cancer

We Now Know Exactly How Many DNA Mutations Smoking Causes

Every 50 cigarettes you smoke gives you one extra DNA mutation per lung cell.

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Source: The Verge
Author: James Vincent

A common tactic for people trying to give up smoking is to quantify exactly how much damage — financial or physical — each cigarette or pack of cigarette does. How much does smoking cost you per month, for example, or how much shorter is your life going to be for each drag you take? Well, a new study into the dangers of smoking now lets us measure this damage right down to the number of mutations in your DNA.

A research team led by scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory compared tissue samples from 1,063 non-smokers and 2,490 smokers, examining each individual’s DNA to look for mutations. They found that for every 50 cigarettes smoked, there is one extra DNA mutation for each cell in the lungs. Over the course of a year, this means that someone who smokes a pack a day (20 cigarettes) has 150 extra mutations per cell in the lung, 97 per larynx cell, 23 per mouth cell, 18 per bladder cell, and six per liver cell.

These changes to the cells aren’t dangerous in themselves, but each one has the potential to turn into a cancerous growth. “Smoking is like playing Russian roulette: the more you play, the higher the chance the mutations will hit the right genes and you will develop cancer,” Ludmil Alexandrov, the co-lead author of the study, told the New Scientist. “However, there will always be people who smoke a lot but the mutations do not hit the right genes.”

The reason for all these extra mutations is found in tobacco smoke — a substance that contains some 7,000 different chemicals, over 70 of which are known to cause cancer. How exactly different types of cell mutations lead to cancer is less clear, and the team from Los Alamos are hoping next to drill down further into this line of research and find out the probabilities that any individual DNA mutation will turn into cancer.

The good news for smokers, though, is that it’s never too late to quit. Although smoking causes regular DNA mutations, as soon as people give up cigarettes, the mutations stop too. One UK study from 2004 found that those who quit smoking at age 30 nearly eliminate the risk of dying prematurely, while those who quit at 50 halve it. For people trying to give up, those are certainly some more comforting odds.

 

This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.

November, 2016|Oral Cancer News|

Smokeless Tobacco Use and the Risk of Head and Neck Cancer: Pooled Analysis of US Studies in the INHANCE Consortium.

Source: www.pubmed.gov
Author: Wyss AB, Gillison ML, Olshan AF

Abstract

Previous studies on smokeless tobacco use and head and neck cancer (HNC) have found inconsistent and often imprecise estimates, with limited control for cigarette smoking. Using pooled data from 11 US case-control studies (1981-2006) of oral, pharyngeal, and laryngeal cancers (6,772 cases and 8,375 controls) in the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology (INHANCE) Consortium, we applied hierarchical logistic regression to estimate odds ratios and 95% confidence intervals for ever use, frequency of use, and duration of use of snuff and chewing tobacco separately for never and ever cigarette smokers. Ever use (versus never use) of snuff was strongly associated with HNC among never cigarette smokers (odds ratio (OR) = 1.71, 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.08, 2.70), particularly for oral cavity cancers (OR = 3.01, 95% CI: 1.63, 5.55). Although ever (versus never) tobacco chewing was weakly associated with HNC among never cigarette smokers (OR = 1.20, 95% CI: 0.81, 1.77), analyses restricted to cancers of the oral cavity showed a stronger association (OR = 1.81, 95% CI: 1.04, 3.17). Few or no associations between each type of smokeless tobacco and HNC were observed among ever cigarette smokers, possibly reflecting residual confounding by smoking. Smokeless tobacco use appears to be associated with HNC, especially oral cancers, with snuff being more strongly associated than chewing tobacco.

© The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. All rights reserved.

*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.  

October, 2016|Oral Cancer News|

America’s Most Popular ‘Legal’ Drug is Responsible for 25% of ALL Cancer

Source: www.thefreethoughtproject.com
Author: John Vibes

There are many factors contributing to the massive rise in cancer cases in the US, but according to a new study from the American Cancer Society, cigarette smoke is by far the leading cause. The study found that roughly 25% of all cancer deaths could be attributed to cigarette smoking.

Although cigarette smoking has waned somewhat in recent years, nearly 40 million adults in the U.S. currently smoke cigarettes. The CDC says cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S., responsible for more than 480,000 deaths annually.

According to the study:

We estimate that at least 167133 cancer deaths in the United States in 2014 (28.6% of all cancer deaths; 95% CI, 28.2%-28.8%) were attributable to cigarette smoking. Among men, the proportion of cancer deaths attributable to smoking ranged from a low of 21.8% in Utah (95% CI, 19.9%-23.5%) to a high of 39.5% in Arkansas (95% CI, 36.9%-41.7%), but was at least 30% in every state except Utah. Among women, the proportion ranged from 11.1% in Utah (95% CI, 9.6%-12.3%) to 29.0% in Kentucky (95% CI, 27.2%-30.7%) and was at least 20% in all states except Utah, California, and Hawaii. Nine of the top 10 ranked states for men and 6 of the top 10 ranked states for women were located in the South. In men, smoking explained nearly 40% of cancer deaths in the top 5 ranked states (Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Kentucky). In women, smoking explained more than 26% of all cancer deaths in the top 5 ranked states, which included 3 Southern states (Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee), and 2 Western states (Alaska and Nevada).

Smoking is one of the leading causes of illness and death in the world. The use of tobacco has become more widespread than ever and the substance itself is far more dangerous than it has ever been before.

Today, cigarettes are mass produced and treated with thousands of additives and chemicals. Carcinogenic, poisonous chemicals and toxic metals can all be found in modern tobacco products. These chemicals are present for many reasons ranging from taste and preservation to being purposely addictive. There are over 4000 of these chemicals in cigarettes and all of them are not revealed to the public. They are protected under law as “trade secrets” — meaning they can add anything they want in there without our knowledge.

The financial advantage alone should be enough of an argument to quit smoking. In most states, cigarettes are now over 6 dollars a pack, more than half of which is taxes. So people are literally paying the government and rich multinational corporations an average of 10 dollars every day, for a product that destroys their bodies. It is true that there are addictive chemicals in cigarettes but their strength and power has been blown way out of proportion.

The psychological addiction is always much stronger than the physical addiction even with harsh narcotics like heroin and especially with nicotine. All you have to do is stop and get through a few days without it. Soon enough the smell and taste will no longer be desirable to you and you will be happy to have that extra 6 dollars a pack in your pocket. It will be easier to breathe, you won’t get sick as often and you will overall be in better spirits. Quitting cigarettes is one decision that you can make that will drastically improve your life in a number of ways and it will give the elite less control of your money and your health.

*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.

October, 2016|Oral Cancer News|

Can your own immune system kill cancer?

Source: www.cnn.com
Author: Jacqueline Howard

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There was another big win in the advancement of immunotherapy treatments for cancer this week.

The Food and Drug Administration approved an immunotherapy drug called Keytruda, which stimulates the body’s immune system, for the first-line treatment of patients with metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer.

In other words, the drug could be the very first treatment a patient receives for the disease, instead of chemotherapy. Keytruda is the only immunotherapy drug approved for first-line treatment for these patients.

So it seems, the future of cancer care may be in our own immune systems, but how exactly does it work, and what are its pros and cons?

“It’s certainly going to become an independent way of treating cancers,” said Dr. Philip Greenberg, head of immunology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, during a Q&A session at the International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference in New York in September.

“We always talk about the three pillars of cancer therapy — radiation therapy, chemotherapy and surgery — and it’s become quite clear now that there’s going to be a fourth pillar, which is immunotherapy,” he said. “There are times where it will be used alone, and there will be times that it will be used in conjunction with the other therapies, but there’s very little to question that this is going to be a major part of the way cancers are treated from now on, going forward.”

Here’s a look at the past, present and future of cancer immunotherapy.

It began with Bessie

In the summer of 1890, 17-year-old Elizabeth Dashiell, affectionately called “Bessie,” caught her hand between two seats on a passenger train and later noticed a painful lump in the area that got caught, according to the Cancer Research Institute.

She met with a 28-year-old physician named Dr. William Coley in New York to address the injury. He performed a biopsy, expecting to find pus in the lump, probably from an infection. But what he found was more disturbing: a small gray mass on the bone. It was a malignant tumor from a type of cancer called sarcoma.

Dashiell had her arm amputated to treat the cancer, but the disease quickly spread to the rest of her body. She died in January 1891. A devastated Coley went on to devote his medical career to cancer research.

Coley is sometimes referred to as the “father of cancer immunotherapy,” according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

During his career, he noticed that infections in cancer patients were sometimes associated with the disease regressing. The surprising discovery prompted him to speculate that intentionally producing an infection in a patient could help treat cancer.

