PDR001 (anti-PD-1) is an investigational immunotherapy being developed by Novartis to treat both solid tumors and lymphomas (cancers of the blood). It is currently being trialled on many cancers including Neuroendocrine. It’s brand name is SPARTLIZUMAB.
How PDR001 works
PDR001 is a type of immunotherapy, meaning that it acts by activating the body’s own immune system to recognize and fight cancer cells. Normally, an immune system cell called T-cells recognizes and kills infected or abnormal cells, including those that are cancerous. To prevent T-cells from accidentally damaging healthy and essential tissues, however several immune system checkpoints exist to inhibit, or block, them from going about this work. One example is the programmed cell death 1 (PD-1) pathway. Healthy cells produce and display a protein called programmed cell death ligand-1 or ligand-2 (PD-L1 or PD-L2) on their surface. These proteins bind to and activate a receptor called PD-1 that is produced by T-cells. When activated, PD-1 sends a message to the T-cells that prevents them from attacking that particular cell. Cancer cells can hijack this system by producing PD-L1 or PD-L2, effectively hiding from T-cells and evade destruction.
PDR001 is an antibody, a protein designed to interact with and block a specific target. It acts by binding to PD-1, blocking it from interacting with both PD-L1 and PD-L2. This binding blocks the PD-1-mediated inactivation of the T-cells, so that they are able to recognize and target cancer cells. This should result in a reduction in tumor growth and size.
Novartis presented results from an ongoing first-in-human Phase 1/2 clinical trial (NCT02404441) of PDR001 at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in 2016. Preliminary trial results suggested that the drug is well-tolerated and safe, with a similar profile to other anti-PD-1 drugs currently being developed. The trial is still recruiting patients with various types of advanced cancer at 43 sites across North America, Europe, and Asia; more information is available by clicking on its identification number.
Novartis then initiated several dozen other Phase 1, 2 and 3 trials, all registered on clinicaltrials.gov, to continue investigating the safety and anti-tumor activity of PDR001 in a wide range of cancer types, and in combination with other investigational and approved therapies. For example, a Phase 3 trial (NCT02967692) is comparing the safety and efficacy of PDR001 to a placebo, in combination with Tafinlar (dabrafenib) and Mekinist (trametinib), as a treatment for advanced melanoma.
What about Neuroendocrine?
A phase 2, multi-center study assessed the efficacy and safety of PDR001 in patients with non-functional well and poorly-differentiated Neuroendocrine Neoplasms. According to the clinical trial document, the types of NENs covered are:
Well-differentiated Non-functional NET of Thoracic Origin
Well-differentiated Non-functional NET of Gastrointestinal Origin
Well-differentiated Non-functional NET of Pancreatic Origin
The clinical trial indicates the trial is active but not recruiting but it would look like they have all the patients needed and are currently analysing the trial data so far awaiting the next phase perhaps. In fact I have discovered two pieces of evidence from the trial sponsors:
In another analysis of the results: “Patients with well-differentiated advanced NETs were eligible if they had progressed on prior therapy, including everolimus, while the GEP-NEC patients were eligible if they had progressed on one line of chemotherapy. All patients in the trial received spartalizumab via a 30-minute infusion once every 4 weeks until disease progression or unacceptable toxicity.
In the full well-differentiated cohort, there were 7 partial responses (7%), and 55% had stable disease, while 31% had progressive disease. The confirmed objective response rate was 7%, and the disease control rate was 63%. In the GEP-NEC cohort, the objective response rate was 5%, and the disease control rate was 19%.
The thoracic NETs patients fared best with spartalizumab, with limited responses seen in the pancreatic and GI NETs groups; responses seemed to be associated with PD-L1 expression. In the thoracic NETs cohort, two of five PD-L1–positive patients had a partial response. PD-L1 positivity was more common in the GEP-NEC cohort; among 14 PD-L1–positive patients in that group, the partial response rate was 43%.
The most common adverse events regardless of cause included abdominal and back pain, anemia, dyspnea, and hypertension.
Kjell Öberg, MD, PhD, of Uppsala University in Sweden, discussed the study for ESMO. “We have hope,” he said. “We see that maybe there are some tumor types that might respond to immunotherapy.” In general, NETs are considered an “immunological desert.” There is usually very low infiltration of immune cells in these tumors, and there are a low number of genetic mutation events.”
You can also listen to two very well known NET experts (Simron Singh and Jonathan Strosberg) talk about this trial and the drug ……. “the highest response rate was seen in atypical lung neuroendocrine tumors. It was approximately 20%, but in most cases was not durable”. See the remainder of the discussion by clicking here.
I’ve posted extensively about Oncolytic virus trials, focused on the ongoing Neuroendocrine Cancer trial in Uppsala Sweden. I wanted to incorporate this information into a single article ready for future news, whilst at the same time updating you on further developments in the field of Oncolytic Viruses for Neuroendocrine Cancer. The excitement of the Uppsala work has dampened in recent years, not helped by the fact that one of the first patients unfortunately died. In the absence of any news, I suspect there has been no real progress and/or the funding has run out.
What exactly are Oncolytic Viruses?
Oncolytic Viruses infects and breaks down cancer cells but not normal cells. Oncolytic viruses can occur naturally or can be made in the laboratory by changing other viruses. Certain oncolytic viruses are being studied in the treatment of cancer. Some scientists say they are another type of immunotherapy whilst others say it’s too early to classify as such. The good news is that Neuroendocrine Cancer seems to figure in this work with two of these viruses apparently working on mice to date. Listed below are two active projects involving NETs, one directly and one indirectly.
