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, 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 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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Clinical Trial: Zytiga, Lynparza, + DNA Repair Defects

Dr. Maha Hussain is the Genevieve Teuton Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology, Department of Medicine, and the Deputy Director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Prostatepedia spoke with her about a clinical trial she’s running, BRCAAway, that looks at Zytiga (abiraterone) and Lynparza (olaparib) in metastatic castrate-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC) patients with DNA repair defects. (The trial has a Identifier of NCT03012321).

What can you tell us about the trial that you’re running looking at Zytiga (abiraterone) and Lynparza (olaparib)?

Dr. Maha Hussain: In prostate cancer, and specifically in mCRPC, data emerging from multiple resources, including the Stand Up To Cancer initiative from a few years ago, indicate that greater than 20% of mCRPC cancer harbor DNA repair pathway aberrations. These types of defects in the tumor will allow the patient to potentially be a candidate for PARP inhibitors. In this regard, PARP inhibitors have had a track record in ovarian and breast cancer.

They’re currently undergoing multiple clinical trials, including Phase III clinical trials in patients with advanced disease and in different settings of the disease.

A couple of years ago, we published data from an NCI-funded clinical trial where patients with mCRPC underwent a biopsy of their metastatic cancer. The patients were then stratified by the presence or absence of ETS gene fusion and randomized to Zytiga (abiraterone) and prednisone with or without a PARP inhibitor called veliparib.

As part of that study, we also looked at other tumor genomics when extra tissue was available. We discovered that the patients who had tumors with DNA repair defects seemed to respond much better to treatment with Zytiga (abiraterone) with or without veliparib as opposed to the patients who did not have that. This is not something that anyone knew before. After we had published our data, the Johns Hopkins team published data they had on patients who had undergone germline testing and who had received Zytiga (abiraterone) or Xtandi (enzalutamide). They reported similar observations.

This leads me to the current trial, which we call BRCAAway. BRCAAway is a prospective clinical trial for patients who have developed mCRPC for which they have not yet received any specific treatment. Patient will undergo a biopsy, unless they have previous tissue available from either the primary or metastatic disease, and the tissue will then be evaluated for the presence of specific DNA repair defect alterations. Per the US FDA guidance, patients who have BRCA1, BRCA2, and/or ATM are randomly assigned to either Zytiga (abiraterone) + prednisone, Lynparza (olaparib), or combination Zytiga (abiraterone) + prednisone and Lynparza (olaparib). Any patient whose tumors have other DNA repair defects (not BRCA1, BRCA2, or ATM) are enrolled into an exploratory arm where they will receive Lynparza (olaparib). Lynparza (olaparib) is provided by the study. The patients who are randomized to the arm of the Zytiga (abiraterone) or Lynparza (olaparib) can cross over to the other treatment if their cancer is progressing; i.e., if a patient who is randomized to Zytiga (abiraterone) and prednisone and then develops progression of the cancer is interested and his physician deems it appropriate, he can switch over to Lynparza (olaparib). The same is the case for patients who are randomized to Lynparza (olaparib) if they progress on frontline Lynparza (olaparib), they can switch to Zytiga (abiraterone) and prednisone per standard-of-care.

Are you assuming that these patients have already been tested for BRCA1, BRCA2, and ATM, or will you be testing for that?

Dr. Hussain: So long as it was done in a certified and appropriate lab, we can accept the data for patients who have been tested. The study covers a biopsy and the genomic testing for the patients.

Are there any fees associated, or is everything covered?

Dr. Hussain: Anything that’s standard-of-care is billed to insurance. Anything that is a research procedure, as in the biopsy and the genomics testing, is covered by the study. The Lynparza (olaparib) is provided by the study, but the Zytiga (abiraterone) is not because that’s part of standard-of-care. All of these tests to assess the cancer, assess tolerance, and assess the cancer progression in terms of scans, things like blood work or anything for safety assessment, per CMS rules, are billed to insurance.

How many patients have you already enrolled, and how many are you looking to enroll?

Dr. Hussain: In the arm with the BRCA1, BRCA 2, and ATM, we need 60 patients. We’re about halfway there. We have enrolled 40 patients to date. For the exploratory arm, we have expanded our limit, and we’re growing that arm. So far, we have plenty of room to accrue more patients.

How many sites do you have?

Dr. Hussain: We currently have 15 active sites.

That’s a lot.

Dr. Hussain: It’s a lot of sites, but as I’m sure patients appreciate, part of it is that by the time we see an eligible patient, they have to have the specific mutations, whether it’s on new tests or based on previous tissue. When we test, it’s roughly one in five who will likely be positive. Of course, they have to qualify by other criteria, so we have to screen many patients. We’re on track as we forecasted, and we’re hopeful to finish enrollment by a year from now. We also hope to have some important data to share.

Wow! That’s fast.

Dr. Hussain: Of course we need adequate follow-up to assess clinical benefit and its duration. I’m thinking 2020 will be the end of the study, and if there are signals earlier, we will be reporting the data. The Prostate Cancer Clinical Trial Consortium (PCCTC) is acting as the coordinating CRO. The institutional review board (IRB) of record is Northwestern University IRB. If you’re interested in learning more, please visit NCT03012321?term=brcaaway &rank=1 or email cancertrials@

Is there anything else you want patients to know about this particular trial or about the context in which it’s occurring?

Dr. Hussain: This and other clinical trials are important options for patients to consider. Clearly, they have access to regular standard-of-care treatment. The hope is that we can do better than standard-of-care. We are also trying to validate earlier observations that I mentioned regarding whether the patients who have DNA repair defects have better response to Zytiga (abiraterone) and how does this response compare to Lynparza (olaparib) versus the combination.

Lynparza (olaparib) is a drug that’s available on the market for breast and ovarian cancer, so there’s a fair amount of experience with it. It is not yet FDA approved for prostate cancer, but we have a reasonable understanding for the potential side effects. Certainly, there are multiple clinical trials that are looking at it and other PARP-inhibitors in prostate cancer.

Zytiga (abiraterone) is standard-of-care and FDA approved. It’s been around for many years. All treating oncologists should be very familiar with it and how to monitor and what to expect.

It looks like an exciting trial.

Dr. Hussain: We are very excited. What is clear from the experience with prostate cancer is that one size does not fit all, this is one of the first examples of precision medicine in front line mCRPC. Our goal is to better personalize care and significantly impact disease outcomes.

The patient is our partner. We cannot succeed and deliver better treatments to patients without their partnership, so we are very grateful to them for their participation.

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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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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 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.

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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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