Thankful

 

It’s that time of year again; where we get together with family and friends to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. It is also a time for reflection and appreciation, which has even greater meaning for me this year.

It was the day before the Thanksgiving holiday in 2015 when I first discovered a suspicious lump protruding from the right side of my neck. The formal diagnosis of Stage IV oropharyngeal cancer would occur several weeks later, but I knew at the time that the palpable growth just below my jaw line was anything but benign.

As a senior executive working in the field of biotechnology, and in particular the area of oncology, being diagnosed with cancer was difficult – but hearing “Stage 4” was especially disheartening. While staging systems are specific for each type of cancer, in general the cancer stage refers to the size and extent of the disease and is assigned a number from 1 to 4. If my cancer was confined to the right tonsil (where it started…) and hadn’t spread elsewhere, I would have been diagnosed with Stage 1 disease. Localized spreading would have been Stage 2 and depending on the extent of involvement of nearby lymph nodes – progress to Stage 3. When cancer has metastasized, or spread to other organs or throughout the body, it can be classified as Stage 4 and may also be called advanced or metastatic cancer. Stage 4 usually carries a grim prognosis compared to earlier stages of the disease.

Accordingly, when one is diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, the immediate concern is whether or not the individual will be able to survive the disease. For me, however, the bigger concern was surviving the treatments and their side effects. In particular, my experience licensing and launching a product to treat oral mucositis made me very familiar with this debilitating side effect from both radiation and chemotherapy.

When reviewing treatment options with Dr. David Pfister, my medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), I was really hoping that I would be a candidate for recent advances, such as biologic agents and immunotherapies. This was due to my familiarity with their targeted and less toxic profiles, especially when compared with chemotherapy and radiation. In fact, back in early April 2010 I published a 150-page industry report titled “Cancer Vaccine Therapies: Failures and Future Opportunities” and later that year held the inaugural “Cancer Immunotherapy: A Long-Awaited Reality” conference that took place at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York. For more information and background on immunotherapy, read “Insight: Training immune system to fight cancer comes of age” by Bill Berkrot of Reuters.

Unfortunately, approved targeted agents like Erbitux® (cetuximab) still require combination with radiation therapy and its associated side effects. Immunotherapies, such as Opdivo® (nivolumab) and Keytruda® (pembrolizumab) were only recently approved by the FDA to treat head and neck cancer, but their initial indications are limited to patients with disease progression during or after chemotherapy. I remain hopeful that use of these and other new agents will expand to newly-diagnosed patients going forward and that ultimately we no longer rely upon chemotherapy or radiation to treat this disease.

Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see two new drugs approved to treat head and neck cancer this year and know that there are options for me in the unfortunate event that my disease returns. In this regard, I was glad to help ring the Nasdaq Stock Market Opening Bell last month to celebrate cancer immunotherapy advances and the one-year listing anniversary of the Loncar Cancer Immunotherapy ETF (Ticker: CNCR). I first met Brad Loncar (@bradloncar on Twitter), Chief Executive Officer of Loncar Investments, at my inaugural cancer immunotherapy conference and he was kind enough to extend me an invitation to the Nasdaq event.

Photograph by Christopher Galluzzo / @NASDAQ

Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., CEO and Director of Scientific Affairs of the Cancer Research Institute, Brad Loncar, Chief Executive Officer of Loncar Investments, and Michael Becker. Photograph by Christopher Galluzzo / NASDAQ

Ultimately, I went through seven weeks of daily radiation and three cycles of chemotherapy at the start of this year, which as actor Michael Douglas was quoted “somehow seemed very accurately mapped to the seven circles of hell.” In 2010, Michael Douglas was also diagnosed with Stage 4 oropharyngeal cancer and went through the same treatment regimen at MSKCC in New York.

So, while this year started off rough (understatement), I am extremely lucky and thankful to have no evidence of cancer following treatment and to finally be free of “most” of the debilitating side effects from therapy. For example, in recent months I have noticed a dramatic improvement in both energy level and saliva output and have started to reverse a 40-pound decline in weight I experienced during and after treatment.

Aside from eternal gratitude for my wife and daughters’ love and support throughout the process, I would like to extend a special thanks to all of the healthcare providers at MSKCC for their superb care. From my “dream team” consisting of medical oncologist Dr. David Pfister, radiation oncologist Dr. Nancy Lee, and surgeon Dr. Benjamin Roman to amazing nurse practitioner Nicole Leonhart and all of the others who cared for me. I wouldn’t be here today without you!

Photo of Michael Becker and Dr. Nancy Lee

Photograph of Michael Becker with radiation oncologist Dr. Nancy Lee of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) taken November 18, 2016

For my family, friends, and colleagues – too numerous to name – thank you again to EVERYONE that helped in some way…the thoughts, emails, prayer chains, food deliveries, financial support, hospital visits, etc. were all greatly appreciated.

My next PET scan is scheduled for early February 2017 and I hope to report that all remains clear around that time.