The Uppsala Trial – AdVince
There has been no real update on what is happening since I posted last year. Hopefully, positive thinking indicates no news is good news. If anyone has anything more than what I’ve written or linked to in this article, please let me know. I’ll briefly describe what’s happening and then you can link to my Facebook article if you need more background.
The trial is called AdVince after Vince Hamilton who funded it. Unfortunately he died before he saw any output but his forward thinking and benevolence lives on and might hopefully help NET patients in the longer term. It’s quite a small trial and is being conducted in Uppsala University Sweden, a famous European NET Centre of Excellence and where many people from across the world attend to take advantage of PRRT availability and experience and is home to famous NET specialist Kjell Öberg, MD, PhD, a professor of endocrine oncology.
A Swedish man (Jan-Erik Jannsson) was the first to get the virus to their cancer (NETs) using a genetically modified virus.
Unfortunately, I was given the news from a source close to the trial that Jan died last year of pneumonia. I have no evidence to suggest his death is in anyway connected to the trial but I’m told he was an ill man prior to the trial commencing. I have therefore dedicated this post to him. RIP Jan.
The initial data presented by the trial indicated that AdVince can be safely evaluated in a phase I/IIa clinical trial for patients with liver-dominant NET. The last I heard from the trial is that they are trying to recruit a further 12 patients to Phase IIa (the trial document allows for up to 36).
Read more background on my Facebook post here: Click here
The trial document on Clinical Trials Website: Click here
This is an oncolytic viral therapy currently in phase III and phase Ib/II clinical trials for use against primary liver (Hepatocellular Carcinoma) and Colorectal cancers, respectively. Pexa-Vec is a weakened (or attenuated) virus that is based on a vaccine used in the eradication of smallpox. The modified virus is injected directly into the cancer tumour, to grow inside these rapidly growing cancer cells and hopefully kill them.
According to the Colorectal Clinical Trial, the aim of the study is to evaluate whether the anti-tumor immunity induced by Pexa-Vec oncolytic viral therapy can be enhanced by immune checkpoint inhibition i.e. they are testing it in conjunction with Immunotherapy drugs (in the case of Colorectal, Durvalumab, and a combination of Durvalumab and Tremelimumab).
The Hepatocellular Carcinoma trial (Phocus) is at Phase III where the sponsors are evaluating Pexa-Vec to determine if it can slow the progression of advanced liver cancer and improve quality of life. I can other trials appearing such as this one for Colorectal Cancer and this one for any solid tumour type.
The work is a collaboration forged between University of California San Francisco (UCSF) vascular researcher Donald McDonald, MD, PhD, and researchers at San Francisco-based biotech SillaJen Biotherapeutics Inc. (formerly Jennerex Biotherapeutics, Inc.), a subsidiary of SillaJen, Inc., headquartered in Korea.
So what’s the Neuroendocrine Connection with Pexa-Vec?
As part of the research, McDonald’s lab injected it intravenously into mice genetically modified to develop pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. They found that the virus failed to infect healthy organs or make the animals ill, but succeeded in infecting blood vessels within tumors. These initial infections caused the vessels to leak and expose the tumor cells to the virus. In these experiments, the virus managed to infect and destroy only a small proportion of tumor cells directly, the researchers found, but within five days of the initial infection, the rest of the tumor began to be killed by a powerful immune reaction. Live human trials have commenced in 2018 and the “patient 1” is a pancreatic NET patient. Read more here. Interestingly they added Keytruda (an immunotherapy) to the mix. It’s only been four months since ‘Patient 1’ (Tamara) began the trial, but a mid-treatment CT scan was said to be “promising”. I will keep this article live and bring you updates as I receive them.
Clearly it’s still early days in the Oncolytic Virus field with minimum breakthrough in terms of success on humans. In terms of the Neuroendocrine connection, it is exciting that two programmes are showing results (albeit in mice). We wait to hear from Uppsala on how the human test of AdVince is coming along. My agents are scanning the internet every day looking for any comment.
If you want to learn more about Oncolytic Viruses in general – there’s a great summary here.
In 2018, RadioMedix Inc. and Areva (parent company Orano Med) initiated the Phase 1 trial for AlphaMedixTM in patients with somatostatin receptor (SSTR) positive Neuroendocrine Tumors (NETs) – an NIH supported trial.
AlphaMedixTM is composed of a somatostatin analogue radiolabeled with 212Pb, an isotope used for Targeted Alpha-emitter Therapy (TAT). This open-label, dose escalation study’s objective is to determine safety, bio-distribution, and preliminary effectiveness of 212 Pb-AR-RMX in adult patients with differentiated (sic) NETs. “Targeted Alpha-emitter Therapy (TAT) is the wave of the future in nuclear oncology and has a tremendous potential to treat patients with NET and overcome some of the limitations of current Peptide Receptor Radionuclide Therapy (PRRT)” said Dr. Ebrahim S. Delpassand, Chairman and CEO of RadioMedix, sponsor of the trial. They further announced on 21 Feb 2018 that the first patients had undergone some treatment.
The funding for Phase 2 was granted by NIH on 22 Jan 2019.
What is Targeted Alpha-emitter Therapy? Targeted Alpha Therapy is based on the coupling of alpha particle emitting radioisotopes to tumour selective carrier molecules, such as monoclonal antibodies or peptides. These molecules have the ability to selectively target tumour cells even if they are spread throughout the body. They recognize the targeted cancer cells through antigens that are expressed on the cell surface and can bind selectively to these cells, similar a key fitting into a lock. In targeted alpha therapy these carrier molecules serve as vehicles to transport the radioisotopes to the cancer cells. This is called the “magic bullet” approach. Radioisotopes that emit alpha particles seem particularly promising to selectively destroy cancer cells. Alpha particles have a high energy in the range of 5-9 MeV and at the same time a very short path length in human tissue below 0.1 mm, corresponding to less than 10 cell diameters. Consequently, the use of alpha emitters allows the specific targeting and killing of individual malignant cells, while minimizing the toxicity to surrounding healthy tissue. Extracted from EU Science Hub
According to the clinical trials document, this drug addresses an unmet need in the field of peptide receptor radionuclide therapy (PRRT) for NETs. Substitution of an alpha emitter (²¹²Pb) for the beta emitters currently being used (i.e., 177Lu or 90Y) will provide significantly higher Linear Energy Transfer (LET) and a shorter path length. Higher LET particles should cause more tumor cell death. Shorter path length should result in less collateral damage of the normal tissue and therefore less side effects for subjects receiving the drug.
What is the difference between PRRT and TAT? From the scant ‘patient understandable‘ information currently available, it would appear that TAT has the potential to be more targeted and less toxic than PRRT – to me that seems like it would be able to target smaller tumors. I also noted that TAT is sometimes described as a ‘radioimmuotherapy’ or ‘alpha immunotherpy’, indicating the mechanism of action is significantly different to that of conventional PRRT. It was also described as a ‘Trojan Horse’ which would seem to hint at its immunotherapy credentials.
I noted that TAT is also being studied for use in Prostate Cancer and Leukaemia.
Announcement of Phase 1 Clinical Trial – click here – results to follow.
“Lutetium Lu 177 dotatate (Lutathera®) – PRRT” – click here.
“Expanding PRRT – Trial of 177Lu-Edotreotide (Solucin®) – COMPETE Trial” – click here.
“Theranostics – a find and destroy mission” – click here
“Ga68 PET Scans – into the unknown” – click here
“A combination of two common immunotherapy drugs shrinks rare, aggressive neuroendocrine tumors, according to new research results presented at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2019, held March 29-April 3 in Atlanta“. See below under section: – Nivolumab (Opdiva) and Ipilimumab (Yervoy) in Treating Patients With High Grade Neuroendocrine Carcinoma
Immunotherapy for Neuroendocrine Neoplasms
There’s a lot of Immunotherapy stuff out there! However, I also wanted to break it down and perhaps see if I can pick up the what, when, why, where and how in regards to Neuroendocrine Cancer. It’s really difficult, not least because the picture is not clear and there is no general roadmap printed, let alone one for Neuroendocrine disease. Immunotherapy for NETs was discussed at ENETS 2017 in Barcelona. The presentation that sticks out was one given by Dr Matthew Kulke, a well-known NET Specialist in Boston. My reaction to the presentation was one of ‘expectation management’ and caution i.e. it’s too soon to know if we will get any success and when we will get it. He also hinted that it’s more likely that any success will first be seen in poorly differentiated high-grade Neuroendocrine Carcinoma (NEC). Dr Jonathan Strosberg also said similar in a post here. In fact, from below you will see that grade 3 poorly differentiated is where the bulk of trial activity is (…..but read on, there is some action around plain old well differentiated NETs). You will also see that there are disappointing results so far with single agent Keytruda.
Retain hope but just be cautious with some of the hype surrounding Immunotherapy
Immunotherapy is exciting, but we also need to be aware of the risks of taking the brakes off the immune system. We have seen and heard more and more stories about people with grim cancer diagnoses who became cancer-free after treatment with immunotherapy. This offers hope to those with cancer, but we need to be cautious when discussing immunotherapy. This treatment method is still new, and the cancer community is still learning about how it affects the body. An unfettered immune system may end up attacking healthy, functioning parts of a person’s body, causing unpredictable side effects that may be life-threatening EVEN if not treated early.
For Neuroendocrine Neoplasms, only Neuroendocrine Carcinoma of the skin (Merkel Cell Carcinoma) has an approved drug (see below). Anything else is currently an experimental scenario (clinical trial). Before launching into what is out for with an interest in NET and NEC, it’s worth pointing out that Immunotherapy is not for everyone, does not work for everyone, and has side effects for everyone.
Worth also noting that NANETS 2018 reported limited use of Keytruda (see below) as a single agent to treat high grade Neuroendocrine Neoplasms.
Let’s start with Pembrolizumab (Keytruda)?
‘Pembrolizumab’ is more famously known as ‘Keytruda‘. This drug crops up everywhere and it has connections to many different cancers. Before I talk about this trial called PLANET, it’s very useful to take a quick look at the history of Keytruda which was only really made famous after former US President Jimmy Carter was treated with it for metastatic melanoma. There was a lot of media hype surrounding what made his treatment successful as he was also given radiation for his brain tumours and his large liver tumour was removed by surgery. However, putting the hype and conjecture to one side, Keytruda’s CV is pretty impressive:
Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is currently approved to treat:
Hodgkin lymphoma in adults and children. It is used in patients whose disease is refractory (does not respond to treatment) or has relapsed after at least three other types of treatment.
Melanoma that cannot be removed by surgery or that has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body).
In patients whose cancer has the PD-L1 protein and got worse during or after treatment with platinum chemotherapy. Patients whose cancer has EGFR or ALK gene mutations should receive Pembrolizumab only if their disease got worse after treatment with an FDA-approved therapy for these mutations.
in combination with Pemetrexed and Platinum as first-line treatment of patients with metastatic, non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer.
Urothelial carcinoma (a type of bladder cancer) that is locally advanced or has metastasized. It is used in patients who cannot be treated with cisplatin or whose disease got worse during or after platinum chemotherapy.
Microsatellite instability-high (MSI-H) cancer that is metastatic and cannot be removed by surgery. It is used in adults and children for:
Solid tumors that have gotten worse after other treatment or that cannot be treated with other therapies.
