2018 in Review: Advancements and Accomplishments

From delivering exceptional care in the clinic, to presenting at scientific conferences and publishing research in high-impact medical journals, our Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program had an exceptionally busy 2018. We continue to work diligently to develop new and more effective therapies to treat advanced prostate, bladder and kidney cancers, while educating the community about cutting-edge advancements in the field.

As we look back on 2018, we wish to share a brief update of our research and accomplishments. Here’s what our team has been up to over the past year.

New Faces
Most recently, we were proud to welcome Dr. Cora Sternberg, a global thought-leader in the GU oncology space, to our team. Dr. Sternberg will facilitate the continued growth and development of clinical and translational research programs in GU malignancies, as well as serve as Clinical Director of the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine (EIPM) to develop strategies to incorporate genomic sequencing and precision medicine within our Program and across Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.


New Events
More than 200 prostate cancer patients and loved ones attended our inaugural New York City Prostate Cancer Summit, a multi-institutional collaboration between Weill Cornell Medicine, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. This educational and advocacy event featured presentations and panel discussions from local medical experts and national advocacy leaders, with topics including nutrition, screening, coping and anxiety, immunotherapy and much more. Our second annual Summit is slated for September 2019 during Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. Stay tuned for details.


New Research Developments

Prostate Cancer

• Based upon our prior work with fractionated dosing of our radiolabeled antibody 177Lu-J591, we performed the world’s first phase 1 dose-escalation trial of 177Lu-PSMA-617 without finding any dose-limiting toxicity (no major side effects despite higher and higher doses), presenting the initial results at the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) 2018 Congress. The phase II portion of the trial is ongoing. We are also leading the first trial combining two different targeting agents (J591 and PSMA-617) designed to deliver more radiation to tumors and less to other organs.

•  Alpha particles are several thousand-fold more potent than beta-emitters such as 177 Lu. We are completing the phase 1 dose-escalation portion of the world’s first-ever clinical trial utilizing a powerful alpha particle (225Ac) directed almost exclusively at prostate cancer cells by linking it with our J591 antibody, which avoids salivary glands.

• As prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA) targeting enters “prime time,” the United States Department of Defense (DOD) has recognized our significant contributions to this evolving field with a grant that will allow us to research optimal patient selection for PSMA-targeted radionuclide therapy and assess the treatment’s immune effects.

• Thanks to developing technology utilizing circulating tumor cells (CTCs) and circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA), we are able to draw information about a patient’s tumor via a simple blood test. In our findings published by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Clinical Cancer Research journal, we analyzed the relationship between chemotherapy treatment and expression of androgen receptor (AR) variants in CTCs of men with metastatic prostate cancer.

• We led a phase II clinical trial through the Prostate Cancer Clinical Trials Consortium (PCCTC) and discovered that an aggressive subset of disease called neuroendocrine prostate cancer (NEPC) is driven by a gene with an associated target known as aurora kinase. Further investigation into targeting of the gene may help us to refine therapy for this difficult-to-treat patient population. Our findings were published as a cover story in Clinical Cancer Research. 

• Working with collaborators and funded by the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF), we have developed unique genomics sequencing methodology called PCF SELECT that allows us to identify actionable mutations in men with advanced prostate cancer.

Kidney Cancer

• The number of United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs for patients with advanced kidney cancer continues to grow. Dr. Ana Molina leads our team in offering clinical trials focused on novel targeted agents, combination treatments, and risk-directed therapies for various subtypes of kidney cancer.

• Working together with the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine, we are evaluating genetic signatures from patient tumor specimens and developing organoids that can be used to test novel pathways and tailor treatment to each individual patient.

• Laboratory studies of our in vivo kidney cancer models have resulted in discoveries regarding the metabolism of the disease. Understanding the role of the mitochondria (a cell’s power generator) in kidney cancer is leading us to novel therapeutic approaches to block tumors from growing and spreading.

Bladder Cancer

• Five immune therapies are now FDA-approved for people with advanced bladder cancer. We continue research to improve upon these agents by combining them with targeted therapeutics with the potential to replace chemotherapy. Collaboration with EIPM will help us to identify tumors most likely to benefit from these treatments.

• Dr. Bishoy Faltas and his lab team are focused on understanding the role of a specific family of proteins that cause mutations (genetic errors) that may be the underlying cause of bladder cancer. This research will enable us to develop new treatments to target the newly-identified genes that drive the disease.

• Based upon Dr. Faltas’ prior high-impact Nature Genetics publication that identified the genetic mechanisms by which bladder cancers become resistant to chemotherapy and new drug targets, we are launching an innovative new clinical trial utilizing a targeted drug that inhibits bladder cancer growth, the first time this type of drug is being tested in bladder cancer.

