Continuing with Chemotherapy (and Blogging)

In my prior post, I referenced that more and more terminal cancer patients are placing their most private, personal journeys in this entirely public, impersonal domain we call the Internet. Among the blogs about fashion, food, home design, travel, and others, numerous blogs about severe disease and dying have appeared in recent years.

Personally, I find that writing a cancer blog is cathartic – and I’ve been doing it for more than two years now. It’s a great way to share updates and information quickly and efficiently to others who are interested in your health. Blogs and participation in other online patient forums also make the experiences of cancer illness publicly visible, provide alternative voices to that of the medical expertise, and challenge the traditional patient-doctor relations[1]. What a remarkable era for patient advocacy.

But maintaining open and honest communication with your health professionals is an essential part of the cancer patient’s care. Doctors, nurses and patients work best together when they can talk honestly and openly with one another. In this regard, it is essential that patients avoid blogging or posting anything on social media that could jeopardize this relationship. When in doubt, discuss material and images that you plan on blogging with them in advance – especially when the information pertains to participation in an ongoing clinical trial where sensitivities to confidential data may exist.

Michael Becker and David G. Pfister, MD

So far, healthcare professionals have embraced my public visibility. For example, I first met my incredible medical oncologist, Dr. David G. Pfister at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), in December 2015. Since that time, I published my memoir, more than 75 cancer blog posts, and three opinion editorials in various media outlets. It’s probably safe to say that I’ve been among his more “uniquely” visible patients during the past two years. But Dr. Pfister and others at MSKCC, along with my team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have mainly been accepting and supportive of my blog, book, and photojournalism. And, for the first time, my wife Lorie was even able to snap a quick photo of me with Dr. Pfister this week that I will treasure.

On the topic of this week’s appointment, we reviewed the CT scan results from last Friday’s imaging session. As updated briefly via social media, the results were favorable – stable disease (there were no new sites of disease, and the existing tumors stayed about the same size from the prior scan). Growth in the current tumors or new sites of disease would indicate disease progression and likely necessitate switching therapies. Since that wasn’t the case, and since I’ve handled chemo well with no neuropathy or need for growth factors, the plan is to continue with my current chemotherapy regimen. It consists of a four-week cycle starting with carboplatin and paclitaxel on week one, paclitaxel only for week two, and then no treatment for weeks three and four to allow blood counts to recover. I’ll have two more cycles and then do another CT scan around the second week of April 2018.

After the meeting with Dr. Pfister, I started my eighth cycle of this chemo regimen and was back home by late afternoon. The purpose of this treatment is palliative – to keep the tumors in my lungs and other organs from growing to a point where they cause pain, breathing difficulty, and other issues. It is different from care to cure your illness, called curative treatment.

When treatment is palliative, some patients may feel uncomfortable asking their doctor, “How long do you think I have to live?” The truth is that this question is often awkward for doctors too. Nonetheless, it is a question on the mind of many terminal cancer patients – including me.

Every patient is different, and a statistical prognosis is just an estimate, not a firm prediction. For example, last summer I was in terrible shape (two chest tubes, progressive disease, blood clot and bleeding issues, rapid heart rate requiring a stay in the ICU, etc.). The prognosis at that time was grim, and I wasn’t expected to live more than a few months.

But, effective treatments can sometimes dramatically improve a person’s well-being and even survival. After starting chemotherapy again, cancer regressed, and both chest tubes were removed as the fluid in my lung cleared. My heart rate has been stable since starting medication. I celebrated my birthday, Megan’s birthday, holidays, and welcomed the New Year. It’s now likely that I will be there for Lorie and Rosie’s birthdays next month and even our 26th wedding anniversary in March. I have been given additional precious time.

My disease is still likely incurable, and the current statistical prognosis indicates a median life expectancy of less than one year. I suffer from fatigue, anxiety, depression and other issues that negatively impact my quality of life. Knowing my prognosis, however, is helpful for guiding critical personal plans and life decisions.

I believe that blogging about life with a terminal illness can offer unique insights into how it is to live with cancer and to face the final phase of life. Hidden away and sequestered, removed from everyday experience, death has made a mediated return to the public sphere through digital and networked media[2].

References:

[1] Andersson Y. (2017 Jan 1). Blogs and the Art of Dying: Blogging With, and About, Severe Cancer in Late Modern Swedish Society. Omega (Westport).

[2] Lagerkvist, A. (2013). New Memory Cultures and Death: Existential Security in the Digital Memory Ecology. Thanatos, 2(2), pp. 1-17.

Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t

As discussed in my prior blog post, the recent CT scan at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) didn’t turn out as we had hoped. Not only did the cancer show signs of progressing, but a blot clot was also found in my left iliac artery near my pelvis.

Blood clot illustration

I had been on Lovenox (enoxaparin) for just under one week, when I noticed that the daily drainage from my chest tube looked much more like blood than the usual straw color. Equally disconcerting, the volume of drainage was greater than usual.

