Predicting If an Immune Checkpoint Drug Will Work


Drugs that activate the immune system to attack cancer in a process known as immune checkpoint blockade (ICB) are a focus of intense investigation. A number of them are already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for various cancers; namely, the anti-CTLA4 antibody ipilimumab (Yervoy), two anti-PD-1 antibodies: pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo), and three anti-PD-L1 drugs: atezolizumab (Tecentriq), avelumab (Bavencio) and durvalumab (Imfinzi). These ICB drugs have the potential to induce durable cancer regressions, but the majority of cancer patients just do not respond to them at all.

Biomarkers, signature molecules in the blood or other tissue, can sometimes be used to predict a patient’s response to a given treatment. But no reliable biomarkers exist for ICB, and this is a serious concern. Patients who may really benefit from ICB could be overlooked, and patients who are not likely to respond may receive useless (and very expensive) ICB treatment.

Most potential response predictors that have already been identified are not yet useful for one or all of the following reasons: they are not extensively validated, their significance is still uncertain and may differ from one cancer (or even one patient) to another, or they are technically challenging for routine use. These markers are addressed below. Continue reading…


A Gut Feeling: Bacteria in Your Gut May Affect Cancer Treatment


The human gut contains hundreds of species bacteria, which are known to contribute to various bodily functions (such as digestion, of course!) but they also shape our immune system. Now, recent research has revealed how our microbiomes (the abundant bacteria living in our bodies) may affect the efficacy of immune checkpoint blockade (ICB) in cancer treatment.

How it started: about two years ago, an American group of scientists led by Thomas Gajewski of the University of Chicago noticed that melanoma (and some other cancers’) growth in mice was influenced heavily by the type of bacteria found in the mouse gut. They worked with mice purchased from two different vendors, and realized that mice from one vendor had consistently slower-growing tumors. Bifidobacterium bacteria present in the mouse gut were pinpointed to be the culprit, because transfer of Bifidobacterium to mice that did not have it was able to slow down melanoma growth. Treatment with an immune anti-PD-L1 drug was effective in mice that had the bacteria, but not in mice lacking it. Continue reading…


Super Patient and Storyteller Adam Hayden Takes an Active Approach to Glioblastoma Treatment


On the day after Christmas of 2014, Adam Hayden experienced his first strange “episode.”

“We had just carried all the presents upstairs, and as I was walking towards our bedroom I was struck by this strange lightheadedness that I hadn’t experienced before,” he says. “I didn’t collapse, I didn’t pass out, I just kind of folded down to the ground.”

Adam and his wife Whitney, parents of three young children, chalked up the incident to holiday stress. But over the next year and a half, he kept having similar inexplicable episodes. Finally, in May of 2016, an MRI scan revealed a 71-milimeter tumor in the parietal lobe of Adam’s brain. The episodes had been seizures—symptoms of the tumor.

“When you have an MRI scan like that, things start to move really quickly,” Adam says. A few days after the scan, he was in the operating room to remove the tumor. The impact of the surgery on his brain left him in a wheelchair, and he needed intensive physical therapy to restore his ability to walk.

Meanwhile, Adam’s tumor tissue was analyzed, and on June 10, 2016, he received a diagnosis of glioblastoma. He began a standard treatment protocol of initial chemotherapy and radiotherapy followed by a long-term, 11-cycle chemotherapy regimen to keep the tumor from growing back.

“My oncologist said we could go to 12 cycles of maintenance chemo, but there has not been a randomized controlled trial validating that more is better, so taking the side effects into account, my wife and I decided to stop at 11 cycles,” Adam says. “That was in July, and I have not been on any active treatment since then.”

In late 2016, Adam’s oncologist suggested that he supplement his standard treatment with Optune, a device that had recently been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Optune is a portable device worn on the head that produces an electrical field intended to disrupt cell division, thereby preventing tumor growth.

Adam says that his experience with Optune’s manufacturers was “terrific,” and he used the device for over two months. Ultimately, however, he and his wife decided it wasn’t for them.

“What the clinical trials show is that Optune provides a median of five months’ extra survival, sometimes much more and sometimes less, depending on the patient,” Adam says. “But the kids were afraid of how it looked, it was cumbersome to handle, and it was just an obstacle to daily living, so after hours and hours of talking about it, we made the decision to discontinue.”

Writing as medicine

As a graduate-trained philosopher with a penchant for writing, Adam was compelled to document his glioblastoma experience on a blog he named Glioblastology. He credits his father and grandfather, both pastors, with instilling him with a knack for storytelling.

“My grandfather was a loud, larger-than-life figure with a belly laugh, and storytelling was commonplace around the dinner table any time we visited,” Adam says. So when Adam received his glioblastoma diagnosis, he says, it felt natural to share his story online.

