A Glass Half Full

Yesterday marked the beginning of cycle number six for my third-line chemotherapy treatment. In this regimen, one full cycle is comprised of four weeks. During week one, two different chemotherapeutics (carboplatin and paclitaxel) are given along with the requisite premedication (steroid, anti-nausea meds, and an antihistamine). During both the second and third weeks of a cycle, I receive only one chemotherapeutic (paclitaxel) and the same premeds. Week four is a holiday/break, with no scheduled treatment that helps provide recovery time for blood counts and other markers. Then the four-week cycle repeats.

Lorie and Michael Becker in the chemotherapy suite at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on 12/5/17

Having received five cycles over the past five months, my blood counts are slower to recover – particularly my white blood cells. As a result, my medical oncologist (Dr. David Pfister at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC)) modified the last treatment to forgo the third week of chemo since that is usually about the time that my white blood cells are on the low side. In other words, the most recent two cycles of treatment have been “two weeks on, two weeks off” meaning that I get two chemotherapeutics (carboplatin and paclitaxel) on week one, only paclitaxel on week two and then a two-week break during weeks three and four before starting the cycle over again.

Considering that the latest 2/5 cycles have been reduced in terms of the total amount of chemo I’m receiving, it is encouraging to see that each CT scan still shows decreases in the size of some tumors. For example, take the largest tumor (on my spleen) that originally measured 6.4 cm on its longest axis and 6.0 cm on its shortest axis back in early January 2017. Since starting third-line chemo over the summer, those dimensions have decreased on each subsequent CT scan: 5.4 x 4.8 cm, 3.2 x 2.6 cm and most recently 2.9 x 2.0 cm. Many other lymph nodes in my lungs and abdomen are also now 1 cm x 1 cm or smaller, which is typically the size of a “normal” lymph node—although PET imaging would help inform whether or not there is still disease activity.

But just exactly how unusual or encouraging is all of this? During the MSKCC appointment, I gathered that the general expectation would have been decreased disease from the first treatment cycle, perhaps stable disease on the second cycle and then possibly progressive disease on the third or later cycles. Bottom line: my cancer continued to decrease across all three recent scans, which is better than normally expected.

I’m happy about the results and extremely thankful that I received strong encouragement to give chemotherapy another chance. And it’s not just about tumors shrinking, there have also been meaningful improvements in my quality of life. For instance, at the start of chemotherapy I had not one but two chest tubes placed to help reduce fluid around my left lung. Both have since been removed, as the fluid buildup is gone. Associated side effects with the fluid, such as coughing and difficulty breathing have also disappeared. Oh, and it is a lot easier to shower without wrapping your chest and abdomen in plastic wrap each time to avoid water getting into the tubes!

I’m a curious person by nature and seeking potential answers as to “why” my disease is responding a bit better than expected to the current chemo regimen. As a long-time champion of immunotherapy, I can’t help but wonder about my prior second-line therapy with M7824, an experimental bispecific fully human antibody designed to simultaneously block two immuno-inhibitory pathways (both PD-L1 and TGF-β) that are commonly used by cancer cells to evade the immune system. The aim of this investigational drug is to control tumor growth by restoring and enhancing anti-tumor immune responses.

While receiving M7824 at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a participant in their Phase I trial, results from biopsies of both my tumor and pleural fluid provided evidence of immune system activation in the vicinity of the tumor, indicating that the experimental agent M7824 was performing as designed. In particular, the presence of tumor-reactive CD8-positive T-cells, which have emerged as the predominant effector in most cancer immunotherapy settings[1]. In fact, one published study in 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 infiltrated[2].

It’s quite possible that based on the large tumor burden in my body, the immune system activation resulting from M7824 might not have been able to overpower the disease. However, with my tumor burden now having decreased substantially through subsequent chemotherapy, I can’t help but wonder if M7824 could be playing a role in my ongoing disease improvement.

While answering this question is purely academic, it could help inform the design of future combination studies with M7824 and chemotherapy. From a personal perspective, it would also validate that I made the right decision to jump into the M7824 trial after failing first-line therapy (chemoradiation).

As someone with no formal medical training, my initial thought was to have the largest, most accessible tumor biopsied to look for residual immune system activation. Unfortunately, the largest remaining tumor is on my spleen and my oncologist frowned on the prospects of poking needles around that area. A good to time to remind readers that while I have a fair amount of working knowledge in biotech, I always rely upon the wisdom and experience of the treating physician. They’ve gone to med school…I have not.

But I do feel it is very important, to the full extent possible and without substantial added risk to me, to find some signal—even if anecdotal—that M7824 did something good. For my friends in the medical community, please feel free to email me any ideas or thoughts!

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

Never Thought I’d Do It Again

Despite the hectic backdrop of late, I’ve been busy researching treatment options for patients like me with incurable squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN). My first inclination was to pursue another immunotherapy, as there are a lot of clinical trials with novel immunotherapies and combinations currently recruiting. With my disease progressing, however, I felt that perhaps a more aggressive approach backed by data was warranted.

For example, one viable option is the chemotherapy-based “EXTREME” regimen with 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), cisplatin or carboplatin, and the monoclonal antibody Erbitux® (cetuximab). Initially, I discounted this option because 5-FU-based regimens can be associated with significant toxicities. Nonetheless, a multicenter phase III trial in SCCHN demonstrated a 36% longer median overall survival using the EXTREME regimen versus chemotherapy alone (10.1 months vs. 7.4 months, respectively). It was the kind of data-based treatment I was seeking, but I was really against receiving 5-FU.