To test the idea, Coley created a mixture of bacteria and used that cocktail to create infections in cancer patients in 1893. The bacteria would sometimes spur a patient’s immune system to attack not only the infection but also anything else in the body that appeared “foreign,” including a tumor. In one case, when Coley injected streptococcal bacteria into a cancer patient to cause erysipelas, a bacterial infection in the skin, the patient’s tumor vanished — presumably because it was attacked by the immune system.

Coley’s idea was occasionally studied by various researchers in the 1900s but was not widely accepted as a cancer treatment approach until more recently.

“Immunotherapy has essentially undergone a sort of revolution in the last decade in the sense that something that was experimental — and there were still questions about what role it would have in the way cancer is treated — is completely turned around, and now it’s clear it’s effective,” Greenberg said.

German physician Dr. Paul Ehrlich, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1908, proposed using the immune system to suppress tumor formation in the “immune surveillance” hypothesis — an idea that seems to follow Coley’s.

Yet it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the hypothesis became more widely accepted, according to the Cancer Research Institute. A landmark review published in the journal Nature Immunology in 2002 supported the validity of cancer immunosurveillance.

“Cancer immunotherapy really refers to treatments that use your own immune system to recognize, control and hopefully ultimately cure cancers,” said Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, CEO of the Cancer Research Institute, during the conference in New York last month.

“Many people for many years didn’t think the immune system was really going to have a role in any treatment for cancer,” she said, “but I think the entire medical community (and) oncologists now agree that immunotherapy’s here to stay.”

‘Turning oncology on its head’

One of the most famous cancer patients to have received a form of immunotherapy is former President Jimmy Carter, who had a deadly form of skin cancer called melanoma. Last year, he announced that he was cancer-free after undergoing a combination of surgery, radiation and immunotherapy.

Carter was taking Keytruda. It’s approved to treat melanoma, non-small-cell lung cancer, and head and neck cancer. However, it’s not the only approved immunotherapy option out there.

“The advances and the results we’ve seen with using the immune system to treat cancer in the last five years or so are turning the practice of oncology on its head,” said Dr. Crystal Mackall, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and expert on cancer immunotherapy.

You don’t want to overstate it. As an immunotherapist, I see things from my vantage point, which is biased, but my clinical colleagues use words like ‘revolution,’ ” she said. “When I hear them say that, I think, ‘Wow, this really is a paradigm shifting for how we think about treating cancer.’ ”

Immunotherapy comes in many forms — treatment vaccines, antibody therapies and drugs — and can be received through an injection, a pill or capsule, a topical ointment or cream, or a catheter.

The FDA approved the first treatment vaccine for cancer, called sipuleucel-T or Provenge, in 2010. It stimulates an immune system response to prostate cancer cells and was found in clinical trials to increase the survival of men with a certain type of prostate cancer by about four months.

Another treatment vaccine, called T-VEC or Imlygic, was approved by the FDA in 2015 to treat some patients with metastatic melanoma.

Some antibody therapies have been approved, as well. Antibodies, a blood protein, play a key role in the immune system and can be produced in a lab to help the immune system attack cancer cells.

The FDA has approved several antibody-drug conjugates, including Kadcyla for the treatment of some breast cancers, Adcetris for Hodgkin lymphoma and a type of non-Hodgkin T-cell lymphoma, and Zevalin for a type of non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma.

The FDA also has approved some immunotherapy drugs known as immune checkpoint inhibitors. They block some of the harm that cancer cells can cause to weaken the immune system.

Keytruda, which Carter took, is a checkpoint inhibitor drug. Other such drugs include Opdivo to treat Hodgkin lymphoma, advanced melanoma, a form of kidney cancer and advanced lung cancer. Tecentriq is used to treat bladder cancer, and Yervoy is used for late-stage melanoma.

Additionally, there are many immunotherapy treatments in clinical trials, such as CAR T-cell therapy. The cutting-edge therapy involves removing T-cells from a patient’s immune system, engineering those cells in a lab to target specific cancer cells and then infusing the engineered cells back into the patient. The treatment is being tested to treat leukemia and lymphoma.

“The real excitement now in cellular therapy, in T-cell therapies, is it reflects the developments in an area that we call synthetic biology, which is that you can add genes to cells and you can change what they do, how they behave, how they function, what they recognize,” Greenberg said.

The high price of new immunotherapy drugs has also garnered attention in the field, according to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For instance, some estimates suggest that checkpoint inhibitor treatments could cost as much as $1 million per patient.

As approvals continue, many scientists caution that doctors and patients alike should prepare for potential severe side effects and downsides.

Boosting the immune system with such therapies may cause skin reactions, flu-like symptoms, heart palpitations, diarrhea and a risk of infection. New cancer immunotherapy drugs have even been linked to arthritis in some patients.

A clinical trial conducted by Juno Therapeutics to test the effectiveness of an experimental immunotherapy treatment for lymphoblastic leukemia was halted after three patients died. They suffered cerebral edema or brain swelling.

Greenberg is a scientific co-founder of Juno Therapeutics.

However, “one of the best attributes of immunotherapy and the future of medicine is that it’s very precise in the way that it kills tissue and spares normal tissue, so in some way, immunotherapy is less toxic (than other therapies). There are patients who are treated with checkpoint inhibitors who have essentially no side effects,” Mackall said. “That would never happen with chemotherapy. They would always have side effects.

“Still, you know, the fact remains that probably nothing is perfect, and there are likely to be some side effects, but as far as we know now, they are less likely to be as severe or prevalent.”

As immunotherapy continues to develop as an option for cancer treatment, experts plan to be realistic about forthcoming challenges.

The challenges of immunotherapy

Experts say they hope to better understand why some patients may have different responses to immunotherapy treatments than others — and why some treatments may result in remissions instead of relapses, or vice versa.

“There’s this whole problem of, you give people an immunotherapy, it looks like it’s working, and then it stops working. We get recurrences or progression after some period, and the question is, why did that happen? How can you change it?” Greenberg said.

“This is where the science has come to play an important part: Is it because the immune response was working and somehow the tumor turned it off? And if that’s the case, then we have to look at ways in which we can reactivate the immune system,” he said. “Or is it not that, is it just that the immune system did what it’s supposed to do, but now a variant grew out, now a tumor grew out that’s no longer recognized by the immune response you are enforcing? If that’s the case, then we need ways to build subsequent immune responses to tackle that.”

Therefore, researchers have to better understand the behavior of not only the immune system but also cancerous tumors — and it’s no simple task.

“If there’s a perception that it’s easy, that’s a mistake. I think our lab has spent decades trying to figure out how to manipulate the immune response,” Greenberg said.

“Some patients are anticipating things to change overnight and be immediately available as a therapy. It takes quite a while,” he said, “but I’m quite certain immunotherapy is going to be enormously useful. It’s just, right now, we are limited in what can be done.”

*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy

October, 2016|Oral Cancer News|

This Is Why Your Drug Prescriptions Cost So Damn Much

Source: www.motherjones.com
Author: Stuart Silverstein

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When the Republican-controlled Congress approved a landmark program in 2003 to help seniors buy prescription drugs, it slapped on an unusual restriction: The federal government was barred from negotiating cheaper prices for those medicines. Instead, the job of holding down costs was outsourced to the insurance companies delivering the subsidized new coverage, known as Medicare Part D.

The ban on government price bargaining, justified by supporters on free-market grounds, has been derided by critics as a giant gift to the drug industry. Democratic lawmakers began introducing bills to free the government to use its vast purchasing power to negotiate better deals even before former President George W. Bush signed the Part D law, known as the Medicare Modernization Act.

All those measures over the last 13 years have failed, almost always without ever even getting a hearing, much less being brought up for a vote. That’s happened even though surveys have shown broad public support for the idea. For example, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found last year that 93 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans favor letting the government negotiate Part D prescription drug prices.

“I mean, how in the world can one explain that the government actually passed a law saying that you can’t negotiate prices?”

It seems an anomaly in a democracy that an idea that is immensely popular—and calculated to save money for seniors, people with disabilities, and taxpayers—gets no traction. But critics say it’s no mystery, given the enormous financial influence of the drug industry, which rivals the insurance industry as the top-spending lobbying machine in Washington. It has funneled $1.96 billion into lobbying in the nation’s capital since the beginning of 2003 and, in just 2015 and the first half of 2016, has spent the equivalent of $468,108 per member of Congress. The industry also is a major contributor to House and Senate campaigns.

“It’s Exhibit A in how crony capitalism works,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who has sponsored or co-sponsored at least six bills since 2007 to allow Part D drug price negotiations. “I mean,” he added, “how in the world can one explain that the government actually passed a law saying that you can’t negotiate prices? Well, campaign contributions and lobbying obviously had a big part in making that upside-down outcome occur.”

Wendell Potter, co-author of a book about the influence of money in politics, Nation on the Take, likened the drug industry’s defiance of public opinion to the gun lobby’s success in fending off tougher federal firearms controls and the big banks’ ability to escape stronger regulation despite their role in the Great Recession.

