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.”
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby