Tag Archives: clinical trials

Linnea live (I like the sound of that)

This video was recorded at the annual LUNGevity Hope Summit in 2014 and fits in perfectly with the theme of clinical trials. When I refer to starting a new trial, it is for PF-06463922 or lorlatanib (which has kept my cancer stable for 18 months now–woohoo!). I’m a little breathless and hoarse as my cancer was advancing again. I noticed immediately how fast I am speaking– markedly slowed speech has been a side effect of PF-06463922.

Slow, fast, hoarse or not, the most important message here is one of hope (thank you LUNGevity). When I mention going from cure to living longer I am talking about accepting the fact that I would never be cured. That’s a difficult concept to embrace but in order to make it even remotely acceptable I found I needed to replace cure with a potentially obtainable goal—becoming an outlier. At ten plus years (eleven, in April) I am there.

Secondly, the importance of options. When diagnosed in 2005, the first hurdle I hoped to jump was qualifying for surgery. I had nineteen lymph nodes and most of my left lung removed followed by four rounds of adjuvant chemo and yet my cancer returned almost immediately. Two strikes, and I’d been informed that treating lung cancer was basically three strikes and you’re out. My first clinical trial in 2008 was a long shot. I was thrilled beyond belief when I responded to crizotinib, but also understood that it represented a temporary fix and that there was nothing else out there once it stopped working.

Thankfully, that’s no longer true. Sadly, there aren’t viable options for everyone with lung cancer. Medical research got me to where I am today (alive!) but we can’t stop now.

Taking the leap into clinical trials

I was initially diagnosed with non small cell lung cancer in April of 2005. My tumor was large (5 centimeters); a poor prognosticator. However, it had not spread beyond my lungs and I was staged at IB. One week after diagnosis I had the lower lobe of my left lung removed. As I was recovering from surgery my new oncologist introduced himself; Dr. Tom Lynch. I had no idea back then, but I was incredibly fortunate to have Tom select me as a patient. The reason behind his coming to me rather than the other way around? As a young (age 45) non smoking woman, I fit the profile of someone who might be EGFR+ and Tom was an early innovator in the investigation and treatment of EGFR+ patients.

I tested negative for an EGFR mutation but in the process acquired arguably one of the best oncologists in the world; someone who was always forward thinking and cutting edge in his approach to treatment. In fact, I was offered a chance to enroll in my first clinical trial soon after surgery. Because of the size of my tumor, adjuvant chemo was indicated and a trial that would include the addition of avastin was proposed. I was having a difficult time even being convinced to have chemotherapy (Tom was adamant) and I couldn’t wrap my head around the possibility of also being a medical research subject. As it turned out I would not have been a good candidate anyway–I am a bit of a bleeder and I was coughing up blood for weeks post lobectomy (there is a small but significant increased risk of serious pulmonary hemorrhage secondary to avastin).

Fast forward to September of 2008, two months after I’d been restaged to IV and advised that I likely only had three to four months to live. At my scan review after two months of tarceva–tried as a last ditch effort even though I was EGFR-, there was nothing but bad news from the radiologist. However Tom shared that a sample of my biopsy had been submitted for further genetic screening and had come back positive for an EML4-ALK translocation (another example of how ahead of the pack he was—the ALK mutation had been identified as a driver in NSCLC only months prior to that).

As we discussed the significance of this finding we also reviewed my options going forward. The way Tom saw it, there were four possible scenarios. I could stay on tarceva, return to traditional chemotherapy, do nothing (that option only underscored how serious my situation was) or attempt to enroll in a phase I clinical trial that targeted ALK mutations such as the one that was driving my cancer.

Would you believe me if I said I never hesitated but instead leapt at the opportunity to be in a clinical trial? Why now but not back in 2005?

This is why.

This image of my scan says it all. The upper lobe of my left lung was now almost completely clouded with consolidated ground glass tumors which had spread to my right upper lobe. And I had been told that I might have three to four months to live two months ago. The math was easy—I had almost run out of time and out of the four options I’d been provided with, only one seemed to offer a glimmer of hope.

And glimmer is the operative word. There was no precedent for me back then—no reason to believe that this trial might actually prove effective. All Tom could offer me was the fact that I had been preceded by one other participant at MGH. ALK+ like me but so debilitated by disease that they were confined to a wheelchair. Their initial response had been extremely encouraging, to the point where the wheelchair was temporarily abandoned. But then they had died, in part due to the toxic effects of the trial drug on their liver.

