 15 to 20% of men will either have residual or recurrent disease in the area that’s already been treated. Most of those men will be eligible to have a repeat session of HIFU or cryotherapy. Certainly in my practice, I tell men there is a one in five chance that we may have to repeat the focal therapy to the same area. Almost invariably, all men see that as just part of the intervention. I would argue having two treatments in a fifth of men is probably part of the treatment.

If they fail two treatments in that area, then they really should go on to have radical therapy, or a change in the type of treatment that you give. If the cancer has resisted 80 to 90 degrees centigrade temperature changes twice, or with cryotherapy minus 50/minus 60 degree centigrade twice, then that is an aggressive tumor. It probably has got a very aggressive blood supply and we need to change tacks.

There is a group of men who develop new lesions in untreated tissue. Some of those men can have another focal therapy, but most of them will go on to have radical therapy because their untreated tissue, if you like, has declared itself as unstable. It has a propensity to develop new tumors, and therefore, it would be better to treat the entire prostate.

About 15 to 20% of men over five to six years need a second focal therapy treatment. Overall, about 5 to 7% of men go on to have radical therapy, despite one or two focal therapy sessions. Now that is five to six-year data; we don’t have ten-year data at the moment, either from HIFU or cryotherapy. The newer modalities don’t even have five to six-year data.

Is it safe to say focal therapy is still an emerging option and that we still don’t have all the data?

Dr. Ahmed: I guess it depends on how you define that level of evidence. If we have to wait ten to fifteen years, then yes. If you argue that we’ve now got good five to ten-year data showing non-inferior cancer control, superior toxicity, or superior side effect profiles after focal therapy, then there are a considerable group of men who will accept the uncertainty of the lack of ten to fifteen-year data. They prioritize genitourinary function and they are not compromising their cancer control, at least at five to six-years median follow-up. And they can still have surgery or radiotherapy afterwards.

In the United Kingdom, in certain centers, focal therapy has been offered side by side with other radical therapies within the National Health Service, as part of the NICE, or National Institute for Clinical and Healthcare Excellence, approvals that we have.

What are some of the other controversies over focal therapy?

Dr. Ahmed: There are a number of controversies. One big controversy is this lack of ten to fifteen-year data. I was in the European Congress a couple of days ago. There was a Pro/Con focal therapy argument. I was pro and the person before me was con. He stood up and said, “We don’t have fifteen to twenty year data.” Five years ago, we didn’t have five-year data. A couple of years ago, it was you don’t have ten-year data. When we first started, they said well you don’t have any one year data on biopsies. This is the first time I’ve heard people stand up and say, well you don’t have fifteen to twenty-year data. It’s slightly amusing. It’s infuriating, as well, because the goalposts keep on changing. The long-term data will come; we’re collecting all the data in registries in the United States, the United Kingdom, and European centers. It’s all very robust data collection. We’re doing trials to see if men will accept randomization between radical and focal therapies. Those trials are tough. Men generally want to choose their therapy rather than allowing themselves to be randomized, but we’ll see.

Then the other controversies are around the areas that we touched on. What happens to the untreated tissue? So far, about 4 to 5% of men over the five to six years of median follow-up that we have in our series of several hundred cases have developed new lesions in untreated tissue. Now, those are probably just tiny bits of Gleason 7 tumors that the biopsy and MRI missed that then subsequently progressed. Some of them will be new lesions, but some of them will be disease that was missed in the first place, which declare themselves later. By ten years, it might be higher. So far it’s quite low.

One of the arguments against focal therapy is that this is a multi-focal disease. The untreated tissue is just going to show up with lots and lots of cancers, but that has not been the case, so that has been quite reassuring. The other controversy is around the point that MRI is not good enough and biopsy is not good enough. But I think both MRI and targeted biopsy are good enough. You can never be 100% in anything. If you look at breast mammography, the data shows that a negative mammogram can miss anywhere between 5 to 30% of breast cancers, yet we still use it as a screening tool. We all accept that nothing in medicine is certain. Then there’s concern about what happens to men who fail focal therapy. Can we remove the prostate, or are these men too scarred. What happens in terms of their cancer control? It’s early days yet, but certainly technically, removing a prostate after focal therapy is easier than removing a prostate after failed radiotherapy. It certainly is more scarred around the treated area, though. Does that mean men shouldn’t have focal therapy?