MSI-H cancer has certain genetic mutations and may not respond to some types of treatment.
The most recent approval in May 2017 MSI-H disease is a very interesting development as it’s the US FDA’s very first approval on a tissue/site agnostic basis. You can read about this approval here. Cancers of the breast, prostate, thyroid, bladder, colon, rectum and endometrium are just some of the cancers that have been found to have these biomarkers and would be new possible targets for Keytruda. There’s a great article which explains this approval in an easy way – click here to read.
Other approvals are anticipated.
So what about Neuroendocrine Neoplasms?
FDA granted accelerated approval to Avelumab (BAVENCIO) for the treatment of patients 12 years and older with metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC). MCC is a Neuroendocrine Carcinoma of the skin. Avelumab is a programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) blocking human IgG1 lambda monoclonal antibody. This is the first FDA-approved product to treat this type of cancer – CLICK HERE for more information.
In Aug 2018, the FDA granted Nivolumab (OPDIVO) accelerated approval for third-line treatment of metastatic small cell lung cancer (a type of Neuroendocrine Carcinoma. Read more – click here.
On March 18, 2019, the FDA approved Atezolizumab (TECENTRIQ) in combination with carboplatin and etoposide, for the first-line treatment of adult patients with extensive-stage small cell lung cancer (ES-SCLC).
This trial is interesting. Nivolumab (Opdiva) and Ipilimumab (Yervoy) in Treating Patients With High Grade Neuroendocrine Carcinoma It’s a multiple cancer setup and includes several of the less common NET/NEC types including ‘Lung Carcinoid’, ‘Anal NEC’, ‘Gastic NEC’, ‘Pancreatic NEC’ ‘Esophageal NEC. Interesting because this is the drug combo that NEC patient Danielle Tindle has moved onto after Keytruda didn’t really work in the medium to long-term (see the Danielle Tindle story below). Looking at the list in the trial document, I’m thinking they might mean high-grade Lung Neuroendocrine rather than ‘carcinoid’. I could be wrong. It’s currently recruiting.
Update from 2019 AACR Annual Meeting.
The immune checkpoint inhibitor combination of nivolumab (Opdivo) and ipilimumab (Yervoy) induced a greater than 40% response rate and was well tolerated in patients with high-grade neuroendocrine carcinoma, according to findings from the phase II DART trial presented at the 2019 AACR Annual Meeting.
“DART is the first NCI-funded rare tumor immunotherapy basket study which we think is unique in its design scale,” lead author Sandip Patel MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, said in a press briefing at the meeting. “We’re studying over 37 rare tumor types [using the] combination of ipilimumab plus nivolumab. The neuroendocrine cohort, the nonpancreatic cohort, had promising signs of benefit—[particularly] in patients with high-grade neuroendocrine carcinoma—independent to primary site,” added Patel.
I also have some evidence of the use of Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) by an Australian high-grade thymus patient – I posted something here (Danielle Tindle)
Merkel Cell Carcinoma – a type of Neuroendocrine skin carcinoma is benefiting from Immunotherapy. Worth noting that this type of Neuroendocrine Carcinoma already has an FDA approved immunotherapy drug (Avelumab (Bavencio)) with another pending (Keytruda)
PDR001 (Spartalizamab) – click here.
UPDATE from NANETS 2018. “A preliminary trial of checkpoint blockade for neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) produced little evidence of activity, according to data reported here. Only one of 21 patients with high-grade NETs responded to treatment with pembrolizumab (Keytruda). Three others had stable disease. The trial had an objective response threshold of 5% as the definition of clinically interesting, as reported at the North American Neuroendocrine Tumor Society annual symposium. “Pembrolizumab, though generally well tolerated, showed limited activity as a single agent in high-grade neuroendocrine neoplasms (NENs) in this study,” Arvind Dasari, MD, of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and colleagues concluded.” More info.
Update from Gastrointestinal Tumor symposium 2019. “Disappointing results for single agent pembrolizumab (Keytruda) in well differentiated NET. Response Rate 3.7%. Not a viable option. Listen to Dr Jonathan Strosberg describe the poor results. Click here.
This is an interesting trial sponsored by Novartis (of Octreotide fame). PDR001 (anti-PD-1) is an investigational immunotherapy being developed by Novartis to treat both solid tumors and lymphomas (cancers of the blood). It is currently being trialled on many cancers including Neuroendocrine Neoplasms both well and poorly differentiated. Click here: Clinical Trial SPARTALIZUMAB – Immunotherapy for Neuroendocrine Neoplasms (PDR001)
NET Research Foundation
Please also see the wonderful work done by NET Research Foundation who are using their funds to explore the use of Immunotherapy in NETs – check out their update by clicking here.
But what about just plain old well differentiated low or moderate grade NETs?
I found the following:
Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) in combination with Lanreotide
According to the trial documentation, it’s for patients with non-resectable, recurrent, or metastatic well or moderately (sic) differentiated gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (GEP-NETs). i.e. most of us. It is recruiting. You can read about the PLANET trial by clicking here. Make sure you fully check the inclusion and exclusion criteria. Please note the incorrect reference to ‘moderately differentiated’ – this is no longer used in the grading classification for Neuroendocrine Neoplasms.
Study of Pembrolizumab in Participants With Advanced Solid Tumors (MK-3475-028/KEYNOTE-28) – NCT03054806 and another called ‘A Clinical Trial of Pembrolizumab (MK-3475) Evaluating Predictive Biomarkers in Subjects With Advanced Solid Tumors’ (KEYNOTE 158) NCT02628067
From Gastrointestinal Tumor symposium 2019. “Disappointing results for single agent pembrolizumab in Well Differentiated NET. Response Rate 3.7%. Not a viable option. Listen to Dr Jonathan Strosberg describe the poor results. Click here.