So this is what I knew. One before me with a promising response who had succumbed both to disease and to the toxic effects of therapy. That the experimental therapy could in fact prove fatal to me as well. But that my cancer would certainly kill me if I did nothing. An easy choice, after all.

And so, on October 1 of 2008 I had my lead in dose of the drug that would eventually be known as Xalkori.

 

Soldier in the war against cancer

Some of you may be wondering where that nice girl Linnea went. Well, beneath my relatively calm, cool facade lurks someone who simply won’t stand down if I feel there is something that can be done to make a situation better. And in this case, any change that comes about is going to happen only after some intense dialogue. In others words, we’re just getting started.

Secondly, I want to make it clear that I am not thinking only of myself. I was in the right place at the right time and have been fortunate to have been breaking trail ever since. As I have pointed out to those willing to listen, very few people in the world have had the opportunity to be in three phase I clinical trials—generally people died while enrolled in their first trial. There are going to be a lot more folks coming down that trail of multiple trials (hallelujah!), and I feel a great responsibility to make the path ahead as accessible as possible.

I also don’t wish to downplay the additional psychic benefit that I and my fellow trial participants get out of knowing that we are making a viable contribution to medical research. Take twelve minutes to watch this video about David Phillip Vetter, the child once known as the bubble boy. His mother dreamed that one day he would leave the bubble and engage in research himself. Ultimately it was his personal ordeal that made the greatest contribution.

Most of us fantasize about doing something significant for mankind and finding a cure for cancer is at the top of the list for many. We can’t all be scientists but there is another way to advance medical research. In the war against cancer those of us who participate in clinical trials are soldiers on the front line, and it is time that we be accorded the same respect as veterans of other wars.

Dear Pharma;

For all but one of the past seven years I have served as a peer reviewer for the CDMRP. It is perhaps the toughest form of advocacy that I have undertaken but also one of the most rewarding. I never got around to mentioning it (oh, I am so behind!) but last summer I was featured as a consumer reviewer on the CDMRP site. I was honored as I am to simply serve as a peer reviewer and I encourage any of you who are interested to apply.

My featured story gives a shout-out to medical research and segues nicely into the next part of my post, which offers a slightly more critical view of clinical trials.

The thing is, I ❤ clinical trials 100%: I absolutely would not be alive today had I not had the opportunity to enroll in a clinical trial back in 2008. Because of how far down the treatment pike I have come, clinical trials are my next best hope and I am keeping my fingers crossed that when the time comes, there will be yet another in which I can enroll.

Unfortunately, clinical trials have a bit of an image problem, as many people consider them risky and a choice only for desperate people—something I can’t really argue with. When I enrolled in my first clinical trial it was a different time; one with absolutely zero expectation of success (and yet a wild fleeting hope, which was the motivation behind my decision to enroll). However, with the advent of targeted therapies as well as a sudden wealth of experimental therapies to treat NSCLC, more and more people are enrolling in not just one, but several clinical trials.

The previous paradigm was one which assumed that participants in trials were likely on their last leg. Issues relating to quality of life were simply not considered. I’ve now spent almost a tenth of my life enrolled in a clinical trial and last summer, after Stanford came out with a report about the cellular damage exacted from each CT scan, I sat down and counted how many scans I’d had. And I was shocked.

Since then I’ve been trying to find a sympathetic ear. At the end of our first day of CDMRP peer reviews this year, I chatted up the right person in the lounge. They connected me with someone from the pharmaceutical company who is the sponsor of my trial and I sent them this email. I’m sharing it with you now because a member of my blogging community recently asked the question online as to whether or not it was better to stay in a trial or to switch to prescription once a therapy has gained FDA approval. It was my viewpoint that if it meant a decrease in scans, I would switch to prescription.

So back to the image problem. Only 3-5% of cancer patients enroll in clinical trials and I believe there is the potential to increase those numbers. And I think it might well start with really recognizing the contribution trial participants make. How about just saying thank you—at the end of every peer review I receive a nice note from the Department of Defense thanking me for my service–that gratitude and recognition never grows old.

Dear Pharma:

Please know that I don’t feel that this is under poor circumstance—I would just like to start some dialogue. When someone is feeling disenfranchised, the first thing they want is to feel heard.

