Real World Health Care recently sat down with Dr. Razelle Kurzrock, Director, Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy & Clinical Trials Office, University of California San Diego Moores Cancer Center, to discuss the present state and future direction of genomics and immunotherapy.
Real World Health Care: Why was the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy formed at Moores Cancer Center? What was its initial goal and has that goal changed?
Razelle Kurzrok: The strategy for the Cancer Center really began to evolve with the arrival of Director Scott M. Lippman. We worked together at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and we both had an interest in moving into the precision medicine and personalized cancer medicine field. Based on our experience, we thought the Center could be transformative for patients with cancer. So, we started with a business plan that focused on the Center’s essential components: vigorous clinical trials, researching hereditary predispositions in cancer, genomics and immunotherapy. That plan and those components became the cornerstone for what we wanted to build and who we wanted to recruit.
The only change since then is that our scope has continued to grow. The field of genomics and immunotherapy has become more exciting. We also realized we needed a strong educational component, primarily because physicians were not overly familiar with genomics and immunotherapy, so we added a fellowship in personalized cancer therapy. We also opened a rare diseases clinic. Because some rare cancers don’t have an FDA-approved therapy, we look at these patients from a genomic or immunotherapy standpoint right from the start.
RWHC: How are patients selected to participate in your Experimental Therapeutics program?
RK: We have clinical trials and therapies for patients in all disease groups. But in addition, we have early clinical trials and genomically targeted or immunotherapy trials within Experimental Therapeutics. These trials are not disease based. Included in the Experimental Therapeutics trials are phase I studies that do not concentrate on a particular cancer. In the past, Phase I trials were considered as dose-finding trials. Today, these Phase I trials are more exciting and have therapeutic impact. Even the FDA is now occasionally approving drugs after Phase I testing. Included in Experimental Therapeutics are basket or umbrella trials, which look at cancer from immune or genomic points of view, instead of as “breast” or “colon” cancer. Both early-stage and umbrella trials don’t always fit well into the disease site program, so we developed our Experimental Therapeutics program.
We also wanted to develop a new way of looking at cancer. We choose patients for Experimental Therapeutics based on what we think is best for the particular patient at hand. Our tumor board reviews patients, and if they feel a trial in a disease-based program is warranted, that’s what is recommended. However, if biological characteristics indicate that patients would do best with a genomic or immune approach that is not disease based, the patients are funneled into our Experimental Therapeutics program.
RWHC: Can you give an example of a type of experimental immunotherapy that is being tested?
RK: While there are a number of novel molecules to talk about, I think it is our overall approach that is of interest. Immunotherapy is exciting…but it’s so exciting that the tendency is to give these therapies to everyone. Instead, we investigate the biomarkers that identify the patients who will respond well to a particular therapy. We know there are certain patients who will have a wonderful response to a particular immunotherapy drug, but other patients won’t. So we try to apply the personalized medicine approach to immunotherapy. We are now starting to identify biomarkers that will tell us which patient is best for immunotherapy and which may not benefit.
RWHC: Since creating the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy, has Moores Cancer Center seen an increase in positive patient outcomes? If yes, can you please explain to our readers?
RK: It certainly generates a lot of buzz when you have patients who were expected to die soon, but thanks to personalized cancer therapy, they are alive and doing well a year or two later. While these individual cases are important, we cannot rely on anecdotes. We therefore also analyze data on patient outcomes in a systemic way, with a protocol that lets us evaluate patient outcome data on more than a case-by-case basis. This is our PREDICT program. In fact, we just submitted a paper on the first 450 patients to go through our program. The data shows improved outcomes in almost every parameter, so that good buzz we’re sensing is corroborated by solid data.
RWHC: What types of companion diagnostics is the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy conducting to identify the best course of treatment for each individual patient?
RK: We certainly take advantage of FDA-approved companion diagnostics, based on label indications. However, we’re also very involved in working with different molecular diagnostic assays and looking at patients to see what those assays tell us about the patient. We want to know if those assays help us predict the best drugs for the patient.
RWHC: What type of enhancements might we see in the future of personalized medicine if researchers can use genomics on blood samples to predict patient outcomes or response to treatment?
RK: This is a really exciting area that we are working on within the Center’s liquid biopsy program. These are “biopsies” that look at DNA in the blood stream. In effect, one can do the analysis on a small tube of blood. And, it goes beyond the blood stream. We are also looking at genomics of DNA shed by tumors into the urine. These assays are still in a young phase and under development. But it’s amazing that we can take a blood or urine sample and use the genomic information in those samples to better understand response even before the patient gets a CAT scan. It can take months before a CAT scan shows response, but our research is beginning to suggest that urine or blood tests can give early information about both responses and resistance to treatment. We still have a lot work to do to prove the accuracy of the correlations, but when that happens, it will be revolutionary for the field.