PS – as a native of Chicago and loyal fan, I am also thankful to have witnessed the Cubs baseball team winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years in 2016! Go Cubs Go!

Progress Report

Yesterday marked the beginning of Week #3 for my chemoradiation treatment. By now, the cummulative effects of daily radiation have started to appear.  This includes oral mucositis (where the mucosal lining of the mouth breaks down forming ulcers) and xerostomia (dry mouth). The World Health Organization (WHO) Oral Toxicity Scale measures anatomical, symptomatic, and functional components of oral mucositis¹. The scale ranges from Grade 0 (no oral mucositis) to Grade 4 (unable to eat solid food or liquids). The majority of head and neck cancer patients (83%) who are receiving radiation therapy develop oral mucositis and 29% develop severe oral mucositis².

IMG_7111

Oral mucositis ulcer on side of tongue

My current assessment would be WHO Grade 2, which means that I can still eat solid foods despite the presence of ulcers (see photo of the single ulcer on the side of my tongue). Recall that I started taking Caphosol® at the start of my chemoradiation treatment. This oral rinse has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of oral mucositis in a clinical study. The study design used a different oral mucositis scale devised by the National Institute of Dental andCraniofacial Research (NIDCR), which ranks oral mucositis on a 0-5 scale where I would presently be at Grade 2 (single ulcer <1 cm). Results from the study demonstrated a peak Grade 1.38 for patients using Caphosol compared to Grade 2.41 for the placebo group. Accordingly, it will be interesting to see whether or not I develop additional ulcers or more severe oral mucositis to help determine the benefit of using Caphosol.

I received a progress report during my appointment with Dr. Nancy Lee, my radiation oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). The results are encouraging, as the tumor has markedly decreased in size over the first two weeks of therapy – characteristic for my type of cancer. The better news was that the PET imaging study looking at levels of oxygen deficiency (hypoxia) in the tumor tissue showed dramatic improvement. In particular, the pre-treatment scan showed “mild” radiotracer uptake in the primary tumor (right tonsil) and “intense” radiotracer uptake in the neck lymph node, indicating a significant amount of hypoxic tumor cells that are generally more resistant to radiation and many anticancer drugs. However, the most recent PET scan showed “no” radiotracer uptake in the primary tumor and only “mild” persistent uptake in the neck lymph node. Unfortunately, the fact that there is still some hypoxia means that they won’t be able to reduce the amount of radiation to the neck node, which could have reduced some of the side effects.

This morning I had my follow-up hearing test, which showed no change from pre-treatment.  This is also good news, as the chemotherapy (cisplatin) can sometimes cause hearing loss. Next week will be my second round of chemotherapy on both Monday and Tuesday. I’m hoping that this cycle will be less eventful than the first and that I don’t contract the flu or have any other surprises.

¹ World Health Organization. WHO Handbook for Reporting Results of Cancer Treatment. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 1979:15-22.

² Vera-Llonch M, Oster G, Hagiwara M, Sonis S. Oral mucositis in patients undergoing radiation treatment for head and neck carcinoma. Cancer. 2006;106:329–36.

Reunited

When I first licensed the North American marketing rights to Caphosol® in October 2006 (see press release), I had no idea that nearly a decade later I would be a customer. The product is intended to treat some of the common side effects from cancer chemotherapy and radiation – both oral mucositis (inflammation of the mucous membranes in the mouth with symptoms ranging from redness to severe ulcerations) and xerostomia (dry mouth). While these side effects can occur as a result of various treatments, they are particularly prevalent in head and neck cancer patients undergoing chemoradiation like me.

Michael Becker and the oral mucositis and xerostomia treatment Caphosol

Michael Becker reunited with the oral mucositis and xerostomia treatment Caphosol (click to enlarge)

It was disheartening that so many years after its commercial introduction, no physician I spoke with had heard of Caphosol. After a fair amount of nagging and discussion, I was finally able to secure a prescription this week and locate a pharmacy that carried the product in advance of starting treatment this Monday (special shout out to my wife, former colleague June, and her colleague Ken for their assistance in this regard!). This is important, as one the key clinical studies supporting Caphosol’s efficacy incorporated the product at the start of therapy.  In other words, Caphosol was used before the incidence of oral mucositis or xerostomia – as a preventative therapy. The trial demonstrated that Caphosol was able to reduce the severity of oral mucositis, decrease pain and associated use of opioid analgesics, and reduce the days of neutropenia (abnormally low concentration of white blood cells in the blood) – see journal abstract from the study.

To be perfectly clear – I have absolutely no financial interest in Caphosol. However, I am a believer in the product and did extensive due diligence as part of the licensing process. As a result, I hope that this blog post can help other patients at risk for oral mucositis and/or xerostomia learn about Caphosol. While there are other agents used in the treatment of oral mucositis and xerostomia, Caphosol is unique in that the product’s efficacy was demonstrated in a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical study. Perhaps the most significant distinguishing feature of Caphosol is the high concentrations of calcium and phosphate ions. Why is this important? Calcium ions play a crucial role in several aspects of the inflammatory process, the blood clotting cascade, and tissue repair, and phosphate ions may be a valuable supplemental source of phosphates for damaged mucosal surfaces. No other product on the U.S. market is formulated this way or has the proven clinical benefit that Caphosol does.

