Live @ ASCO 2016: Ask the Lung Cancer Experts

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Topics include: Treatments and Understanding

Does knowing your molecular mutation in earlier stage lung cancer have any significance in selecting a treatment modality? Is there any difference between external and internal factors that lead to gene mutations in lung cancer? Live from the 2016 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago, Drs. Liza Villaruz and Charu Aggarwal sat down with host, John Ratzenberger, for an “Ask the Lung Cancer Expert” discussion that covered questions submitted by lung cancer patients and their families.

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Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you. 

John Ratzenberger:

Greetings from ASCO here in the windy city of Chicago.  I'm John Ratzenberger. I'm going to be your host today, and I'm joined by two great lung cancer experts in our field. We have with us Dr. Liza Villaruz, and we have Dr. Charu Aggarwal.  So thank you both very much for joining us.  So let's get right in. 

Let's see, here.  This one's from Jack,  “Is there a difference between external and internal factors that lead to gene mutations?” I'm not sure, you know, I think what Jack is trying to ask here is are there external factors that do lead to a gene mutation, and is that important in their diagnosis and/or discovery? 

Dr. Aggarwal:

So, you know, we are really learning a great deal about mutational landscape in lung cancer, and already we know that there are two different subsets of lung cancer, you know, just defined by smoking patterns. And you know there are smoking-induced high mutational burden lung cancers and the nonsmoking-induced low mutational burden lung cancers. And you know if we think about smoking as an external factor, that is one of the big differences. 

For example, KRAS mutation is more common in smokers, so you know that being an external factor can immediately change what therapeutic implications might apply to a patient with lung cancer.

John Ratzenberger:

Okay.  Well, here's another one from Susan.  She wants to know is nivolumab (Opdivo), is it safe to be used concurrently with radiation therapy?

Dr. Villaruz:

So we know from our clinical experience that a lot of our patients who are receiving nivolumab may actually get a course of radiation during their treatment.  A lot of times patients may have specific lesions that need to be radiated while they are getting nivolumab.  So, in general, we do consider it safe with the notable exception, especially in the lung cancer population, of radiation to the lung itself, because there is something that can happen with nivolumab called pneumonitis, which is inflammation of the lung.  But in general, short courses of radiation are okay. 

John Ratzenberger:

This one is from Mark.  Mark is a stage III B adenocarcinoma, non-EGFR, non-ALK.  He's uncertain as to how a single biopsy can accurately profile a tumor for targeted therapy.  If a tumor can mutate in multiple ways, how do we know that my profile as identified in the biopsy results reflect the true nature of the tumor and therefore allow me to get the best treatment?  

Dr. Aggarwal:

So that's a very thoughtful question, and I think it will have to be tackled in sort of a multi-part answer. So the genomic profiling that's done for these mutations actually looks at the whole gene sequence, so the chances of us to miss a particular mutation just because of one—you know, I guess what he's getting at is if you're not picking up a representative spot from the tumor, is that really accurate information? 

So I would say that you know as long as the pathologist is picking up cancer cells and as long as we are actually sequencing the cancer cells, the chances of us missing the mutation are pretty low. 

Dr. Villaruz:

And one of the other things that is a newer technology that's really coming up is the role of blood?based testing. So all tumor cells to a certain extent will turn over and release some level of cell?free DNA, which can actually be genotyped off a peripheral blood draw.  And so in many ways that may actually be more representative of the tumor burden as a whole rather than sort of thinking—you know, if you're worried about the sampling errors that can be inherent in a single biopsy.

John Ratzenberger:

Is that kind of a new, big thing is the blood, the blood testing?  Can you explain a little bit more about it? 

Dr. Villaruz:

So when a tumor sort of grows, there's a natural process of growth and dying. And as it does that, small snippets of a DNA from the tumor itself can actually be released into the peripheral blood.  And so there are a number of different technologies that can do some genotyping just as you would on the tumor on the peripheral blood snippets of DNA. And so a lot of genomic alterations like EGFR can actually be identified through the peripheral blood, and also you can do larger studies like looking at mutation load, just like Dr. Aggarwal alluded to. 

Dr. Aggarwal:

I think a third part to that question was, you know, how could we be sure that a mutation wouldn't come up? And just as Dr. Villaruz had mentioned, there's a lot of interest at looking at resistance mutations. There's also a lot of interest in looking at mutations that may come up at the time of progression.  There are certainly clinical trials that are looking at doing biopsies upon progression of disease, so I think this is something again that we are learning about the change in the mutational landscape.  

John Ratzenberger:

Next question is from Nancy, “Does knowing your molecular mutation in earlier stage lung cancer have any significance in selecting a treatment?”