“People say, ‘it’s really courageous of you to live your journey publicly,’ but I was already living on social media, and it would have been stranger if I dropped off the map.”

Adam started writing immediately. “The day after my surgery, as soon as I could lift my head off the pillow, I asked my wife, ‘where’s my journal?’ ” he says. “It was therapeutic for me to write and tell my story.”

But Adam worried that he’d lose his readers’ interest if he just told his story over and over again. So he began to use his blog to put his story into a different context. “I began to write with the goal of teaching clinicians, patients, and others how to find value in their experiences.”

After publishing many posts, Adam was thrilled to discover that what he was doing on his blog—and what so many other cancer patients do—had a name: narrative medicine. In this approach, narrative structure is applied to patients’ experiences with illness and treatment in an effort to enhance the healing process.

Adam became especially interested in the works of narrative medicine practitioner Rita Charon, MD, at Columbia University. After studying Charon’s work, Adam was honored to present at a medical ethics conference, with Charon in the audience. An example of Adam’s take on narrative medicine is featured in his guest post at the science communication blog, PLOS SciComm.

Adam is actively involved in brain tumor and narrative medicine communities, including the National Brain Tumor Society, and he has shared his perspective in many presentations and publications. Recently, he wrote an open letter to Senator John McCain after news broke of McCain’s own glioblastoma diagnosis.

Over the course of his treatment, Adam has also found valuable support in the #BTSM (Brain Tumor Social Media) community on Twitter, which was co-created by fellow brain tumor patients Liz Salmi and Charlie Blotner. Community members interact with each other regularly by tagging their tweets with “#BTSM” and by participating in live monthly tweet chats, which Adam now co-moderates.

“If there’s something that you’re wondering about or that you think others in the brain tumor space could learn from, you can tweet it and tag it with #BTSM, and you’ll get thoughts and support from the community,” Adam says.

Thinking and talking about brain cancer

Adam says that his background in philosophy has helped shape his approach to glioblastoma treatment. As a graduate student studying the philosophy of science, he developed an acute sense of the limits of human knowledge and understanding.

“I was equipped with this humble way of viewing scientific theories that taught me to ask questions and never be too confident in the answers, knowing that throughout history, our theories have been evolving,” Adam says.

“So when I received my diagnosis, I was able to push past the doom of wondering what would happen to me. I realized that I didn’t have to be defined by whatever I was reading about the latest glioblastoma research since it is always transforming, and I could focus on how I would approach it.”

Adam has also taken a thoughtful approach to discussing brain cancer with his kids. He has found ways to frame his disease using words and ideas his kids can understand, instead of avoiding the topic altogether.

For instance, when Adam was recovering from his surgery, his five-year-old son expressed his concern about his dad’s wellbeing. Off the top of his head, Adam came up with the idea to compare his surgical incision and staples to a knee-scrape—a concept familiar to most kids.

“We talked about what happens when you fall and skin your knee; you put a Band-Aid on it and it scabs, and after a while the scab falls off,” Adam says. “So I told him, ‘that’s going to happen with daddy’s head.’ ”

Adam says he would advise other parents with cancer to be honest and frame things in terms of their kids’ level of understanding.

The “invisibility” of brain cancer

Despite his advanced diagnosis, Adam has not experienced many of the symptoms commonly associated with glioblastoma.

“So many people in the brain tumor community have suffered language processing issues, cognitive impairment, and more as a result of either the tumor or the treatment,” he says. “Fortunately I have tolerated treatment well, and while I do have some motor and sensory symptoms, I’m just about as sharp as I’ve always been.” Adam and his wife have connected with a palliative care doctor to proactively prepare themselves for cognitive decline, a near universal symptom of disease progression for people living with a malignant brain tumor.

The seizures that portended his diagnosis still play a big role in his life. Specifically, Adam regularly experiences focal seizures, in which he gets lightheaded and dizzy with tingling, numbness, and weakness on the left side of his body. The seizures are more likely to occur if he has been working hard, such as by writing.

“I can feel the onset of a seizure pretty well,” Adam says. “I know what my triggers are, and I remind myself to schedule my days around that.” Medication is also helpful in preventing seizures, but Adam notes that many fellow brain tumor patients find these treatments prohibitively expensive.

With his symptoms well-controlled, Adam is often reminded that people tend to assume that everyone they meet is healthy and able-bodied, unless they see an obvious sign otherwise.

“Most people’s picture of a cancer patient is someone who is sickly, thin, and nauseated,” Adam says. “What I try to highlight often in my presentations is that with brain cancer, we may look pretty good on the surface, even though we’re sick. We need to be cognizant of people’s visible disabilities, but also invisible disabilities that don’t always present themselves as obviously.”

