Real World Health Care Blog

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Cutting-Edge Melanoma Treatment at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey

This week, Real World Health Care continues our series on melanoma by interviewing two colleagues from the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Sharad Goyal, MD, is Associate Professor and Director of Clinical and Translational Research in the department of Radiation Oncology. He treats patients with brain tumors, melanoma and skin cancers, providing comprehensive cancer evaluation and the latest treatment planning technology to “map” tumors. He designs radiation treatments with pinpoint accuracy, ensuring that tumors get the most effective dose while healthy tissues and organs are spared.

Ann W. Silk, MD, is a medical oncologist who cares for patients with melanoma, and other skin cancers. She also leads clinical trials focused on combination treatment with immunotherapy and viral therapy for melanoma and other cancers.

Drs. Goyal and Silk discuss their work as part of a multidisciplinary team that translates research of investigational treatments and directly applies them to patient therapies.

Managing Multiple Melanoma Brain Metastases

Real World Health Care: How is treatment advancing for patients with multiple brain metastases (MBM) from melanoma?

Sharad Goyal; Faculty and Staff, Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick, NJ. 05/01/2014 Photo by Steve Hockstein/HarvardStudio.com

Sharad Goyal: The treatment of brain metastases from melanoma is controversial and includes surgical resection, stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) and whole brain radiation (WBRT). Several new classes of agents have revolutionized the treatment of metastatic melanoma, allowing for subsets of patients to have long-term survival. Given this, management of MBM from melanoma is continually evolving.

As patients are living longer due to more effective systemic therapy, surveillance and management of intracranial disease is increasingly important. At this time, the standard of management for patients with MBM from melanoma includes SRS, WBRT, or a combination of both.

In addition, emerging data supports the notion that SRS, in combination with targeted therapies or immune therapy, may reduce the need for whole brain radiation. Prospective studies are required to fully evaluate the efficacy of these novel regimens in combination with radiation therapy. Given the advances in systemic therapy of melanoma, it is critical that oncologists treating these patients be aware of new treatment paradigms to optimize the outcomes for all patients with metastatic melanoma.

RWHC: Are there ways to treat melanoma in order to avoid or lessen the chances of brain metastases? Does early initial detection of melanoma help?

SG: Early detection of melanoma will always help reduce the chance a patient develops brain metastases. There is usually a fairly lengthy period when the tumor expands beneath the top layer of skin but doesn’t go any deeper. This allows time for screening, early detection, treatment, and a full recovery if the tumor is discovered before it spreads.

After a patient is diagnosed with melanoma, the use of certain anticancer treatments that are given after a cancer is surgically removed, such as interferon alfa and ipilimumab, will allow for an improvement in overall survival in patients with stage III or IV melanoma. In addition, the use of anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors prolongs overall survival in patients with stage IV melanoma. Currently, many studies are underway investigating the optimal anticancer treatment in patients with Stage III melanoma.

Promising Therapies

RWHC: What are the most promising therapies on the horizon for metastatic melanoma?

Ann W. Silk, MD, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey

Ann Silk: Melanoma is the “posterchild” for breakthrough immunotherapies. At Rutgers CINJ, we are testing novel combinations of new agents coupled with immunotherapies. Those novel agents help to “prime” tumors so immunotherapies work better. One example of this is combining an immune checkpoint inhibitor pembrolizumab with intra-tumoral injections of talimogene laherperepvec, which is a live herpesvirus that infects cancer cells, replicates within them, and lyses the cancer cell, thus killing the cell. We’re also seeing promising early results in trials that combine intra-tumoral injections of coxsackievirus with injections of pembrolizumab, with response rate of 60%, which we reported at this year’s American Association of Cancer Research Annual Meeting. We have just recently opened a study in which we will combine IL-2 cytokine therapy with pembrolizumab, a combination of two drugs that have already demonstrated good activity in metastatic melanoma.  They are each FDA-approved as single-agents, but we are studying them as a combination therapy. The goal of these studies is to build on the success of immunotherapies to increase response rates, particularly complete response rates.

Access to Clinical Trials

RWHC: What are some of the biggest challenges facing researchers studying metastatic melanoma?