Study for the Evaluation of Pembrorolizumab (MK-3475) in Patients with Rare Tumors (Experimental: Paraganglioma-Pheochromocytoma Group)
It is not known if this part of the trial is affected by the results above in Keynote-28. This study is recruiting at MD Andersen Houston Texas. Read more here.
PDR001 (Spartalizamab) -a Novartis drug – read about this trial click here.
Atezolizumab and Bevacizumab in Solid Tumors
In 2016, US FDA approved Atezolizumab (TECENTRIQ) for the treatment of patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Bevacizumab (also known as AVISTAN) is a well known drug already used to treat many cancers. Avastin is not actually Immunotherapy but is a tumor-starving (anti-angiogenic) therapy, i.e. its purpose is to prevent the growth of new blood vessels …. ergo this is a combo treatment using an Immunotherapy drug and an anti-angiogenic drug.
Well differentiated Neuroendocrine tumors, Grade 1 or grade 2 according to reviewing pathologist
Progressive disease over the preceding 12 months
Any number of prior therapies
Patients using a somatostatin analogue for symptom control must be on stable doses for 56 days prior to enrolment.
According to the trial documenation, there are two ‘baskets’ of types: Pancreatic NET (pNET) and “extrapancreatic” (i.e. beyond or not in the pancreas) including typical or atypical Lung NETs. Merkel Cell Carcinoma (a type of Neuroendocrine Carcinoma of the skin) is also included in the trial. You can read about this trial by clicking here. Make sure you fully check the inclusion and exclusion criteria. Again, within the trial documentation, please note the incorrect reference to ‘moderately differentiated’ – this is no longer used in the grading classification for Neuroendocrine Neoplasms.
By the way, what exactly does Immunotherapy do?
For those still wondering what cancer immunotherapy actually is, this is the most basic description I could find!
Immunotherapy – Hype or Hope?
I mentioned above that there was a lot of hype surrounding Keytruda and other immunotherapy treatments. You may therefore enjoy this CNN article about the hype and hope aspect, it was given considerable sharing at ASCO17 – read the article by clicking here
If you’re on an Immunotherapy trial not listed here, please let me now so I can update the post. Thanks in advance.
OPINION. Date of Article March 2017. In the last 24 months, there seems to have been announcement after announcement of new and/or upgraded/enhanced diagnostics and treatment types for Neuroendocrine Cancer. Increased availability of radionuclide scans, increased availability of radionuclide therapies, combination therapies, increased availability of somatostatin analogues, biological therapies, enhanced surgical and minimally invasive techniques, new oral drugs for carcinoid syndrome, more trials including immunotherapy. Admittedly, some of the announcements are just expansions of existing therapies having been approved in new regions. Compared to some other cancers, even those which hit the headlines often, we appear to be doing not too badly. However, the pressure needs to stay on, all patients, regardless of where they live, need access to the best diagnostics and treatments for them; and at the requisite time. This alone is one very big unmet need in a whole range of countries still lacking.
The ‘War on Cancer’ forgot about Neuroendocrine
The ‘war on cancer’ has been around for the last 50 years, it’s still being waged. There are now more ‘fronts’ and it’s taking longer than thought to find the ‘cure’. Despite this 50 year war, it seems like there’s only been a war on Neuroendocrine Cancer for the last 10 of those years. I guess they were focused on the big cancers and/or the seemingly impossible ‘universal cure’. Prior to that, for NETs, there is only evidence of some skirmishes, more like guerrilla warfare. Now we have a developed nuclear capability! I believe the turning point was the SEER database work carried out by Dr James Yao in 2004 who confirmed the incidence had grown by 400% in 3 decades, i.e. confirming it was no longer rare. The rise of both incidence and prevalence was then amplified in the follow on ‘2012’ study (Desari et al) which confirmed a 640% increase in 40 years.
Let’s not forget about the consequences of cancer
It is true that half of people diagnosed with cancer now survive for at least ten years. Many live for years with cancer, on ‘watch and wait’ or going through various treatments and tests; their future remaining uncertain. For this group, and even for those whose treatment has successfully removed or shrunk their tumour, the struggle with the consequences and late effects of cancer and its treatment can last for years. Many Neuroendocrine Cancer patients fit into this category.
There’s a lot of work going on within all cancer communities to address the unmet needs of cancer patients who are now living with cancer rather than dying of it. Clearly we need this type of support in the NET world. The issue has been discussed at ENETS for the last two years and I was pleased to have asked the very first question about this particular unmet need, emphasising we need more support for those living with Neuroendocrine Cancer, including research into their common issues. I’ve yet to see any concrete output from the two year’s worth of campaigning.
Unmet Needs for NETs
So, there’s a lot of treatments for many types of Neuroendocrine Cancer out there, just not everyone has access to them – therefore an unmet need at the international level. Others are earlier diagnosis, access to multi-disciplinary teams (MDT), ability to access quality information at diagnosis and beyond including clinical trials, funding, accurate national registries to improve statistics and more treatments fot some of the less common types. One area where I feel there is a huge unmet need is in the area of patient support following diagnosis. Although some countries are more advanced than others in this area, even in the so-called advanced countries, there are huge gaps in provision of long-term support for those living with Neuroendocrine Cancer. For example, physicians need to focus more on:
Late diagnosis. People will be dealing from the effects of late diagnosis which has resulted in metastatic disease – and some people will have been fighting misdiagnosed illnesses for years. That takes its toll.