At the suggestion of my treating physicians, we stopped at the emergency room at a local hospital in Bucks County (which will remain nameless) on Sunday morning around 10am simply to have a complete set of blood work done. The concern being that the loss of so much blood via the chest tube could necessitate a transfusion.

Fortunately, my hemoglobin levels were okay (low hemoglobin count may indicate you have anemia) and a transfusion wasn’t needed. However, a big problem remained – finding the cause of bleeding coming from my pleural effusion and how to stop it.

One thing was almost certain – the anticoagulant Lovenox likely played a role. Discontinuing Lovenox could help reverse the bleeding, but I would be left with an untreated blood clot that could cause major problems if it moved from its current location. Damned if i do, damned if i don’t.

Quite the conundrum and not one to take lightly. As such, after waiting around the local hospital until early evening with no solutions, nurses, or physicians in sight, Lorie took control and requested that I be immediately discharged. Shortly thereafter she drove us to New York City to visit Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). I already had an appointment scheduled with my medical oncologist (Dr. David Pfister) for Tuesday to discuss possible next-steps for treatment, such as chemotherapy, and the drive to NYC is shorter than going to the NIH in Bethesda, MD.

We arrived after midnight, but the urgent care team at MSKCC promptly assessed my condition. More blood work was drawn along with a chest x-ray and CT scan. Simply looking at the chest x-ray, I could tell that the pleural effusion was quite large. This shouldn’t be the case, as I drain it daily.

For now, stopping the internal bleeding is more important than addressing the blood clot – although both issues require immediate attention. I’ve already discontinued the Lovenox and the MSKCC team will assess various options to access and drain the large amount of fluid still trapped in my left lung. The impact of the fluid is not insignificant, as I am short of breath walking short distances or up/down stairs. Coughing also has gotten worse and leads to feeling light-headed or dizzy.

Assuming the pleural effusion can be controlled, the next step would be to deal with the blood clot. One solution is to place a filtering device in the Inferior Vena Cava (IVC, a large vein in the abdomen that returns blood from the lower body to the heart) that could help prevent a pulmonary embolism, which is fatal in one-third of patients who suffer from it. The filter essentially traps blood clots and prevents them from reaching the lungs or heart.

Of course, aside from the aforementioned, I am interested in exploring potential new treatment options and look forward to upcoming physician appointments. Until then, I’ve been admitted to MSKCC for at least a day or two and will provide any meaningful updates via Twitter, etc.

It Could Always Be Worse

After a full day of activities yesterday, Lorie and I decided to grab an early dinner in Bethesda, MD at a restaurant recommended to us. We really haven’t explored much of the local establishments, so it was nice to venture out and try something new.

We sat down and I immediately focused on the cheese appetizer selection and ordered three different types. Half way through the appetizer, however, my cell phone rang. It was Dr. Strauss from the NIH.

I could tell from the initial line of questioning (are you still at NIH, where are you now, are you alone, etc.) that bad news would shortly follow. Sure enough, yesterday’s CT scan revealed a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) on the left side of my pelvis and Dr. Strauss requested that we promptly return to NIH to start treatment with Lovenox (enoxaparin). With that, we paid our restaurant bill and left our dinners behind to take an Uber back to NIH.

VIDEO CAPTION: 3D CT image from NIH showing tumor locations highlighted in green. The largest mass (lower right) is from my spleen.

Both Dr. Gulley and Dr. Strauss met us back at NIH in the day hospital and we went to an empty treatment room to talk in private. Unfortunately, the blood clot was merely a sideshow for the bigger news, which was that several tumors increased in size from the prior scan taken 6-weeks ago. For the first time, my outlook was black & white: the cancer was winning the tug-of-war with my body’s immune system. Receiving further treatment with the experimental agent M7824 would be hard to justify and more aggressive treatment, such as chemotherapy, appeared to be the favored next step.

After a brief tutorial on self-injecting Lovenox twice daily, we returned to the hotel and planned on meeting early the next morning to review the CT scans and have further discussion. The mood was somber and neither one of us slept very well.

Michael and Lorie Becker reviewing CT images with Drs. James Gulley and Les Folio of NIH. Photo credit: Daniel Sone of NCI

The NIH is only one of two places to have advanced imaging technology that was truly fascinating and dramatically improves the ability to visualize and follow specific tumors over time. Personally, I was amazed by the progress radiology has made since I last reviewed such images. We were engrossed in discussion about the various images displayed on the three monitor screens when Lorie’s phone rang. It was our oldest daughter Rosie.

The first few calls were easy to dismiss since we were in an important meeting, but then came a text – “emergency.” Driving home from class, Rosie apparently veered into the lane of oncoming traffic and hit another car going 30-40 MPH. All of the airbags deployed and the car is totaled. She was taken to the local hospital for x-rays, but nothing was broken and she was released. We understand the driver of the other car is okay as well.

Immediately, my mind wandered from my own mortality being visualized on the computer screens to how Rosie’s accident could have been far, far worse – perhaps even fatal. I’m not sure exactly how I would have reacted to that news on top of my disease update, but I do know it would pale by comparison to my own situation.