Read Adam’s writings and learn more about his activities at his blog, Glioblastology. You can also follow him on Twitter and follow his wife’s writings on her blog, Faith, Hope, and Wine.

***

Super Patients are cancer survivors who learned to be more engaged in their own care. Cancer Commons believes every patient can be a Super Patient or benefit from a Super Caregiver or Super Advocate. We hope these stories will provide inspiration and hope for your or your loved one’s own treatment journey.


Reengineering Immune System Cells to Treat Glioblastoma


Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is a serious diagnosis. The search for better treatments is ongoing, but with little to show since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the chemotherapy drug temozolomide with concurrent radiation 12 years ago, based on data showing modest improvement in patients’ survival.

By now, a new cancer treatment approach known as CAR T-cell therapy is famous for its remarkable success in certain blood cancers. But there is not yet much to report for CAR T-cell therapy in solid tumors such as GBM. Still, the treatment may hold promise, and this post will discuss the possible applicability of CAR T-cell therapy in GBM.

What is CAR T-cell therapy?

CAR T-cell (chimeric antigen receptor-engineered T-cell) therapy is based on early work of Israeli scientist Zelig Eshhar conducted in the laboratory of the renowned T-cell treatment pioneer Steven Rosenberg at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They first prepared CAR T cells to target melanoma, and the treatment has since been shown to work amazingly well in certain types of blood cancer, including B-cell leukemia, and lymphoma. Continue reading…


Super Advocate: Stephen Western Helps Brain Cancer Patients Keep Up with the Latest Research


Stephen Western is a dedicated advocate for people dealing with brain cancer. He started this work in February 2013, when his friend was diagnosed with a type of brain tumor known as an astrocytoma. In order to help her, he began to learn all he could about the science of astrocytoma treatment.

Stephen soon realized that many more patients might benefit from his growing knowledge, so he created the website Astrocytoma Options to share this information and update it as new research emerges. He also helps run another site that focuses on the multi-drug “cocktails” often used in brain tumor treatment.

Although Stephen has no formal scientific training, he is able to help patients better understand their treatment options and stay up-to-date on the latest treatment research. To learn more about his work, I interviewed him via email: Continue reading…


Clinical Trials Test Treatments for High-Grade Brain Tumors


With a few exceptions, glioblastoma (GBM) remains largely incurable, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved few treatments for the disease. Surgery (when feasible), radiation, and temozolomide are used in most patients. But even if a newly diagnosed tumor can be surgically excised, recurrences are too common.

In this blog post, I simply list some of the new treatments available in clinical trials for GBM and other high-grade brain tumors. Only drugs that have at least some preliminary results of activity are included, and the list is not meant to be fully comprehensive. The interested reader can judge for herself what might be of interest, keeping in mind that no single treatment is suitable or will work for all GBM patients. Continue reading…


Testing for Tumor Mutations: Liquid Biopsy Versus Traditional Biopsy


Liquid biopsies, virtually unknown even a year or two ago, are becoming common tools in precision diagnostics for cancer. Here, I will try to explain some of the more important differences between liquid and “traditional” tumor biopsies.

Biopsies of solid tumors (e.g., lung, breast, or brain tumors) involve surgically removing a small part of a tumor and sending it to pathology lab. In the last few years, doctors have also started to send some tumor samples to special service labs that analyze tumor DNA for the presence of cancer-related mutations.

By definition, regular biopsies can be intrusive and are sometimes associated with side effects, such as bleeding or infection. However, they provide some really essential information; i.e., the histology and grade of the tumor and other tumor characteristics necessary to determine the best choice of treatment. For lung cancer, for example, a biopsy determines the type of tumor—adenocarcinoma, squamous cancer, small-cell lung cancer, or another, less common type. For breast cancer, a routine test will determine if the tumor expresses estrogen, progesterone receptors, and a protein called HER2. These tests are critically important in guiding treatment choices. If mutational analysis of cancer-related genes is also performed (which doesn’t always happen, unfortunately), it may guide treatment with targeted drugs. Continue reading…


Clinical Trial Versus Standard Protocol: Why and How to Enroll in a Trial


My job at Cancer Commons is to help cancer patients better understand and make decisions about their treatment. Through our Ask Cancer Commons service, I also strive to inform patients about new drugs in trials that they can discuss with their oncologists. Sometimes, I explain the rationale behind a patient’s current or upcoming treatment, and sometimes I try to convince patients to actually get treated, rather than hope that a vegetarian diet and herbal supplements will cure their metastatic disease. Continue reading…