Consequences of Surgery. People will have had surgery which in many cases is life changing – various bits of the gut (gastrointestinal tract) are now missing, lungs are now missing – many other locationswill have been excised or partly excised. These bits of our anatomy were there for a purpose and QoL takes a hit when they are chopped out.
Inoperable Tumours and Syndromes. People will be dealing with remnant and/or inoperable tumours which may or may not be producing an associated NET syndrome (some of the symptoms can be rather debilitating in the worst cases)
Consequences of Non-surgical Treatment. Additionally, people will be dealing with the side effects of multi-modal non surgical treatments, such as somatostatin analogue hormone therapy (Octreotide/Lanreotide), chemotherapy, biological therapy (mTOR inhibitors) (i.e. Everolimus (Afinitor)), biological therapy (protein kinase inhibitors (i.e. Sunitinib (Sutent)), radionuclide therapy (i.e. PRRT). Whilst it’s great there are a wide range of therapies, they all come with side effects.
Secondary Illnesses and Comorbidities. Some people will have gained secondary illnesses in part due to the original cancer or treatment – e.g. somatostatin analogue hormone therapy can have a side effect of increasing blood sugar to diabetic levels. There are many other examples.
Finances. NET Cancer can be an expensive cancer to treat and this is exacerbated by the length of time the treatment lasts. A highly prevalent cancer, treatment is for life. It follows that NET Cancer is an ‘expensive’ cancer to have. Whilst most people have access to free public services or private insurance, many people will still end up out-of-pocket due to their cancer.
Emotional Aspects. Many NET patients are kept under surveillance for the remainder of their lives. With that comes the constant worry that the cancer progresses, tumours get bigger, new tumours show up, treatments are denied (i.e. PRRT in the UK). It’s no surprise that anxiety and depression can affect many patients in these situations. To some extent, there can be a knock-on effect to close family members and carers where applicable.
As I said in my question to the panel, even if you found a cure for NETs tomorrow, it will not replace the bits of my GI tract excised as part of my treatment. For many people, even ‘beating’ cancer might not feel much like a ‘win’. It’s a two-way street though – we need to work with our doctors, trying to change lifestyles to cope better with some of these issues. This is why it’s really important to complete patient surveys. However, my point is this: more research into some of these issues (e.g. nutrition, optimum drug dosage, secondary effects) and earlier patient support to help understand and act on these issues, would be good starters. I think some centres are doing elements of this type of support but we need a guideline generating in national and international groupings so that that others can be persuaded to formally introduce it.
“Adding life to years is as important as adding years to life”
Thanks for listening
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I recently wrote a blog called Neuroendocrine Cancer – Exciting Times Ahead! I wrote that on a day I was feeling particularly positive and at the time, I wanted to share that positivity with you. I genuinely believe there’s a lot of great things happening. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot still to be done, particularly in the area of diagnosis and quality of life after being diagnosed. However, this is a really great message from a well-known NET expert.
In an interview with OncLive, Jonathan R. Strosberg, MD, associate professor at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, discussed his presentation on NETs at a recent 2016 Symposium, and shed light on the progress that has been made in this treatment landscape.
OncLive: Please highlight some of the main points from your presentation.
Strosberg: The question I was asked to address is whether we’re making progress in the management of NETs, and I think the answer is unequivocally yes. Prior to 2009, there were no positive published phase III trials.
Since then, there have been 8 trials, 7 of which have reached their primary endpoints. So it’s been a decade of significant improvement. And even though none of these studies were powered to look at overall survival as an endpoint, we’re certainly seeing evidence of improvement in outcomes.
OncLive: What are some of the pivotal agents that you feel have impacted the paradigm in the past several years?
Strosberg: The first group is the somatostatin analogs. We use them to control hormonal symptoms like carcinoid syndrome, but with the CLARINET study, we now know that they substantially inhibit tumor growth.
The next significant drug we use in this disease is everolimus (Afinitor), an oral mTOR inhibitor, which is now approved in several indications based on positive phase III studies. The first was in pancreatic NETs and subsequently, based on the RADIANT-4 trial, it was also approved in lung and gastrointestinal NETs. So that was an important advance.
The next important category of treatment is radiolabeled somatostatin analogs, otherwise known as peptide receptor radiotherapy. The one that’s been tested in a phase III trial is lutetium dotatate, also known as Lutathera. It was tested in patients with progressive midgut NETs and showed a very substantial 79% improvement in progression-free survival, and a very strong trend toward improvement in overall survival, which we hope will be confirmed upon final analysis.
OncLive: Are we getting better at diagnosing and managing the treatment of NETs?
Strosberg: Certainly. I think pathologists are better at making the diagnosis of a NET, rather than just calling a cancer pancreatic cancer or colorectal cancer. They’re recognizing the neuroendocrine aspects of the disease, and doing the appropriate immunohistochemical staining.
We also have better diagnostic tools. We used to rely primarily on octreoscan, and in many cases we still do, but there is a new diagnostic scan called Gallium-68 dotatate scan, also known as Netspot, which has substantially improved sensitivity and specificity. It’s not yet widely available, but it is FDA approved and hopefully will enable better diagnosis as well as staging in the coming years.
And, with the increase in number of phase III studies, we’re developing evidence-based guidelines, which will hopefully lead to more standardization, although knowing how to sequence these new drugs is still quite challenging.
OncLive: With sequencing, what are the main questions that we’re still trying to answer?
Strosberg: If we take, for example, NETs of the midgut, beyond first-line somatostatin analogs, physicians and patients often face decisions regarding where to proceed next, and for some patients with liver-dominant disease, liver-directed therapies are still an option.