I would argue not because we’re giving radiotherapy to hundreds of thousands of men. It’s an accepted treatment modality, and if it does fail, it’s tough surgery afterwards. That is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast. When the first treatment fails, secondary treatments are always going to be a little bit more difficult, if not a lot more difficult.

It is difficult to perform that second surgery or men will have more side effects after their surgery?

Dr. Ahmed: The concern is both. If it’s more difficult to perform, then are they likely to suffer more side effects? And, as a result of the surgery being difficult, are we going to get more positive margins? Are they going to fail more often?

These are men whose tumors are going to be very aggressive by nature because, as I said, they resisted extremes of temperature, sometimes twice, and there are still a few cells. So they’re going to be pretty aggressive. The failure rates might be higher in that group, just because of the focal therapy paradigm. Just like radiotherapy, when you get radio-resistant cancers they are generally more aggressive and nastier cancers just by natural selection, if you like.

Do you have any advice for men who are considering focal therapy?

Dr. Ahmed: It’s very important when you are first diagnosed with prostate cancer not to rush into treatment. It’s important to do as much reading as you can and have consultations with urologists and radiation oncologists. If you haven’t been told about focal therapy, ask whether you’re suitable. You might get an answer that says, “Well, it’s not proven.” But if you are keen to explore it, you should definitely have a consultation with somebody who does focal therapy so that they can tell you first whether you are suitable, and secondly, what the outcomes might be in your case. I think every good focal therapist will share the uncertainties, as well as the certainties, around the treatment that they give.

If they’re not sharing those uncertainties, then see somebody else. It’s also very important that they quote their own data. That data, ideally, should be published in the public domain because that is a sign, first of all, that you’re being told the right outcomes for that surgeon or physician. Also, it’s a sign that physician takes their trade seriously and is constantly looking to see how they can improve, as well as sharing their data with their peers.

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Prostate Cancer Dormancy + Disseminated Tumor Cells

Dr. Julio Aguirre Ghiso is a Professor of Medicine, Hematology and Medical Oncology and Oncological Sciences at Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. His research explores why and how in some patients disseminated tumor cells can remain dormant for years after initial treatment before reactivating to form incurable metastases.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about his research and about a clinical trial testing his findings that is currently looking for prostate cancer patients.

To  learn about a clinical trial for prostate cancer patients that Dr. Aguirre-Ghiso is running: Join us or download the issue.

Why did you become involved in cancer research? What is it about cancer research that has kept you interested?

Dr. Julio Aguirre-Ghiso: When I was an undergraduate student, I was looking for challenging problems to solve in biology. Serendipitously, I started working and volunteering for a cancer biology team in Argentina, where I trained. I became very interested. I was working on tumor immunology. Then I became very interested in the cell biology of cancer cells. At some point, I realized that it didn’t really matter if it was cancer or Alzheimer’s or some other basic biological questions on other organisms; what I really was curious about was solving tough problems and answering questions. This was a good mix where, if I were able to do it, I would also be helping people with cancer in the future.

Focusing on cancer would give me an opportunity to apply my curiosity to something that is relevant for people. That was the original intention. Since I was not an MD, my curiosity was about mostly biological questions. This was a fitting problem to go after.

Let’s talk about the concept of disseminated tumor cells. Can you explain to us how that works and how it is related to the development of metastasis?

Dr. Aguirre-Ghiso: Patients usually present with what’s called a primary tumor. That’s the first cancer lesion ever found in that patient. At that time, doctors will do certain tests on that primary tumor to understand if it had gone through certain changes that would make it able to spread. When cancer cells grow, they may acquire certain abilities that allow them to spread from that primary site—from, let’s say, the prostrate or the breast—to other parts of the body.

The disseminated tumor cells are these cells that have spread throughout the body. They have disseminated from the primary tumor to other organs in the body. Those could be the bones; the liver; the brain; or the lung. When they arrive to those organs, they’re not immediately able to grow. Since they’re usually solitary cells–that’s how we find them in the patient samples and in the mouse models that we’ve used—we call them disseminated tumor cells. They’re not yet metastases, but they’re not in the primary tumor. They’ve left and arrived to other organs. That’s the definition of these disseminated tumor cells.