“They are able to pretty much call the shots,” Potter said, referring to the drug industry along with its allies in the insurance industry. “It doesn’t matter what the public will is or what public opinion polls are showing. As long as we have a system that enables industries, big corporations, to spend pretty much whatever it takes to influence the elections and public policy, we’re going to wind up with this situation.”

While Part D is only one of the issues the drug industry pushes in Washington, it is a blockbuster program. According to a report from the trustees of the Medicare system, this year Part D is expected to spend $103 billion to serve an estimated 43 million Americans.

A paper released in August by Harvard Medical School researchers cited the size of the program and its lack of government negotiating clout as among the reasons why Americans pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. A co-author of that paper, Ameet Sarpatwari, estimates that Part D accounts for nearly 30 percent of the nation’s spending on prescription drugs.

What’s more, Part D often pays far more for drugs than do Medicaid or the Veterans Health Administration—which, unlike Part D, mandate government measures to hold down prices. One report found that Part D pays 80 percent more for medicines than the VHA and 73 percent more than Medicaid. While researchers aren’t unanimous in their views, an array of experts have concluded that federal negotiating power—if backed up by other cost controls—would bring Part D drug costs more in line.

The drug industry and its allies acknowledge that, at least in the short term, federal intervention in the marketplace could bring lower drug prices. Yet the industry says such a step would also kill incentives to develop new medicines.

In addition, industry officials and many analysts say substantial cost reductions will come only if the Part D program refuses to pay for drugs that it considers overpriced, possibly reducing seniors’ access to some medicines. They point to the way the VHA strengthens its negotiating leverage by rejecting some expensive medicines. Instead, the veterans’ health care system limits its purchases to a list of approved drugs known as a formulary.

“If you want to have lower prices, you’re going to have fewer medicines,” said Kirsten Axelsen, a vice president at Pfizer, a pharmaceutical giant that leads all drug companies in spending on lobbying and political campaigns at the federal level.

It took intense maneuvering by the Bush White House and GOP leaders to get Part D through Congress in November 2003, when the House and the Senate were under Republican control. The measure came up for a vote in the House at 3 a.m. on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, as lawmakers were trying to finish business before the holiday. But when the bill appeared headed to a narrow defeat after the normal 15 minutes allowed for voting, Republican leaders kept the vote open for an extraordinary stretch of nearly three hours, described in a 2004 scholarly paper as by far the longest known roll-call vote in the history of the House.

With the help of pre-dawn phone calls from Bush and a custom-defying visit to the House floor by Tommy Thompson, then secretary of health and human services, enough members were coaxed to switch their votes to pass the bill, 220-215, shortly before 6 a.m.

Part D was conceived at a time when rapidly rising US drug costs were alarming seniors, prompting some to head to Canada and Mexico to buy medicines at dramatically lower prices. With the 2004 presidential election campaign coming up, Republican leaders saw “an opportunity to steal a long-standing issue from the Democrats,” said Thomas R. Oliver, a health policy expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the lead author of the 2004 paper about the adoption of Part D.

Last year the drug industry retained 894 lobbyists to influence the 535 members of Congress, staffers, and regulators.

A key aim of Part D proponents, Oliver said, was to cover seniors “in a Republican, pro-market kind of way.” That meant including “as much private sector involvement as possible,” which led to insurance companies managing the program. At the same time, it excluded federal price controls, which were anathema to the drug industry.

Today, the program remains subject to the pervasive influence of the drug industry. An analysis by FairWarning, based on spending data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research group, has found:

— There are far more lobbyists in Washington working for drug manufacturers and wholesalers than there are members of Congress. Last year the industry retained 894 lobbyists to influence the 535 members of Congress, along with staffers and regulators. From 2007 through 2009, there were more than two drug industry lobbyists for every member of Congress.

— For each of the last 13 years, more than 60 percent of the industry’s drug lobbyists have been “revolvers”—that is, lobbyists who previously served in Congress or who worked as congressional aides or in other government jobs. That raises suspicions that lawmakers and regulators will go easy on the industry to avoid jeopardizing their chances of landing lucrative lobbying work after they leave office.

Probably the most notorious example was the Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin. He helped shape the Part D legislation while serving as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In January 2005, just days after he retired from the House, he became the drug industry’s top lobbyist as president of a powerful trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA. He remained in that job—which reportedly paid him $2 million a year—until 2010.

“It was pretty blatant but an accurate reflection of the way pharma plays the game, through campaign contributions and, in Billy’s case, way more than that,” said US Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who has been a leading proponent of government price negotiations.

— Since January 2003, drug manufacturers and wholesalers have given $147.5 million in federal political contributions to presidential and congressional candidates, party committees, leadership PACs and other political advocacy groups. Of the total, 62 percent has gone to Republican or conservative causes.

Over the period, four Republican lawmakers from the 2015-16 Congress received more than $1 million in contributions from drug companies. (One of them, former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, resigned last October.) In all, 518 members of the current Congress—every member of the Senate and more than 95 percent of the House—have received drug industry money since 2003.

Pfizer said that since the beginning of 2003 through the middle of this year it has spent, at the federal level, $145.9 million on lobbying as well as $12.2 million on political contributions through its PACs. In a written statement, the company said, “Our political contributions are led by two guiding principles—preserve and further the incentives for innovation, and protect and expand access for the patients we serve.”

— The big money goes to top congressional leaders as well as chairs and other members of key committees and subcommittees.

The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, repeatedly a graveyard for Part D price negotiation bills, underscores the pattern. The 16 Republican members have received an average of $340,219 since the beginning of 2003.

The drug industry “knows that you really only need, in many cases, just a small number of influential members to do their bidding. That’s why you see contributions flowing to committee chairs, regardless of who is in power. They flow to Democrats as well as Republicans,” Potter said.

Proponents of negotiations say some economic and political currents may turn the tide in their favor. The main factor: After years of relatively modest price rises for prescription drugs, cost increases have begun to escalate. That’s partly because of expensive new treatments for illnesses such as hepatitis C.

According to Medicare officials, Part D payments are expected to rise 6 percent annually over the coming decade per enrollee, up from only 2.5 percent annually over the last nine years. Already, cost increases are “putting wicked pressure on our hospitals, on our seniors, and on our state governments,” Welch said.

At the same time, both major presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have called for Medicare drug price negotiation. So have doctor groups such as the American College of Physicians and an alliance of more than 100 oncologists, many nationally known, who last year garnered headlines with their plea for Medicare negotiations and other measures to fight skyrocketing costs for cancer drugs.

PhRMA, the trade group, wouldn’t comment for this story on lobbying or campaign spending. In a written statement, however, PhRMA spokeswoman Allyson Funk said, “There is significant price negotiation that already occurs within the Medicare prescription drug program.” Pointing to the private companies that run the program, Funk added, “Large, powerful purchasers negotiate discounts and rebates directly with manufacturers, saving money for both beneficiaries and taxpayers.”

Funk also pointed to skeptical assessments by the Congressional Budget Office about the potential additional savings from federal negotiations. Repeatedly—including in letters in 2004 and 2007—the CBO has said government officials likely could extract only modest savings, at best. The office’s reasoning is that costs already would be held down by bargaining pressure from insurance firms and by drug manufacturers’ fear of bad publicity if they are viewed as jacking up prices too high.

But many analysts, particularly amid recent controversies over skyrocketing costs for essential drugs and EpiPen injection devices, scoff at those CBO conclusions. They fault the CBO for not taking into account other price controls, such as those used by Medicaid and the VHA, that likely would be coupled with price negotiation.

“You would want Medicare to have the option to say, ‘Okay, this is our price, and you’re going to take it. And if you don’t take it, we’re not buying it.'”

What CBO officials “seem to be assuming is that Congress would change the law in a really foolish way,” said Dean Baker, a liberal think tank economist who has studied the Part D program. “It seems to me that if you got Congress to change the law, you would want Medicare to have the option to say, ‘Okay, this is our price, and you’re going to take it. And if you don’t take it, we’re not buying it.”

In fact, related bills proposed during the current Congress by two Illinois Democrats—Schakowsky and Richard J. Durbin, the Senate minority whip—go beyond requiring drug price negotiations. They both provide for federal officials to adopt “strategies similar to those used by other Federal purchasers of prescription drugs, and other strategies…to reduce the purchase cost of covered part D drugs.”

The potential to reduce prices is underscored by a 2015 paper by Carleton University of Ottawa, Canada, and the US advocacy group Public Citizen. It found that Medicare Part D on average pays 73 percent more than Medicaid and 80 percent more than the VHA for the same brand-name drugs. The VHA’s success in holding down costs helped inspire a measure on California’s November ballot, Proposition 61, that would restrict most state-run health programs from paying any more for prescription drugs than the veterans agency does.

