GRACE :: Treatments & Symptom Management

Stage IV/Advanced/Metastatic NSCLC

Posts on advanced/metastatic disease

Dr West

EGFR Molecular Markers and the Impact of Gene Mutations

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We’ve been talking about the potentially relevant molecular markers for EGFR, and the importance of EGFR as a cancer target (see prior post), without really describing what these markers are. There are three main aspects of EGFR biology that have been studied for their potential predictive value in consideration of EGFR inhibitor therapy, whether the oral tyrosine kinase inhibitors like tarceva (erlotinib) or iressa (gefitinib), or the monoclonal antibodies against EGFR such as erbitux (cetuximab). What are these markers?

Common EGFR Analytical Techniques

(Click to enlarge)

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Dr West

EGFR Inhibitor Combination Tested in Advanced NSCLC

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As I’ve described in various posts about targeting the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), one of the main signals that is important in many lung cancers, there are agents like gefitinib (iressa) and erlotinib (tarceva) that target the internal switch that triggers activity inside the cell, and there are agents like cetuximab (erbitux) that work on the external front end receptor to block activity:

Inhibiting EGFR figure

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I must admit that I’ve always been curious whether combining these two appoaches, giving an oral EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) with a weekly IV EGFR monoclonal antibody would potentially provide a synergistic inhibition and impressive activity. For the first time, Ramalingam and colleagues have published their limited experience of combining iressa and erbitux in a small trial of patients with advanced NSCLC (abstract here). Unfortunately, the results don’t look particularly impressive.

My friend Dr. Ramalingam has just recently moved from Pittsburgh to head the lung cancer program at Emory University in Atlanta, but while at the University of Pittsburgh he and colleagues there conducted this study to assess the safety and get a sense of the activity of a combination of iressa with erbitux. Iressa, the first EGFR TKI approved for NSCLC, was studied at the previously approved standard dose of 250 mg daily (subsequently found to not be significantly superior to placebo in a large trial of previously treated patients with advanced NSCLC and taken off the market). Erbitux was given at increasing doses, starting at a rather low dose and escalating to a point of maximum safe/tolerable dose for the combination. For these “phase I” trials of safety, small numbers of patients are usually enrolled. This study included 13 patients who had received at least one prior chemo regimen for advanced NSCLC.

Although the numbers were small, there were no responses seen, and only 4 patients (31%) even showed stable disease. Progression was pretty quick, and 3 patients developed severe declines in blood magnesium levels, which is a known side effect of erbitux, but this was a high rate.

The investigators also tried to do some molecular studies from the subset of 10 patients who had some tissue to work with. They didn’t find any EGFR mutations that would be expected to be associated with robust EGFR TKI responses. They also did not detect any RAS mutations that are generally recognized as being very unlikely to show a response on EGFR TKIs.

There are many reasons why this little study is far from the definitive word on the subect. Iressa at the dose tested is not as effective as tarceva, so perhaps the results would have been more favorable with tarceva. Perhaps these results just happen to be particularly disappointing in a small number of patients who happened to not benefit, but a larger study would have shown better results that represent reality better. Or maybe this combination isn’t particularly useful in a general population but could be very impressive in a more selected population, based on EGFR mutations or never-smoker status. I’ve also wondered whether adding erbitux to tarceva in a patient who has now become resistant to tarceva after a prior good response would restore activity. But we don’t have any evidence on any of these questions.

For now, I think all we can say is that a combination of EGFR TKI and monoclonal antibody doesn’t lead to blockbuster activity in NSCLC. But expect to see a lot more trials of targeted agents in coming years.


Dr West

Recent Results with Talactoferrin: Reason to Move Forward

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As I described in part I of this subject (last post here), lactoferrin is an immunostimulatory protein that is found in highest concentrations in breast milk (hence the name), and the recombinant form talactoferrin alfa (TLF) was combined with chemo in a randomized phase II study of front line advanced NSCLC in which the combination was associated with an impressively higher response rate than chemo alone. The rate of side effects was also significantly lower among the patients who had TLF added instead of a placebo. While these results are promising, the agent made relatively little splash in the lung community, generating little attention from the poster presentation of this work in 2006. But this was just a phase II trial with 110 patients, so it’s reasonable to hope for corroborating evidence of benefit before believing these results are more than a fluke. In 2007, another randomized phase II trial of TLF vs. placebo, now as single agents, was reported that supported the findings from the first line trial, this trial with overall survival as the primary endpoint.