On more than one occasion, Lorie and I have uttered the words “it could always be worse.” Lately, it has been harder and harder to make that statement. However, with Rosie largely unharmed in what could have been disastrous, today definitely could have been worse.

I will blog more about my condition and treatment options in future posts after digesting all of the information from the past 48-hours. In the meantime, with no infusion of M7824 today, we are on the train home to be with Rosie.

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Watching the Calendar

Earlier this week, Lorie and I made our biweekly visit to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for my infusion of the experimental agent M7824. The two day trip was uneventful and included a variety of imaging and other diagnostic tests, including an ultrasound of my spleen and a chest x-ray to monitor the pleural effusion in my left lung.

Fortunately, all of the tests came back fine and I was cleared to receive my regular infusion of M7824. As with all the previous treatments, there were no adverse reactions and we returned home later that evening.

However, with the month of July rapidly approaching, I can’t help but start to feel quite anxious. This is due to the published results from Bristol-Myers Squibb’s “CheckMate 141” phase 3 trial with Opdivo® (nivolumab), an anti-programmed death 1 (PD-1) monoclonal antibody also known as a checkpoint inhibitor. In that study, 361 patients with recurrent squamous-cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) whose disease had progressed within 6 months after platinum-based chemotherapy were assigned, in a 2:1 ratio, to receive Opdivo every 2 weeks or standard, single-agent systemic therapy (methotrexate, docetaxel, or cetuximab). The primary end point was overall survival.

Treatment with Opdivo resulted in longer overall survival than treatment with standard, single-agent therapy. The median overall survival was 7.5 months (95% confidence interval [CI], range 5.5 months to 9.1 months) in the Opdivo group versus 5.1 months (95% CI, 4.0 months to 6.0 months) in the group that received standard therapy.

Recall from prior posts that M7824 is a completely novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein of an avelumab-like, anti-PD-L1 antibody linked to two molecules of TGF-beta trap. Therefore, I always viewed M7824 as a “potentially” superior alternative to Opdivo given its added mechanism of action, hence my strong interest in participating in the M7824 clinical trial.

Assuming for a moment that M7824’s treatment effect is at least comparable to Opdivo, and considering that my disease recurred around December 2016, an expected survival of 7.5 months would translate to the July/August 2017 timeframe.

To be fair, an apples-to-apples comparison of Opdivo and M7824 isn’t possible. However, the results of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s “CheckMate 141” trial serve as a contemporary data set for checkpoint inhibitors in the treatment of recurrent SCCHN and are definitely something that I keep my eye on.

Lorie and Michael Becker enjoying ice cream in Bethesda, MD

Barring any surprises, I’ll continue biweekly treatment with M7824 and then repeat imaging in July to see whether or not my disease has progressed. In the meantime, I’ll continue to savor simple moments like enjoying ice cream on a warm summer evening with my wife (see photo).

Roller Coaster

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last clinical post, so I wanted to provide an update following this week’s NIH appointments.

Michael Becker pleural effusion
Xray images of Michael Becker’s chest showing pleural effusion both before and after drainage

First, surgical insertion of my Aspira® drainage system has dramatically improved the pleural effusion in my left lung. It’s essentially a chest tube/catheter that allows me to drain the fluid buildup on an as-needed basis into drainage bags at home. The image to the right shows before and after chest x-ray images that demonstrate just how blocked my left lung was before being drained (nearly 2/3 blocked). It also shows how my left lung is now “close” to normal following drainage.

Second, I’ve been on prednisone (steroid) to help “sculpt” the inflammatory response, which is also helping keep the fluid from building up so quickly in my left lung. Whereas I was emptying 100 mL or more on a daily basis previously, I am now only draining 15-20 mL every other day or so.

Now that the pleural effusion can be managed, attention returned to whether or not to resume treatment with M7824, a completely novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein (see prior posts for more details). My last infusion of M7824 was several weeks ago.

Following another CT scan and constructive discussion with the NIH team, we came to the conclusion that there is essentially a tug-of-war occurring between the cancer in my lungs and my body’s immune system, the latter of which appears to be benefiting from M7824. The hope is that eventually M7824 will tip the scale in favor of my body’s immune system and control the cancer.

Michael D. Becker receiving IV infusion with M7824 – a novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein on May 16, 2017

Accordingly, the decision was made to keep moving forward with M7824 and I received an infusion on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. As with past administrations, there were no issues and I returned home to Pennsylvania with Lorie later that evening.

The pleural effusion will be monitored closely and managed via the catheter and steroids. As long as there are no major issues in terms of fluid in my lung, I will continue to receive an infusion of M7824 every other week. A repeat CT scan will be done in a month or so to reassess the situation.

Honestly, Not Such a Good Friday

This past Wednesday, I had a thoracentesis procedure in which a needle was inserted into the pleural space between my lungs and chest wall. This procedure was done to remove excess fluid, known as a pleural effusion, from the pleural space to help me breathe easier.

