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Ms. Merel Nissenberg: Hypofractionated Radiotherapy

IMG_3119Ms. Merel Nissenberg is the President of the National Alliance of State Prostate Cancer Coalitions, a nation-wide organization comprised of state prostate cancer coalitions dedicated to saving men’s lives and enhancing the quality of life of prostate cancer patients and their families through awareness, education, and the development of a public policy network.

She offers two views of hypofractionated radiotherapy for prostate cancer.

NASPCC supports the use of new treatments and therapies that good evidence shows help prostate cancer patients, but only those that do not have more risks than benefits as compared to conventional care. Consider radiation therapy in prostate cancer. As radiation therapists and medical oncologists consider future trends in radiation therapy for prostate cancer, there are two settings in which the idea of hypofractionated radiotherapy is being explored. It may not yet be ready for prime time.

The first setting is either the postoperative adjuvant period for prostate cancer patients with aggressive pathological features following radical prostatectomy or as salvage therapy for patients with biochemical recurrence after prostatectomy. Although there is now evidence from Phase III trials supporting the use of hypofractionation in terms of good biochemical control and favorable short-term toxicity, the role of such radiotherapy in these patients is still considered investigational due to conflicting results with long-term genitourinary late toxicity.

The second setting involves men with localized prostate cancer who are often treated with external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) as their primary treatment, with treatments given over the course of 8-9 weeks. For these types of localized prostate cancer patients, trials are now being conducted to ascertain the noninferiority of hypofractionation.

That is, can larger doses of radiation per treatment over a shorter time be just as effective as standard EBRT and with no increased toxicity?

In one such trial reported in Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2017 (V35, no. 17, 1884-1890), intermediate risk patients were randomized to either conventional radiotherapy of 78 Gy in 39 fractions over 8 weeks (598 patients) or to hypofractionated radiotherapy of 60 Gy in 20 fractions over 4 weeks (608 patients). No androgen deprivation was allowed during the trial.

The primary outcome was “biochemical-clinical failure” (BCF), defined as the first occurrence of any one of 4 outcomes: PSA failure, hormonal intervention, clinical evidence of local or distant failure, or death as a result of prostate cancer. Median follow-up was 6 years.

The five-year BCF disease-free survival was 85% in both arms of the trial, and there were no significant differences between the two arms in terms of grade 3 or worse late GU and GI toxicity. There were twelve deaths as a result of prostate cancer in the standard RT arm, and ten deaths as a result of prostate cancer in the hypofractionated arm.

The trial investigators concluded there is evidence to support the use of moderate hypofractionated RT in patients with intermediate-risk prostate cancer but not in high-risk disease.

For hypofractionated radiotherapy to be adopted as standard practice for patients with intermediate-risk disease, it must be shown to be equivalent or superior to conventional radiotherapy in terms of excessive toxicity, especially late radiation genitourinary and gastrointestinal toxicity. More studies are therefore needed, particularly because there has been conflicting evidence in terms of such toxicity.

While some reports from last year conclude that moderate hypofractionation is safe and effective for localized prostate cancer and further suggest it should be standard of care, it cannot be over-emphasized that caution is strongly urged.

Longer-term toxicities are not yet known from the increased dosage of radiation with the new modalities. NASPCC strongly supports more clinical trials and longer-term follow-up to answer the question of long-term toxicity with the use of hypofractionation.

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Patients Speak: Let’s Talk About It

Gary H spoke with Prostatepedia about prostate cancer journey and the choices he’s made along the way.

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How were you initially diagnosed with prostate cancer?

Gary H: I live in Colorado, and I get a physical every year. I didn’t know this, but my doctor started checking my PSA at 40. About five years ago, when I was 54, my doctor said my PSA went up from 2.0 to about 4.4. He said there was a small chance of cancer, but when it gets up to that number, it’s important to check it, so he recommended a biopsy. I went in there just for a physical. Next thing you know, I’m going to get a biopsy.

I found a good doc, went in, and did the biopsy. He did about 12 needles. It turned out that I had some cancer in certain parts of my prostate.

He said, “You’re a young guy. Just go take it out.” But I started researching more and more, and because my PSA wasn’t going up very fast, I started the journey looking at what to do.

Where did you go for research? Did you turn to the internet? Friends?

Gary H: Yes. I talked to people I know who knew someone who went through it. I just talked to lots of people who had a friend, brother, or relative, and I just called them. From them, I heard everything from “I had it taken out” to “active surveillance.” I was getting calls about the proton or doing brachy. I was amazed by how many different approaches there are. I got a feeling for what I needed to do, and then I talked to four or five top surgeons and in different places, like Sloan Kettering, Johns Hopkins, and MD Anderson.