Two studies by the inspector general of health and human services that compared drug expenditures under the Part D and Medicaid programs also concluded that Part D pays far more for the same medicines. The more recent inspector general study, released in April 2015, examined spending and rebates on 200 brand-name drugs. It found that, after taking rebates into account, Medicaid, which provides health care for low-income families with children, paid less than half of what Part D did for 110 of the drugs. Part D, on the other hand, paid less than Medicaid for only 5 of 200 drugs.

Those findings provide evidence that “the current reliance on private insurers that negotiate drug prices isn’t working that well,” said Edwin Park, vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank.

Five Democrats who are leading opponents of the status quo—US Representatives Welch, Schakowsky, and Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, along with Sens. Durbin and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota—each have introduced price negotiation bills (HR 3061, HR 3261, HR 3513, S 31 and S 1884) during the current, 114th Congress. All the measures have stalled in committee.

Schakowsky, a House Democratic chief deputy whip, said under Republican control in her chamber, “I think it is virtually impossible for this to ever go to hearings and markups.”

Take, for example, the bill that Welch introduced in the House on July 14, 2015. Within a week, it was referred to two health subcommittees, where it has sat ever since.

The closest Welch ever came to success was in 2007. He was among 198 co-sponsors—all but one, Democrats—of a bill introduced by then-US Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan. It was approved by the House but then blocked by Republicans from being taken up in the Senate.

“There’s a lot of industry opposition…It doesn’t mean, however, that industry is all-powerful.”

 Lawmakers on committees where Part D bills ordinarily go—the Finance Committee in the Senate, and the Energy and Commerce Committee as well as the Ways and Means Committee in the House—tend to be well funded by the drug industry.

For instance, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who sits on the Finance Committee, has received more money from the industry since 2003 than anyone else currently in Congress, $1.3 million. Close behind is Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, (R-Utah), who has gotten $1.18 million. (The other members of the million-dollar club are Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), House Energy and Commerce chairman, at $1 million, and former House Speaker Boehner, at $1.21 million.)

Burr also is the Senate leader so far in the 2015-16 political cycle, collecting $229,710 from the drug industry. In the House in the current cycle, John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a member of the Energy and Commerce health subcommittee, has snagged $189,000, trailing only Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy ($292,550) and House Speaker Paul Ryan ($273,195). A Burr spokeswoman declined to comment. Hatch and Shimkus did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Amid the EpiPen controversy and growing concerns about prescription drug prices, Park sees signs that more lawmakers are willing to buck industry opposition to government price negotiation. “There’s a lot of industry opposition. This would affect their bottom line,” Park said. “It doesn’t mean, however, that industry is all-powerful.”

But Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, was skeptical about the prospects for reform. “I think it’s pretty clear what you’re seeing is, there’s an industry group that stands to lose a lot of money, and they’re basically using all of the political power they can to make sure that it doesn’t happen.”

*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.

October, 2016|Oral Cancer News|

Cancer-Preventing Vaccines Given To Less Than Half Of US Kids

Source: www.houstonpublicmedia.org
Author: Carrie Feibel

U.S. regulators approved a vaccine to protect against the human papilloma virus (HPV) in 2006, but cancer experts say misconceptions and stigma continue to hamper acceptance by both doctors and parents.

Eighty percent of Americans are exposed to the human papilloma virus in their lifetimes. Some strains of HPV can cause genital warts, but most people experience no symptoms and clear the virus from their systems within a year or two. But for an unlucky minority, the virus causes damage that, years later, leads to cervical cancer, throat cancer, and other types.

Researchers at MD Anderson are frustrated that ten years after the first vaccine arrived on the market, only 42 percent of U.S. girls, and 28 percent of boys, are getting the three-shot series.

The series can be given to girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 26, but the immune response is strongest at younger ages, before sexual activity begins.

n 2007, then-Texas governor Rick Perry proposed making the HPV vaccine mandatory for all preteen girls.  At the time, the vaccine was only approved and marketed for girls.

Dr. Lois Ramondetta, a cervical cancer specialist at MD Anderson, remembers the outcry.

“A lot of people felt that was the right idea, but the wrong way to go about it. Nobody really likes being told what to do, especially in Texas,” Ramondetta said. “I think there was a lot of backlash.”

Eventually, the legislature rejected Perry’s plan, even though it included an opt-out provision. Ramondetta said too many politicians focused on the fact that HPV is sexually transmitted. That had the unfortunate effect of skewing the conversation away from health care and into debates about morality and sexuality. She said the best and most accurate way to discuss the vaccine is to describe it as something that can prevent illness and death.

“I try to remove the whole concept of sexuality,” Ramondetta said. “When you’re talking about an infection that infects 80 percent of people, you’re really talking about something that is part of the human condition. Kind of like, it’s important to wash your hands because staph and strep are on all of us.”

Today, only Virginia, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. mandate HPV vaccines.

“Our vaccination rates are really terrible right now,” Ramondetta said.

In Texas, only 41 percent of girls get all three of the required shots, and only 24 percent of boys.

hpv-kara-million-1200x788

Kara Million of League City finds those numbers upsetting.  Million survived two rounds of treatment for cervical cancer.

“Even if you had a chance that your kid could have any kind of cancer, and you could have given them two shots or three shots for it? To me, it’s a no-brainer,” Million said.

Million always got regular Pap tests. But she missed one appointment during a busy time following the birth of her second child. When she went back, it had been only 15 months since her last Pap test. But the doctor found cervical cancer, and it had already progressed to stage 3.

“That was a huge surprise,” Million recalled.

Million had chemotherapy and radiation at MD Anderson. But a year later the cancer returned.

The next step was surgery, a radical procedure called a total pelvic exenteration.

Million and her husband looked it up online.

“When I was reading it, I was just, like, ‘this is so barbaric, there is no way they are still doing this in this day and age,’” Million said. “‘For certain, in 2010 we have better surgeries to do than this.’”

But there weren’t better surgeries. This was her only option.

“I had a total hysterectomy; they pulled all the reproductive system out,” she explained. “They take your bladder out, they take part of your rectum, they take part of your colon, they take your vagina, all of that in your pelvic area comes out.”

The surgery took 13 hours, and left her with a permanent colostomy bag and urostomy bag.

“At that point, with two kids at that age – I think they were one-and-a-half and three – there’s no option. I’m a mom, so I’m going to do whatever it takes so they can have their mom.”

Most women survive cervical cancer if it’s caught early enough. But Million’s cancer was diagnosed at a later stage, where only a third of women make it past five years. She has already made it past that five-year anniversary, and she’s not wasting any time.

She now volunteers as a peer counselor at MD Anderson to other cervical cancer patients, and she urges parents to vaccinate their kids.

“If most of cervical cancer is caused by HPV, and now we have something that can help prevent what I went through, and what my friends went through, and the friends that I lost?” Million says, “I don’t understand why people don’t line up at the door to get their kids vaccinated for it.”

But Dr. Ramondetta said parents can’t consent to the vaccination if pediatricians or family doctors don’t offer it. And they’re not offering it nearly enough, she said.

Some doctors don’t know how to broach the topic, fearing it will lead to a difficult conversation about sexual behavior. Some mistakenly think boys don’t need it, although they do – not only to protect their partners from HPV, but to protect themselves against oropharyngeal and anal cancers, which are also caused by HPV.  Ramondetta added that some doctors incorrectly assume that giving the vaccine will promote promiscuity.

Ramondetta says extensive research actually shows it doesn’t.

“There should be this understanding of an ethical responsibility. That this is part of cancer screening and prevention, just like recommending mammograms and colonoscopies.”

In Texas, only 41 percent of girls get all three of the required shots, and only 24 percent of boys.

*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.

September, 2016|Oral Cancer News|

Expert Asserts Pembrolizumab to Play Important Role in Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Source: www.targetedonc.com
Author: Laura Panjwani

Joshua-Bauml

The FDA approval of pembrolizumab (Keytruda) as a treatment for patients with recurrent or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) in August 2016 was extremely significant for this patient population, which previously had limited options following progression on a platinum-based chemotherapy.

The approval was based on the phase Ib KEYNOTE-012 study, which demonstrated that pembrolizumab had an overall response rate (ORR) of 18% and a stable disease rate of 17% in patients with recurrent/metastatic HNSCC.

Several other studies are further evaluating the immunotherapy agent in HNSCC.Preliminary results of the phase II KEYNOTE-055 study—which included 92 evaluable patients who received pembrolizumab after failing platinum and cetuximab therapies—were presented at the 2016 ASCO Annual Meeting.

In an interview with Targeted Oncology, lead study author Joshua M. Bauml, MD, an assistant professor of Medicine, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center, discusses the impact of pembrolizumab’s success in HNSCC, the results of the KEYNOTE-055 study, and what he sees on the horizon for the PD-1 inhibitor in this field.

TARGETED ONCOLOGY: What role do you envision pembrolizumab having in this patient population?

Baumi: It is going to play a critical role in head and neck cancer. The other agents that are available have limited efficacy, and are associated with significant toxicities. This is a clear improvement for our patient population with limited options.