I would love to speak to you on the phone and would also welcome an opportunity to share my perspective with a larger audience. There is a lot of buzz about patients as partners but we can only be a partner if we have an equal voice. I am grateful for and a champion of clinical research (my eighteen year old son had an internship at the Koch Institute this summer, and was engaged in pancreatic cancer research). I am also only too aware that I would not be alive today without clinical trials. However, as this is my third phase I clinical trial, I am in a unique position to offer some observations about how that process can be made better for patients.

A couple of talking points that I would like to discuss:

1. The loss of autonomy. As a patient becomes a participant they lose some control. Per my issue with the number of CT scans I’ve had—even my oncologist was surprised when I told her that I had added them up and that I’d had more than one hundred. Obviously, no one is keeping track of this sort of thing and with patients now going from trial to trial, I feel there should be some guidelines established and I don’t feel those should be guidelines of exclusion (because most of us will do anything to stay alive). Rather, I think that there should be a way to view participants as individuals and not just data. In my case the scans to my abdomen and head are totally uncalled for and expose my already mutable cells to additional radiation. Ideally there would be a way to follow me in a trial but to also take into consideration that I have a lung cancer that has and almost certainly will remain contained to my lungs.

2. Parking. That’s just sort of my bottom line. I was at my PCP’s yesterday (also at MGH—where I get my cancer care) and saw a bulletin board with notices for participation in clinical trials for things other than cancer. The participants would be compensated ($) and given parking vouchers. This always burns me up. Everyone makes money off of my disease but me, and I’m the one who has to have the stupid disease in the first place and I’m supposed to always be in grateful mode. As I tweeted a week ago–‘I ❤ being alive but I want free parking too’. I just don’t buy this inducement stuff. I also tweeted (I’m going all radical on you) in a conversation about patients as stakeholders—‘I don’t just want to be a stakeholder I want to be a stockholder too’. I’m really not kidding—I think it is time to talk about the major contribution early participants in clinical trials make. Another analogy—there would be no horse and pony show without the horses and ponies.

3. The story about my having to pay for Xalkori the second time around. Obviously there was no way for anyone to know I was the 4th person in the world (with NSCLC) to take this drug. But even if they had known, it would not have made a difference. I was able to afford Xalkori by prescription only because I qualified for financial assistance (not an easy process to go through when you are stressed, alone (I had recently separated from my husband) and, to be frank, once again heading down a path where if things don’t change, you will soon be dead. The whole experience kind of dashed any feeling I might have had that as an early participant I was somehow special. In truth, I feel early participants should be accorded the same sort of respect that veterans of the service are. We put our lives on the line, taking risks that many, many people never would. And our sacrifices benefit all.

4. I think it would behoove pharmaceutical companies to develop a patient advisory council. I have served on such a council at MGH for three years now and we have provided feedback on any number of healthcare initiatives.

5. Compliance. According to my nurse, compliance is only 60% in the trial I am currently in. Prescribing oral chemotherapies in a pill bottle just seems crazy to me. A blister pack (with a way to have a calendar printed on it) would be such a simple way to help patients with dosing. As one of those (often) non-compliant patients, I have such a difficult time recalling whether or not I’ve taken my pills and so skip a dose rather than risking double-dosing.

It is my understanding that only 5% of cancer patients enroll in clinical trials. I know little about the regulatory process but I do believe that if participants were treated better (induce us!) those numbers could rise. And I would love to be part of the conversation about how to make some improvements.

Gratefully,

Linnea Olson

But I know more details would be helpful…

My beautiful daughter on a particularly fateful day.

My beautiful daughter on a particularly fateful day.

Is there some fresh way of saying ‘It’s been a challenging time?”

No, probably not. And besides, challenging is a euphemism; a gentled version of what I wish to convey.

It’s been a difficult year, and the year before that as well. Adjusting to life alone, the continued progression of my lung cancer, a short stint on Xalkori, and then at long last admittance to the PF-06463922 trial. But it has not been without wonder.

About that trial…

I went in with low expectations, as my second secondary acquired mutation (G1202R) is highly resistant to all ALK inhibitors, although results in the lab indicated that my cancer could still respond at higher doses. I entered in the third cohort, at a dose of 75 mg. I was delighted when my cough began to abate almost immediately. But then four days after regular dosing started, I began to experience marked shortness of breath and the sensation that something was caught in my windpipe. I was coughing a lot and some of it was streaked with blood. The following morning there was a small clot of blood in my sputum, but my shortness of breath had abated. However, upon awakening the next day I coughed up yet another small clot. Hemoptysis is one of those things you just can’t ignore, so I sent a text message to Dr. Shaw, who was away at ASCO.

