Treatment Is Waiting
In 2010, D’Orazio’s symptoms returned. This time, he enrolled in a study investigating the benefit of using the targeted therapy Imbruvica (ibrutinib) along with Treanda and Rituxan. (Imbruvica, which comes in pill form, was approved for use in patients with relapsed CLL in 2014; in March 2016, it was approved as an initial treatment for CLL.) When that trial ended, D’Orazio enrolled in a study in which he would take Imbruvica daily to prevent recurrence. He’s now been on the drug for six years. In terms of side effects, he says, “my skin is not great. But really, it seems stupid to complain about anything. This drug has been a miracle for me.”
New Treatments, New Possibilities
Rituxan, which both Grubbs and D’Orazio received, was the first targeted therapy to be used for lymphoma. Since its approval in 1997 as a blood cancer treatment, 29 other targeted therapies have been approved for use in different types of blood cancer. Clinical trials now underway are investigating the best way to use these new treatments—in what combination and in what order—to extend not only how long patients stay in remission but overall survival. Other studies are following patients as their cancers progress, looking for biomarkers that might suggest new treatment targets. (Data from a natural history study led researchers to discover that the protein Bruton’s tyrosine kinase helped certain types of blood cancers grow and to develop the drug Imbruvica, which blocks it.)
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, for example, launched an ongoing large observational study in April 2008 to learn more about the natural history of slow-growing B-cell lymphomas. The trial, currently led by Clare Sun, a hematology and oncology fellow at the NIH, is open to patients who have been diagnosed with one of four types of lymphoma. (See “Find A Clinical Trial.”
) One goal, says Sun, is to study blood and tissue samples and learn “what makes these cells tick and thrive.” Another is to identify biological pathways that help a cancer grow or provide information about how treatments are working that could assist researchers in developing new therapies.
Irene Ghobrial, a medical oncologist and hematologist at Dana-Farber, is another researcher investigating these questions. In 2014, Ghobrial launched Dana-Farber’s new Center for Prevention of Progression of Blood Cancers, which sees patients with early myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), early CLL, monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) and smoldering myeloma, which can progress to multiple myeloma, in order to learn more about the natural history of these cancers and develop therapies that could potentially prevent progression.
The same year, in conjunction with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Ghobrial launched a study focused on uncovering new information on the natural history of myeloma. Known as the Precursor Crowdsourcing study, or PCROWD, it has enrolled more than 600 people with MGUS or smoldering myeloma, which MGUS turns into before becoming a cancerous myeloma.
Dana Holmes, a 58-year-old human resources specialist from New York City, was diagnosed in December 2010 with MGUS and then, following a bone marrow biopsy, with smoldering myeloma in 2012. She enrolled in the PCROWD study after hearing about it in a radio interview featuring Ghobrial and Jenny Ahlstrom, founder of the website Myeloma Crowd
“This study is so important to me,” Holmes says. “I understand why treatment doesn’t start until there are overt symptoms. I’m also intrigued by the question of whether there might be benefits to starting new treatments earlier.” Holmes encourages others to enroll and has posted information about the study to the Facebook asymptomatic smoldering myeloma group she started in 2013.
Ghobrial has also launched five clinical trials enrolling patients with high-risk smoldering myeloma whose cancers are likely to progress within two to three years. Typically, these patients do not receive any treatment, and Ghobrial wants to learn whether starting treatment in the smoldering stage can change the natural history of the disease and prevent a potentially deadly cancer from ever developing.
Tracy DeMaggio, who was diagnosed with smoldering myeloma in January 2015, just seven months after being diagnosed with MGUS, has a high-risk strain of smoldering myeloma called IgA lambda. She enrolled in Ghobrial’s phase II study that randomly assigns high-risk patients to receive Empliciti (elotuzumab) and Revlimid with dexamethasone, a steroid used to treat inflammation, or Empliciti and Revlimid. For DeMaggio, the treatment combination resulted in numerous side effects, including fatigue, nausea, a facial rash, chronic bowel issues and shaking hands. The 45-year-old, who manages a human resources team, says that while on the treatment, she sometimes wondered if entering the trial had been the right choice. But when blood tests showed the treatment had slowed the blood cells’ growth, her doubt ended immediately. Now, she takes Revlimid daily and will continue to do so until her cancer progresses, if it ever does. “It’s challenging,” she says, “but I think that if I had waited, at this point I would probably have active signs of multiple myeloma.”
Only time will tell whether DeMaggio’s treatment did what Ghobrial hoped it would: keep her from ever getting myeloma. Meanwhile, D’Orazio will continue to hope Imbruvica keeps him in remission. Holmes will have lab work done every three months. And Grubbs, now 65, is back to where he started. “There are a lot of us—including those of us who have already been treated,” he says, “watching and waiting.”
SUE ROCHMAN, a contributing editor for Cancer Today, is a medical journalist based in San Francisco.