Dr. Aggarwal:

So I think that's, again, a very timely question, because there's a large national trial that's been launched by the Cooperative Oncology Group. It's called the alchemist trial, which is actually looking at the genomic profile of early-stage resected lung cancer patients, where patients who would have otherwise not received targeted therapies, if they were to have any EGFR mutation or an ALK mutation, then after finishing their chemotherapy or radiation therapy as it may be after surgery, can go on to receive either erlotinib (Tarceva) or crizotinib (Keytruda) in the adjuvant setting. 

In addition, that arm—that study also has an arm where patients can get immunotherapy.  So actually we are encouraging our patients now to enroll into studies like that where we can move these agents earlier and earlier to earlier stages of therapy. 

John Ratzenberger:

So obviously early detection is a major focus for a lot of us.  So obviously now trying to get to these earlier stage treatments and how we handle that has got to be a continuing focus, right? 

Dr. Villaruz:

 The Cooperative Group trials that Dr. Aggarwal mentioned are very important to advancing this, knowing how to incorporate these therapies into patients with earlier stages of disease is important, and there are actually also clinical trials looking at targeted therapies in patients who might be treated with chemoradiation even, you know, instead of surgery.

Right now, we don't exactly know how to use the information, the genomic alteration in patients with earlier stages of disease, but these clinical trials will help to answer that question.

John Ratzenberger:

So it's kind of interesting.  You know, we keep—we said it a few times now, we're still learning, we're still learning, and, you know, a hot?button issue, a hot topic, buzzword all around is immunology.  This isn't exactly a new concept, though, is it? 

Dr. Villaruz:

No, it's not, and it's actually a concept that has been around for quite some time in oncology, more so in renal cell or kidney cancer or melanoma.  And what's unfortunate is that for the longest time we used to think of lung cancer as what we call nonimmunogenic, and the recognition that lung cancer actually is immunogenic and can be exploited through these inhibitors called checkpoint inhibitors has really revolutionized lung cancer therapy.

Dr. Aggarwal:

I remember there was a picture of interferon molecule on Time, on the cover of Time magazine in 1980, you know, quoting it as the if drug, you know, is immunotherapy really something that can be used in patients, so it's certainly not a new concept.  That was, what, 35 years ago, and it was being touted as, you know, is this a potential agent to use.  So I think with the availability of safer immune agents it's really changed how we treat and think about these diseases. 

John Ratzenberger:

It's amazing.  So with that in mind, so we're talking about immunology, the targeted therapies, traditional chemotherapies, they're still here, you know. They're here to stay. What's the importance of those drugs still to us? 

Dr. Villaruz:

Chemotherapy is still very important. And I think what is really going to come out of the next few years, what's coming out right now is really how to incorporate these newer immunotherapies in with chemotherapy. And so there are a number of clinical trials actually ongoing and some which will be reported during this meeting of how immunotherapy can be incorporated with chemotherapy. Because there's actually some thought that chemotherapy can actually help promote the immune response that happens with these immune checkpoint inhibitors. 

John Ratzenberger:

Wow. 

Dr. Aggarwal:

And I think in the same vein, radiation is another modality that is being incorporated along with immune therapy. And one of the thoughts is that radiation can perhaps stimulate tumor antigen presentation which can then make immunotherapy work a little better perhaps.  So I think we'll have more answers in the next few years while these trials bear fruit.

John Ratzenberger:

Let's see here.  Can you—what does the approval—well, we actually just talked about the blood?based a little bit ago.  What is changing for the metastatic lung cancer landscape?  What are we looking at these days now as obviously things keep changing every day?

Dr. Villaruz:

So the blood-based testing is something that's really becoming very important, especially as we think about treating these patients with targeted therapies.  Unfortunately, what happens in patients with targeted therapies is over the course of a year, sometimes longer, a year or two, they do develop what's called acquired resistance.  So patients’ tumors can get, so to speak, smart and find ways to circumvent the targeted therapies that we have. 

And so offering patients blood-based testing to help delineate the different resistance mechanisms and coming up then with the next pill is really what—what with next few years. It's sort of not necessarily the next man up but the next pill up, sort of having that next pill in line for the patient.  And so that's really what everything that we're doing right now, is really trying to figure out what the mechanisms are of acquired resistance and how to circumvent that.

John Ratzenberger:

Let's do one from Kathy, “My husband has lost his sense of taste.  Any advice you can offer?” 

Dr. Aggarwal:

So when patients ask me this, I always ask, you know, what exactly is the loss of taste?  You know, does it last for a few days?  Does it last forever?  Is it continuous?  Does it coincide with chemotherapy?  Is it associated with nausea?  Oftentimes if it is associated with nausea, you know, certainly we have medications that can help with taste. 