While waiting for a response, I received the phone call from my stepfather Jim telling me that my mother had passed away.

And that phone call was followed by one from a member of the clinical trial team, telling me that I’d been scheduled for an urgent CT scan, in order to rule out a blood clot or pulmonary embolism.

Fortunately my daughter Jemesii had the day off and pretty much insisted on meeting me at the hospital. I was going on adrenalin at this point and don’t know what I would have done without her. In prep I blew two IV’s for contrast (these veins are getting tired) and ended up having a vasovagal response (never happens to me) so I earned some time out in the recliner with some intravenous saline. And then after the scan wrapped up Jemesii and I headed over to the Termeer Center for the results.

And this is when things got really weird. The attending physician said I had neither an embolism or a clot. “How about cancer?” I asked. “Is that all gone?”

“Well, no…but…” she said, and then read from the report:

Lungs and Airways: Status post left lower lobectomy. A mixed
attenuation lesion in the lower portion of the remaining left upper
lung is significantly smaller than on the prior exam now measuring 2
cm x 1 cm x 3.2 cm significantly smaller than on the prior exam where
it measured approximately 8 x 7 cm in diameter. A small right upper
lobe mixed attenuation lesion (series 4, image 330) measures 6 x 7 mm
minimally decreased from prior measurement of 7 x 9 mm. 4 mm region
in the left upper lobe seen on series 4, image 339 is not
significantly changed. A nodule in the right upper lobe seen on
current examination (series 4, image 314) and on prior examination
on 66, image 155 now measures 4 mm in diameter down from 6 mm. And
unchanged region of atelectasis is present in the left upper lung
near the left hemidiaphragm. Additional nodules. Similar in size to
prior exam. No new nodules are seen. There is no evidence of new
pneumonia or pulmonary edema.

I had begun regular dosing six days prior and an 8 x 7 cm chunk of tumor had melted away to a mere shadow of itself. It was just unbelievable.

Stunned, Jemesii and I decided that a good meal and an even better glass of wine was in order. We raised a toast in honor of my mom. And then we raised another to the future.

Picking up the narrative thread and pace as well…

On Friday, March the 15th, I was back in Boston for my biannual appointment with my ear nose throat doctor. In addition to discussing the virus I hadn’t quite shaken, I brought up the tinnitus and loss of hearing that I had been experiencing ever since the third infusion of carboplatin and alimta. I explained that the symptoms were particularly pronounced on the right side, which did not surprise the ENT, as that ear canal was completely blocked by wax. He asked if I used q-tips and I allowed that yes, I did, but carefully. As expected, I was advised to drop that practice and to simply clean my ears with a tissue (so why do they still sell the damn things?).

Anyway, he carefully scooped away the blockage and what do you know, for the first time in five weeks, I could hear out of my right ear. When I told my tale to Dr. Shaw later in the day she laughed and said she would have to start looking in people’s ears (if you recall, my final dose of carboplatin was reduced yet again due to the combination of low white blood cell count and my hearing loss).

Jemesii joined me for lunch, and afterward I zipped up to the 6th floor for a CT scan. When I finished up there, I headed over to the main hospital, as a buddy of mine had been admitted. I hung out for an hour and then I took my place in rush hour traffic.

Dr. Shaw was good enough to call that evening with the initial read on my CT scan and although nothing had improved from the last session of imaging, it also wasn’t worse. We would stay the course and move on to alimta maintenance.

L1020827Saturday was an even bigger day, as I was going to be in attendance at the annual conference for the Association of Health Care Journalists. Better yet, I would be part of a panel devoted to clinical trials: What you need to know about clinical studies but were afraid to ask. My fellow panelists were Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, editor in chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. James H. Ware, Frederick Mosteller professor of biostatistics as well as associate dean for clinical and translational science at the Harvard School of Public Health, Ron Winslow, the deputy bureau chief of health and science at The Wall Street Journal, and moderator Scott Hensley, a digital correspondant and editor at NPR.

Speaking in front of a large crowd is something that pushes me way out of my comfort zone, but when asked to do so, I don’t say no. So there you go. Fortunately, I had a few friends in the audience who were pulling for me (Anjali Thomas, John Novack, and Christopher, Melinda and Dr. Kihan Lee). It ended up being an entirely positive experience with a lot of nice feedback and support from the journalists in attendance. Should you like to read a nice write-up about the panel, check out Covering Clinical Trials:  a message for journalists and  critical readers, from Dr. Judy Stone and the Scientific American blog Molecules to Medicine.