Why are they important? We and others have provided compelling evidence that these cells are the source of the metastases. Those are the cells, not all of them, but some of them, that are able to eventually grow into metastases that affect the functioning of the organ, and sometimes systemically, the functioning of the patient. That’s what leads to death. That’s why these cells are important.

Do all disseminated tumor cells eventually grow into metastases?

Dr. Aguirre-Ghiso: No.

How do you know which disseminated tumor cells are going to grow into metastases and which are not?

Dr. Aguirre-Ghiso: Well, that’s been a major challenge and a major push from my program: to try to get in early and identify those disseminated tumor cells so that we have some idea if a patient carries disseminated tumor cells that are not going to do anything and the patient doesn’t have to worry, or if the patient carries some cells that look like they’re switching and they’re going to form metastases.

That has been our goal. It’s not yet a clinical test, but that’s why we have pushed the boundaries of our research to get to that point as fast as possible because we think that instead of waiting and not doing anything or treating blindly and then waiting until those metastases grow, we can intervene earlier. We would like to be able to say that this patient has only dormant cells and they don’t look like they’re going to reactivate based on certain markers or gene signatures.

That patient would then only need to be monitored, but new treatments may allow eliminating even those cells. If another patient has a mixture of cells some of which are fully dormant and some of which look like proliferative cells, we would treat him in a different way.

We have provided data for this from our mouse models and from clinical patient samples in prostate cancer. We published two papers in 2014 and in 2015 on this.

Not all cells are going to grow.

In fact, if you look at early lesions in breast cancer, for example, disseminated tumor cells are found in the bone marrow of 13-15% of women with ductal carcinoma in situ but only a small fraction of that 13-15% will develop metastases. It’s not a given that if these cells are there they’re going to grow, but if they are there, there is a higher risk of metastases. That has been proven by large population studies that have been published in The New England Journal of Medicine. This is true for not only breast cancer but for other cancers as well. The goal and the challenge is to have enough information to be able to predict accurately what those cells are going to do when you detect them.

Where we are in the timeline of being able to predict which patient is carrying potentially dangerous disseminated cancer cells and which is carrying dormant disseminated cancer cells?

Dr. Aguirre-Ghiso: We have different areas of research into these disseminated tumor cells. Why they are dormant? Why do they sleep in the body for a long time and then awaken? We discovered a marker in 2015 that could distinguish these deep-sleeping cells in both prostate cancer and breast cancer models. If the cells had this marker, they would behave in this dormant way, and if they didn’t have this marker, they would look more like a proliferative or an about-to-reactivate cancer cell.

At that time, it was correlative between just two groups of patients. Last year, we published a paper on breast cancer where we used the same marker detected in tumor cells disseminated to the bone marrow of breast cancer patients. We were able to show that if patients had this marker they were much less likely to relapse with bone metastases than if they didn’t have this marker. In 2015, we’ve published the original finding where we just said this is probably a good marker; we understand how it works in mouse models. In 2018, we showed that the presence of the markers can distinguish retrospectively how patients behaved. Now the challenge is for people to start using the markers prospectively to see if it helps them make decisions on how to treat or monitor patients. We are very much at the early stages of applying the information that we have generated and bringing it into the clinic.

On the other hand, in that same 2015 paper, we were able to show that if we use two drugs that are FDA-approved and combine them in sequence, we can turn on these dormancy mechanisms in different types of cancer cells—i.e. breast, prostate, and head and neck cancer cells. Because these drugs were available—and there are independent studies showing that when prostate cancer patients are treated with hormonal therapy and anti-androgens, they turn on this marker of dormancy that tells you the cancer is deciding to go into sleeping mode— we wondered if we could repurpose those drugs and treat prostate cancer patients at risk of developing metastases to see if we could delay the onset of metastasis and keep the disseminated tumor cells in a dormant state.

To read the rest of our conversation and to learn about a clinical trial for prostate cancer patients that Dr. Aguirre-Ghiso is running: Join us. Or download the issue.


