Why Can’t Dying Patients Get the Drugs They Want?

Excerpt:

“At first glance, a bill passed by the House of Representatives this week seems like the kind of thing anyone could get behind.

“Known as the “Right to Try” legislation, it would allow terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs without the approval of the Food and Drug Administration.

“But the bill and a similar one passed last summer by the Senate do little to address the main barrier that patients face in getting unapproved treatments: permission from the drug companies themselves.”

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CMS Starts to Cover Broad Cancer DNA Tests, Boosting Foundation, Thermo

Excerpt:

“The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which administers the federal Medicare insurance program, will begin covering FDA-approved diagnostic tests that scan tumors for a range of genetic mutations. The news is a boost for companies like Foundation Medicine and Thermo Fisher Scientific, who are among the few firms with such tests on the market.

“Late Friday, the CMS said that, going forward, it will start to reimburse for tests that use DNA sequencing technology to map the tumors of patients with advanced cancers once approved by the FDA. Two of the already-approved tests fitting this description are FoundationOne CDx, from Cambridge, MA-based Foundation, and Oncomine Dx Target Test, from Waltham, MA-based Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO). FoundationOne CDx looks for 324 cancer-related alterations in patients’ DNA. Foundation amasses a report based on the results and sends it to doctors, who use the data to suggest possible treatments. Oncomine detects 23 genetic alterations associated with non-small cell lung cancer.”

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Data Emerge on New Immunotherapeutic Targets for Melanoma

Excerpt:

“Several trials either have been completed or are underway to evaluate new immunotherapeutic targets for patients with melanoma, according to a presenter at HemOnc Today New York.

” ‘When we think about where we’re going with immune therapy, it’s important to realize where we are and where have we been,’ Michael A. Postow, MD, assistant attending physician on the melanoma-sarcoma service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said during his presentation. ‘What are the targets we have been using, and how do we modify what we know and explore totally new territory to try to improve outcomes?’ ”

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Adjuvant Vemurafenib in Resected BRAF V600–Mutant Melanoma

Excerpt:

“In the international phase III BRIM8 trial reported in The Lancet Oncology, Maio et al found inconclusive evidence of benefit of adjuvant vemurafenib treatment in patients with BRAF V600–mutant melanoma.”

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Vemurafenib Fails to Significantly Improve DFS in Resected Melanoma

Excerpt:

“Vemurafenib offered numerical improvement in disease-free survival in a study of patients with completely resected stage IIC to IIIC BRAF V600 mutation–positive melanoma, but the results did not reach statistical significance. The benefit was bigger in those with stage IIC to IIIB disease, but this should be considered exploratory at this point.

” ‘Despite full resection, patients with stage IIC to III melanoma remain at high risk for disease recurrence and death,’ wrote study authors led by Michele Maio, MD, of University Hospital of Siena in Italy. ‘This situation warrants the use of adjuvant approaches to improve clinical outcomes.’ ”

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A New Regulatory Threat to Cancer Patients

Excerpt:

“The federal government is threatening to limit treatment options for doctors fighting cancer. A regulatory decision due Wednesday from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services could undermine the care delivered to the more than 1.6 million Americans who are diagnosed with cancer each year.”

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ctDNA Can Flag Pseudoprogression in Melanoma Treated With Immunotherapy

Excerpt:

“Circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) can help differentiate what is known as pseudoprogression from true progression of disease in patients with melanoma who are treated with programmed death 1 (PD-1) inhibitors, according to a new study. It also showed that ctDNA could be used as a powerful biomarker to predict long-term outcomes.

” ‘Pseudoprogression, a response that occurs after the initial development of new lesions or an increase in the size of target lesions, occurs in up to 10% of patients treated with PD-1 antibodies,’ wrote study authors led by Jenny H. Lee, MBBS, of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. ‘Confirmation of pseudoprogression requires subsequent imaging, imposing an ongoing challenge.’ ”

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New Developments in Melanoma Treatment


Neoadjuvant (before-surgery) treatments for resectable melanoma

Neoadjuvant treatments are the mainstay in the care of patients with breast, colon, and other cancers, but have not traditionally been used in melanoma. This has changed now, with the publication of a report showing that patients with resectable stage III or IV BRAF-mutant melanoma benefit from treatment with the BRAF/MEK inhibitor drugs dabrafenib and trametinib prior to (and continued after) surgery. The randomized clinical trial that produced these findings was small, but the benefits were so obvious that the researchers had to close the control group—those patients who received a placebo instead of neoadjuvant treatment. 71% of the 14 patients in the trial who received BRAF/MEK inhibitors prior to surgery were disease-free after 18 months, whereas all seven patients in the control group experienced a recurrence. The trial is continuing without the control group: all patients will receive treatment prior to surgery

Adjuvant (after-surgery) treatments

Melanoma patients whose tumors are surgically removed experience a very high rate of recurrence. Until recently, adjuvant treatments to prevent recurrences were limited to the drug interferon alpha-2B and, more recently, ipilimumab (brand name Yervoy), an anti-CTLA-4 immune checkpoint drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FAD) for adjuvant treatment in 2015. Interferon treatment is extremely harsh, with many adverse effects, and is not often used anymore. Yervoy is often associated with autoimmune side effects, which are sometimes quite serious.