Michael Becker blogging from his laptop at NIH on April 15, 2017

During the procedure, Dr. Elliot Levy, an interventional radiologists at NIH trained in radiology and minimally invasive procedures, drained 1.5 liters from the pleural space. Almost immediately, I felt better and even while I was being wheeled back to my recovery room, I asked my wife Lorie to grab me a turkey sandwich from the cafeteria as I was quite hungry. It’s possible the large amount of fluid on my left side was putting some pressure on my stomach, which could help explain why I haven’t had much of an appetite lately.

By Thursday, however, the fluid was returning, prompting yet another thoracentesis procedure on Friday to remove 1.5 liters of fluid. The rapid nature of the fluid buildup means that I will most likely have an Aspira® drainage system surgically installed to conveniently let me drain the fluid buildup at home via a small catheter and drainage bags. That procedure is planned for Monday, so I have been staying at NIH since Wednesday and will be here over the weekend.

More importantly, however, a CT scan was also done on Friday morning with disappointing results. The cancer nodules grew since the last CT scan on March 7, 2017. This reflects true disease progression as opposed to “pseudo-progression” as discussed in a prior post. I have been taken off the clinical study with M7824.

My individual results do not reflect poorly on the future of M7824, but rather underscore that we still have a lot to learn about immunotherapy and cancer. While I may not have benefited from the drug, the resulting knowledge and clinical data may help guide future development and I am proud to play a part in that process.

At this point, if I received no further treatment and went on hospice, my likely survival would be about two months – although every patient is different. I have scheduled an appointment with my oncologist at MSKCC to discuss the pros and cons of chemotherapy at this stage, but the balance between quality of life and quantity of life is not trivial and I haven’t made a firm decision to go in this direction. Chemotherapy may only add a month or two of survival with a negative impact on my quality of life.

While I have been very open about my disease since originally being diagnosed in December 2015 and enjoy blogging, I will now be focusing much more time with my wife and daughters and finishing up my memoir, which I hope to have published. This will unfortunately mean less time for updating this blog and responding to emails.

Thank you to everyone who has offered their best wishes, thoughts, and prayers during my cancer journey. Having such an amazing support network of family, friends, and social media contacts has been a great source of strength and inspiration. Special thanks to my wife, Lorie, who has been by my side the entire time.

If you’ll indulge me, I would like to end this post with three requests:

  1. If you have a son or daughter, please talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine, which protects against cancer of the cervix, vagina, and vulva in women; penis in men; and cancers of the anus and head/neck (including the base of the tongue and tonsils) in both men and women. HPV is a very common virus; nearly 80 million people are currently infected in the United States. About 14 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year, resulting in 30,700 cancers in men and women. HPV vaccination can prevent most of the cancers (about 28,000) from occurring.
  2. Help preserve federal funding levels by communicating with lawmakers about the critical importance of investing in medical research. There are far too many people suffering from cancer and this is not the time to cut the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by 18.3 percent, about $5.8 billion, as has been proposed. In an Op Ed by Harold Varmus appearing in the New York Times on March 22, 2017, he states that  only about 10 percent of the NIH’s budget supports the work of government scientists and that “over 80 percent of its resources are devoted to competitively reviewed biomedical research projects, training programs and science centers, affecting nearly every district in the country.” Harold Varmus, a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine and a co-recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was the director of the National Institutes of Health from 1993 to 1999 and of the National Cancer Institute from 2010 to 2015.
  3. If you or someone you know is battling cancer or another disease, please talk to a physician about available clinical trial options. Clinical trials are a key research tool for advancing medical knowledge and patient care. Such trials are important to learn whether or not a new approach works well in people and is safe and which treatments or strategies work best for certain illnesses or groups of people.

Time to Drain the Swamp

Draining the swamp is a metaphor used by American politicians, referencing actions to clean up government corruption. In my case, however, I’m referring to a treatment that involves draining the fluid from my chest cavity, either with a needle or a small tube inserted into the chest. This will treat my pleural effusion, also called “water on the lung,” which is an excessive buildup of fluid in the space between my lungs and chest cavity (see diagram).

Diagram showing a pleural effusion

The pleural effusion is likely the source of my coughing, shortness of breath, and other recent symptoms. I haven’t been feeling well at all lately, but once it is drained – I should feel much better.

Thin membranes, called pleura, cover the outside of the lungs and the inside of the chest cavity. There’s always a small amount of liquid within this lining to help lubricate the lungs as they expand within the chest during breathing. Certain medical conditions, such as malignancy, can cause a pleural effusion, which is likely my situation. The excess fluid prevents the lung from expanding normally.

Sometime this morning I will have the procedure and hope to provide updates when I am awake later on.

I may need this treatment more than once if fluid re-collects, but we’ll cross that bridge another time.

 

Keeping the Faith with M7824

As evidenced by the extensive discussions following my biopsy from last Friday, a tumor is indeed a very complex structure. It comprises cancer cells and stromal cells, tumor infiltrating cells—both cells of the immune system and cells not by convention being of the immune system, as well as an extracellular matrix mainly of proteins and carbohydrates.

Following my recent CT scan, the hope from obtaining core biopsies from one of my lung nodules was to get a better sense of the cancer at a cellular level, which may help shed some light on whether or not treatment with M7824, a completely novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein is working (see prior posts for more details).