If it's not associated with nausea, if it's sort of an ongoing thing, sometimes adding more condiments to foods can help. And, you know, there are certainly some tricks here and there that we use that can help patients. But if a long-term, ongoing effect sometimes patients unfortunately have to change what they eat, you know, because some things end up tasting better than others. 

John Ratzenberger:

This one's from Sarah, “What if a specific treatment is not part of the clinic's pathway?  How does a patient learn about other potential options?” 

Dr. Villaruz:

So this goes back to the patient being their own best advocate, and I think doing programs like this and knowing what's out there helps quite a bit.  I mean, there are well-established guidelines in terms of what we generally recommend, and there are websites such as the NCCN guidelines that can help in terms of knowing what the norm is.  And then beyond the norm searching out clinical trials and newer therapies hopefully could be something that the patient can work on with the help of their physician. 

John Ratzenberger:

This one is from Berkeley, “I have scar tissue in my lung from the lobectomy.  It is a—is it a breeding ground for germs?  I frequently have bronchitis and other bacterial infections. Is there a treatment for the scar tissue to prevent infection?”

Dr. Aggarwal:

So scar tissue historically and biologically should not be breeding ground.  By definition it's dense fibrosis, meaning that it's not an area where biologically we would expect infections to fester. I do think that there are a lot of other factors that may predispose to frequent episodes of bronchitis, and those should be thoroughly evaluated. 

John Ratzenberger:

This one's from Hillary, “Could you please discuss the cons of multiple tumor removal surgeries from lungs and the effects on lung capacity and future cancer treatment options?”

Dr. Villaruz:

So that can be a bit of a complicated question.  I'm going to operate under the assumption that they are all the same tumor.  So a lot of times what happens is when we have patients with multiple tumors, so tumors, say, on both sides of the lungs, and they're all part of the same process, meaning they're all part of the same lung cancer, what we generally think about with that is that it's already spreading on some level.  So oftentimes these are the types of patients that we think about what we call systemic therapy rather than what we would call sort of cherry picking or doing surgery on this tumor, that tumor, this tumor, that tumor. Because ultimately there is something that's making that much more of a systemic disease.  

John Ratzenberger:

This one's from Donna, “I'm currently taking AZD9291, Tagrisso.  When I start to show progression what next form of treatment is being offered? Are there any new studies, trial studies being offered as a next step?” 

Dr. Aggarwal:

Go ahead. 

Dr. Villaruz:

So actually talking about resistance, we now know—I'm presuming that she has a T790M mutation.  In patients that actually have had progression on the third-generation inhibitors, there's actually another mutation that can actually occur in these patients called C797S.  And so it's at that point that I would recommend another biopsy with the idea that at that point in time there may actually be effective inhibitors for that mutation. 

John Ratzenberger:

Okay.

Dr. Aggarwal:

And there are certainly trials evaluating combinations of other antibodies or other agents in the space, but they're all in the clinical trial setting at this time. 

John Ratzenberger:

The next steps and new trials that are coming out.  So here we are. This is ASCO with all of that. Has there been an increase in the number of studies for or research for lung cancer in the past few years? 

Dr. Aggarwal:

Absolutely, hands down.

John Ratzenberger:

What's it like when you walk in and see that now?  I mean, this is your world, this is your industry.  What—is it—I mean, what is that doing for you?  

Dr. Aggarwal:

It's very, very exciting. You know, as I said before, so many drugs have been approved within the last three years even, and it's a great feeling to be able to see clinical data from a clinical trial and six months down the line being able to offer it to patients. 

This was certainly not the model five years ago where we would have to wait for years for drugs to be approved, or we would end up using off?label indications with the worry that the drug may or may not get paid.  But I think with this revolutionary way of drugs getting approved, trials being written quickly, trials accruing quickly, it's a very exciting time.

John Ratzenberger:

Great. 

Dr. Villaruz:

And to be walking around the halls of our poster sessions and our abstract sessions and discussions, I mean it's—yesterday I was in a session where it was standing room only, and to be able to have that energy is really tremendous.  

John Ratzenberger:

When you say it's standing room only, this is a room with a thousand, two hundred? 

Dr. Villaruz:

Several hundred.  

John Ratzenberger:

Several hundred people in a room all there for that. 

Dr. Aggarwal:

The future looks promising. It looks strong.

John Ratzenberger:

Great. 

Dr. Villaruz:

I would have to agree. I think that the advances that have happened over the last few years and the advances that I think are going to continue to happen, it's a tremendous field, and it's very exciting to be in it and to work with our patients on a daily basis. 

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you. 

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Page last updated on June 20, 2016