AS: Access to clinical trials is a challenge, from a patient or participant status. Running clinical trials requires vast resources and numerous support personnel, so they tend to be concentrated at large medical centers. As a result, only about five percent of the patient population has access to these trials. I think that number should be closer to 80 percent. Trials aren’t only important for the patients receiving the treatment; the knowledge we gain also helps future patients.

Treating Melanoma

RWHC: What are the biggest challenges facing clinicians treating patients with metastatic melanoma?

SG: One of the most challenging types of cancer to treat is melanoma and the most challenging area it can spread to is the brain. With the advancements being made in cancer treatment, the odds of survival for many of these patients are changing dramatically.

In recent years, our understanding of cancer biology has progressed substantially and this has led to the development of targeted therapies and immunotherapies. These novel therapies have prolonged survival in a disease which previously had a dismal outcome. As patients are living longer due to more effective systemic therapy, surveillance and management of intracranial disease is of increasing importance.

AS: There are many standard therapies approved to treat melanoma, and as indicated earlier, there’s lots of research activity in this area as well. Patients benefit from the wealth of approved therapies on the market. But while about 30-40 percent of patients will respond very well to these therapies, the majority still struggle and succumb to their disease. Patients who don’t respond to the first line of treatment must move on to a second line of treatment. Once those treatment options are exhausted, the only course of action is to try and get the patient enrolled in an investigational therapy trial. In many cases, the patient would benefit from earlier involvement in clinical trials.

Early and Current Inspirations

RWHC: What initially interested you in researching melanoma and treating people with the disease? What continues to inspire you?

AS: I became interested in the interplay between cancer and the immune system in my first job as a data manager at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where I managed one of the first clinical trials of ipilumumab, which was later FDA approved with the distinction of being the first drug that prolonged survival in melanoma. I was inspired by researchers who were on the forefront of personalizing medicine by using the immune system to attack cancer cells. Ever since then, in both my research and clinical practice, I haven’t found any better ally in the fight against cancer than retraining the immune system to attack cancer cells.

SG: Throughout my career, I have been inspired by the cancer patients I treat.  The relationships that I have developed with patients and their families are unlike those in almost any other medical specialty. Once a patient has a diagnosis of cancer, I am able to see the patient and his or her family members on a regular basis and develop a long-lasting relationship with them.

Accelerating Melanoma Research

It’s Melanoma Awareness Month and this week, Real World Health Care is pleased to shine a light on The Society for Melanoma Research. We spoke with the Society’s President, Keith Flaherty, MD. In addition to his role with SMR, Dr. Flaherty serves as director of the Henri & Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapy and the Richard Saltonstall Chair in Oncology at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.

Supporting a Diverse Melanoma Research Community

Real World Health Care: Please describe the mission of the Society for Melanoma Research.

Dr. Keith Flaherty, Society for Melanoma Research

Keith Flaherty: The Society for Melanoma Research was intended to be a scientific home for the melanoma research community. When it was created in 2003, there was no organization run by and for melanoma scientists that convened regular scientific meetings to provide a venue for publication of melanoma research. Our research community is quite diverse, spanning many medical specialties and numerous scientific disciplines. Simply bridging the divide between the clinical research community and laboratory-based investigators was central to the SMR mission.

RWHC: What type of research programs do you support and how do you support them?

KF: Our primary supporting role is served by organizing and hosting an annual, international, scientific conference focused on melanoma research. We support travel to the meeting for trainees and young scientists. Plus, we maintain a web-based presence and newsletter to update our members on emerging discoveries. Additionally, we partnered with the International Federation of Pigment Cell Societies to transform a pre-existing Journal (Pigment Cell Research) into Pigment Cell and Melanoma Research in order to have a peer-reviewed journal supported by SMR with scientific leadership by melanoma researchers.

Combination Therapy Research

RWHC: Are there any studies your members are involved in that are particularly promising at this moment?

KF: As ours is the only international scientific society focused on melanoma research, our membership includes all of the clinical investigators from the major academic centers who have been conducting groundbreaking clinical trials in melanoma over the past eight years. Outcomes for patients with metastatic melanoma have been transformed by the development of molecularly targeted and immunotherapies. The most promising current trials have been investigating combinations of these two approaches at the same time. Preliminary results presented at the 2016 SMR Congress suggest that these combination approaches may further improve outcome significantly.