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NIH’s Ambitious Precision Medicine Research Program

Mr. John Wilbanks is the Chief Commons Officer at Sage Bionetworks. Previously, Wilbanks worked as a legislative aide to Congressman Fortney “Pete” Stark, served as the first assistant director at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, founded and led to acquisition the bioinformatics company Incellico, Inc., and was executive director of the Science Commons project at Creative Commons. In February 2013, in response to a We the People petition that was spearheaded by Wilbanks and signed by 65,000 people, the U.S. government announced a plan to open up taxpayer-funded research data and make it available for free.

Prostatepedia spoke with Mr. Wilbanks about Sage Bionetworks role in All of Us, the National Institute of Health’s ambitious precision medicine research program.

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How did you come to work at Sage Bionetworks?

Mr. John Wilbanks: I got involved with Sage when it was first beginning. Sage was an informatics unit of Merck, and in 2009, they began to explore what they could get for the unit. But we convinced them to spin it out into a nonprofit organization instead of selling it off.

I got involved then as a board member because I was able to help negotiate what the IP structure would look like, how we would get rid of some of the patent constraints and other kinds of intellectual property so that we could build a nonprofit. I have been involved ever since, at first as a board member, then as a consultant, and then in 2012, as a full-time employee.

I lead the Governance team at Sage, which means that my group works on things like informed consent, clinical protocol design, data-sharing and access policies. We work on strange and weird structures that enable collaboration in a variety of ways, and we have a pretty broad view across the organization as a result.

What is the All of Us program?

Mr. Wilbanks: All of Us is a longitudinal cohort study. It is fundamentally an attempt to enroll a million people and to characterize them as completely as we can. This means we collect and look at their health records, pharmacy records, their environment, biospecimens, metabolic data, their genomes, data that we collect from their devices and smartphones, surveys over a ten-year period—you name it. Then, we make that data liberally available so that we can run all sorts of interesting queries.

We’re trying to take the Framingham Heart Study model and reimagine it for the 21st Century. Framingham is a breakthrough study, but it studied one town in Massachusetts, and then its diaspora over time. That means that it’s fairly white, and it has all these biases in it. Also, it doesn’t study anything besides heart health.

All of Us aims to take the idea and the impact of a study like Framingham and reimagine it using a completely modern, digital approach to everything. What would happen if you made that data liberally available? What would happen if you made a point of including 700,000 out of 1,000,000 being from populations that are underrepresented in biomedical research?

That’s one of the reasons it’s been hard to talk about; it’s not a study of prostate cancer. It’s a study that will involve hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom may have prostate cancer, some of whom may have survived prostate cancer, and some of whom may develop prostate cancer. But that’s not the focus. The idea is that we’d be able to subdivide that cohort endlessly in ways that let us think about public health and identify populations for sub-studies as easily as possible.

So then, the goal is to pull in as much data about these people as you can and then make inquiries into the data in various ways?

Mr. Wilbanks: That’s right. And we also want to open up who gets access to the data. It’s one thing to say the people at Harvard can run analytics; it’s very different to say that the community being studied can run analytics. That is also part of the design.

A lot of the questions that will be asked will come from advocates who know what questions need to be asked, questions the scientists don’t know need to be asked. We’ve been trying to design the system to maximize the number of people who are allowed to be data analysts and not just data donors. In many cases, we hope that the donors and analysts are the same people. That level of engagement leads people to start asking questions, not just providing information.

Will people be getting their own information back? Obviously, wearables and devices would feed information to their own electronic records, but I know they’re going to be doing some genomic tests. Will people get the results from those kinds of tests?

Mr. Wilbanks: Yes The study is guided by a set of core values and principles, and one is to prioritize the participant’s right to their data. All data provided by the participant will be provided back to the participant—nothing about me without me. We’re still figuring out how to do that because it’s really complicated.

Don’t you de-identify data first? Then, how do you re-identify it?

Mr. Wilbanks: That’s a little easier. You have to de-identify data before you get it to the data user. But, it’s easy to know for a given sample who that sample came from because that’s what allows us to connect it to the demographic data.

It’s relatively easy to get it back to the individual, but the question of what to return to them is difficult. If it’s their genome, do we give them their BAM files, which are massive? Or do we give them a VCF, which is the differences between their genome and the reference genome, which is tiny? Do we give them images? How many times do you let people download data because the cloud transfer cost would be high? How do we get consent for that? It’s complicated.

