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.

Treating Prostate Cancer with Taxane Therapies: What the Latest Research Shows

For people with advanced prostate cancer, taxane chemotherapy is the only chemo shown to improve survival. Taxanes target microtubules, which are structures in cells that are involved in cell division, as well as the trafficking of important proteins. The important androgen receptor (AR) protein is trafficked via microtubules from the cell surface into the nucleus, where it binds DNA and leads to cancer cell growth. In prostate cancer, taxane chemotherapies work in part by binding microtubules and leading to stabilization of these tracks, preventing the AR from moving into the nucleus, a novel mechanism we discovered here at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Two taxanes are approved for men with prostate cancer, docetaxel (Taxotere) and cabazitaxel (Jevtana). Docetaxel was approved for men with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC) in 2004 based upon longer overall survival and improved quality of life compared to the previous standard chemotherapy mitoxantrone (which was approved because it helped relieve cancer symptoms). Importantly, even if tumors become resistant to the first taxane used, the other can still have anti-tumor activity and lead to improved outcomes. Cabazitaxel was approved following treatment with and cancer progression during or after treatment with docetaxel in 2010 because of improved survival compared to mitoxantrone. In addition to these chemotherapy drugs, patients are usually given low-dose prednisone. While docetaxel and cabazitaxel are similar, men whose tumors have grown despite taking one drug often respond to the other. For oncologists, the challenge has been pinpointing when exactly to switch treatments.

As part of the approval of cabazitaxel, the FDA mandated that the drug maker address two questions. One question was, with two taxanes approved, is cabazitaxel better than docetaxel in controlling cancer growth? Two doses were studied in early phase clinical trials across different cancer types and the optimal dose (20 mg per body size versus the approved dose of 25 mg) was unknown. The second question was whether a lower dose (with presumably less toxicity) was as good as the full dose. In addition, our Weill Cornell Medicine team asked the scientific questions of whether switching the drugs earlier leads to better overall response rather than the traditional approach, and how can we assess the biomarkers response and resistance to the drugs?

In the current issue of the major cancer publication the Journal of Clinical Oncology, three significant studies designed to answer these questions and which highlight the impact of taxanes are published together.

The FIRSTANA trial enrolled 1168 men with chemo-naïve mCRPC, testing whether cabazitaxel administered at the standard 25 mg or lower 20 mg (per body size) dose were more effective than docetaxel (all drugs given every three weeks). The results demonstrated that cabazitaxel at either dose was not superior to docetaxel. In the first large head-to-head study, differences in side effect profiles between the drugs were highlighted. Of significance, docetaxel is available as a generic drug and is cheaper on health care systems, so it is helpful to know that we can achieve similar outcomes by starting with the more economical drug. In the current treatment era, most men receive one of the oral hormonal drugs (such as abiraterone or enzalutamide) prior to chemotherapy in the mCRPC setting, but unfortunately only a very small fraction of them were treated in this manner in the FIRSTANA study.  There is some evidence that prior treatment with potent oral hormonal therapy drugs diminishes response to taxane chemotherapy and it is possible that this effect is different between the two taxanes, so this remains an open question.

PROSELICA was a study which enrolled 1200 men with mCRPC who had cancer that progressed following treatment with docetaxel. It was designed to show that a lower dose of cabazitaxel (20 mg per body size) was non-inferior to the approved dose (25 mg per body size). Half of the men received treatment with each dose. The primary endpoint of the clinical trial examined overall survival. Though there were more prostate specific antigen (PSA) reductions that lasted longer with the higher dose, overall survival was essentially the same in both groups. Additionally, there were more severe side effects with the higher dose. This trial met its endpoint of showing that the lower dose was not inferior, and a new (lower) standard dose of 20 mg per body size is now an acceptable treatment, receiving FDA approval in September 2017. Importantly, the study confirmed that the drug is effective at both doses even in men who developed resistance to the similar drug, docetaxel. Though there was a higher percentage (approximately a quarter), like in the FIRSTANA trial, only a fraction of patients were previously treated with abiraterone/enzalutamide and it is unknown how having a more contemporary group with nearly all patients receiving at least one of those drugs would affect the outcome.

Top Boxes_Taxynergy
In the photos from a sub-optimally responding patient on the right, almost all of the androgen receptor (AR, labeled in green) is in the nucleus (indicated by the arrow which is overlayed in blue on the right), meaning that the taxane chemotherapy treatment was unable to block AR from moving to the nucleus and thus unable to kill the prostate cancer cells.

In a collaborative effort between academic investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM)/NewYork-Presbyterian (NYP) and Johns Hopkins, and Pharma, the TAXYNERGY study evaluated two main questions. With the background assumption that activity between the two taxanes (docetaxel and cabazitaxel) were similar but different enough that tumors that had resistance to one drug could respond to the other, the primary clinical question was whether we could increase the response rate in the overall patient population by switching drugs if individual patients had suboptimal response initially. The randomized study was determined to be positive, with more patients achieving deeper PSA declines than compared to the prior benchmark.

Our latest research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology also reports on updates to the TAXYNERGY trial, which showed additional evidence of using cancer cells circulating in the blood, also referred to as circulating tumor cells or CTCs, as a primary biomarker for determining chemotherapy response. This research validated prior work demonstrating the mechanism of action of taxane chemotherapy in prostate cancer. Furthermore, this research proved that with a simple blood draw or “liquid biopsy,” within one week of a patient’s first chemotherapy treatment, we’re able to determine whether men with metastatic prostate cancer are responding to therapy. If they are not optimally responding, we may be able to change treatment to the other taxane chemotherapy very early on, optimizing the likelihood of controlling the cancer’s growth by using the other, similar taxane chemotherapy. This carries great significance in that it prevents men from continuing with treatment that is not working and has associated side effects.

At Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, when it comes to cancer care, we continue to explore new ways to improve treatment responses and provide the best clinical outcomes possible.

Additional research examining liquid biopsies in men with prostate cancer continues. In a collaborative effort funded by a Movember – Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) grant, CTCs are being collected before and after therapy to validate previous AR variant biomarkers and to explore additional technologies that might predict response or discover additional mechanisms of drug resistance. We continue to validate the platform of circulating tumor DNA (also called cell-free DNA) with a panel that is more specific and useful for prostate cancer than commercially available platforms.

Through a grant from the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF), Dr. Beltran and colleagues at WCM are working as part of an international consortium to develop, validate, and implement a ctDNA platform for prostate cancer. This targeted genomic sequencing test, called PCF SELECT, identifies tumor mutations in ctDNA from metastatic prostate cancer patients to guide treatment selection based on precision medicine. It is currently undergoing centralized development, and the long-term goal is that this ctDNA test will be widely used by the clinical prostate cancer community for precision medicine applications.