Prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA) is a molecular marker present on the surface of virtually all prostate cancer cells. It can be targeted by different molecular agents that bind to PSMA. This enables a targeted approach to find and image or treat prostate cancer cells wherever they are in the body, including the cells that have escaped (metastasized) to other organs.
The most commonly used agents to target PSMA fall into two categories: small molecules (also known as peptides, ligands, or inhibitors) or antibodies (also termed monoclonal antibodies).
Small molecule- and antibody-based molecules that bind to PSMA have different physical characteristics and these have implications on the way the molecules circulate through the body.
For example, peptides and other small molecules that target PSMA are much smaller than antibodies – approximately 100-fold smaller. As a result of their small size, peptides are able to quickly travel through blood vessels and disperse throughout all body tissues – both normal and tumor – and they are also rapidly excreted by the kidney into the urine and bladder.
Conversely, the larger antibodies tend to stay within the circulating blood and flow more selectively through the larger, abnormal blood vessels within tumors than the vessels in normal tissues. Their large size also prevents them from being excreted by the kidneys. Because of these properties, peptides can penetrate tumors, as well as normal tissues, rapidly and then disappear from the body quickly, in minutes to hours; antibodies take longer to travel and enter the tumor, but this is compensated for by the longer amount of time they spend in the body (days to weeks) and their decreased likelihood to penetrate into normal tissues.
From a diagnostic imaging perspective, small molecules are typically better, as the rapid excretion of the radiolabeled peptide quickly minimizes the radioactive background “noise” seen on a scan. Additionally, using small molecules means that patients can be injected with imaging agents and then undergo scans quickly thereafter (on the same day within 1-3 hours). Physicians can see good contrast of the cancerous cells compared to other parts of the body with this method. In comparison, patients must return approximately 3-8 days after infusion with a monoclonal antibody for scans. Some of the benefit of using small molecules is offset by the fact that they are excreted via the urine and accumulate in the urinary bladder. This may lead to an intense signal in the urinary bladder area of the scan, adjacent to the prostate gland and lymph nodes in the pelvis, thereby possibly obscuring these potential sites of tumor. On the other hand, some antibodies are taken up by the liver, obscuring visualization of that organ. Antibody fragments such as so-called “mini-bodies” (derived from the whole antibody), are half the size of a normal antibody, but still large enough so as not to be excreted in the urine, and as such, they may provide improved imaging of the prostate and the pelvic area. This is currently under investigation at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
The nuances of these molecular targeting agents aside, it is clear that both peptide-, antibody or mini-body-based agents provide significantly improved targeted molecular imaging of prostate cancer compared with conventional modalities such as bone, CT, and MR scans and also have some advantages over glucose (FDG), sodium fluoride (bone), choline, or fluciclovine (FACBC) PET scans.
From a therapeutic perspective, there are theoretical advantages to the faster tumor penetration of the smaller molecule targeting agents, but this may be offset by their quick disappearance and their ability to impact normal tissue. The longer time antibodies spend circulating in the body theoretically provides for a greater amount of the treatment agent to get internalized into the cancer cells, allowing greater uptake of the payload agent (such as a radionuclide) that is being delivered to kill the cancer cells. Additionally, some antibodies may also be engineered to generate an immune response.
Does uptake in different body areas lead to side effects?
The different characteristics of small molecules and antibodies confer advantages and disadvantages when targeting PSMA on cancer cells within the body. Because of their small size, small molecules/peptides can penetrate through the depths of the tumor very quickly, but they also readily target normal tissues that express low levels of PSMA such as the salivary glands, small intestine, and kidneys. When using as a therapeutic delivery vehicle, this might lead to dry mouth, nausea, or delayed kidney damage. Luckily, no significant kidney damage has been seen in humans to date, but the number of patients treated on prospective clinical trials remains small and follow up is short. An antibody, on the other hand, does not target salivary glands or kidneys because its larger size leads to relatively restricted access to those normal sites. However, it circulates in the body for a longer period of time including high flow through the bone marrow. Antibodies tagged with radioactive particles may therefore contribute to non-specific side effects such as temporary decreased blood counts. This is a common (expected) toxicity related to the dose and schedule of the radiolabeled antibody.
Currently, it is not known whether peptide-based or antibody-based targeted PSMA prostate cancer treatments provide better results, but both approaches offer therapeutic benefit to patients. At Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital – where we have two decades of experience pioneering prostate cancer imaging and treatment with PSMA-targeted agents – we are the only center in the world currently able to offer both types of imaging and treatment modalities and plan to combine both within individual patients. We hypothesize that will be able to use the favorable properties of each targeting agent at slightly lower than maximal doses to deliver a higher amount of therapeutic payload to tumor with less to normal organs, further improving the tumor kill : side effect ratio and have initiated a clinical trial testing this approach.