We still have to figure out exactly how we’re going to do all of those things, but it is a core principle of the study that nothing about you happens without you, and by the end of the study, you should have as much of your entire electronic health records in one place as possible, in one form. You should have your genome, all of the survey data you offered, all your wearable data, and you should have all the ancillary information we discovered about you. You should be able to take that with you and do what you want with it.

What is Sage’s role in all this?

Mr. Wilbanks: We are a sub-awardee of what’s called the Participant Center and the Participant Center is led by the Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego. We have two different lines of work inside the program, two core jobs. One is governance-based. We work on the clinical protocol, informed consent, and data-sharing systems. The other job is digital health technologies, and that’s a different team than mine. They work on building software modules that sit on smartphones and pull data off as measurements. They design them, figure out how to validate them, and how to feed them into the technology system.

You’re basically trying to figure out how you can pull data from the apps or wearables that participants already use?

Mr. Wilbanks: That’s part of the DHT group, and that’s led more by Scripps. We use the features of devices.

For examples, we think we can get a tremor measure for neurodegeneration with a module that measures the accelerometer in a smartphone. We can measure their gait by having them put their phone in their pocket and taking 20 steps forward and 20 steps back. We can measure phonation through a microphone. We can measure memory and tapping through the touchscreen.

We want to design modules like these that are clinically validated to measure those things so that anyone who wants to measure gait, lung capacity, memory, or what have you can rapidly access that inside the All of Us app or a related app. And they should feel confident that the data is relatively consistent and valid.

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Tech World Helps Prostate Cancer Manage Big Data

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 how technology companies and healthcare organizations are collaborating for prostate cancer research.

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You’re at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), just north of Silicon Valley, home of the tech revolution. The media talk a lot about how technological advances are changing every aspect of society and healthcare in particular. How will emerging technologies impact prostate cancer research and patients?

Dr. Felix Feng: Certainly, UCSF exposes me to the tech revolution. I also grew up in Silicon Valley and went to Stanford University during the dotcom boom, so I’m pretty familiar with tech. The beauty of technology is that it allows us to think on a much larger scale than before.

Big data refers to analyzing large amounts of data from multiple sources, from clinical data to genomic data and so forth. Big data has impacted our field tremendously. My research team has had a few very productive collaborations with big data industry partners.

We collaborated with GenomeDX Biosciences, the molecular diagnostics company that makes the Decipher assay. To conduct the Decipher assay and look at the 22 genes that make up the Decipher score, they must analyze the expression of the vast majority of genes within the prostate cancer genome. We’ve partnered with GenomeDX to analyze samples from around 40,000 patients to generate predictive biomarkers and to identify genes that are associated with bad outcomes in prostate cancer. This provides direction for what we should study in the lab.

Another exciting collaboration is with a sequencing company called Illumina. We recently sequenced the whole genomes of 100 patients with metastatic prostate cancer. The data from those 100 patients took about 50 terabytes, a very large amount of data. We sequenced these patients, and housed, processed, and analyzed the data using the infrastructure they developed in the Amazon Cloud.

We’ve also partnered with a number of drug companies that run large clinical trials. These companies provided us access to samples from their clinical trials, recognizing that it costs millions of dollars to run a national clinical trial with many patients. The samples from these trials are an invaluable resource. When utilized in the right manner, these industry partnerships help us accelerate discovery to improve prostate cancer therapy.

Would you say that the greatest impact has been in the arena of genomics just because of the massive amount of data that’s generated?

Dr. Feng: That’s one of the major areas of advances. But there are so many areas of advancement in prostate cancer therapy right now that it’s hard to pick the most exciting. We’re super excited by a technology called CRISPR, a gene editing approach that allows scientists to silence genes, one-by-one in the context of prostate cancer, or in the context of cancer cell line models. These CRISPR approaches allow us to broadly study the function of many different genes and to couple that with what we’re finding from sequencing the tumors.

There are other exciting developments in novel therapeutics that target androgen receptor signaling, which is the major diagnosis of prostate cancer, and also in immunotherapy, targeting DNA repair in prostate cancer, and through drugs likePARP inhibitors.