In particular, the presence of immune system cells (T cells, or T lymphocytes) in tumor biopsies and their potential impact on prognosis have been studied for decades. T cells are a type of white blood cell that circulate around our bodies, scanning for cellular abnormalities and infections. Broadly speaking they can be divided into two different types, “killer” CD8-positive T-cells and “helper” CD4-positive T-cells. CD8-positive T cells are critical mediators of adaptive immunity. They include cytotoxic T cells, which are important for killing cancerous or virally infected cells, and CD8-positive suppressor T cells, which restrain certain types of immune response.

Despite contributions by other immune cell subsets, CD8-positive T cells have emerged as the predominant effector in most cancer immunotherapy settings¹. Accordingly, many immunotherapeutic strategies (including checkpoint inhibitors, such as anti-CTLA4, PD1, and PD-L1 antibodies) are dedicated to stimulating, enhancing and maintaining responses by tumor-reactive CD8-positive T-cells.

Favorable outcomes have been demonstrated in patients where high numbers of CD8-positive cells were found at the tumor site in patients with head and neck cancer, breast, colorectal cancer and also for others solid cancers. In one study, head and neck cancer patients whose tumors were densely infiltrated by CD3-positive and CD8-positive T cells had a significantly longer overall survival (OS) and progression-free survival (PFS) compared with patients whose tumors were poorly infiltrated².

While there seems to be a consensus that CD8 infiltration is a good prognostic marker in most malignancies analyzed, however, the impact of CD8-positive T cells on clinical outcome may differ and is difficult to quantify. Not only is the type of T cell important, but also its location, and moreover the specific phenotype and function of those cells in the particular environment.

Nonetheless, based on the preliminary results from my recent tumor biopsy and other factors, it appears that there is sufficient evidence of immune system activation in the vicinity of the tumor to indicate that the experimental agent M7824 may indeed be performing as we hoped. Accordingly, I am in 100% agreement with my doctor’s recommendation to continue on the therapy and will receive my next infusion this coming Tuesday at NIH. After a few more cycles of therapy, another CT scan will be taken in the future with the hope of demonstrating that the recent tumor growth was from treatment effect “pseudo-progression” rather than true disease progression, which has been previously described with immune checkpoint inhibitors like M7824.

References:

¹ Targeting CD8+ T-cell tolerance for cancer immunotherapy. Stephanie R Jackson, Jinyun Yuan, and Ryan M Teague. Immunotherapy. 2014 Jul; 6(7): 833–852.

² Tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes predict response to definitive chemoradiotherapy in head and neck cancer. P Balermpas, Y Michel, J Wagenblast, O Seitz, C Weiss, F Rödel, C Rödel and E Fokas. British Journal of Cancer (2014) 110, 501–509. doi:10.1038/bjc.2013.640

 

 

 

Collecting More Information

Following Tuesday’s news that several of the tumors in my lungs actually increased in size and a new spot appeared on my spleen, Lorie and I headed back to the NIH on Thursday for more tests to help better guide subsequent treatment decisions.

The first test was a CT image of my brain taken Thursday mid-afternoon, which would be used to rule out the spread of cancer to that particular organ. Patients with brain metastases are often excluded from clinical trials due to historically dismal survival and concerns about blood brain barrier drug penetration. Fortunately, we learned the next morning that this test came back negative for cancer progression to the brain.

The second test on Friday was an image-guided biopsy of a single lung nodule to help guide between cancer progression and inflammation as the reason for the increase in size seen on the recent CT scan on the lungs. In my case, a core needle biopsy was performed, which is less invasive than surgical biopsy and doesn’t require general anesthesia.

Early Friday morning, Dr. Elliot Levy, an interventional radiologists at NIH trained in radiology and minimally invasive procedures, met with us first to discuss the procedure. He pulled up a cross sectional image of my lungs, which showed several of the suspicious nodules.

CT scan of my lungs, showing target nodule for biopsy with two lines representing potential needle angles for biopsy. Other nodules within the lungs circled in red, which could be more dangerous to biopsy.

One in particular was located in the pleural cavity – normally a thin membrane that lines the surface of the lungs and the inside of the chest wall outside the lungs. In the bottom of my left lung, however, fluid built up in the pleural cavity where one of the nodules was located. Dr. Levy explained to us how this nodule could be biopsied without puncturing the lung lobe, which can result in a longer hospital stay.

Sometimes, a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) occurs after a lung biopsy.  As a precaution, a chest x-ray is taken after the procedure to check for this before sending the patient home.

After meeting with Dr. Levy, I was escorted back to the biopsy procedure room and placed on my right side on a table. I was consciously sedated, produced by the administration of two medications: a single dose of fentanyl given intravenously that can produce good analgesia for 20-45 minutes, and midazolam, which has a fast-acting, short-lived sedative effect when given intravenously, achieving sedation within one to five minutes and peaking within 30 minutes. The combination produces an altered level of consciousness that still allows a patient to respond to physical stimulation and verbal commands, and to maintain an unassisted airway. Midazolam is a primary choice for conscious sedation because it causes patients to have no recollection of the medical procedure.