• We are conducting clinical trials of two antibody-drug conjugates (sacituzumab govitecan and enfortumab vedotin) designed to deliver potent chemotherapy-like toxins preferentially to cancer cells. This type of therapy is anticipated to become one of the standard approaches to bladder cancer treatment.

Precision Medicine

• Using samples of patient tumors (drawn via needle biopsy), we can create small 3-D tumor representations known as organoids that mimic the way that cancer cells grow within the body and respond to treatment. Our team has worked to develop this exciting new form of precision medicine, which is especially significant for rare cancers with a lack of preclinical models available for study.

We are moving closer to our ultimate goal of curing genitourinary cancers and look forward to continued progress in the years ahead.

 

What Women Need to Know About Sex and Cancer Treatment

Amid the onslaught of questions and worries that can be prompted by a bladder or kidney cancer diagnosis, most women are not immediately concerned with how the disease and its treatment might affect their sex life. Though sex may not be as top-of-mind as issues like survival itself or caring for a family, it is still a significant aspect of quality of life that is worth preserving and nurturing.

Maintaining a healthy sex life while dealing with cancer requires open and honest discussion both between partners as well as with a cancer care provider, but it may be difficult to know exactly what to discuss. We spoke with Dr. Tanaka Dune, a urogynecologist within the Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital (WCM/NYP) Center for Female Pelvic Health, and our Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program’s own Dr. Ana Molina to find out how to guide the conversation.


Recognize Changes

Fighting cancer can be physically and mentally exhausting, leaving many women without much energy or desire to engage in sexual activity. Additionally, the potential aesthetic changes to the body caused by treatment, such as scarring, hair loss and weight fluctuation may hamper confidence or lead to feelings of unattractiveness. Yet, if all parties are consenting and communicative, it is safe to have sex during and after cancer treatment.

Women should be aware, however, that certain types of chemotherapy can damage the ovaries and lead to vaginal dryness, irritation and/or atrophy (thinning and shrinking of vaginal tissue due to lack of estrogen), which may cause discomfort during sex and otherwise.

Dune“You should never be aware of your vagina,” says Dr. Dune. “If you become aware, that’s when you need to start talking about it.”

Ask Questions

Healthcare providers work with the best interest of the whole person in mind, so women do not need to be afraid to ask questions or feel embarrassed about how much they do or do not know about sexuality. Clinician assistance often leads to better patient health outcomes, faster. For example, it can be difficult for women to discern between pain in the vagina and pain in the pelvic floor, the network of muscles that supports the vagina and other pelvic organs, and a doctor can ask clarifying questions to determine the appropriate next steps to treat the issue and suppress the pain.

Evaluate Options

As with most elements of cancer care, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating sex during and after treatment.

To combat chemo-induced vaginal dryness, for example, lubrication options are abundant, granting patients the ability to customize based on individual needs and preferences. Certain compounds found in lubricants can trigger yeast infection, irritate the vulva and/or dry out vaginal and anal tissues, so women should avoid using petroleum-based lubricants like mineral oil or Vaseline, as well as those that contain nonoxynol-9, glycerin, glycols or parabens. Instead, they can opt for silicone- or water-based lubricants, or natural oil lubricants like vegetable, olive, peanut, avocado or coconut oil. To reduce vaginal tightness, doctors may recommend use of pelvic floor physical therapists, who teach exercises that involve contracting and relaxing vaginal and pelvic floor muscles. This type of therapy can be achieved manually and/or with the use of vaginal dilators.

For issues of insecurity and anxiety that may disturb some women’s sex lives, possible remedies include psycho-social and/or psycho-sexual support services. The WCM/NYP Genitourinary Oncology Program connects patients and spouses/partners with support groups and counseling and can even offer hair-preserving cold cap therapy or a wig prescription to combat chemotherapy-induced hair loss that may contribute to a lack of confidence.

Molina“Addressing psycho-social issues together with your partner via counseling or support groups can have a positive impact on your life and intimate relationships,” says Dr. Ana Molina.


Since most forms of cancer treatment weaken the immune system, it is especially important that women use barrier protection during oral, anal and vaginal sex to prevent exchange of bodily fluids that can lead to sexually transmitted disease.

Patients should note that while the Internet is a fantastic tool for resources and self-education – often preferred because of the ability to search for information within the comfort of one’s own home – it is best to check with a healthcare team before acting on health advice found online.

ESMO: Day 3 Recap

At ESMO 2017, Sunday, September 10th was the day with the largest number of genitourinary (GU) cancer presentations, including two kidney cancer and urothelial cancer highlights in the Presidential Symposium, many poster presentations, and two poster discussion sessions. We’ve broken down the full day of research updates by cancer type.

