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Forbes Says: "With So Many Terrific New Drugs For Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), Why Worry?" I Say It's a Tempest in A Teapot

By Bkoffman
Forbes says:
Hydra (the mythical monster that grows two heads when you cut off one)

Elaine Schattner wrote a provocative and helpful editorial in Forbes: With So Many Terrific New Drugs for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, Why worry? I recommend we all read it, but that we also read it critically.

My friend and fellow cancer advocate Andrew Schorr wisely reminds of us a friend with CLL who has done very well without treatment for nearly 18 years.

We know that about three out of every ten of us diagnosed will follow a very indolent (slow) course and never need treatment.
And so the author cautions us to avoid unneeded therapy. Good counsel. Never take a treatment that's not needed. All drugs and I mean all drugs have side effects. 
Her concern and motive for her editorial is that thousands of us will rise up demanding that our hematologists offer us the new expensive therapies just because they are so darn safe and effective when we would be better off doing nothing, just watching and waiting. Hordes of CLL patients will ignore the carefully tuned 2008 iwCLL guidelines on treatment, and demand an immediate prescription NOW before we are in troubled waters.
I believe it's a false concern. 
A powerful and practical reason that Ms. Schattner is worrying over nothing is that these expensive drug are not approved frontline (except for ibrutinib in 17p deleted patients as detailed in this recent post). It is highly unlikely insurance is going to pay for an off label use of a pricey therapy when there is ZERO data to support it. And of course, there are vanishingly few of us that could afford the out of pocket cost of at least the several thousand dollars a month for any of the three new star therapies (in order of appearance on the CLL stage): ofatumumab, obinutuzumab, ibrutinib and idelalisib.That said, I am a sure that there will be a few patients among us who will think it is the height of craziness to sit on our hands. We should strike the cancer while is still in its infancy well before it has the time to achieve its typical mature persistence and wily ways, making it such a formidable foe, making a cure still a dream for almost all of us. Kill it before it grows into a multi headed hydra.  
But a quick review of the facts should dissuade us from this tempting but false path. There is absolutely no evidence that early intervention helps. In this oft quoted article from 1988, Treatment of early chronic lymphocytic leukemia: intermittent chlorambucil versus observationand this one from the NEJM in the same yearshow we learned that there was no survival advantage to early intervention. And there are certainly risks. Studies such as these reinforces the importance of knowing the data and also knowing where there is no data.
Wait you say: Chlorambucil may have been state of the art in 1988, but today we have better therapies. Might not the results be different if we looked again using today's drugs? 
Good question. The same sort of trial was set up with FCR, but died on the vine due to lack of enrollment.
That is why trial such as this closed trial on using lenalidomide or this new one using ofatumumab are so important and need our support.
Although prognostic factors such as FISH and ZAP 70 and mutation status tell us much about a group of individuals and little about the individual members of that group, wouldn't we all want to jump out of the high risk frying pan and get far away from the heat in the kitchen to a calm place of low risk if we could do so by intervening early?
That's is exactly why we need more studies to answer if it is possible to save more lives by using the new mAbs such as ofatumumab and obinutuzumab and the new TKIs such as ibrutinib and idelalisib and others in the pipeline before we traditionally need treatment. There is good reason to believe it just might be so, but without data…. it's only conjecture.
So what do I recommend?
I believe these drugs should be moved towards more frontline therapy for all patients with the help of well designed trials. 
I believe these drugs should be studied in those of us with high risk unstable disease before we need treatment. 
And maybe I am about to sound like a doctor when I say this: I also believe that outside of a clinical trial, there is no role for these drugs for patients who don't meet criteria for treatment.
The Forbes editorial ends with some sage advice:
As with other malignancies, the best way to prevent overtreatment is to assure that doctors are current in their education, knowledgeable of “lesser” treatment approaches, and not motivated by financial incentives to give therapy. And for patients, the best prophylaxis is to know that not all conditions carrying a malignant label warrant treatment. Patients might ask, “What’s the least toxic therapy you can give, so that I’m likely to stay alive with the quality of life I want, with this particular form of cancer?That's precisely what we are trying to do here. Educate doctors and patients about low toxicity options.If you want a personal response, or just want to stay in touch, please email me at [email protected] I have no other way of contacting. Thanks. Stay strong. After all, we are all in this together.

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