How Genetic Testing and Targeted Treatments Are Helping More Cancer Patients Survive
Late in 2018, Chris Reiner found himself “chasing a persistent cough” to figure out a cause. He talked to doctors; he endured various tests, including an X-ray. Initially, his physician suspected bronchitis. After several months, he still felt no improvement. In May 2019, his general practitioner recommended that Reiner, a business development specialist for a Seattle-based software company, schedule a CAT scan.
Reiner knew immediately that his doctor asking him to visit his office to discuss the results wasn’t a good sign. The longtime resident of Newburyport, MA, remembers dreading “that conversation that people who learn they have cancer have.”
“The doctor handed me something to look at, and the only thing I remember after that was everything went blank all around me,” Reiner, 50, reveals. “It was the magnitude of what he was telling me, that I had a malignant mass in my lung.”
Next, he recalls, he felt ushered into “the jaws of the medical system very quickly.” He spent a couple of days meeting with a team of doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in nearby Boston. One of them was from a medical field he hadn’t even known existed, a pulmonary interventionist, who would perform a biopsy on the mass in his lung.
“Knowing there was a medicine for my particular type of cancer was like a weight lifted off my shoulders."
A week later he and his wife Allison returned to meet with the oncologist, radiologist, pulmonary interventionist – his medical team. They confirmed his initial diagnosis: Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer that had spread to several parts of his body. “We just sat there, stunned,” he says. “I felt like I was getting hit by a wrecking ball over and over.”
An onslaught of medical terminology about what they had identified flowed over the shocked couple, but then the medical team switched gears, he recalls. They offered hope. “They told me, ‘Hey, you’re not a smoker, so that’s good,’” Reiner says. “‘There’s a good chance that what’s driving this disease for you is actually a genetic mutation, and we have ways to understand more about what that could be through some simple testing.’”
They told him about Foundation Medicine, a company launched in neighboring Cambridge, MA, in 2009 that develops, manufactures, and sells genomic profiling assays. These are tests that, according to the company’s website, “can analyze a broad panel of genes to detect the four main classes of genomic alterations known to drive cancer growth.” With these insights, certain patients can be matched with therapies targeted specifically for the genetic driver(s) of their cancer. The company maintains one of the largest cancer genomic databases in the world, with more than 500,000 patient samples profiled, and they have more than 65 biopharma partners.
According to Foundation Medicine, they are the only company that has FDA-approved tests for both tissue- and blood-based comprehensive genomic profiling tests. One other company has an FDA-approved biopsy test, and several other companies offer tissue-based genomic profiling. Additionally, several major cancer centers like Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York and Anderson Cancer Center in Texas have their own such testing platforms.
Currently, genomic profiling is more accessible for patients with advanced cancer, due to broader insurance coverage in later stages of disease.
“Right now, the vast majority of patients either have cancers for which we don’t have treatments or they have genetic alterations that are not known,” says Jorge Garcia, MD, Division Chief, Solid Tumor Oncology, UH Cleveland Medical Center, which has its own CGP testing platform. “However, a significant proportion of patients with advanced cancer have alterations that we can tap for therapeutic purposes.”
Foundation Medicine estimates that in 2017, just over 5 percent of advanced solid cancer patients in the U.S. received CGP testing. In 2021, they estimate that number is between 25 to 30 percent of advanced solid cancer patients in the U.S., which doesn’t include patients who are tested with small (less than 50 genes) panels. Their panel tests for more than 300 cancer-related genes.
“The good news is the platforms we are developing are better and more comprehensive, and they’re going to continue to be larger data sets,” Dr. Garcia adds.
In Reiner’s case, his team ordered comprehensive genetic profiling on both his tissue and blood, from Foundation Medicine.
At this point, Reiner still wasn’t sure what genetic mutations were or how they factored into cancer or what comprehensive genomic profiling entailed. That day, though, his team ushered the Reiners into the world of precision oncology that placed him on much more sure footing to learn about and fight the specific lung cancer that had been troubling him for more than a year.
What genetic alterations were driving his cancer? Foundation Medicine’s tests were about to find out.
At the core of these tests is next generation sequencing, a DNA sequencing technology. Since 2009, this has revolutionized genomic research, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, because it allows an entire human genome to be sequenced within one day. Cancer genomics posits that cancer is caused by mutations and is a disease of the genome. Now, cancer genomes can be systemically studied in their entirety. For cancer patients such as Reiner, NGS can provide a more precise diagnosis and classification of the disease, more accurate prognosis, and potentially the identification of targeted drug treatments. Ultimately, the technology can provide the basis of personalized cancer management.
The detailed reports supply patients and their oncologists with extensive information about the patient’s genomic profile and potential treatment options that they can discuss together. Reiner trusted his doctors that this approach was worth the two- or three-week wait to receive the Foundation Medicine report and the specifically targeted treatment, rather than immediately jump into a round of chemotherapy. He is especially grateful now, he says, because the report delivered a great deal of relief from his previously exhausting and growing anxiety about having cancer.
Reiner and his team learned his lung cancer contained the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutation. That biomarker enabled his oncologist to prescribe Tagrisso (osimertinib), a medication developed to directly target that genetic mutation.
“Knowing there was a medicine for my particular type of cancer was like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” he says. “It only took a week or two before my cough finally started subsiding. This pill goes right after the particular piece of genetic material in the tumor that’s causing its growth.”
Dr. Jerry Mitchell, director field medical oncology, Foundation Medicine, in Columbus, Ohio, explains that genomic profiling is generating substantial impacts today. “This is a technology that is the standard of care across many advanced malignancies that takes patients from chemotherapy-only options to very targeted options or immunotherapy options,” he says. “You can also look at complex biomarkers, and these are not specific genetic changes but different genes across the tumor to get a biomarker.”
According to Dr. Mitchell, Foundation Medicine’s technology can test more than 324 different cancer-related genes in a single test. Thus, a growing number of patients are benefitting from comprehensive genetic profiling, due to the rapidly growing number of targeted therapies. While not all of the cancers are treatable yet, the company uses that information to partner with researchers to find new potential therapies for patient groups that may have rare mutations.
Since his tumor’s diagnosis, Reiner has undergone chemotherapy and a couple surgeries to treat the metastatic cancer in other parts of his body, but the drug Tagrisso has significantly reduced his lung tumor. Now, having learned so much during the past couple of years, he is grateful for precision oncology. He still reflects on the probability that, had the Tagrisso pill not been available in May 2019, he might have only survived for another six months or a year.
“Comprehensive Genomic Profiling is not some future state, but in both the U.S. and Europe, it is a very standard, accepted, and recommended first step to knowing how to treat your cancer,” says Dr. Mitchell, adding that he feels fortunate to be an oncologist in this era. “However, we know there are still people not getting this recommended testing, so we still have opportunities to find many more patients and impact them by knowing the molecular profile of their cancer.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.