Partnering with the tech sector has helped us identify the genomic drivers of prostate cancer, and that allows for personalized therapy. Interrogating big data from drug companies has also accelerated the pace of drug development.

Are there any collaborations that are not happening that you would like to see?

Dr. Feng: As a radiation oncologist, I am interested in how radiation can modulate immune response. When radiation kills prostate cancer, it might expose the immune system to proteins found in the tumors, proteins called antigens, which the immune system wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to. I wish that more companies would focus on combining systemic drugs with radiation as a way to improve patient outcomes. Whatever the reason, I hope that we recognize the potential of radiation to improve patients’ systemic response to immunotherapy.

The field of prostate cancer is advancing rapidly. Academic researchers and industry partners use technological advances, whether big data or improved modeling approaches to identify new therapeutic approaches for patients. Just a decade ago, there was only one FDA-approved drug for patients with metastatic prostate cancer who have become resistant to first time hormone therapy. Now we have six FDA-approved drugs for them. Imagine what the next decade will bring.

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Health/Tech Collaborations For Prostate Cancer

Dr. Paul Nguyen is an internationally recognized expert in prostate cancer clinical care and research. He has published over 250 original research articles, has various national leadership roles and is the Dana-Farber Cancer Center Genitourinary Clinical Center Director for Radiation Oncology, Vice-Chair for Clinical Research in the Department of Radiation Oncology, and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about collaborations between healthcare and tech industries for prostate cancer.

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Have you had any particular patients or cases that changed how you view your role as a doctor or how you practice medicine?

Dr. Paul Nguyen: Several years after treating him, I heard from a patient who recounted for me what it was like to meet with me when he had first been diagnosed with recurrent disease. He said he’d had a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about his future. He said that the way I spoke with him had changed it entirely for him. He said I had a plan for him, knew exactly what we were going to need to do, and that we were going to do it.

I didn’t do anything particularly different in that encounter than I normally do, but hearing that made me realize how patients really hang on our every word, our every facial expression, our every cadence, and the emotion that we project when we speak. This made me so aware and conscious of making sure that, at all times, in every encounter, I have that combination of being sure about what I need to do and maintaining hope and optimism in every part of our discussions.

That was a good learning cycle for me. I hadn’t thought of it that way when I was with a patient. You just don’t think that every intonation, every gesture has such a huge impact. But it does. That was a very valuable learning experience for me that has really shaped how I think about every patient encounter before I walk into the room.

What are your current research projects? Which are you most excited about?

Dr. Nguyen: I have spent my entire career using information from the medical record about patients’ health status and tumor characteristics to figure out which men should get hormone therapy and for how long. Now, I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to unleash the power of genetic testing of tumors. This will help us understand, on a genetic and molecular level, which patients should be given hormone therapy and for exactly how long. This will be a lot more precise than the clinical information by itself. I’m working with Dr. Felix Feng and others, which has been a wonderful collaboration.

How do you see evolving technologies impacting prostate cancer research? Dr. Nguyen: Technology gives us opportunities to do the kinds of studies we never dreamed possible, which is amazing.

I’ll give you an example. Dr. Feng and I are about to take prostate cancer samples from biopsy tissues taken 25 years ago from men who had cancer, samples stored without a clear purpose in mind. I give a huge amount of credit to the people who designed these studies in the early 1990s. They had no way to analyze this tissue, but they knew that someday, this tissue would be important to humanity. There wasn’t a specific test that they were storing these samples for, but they knew some kind of technology could decode what was going on in those tumors, to study how the tumors work, and who should get which treatment.

I feel so fortunate to come along 25 years later, when we do have the technology to analyze this tissue, and research it. This is the research I’m about to do now, which would never have been possible without new technologies.

Do you see technology impacting how we design clinical trials from the get-go?

Dr. Nguyen: Absolutely, because now people are designing trials with technology. There’s a trial being led by Dr. Feng from UCSF and Dr. Dan Spratt at the University of Michigan that incorporates genetic technology.

All the patients are tested upfront with this new technology to help decide which arm the patient goes into, which is really cool. This new scientific technology is being worked into clinical trial design.

Which innovations or technologies have the biggest impact?