TARGETED ONCOLOGY: What were the key takeaways from KEYNOTE-055? Baumi: Patients with recurrent/metastatic head and neck cancer that is refractory to both platinum-based therapy and cetuximab (Erbitux) really have very few options. The historical reference population we usually use is patients treated with methotrexate, which has a response rate of 5% and an overall survival (OS) of only about 6 months. There is a really great need for this. For pembrolizumab, which is an anti–PD-L1 agent, there is biologic rationale to think that it would be active in this patient population. PD-L1 and PD-L2 are unregulated in head and neck cancer.

What KEYNOTE-055 did is really try and create a homogenous patient population. Rather than a large phase I study, here are patients all who have failed both platinum-based therapy and cetuximab. We have really identified the sickest patient population.

What we are able to show in this study was that the drug was well tolerated and it has a response rate of 17% to 18%, which compares favorably for the 5% seen with the prior data with methotrexate. The OS rate was 8 months, which again compares very favorably to the 6 months seen with methotrexate. This was true, even though 85% of patients had received at least 2 prior treatments for head and neck cancer.

TARGETED ONCOLOGY: What did this study tell us about the safety of pembrolizumab in head and neck cancer?

Baumi: The rate of grade 3 through 5 treatment-related adverse events was 12% in our study. Nearly all of the side effects are what you would expect with pembrolizumab; those have been reported in multiple other studies. There was 1 treatment-related death due to pneumonitis, which is a rare side effect of this class of drugs.

Outside of that, it was a really well-tolerated agent. The fact that if you compared grade 3 through 5 toxicities of 12% with cytotoxic chemotherapy, this is a very well-tolerated agent.

TARGETED ONCOLOGY: How common is it for patients to fail both platinum-based therapy and cetuximab?

Baumi: Any patient who has recurrent or metastatic head and neck cancer is going to go through these agents if they survive long enough to get them. Basically, we know that these are the limited tools in our toolbox. We have platinum, we have cetuximab, and then we are really out of options. Many patients have received cetuximab in the locally advanced setting and so we have already lost one of our active treatments. This affects a lot of people.

TARGETED ONCOLOGY: What is next for pembrolizumab in head and neck cancer?

Baumi: There are currently phase III studies evaluating pembrolizumab in head and neck cancer both in combination with and versus traditional cytotoxic chemotherapy to see if we can move up the treatment earlier for patients. The key difference between pembrolizumab and cytotoxics is beyond the improved safety profile. However, we have durable responses; 75% of those patients who responded are still responding to this day. That is really not something that we see.

TARGETED ONCOLOGY: What are the biggest questions that remain regarding the treatment of patients with metastatic head and neck cancer?

Baumi: One of the key questions that relates to immunotherapy—and this covers all tumors—is trying to identify who the 20% of patients are that will respond. Eighty percent of our patients are not responding to our therapies.

Identifying a biomarker to enrich this patient population is very critical. Right now, I would not select patients for pembrolizumab by virtue of PD-L1 status because there were responses in the PD-L1–negative cohorts.

*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.

September, 2016|Oral Cancer News|

Expert says Nivolumab Poised to Change Standard of Care in SCCHN

Source: www.onclive.com
Author: Laura Panjwani

Robert-Ferris

Nivolumab (Opdivo) is a game-changing agent for the treatment of patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN), according to Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD.

“Recent findings have shown us that this agent is really the new standard-of-care option for all platinum-refractory patients with head and neck cancer,” says Ferris, vice chair for Clinical Operations, associate director for Translational Research, and co-leader of the Cancer Immunology Program at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. “This is regardless of whether patients are PD-L1–positive or negative or whether they are HPV-positive or negative.”

The PD-L1 inhibitor received a priority review designation by the FDA in July 2016 based on the CheckMate-141 study, which demonstrated a median overall survival (OS) with nivolumab of 7.5 months compared with 5.1 months with investigator’s choice of therapy (HR, 0.70; 95% CI, 0.51-0.96; P = .0101) in patients with recurrent or metastatic SCCHN.

The objective response rate (ORR) was 13.3% with nivolumab and 5.8% for investigator’s choice. The FDA is scheduled to make a decision on the application for the PD-1 inhibitor by November 11, 2016, as part of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act.

Ferris was the lead author on an analysis that further evaluated preliminary data from CheckMate-141, which was presented at the 2016 ASCO Annual Meeting. In an interview with OncLive, he discusses the findings of this study, potential biomarkers for nivolumab, and questions that remain regarding the use of the immunotherapy in SCCHN.

OncLive: What were the updated findings from CheckMate-141 presented at ASCO?

Ferris: The data that were presented at the 2016 ASCO Annual Meeting were further evaluations and follow-up on some preliminary data—originally presented at the 2016 AACR Annual Meeting—that listed the OS results.

At ASCO, we recapped the primary endpoint of OS as an important endpoint for immunotherapies because response rate and progression-free survival may not be as accurate. Ultimately, the FDA and people at large want OS. In this study, OS was 36% at 1 year in the nivolumab-treated arm and 16.6% in the comparator arm, which was investigator’s choice of single-agent chemotherapy, consisting of methotrexate, docetaxel, or cetuximab. In this phase III randomized trial, nivolumab was given in a 2:1 randomization: 240 patients received nivolumab and 120 received investigator’s choice.

Also at ASCO, we presented further evaluations consisting of what the regimens are in the comparator arm. There was about 20% each of docetaxel and methotrexate and 12% of cetuximab. Approximately 60% of the patients had prior cetuximab exposure and we stratified by cetuximab as a prior therapy. We also demonstrated the ORR, which was 13.3% in the nivolumab-treated arm versus 5.8% in the investigator’s choice arm.

Therefore, there was an improvement in overall response, but the difference seemed more modest than the OS benefit—which was a doubling—with 20% more patients alive at 1 year. This reinforces the concept that perhaps response rate may not be the best endpoint. Progression-free survival (PFS) was double at 6 months, with about 20% in the nivolumab arm versus about 9.9% in the investigator’s choice arm. The median PFS was not different, but the 6-month PFS was twice as high. The time to response was about 2 months in each arm at the first assessment.

Your analysis also looked at biomarkers. Can you discuss these findings and their significance?

The p16 or HPV-positive group had a better hazard ratio for OS than the overall study population. The hazard ratio was .73 for the overall population, using a preplanned interim analysis. With the HPV-positive group, we had a hazard ratio of .55 and the HPV-negative group had a hazard ratio of .99. It is still favoring the nivolumab-treated patients but, with the curves separated earlier in the HPV-positive group, one could see the improvement with nivolumab at about 1 to 2 months. It took 7 or 8 months with the HPV-negative group to show a separation of the curves in favor of nivolumab.

We looked at PD-L1 levels, and PD-L1—using a 1% or above level—had an improvement in the PD-L1–positive patients in favor of nivolumab in terms of OS and ORR. When we looked at 5% and 10% thresholds of PD-L1, the OS did not seem to improve. Therefore, in all levels above 1%, the OS was similarly beneficial over the PD-L1 less-than-1% group. However, essentially all levels of PD-L1–positivity and PD-L1–negativity still favored nivolumab, but the benefit was more when its levels were greater than 1%.

We could combine HPV status with PD-L1 status and look at subsets; however, essentially every subset benefited, whether it was PD-L1–negative or positive. This indicates that, in this group of patients, who progress within 6 months of platinum-based therapy, that no current systemic therapeutic options benefit patients as well as nivolumab.

With regard to these findings, what are you most excited about?

Head and neck cancer is a difficult disease. Until recently, we didn’t know the impact of this enrichment for HPV-positive virus-induced subsets and we didn’t know if this was an immune responsive cancer. Clearly, it is. We have all of the hallmarks that we have seen for a bright future—based on the melanoma data—and a series of other cancers indicating response rates in the 15% to 20% range, suggesting that we now have a platform of the PD-1 pathway to combine with other checkpoints and to integrate earlier in disease with radiation and chemotherapy.

We have a demonstration of head and neck cancer as an immune-responsive cancer. We are beginning to get an idea of the biomarkers and starting to be able to segment patients who will benefit. Now, we have a large comparative trial with an OS endpoint and tissue to look at biomarkers to try and understand what the best future combinations will be.

What are some questions that you still hope to answer regarding nivolumab in head and neck cancer?

We have to get down deeper into the nonresponders. We should acknowledge that the majority of patients neither had a response nor benefited. Understanding who is more likely to benefit is useful, but we also need to understand the levels of alternative checkpoint receptors or other biomarkers of resistance.

We have sequential lymphocyte specimens from the peripheral blood, tissues, and serum so those are intensively under evaluation. There are interferon gamma signatures that have risen from the melanoma checkpoint field that will certainty be applied, as well.

*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.

