Marking their Territory: Using Cell Markers to Find Cancer and Stop its Spread

Cancer Cell Markers and AntibodyA key way to detect cancer cells in the body is to find “markers” on the cancer cells that don’t exist in healthy cells. For prostate cancer, we use a marker called the prostate specific membrane antigen (PSMA). PSMA is a protein on the cell surface of most prostate cancer cells, but it is not usually present elsewhere in the body. As a result, we’re able to use PSMA in order to track the presence of prostate cancer tumor growth and metastasis. At AACR 2016, the Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM) and Meyer Cancer Center investigators presented the results of two new studies that further hone in on the role PSMA plays in prostate cancer.

While we’ve known about the presence of PSMA for many years, we have recently discovered more about its biology and the tight relationship it has with the key driver of most prostate tumors, the androgen receptor (AR) pathway. As the AR pathway becomes more abnormal (is more dysregulated), the amount or expression of PSMA increases. This means that more aggressive tumors will have more PSMA on the cells.

How do we measure or quantify the amount of PSMA?

At the Weill Cornell Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program, one way we do this is by using non-invasive methods to locate active tumors in prostate cancer patients. By tagging an antibody or small molecule with a particle that gives off energy, we can “see” the PSMA using imaging techniques. In this case, we can give people an injection to bring these tagged molecules into the body and then follow the “energy” the molecules are giving off with a scan that visualizes the tumors. In some cases, this approach helps us locate tumors that might otherwise be hidden.

However, we may also be able to assess the biology of tumors without a biopsy (non-invasively). To do this, we analyzed men who had undergone molecular PSMA imaging. Following infusion of the anti-PSMA monoclonal antibody J591 which was tagged with a particle, men underwent scanning. Based upon a system we previously published, we scored how bright their tumors were with the belief that brighter tumors would be more aggressive. In long-term follow up of the men who underwent imaging between 2000-2015, our hypothesis was confirmed. The men with the brighter tumors had higher rates of mortality, even among those who received the newer, better therapies. This type of non-invasive molecular imaging may assist physicians in determining prognosis, which may in turn guide therapy choices for especially aggressive cancers.

Antibodies as a Treatment Vehicle

In addition to tagging an antibody with an imaging agent, we can label J591 with a radioactive particle capable of killing the cancer cells, termed radioimmunotherapy. For more than a decade, we have delivered different versions of this therapy to patients at WCM. A phase II clinical trial published in 2013 was shown to be very successful at delivering a large, single-dose of radioimmunotherapy to patients, also showing that those patients receiving a larger dose had better response and survival (a “dose-response”). Building on the results of this trial, we hypothesized that by splitting the radiation dose and giving half initially and half two weeks later (this is called “dose fractionation”) that we would be able to ultimately deliver a higher dose of the treatment. At ASCO in 2010, we demonstrated this to be a promising approach to treatment and will be presenting a follow up expanded version of this study in June at the 2016 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting.

At AACR 2016, Dr. Ana Molina presented results of a pilot study of hyperfrationated (very split doses) 177Lu-J591, which delivers the radioactive particle lutetium-177 (177Lu) to tumors via the anti-PSMA monoclonal antibody J591. In this study, small doses of the radioimmunotherapy were delivered every two weeks until blood counts started to drop, as measured by the level of white blood cells and platelets. This treatment approach allowed all patients in this small study to receive a higher total dose than could be safely delivered with a large single dose. Two patients received five and six total doses of the treatment, reflecting a range 179 – 214% higher than the single large dose. As a result, this new approach to administering this type of immunotherapy with very split dosing may have long-term merit for men with advanced prostate cancers.

Today, men with advanced prostate cancer are able to benefit from a number of new treatment options, including the common oral hormonal drugs, abiraterone and enzalutamide. These hormonal drugs help decrease the burden of the cancer, maintain or improve the quality of life, and allow men to live longer. However, none of these drugs are curative, so we still need to make advancements in the field.

This is why we continue to use what we already know about cancer “markers,” such as PSMA, and to build on this knowledge in order to better diagnose and treat prostate cancers in a way that exploits these markers and keeps the cancer at bay. We are also constantly seeking new ways to better “see” and leverage these markers, and specifically PSMA, to prevent the growth and spread of prostate cancer.

Learn more about some of our current open clinical trials exploring this approach:

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