Dr. Nguyen: There are two kinds of impacts. One is the ability to do large-scale genomic studies for a relatively low price. That has been a game-changer because it used to be so expensive to sequence the DNA of patients, but now you can approximate that rather cheaply and then do studies on thousands of patients. This way, we can pick up very small signals, which are very valuable.

The other invaluable impact is the ability to detect very minute amounts of tumor in the blood, very tiny traces that can tell us a lot.

In the circulating tumor cell?

Dr. Nguyen: Exactly.

Do you think artificial intelligence will play a role?

Dr. Nguyen: For sure. I’ve spent most of my career working on simple, clinical data. You can see the patterns of simple data yourself by doing simple statistical analyses. But now, the patterns are much more complex. Instead of five datapoints, you might have two million datapoints per patient. So we need AI. We need sophisticated machine learning to help us discern some kind of pattern out of that huge amount of data, to help us make sense of it.

Are there any specific collaborations, other than the ones we’ve already discussed, that you think look promising?

Dr. Nguyen: We’re seeing a lot more collaborations across specialties and disciplines to get research done. So much of what we’re seeing now is team science whereas people used to do studies with their own group.

Now, if you look at a paper, it’s not just one group or one discipline. At each institution, it’s five disciplines, and then you might have ten institutions on a paper, each contributing something different because that’s just what it takes now.

Every group has its own, little special expertise that gets put together to get a big paper or a big trial done. That’s what has really exploded. We’ve all recognized that, in order to get good science done, we have to team up.

Is just it easier to collaborate with people now via email and sharing of data? Or is there something about the way cancer research has been funded that has fostered that collaboration?

Dr. Nguyen: Yes. Those factors definitely contribute. It is definitely easier to share data now with the internet. Efforts to fund team science have definitely led teams to be created that might not have been created organically before.

There’s something fundamental about the increasing use of technology in studies and trials where only certain groups have this kind of technology expertise. You might have one group that knows a lot about the technology and another group that has a large number of patients and ideas. And you have to reach outside of your little sphere in order to get these kinds of exciting studies done.

It seems like before everything was pretty much siloed: you had tech, you had healthcare, and then, within healthcare, you had prostate cancer versus pancreatic cancer versus breast cancer. But now, the walls are coming down between those silos, with things like increased genetic testing. Would you say that’s true?

Dr. Nguyen: Absolutely. For example, some of the cool studies done in prostate cancer genetics were modeled on similar research done in breast cancer genetics several years before. Breast cancer had the Oncotype study, and then prostate cancer developed the Oncotype test many years later. We’ve seen molecular subtypes of breast cancer (luminal A, luminal B, and basal), and now there’s a study led by Dr. Feng suggesting that you’ve got similar kinds of subtypes in prostate cancer. We have to be knowledgeable about other fields. You can’t just be in your own silo now.

Last week, I spoke with engineers at University of Pennsylvania who are working with microchip-based technologies and machine learning to increase liquid biopsy’s usefulness in pancreatic cancer. They said this allows them to process much more data than they could before. They hope this has potential in other cancers. I know that’s more along the lines of diagnostics than what you’re doing, but do you have any thoughts about that?

Dr. Nguyen: We are all trying to take those same kinds of approaches with the folks who do machine learning. We need them desperately now because we’ve got so much data, and we just can’t figure it out on our own.

That’s exactly where we’re all headed.

Join us to read the rest of Dr. Nguyen’s comments on collaborations between the health and tech fields for prostate cancer.


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Genomics, Predicting Side Effects, + Clinical Trial Design

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 genomics, predicting side effects and the future of prostate cancer clinical trials

Can genomics predict who will have certain side effects?

Dr. Feng: There have been a number of studies that have used single nucleotide changes within DNA sequences, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPS), to predict who will be most likely to experience side effects from radiation therapy for cancer.

In general, the signal from these toxicity studies has been weaker than the signals from biomarkers that predict responses to particular therapies, like the ones that I mentioned earlier. This may be reflective of the fact that radiation acts through a variety of mechanisms, so any single biomarker may not work well. Even when you cluster biomarkers, it may not account for the heterogeneous manner in which radiation causes a biological effect.

What should patients know about how genomics is impacting treatment?

