Research

Sometimes Bold Predictions Do Come True: The Lesson Of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia

Perhaps more than most, doctors struggle with memories that mark sad moments in their careers. For me, one of the most indelible was about a wonderful young man with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).

When I started my oncology career in the early 1970’s, CML was almost always fatal. It would start with a chronic phase which was treated with pretty simple medications. But those medications didn’t cure the disease.

The “almost always” scenario with CML was that several years on, it would morph into an acute phase, or “blast crisis,” that almost always ended in an untimely and frequently very premature death.

I came into contact with this young man just as he was diagnosed with CML. A couple of years later, he entered that acute phase. Rather than face the rigors of intensive chemotherapy, a regimen that was almost always futile, he took his own life. Moments like that live with us forever.

Decades later, (2003 to be exact) a prominent oncologist—who at the time was the director of the National Cancer Institute—made an audacious promise. Andrew von Eschenbach said that by 2015 we would end the suffering and death from cancer and convert it to a chronic … Continue reading →

We Are Beginning To Realize The Promise Of Cell Free DNA In Cancer Care

Right now, when we want to know everything we can about a tumor, we do surgery: a biopsy to take a sample of it and look at it under a microscope and determine as best we can how to treat it. But what if instead you could get a blood test, and learn even more. That’s the promise of the relatively new science of what is called cell free DNA (cfDNA). It holds the hope of helping us better understand cancer, its behavior in our bodies over time, and even offering clues on how to better treat cancer in ways we would never have imagined even a few short years ago.

It was an important area of discussion at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting this week. It’s a meeting where, every year, we get a sense of the future of cancer treatment before it becomes a reality. From genomics, to immunotherapy, to targeted therapies–you name it—promising areas appear on the scene, then either become part of our reality or lose luster as the process unfolds over the course of several ASCO annual meetings. This year, several studies presented on the topic of the so-called “liquid biopsy” illustrate how … Continue reading →

Precision/Personalized Medicine: Can We Afford Our Success?

Here at the at annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, we are beginning to see the future of cancer therapy—and it raises a provocative question: will precision medicine become so precise, we risk turning off the much-needed investment of human, intellectual and financial capital that keeps progress flowing?

The sheer number of new drugs and new combinations of drugs being reported here at the world’s biggest, and most relevant cancer conference is staggering. Not all of them are ready for prime time, and some may never be successful in the clinic for large numbers of patients, but it is clear the era of old fashioned chemotherapy is diminishing and newer forms of therapies (targeted and immunotherapies among others) are on the rapid ascent.

But with progress, it’s becoming clear that a changing paradigm in cancer care that was predicted a number of years ago is now coming to life.… Continue reading →

Need To Balance Innovation, Benefits and Restraint When It Comes To The Rising The Costs Of Cancer Drugs

Cancer drugs—especially the new targeted and immunotherapies—are very, very expensive.

No doubt about that, and there is also no lack of effort trying to cast blame on who bears responsibility for those costs. There is even a recent article in the British Medical Journal that analyzes the size of the vials those drugs come in and suggests for some companies at least that may be a strategy to increase costs even further. What most experts can agree on is that this is a complicated problem for which there are no easy solutions.

I recently wrote a short commentary on the issue which appeared in Healio’s “HemOnc Today.” Although not exhaustive in terms of analyzing the issue, it does point out that we need to find a balance that continues to provide the incentive to innovate and bring new treatments to the care of cancer patients, while maintaining some degree of restraint given the reality that these costs simply cannot continue to increase without limit.… Continue reading →

Making A Difference: The Melanoma Research Alliance

A full waiting room. To most of us, it’s a bad sign, as we anticipate the excruciatingly dull minutes ahead. But at a meeting I attended this past week, it was a sign of hope, of progress; of making a difference.

I was in Washington DC to attend the annual scientific session of the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) in Washington DC, an organization that is only eight years old. When this group first met, it was made up of a relative handful of melanoma researchers and clinicians who came together to figure out what they could do to discover and promote more research and better treatment options for patients with melanoma.

The people behind the effort were Michael Milken and Debra and Leon Black. For them the mission was personal: Mr. Milken was a prostate cancer survivor who wanted to devote his energies to accelerating discoveries in cancer care. The Blacks are also well known in financial circles, and Ms. Black was (and remains) a melanoma survivor. 

At the time, the landscape for patients with advanced melanoma was bleak. There were a couple of available treatments, but they really didn’t have much of an impact on improving or extending Continue reading →

The Commission on Cancer: An “Unsung Hero” Of Cancer Care

Sometimes we take for granted what goes on behind the scenes to improve the care offered to patients with cancer.