Dr. Levy worked out of sight behind me to perform the biopsy, as he went through my back side. I was fairly nervous going into the procedure, but everything went extremely well with absolutely no pain or unexpected events due to the sedation.

After recovery, a subsequent chest x-ray confirmed that the lungs were indeed fine after the biopsy and we left NIH shortly thereafter to head back home to Pennsylvania.

Thumbs up; recovering after biopsy procedure at NIH

The preliminary results from the biopsy should be available early this week. If the biopsy shows ample evidence of immune stimulation, an argument could be made to stay on the current drug and that the “pseudoprogression,” or the initial radiologic appearance of an increase in tumor burden, might actually be inflammation and followed by tumor regression. A remote possibility in my type of cancer, but worth confirming.

Should the biopsy results instead demonstrate increased tumor burden, then we could consider switching to another investigational agent or even chemotherapy to shrink the tumors before proceeding again with one of the immunotherapy clinical trials.

Lorie and Michael Becker in front of cherry blossoms

Determined to stay positive, Lorie and I took advantage of the warm spring day on Thursday to stop outside NIH and snap a picture in front of some cherry blossoms. Unfortunately, snow and cold returned on Friday for the commute home.

We’ll know more this week, so stay tuned…

Not as We Had Hoped

The results of today’s CT imaging procedure were not as we had hoped. Ideally, the dozen or so tumors in my lungs would have shown signs of shrinkage – indicating that the investigational drug was having a positive effect on the cancer. Instead, several of the tumors actually increased in size and a new spot even appeared in my spleen.

One of the hallmarks of immunotherapy, such as the checkpoint inhibitors, is the potential for a “delayed” response, which is not routinely seen with chemotherapy or other cytotoxic agents. Another biologic phenomenon unique to immunotherapy is “pseudoprogression,” or the initial radiologic appearance of an increase in tumor burden subsequently followed by tumor regression¹.

The CT imaging study cannot distinguish between cancer progression or inflammation as the reason for the increase in tumor size, so there is a chance that it’s due to inflammation and subsequent imaging tests in a month could demonstrate a reversal. However, it is also possible that the cancer isn’t responding to the investigational treatment.

To get more details, I’m undergoing a biopsy this Friday so that one of the lung tumors can be sampled. The preliminary information from that biopsy, which should be available next week, will help guide between cancer progression and inflammation. Decisions regarding how to proceed will depend on that outcome.

Needless to say, everyone’s hope was to have seen some sign of cancer regression on today’s CT scan and many teardrops were shed. The chances for a favorable outcome have diminished and must be acknowledged, but for now I’m persevering and will evaluate next steps following the biopsy results.

Sincere thanks to everyone who has offered their positive thoughts, prayers, and support. It is difficult to respond to each and every communication, but please know that I read “everything” and your time and effort is greatly appreciated. Special thanks to everyone at NIH for being so wonderful — even when faced with delivering bad news.

Now, more than ever, please keep all those positive vibes coming my way.

References:
¹ Amidst the excitement: A cautionary tale of immunotherapy, pseudoprogression and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Baxi SS, Dunn LA, Burtness BA.
Oral Oncol. 2016 Nov;62:147-148. doi: 10.1016/j.oraloncology.2016.10.007. Epub 2016 Oct 21.

Positive Mental Attitude (PMA)

Monday evening, my wife Lorie and I traveled to Bethesda, MD in advance of my third infusion with M7824, a completely novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein (see prior posts for more details). However, this was my first time being infused as an outpatient in the day hospital, as prior infusions required a short stay in the hospital for blood work, observation, etc. As with the first two infusions, everything went smoothly yesterday, with no adverse reactions during or following treatment. We caught a 9pm train home and were in bed by 12:30am ET.

image
Caught sleeping on the Amtrak train ride home by Lorie on February 21, 2017. Long day!

As I posted on social media throughout the day while at the NIH, I was truly humbled by the outpour of support – especially hearing from people I haven’t seen in years or decades. Amid the sea of political rants and opinions via these channels, it was nice to be reminded that social media can be a positive experience. Throughout the emails, Tweets, and posts, a lot of people remarked that I sound and appear “surprisingly positive” and “happy.” And truth be told – they’re RIGHT.

Sure, I have advanced cancer – and I’m not Pollyanna about what the future may have in store for me as a result. But, I was very fortunate to participate in a clinical study with a quite promising, investigational immunotherapy that has, so far, had no negative impact on my day-to-day quality of life. That is a very stark contrast from what I experienced after going through chemoradiation. While the outcome is far from certain, participating in this clinical study has given me every reason to “hope” that the therapy will work. And it is that hope that gets me up in the morning…smiling…ready to face the new day.