For others, everolimus is a systemic option, and then hopefully lutetium dotatate will be an option based on approval of the drug, which is currently pending. Knowing how to choose among those 3 options is going to be a challenge, and I think there will be debates. Hopefully, clinical trials that compare one agent to another can help doctors make that choice. It’s even more complicated for pancreatic NETs. Beyond somatostatin analogs, we have about 5 choices—we have everolimus, sunitinib (Sutent), cytotoxic chemotherapy, liver-directed therapy, and peptide receptor radiotherapy. It’s even more challenging in that area.
OncLive: Are there any other ongoing clinical trials with some of these agents that you’re particularly excited about?
Strosberg: There’s a trial that is slated to take place in Europe which will compare lutetium dotatate with everolimus in advanced pancreatic NETs, and I think that’s going to be a very important trial that will help us get some information on both sequencing of these drugs, as well as the efficacy of Lutathera in the pancreatic NET population, based on well-run prospective clinical trials. I’m particularly looking forward to that trial.
OncLive: Looking to the future, what are some of the immediate challenges you hope to tackle with NETs?
Strosberg: One area of particular need is poorly differentiated neuroendocrine carcinomas. That’s a field that’s traditionally been understudied. There have been very few prospective clinical trials looking at this particular population, and we’re hoping that will change in the near future. There are a number of trials taking place looking at immunotherapy drugs. If these agents work anywhere in the neuroendocrine sphere, they are more likely to work in poorly differentiated or high-grade tumors, in my opinion, given the mutational profile of these cancers. So that’s something I’m particularly looking forward to being able to offer these patients something other than the cisplatin/etoposide combination that goes back decades, and is of short-lasting duration.
See more at: http://www.onclive.com/publications/oncology-live/2016/vol-17-no-24/expert-discusses-recent-progress-in-net-management#sthash.ypkilX2A.dpuf
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OPINION. When I was being officially told I had an advanced and incurable cancer, I did what most people seem to do on films/TV ….. I asked “how long do I have“. The Oncologist said ” … perhaps just months“. That must have been quite a shock because for a few moments after that, I heard nothing – my brain was clearly still trying to process those words – I wasn’t even feeling unwell! The really important bit I missed was him go on to say “…but with the right treatment, you should be able to live for a lot longer”. Fortunately, my wife Chris heard it all and I was refocused. “OK Doc – let’s go” I said. Always take someone with you to take notes at important meetings with Oncologists!
I continue to see quite a few posts and articles about death and dying and I noticed some patients were using the word ‘terminal‘ to describe Neuroendocrine Cancer, despite in some cases, having been diagnosed some years ago, despite in most cases in reference to well differentiated diagnoses. This label is not just confined to use within Facebook forums, I’ve also seen this on wider social media including twitter, blogs and newspaper items. For some, this appears to be the prognosis given to them by their doctors. I find this surprising. However, I’m much less surprised to see many comments on forums from people who had been told the worst by their doctors but were still alive and kicking WAY beyond those worst case prognostic statements, including the higher grade cases.
Definitions are important so what does ‘terminal cancer’ actually mean?
I’m conscious there are legal ramifications with the definitions (wills, life insurance, disability etc) and that these may differ on an international/federal basis. I therefore intentionally confined my searching to a couple of ‘big hitter’ and ‘authoritative’ sites:
Cancer Research UK defines terminal as “When cancer is described as terminal it means that it cannot be cured and is likely to cause death within a limited period of time. The amount of time is difficult to predict but it could be weeks to several months”.
The American Cancer Society defines terminal as “an irreversible condition (it cannot be cured) that in the near future will result in death or a state of permanent unconsciousness from which you are unlikely to recover. In most states, a terminal illness is legally defined as one in which the patient will die shortly whether or not medical treatment is given.”
Can terminal as defined above be applied to Neuroendocrine Cancer?
I’m sure it can, e.g. with very advanced and very aggressive disease and for any grade when taking into account the condition of the patient and other factors (secondary illnesses/comorbidities, refusal of treatment etc). Clearly, that is a terrible situation. I’m also conscious that some people do eventually die because of this disease or its consequences and that is also terrible.
How long is a piece of string?
I think with most Neuroendocrine Cancer patients, “how long do I have” can be a tough question to answer. Thinking back to my own situation, although it was an obvious question to ask my Oncologist, I can see it might have caught him unawares. I suspect he was erring on the side of caution as I don’t believe he had formulated my treatment plan ….. i.e. my case had not yet been looked at by a Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT), a bit like a ‘Tumor Board’. I had already been confirmed Grade 2 (via liver biopsy) and my CT scans were indicating widespread disease. I was yet to have an Octreotide scan and the conventional biochemical markers (CgA and 5HIAA). I suspect, faced with my question, he went for the worst case, based on the statistics he had access to at the time. What I now know is that, in the year of my diagnosis, the median survival was 33 months in patients with advanced Grade 1/Grade 2 NETs with distant metastasis. These statistics are certainly better today but my Oncologist was probably on the right track. However, at no time did he use the word ‘terminal’.
The Cancer story is changing
What I also found during my research is that as more and more people in the UK are now living with cancer (all cancer) rather than dying from it, there is a new class of patients emerging – Macmillan UK call this “treatable but not curable” and I believe this is very relevant to Neuroendocrine Cancer. I touched on this in an awareness blog entitled “Living with Neuroendocrine Cancer – it takes guts“. You will find some data in this blog about a major increase in the amount of people with cancer who eventually die of something else (…… basically it has doubled). For many, Cancer is no longer a death sentence. I do accept that it can be difficult to live with certain cancers and this is also covered in my “it takes guts” blog linked above.