Kidney Cancer

ESMO_CheckMate 214In the Presidential Presentation on kidney cancer, results were presented from the CheckMate-214 trial. Nivolumab is an anti-PD1 antibody approved for patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma (RCC) previously treated with a VEGF-targeted therapy based upon a randomized trial demonstrating an overall survival benefit. The combination of using immune checkpoint inhibitors transitioned from laboratory science to safety studies to full approval in melanoma based upon randomized trials. The CheckMate 214 study tested the efficacy of the combination of nivolumab plus ipilimumab versus one of the most standard VEGF multikinase inhibitors, sunitinib, in previously untreated patients with advanced RCC. The study focused on the intermediate/poor risk population, but also enrolled patients with good risk disease. The study met its endpoints in an impressive fashion. In the target intermediate/poor risk population, the immune checkpoint inhibitor combination led to an improved response rate and overall survival benefit versus the active drug sunitinib. Nine percent of patients had a “complete response” with the combination immunotherapy (meaning complete disappearance of all evidence of cancer on scans). In addition, the entire patient population (with patients in all prognostic groups combined) experienced an improvement in both response and overall survival with immunotherapy.  There were some interesting exploratory analyses of subgroups and the PD-L1 expression status that will lead to additional investigation, but the study will lead to a paradigm shift and create a new standard of care for patients with advanced RCC.

In the Alliance-led A031203 “CaboSun” study, patients with intermediate and poor-risk advanced renal cell carcinoma (RCC) were randomized to receive either cabozantinib or sunitinib. The initial results of the study as assessed by the investigative team showed a benefit of cabozantinib over sunitinib in terms of the trial’s primary endpoint of overall survival. One previous caveat of the study was that interpretation of scans by investigators who are also the treating physicians can be biased. An updated analysis added independent review of scans as well as longer follow up. The progression-free survival benefit of cabozantinib was confirmed by independent review and the magnitude of benefit was increased with longer follow up.

Approximately a third of patients with advanced RCC have bone metastases and this may be a negative indicator of prognosis (also known as a “negative prognostic factor”). Radium-223 is an FDA approved agent for men with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer and predominant bone metastases that has been shown to benefit overall survival. A team of investigators from Boston assessed whether adding radium-223 to standard sunitinib or pazopanib would also benefit patients with kidney cancer. The combined treatment was determined to be safe and and markers in the blood and urine indicating that the bone is breaking down – a measure of bone metastases – improved with treatment. Additional randomized trials are needed to assess the true effect of this combination on overall survival.

Bladder and Urothelial Cancer

ESMO_RANGEDuring the ESMO Presidential Presentation on urothelial cancer, results from the RANGE clinical trial were presented. The utility of chemotherapy is limited in patients with advanced urothelial carcinoma whose cancer has progressed after initial platinum-based chemotherapy. Ramicurimab is a monoclonal antibody against the angiogenic factor receptor VEGF-R2. We performed a randomized phase II trial pointing towards a response and progression-free survival benefit with the addition of ramicurimab to docetaxel chemotherapy in this patient population. The RANGE study is a phase III study in which patients with advanced platinum-resistant urothelial carcinoma, with or without treatment with an immune checkpoint inhibitor, were randomized to docetaxel with ramicurimab or placebo. This phase III trial confirmed the benefit of ramicurimab when added to docetaxel in improving progression-free survival and response rate. In addition, there was no significant additional toxicity with the combination, also referred to as a doublet. We await the final overall survival results and additional analyses to assess the place of this combination in our growing treatment armamentarium for urothelial carcinoma.

Several studies examined the genetic material (genome) of tumors in patients with urothelial carcinoma. In a large clinical trial including more than 2000 patients with advanced urothelial carcinoma, investigators utilized the FoundationOne platform to assess the tumor genome of a mix of primary and metastatic tumors arising from the bladder, renal pelvis, and ureters. The study described the landscape of this disease using the targeted sequencing platform, showing a relationship between some common alterations (such as genes for Her2 and PI3K) and a higher rate of overall mutations or “tumor mutational burden” (also referred to as “TMB”).  An analysis of the Checkmate-275 study which led to the approval of nivolumab in patients with progressive urothelial carcinoma after chemotherapy looked at tumor mutational burden and survival outcomes. Higher tumor mutational burden was associated with both better response and survival in patients treated with nivolumab, a form of immunotherapy called an anti-PD1 checkpoint inhibitor. This result was independent of PDL1 status – a specific measure of this a type of mutational burden–  but perhaps stronger in PDL1 low tumors.