Michael D. Becker receiving IV infusion with M7824 - a novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein
Michael D. Becker receiving his third IV infusion with M7824 – a novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein on February 21, 2017

If anything has changed recently, it has been for the better. I’m now focusing my existing time and energy where I want, and it has been liberating. Death is always knocking on our doors, but it isn’t until the sound becomes louder later in life that you discover new priorities and sense of urgency. In this regard, I’ve started writing my memoir covering a +20-year biotechnology career and have been working with an amazing editor. I always enjoyed writing blogs and newsletters, but Lorie strongly encouraged me to finally write a book and it has been quite rewarding thus far. My goal is to get it done by late summer or so (30,000 words so far…), and I will definitely let everyone know more details via this blog as the project advances. I also recently started a coffee table book project to showcase my photography work over the past few years, with approximately 200 images selected and a draft layout complete. To fund the latter, I plan on launching a KickStarter campaign to finish the design and secure a larger order to reduce the per unit cost. And most importantly, through my disease openness and this patient blog, I’m exploring numerous opportunities to help raise awareness for currently available vaccines that can protect boys and girls against human papillomavirus (HPV) subtypes that most commonly cause anal, cervical, oropharyngeal, penile, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.

So, yes…I’m a cancer survivor and I’m positive because I have “hope” and will continue until life shows me otherwise. Inspired? Good…that’s my goal!

Finally, special thanks to everyone for the thoughts, gifts and support. Hearing from people I haven’t seen in years has also been amazing. A truly humbling experience and greatly appreciated.

Round Two

It’s been two weeks since my last blog update, so I thought it was about time for a status report.

Earlier today I had my periodic clinic evaluation at the NIH following last Wednesday’s second infusion of M7824. Recall M7824 is a completely novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein of an avelumab-like antibody linked to two molecules of TGF-beta trap (see prior posts for more details). At 22 days into this Phase 1 study, I’m still feeling good and haven’t experienced any side effects. Blood work, vitals, etc. all okay.

Michael and Lorie Becker; Valentine's Day 2017
Michael and Lorie Becker; Valentine’s Day 2017

It was a quick roundtrip between home and the NIH today, which allows me to be back home to spend dinner with my Valentine, wife, best friend and birthday girl (ps – all the same person). Before I headed out for my appointment in the morning, we had a few minutes to exchange cards and snap a quick photo (see right).

I’m now done with the inpatient infusions for the study, so my next dose will be administered one week from today and I can go home afterwards. Here’s hoping for more, completely uneventful updates in the coming weeks!

 

Feelin’ Alright

Standing on the train platform this morning on my way to NYC, the late British rocker Joe Cocker’s version of Feelin’ Alright was playing over the sound system. Not only a good song to start the daily commute, it seemed an appropriate theme for this blog post.

It was exactly one week ago today that I received my first infusion of an experimental cancer immunotherapy agent, called M7824, as part of a Phase 1 clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Recall from my prior post that M7824 is a completely novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein of an avelumab-like antibody linked to two molecules of TGF-beta trap. While very early in the process, I’m happy to report that so far I’m feelin’ alright.

As someone who has received three cycles of chemotherapy and a total radiation dose of 70 Gray over seven weeks, I can say with conviction that, so far, being treated with an immunotherapy agent has been a proverbial walk in the park. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that this clinical study is not placebo controlled, I would seriously question whether or not I was in the active arm of the study.

For example, in contrast to chemotherapy and radiation, I haven’t experienced any of the hallmarks of traditional cancer therapy, such as nausea or fatigue, with the experimental immunotherapy agent. Important to note, however, every drug has side effects and checkpoint inhibitors like M7824 are associated with their own unique spectrum of immune-related adverse events. These include dermatologic, gastrointestinal, hepatic, endocrine, and other less common inflammatory events. In some cases, these side effects can be managed with corticosteroids or diphenhydramine. Less frequently, clearly defined autoimmune systemic diseases, such as lupus, have been reported.

In fact, approximately 30-40% of patients treated with approved PD-1/PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitors (nivolumab/pembrolizumab) will have dermatologic complications. For most patients, dermatologic toxicity is the earliest immune-related adverse event experienced, with onset an average of 3.6 weeks after treatment initiation¹. Accordingly, it may be too early for me to be experiencing any such side effects.

Of course, having a “safe” drug is important – but for me, the real hope is that M7824 is effective in treating my recurrent disease. In this regard, in an interview with EP Vantage earlier this month, Luciano Rossetti, Merck KGaA’s head of R&D, told EP Vantage that M7824 is “the most exciting clinical asset in our pipeline right now” adding that it has yielded “spectacular” early data. You can read the full interview by clicking here.

I remain hopeful and strongly believe that my generation could be among the last to experience toxic upfront treatments like chemotherapy and radiation thanks to the many advances being made with immunotherapy.

References:

¹ Source: http://www.uptodate.com/contents/toxicities-associated-with-checkpoint-inhibitor-immunotherapy

Starting Treatment – Again

First, my apologies for the length of time from my last clinical update. I’m not generally a superstitious person, but I wanted to wait for a few formalities to be addressed before posting.

