Radiotherapy is a core element of prostate cancer treatment, yielding cures in men with localized disease. The goal of prostate cancer radiotherapy is to deliver high doses of radiation to the prostate gland while avoiding the surrounding bladder and rectum, thus preventing unwanted urinary and gastrointestinal side effects and preserving patient quality of life.
Radiotherapy guided by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) allows clinicians to visualize a tumor as well as its neighboring organs in order to most accurately deliver treatment to the target region.
Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital (WCM/NYP) are proud to be the first – and only – medical institution in the northeast to offer patients the most premier MRI-guided radiotherapy technology available: the MRIdian Linear Accelerator, by ViewRay. The MRIdian Linac’s unique ability to track a patient’s tumor in real time during treatment makes it by far the most advanced modality of delivering radiation.
Real-time visualization is significant due to the constant flux of internal human anatomy, including changes in respiration, digestion and bladder fill that can influence the position of the prostate within the body. Even a minor shift of the tumor target during treatment can have major implications related to potential side effects of radiation. If the bladder or rectum displace the prostate during treatment, the MRIdian Linac machine will cease delivery of radiation and not resume until the prostate moves back in bounds of the target region. Whereas other modalities track small fiducial markers implanted in the prostate, this machine allows clinicians to see and track the tumor itself.
In addition, WCM/NYP is the only center in the area to offer combined use of MRI-guided radiotherapy with the rectal SpaceOAR, a hydrogel barrier that is temporarily placed between the prostate and rectum to shield the rectum from radiation and further reduce potential side effects.
Watch the video below to learn more about this state-of-the-art technology from WCM/NYP radiation oncologist Dr. Himanshu Nagar.
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.
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.
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.