You did your due diligence.

Gary H: I sure did. I did everything I could possibly do, and from what I understood, if PSA is under 10, it hasn’t spread. I had about 8, but it wasn’t going very fast. I found a fairly young fellow in Denver that I had a lot of confidence in. After speaking with about seven people who had it removed and told me what to expect, I elected to have it removed. That was a big decision.

How did you find the surgeon that you ended up going with?

Gary H: I felt that someone who had done thousands of prostatectomies was just knocking them out, going right through them and probably pretty fast. I wanted someone who hadn’t done so many but who really took his time, someone very serious about it, someone who cared maybe a little more. The surgery may take only an hour, but I wanted a meticulous person.

A friend of mine who sold healthcare products in hospitals all over spoke very highly of this one doctor in Colorado. That’s how I found my doctor. Then I had to decide between the old fashioned or robotic way. While the guys that go in there with their hands can feel what’s going on, which can be beneficial, there can be a lot more bleeding. I chose robotic because there would be less bleeding, and I’m glad I did.

Did you have any side effects after the surgery?

Gary H: Not really. Because I was young, they said I should be fine, and I really didn’t have any side effects. It took me a little longer to heal than I thought it would. I started exercising maybe before I should’ve. I should’ve waited a little bit longer.

Otherwise, everything went the way it was supposed to, and everything was great. That was a little over three years ago. I have been as athletic as ever, and I never had a problem with incontinence.

What kind of monitoring did they do after the surgery?

Gary H: About every three months, for about three years, I had my PSA checked. About five months ago, my PSA showed up as 0.02. Before that, it was 0.01, which is what they call undetectable. It’s still undetectable, but it went up to 0.06. I just had another test, and I’m waiting on the results. It’s a whole new program now.

As far as what I’ve learned, the doubling time is the big thing, and so it’s been doubling every two or three months, which is pretty quick. But the number is very low. I’m starting to ask questions again, but the speed is the concern, not so much the number.

Right: the velocity, they say.

Gary H: Right. Depending on this new test, I may have it radiated.

Is this something your doctor suggested, or is this a result of your previous research and discussions with other men?

Gary H: Probably a combination. My doctor initially told me that if it gets to 0.20, we should look at doing radiation and maybe hormone. Then, it was only 0.02, so I had a long way to go. Because of the speed of it, he advised to just have it radiated, that I didn’t need the hormone at this point. Because the doubling time is minimal but going faster, the velocity threw me a curve ball.

Have you had any imaging studies to see what’s going on, or is it so far just blood tests that you’re getting?

Gary H: No. No imaging. It’s because the number is so low. They say they wouldn’t be able to detect anything. But I plan to probably do the imaging. My one doc says it doesn’t get in your bones until it goes up to 40 or 50. A PSA of 0.03 or even 0.06 is really just starting to get going, so it’s most likely still in the bed.

For right now, you’re just in a waiting game, right?

Gary H: Yeah. I’m waiting today, actually. But I’m not concerned or worried. It’s a nonissue because of all the information. The more you know, the more comfortable you are. And it’s really out of my mind until maybe the day I’ve got to go and have blood work. Then, I feel like I’m in the electric chair for the next six to eight hours until I find out.

There’s that waiting thing, right?

Gary H: That’s right. That’s the only real negative, I suppose.

They call that PSA anxiety.

Gary H: Yeah. There you go. And now I’m not too worried. There are lots of great technologies and options. It’s just the radiation that concerns me, really. I’ve got to be in one place for two months. That’s the thing.

There are many good radiation therapists out there, so I’m sure you’ll be in good hands. It’s also good to have an action plan for what you would do next if you need to take more action, right?

Gary H: It sure is comforting that way. Now, what I went through with prostate cancer is not the same as other forms of cancers. I guess I could say I’m very fortunate to have found it when I did and to have had a doctor that was checking me all the time.

Right. You didn’t even know you were getting your PSA checked.

Gary H: I didn’t even know.

Do you have any thoughts for other men who are newly diagnosed or in a similar situation to yours?

Gary H: When you first hear about it, your initial reaction is: okay, what does that mean? Prostate cancer hasn’t really= changed my life. I still exercise. I feel great. I compete as a golfer. It’s not like all of a sudden I’ve got to go and sit in a chair, and read a book for the rest of my life.

It’s just a nuisance more than anything.