Dr. Feng: Many of the clinical trials being developed nowadays incorporate genomics. We have clinical grade assays to look at genomics. We have strong biological rationale for why certain genomic biomarkers may identify subsets of patients who can respond to specific therapies. Because genomics is routinely used to personalize treatment in the context of diseases like breast cancer, colon cancer, and melanoma, it’s only expected that genomics will have a major role in prostate cancer going forward.

Will incorporating genomics into clinical trial design accelerate the speed of innovation?

Dr. Feng: I think it will. If you look at metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer, for example, a number of therapies have been approved by the FDA over the last decade for those patients, including agents like Zytiga (abiraterone) and Xtandi (enzalutamide), next generation taxanes, Provenge (sipuleucel-T), and Xofigo (radium-223). All of these agents extend survival by just a few months.

This is invariably what happens when you treat prostate cancer as one disease entity rather than a variety of different entities that are governed by different genomic events. As we become better at selecting therapies based on a patient’s genomic events, we should see longer response times to available therapies and those currently being developed.

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Patients Speak: I Had Genomic Testing

Steve S. talks to Prostatepedia about how genomic testing gave him confidence that active surveillance was a safe choice for him.

Join us.

How did you find out that you had prostate cancer?

Steve: I don’t remember exactly, but I think I went to the urologist on the recommendation of a doctor who said I should have some PSA tests. I went to the urologist. The urologist ran some PSA tests and said, “They’re a little elevated. Maybe we need to run a biopsy,” which they did. That was about ten years ago. The biopsy came back with three or four cores indicating cancer with a Gleason score of 6 (3+3), which has remained the same over the last ten years. I think that’s what happened.

What kinds of genomic tests did you have and when?

Steve: That happened about five years later. I went to a support group and I heard about genomic testing. My doctor at the time hadn’t mentioned anything about genomic testing to me. I said to him that I didn’t see any downside in having genomic testing. Why couldn’t I have it? He said that he didn’t think it would be covered by my insurance and it’s not something they had done. I felt like a little bit of a pioneer.

I actually got on the phone with the people at Genomic Health in California and asked how much the test would cost. They mentioned a figure of about $500. I asked, “So that’s what I’m going to be charged?” They said, “Probably.” They weren’t really clear about it. In the end I was never charged.

They sent three results to my physician after a few weeks. Because my physician had never given them instructions as to what risk category he felt that I was in, they sent back three results based on different risk profiles. To this moment, I still don’t know exactly which risk profile I fit into.

All three results looked somewhat encouraging to my layperson’s eyes. I discussed the results with the doctor at the time and he said, “I think this confirms what we’re doing at the moment is right. You can continue on active surveillance, but of course it’s your choice.” They will always say that….

The results definitely changed your treatment path?

Steve: I was already on active surveillance, although in the first two or three years, I was thinking about some form of radiation therapy.

We talked about seeds. We talked about beams. I even talked to a friend a few years older than me who had gone through proton beam therapy and he was very encouraged by his results. My insurance at the time did not cover that, so proton beam therapy came off the table. I was not thinking about surgery. I was turned off by the idea of surgery, even though they had a DaVinci robot.

Then I got the OncoTypeDX test. I looked at the results with my physician and decided to proceed. It confirmed what I was already inclined towards.

Do you feel like it gave you more confidence in your decision?

Steve: Yes. I think so. I think that’s fair to say.

Would you recommend that other men take these tests?

Steve: Everybody has a very different psychological makeup. For example, I’ve got a brother-in-law who doesn’t have prostate cancer, but is very educated on medical matters. He’s a smart guy, and so I talked to him about it. He said, “God, if it was me, I would take care of it right away. I’d have that prostate out of there and have peace of mind.” I responded with: “I’ve lost very little sleep over the years about it.” That’s just my makeup. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve got other things to think about, other things I care about. Health is very, very important.

I’m not a complete passenger in this process. That’s why it’s called active surveillance. I’m very careful about going to my doctor’s appointments, following up, trying to keep myself educated, and so forth. Would I recommend it to somebody else? Somebody else who has the same psychological makeup that I do? Absolutely. Somebody who is a nervous person, a Type A person, somebody who is likely to lose sleep? Perhaps not. I don’t see any possible downside to the testing, though. It’s another tool for you and your doctor to use to help you make your decisions.

Not a member? Join us to read the rest of this month’s conversations about genomics.