Thursday, April 22, 2010

CAR Accidents: Unexpected and Serious Toxicity in Gene Transfer Immunotherapy

This month's issue of Molecular Therapy- the premium journal covering developments in gene transfer- reports two deaths in recent cancer gene transfer studies. Both studies involved a similar anti-cancer strategy, in which a patient's T cells are genetically modified to mount a strong and sudden immune attack against the patient's cancer (the particular genetic modification is known as "CAR," for chimeric antigen receptors). Both were phase 1 studies. Both patients died from what looks like "cytokine storm"- the same phenomenon that caused life threatening toxicity in the Tegenero TGN1412 study in 2005. In one case, the authors attribute death to the gene transfer; in the other, the authors categorize the death as possibly related to the gene transfer (the latter was previously described at ASGT in 2009).

In all likelihood, these patients (or at least, one of the patients) will be the third or fourth death in gene transfer that is clearly attributable to gene transfer. Don't expect too much public hand-wringing or media coverage, however: in both cases, the patients were adults and had terminal cancer. I have not made a careful study of these particular trials or the strategies they employ. So the following thoughts about these deaths should be read with caution:

1- Unpredictability: These deaths point, once again, to the unpredictability of strategies aimed at training the immune system to respond against tumors. Immune systems are notoriously difficult to model in animals, and as a result, every human study is essentially a shot in the dark. The authors of one of the reports sagely urge that phase 1 studies using similar strategies begin at low doses.

2-Where's the Toxicology? Neither report mentions anything about observing similar toxicities in preclinical studies. Indeed, neither report even mentions preclinical toxicology studies. One wonders why: were they done? how were they done? what was observed? For example, both studies involved immunosuppression co-interventions aimed at enhancing the effects of the T-cells (in one case, administration of the drug cyclophosphamide; in the other, use of nonmyeloablative conditioning). Were toxicology studies performed in animals receiving these immunosuppression treatments?

3-Did Investigators Give Preclinical Studies Their Best Shot at Producing Similar Toxicity? Both phase 1 studies were supported by preclinical studies using mice that lacked functional immune systems. One has to wonder how useful it is to test immunotherapies in mice that lack properly functioning immune systems. From what I can tell, in neither the first nor the second case did investigators perform preclinical studies that simultaneously delivered modified T-cells and immunosuppressive drugs.

4- Please: No More Gratuitous Appeals to the Integrity of the Investigators. An editorial by a leading expert on CARs accompanies the reports in Molecular Therapy and provides a very helpful summary and context of the events. It ends, however, with the statement "it is a great credit to all investigators involved that they have been so forthcoming in providing detailed reports of serious adverse events." I heard similar sentiments expressed when one of the deaths was presented at a scientific meeting last year. True- the research team did provide an unusually extensive report and investigation, including autopsy. However, careful and public reporting of serious adverse events is exactly what researchers are supposed to do in phase 1 studies involving highly innovative approaches; praising them for coming forward with this kind of information is a bit like congratulating Canada every time it holds a democratic election. One has to wonder whether there is a reserve of trial deaths that are never investigated or reported. (photo credit: Steve Kay 2008)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Testing Testing...: Personal Medicine, Breast Cancer, and Policy

Personalized medicine is supposed to usher an era in which treatments are tailored to individuals. And HER2 testing has long been seen as heralding the promise of personalized medicine: tumors that test positive for an amplified HER2 gene are more likely to be responsive to drugs, like trastuzumab, that block the HER2 receptor.

Some may see HER2 testing as foreshadowing a perfect future in which treatment decisions are coupled to molecular diagnostics. But Gina Kolata in the New York Times instead tells a story of shadows. Like all medical tests, HER2 testing is error prone: some tumors test positive when they are in fact negative, and others test negative when they are in fact positive. And some results are just plain ambiguous, with parts of the tumor being positive and other parts being negative. Kolata describes the challenges that women and their physicians confront when interpreting test results.

Most troubling in this story is the role, or lack thereof, played by regulatory agencies like the FDA. Quoting Kolata: "there is a proliferation of laboratories offering tests without F.D.A. oversight. But, for now, the agency has no specific plan to regulate the tests, in part because of lack of money." If FDA is not prepared to regulate tests because of resource constraints, and prescription decisions are likely to be increasingly coupled to diagnostic tests, it logically follows that FDA is not prepared to regulate the approval and use of newer generation, test-based drugs. In other words, FDA seems unable to establish the validity of labeling indications for drugs that rely on diagnostic tests. This can't be a good thing for patients, physicians, or third party payers (but is great for the makers of drugs and diagnostics, who thrive in this kind of clinical and regulatory uncertainty!) (photo credit: crafty dame, breast cancer cells, 2009)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Teaching Kills Blogging: Somewhat Recent Developments...

Dear Faithful Readers: Teaching has cut my blogging to a trickle, though the teaching has now begun to taper off. My silence is not for want of major developments in the last two months. Among a few highlights:

Obama picks members for his Bioethics advisory panel: White house recently announced membership of its "Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues." The group is smaller than past Presidential panels. Its membership is lean on working bioethicists (3 or 4 who clearly fit the classic definition-- all others scientists, clinicians, federal employees, university administrators, or a disease advocate).

Health care reform (+ Translational Research) passes in the U.S.: Among the intriguing elements here is the relationship between reform and biomedical research. When Clinton proposed healthcare reform in the 1990s, there was much consternation in the research community that this would spell a retreat from investment in basic research. Indeed, failure to enact reform propelled a massive expansion of the NIH budget through the 1990s. This time around, healthcare reform has specifically integrated basic research. The law includes language creating a "Cures Acceleration Network" that would fund up to $15M/year in translational research (though the budget will depend on direct appropriation from Congress, and there is no certainty that it will be funded).

Gene Patents Voided: Following an ACLU challenge, a U.S. District Court Judge threw out Myriad Genetics' patent on BRCA1 and BRCA2 (genes associated with hereditary breast cancer; the company markets a $3K per pop test for mutations in the genes) by ruling that the genes are "products of nature." Products of nature are not patentable, though products purified from nature (e.g. enzymes, wood chemicals, etc.) are. The logic behind the decisions is that genes are better thought of as information rather than as chemicals, and that information extracted from the natural entities does not have distinct properties in the way that chemicals do. If ever there were a demonstration of the power of metaphors; suffice it to say, biotechnology companies will appeal. (photo credit: aurelian s 2008)