That’s if you stay on top of it. Now, of course, it could’ve been a lot worse. I had an uncle who passed away back in 1982 of prostate cancer, so it was in my family. He had waited and waited. He was supposed to have it out, but he was afraid, so he waited an extra year or two. By then, it was too late.

Do what you have to do initially, and learn as much as you can about your disease. There are lots of people to talk to and options out there.

At one point, for example, I was going to do the brachy. Once, I almost did the cryo. I was actually up at 6:00 am getting ready to go to the hospital for the cryo treatment, but I didn’t. I just didn’t feel right. I went the aggressive route and had it removed. Just do what you have to do. It’s not a painful experience, really. It’s more of a nuisance from your daily activities.

You have to step back, reevaluate, and take some time. Figure out what approach to take, and go that route.

What about reaching out to other men because it sounds like you really did? You had a lot of discussions with your friends and family. Would you recommend that other men do that as well?

Gary H: Oh, absolutely. Everybody’s different. I know people who are not very social and just rely on the internet. Others will talk to every Tom, Dick, and Harry, and that’s how I was. I did a little bit of everything. I had three close pals who had it, so I talked to them.

Everybody’s an individual and different about what approach they want to take. I have a friend who has a similar situation to mine, but he’s chosen active surveillance. He’s really staying right around that number, and it’s not going anywhere.

You do read conflicting things, for example, that PSA is not important, but it is important. If it’s on the move, you need to do something about it. So, reaching out and talking with other men is important, even just to sort through conflicting information.

People find it helpful to listen to other men’s stories.

Gary H: I like it a lot. I travel all over as a competitive golfer, and I always wanted to hook up with some organization, so while traveling, I could speak in different towns each week. I am competing. I’m out there. I’ve been through it all. I’d like to share with others.

There’s still a bit of a cultural shyness or reticence about speaking about prostate cancer. Perhaps it’s a gender thing, but a lot of men are hesitant to talk about it.

Gary H: Yeah. I’m not. I’m not at all.

Any way you can get the dialogue out there is good.

Gary H: I’m very open about it. I don’t have a problem. It’s a certain age. It’s not like an 18-year-old so much. We’re older now. Let’s talk about it.

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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.

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Collaborating For Prostate Cancer

This month, Prostatepedia explores collaborations between tech and health care in the world of prostate cancer. Long gone are the days in which individual doctors and scientists operate in silos to both treat patients and conduct research.

Join us to read about collaborations between health care and tech for prostate cancer.

Large multi-institution and multidisciplinary collaborations that leverage emerging technologies to both collect data and to make sense of that data are the name of the game.

In our first two conversations, we feature two leaders in prostate cancer today—Dr. Felix Feng of the University of California, SF and Dr. Paul Nguyen of the Dana-Farber Cancer Center. Both discuss current projects that exploit emerging technologies and speculate about what the future might—they hope will—hold.

Dr. John Wilbanks of Sage Bionetworks discusses his company’s role in the National Institute of Health’s newly launched precision medicine initiative All of Us. (Some of you may remember a conversation with another Sage Bionetwork member, Dr. James Costello, in Prostatepedia’s May 2017 issue.) Dr. Wilbanks offers a unique perspective; his former role as the executive director of the Science Commons project at Creative Commons placed him at the intersection of tech, health care and patient advocacy arenas. All of Us would love men with prostate cancer to participate in the project.

Ms. Jina Ko and Dr. David Issadore of the University of Pennsylvania discuss using liquid biopsy and machine learning—or artificial intelligence—to diagnose pancreatic cancer. They argue that the technology they’ve developed should work for any cancer type, including prostate.

Dr. Matthew Galsky of the Tisch Cancer Institute discusses his efforts to incorporate telemedicine into clinical trials. As we learned in our conversations about prostate cancer clinical trials last month, the distance that you have to travel in order to participate in a clinical trial can often be a deal-breaker.

Mr. Dave Furher of Gryt Health introduces us to Stupid Cancer, an app that connects patients. Mr. Fuehrer is keen on getting more prostate cancer patients to lead in-app chat rooms. Those of you who lead support groups may be interested in participating: this is a way for you to reach men outside of your local communities, men perhaps isolated and in need of support.

In his quarterly column, Mr. Jamie Bearse of Zero discusses an astounding increase in federal funding for prostate cancer research. Zero’s tireless work on Capital Hill benefits all men. If you haven’t yet, take a look at their website to review some of the work they do and the tools they provide for men like yourself.

Finally, Gary tells us about his own prostate cancer experience and offers advice for those of you in a similar situation.

Our conversations this month underscore the tremendous changes happening in the world of prostate cancer The next five years will totally revolutionize the way we diagnose and treat prostate cancer as well as the way in which we conduct research about the disease.