At the conclusion of the session, my five friends and I went out for a lovely meal. I was (I know I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but it is in fact a recurring theme) utterly exhausted, but oh so happy too.

Let’s ride

Ok. So. About that LDK378 trial…The gallery above is from my first day two weeks ago. Please note the woodchuck.  And Sarah, giving me the high five after my lead-in dose.  And how tired David looks; it was a very long day. Long enough that I had time to wander the halls, peruse the Wall of Hope and hang out in the lovely Healing Garden. Long enough that it was barely light when we left the house and quite dark when we returned home.

I’m going to directly lift from the Research Consent Form (a many paged document that you must read and sign prior to enrollment in a trial) to describe the specifics of day one:

PK run-in period (3days) in Part 1 of the study 

Pharmacokinetics (PK) is the study of the actions of a drug in the body over a period of time (eg, how it is absorbed, distributed, broken down, and excreted).

The PK run-in is a 3 day period (before you begin daily study treatment with LDK378) where you will be given a single dose of LDK378 and then have repeated blood tests to see how your body handles the drug. (The tests are called pharmacokinetics or PK tests.) About 1/3 teaspoon of blood with be drawn at each PK blood draw.

  • Day one of PK run-in:  You will have blood drawn, take one dose of LDK378, and then have blood drawn 7 more times with the 8 hours after taking LDK378.
  • Procedures performed on Day 1 of the PK run-in:
  • Physical examination
  • Vital signs
  • In addition, blood pressure and heart rate will be measured before every PK blood sample is drawn.
  • 3 consecutive  EKGS after the single dose of LDK378 and another EKG 4 hours after the dose of LDK378.
  • Additional blood for research blood test to measure biomarkers and the amount of circulating tumor cells in your blood (about 4 teaspoons). Biomarkers are substances such as proteins that may give information about how LDK378 is affecting your body.

So that is the technical run-down. In reality, it all felt rather festive.  Just as my t-shirt proclaimed, this wasn’t my first rodeo and I kind of knew what to expect. 

Not long after the first dose, I experienced some cramping and Irene performed anti-diarrhea acupuncture. That was it for drama; no other discernible side effects. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if my personal history of lung cancer treatments someday represented the paradigm; thus far, they have only gotten easier and become more effective.

Consider: almost immediately following my diagnosis in 2005, I endured a rather brutal lower left lobectomy. That was followed by four grueling sessions of cisplatin and taxotere. In 2008 I spent two months taking tarceva with all of the side effects and none of the benefits.

And then came crizotinib (now Xalkori). Not only were the side effects minimal, it stamped out the cancer raging in my lungs and kept it at a low smolder for almost three years.

Will the LDK378 do the same? I am hopeful. The day after my lead-in dose, I was able to walk to the top of a steep hill without stopping numerous times to catch my breath; something I’d not been able to do for some time now. I felt great.

And then, I started to feel crappy again. Which is part of why I haven’t written yet.

However, before any conclusions are leapt to, I need to add that there were several extenuating circumstances. Two weeks before my lead-in dose, I had been on a ten day course of levaquin for a sinus infection. It was the first time I’d had antibiotics in months, and a curious thing happened.

The cough and accompanying rattle in my lungs, which had persisted almost since my bout with the flu, disappeared. I had assumed both symptoms were due to the progression of my lung cancer and was actually quite startled when they cleared up.

My lead-in dose was on a Wednesday, and I didn’t have another dose (the start of continual dosing) until the following Monday. In the meantime, the feeling of low level crappy returned; aches, chills, fatigue and a cough. What the hey!

Several months ago I found an imbedded deer tick but in subsequent days did not develop a bullseye rash. However, just to rule out lymes disease as a potential cause of my current symptoms, I was tested. In addition, my circulating hormone levels and thyroid were checked; all three were normal. Alice (Dr. Shaw) called on Sunday to see how I was feeling and mentioned that the pre trial PET scan had shown more uptake in my lungs than she had anticipated.We discussed the possibility of a smoldering low level pneumonia, as areas of inflammation can light up a PET scan and be confused with cancer. Finally, yesterday I saw the ENT to rule out a lingering sinus infection. My nasal passages were clear, but we decided it might be smart to go back on another ten days of levaquin and see what happens.

So here’s hoping. The side effects from the LDK378 would seem to be non-existent. If the antibiotics do their magic, perhaps I can really get back in the saddle again. I am so ready.