Previously, I referenced that my next therapy would likely be at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) and include Opdivo® (nivolumab), a form of immunotherapy called a “checkpoint inhibitor.” What is that, you ask? Human cells carry certain proteins on their surface that enable them to escape attack from the body’s immune system. Some cancer cells wear one of those same proteins, called programmed death ligand 1 (PD-L1), which renders the cancer cells invisible to the body’s immune system. Blocking either PD-L1 or its receptor, programmed death 1 (PD-1), appear to be Achilles’ heels for multiple tumor types. Coincidentally, I covered the exciting early developments in the checkpoint inhibitor field in July 2013, which you can read by clicking here.

Michael D. Becker being infused with M7824 for the first time
Michael D. Becker being infused with M7824 for the first time on 1/25/17 at NIH

My concern is that across clinical studies in numerous cancer types, only about 20% of patients receiving checkpoint inhibitors have a durable response. For these patients, the benefits tend to last for years – perhaps even indefinitely. Exciting, yes. But for the other 80% of patients, the results are less dramatic. For example, in the recurrent head and neck cancer study for Opdivo, the median overall survival was 7.5 months for patients that received Opdivo versus 5.1 months for patients that received standard therapy options (cetuximab, methotrexate, or docetaxel). Clearly, Opdivo was superior to standard therapies and definitely worth considering. But the median overall survival is the time period lying at the midpoint of a frequency distribution of observed values, such that there is an equal probability of falling above or below it. The prospect of being in the 80% group with less than a year to live forced me to consider alternatives.

Fortunately, I became aware of a clinical trial for an investigational agent called M7824, a bifunctional fusion protein targeting PD-L1 and TGF-β, that was developed by EMD Serono, the biopharmaceutical division of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. M7824 is currently being studied in a Phase 1 trial for patients with advanced solid tumors (ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT02517398). The principal investigator for the study is James L. Gulley, M.D., Ph.D., F.A.C.P. of the National Institutes of Health, Center for Cancer Research. In addition to his role as Chief of the Genitourinary Malignancies Branch, Dr. Gulley is also Director of the Medical Oncology Service, Office of the Clinical Director. He is an internationally recognized expert in cancer immunotherapy and I’ve had the honor of knowing him professionally for more than a decade – starting back when I was at Cytogen Corp (just an amazing individual and I cannot say enough good things about him!). Other key members of my fabulous team so far include Dr. Julius Strauss, Lead Associate Investigator for the study and Fellow Physician in Oncology at the National Institutes of Health, Andrea D. Burmeister, Physician Assistant, and Elizabeth Lamping RN, BSN, Research Nurse Specialist.

M7824 consists of a fully human monoclonal antibody against PD-L1 plus a transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β)-neutralizing trap component. This means that M7824 should confer all of the benefits of a checkpoint inhibitor against PD-L1, but with the added punch of neutralizing TGF-β. Dual targeting of the PD-L1 and TGF-β pathways makes sense because both are key immune evasion pathways with independent yet complementary functions.

The TGF-β signaling pathway is complex – resulting in either tumor suppressor or tumor-promoting activity depending on the cellular context in which the pathway is active. In advanced disease, the tumor suppressor arm of TGF-β signaling is lost and, instead, tumor cells proliferate. Further, TGF-β overexpression in advanced disease enhances tumor growth, suppresses the immune system, and exacerbates invasive and metastatic tumor cell behavior.

The more I researched TGF-β, the more encouraged I became about enrolling in the M7824 clinical trial – especially given the specific profile of my disease. Recall that I was diagnosed with human papillomavirus “HPV” positive, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), which is cancer that begins from squamous cells, a type of skin cell. In addition to being one of the main types of skin cancer, cancers that involve the anus, cervix, head and neck, and vagina are also most often SCC.

Only a minority of people exposed to human papillomavirus develop HPV-related cancer, such as oropharyngeal cancer (lucky me!) or cervical cancer. In a paper published December 2014 in Cancer Research, Levovitz et al. demonstrated that genetic variation in immune-related genes is a determinant of susceptibility to oropharyngeal cancer and other HPV-associated cancers, particularly those related to TGF-β signaling. In other words, it is possible that people carrying genotypes with such variants are more likely to have an HPV-positive tumor compared to patients with the wild-type genotype. The likely functional significance of altered TGF-β signaling in HPV-related cancers is further supported by the finding by Levovitz et al. that TGF-β receptor type 1 is significantly overexpressed in both oropharyngeal cancer and cervical cancer.

In a paper published in February 2015 in Cell, Oshimori et al. establish a surprising non-genetic paradigm for TGF-β signaling in fueling heterogeneity in squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) stem cells, tumor characteristics, and drug resistance. Armed with this insight as well as the relevance for HPV-positive cancers, I decided to enroll in the study and passed the screening process.

In December 2016, Dr. Gulley presented preliminary data from the ongoing Phase 1 study of M7824 at the 28th symposium on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics, also known as the ENA symposium. Early results were encouraging, with M7824 associated with complete (CR) and partial responses (PR) in patients with advanced refractory cancer.

Today is my first one-hour infusion of M7824 and I look forward to reporting on my experience with immunotherapy in subsequent posts. With just a few minutes remaining for the infusion – so far, so good!