As you can see in the accompanying image, Caphosol is supplied in a carton with 30 doses.  A dose is comprised of two ampules of aqueous solutions, one containing a phosphate solution and the other containing the calcium solution.  The two solutions are combined in a glass and patients are instructed to swish the resulting mixture in the mouth thoroughly and then expectorate (spit out).  This process can be repeated 2-10 times per day, although four doses per day is what was used in the clinical trial.

I will report on my experience with Caphosol (good, bad, or indifferent) throughout my chemoradiation treatment over the next 6-7 weeks.  My first round of chemotherapy and radiation therapy starts this Monday and Tuesday.  As the treatments occupy most the day, it may not be until later this week that I post any blog updates.

Crossroads

It’s coincidental that after spending so many years leading a few small, oncology-focused biotechnology companies developing immunotherapies, radiopharmaceutical agents, and supportive care oncology products, I am now utilizing that experience, knowledge and network to make informed treatment decisions following my cancer diagnosis. Like driving down a familiar road, I am constantly seeing landmarks and signs that I know quite well from my time in the industry.

For example, some of the common side effects from chemotherapy and radiation therapy include oral mucositis (painful ulcers in the mucosa) and xerostomia (dry mouth). I studied these two side effects extensively as part of the due diligence process when I licensed and launched an advanced electrolyte solution called Caphosol® back in 2006. Based on this experience, I know what to expect from my chemoradiation treatment and hope to incorporate Caphosol into my arsenal against these debilitating side effects.

295077-smallWhile the streets may be familiar at times, I am still faced with difficult decisions at some of the crossroads. The latest example arose during yesterday’s follow-up visit with Dr. David Pfister, my medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). Separate from my upcoming daily radiation treatments, the appointment largely focused on scheduling my three chemotherapy infusions and discussing what to expect in terms of side effects from the treatment. The chemotherapy I will receive is called cisplatin, which was first approved for use in testicular and ovarian cancers back in 1978.  The list of potential toxicities includes nausea, constipation, kidney issues, hearing issues, and others.  The conversation shifted to potential clinical trials and Dr. Pfister mentioned one that is exploring an alternative to chemotherapy that may have less side effects. In the study, the chemotherapy agent (cisplatin) is replaced by Erbitux® (cetuximab) – another FDA approved agent for treating head and neck cancer. Erbitux is an inhibitor of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a receptor found on both normal and tumor cells that is important for cell growth. But the study also adds an investigational agent BYL719, which is an inhibitor of PI3K, an enzyme which fuels the growth of several types of cancer. Having worked at several companies developing inhibitors of the PI3K pathway, this was more familiar territory. However, trading the proven results with cisplatin for “potentially” similar efficacy with lower side effects from the investigational combination is a difficult crossroad.

On the one hand, the aforementioned clinical trial includes an approved agent for treating head and neck cancer (Erbitux).  This is different from some other clinical trial designs that include a placebo arm or an arm with only an investigational agent. However, Erbitux has its own side effects and there are unanswered questions in the medical community regarding whether or not Erbitux is “as good” as cisplatin. As a result some physicians only use Erbitux as a replacement for cisplatin when the patient cannot tolerate cisplatin’s toxicities. In my mind, forgoing cisplatin and its proven efficacy could jeopardize the potential for cure. Partially offsetting this risk is the inclusion of a promising new investigational agent – the PI3K inhibitor BYL719 being developed by Novartis. The PI3K pathway is widely known in the oncology community as a potential target for cancer therapy – and in particular head and neck cancer. Preclinical data suggest that simultaneous inhibition of PI3K and EGFR leads to synergistic antitumor activity in head and neck cancer, but future randomized trials are required to answer the question of whether or not the combination is equal to (or better than) cisplatin. Lastly, BYL719 is an investigational agent and although it appears well-tolerated in studies to date, side effects may arise as more and more patients are exposed to the drug.

Ultimately, I decided to stick with the more established cisplatin for a variety of reasons. First, it is my understanding that the radiation therapy, which would be included regardless of whether I opted for cisplatin or the investigational Erbitux/BYL719 combination, is the driving force for both cure AND debilitating side effects.  Most of cisplatin’s side effects, such as nausea, constipation, and other issues, can be partially offset with medication and hydration. Second, cisplatin has been around for decades and appears to be the gold standard in combination with radiation for Stage IV head and neck cancer and it is hard to argue with the clinical data supporting its use to date. Lastly, in the unfortunate event that my chemoradiation therapy isn’t effective – I can always explore investigational treatments as a next step.