August, 2016|Oral Cancer News|

Knowledgeability, Attitude and Behavior of Primary Care Providers Towards Oral Cancer: a Pilot Study

Source: www.link.springer.com
Authors: Neel Shimpi, Aditi Bharatkumar, Monica Jethwani, Po-Huang Cyou, Ingrid Glurich, Jake Blamer, Amit Acharya

 

The objective of this study was to assess current knowledgeability, attitudes, and practice behaviors of primary care providers (PCPs) towards oral cancer screening. Applying a cross-sectional design, a 14-question survey was emailed to 307 PCPs practicing at a large, multi-specialty, rurally based healthcare system. Survey data were collected and managed using REDCap and analyzed applying descriptive statistics. A 20 % response rate (n = 61/307) was achieved for survey completion. Approximately 70 % of respondents were physicians, 16 % were nurse practitioners, and 13 % were physician assistants. Nearly 60 % of respondents were family medicine practitioners. Limited training surrounding oral cancer screening during medical training was reported by 64 %. Although 78 % of respondents reported never performing oral cancer screening on patients in their practice, >90 % answered knowledge-based questions correctly. Frequency rate for specialist referral for suspicious lesions by PCPs was 56 % “frequently”. Optimal periodicity for oral cancer screening on all patients selected by respondents was 61 % “annually”, 3 % “every 6 months”, 3 % “every visit”, 2 % “not at all”, and 31 % “unsure”. This study established a baseline surrounding current knowledgeability, practice patterns, and opinions of PCPs towards oral cancer screening at a single, large, regional healthcare system. In the absence of evidence-based support for population-based cancer screening, this study result suggests a need for better integration of oral cancer surveillance into the medical setting, supplemented by education and training with emphasis on assessment of high-risk patients to achieve early detection. Prospectively, larger studies are needed to validate these findings.

*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.

July, 2016|Oral Cancer News|

In an era of rapidly proliferating, precisely targeted treatments, every cancer case has to be played by ear.

Source: www.nytimes.com
Author: Sidhartha Mukherjee

 

15oncologist1-superJumbo-v5Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro. Photograph by Ansel Adams, via the National Archives, College Park, Md.

 

The bone-marrow biopsy took about 20 minutes. It was 10 o’clock on an unusually chilly morning in New York in April, and Donna M., a self-possessed 78-year-old woman, had flown in from Chicago to see me in my office at Columbia University Medical Center. She had treated herself to orchestra seats for “The Humans” the night before, and was now waiting in the room as no one should be asked to wait: pants down, spine curled, knees lifted to her chest — a grown woman curled like a fetus. I snapped on sterile gloves while the nurse pulled out a bar cart containing a steel needle the length of an index finger. The rim of Donna’s pelvic bone was numbed with a pulse of anesthetic, and I drove the needle, as gently as I could, into the outer furl of bone. A corkscrew of pain spiraled through her body as the marrow was pulled, and then a few milliliters of red, bone-flecked sludge filled the syringe. It was slightly viscous, halfway between liquid and gel, like the crushed pulp of an overripe strawberry.

I had been treating Donna in collaboration with my colleague Azra Raza for six years. Donna has a preleukemic syndrome called myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, which affects the bone marrow and blood. It is a mysterious disease with few known treatments. Human bone marrow is normally a site for the genesis of most of our blood cells — a white-walled nursery for young blood. In MDS, the bone-marrow cells acquire genetic mutations, which force them to grow uncontrollably — but the cells also fail to mature into blood, instead dying in droves. It is a dual curse. In most cancers, the main problem is cells that refuse to stop growing. In Donna’s marrow, this problem is compounded by cells that refuse to grow up.

Though there are commonalities among cancers, of course, every tumor behaves and moves — “thinks,” even — differently. Trying to find a drug that fits Donna’s cancer, Raza and I have administered a gamut of medicines. Throughout all this, Donna has been a formidable patient: perennially resourceful, optimistic and willing to try anything. (Every time I encounter her in the clinic, awaiting her biopsy with her characteristic fortitude, it is the doctor, not the patient, who feels curled and small.) She has moved nomadically from one trial to another, shuttling from city to city, and from one drug to the next, through a landscape more desolate and exhilarating than most of us can imagine; Donna calls it her “serial monogamy” with different medicines. Some of these drugs have worked for weeks, some for months — but the transient responses have given way to inevitable relapses. Donna is getting exhausted.

Her biopsy that morning was thus part routine and part experiment. Minutes after the marrow was drawn into the syringe, a technician rushed the specimen to the lab. There he extracted the cells from the mixture and pipetted them into tiny grain-size wells, 500 cells to a well. To each well — about 1,000 in total — he will add a tiny dab of an individual drug: prednisone, say, to one well, procarbazine to the next and so forth. The experiment will test about 300 medicines (many not even meant for cancer) at three different doses to assess the effects of the drugs on Donna’s cells.

Bathed in a nutrient-rich broth suffused with growth factors, the cells will double and redouble in an incubator over the course of the following two weeks, forming a lush outgrowth of malignant cells — cancer abstracted in a dish. A computer, taught to count and evaluate cells, will then determine whether any of the drugs killed the cancerous cells or forced them to mature into nearly normal blood. Far from relying on data from other trials, or patients, the experiment will test Donna’s own cancer for its reactivity against a panel of medicines. Cells, not bodies, entered this preclinical trial, and the results will guide her future treatment.

I explained all this to Donna. Still, she had a question: What would happen if the drug that appeared to be the most promising proved unsuccessful?

“Then we’ll try the next one,” I told her. “The experiment, hopefully, will yield more than one candidate, and we’ll go down the list.”

“Will the medicine be like chemotherapy?”

“It might, or it might not. The drug that we end up using might be borrowed from some other disease. It might be an anti-inflammatory pill, or an asthma drug. It might be aspirin, for all we know.”

My conversation with Donna reflected how much cancer treatment has changed in the last decade. I grew up as an oncologist in an era of standardized protocols. Cancers were lumped into categories based on their anatomical site of origin (breast cancer, lung cancer, lymphoma, leukemia), and chemotherapy treatment, often a combination of toxic drugs, was dictated by those anatomical classifications. The combinations — Adriamycin, bleomycin, vinblastine and dacarbazine, for instance, to treat Hodgkin’s disease — were rarely changed for individual patients. The prospect of personalizing therapy was frowned upon: The more you departed from the standard, the theory ran, the more likely the patient would end up being undertreated or improperly managed, risking recurrence. In hospitals and clinics, computerized systems were set up to monitor an oncologist’s compliance with standard therapy. If you chose to make an exception for a particular patient, you had to justify the choice with an adequate excuse. Big Chemo was watching you.

I memorized the abbreviated names of combination chemo — the first letter of each drug — for my board exams, and I spouted them back to my patients during my clinic hours. There was something magical and shamanic about the multiletter contractions. They were mantras imbued with promise and peril: A.B.V.D. for Hodgkin’s, C.M.F. for breast cancer, B.E.P. for testicular cancer. The lingo of chemotherapists was like a secret code or handshake; even the capacity to call such baleful poisons by name made me feel powerful. When my patients asked me for statistical data, I had numbers at my fingertips. I could summon the precise chance of survival, the probability of relapse, the chance that the chemo would make them infertile or cause them to lose their hair. I felt omniscient.

Yet as I spoke to Donna that morning, I realized how much that omniscience has begun to wane — unleashing a more experimental or even artisanal approach in oncology. Most cancer patients are still treated with those hoary standardized protocols, still governed by the anatomical lumping of cancer. But for patients like Donna, for whom the usual treatments fail to work, oncologists must use their knowledge, wit and imagination to devise individualized therapies. Increasingly, we are approaching each patient as a unique problem to solve. Toxic, indiscriminate, cell-killing drugs have given way to nimbler, finer-fingered molecules that can activate or deactivate complex pathways in cells, cut off growth factors, accelerate or decelerate the immune response or choke the supply of nutrients and oxygen. More and more, we must come up with ways to use drugs as precision tools to jam cogs and turn off selective switches in particular cancer cells. Trained to follow rules, oncologists are now being asked to reinvent them.

The thought that every individual cancer might require a specific individualized treatment can be profoundly unsettling. Michael Lerner, a writer who worked with cancer patients, once likened the experience of being diagnosed with cancer to being parachuted out of a plane without a map or compass; now it is the oncologist who feels parachuted onto a strange landscape, with no idea which way to go. There are often no previous probabilities, and even fewer certainties. The stakes feel higher, the successes more surprising and the failures more personal. Earlier, I could draw curtain upon curtain of blame around a patient. When she did not respond to chemotherapy, it was her fault: She failed. Now if I cannot find a tool in the growing kit of drugs to target a cancer’s vulnerabilities, the vector feels reversed: It is the doctor who has failed.