Having spent two days in Chicago attending meetings of the Commission on Cancer recently, I think it is worth highlighting and commending the work done by this very special organization and the volunteers and staff who make it possible—and successful as well.

Cancer is a complex disease. And it is no secret that not every person with cancer either can or even wants to be treated at a major research center when diagnosed with cancer. That means many of us with cancer are treated locally, some in large “megasystem” hospitals that are popping up across the country to much smaller institutions like the one that serves my hometown community in South Georgia.

But when you walk in the door, do you ever wonder who does the check-up to be certain that the hospital meets acceptable standards of cancer care? Is there anyone watching the store?

For more than 1500 hospitals across the country, that organization is the Commission on Cancer (CoC).  Established by the American College of Surgeons in 1922, the Commission on Cancer develops standards to ensure high quality, … Continue reading →

Is It Appropriate To Offer The Public “Liquid Biopsies” For the Early Detection Of Cancer?

The recent announcement by a California company offering DNA blood tests (also known as “liquid biopsies”) for the early detection of cancer takes us to a place most of us expected we would get to, but much earlier than we are prepared for. Simply stated, our technology and rush to get new tests to market-even before we have a basic understanding of how to use those tests to improve the health of consumers–has outstripped our scientific understanding, and we ignore the implications at our own peril. [more]

First, some history:

The concept of having a blood test to diagnose cancer early is not new. In fact, I recall an international meeting about a decade ago where a lecturer predicted the diagnosis of cancer through a simple finger stick that would be sent to a lab for analysis.

Fast forward to June of 2009 when I was a guest on the Today Show and was asked to offer a closing thought telling viewers something they didn’t know about cancer. My comment was to the effect that one day in the not too distant future we would be able to find cancer cells circulating in the blood in people who didn’t … Continue reading →

New Research On Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) Brings Knowledge–Now We Need Understanding

It has been said that with knowledge comes understanding.

A research paper and editorial published in this week’s issue of JAMA Oncology may have brought knowledge, but if you read various media reports I am not so certain it has clarified understanding. And the distinction is important, because when a woman is confronted with the diagnosis of a “Stage O” breast cancer (aka ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS), the decisions she makes about treatment can have far-reaching and long lasting impact for her and those who care about her. [more]

First, some brief background: DCIS was rarely diagnosed before the advent of mammographic screening for breast cancer. Perhaps it was found incidentally when a breast biopsy was done for another reason, or perhaps a woman or her physician felt a mass that turned out to be DCIS. Once mammography became more widespread in the 1970’s, we began to see a marked increase in the number of women diagnosed with DCIS. Today, the American Cancer Society estimates that in 2015 slightly more than 60,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with this lesion (compared to 234,190 women who will have a more typical invasive breast cancer).

The situation … Continue reading →

Genomic Testing Reaches The Clinic: How Much Is Hope–And How Much Is Hype?

(The following blog was originally posted on MedpageToday on August 3, 2015. It is reprinted here with permission.)

 

Genomics and its impact on clinical medicine appear to be the topics du jour. The science is rapidly advancing, but our ability to understand and apply that science may not be keeping pace. The question is whether expectations will meet the promise, and are we wise enough to navigate the maelstrom and bring true benefit to our patients and consumers in general?

Three recent research reports highlight how fast some of this discovery is moving. Two reports focused on the use of cell-free DNA fragments extracted from the blood and saliva to identify cancer related markers in patients with pancreatic and head and neck cancer. The other reported discordance in DNA from mothers and their fetuses discovered when prenatal blood tests were done, again using cell-free DNA. In short, the researchers reported on situations where a prenatal screen showed abnormal DNA, the fetus was tested and showed normal DNA which then led to the discovery of cancer in the mother.

To be certain, there are many similar research reports. But they all point in the direction that we are soon … Continue reading →

Genomics May Be The New Frontier, But Knowing Your Family Medical History Is Still Very Important

It’s no secret that genomics is cutting edge science. It is exciting, it is changing the way we think about ourselves and the medical care we receive. But with all the “gee whiz” aspects of what we are discovering every day about our genetic code, it may be surprising to learn that one of the most important parts of our new tool kit may be sitting right there in front of us gathering more dust than attention.

This revelation came while attending a conference this past week sponsored by a group called HL7. HL7 develops standards for the exchange, integration, sharing, and retrieval of electronic health information in the healthcare setting. They convened this particular meeting to better understand how we can more effectively integrate genomic data into health care delivery and research so we can full advantage of the information from genomic-derived science that is coming at us like a tsunami. 

What stood out amidst all of the topics discussed-and what achieved the greatest consensus among the conferees-was the role that the tried-and-true basic family history can play in helping us understand how the information provided by genomics fits together with real life. That’s correct: the old fashioned … Continue reading →