Survivorship and Hope
You can find numerous examples of long-term survivors of advanced Neuroendocrine Tumours on the ‘airwaves’, many with a relatively good quality of life (QoL). I don’t normally pay much attention to prognostic data, I take my lead from the huge number of patients living a long time with Neuroendocrine Cancer. However, I was particularly interested to read a set of USA statistics from NOLA (Boudreaux, Woltering et al) which said “Our survival of stage IV midgut NET patients that we performed surgical debulking on was published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons in 2014. It showed our 5, 10 and 20-year survival rates were 87%, 77% & 41% respectively. It’s also worth noting the comparison with the 2004 SEER database analysis which listed the 5 & 10 year SEER survival at 54% and 30% respectively”. Clearly, the NOLA figures are guidelines (and only for midgut) but they do seem to reflect my previous statement about seeking out positives rather than dwelling on the negatives. The SEER 2012 figures are much better than the 2004 versions stating “Survival for all NETs has improved over time, especially for distant-stage gastrointestinal NETs and pancreatic NETs in particular, reflecting improvement in therapies.
Exciting times ahead
On the subject of therapy improvement, there has been a plethora of new treatments coming online and more entering and progressing through the approvals pipeline. Check out my article entitled Exciting Times Ahead. Also listen to a NET Expert along the same lines. PRRT is making a real difference.
Following my diagnosis in 2010, I went on to receive really good treatment and it continues to this day with Lanreotide backed up by a rigorous surveillance regime (and this is backed up by my own advocacy!). However, I have totally accepted the fact that I have metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer and that it cannot be cured. By the way, I intentionally used ‘metastatic‘ rather than Stage IV. Mention of Stage IV can set off alarm bells and send the wrong message to the recipient. I don’t believe Stage IV has the same ‘red flag’ meaning for well-differentiated NETs as it does with more aggressive cancers of the same stage. Given what I know now, I would certainly challenge any doctor who told me I had a ‘terminal disease’ and at the same time told me I had a slow-growing well differentiated Neuroendocrine Cancer.
I now live with this disease (….and it’sconsequences) and do not feel like I’m dying of it. Moreover, I most certainly do not see myself as a ‘terminal’ cancer patient, particularly as I’ve now been living with it since 2010.
As I have a 2 year old post about Danielle, I wanted to preface it with this message.
It is with great sadness that I let you know Danielle Tindle passed away at the end of August 2017 after a prolonged battle with Neuroendocrine Carcinoma. She had been fighting cancer in one form or another for 12 years and became passionate in campaigning for more attention for young cancer patients. I’ve been following her story for almost 2 years and she has really inspired me. The title of this article is based on the title of a TV programme about her and her campaign to gain access to new drugs. I had chatted with Danielle online about some of the story below and I hope I’ve interpreted it correctly. RIP Danielle.
I first wrote about Danielle Tindle in Oct 2015 as I was really inspired by her story. Some of you will know that I have a lot of time for inspiring patient stories such as this one. There is no better form of advocacy and awareness than a human being talking about it in front of a camera or microphone. I truly believe these should be at the forefront of international and national campaigns.
Danielle has appeared many times in the national newspapers and TV in Australia. A young person who had gone through gruelling treatments – several chemos and stem cell treatment for get rid of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. One of her chemo treatments resulted in permanent loss of hair (severe Alopecia) – listen to her very inspirational video by clicking here. She talks about this aspect of her treatment plus many other things. A quote I love is her saying “to be treated like I’m unwell makes me very angry”.
Just when she thought her life was back and near the end of a PhD, they found a Neuroendocrine Tumour in her neck near the larynx which was inoperable and chemo was found to be ineffective. Despite this, she battled on. Her father, a scientist, had coincidentally been involved in the research of an experimental immunotherapy drug, which was at the time being used for Melanoma. Pembrozilumab (KEYTRUDA) has since been approved for a number of cancers including Melanoma, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, metastatic nonsquamous non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC); and very recently for advanced or metastatic urothelial carcinoma.
Danielle’s story had also highlighted a growing problem which appears to be causing concern in many countries – the price of drugs which is then compounded by health system processes. How crazy was this ……. Danielle initially wanted to take Pembrozilumab (KEYTRUDA) (made famous by former US President Jimmy Carter) on an experimental basis (……it is not approved for any type of Neuroendocrine Cancer). It would only cost AUS$6 AUS if she was a Melanoma patient but because she has Neuroendocrine Cancer, it cost AUS$5000 a shot for the treatment she needs. You can view the 30-minute ABC ‘Australian Story’ by clicking here
Danielle has confirmed to me that she did eventually try Pembrozilumab (KEYTRUDA) but she was then moved onto a combination of Nivolumab (OPDIVO) and Ipilumumab (YERVOY), also immunotherapy drugs. In fact, the Nivolumab and Ipipumumab did initially make progress with some tumour size reduction – click here. But …….
Unfortunately, from an update gleaned from her ‘gofundme‘ site (Apr 2017), it would appear progress with Nivolumab and Ipipumumab halted, things started to grow and the treatment was stopped. Danielle was then put into palliative care for pain relief. She has had a number of emergency surgeries, including a feeding tube directly to her stomach to eat, and a tracheostomy (a tube that goes into your neck so that you can breathe).
Then a new breakthrough when her oncologist advised that the treatment protocol for immunotherapy had changed and that there may be benefit in continuing to treat her. However, the financial constraints still apply. Despite, Danielle having paid $123,000 for the immunotherapy so far, the drug company has AGAIN denied compassionate access to the treatment.
When I wrote the original blog, I attached a 5-minute video which I personally found very inspiring. She talks eloquently, confidently and she maintains her composure emotionally. She was a brave lady and I’m not sure I could have contained my emotions for the full 5 minutes of the video clip. You can view the video clip here: Click here to view. (Please note this video was recorded before the immunotherapy treatment).
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