These are exciting times, friends!

Join us to read our June conversations.


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Prostate Cancer, NIH + Clinical Trials

Dr. Ravi Madan (@Dr_RaviMadan), the clinical director of the National Cancer Institute’s Genitourinary Malignancies Branch, focuses on immune stimulating therapies. In particular, he’s interested in how we can combine these approaches with other therapies to improve patients’ lives.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about clinical trials for prostate cancer patients.

Why has it been difficult for doctors to enroll patients in clinical trials?

Dr. Ravi Madan: The reasons vary from case to case. Sometimes physicians don’t mention relevant trials at the right time for patients (when they’re making treatment decisions). Sometimes patients don’t want to go through the process of enrollment because of the perception that it delays their care and that delay will somehow impact their outcome. There is also personal preference. Some patients really don’t like the uncertainty of a clinical trial—uncertainty in terms of what their treatment will be if there’s a randomization or uncertainty about the outcome.

Trials should be discussed with patients when they’re making a decision to change therapies. While enrollment does take time, it’s usually only a few weeks, and for the most part, that doesn’t impact the patient’s outcomes or overall course. Ultimately, patients need to have a risks/benefits conversation with their doctor to determine if a clinical trial fits into the personal treatment strategy that they’ve developed with their doctor and their family.

Perhaps many people assume clinical trials aren’t really available until you have advanced disease, but that’s not really true is it? There are trials available at all stages along the journey.

Dr. Madan: Correct. Trials exist in all stages of the disease. The ones that often get the most notoriety, either on television or in the news, are the ones for late-stage patients. But for example, here at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), we have trials for every stage of prostate cancer, from patients who are newly diagnosed to early recurrence to non-metastatic, and then ultimately, late-stage disease.

Why would someone want to join a trial? Just to gain access to a treatment he may not otherwise have access to?

Dr. Madan: Sometimes you get access to treatments earlier than they may be available to the general public. People should understand that clinical trials often involve the standard of care they would get anyway plus an experimental agent.

There is an altruism component to a lot of this as well. It never ceases to amaze me, but when I deal with the patients here at the NCI, so many of them tell me: “If this helps me, that’s great, but I just want to help someone else later on.” It’s not like everybody has to have that reason, but it’s remarkable how many do. So, the reasons are variable. Sometimes it’s because there aren’t other options, but sometimes it’s because it adds options or adds cards to the playing deck, if you will, and sometimes it’s just pure altruism.

I guess that’s especially true in earlier-stage diseases, where you don’t necessarily need experimental treatment or access to something that you wouldn’t otherwise get access to, such as those on active surveillance.

Dr. Madan: Correct. We have patients in studies who just have rising PSAs where we’re trying to evaluate the potential of immunotherapy in that setting, but the alternative therapy is just really observation for a lot of those patients. For them, the trial is an opportunity to do something when the standard of care might be to do nothing.

What about the concept of the placebo? I’ve heard patients say they’re afraid of getting a placebo, which could make their cancer worse. Is that still a part of the clinical trial world?

Dr. Madan: It is part of the clinical trial world. Many trials require a placebo because in order to scientifically answer a question, there may have to be a group of patients who are untreated. In those circumstances, the protocol (a document that is often over a hundred pages) is designed to protect those patients. Whenever patients are on placebos, there are very strict guidelines about how they’re watched and the parameters used to remove them if there’s evidence that their cancer is getting worse. In some cases, they have scans very frequently. They’re not left unminded, and it’s usually for a short time.

But many trials don’t involve placebos. We conduct trials to see if we can take a standard therapy that’s in use and add something to it to make it better, and this is especially true in this new age of immunotherapy.

In that process, everybody will get the standard therapy, and some of the patients will get the experimental therapy in addition.

They’re not just getting a placebo, and then left unmoored.

Dr. Madan: Right. There are very strict criteria about how patients are monitored so that, if there is evidence that the cancer is getting worse—regardless if it’s standard therapy or placebo—then they move onto something else. In many trials with placebos, oftentimes the physicians don’t even know what the patients are getting, so the physicians often treat them all like they’re getting the placebo because that’s really the safest thing from a patient’s standpoint.

That’s interesting.

Dr. Madan: We need to monitor placebo patients closely in case they are getting nothing, and we need to move on to something else. But if a trial involves placebo, patients should be comfortable with that and comfortable with the relationship with their doctor who’s going to help them make these decisions. Otherwise, it creates a lot of stress, whether in the initial process with the randomization or while they’re on the study.