Dr. Scott Tagawa, Medical Director of the WCM/NYP Genitourinary Oncology Program, presented a research update regarding patients with advanced urothelial carcinoma who were treated with sacituzumab govitecan (IMMU-132)  after prior chemotherapy. This drug, which links an antibody against Trop2 (which is usually present to a high degree in urothelial carcinoma compared to normal cells) to a potent chemotherapy metabolite, was administered to 41 patients with cancer progression despite an average of three prior treatment regimens. Significant tumor shrinkage (i.e. partial or complete responses) occurred in 34% of patients. In addition, median progression free survival of approximately 7 months and overall survival of approximately 16 months was impressive compared to the expected rates for this patient population.

Prostate Cancer

Prior prostate cancer research has demonstrated strong links within family trees, and as a result, there has been a large push for research to identify where exactly in the genetic profile this risk comes from and whether these genes are passed down through ancestry. In the UK Genetic Prostate Cancer Study (UKGPCS), investigators performed a case-control study of men with and without germline (inherited) DNA damage response and repair genes (those responsible for repairing the DNA of cells in the body) identified in their 167 gene panel. Like in other studies, those with germline alterations had worse cancer-specific outcomes and overall survival rates. Notably across studies, the presence of these inherited genes is not limited to men diagnosed at an early age, so a discussion with physicians about the risks/benefits of genetic testing should be considered.

Our collaborator Dr. Armstrong of Duke University presented research analyzing PSA changes in the PREVAIL trial which led to the FDA-label expansion of enzalutamide for men with mCRPC and no prior chemotherapy. As he and others have previously demonstrated with other drugs such as docetaxel and abiraterone, a lack of PSA decline while on treatment was associated with a poor outcome.

ESMO_ValeTwo presentations focused on men with hormone-sensitive high risk and advanced prostate cancer.

Dr. CL Vale from the UK presented an analysis of data available from randomized trials which pointed towards abiraterone + androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) having a large early relative survival benefit of 37% after 3 years, and docetaxel + ADT having a smaller, but still large and significant 23% survival impact after additional follow up for 4 years.

In prostate cancer, there is a “TNM” staging system that indicates the size range of the primary tumor (T), whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes (N), whether there are signs that the cancer is metastatic and has spread elsewhere in the body (M). When there are no signs of distant metastases, the corresponding staging is “M0” which translates to M zero, or no metastases. ESMO_M0_ProstateCancer

Dr. Nicholas James from the UK presented data on the “M0” population of 915 men without distant metastatic disease receiving abiraterone + ADT versus ADT with or without radiation as part of the STAMPEDE study. In the overall group with M0 disease, so far there have not yet been any detectable differences in survival, which is not surprising since this subset of men tend to live for a long time while on therapy. There were though, important improvements in the amount of time to cancer growth or the development of metastatic disease. In those men with clinically evident lymph node metastases at diagnosis (corresponding to the symbol “N”), the combination of all three treatments — abiraterone, ADT, and radiation — demonstrated a significantly better survival benefit than those treated with ADT + radiation, which was in turn better than ADT alone.

Additionally, new information on interesting early phase clinical trials was also presented at ESMO.

At Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, we participated in a clinical trial utilizing INO-5150, a DNA vaccine against PSA and PSMA. This vaccine was administered with electroporation (essentially a small electric shock at the injection site) and with or without INO-9012 (an IL-12 vaccine) designed as an adjuvant treatment to improve immune responses to the INO-5150 treatment. Men who received either one or both vaccines had few side effects other than skin reactions at the injection site and many developed immune responses. Additional study is warranted to test anti-tumor efficacy.

EC1169 is comprised of a small molecule PSMA ligand linked to a tubulysin drug. Updated data were presented in this trial where men with metastatic castration resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC) who had both received and not received prior chemotherapy were treated with EC1169. As more men were treated on trial, researchers were able to document safety and tolerability of the drug, while demonstrating the drug’s ability to control the cancer, particularly in men who had previously received docetaxel chemotherapy.

In prostate cancer, one of the mechanisms of resistance to hormonal therapy is activation of the PI3K/AKT pathway. GSK2636771 is a PI3K inhibitor that was tested in a phase I study by adding the drug to enzalutamide in men with mCRPC who had experienced some cancer progression while taking enzalutamide alone. Importantly, the trial demonstrated that GSK2636771 was safe and a signal of efficacy was present in the small trial. Additional studies are planned which will be adding the drug to enzalutamide to truly test its ability to control cancer growth. Of note, the PI3K pathway is indicated in the formation and growth of numerous cancers and was discovered by our cancer center director, Lewis Cantley, PhD.

Check out our prior ESMO 2017 Day 1 and Day 2 Recaps.