The trial presented last year by Parikh and colleagues from several centers in India enrolled 100 advanced NSCLC patients who had previously received either one line (about 3/4 of patients) or two lines (about 1/4 of patients) of prior systemic therapy, who were randomized to receive oral TLF or placebo (ASCO abstract here, subsequent World Conference on Lung Cancer abstract here). Treatment with this oral agent was twice daily for twelve weeks, followed by two weeks off, for a total “cycle” of a rather unconventional 14 weeks. Repeat CT scans were done about 7 weeks into the treatment, with a total of 81 of the original 100 patients getting that follow-up scan and considered evaluable.

So what happened? As shown in the figure below, overall survival was significantly higher in the recipients of TLF, whether you look at the median survival an “intent to treat (IIT)” analysis of everyone enrolled (whether you received enough treatment to be re-scanned seven weeks later), the 81 patients who were evaluable. In addition to median survival, six month survival was significantly greater for TLF recipients by both an IIT analysis and looking at just the evaluable patients:

Parikh OS rand ph II bars

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Dr West

Talactoferrin Alfa (TLF): Mother’s Milk Becomes Cancer Treatment

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We’ve covered several novel agents for treating lung cancer, but a new one that has shown promise in early studies and now is the subject of larger phase III trials is a drug called talactoferrin alfa (TLF), from a small company based in Houston called Agennix. I think it’s possible that much of the reason there hasn’t been much buzz behind this treatment, despite the very intriguing results, is that this agent is so different from the mechanisms we know well already, like blocking angiogenesis, inhibiting EGFR, combining these approaches, etc. And the fact that this is a small company far from the big pharma and biotech hubs like New Jersey and the Bay Area probably contribute; in addition, all of the results thus far have been generated out of India, which has many lung cancer patients but few recognized leaders in the field, so there hasn’t been an identifiable spokesperson to introduce the lung cancer world to the novel agent and concept of TLF. But let’s try to remedy this situation, because I’m inclined to keep my eye on it for the next few years.

TLF is an oral protein that is a recombinant product that is structurally identical in all material respects to human lactoferrin, an important immunomodulatory product that is expressed throughout the body in immune cells. As the name implies, it is found in highest concentration in breast milk, and it is important in contributing to the development of an infant’s immune system. The largest component of the immune system is actually the “gut-associated lymphoid tissue” (GALT), where the cells of the immune system interface with vast amounts of new proteins from the outside world (food). TLF is purported to work by getting taken up by the immune cell centers of the gut, called Peyer’s patches, where they induce immature dendritic cells, which are some of the heavy lifters teaching the rest of the immune cells what to focus on and what to ignore, to mature. Although the immune system is very complicated, the end result is that TLF can activate dendritic cells of the immune system and thereby lead to increased immune function against tumor cells.

Talactoferrin MOA

(Click on image to enlarge) Please don’t worry if you don’t “get” these immune system principle: I show the figure in case people are interested, but it’s not on the quiz. Your immune system is like your television — you don’t need to know how it works to be able to use it. Suffice it to say that there are several lab-based studies with animal models of cancer that support this immunostimulatory role for TLF. But the real issue is what it does in humans. Continue reading


Dr West

Vinflunine (Javlor) as Second Line NSCLC Option?

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Although much of our focus has been on targeted therapies, there are still new conventional chemotherapies that are being introduced and may have a meaningful impact on lung cancer. One that has been tested in late clinical trials, including a phase III randomized study, is vinflunine, which is a novel version of a chemo drug called a microtubule inhibitor, in the same general family as navelbine, one of our more commonly used drugs in NSCLC (and broadly useful in many cancer types). Leading side effects have most typically been decreased blood counts, fatigue, and GI problems like nausea/vomiting, abdominal pain, and constipation. Unlike taxol and taxotere, it doesn’t require any steroid premedication and is given by vein over just 10-20 minutes, typically one day every three weeks.

After the earliest studies, vinflunine was developed in lung cancer, including a second-line trial in 60 patients previously treated with platinum-based chemo (abstract here). There was an 8% response rate and another 50% with stable disease, so overall we can say that there’s proof of activity. But the big test was a randomized phase III trial conducted in Europe, randomizing 551 patients who had received first line chemo, to now receive either taxotere IV every three weeks or vinflunine IV every three weeks (abstract here):

Vinflunine Javlor Phase III schema

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