Yet the mapless moment that we are now in may also hold more promise for patients than any that has come before — even if we find the known world shifting under our feet. We no longer have to treat cancer only with the blunt response of standard protocols, in which the disease is imagined as a uniform, if faceless, opponent. Instead we are trying to assess the particular personality and temperament of an individual illness, so that we can tailor a response with extreme precision. It’s the idiosyncratic mind of each cancer that we are so desperately trying to capture.

Cancer — and its treatment — once seemed simpler. In December 1969, a group of cancer advocates led by the philanthropist Mary Lasker splashed their demand for a national war on cancer in a full-page ad in The New York Times: “Mr. Nixon: You Can Cure Cancer.” This epitomized the fantasy of a single solution to a single monumental illness. For a while, the centerpiece of that solution was thought to be surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, a strategy colloquially known as “slash and burn.” Using combination chemotherapy, men and women were dragged to the very brink of physiological tolerability but then pulled back just in time to send the cancer, but not its host, careering off the edge.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of people took part in clinical trials, which compared subjects on standard chemo combinations with others administered slightly different combinations of those drugs. Some responded well, but for many others, relapses and recurrences were routine — and gains were small and incremental for most cancers. Few efforts were made to distinguish the patients; instead, when the promised cures for most advanced malignancies failed to appear, the doses were intensified and doubled. In the Margaret Edson play “Wit,” an English professor who had ovarian cancer recalled the bewildering language of those trials by making up nonsensical names for chemotherapy drugs that had been pumped into her body: “I have survived eight treatments of hexamethophosphacil and vinplatin at the full dose, ladies and gentlemen. I have broken the record.”

To be fair, important lessons were garnered from the trials. Using combinations of chemotherapy, we learned to treat particular cancers: aggressive lymphomas and some variants of breast, testicular and colon cancers. But for most men and women with cancer, the clinical achievements were abysmal disappointments. Records were not broken — but patients were.

A breakthrough came in the 2000s, soon after the Human Genome Project, when scientists learned to sequence the genomes of cancer cells. Cancer is, of course, a genetic disease at its core. In cancer cells, mutated genes corrupt the normal physiology of growth and ultimately set loose malignant proliferation. This characteristic sits at the heart of all forms of cancer: Unlike normal cells, cancer cells have forgotten how to stop dividing (or occasionally, have forgotten how to die). But once we could sequence tens of thousands of genes in individual cancer specimens, it became clear that uniqueness dominates. Say two identical-looking breast cancers arise at the same moment in identical twins; are the mutations themselves in the two cancers identical? It’s unlikely: By sequencing the mutations in one twin’s breast cancer, we might find, say, 74 mutated genes (of the roughly 22,000 total genes in humans). In her sister’s, we might find 42 mutations, and if we looked at a third, unrelated woman with breast cancer, we might find 18. Among the three cases, there might be a mere five genes that overlap. The rest are mutations particular to each woman’s cancer.

15oncologists4-master675-v2-1Dr. Azra Raza, left, speaking to Donna M., a patient who travels from Chicago for treatment for myelodysplastic syndromes, in a waiting room at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

 

No other human disease is known to possess this degree of genetic heterogeneity. Adult-onset diabetes, for example, is a complex genetic disease, but it appears to be dominated by variations in only about a dozen genes. Cancer, by contrast, has potentially unlimited variations. Like faces, like fingerprints — like selves — every cancer is characterized by its distinctive marks: a set of individual scars stamped on an individual genome. The iconic illness of the 20th century seems to reflect our culture’s obsession with individuality.

If each individual cancer has an individual combination of gene mutations, perhaps this variability explains the extraordinary divergences in responses to treatment. Gene sequencing allows us to identify the genetic changes that are particular to a given cancer. We can use that information to guide cancer treatment — in effect, matching the treatment to an individual patient’s cancer.

Many of the remarkable successes of cancer treatments of the last decades are instances of drugs that were matched to the singular vulnerabilities of individual cancers. The drug Gleevec, for instance, can kill leukemia cells — but only if the patient’s cancer cells happen to carry a gene mutation called BCR-ABL. Tarceva, a targeted therapy for lung cancer, works powerfully if the patient’s cancer cells happen to possess a particular mutant form of a gene; for lung-cancer patients lacking that mutation, it may be no different from taking a placebo. Because the medicines target mutations or behaviors that are specific to cancer cells (but not normal cells), many of these drugs have surprisingly minimal toxicities — a far cry from combination chemotherapies of the past.

A few days after Donna’s visit to the clinic, I went to my weekly meeting with Raza on the ninth floor of the hospital. The patient that morning was K.C., a 79-year-old woman with blood cancer. Raza has been following her disease — and keeping her alive — for a decade.

“Her tumor is evolving into acute leukemia,” Raza said. This, too, is a distinctive behavior of some cancers that we can now witness using biopsies, CT scans and powerful new techniques like gene sequencing: We can see the cancers morphing from smoldering variants into more aggressive types before our eyes.

“Was the tumor sequenced?” I asked.

“Yes, there’s a sequence,” Raza said, as we leaned toward a screen to examine it. “P53, DNMT3a and Tet2,” she read from the list of mutant genes. “And a deletion in Chromosome 5.” In K.C.’s cancer, an entire segment of the genome had been lopped off and gone missing — one of the crudest mutations that a tumor can acquire.

“How about ATRA?” I asked. We had treated a few patients carrying some of K.C.’s mutations with this drug and noted a few striking responses.

“No. I’d rather try Revlimid, but at a higher dose. She’s responded to it in the past, and the mutations remain the same. I have a hunch that it might work.”

15oncologist3-superJumbo-v4

Cancer by Genes
Researchers have discovered that cancers they once assumed were quite different might be similar genetically, which means a treatment that used to work for only a small group of patients now might help a much larger group. Mutations in the gene E2F3, for example, are found in breast, lung, bladder and prostate cancers, among others. Knowing this, it’s possible to develop similar drugs that target the gene across different cancers.

 

As Raza and I returned to K.C.’s room to inform her of the plan, I couldn’t help thinking that this is what it had come down to: inklings, observations, instincts. Medicine based on premonitions. Chemo by hunch. The discussion might have sounded ad hoc to an outsider, but there was nothing cavalier about it. We parsed these possibilities with utmost seriousness. We studied sequences, considered past responses, a patient’s recent history — and then charged forward with our best guess. Our decisions were spurred by science, yes, but also a sense for the art of medicine.

Oncologists are also practicing this art in areas that rely less on genes and mutations. A week after Donna’s biopsy, I went to see Owen O’Connor, an oncologist who directs Columbia’s lymphoma center. O’Connor, in his 50s, reminds me of an amphibious all-terrain vehicle — capable of navigating across any ground. We sat in his office, with large, sunlit windows overlooking Rockefeller Plaza. For decades, he explained, oncologists had treated relapsed Hodgkin’s lymphoma in a standard manner. “There were limited options,” O’Connor said. “We gave some patients more chemotherapy, with higher doses and more toxic drugs, hoping for a response. For some, we tried to cure the disease using bone-marrow transplantation.” But the failure rate was high: About 30 percent of patients didn’t respond, and half of them died.

Then a year or two ago, he tried something new. He began to use immunological therapy to treat relapsed, refractory Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Immunological therapies come in various forms. There are antibodies: missile-like proteins, made by our own immune systems, that are designed to attack and destroy foreign microbes (antibodies can also be made artificially through genetic engineering, armed with toxins and used as “drugs” to kill cancer cells). And there are drugs that incite a patient’s own immune system to recognize and kill tumor cells, a mode of treatment that lay fallow for decades before being revived. O’Connor used both therapies and found that they worked in patients with Hodgkin’s disease. “We began to see spectacular responses,” he said.

Yet even though many men and women with relapsed Hodgkin’s lymphoma responded to immunological treatments, there were some who remained deeply resistant. “These patients were the hardest to treat,” O’Connor continued. “Their tumors seemed to be unique — a category of their own.”

15oncologists5-master675Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, left, speaking to K.C., who has acute myeloid leukemia, at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

 

Lorenzo Falchi, a fellow training with O’Connor and me, was intrigued by these resistant patients. Falchi came to our hospital from Italy, where he specialized in treating leukemias and lymphomas; his particular skill, gleaned from his experience with thousands of patients, is to look for patterns behind seemingly random bits of data. Rooting about in Columbia’s medical databases, Falchi made an astonishing discovery: The men and women who responded most powerfully to the immune-boosting therapies had invariably been pretreated with another drug called azacitidine, rarely used in lymphoma patients. A 35-year-old woman from New York with relapsed lymphoma saw her bulky nodes melt away. She had received azacitidine as part of another trial before moving on to the immunotherapy. A man, with a similar stage of cancer, had not been pretreated. He had only a partial response, and his disease grew back shortly thereafter.