Multidisciplinary Collaboration

RWHC: Why are multidisciplinary collaborations so important in developing new therapies for melanoma? How is the SMR working to encourage or create such collaborations?

KF: Multidisciplinary collaborations can be defined by teams of clinical investigators, such as medical oncologists, surgical oncologists, pathologist, and radiologists. Or, they can encompass clinical and laboratory-based investigators partnering together. We have numerous examples of each kind within and across the major academic medical centers with a focus on melanoma research.

For years, the melanoma research community was characterized by empiric clinical trials in which therapies that had been successful in other cancer types were tried in melanoma, but with little scientific basis and focus on understanding whether those therapies were doing their molecular “job” or not. Since the late 2000s, the emergence of BRAF, MEK, CTLA-4 and PD-1 inhibitors has provided not only substantial benefit to patients, but it has transformed the research approach by bringing clinical and laboratory-based scientists together. Even for these FDA approved therapies, there remain questions regarding mechanisms of action and resistance which are critical to informing rational combination therapies that will be the focus of the next generation of clinical trials. This approach literally taught us how to define the limits of these partially effective therapies and will hopefully accelerate our pace of progress.

More Funding, More Time

RWHC: What are the biggest challenges melanoma researchers face today and how can they be overcome?

KF: Funding and time. For a decade, we have seen a decline in publicly funded research. The U.S. has always been the largest investor in biomedical research, and pairing that down has had global impact. New discoveries are made through publicly funded research before private sector research comes in to take those discoveries and reduce them to practice. This has made the melanoma research field increasingly dependent on philanthropic foundations and individuals.

Additionally, clinical researchers are constantly pulled between clinical duties and research activities. Many medical centers cannot afford to have their clinicians spending time on research. Therefore, research funding is needed to cover the portion of their time that is away from direct patient care. With the accelerated pace of technology development relevant to biomedical research and the inroads that we have made in the past eight years with regard to therapeutic approaches, there is more opportunity now than ever to accelerate the application of science to medicine for melanoma patients. But, these rate limiting factors are unquestionably slowing us down.

Industry’s Role

RWHC: What role do you think the biopharmaceutical industry should play in furthering research into new melanoma therapies?

KF: As always, advancing diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to widespread use requires risk-taking and investment by the biopharmaceutical industry.

In the cancer field overall and melanoma specifically, we have seen tighter integration between the public and private sectors that has come as a consequence of the initial successes with the now FDA-approved drugs. This has drawn in more interest from companies developing novel diagnostic technology that may allow us not only to find localized, advanced melanoma at an earlier point, but also allow us to deploy the optimal therapy for each patient in a personalized way. And, of course, the very costly process of drug development requires involvement of the biopharmaceutical industry from beginning to end.

Through close collaboration with the academic scientific community, we are able to discern very early in development whether a new therapy is accomplishing its biological task before investing massive additional resources in large-scale clinical trials to prove whether or not it has a clinical impact.

Dramatic Unmet Need

RWHC: What initially attracted you to the field of melanoma research?

KF: I was attracted to the melanoma field first and foremost by the dramatic unmet need. It is a cancer that has an awe-inspiring ability to metastasize from tiny primary tumors, making the challenge of early detection a key hurdle. And, when melanoma metastasizes, it is one of the most aggressive cancer types. Melanoma affects a far greater proportion of young adults than other more common cancers, making it one of the leading cancers with regard to aggregate years of life lost. At the time that I was entering the field, it seemed that the pace with which biologic insights into melanoma were being made was increasing. And, right at the end of my training, BRAF mutations were discovered and that drew my focus for all of the years since.

A MESSAGE FROM OUR SPONSOR:

The HealthWell Foundation, sponsor of Real World Health Care, is proud to have supported the melanoma patient community in recent years with copayment and premium assistance. We have helped more than 2,230 melanoma patients afford their treatments since approving our first Melanoma grant in 2011 — thanks to the generous support of our corporate partners. Due to high patient volume, our melanoma fund is temporarily closed until we receive additional funding. We invite corporations and individuals to help us meet this demand by contributing to our Melanoma-Medicare Access Fund, so nobody goes without essential medications because they cannot afford them.

Categories: General, Melanoma