What about the financial end of trials? Do patients have to pay to participate in clinical trials—for the therapy itself, the procedure, the scan, or more? Or are the costs just travel expenses and time away from work?

Dr. Madan: Generally speaking, patients don’t pay the price for the drug treatments on a clinical trial. Sometimes trials are billed so the insurance company will cover standard costs that would be covered anyway. But for the most part, the patients do not incur the cost of the clinical trial. Costs are borne out by the companies or research bodies that conduct the trials.

Here at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), we are able to conduct trials that are completely free of charge to the patients. And in addition to that, because we are a government entity designed to really benefit the entire country, once patients are enrolled in our trials, we are able to fly them in from different parts of the country.

We can incur the travel costs for patients who travel from anywhere in the United States. That’s part of our mission here: to bring the benefits of this institution to everyone in the country.

Wow! So your clinical trial patients only have to pay for their hotel and time away from work?

Dr. Madan: Correct. And most patients qualify for a subsidy toward their hotel.

That’s unusual, isn’t it? Most non-government- funded trials don’t offer things like that, do they?

Dr. Madan: Yes. It’s an unusual circumstance. It allows our institution to address diseases that may not affect many patients within one geographical area. It’s a unique opportunity to conduct studies on rare diseases, but we also use it for studies in more common diseases.

You don’t want to just study prostate cancer in men in the metropolitan D.C. area, right?

Dr. Madan: Correct. For example,

I have studies with medullary thryoid cancer, which is a very rare disease. But we’re able to get people from across the country and do it in a way that no other institution can because our catchment area is the entire country.

How can men find out about clinical trials? My impression is that the usual path is that their doctor brings it up, or perhaps they hear about it in a support group, but what are some ways that men can find out about trials? Just by visiting clinicaltrials.gov?

Dr. Madan: I would actually recommend https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/clinical-trials/search because clinicaltrials.gov is more for clinicians. One of the greatest features of cancer.gov is you can search by zip code or city, and it tells you trials within 25, 50, 100 miles, or whatever you like. But either website has a great patient-based resources. I encourage patients to bring up clinical trial options with their doctors and get their doctors’ thoughts on what they find.

Patient support groups are another excellent resource. Depending on the cancer, there are also online support groups that are more prevalent and will probably become more so. Over about a third of our patients are self-referred from around the country, and not just referred by doctors, so it’s common for patients to advocate for themselves in this manner.

I was under the impression that if, for example, a man found one of your trials on clinicaltrials.gov and thought he was a perfect fit, he had to go back through his doctor to get involved in the trial. Is that true? Or can he contact you or the researcher directly?

Dr. Madan: Yes; he or she can contact the researcher directly. I get some calls directly from patients saying they saw this on the internet. We also have a clinical trials contact, so no, they don’t have to go through their doctor. I often encourage patients to speak to their doctor just to get an impartial perspective or additional perspective.

Also, patients and doctors have very good relationships usually, and it’s important to get a second opinion before you embark on the clinical trial journey.

But certainly they can contact us directly, and they very frequently do.

When studies are finally completed and published in academic journals, are patients informed, or do they have access to those results?

Dr. Madan: There’s not often a direct mechanism by which patients are informed about the results of the trial. But often, through the course of a study, patients will ask about the experiences so far. We’ll certainly fill them in, and then we have had patients call us up for results. We certainly publish the results and can share them, but there’s not a direct mechanism.

Interesting. There probably should be.

Dr. Madan: That’s an interesting idea. It’s possible some institutions have that. I’m not aware of any at this time.

But patients can always ask their contact directly, right?

Dr. Madan: Yes.

What else should patients know about joining clinical trials?

Dr. Madan: Clinical trials can be an important part of each patient’s individual treatment strategy. Especially for patients with cancer, it’s important for them to develop these strategies in conversations with their doctor and their families, and to develop that strategy based on personal preferences.

Clinical trials are a way to get additional treatment options over time, options beside the standard options that are generally available. Being on a trial requires a little additional time, and there is potential for side effects. If there’s a randomization process, patients should be comfortable with that, no matter what they get.

As the patients who come to NCI from all over, consider local trials and those around the country. Sometimes travel is not optimal, but we’ve had patients come in from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska. Take advantage of the opportunity if you can. The pace of cancer research today is remarkable, especially in immunotherapy, which is one of the biggest focuses here at NCI.

All of us should remember that none of these advances would have happened without remarkable patients who decided to enroll in clinical trials. I consider it an honor to be able to work with the types of people who enroll in trials here at NCI and around the country. It’s really an extraordinary and humbling experience for me.

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