Falchi and O’Connor will use this small “training set” to begin a miniature trial of patients with relapsed Hodgkin’s disease. “We will try it on just two or three patients,” Falchi told me. “We’ll first use azacitidine — intentionally, this time — and then chase it with the immune activators. I suspect that we’ll reproduce the responses that we’ve seen in our retrospective studies.” In lung cancer too, doctors have noted that pretreating patients with azacitidine can make them more responsive to immunological therapy. Falchi and O’Connor are trying to figure out why patients respond if they are pretreated with a drug that seems, at face value, to have nothing to do with the immune system. Perhaps azacitidine makes the cancer cells more recognizably foreign, or perhaps it forces immune cells to become more aggressive hunters.

Falchi and O’Connor are mixing and matching unexpected combinations of medicines based on previous responses — departing from the known world of chemotherapy. Even with the new combination, Falchi suspects, there will be resistant patients, and so he will divide these into subsets, and root through their previous responses, to determine what might make these patients resistant — grinding the data into finer and finer grains until he’s down to individualized therapy for every variant of lymphoma.

Suppose every cancer is, indeed, unique, with its own permutation of genes and vulnerabilities — a sole, idiosyncratic “mind.” It’s obviously absurd to imagine that we’ll find an individual medicine to treat each one: There are 14 million new cases of cancer in the world every year, and several million of those patients will present with advanced disease, requiring more than local or surgical treatment. Trying to individualize treatment for those cases would shatter every ceiling of cost.

15oncologist2-superJumbo-v2Cancer Development
Cancer works the same way all life works, through the process of cell division and mutation. All living things grow and heal through cell division, and all living things evolve and change through the occasional mutations that occur as the cells divide. But some mutations can be deadly, leading to the unchecked growth that defines cancer. More than 14 million Americans have a history of cancer; it is expected to kill 600,000 Americans this year.

 

But while the medical costs of personalized therapy are being debated in national forums in Washington, the patients in my modest waiting room in New York are focused on its personal costs. Insurance will not pay for “off-label” uses of medicines: It isn’t easy to convince an insurance company that you intend to use Lipitor to treat a woman with pre-leukemia — not because she has high cholesterol but because the cancer cells depend on cholesterol metabolism for their growth (in one study of a leukemia subtype, the increasing cells were highly dependent on cholesterol, suggesting that high doses of Lipitor-like drugs might be an effective treatment).

In exceptional cases, doctors can requisition pharmaceutical companies to provide the medicines free — for “compassionate use,” to use the language of the pharma world — but this process is unpredictable and time-consuming. I used to fill out such requests once every few months. Now it seems I ask for such exceptions on a weekly basis. Some are approved. A majority, unfortunately, are denied.

So doctors like Falchi and O’Connor do what they can — using their wiles not just against cancer but against a system that can resist innovation. They create minuscule, original clinical trials involving just 10 or 20 patients, a far cry from the hundred-thousand-patient trials of the ’80s and ’90s. They study these patients with monastic concentration, drawing out a cosmos of precious data from just that small group. Occasionally, a patient may choose to pay for the drugs out of his or her own pockets — but it’s a rare patient who can afford the tens of thousands of dollars that the drugs cost.

But could there be some minimal number of treatments that could be deployed to treat a majority of these cancers effectively and less expensively? More than any other scientist, perhaps, Bert Vogelstein, a cancer geneticist at Johns Hopkins University, has tackled that conundrum. The combination of genetic mutations in any individual cancer is singular, Vogelstein acknowledges. But these genetic mutations can still act through common pathways. Targeting pathways, rather than individual genes, might reorganize the way we perceive and treat cancer.

15oncologists7-master675Deep freezers containing bone marrow, bone-marrow plasma and blood serum in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s research lab. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

 

Imagine, again, the cell as a complex machine, with thousands of wheels, levers and pulleys organized into systems. The machine malfunctions in the cancer: Some set of levers and pulleys gets jammed or broken, resulting in a cell that continues to divide without control. If we focus on the individual parts that are jammed and snapped, the permutations are seemingly infinite: Every instance of a broken machine seems to have a distinct fingerprint of broken cogs. But if we focus, instead, on systems that malfunction, then the seeming diversity begins to collapse into patterns of unity. Ten components function, say, in an interconnected loop to keep the machine from tipping over on its side. Snap any part of this loop, and the end result is the same: a tipped-over machine. Another 20 components control the machine’s internal thermostat. Break any of these 20 components, and the system overheats. The number of components — 10 and 20 — are deceptive in their complexity, and can have endless permutations. But viewed from afar, only two systems in this machine are affected: stability and temperature.

Cancer, Vogelstein argues, is analogous. Most of the genes that are mutated in cancer also function in loops and circuits — pathways. Superficially, the permutations of genetic flaws might be boundless, but lumped into pathways, the complexity can be organized along the archetypal, core flaws. Perhaps these cancer pathways are like Hollywood movies; at first glance, there seems to be an infinite array of plot lines in an infinite array of settings — gold-rush California, the Upper West Side, a galaxy far, far away. But closer examination yields only a handful of archetypal narratives: boy meets girl, stranger comes to town, son searches for father.

How many such pathways, or systems, operate across a subtype of cancer? Looking at one cancer, pancreatic, and mapping the variations in mutated genes across hundreds of specimens, Vogelstein’s team proposed a staggeringly simple answer: 12. (One such “core pathway,” for instance, involves genes that enable cells to invade other tissues. These genes normally allow cells to migrate through parts of the body — but in cancer, migration becomes distorted into invasion.) If we could find medicines that could target these 12 core pathways, we might be able to attack most pancreatic cancers, despite their genetic diversity. But that means inventing 12 potential ways to block these core paths — an immense creative challenge for scientists, considering that they haven’t yet figured out how to target more than, at best, one or two.

Immunological therapies provide a second solution to the impasse of unlimited diversity. One advantage of deploying a patient’s own immune system against cancer is that immunological cells are generally agnostic to the mutations that cause a particular cancer’s growth. The immune system was designed to spot differences in the superficial features of a diseased or foreign cell, thereby identifying and killing it. It cares as little about genes as an intercontinental ballistic missile cares about the email addresses, or dietary preferences, of the population that it has been sent to destroy.

A few years ago, in writing a history of cancer, I interviewed Emil Freireich. Freireich, working with Emil Frei at the National Cancer Institute in the 1960s and ’70s, stumbled on the idea of deploying multiple toxic drugs simultaneously to treat cancer — combination chemotherapy. They devised one of the first standard protocols — vincristine, Adriamycin, methotrexate and prednisone, known as VAMP — to treat pediatric leukemias. Virtually nothing about the VAMP protocol was individualized (although doses could be reduced if needed). In fact, doctors were discouraged from trying alternatives to the formula.

Yet as Freireich recalled, long before they came up with the idea for a protocol, there were small, brave experiments; before trials, there was trial and error. VAMP was brought into existence through grit, instinct and inspired lunges into the unknown. Vincent T. DeVita Jr., who worked with Freireich in the 1960s, wrote a book, “The Death of Cancer,” with his daughter, Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn. In it, he recalled a time when the leukemic children in Freireich’s trial were dying of bacterial meningitis during treatment. The deaths threatened the entire trial: If Freireich couldn’t keep the children alive during the therapy, there would be no possibility of remission. They had an antibiotic that could kill the microbe, but the medicine wouldn’t penetrate the blood-brain barrier. So Freireich decided to try something that pushed the bounds of standard practice. He ordered DeVita, his junior, to inject it directly into the spinal cords of his patients. It was an extreme example of off-label use of the drug: The medicine was not meant for use in the cord. DeVita writes:

“The first time Freireich told me to do it, I held up the vial and showed him the label, thinking that he’d possibly missed something. ‘It says right on there, “Do not use intrathecally,” ’ I said. Freireich glowered at me and pointed a long, bony finger in my face. ‘Do it!’ he barked. I did it, though I was terrified. But it worked every time.”

When I asked Freireich about that episode and about what he would change in the current landscape of cancer therapy, he pointed to its extreme cautiousness. “We would never have achieved anything in this atmosphere,” he said. The pioneer of protocols pined for a time before there were any protocols.

Medicine needs standards, of course, otherwise it can ramble into dangerous realms, compromising safety and reliability. But cancer medicine also needs a healthy dose of Freireich: the desire to read between the (guide)lines, to reimagine the outer boundaries, to perform the experiments that become the standards of the future. In January, President Obama introduced an enormous campaign for precision medicine. Cancer is its molten centerpiece: Using huge troves of data, including gene sequences of hundreds of thousands of specimens and experiments performed in laboratories nationwide, the project’s goal is to find individualized medicines for every patient’s cancer. But as we wait for that decades-long project to be completed, oncologists still have to treat patients now. To understand the minds of individual cancers, we are learning to mix and match these two kinds of learning — the standard and the idiosyncratic — in unusual and creative ways. It’s the kind of medicine that so many of us went to medical school to learn, the kind that we’d almost forgotten how to practice.

*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.

May, 2016|Oral Cancer News|