Enter nivolumab (Opdivo) the anti-PD-1 checkpoint drug approved by the FDA to treat metastatic melanoma and other cancers. A clinical trial showed that the recurrence-free survival (RFS) rate at 18 months with nivolumab was 66.4% compared to 52.7% for ipilimumab (Yervoy) in patients with resected stage IIIB/C or IV melanoma. This amounts to a 35% reduction in the risk of recurrence or death with the PD-1 inhibitor versus the CTLA-4 inhibitor. Not the least important factor is the much lower rate of side effects seen with nivolumab compared to ipilimumab. Nivolumab is now approved by the FDA as an adjuvant treatment after surgical resection of melanoma.

Pembrolizumab, a competing anti-PD-1 drug, also showed encouraging results in a randomized trial for stage III melanoma. The stakes in this trial were lower, since the control arm received a placebo (not ipilimumab!). Risk reduction was 43%, according to preliminary results of the trial.

For patients with BRAF-mutant stage III melanoma, adjuvant treatment with the BRAF/MEK inhibitors dabrafenib and trametinib was just recently granted a priority review by the FDA, signaling a likely approval soon. Recurrence-free 3-year survival was 58% for the combination versus 39% for placebo.

New treatments for metastatic melanoma

A Knowledge Blog post from last summer described new combination treatments for metastatic melanoma. There have been significant developments since then.

Several trials combined PD-1 blockers (pembrolizumab or nivolumab) with small molecules known as IDO inhibitors. The latter help shut down the activity of immune system cells known as regulatory T cells (T regs), which dampen the immune response triggered by anti-PD-1 drugs. Combination of pembrolizumab with the IDO inhibitor epacadostat increased the rate of responses to pembrolizumab from 32% to 56%. This is very comparable to the response rate seen with the FDA-approved combination of nivolumab and ipilimumab. However, the significant toxicities seen with addition of ipilimumab are not observed when IDO inhibitors are added. Several other competing IDO inhibitors are currently in trials with both pembrolizumab and nivolumab. Importantly, there is also hope that these drug combinations may abolish resistance to PD-1 blockers in previously treated melanoma patients.

Another promising combination has been tested in a small clinical trial of nivolumab with NKTR-214, a specifically modified form of the protein IL-2, which is a strong activator of the immune system. High-dose IL-2 is a drug that has long been approved for metastatic melanoma but is rarely used because of the extremely serious adverse effects. NKTR-214 is a modified (PEGylated) IL-2 that has much reduced side effects, and does not activate inhibitory T regs. Clinical trial results have been released for 11 melanoma patients treated with the combination. Of the patients enrolled, 73% have experienced objective responses, which is obviously much higher than what is seen with nivolumab alone. This trial is now enrolling patients who have or have not already been treated with immune drugs.

Patients who were treated with anti-PD-1 drugs and experience progression may consider enrolling in trials that add relatlimab (an anti-LAG3 immune drug) to nivolumab. In a trial that enrolled heavily pretreated patients who failed on previous treatment with anti-PD-1 drugs, the rate of response was 11.5%, but many more patients (38%) have achieved stable disease. The presence of LAG3 protein (but not PD-L1 protein) in the tumors was predictive of response.

There are other new drugs to watch. TLR9 agonists (activators) have shown early promising results in melanoma. TLR is a group of receptors that are strongly involved in innate immunity. A recent publication showed that intratumoral injection of a TLR9 activator with an antibody to OX40 (a protein on T cells) has extraordinary activity in a mouse cancer model. Trials that combine anti-OX40 and TLR9 agonists are forthcoming. However, two TLR9 agonists, SD-101 and IMO-2125, have shown very promising results in combination with anti-PD-1 or anti-CTLA4 drugs.

The other drug with early promise is ImmunoPulse IL-12 (pIL-12). In combination with pembrolizumab, it induced responses in 43% of patients who had not been previously treated with immune drugs. The important point is that patients in this trial were specifically selected to have a tumor profile that is associated with lack of response to pembrolizumab. pIL-12 is injected into tumors, so this intervention is appropriate for patients who have injectable tumors.

New BRAF/MEK inhibitors for melanoma have emerged: encorafenib and binimetinib produced a 3-year overall survival rate that is twice as high as seen with vemurafenib, a BRAF inhibitor. The comparison is not exactly meaningful because vemurafenib is not used as a single drug in BRAF-mutant melanoma these days, but this phase III trial was initiated back in 2013, prior to the approval of other BRAF/MEK combinations. The new combination may be approved mid-2018.

The triplet combinations for BRAF-mutant melanoma should be mentioned (immune plus targeted drugs). A trial that combined dabrafenib and trametinib with pembrolizumab reported early success, with a confirmed response rate of 67% in 15 patients who received the combination.


Array Melanoma Drugs Show Significant Survival Versus Roche Drug in Study

Excerpt:

“A combination of experimental drugs from Array BioPharma Inc kept patients with advanced melanoma associated with a common gene mutation alive for nearly three years and twice as long as a rival Roche Holding AG medicine, according to data from a late stage study released on Tuesday.”

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