One of the many nasty side effects from 5-FU is palmar-plantar erythrodysesthesia (PPE), also known as hand-foot syndrome (HFS). There are currently no treatments or preventions for HFS, which is characterized by tingling in the palms, fingers and soles of feet and by erythema, which may progress to burning pain with dryness, cracking, desquamation, ulceration and oedema.

I learned a lot about HFS while serving as CEO of VioQuest Pharmaceuticals. The company was developing a 1% uracil topical formulation to prevent HFS. Uracil is a naturally occurring substrate that directly competes with 5-FU for the enzymes that metabolize 5-FU to its toxic metabolites. When applied topically, the concentration of uracil in the skin greatly exceeds the concentrations of 5-FU, thus blocking the formation of 5-FU’s toxic metabolites. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any updates on the product’s development status since April 2010 according to ClinicalTrials.gov.

When we arrived at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) late Sunday evening, I had already decided that if it came down to the EXTREME regimen as my best option – I would simply forgo further treatment, contact hospice, and let things progress naturally.

Fortunately, my medical oncologist at MSKCC, Dr. David Pfister, suggested replacing 5-FU with weekly paclitaxel, resulting in a chemotherapy regimen known as PCC (paclitaxel, carboplatin, and cetuximab), that has been found to be efficacious and well-tolerated in patients with SCCHN when used as induction chemotherapy. As a result, 5-FU and paclitaxel can be viewed as somewhat interchangeable, but paclitaxel offers a more favorable toxicity profile.

Unlike the two chemotherapeutics, cetuximab is a chimeric human-murine monoclonal antibody (mAb). MAb therapy, the most widely used form of cancer immunotherapy today, is a form of “passive” immunotherapy that often does not require the patient’s immune system to take an active role in fighting the cancer.

Cetuximab targets and binds to epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR) that are found on the surface of many normal cells and cancer cells. Doing so stops the cell from continuing the signaling pathway that promotes cell division and growth, effectively stopping the cancer by stopping the cancerous cells from growing and multiplying.

I’m a big believer in the power of immunotherapy and believe that my recent treatment with the experimental M7824 (first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein of an avelumab-like antibody linked to two molecules of TGF-beta trap) had a positive effect on my disease. More importantly, there may even be synergy between what M7824 has done so far in combination with the PCC regimen. Even if the PCC regimen only shrinks my lung tumors, the reduction in disease burden could help future immunotherapy treatments be more efficacious.

Starting treatment with the two chemotherapeutics (paclitaxel and carboplatin) on 7/18/17 at MSKCC

Having plenty of time to weigh the future treatment options while the bleeding issue with my chest tube was being addressed, I decided that Dr. Pfister’s proposed PCC regimen made a lot of sense. Much to my surprise, I was able to start treatment with the two chemotherapeutics (paclitaxel and carboplatin) on Tuesday and return home that evening. Next Tuesday I will receive my first loading dose of cetuximab.

Regarding the bloody drainage from my chest tube referenced in my prior post, I had a liter of fluid drained using a vacuum-like device connected to my catheter and the drainage returned to a healthier apple juice color. I was started on Lovenox again while continually monitoring the fluid output through the tube looking for the color to change back to bloody. Fortunately, the color remained the same and it looks like Lovenox wasn’t the likely culprit. I’m back on Lovenox and so far, so good.

I never thought I’d say the phrase “I’m back on chemotherapy.” But here I am, continuing the fight. Why? Because Lorie slept at a hotel on our second night in NYC to get some much-needed rest and my mind went drifting down memory lane as I sat alone in the patient room at MSKCC. I thought about all the good times we shared, the family we raised, and how much we love each other. I cried and cried. Suddenly, I knew that if chemotherapy could give me even just one more day with her, it would be worth the drug’s side effects.

And yes, there is still the hope of doing better and living longer than expected. The chances are remote, but not zero. More updates soon…

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.

Week Nine Just Fine

This is week #9 on clinical study, as I received my infusion of M7824 yesterday as planned. All of my pre-therapy vitals and bloodwork came back fine, which meant the treatment was a go. As with previous infusions, there were no issues during or after. Everything went just fine.

It was unfortunately a later night than expected, as Lorie and I just missed our 7:30pm train and had to catch one leaving the next hour. So, we ended up walking in the door at home around midnight. Could always be worse!

Following the discussion in my past few blog posts, I’ve been learning more about the concept of “pseudoprogression,” or the apparent growth of a tumor followed by sustained regression, which is common following treatment with checkpoint inhibitors. For example, I came across the video clip below by OncLiveTV that contains a discussion of “Pseudoprogression With Checkpoint Inhibitors in Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer,” where panelists explore the implications of this phenomenon for patients with NSCLC. While I do not have NSCLC, the overall concept of pseudoprogression with checkpoint inhibitors is relevant to my treatment and latest scan results – whereby the tumor growth exhibited could be from inflammation due to an ongoing positive immune response, or from an actual increase in the tumor that continues until the body’s immune system overpowers the cancer. It could also be a combination of the aforementioned. In any event, I think that pseudoprogression is an important concept for patients receiving some immunotherapies to better understand – especially when getting imaging results following treatment.

 

PS – anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a big Chicago Cubs baseball fan (having grown up in Chicago)…so I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to keep voting for retired catcher David Ross on this season’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’. In case you missed his debut performance, here’s a clip where he danced to Steve Goodman’s “Go Cubs Go” – while wearing Cubs gear.