Saturday, February 27, 2010

Uneventful ofatumumab

The start of treatment was delayed two weeks because of a cold. Colds, as some of you know, can be a particular challenge to CLLers since we have degraded immune systems with few functional B lymphocytes, lowered immunoglobulins, and too many CLL clones gumming up the finely-tuned works. 

Sure enough, my lymph nodes grew as the clones reproduced in a frenzy, trying vainly to fulfill their intended function. Somehow I managed to get over the worst of the cold in a couple of days, after which it dragged on at a low level, but not quite low enough to safely begin treatment. 

Once I had recovered, things got underway last Wednesday with the opening dose of ofatumumab, aka Arzerra. GlaxoSmithKline starts you out with a baby dose of the stuff, 300 mg over six hours, just to make sure you don't have any serious reactions. The infusion rate begins at 12 mg an hour and is gradually increased every half hour to 200 mg. Premeds consisted of two Tylenol, 50 mg of IV Benadryl, and 100 mg of IV hydrocortisone, aka Solu-Cortef. 

Absolutely nothing happened, other than the Benadryl putting me into a rather comatose state. Being a fully-humanized monoclonal antibody, ofatumumab may cause less of an allergic reaction than its cousin, the mouse juice rituximab. I have often had mild infusion reactions to the latter -- flushed face, tightening of the throat, and the like -- usually during the first infusion of a cycle. With the ofatumumab they may as well have been giving me water. That doesn't mean no one ever gets a reaction; it can and does happen, it just didn't happen to me.

The one thing I did notice is some mild redness on my neck (below the ears) where the lymph nodes are inflamed. Back when Rituxan was working pretty well on me, I used to get the same thing. This seems to me to be more a consequence of the drug working than an infusion reaction, especially since I have only noticed it toward the end of an infusion or after it is done. Other than that, I can't report any noticeable effects of the Arzerra, but at 300 mg, I wouldn't expect to see much progress.

Next week I'll be given the customary 1000 mg dose, along with more of the dreaded Benadryl. The day after I start the lenalidomide (Revlimid), 10 mg daily. In other words, Houston, we will have lift off. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

My little OL protocol: ofatumumab and lenalidomide

Yes, that little ol' lab rat, me, is about to undertake a cutting-edge protocol to fight chronic lymphocytic leukemia: ofatumumab and lenalidomide.

I call it the OL protocol, and there’s a trial at MD Anderson in Houston that’s just starting to accrue patients for a two-year study of this new drug combination.

Thanks to a forward-thinking oncologist who is willing to fight like hell for her patients, and thanks to two drug companies that are willing to help those who can’t afford to pay the enormous costs of the treatment, I am going to be following that protocol from the comfort of home
, or at least from a comfortable chair two hours away.  I start next week.

Because I will be one of the first CLLers to try what could become an important  therapy
for our community, I will blog about my experience on a somewhat regular basis.

To briefly review, ofatumumab is the fully-humanized anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody that was approved for CLL in October by the FDA. It goes by the trade name Arzerra but old CLL hands (Man, I guess I am one of those!) may better know it as HuMax-CD20. It was developed by Genmab and licensed to GlaxoSmithKline.

Lenalidomide, which I wrote about in my last post, goes by the name Revlimid, and was developed by Celgene. It has been approved by the FDA for Myelodysplastic Syndrome and Multiple Myeloma and has had some interesting results in CLL.

December’s American Society of Hematology meeting included a report from MD Anderson on a trial of rituximab and lenalidomide in 37 relapsed and refractory patients, all of whom had used Rituxan in the past. The new OL trial appears to be based, in terms of timing and dosages, on their experience with RL.

Dr. Alessandra Ferrajoli and the team o' Texans reported an overall response rate of 68%, of which 51% received a Partial Remission and 16% a Nodular Partial Remission. Sixteen percent had stable disease and 16% failed the protocol.

Other studies have shown an overall response rate of 32%-47% among relapsed CLLers given single-agent lenalidomide, so MDA considered the combination with the monoclonal antibody to be “superior to single agent lenalidomide, despite all our patients having received prior rituximab.

“Additionally," the authors wrote, "there was no increase in toxicity and lenalidomide-associated tumor flare reaction was less frequent and less severe with this combination compared to single agent lenalidomide.”

For the record, a 2008 MDA study of single-agent lenalidomide in relapsed patients showed an Overall Response of 32%, which includes a Complete Response of 7%. An additional 25% achieved stable disease. A 2006 study by Dr. Asher Chanan-Khan’s group at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in New York reported an Overall Response rate of 47%, with 9% achieving a CR. Another 18% had stable disease.

My prospects

Clearly, my response can fall anywhere on that rather large map, landing from CR to CRap. And just as clearly, this protocol is not going to be a cure for CLL nor an avenue to a molecular remission. But it may serve as a welcome and
effective control, and I have reason to be optimistic as I begin.

I have always responded well to whatever new drugs I have been given and there
is no change in my FISH profile that would indicate a loss of that ability. Of course, having had several treatments over the years, some disease resistance has developed in response. Indeed, the CLL cells have created a rather secure suburban community in my abdominal lymph nodes. The ability of lenalidomide to disrupt that micro-environment, including the nurse-like cells that help CLL remain comfortable, is a definite plus.

I am also younger and in better shape, both in terms of my health and disease state, than many of the participants in these trials. I can weather the side effects -- notably fatigue, tumor flare, and possibly low neutrophils and low platelets -- that may come my way.
Ofatumumab will assuredly be more effective on me than rituximab, to which I no longer respond well after many, many uses. Indeed, ofatumumab has given a new lease on life to any number of people who have tried it before me, some of whom I have known personally, and many of whom had stopped responding to Rituxan.

Readers may recall in my last post that I said I did not wish to use ofatumumab as a single agent, that it was too important a weapon to use gratuitously. That remains the case, and I don’t see the OL protocol as a wasteful extravagance.

I have a lot of abdominal lymph node bulk, enough that a year’s worth of steroids, Rituxan, and even cyclophosphamide were unable to make much of a dent in it. Ofatumumab is a new drug for me; with some luck, my nodes might respond the way they did to Rituxan when I first used it six years ago. In other words, they may undergo a noticeable reduction that can then be hammered home by the lenalidomide.

Can I completely clear the abdominal nodes? It would be quite a feat, but all things are possible in life and combination immunotherapy. Even if I can’t, can I reduce the bulk by a meaningful amount -- say 50% -- and throw my disease level back to where it was in 2005 or 2006? I think even hardened realists would say that is possible. The 2008 MDA study of single-agent lenalidomide reported a greater than 50% improvement in lymphadenopathy in 41% of patients. I'm probably starting from a worse position than most patients in that trial, but remember that we are also adding the ofatumumab.

Such a reduction in disease –- along with hopefully enhanced immunity, including a cessation of autoimmune hemolytic anemia, with its endless threat of hemolysis –- makes this an especially intriguing protocol.

Nothing else out there holds the prospect of doing all these things for me, especially with minimal toxicity, and these are all things that need to get done. For what it’s worth, some of the experts find this drug combination to be full of potential. I am told, for example, that MDA's Dr. Michael Keating is “very keen” on it. 

Perspective: Playing for time vs. transplant

It’s the right thing at the right time, as far as I’m concerned, which brings up an interesting point. When I was diagnosed in 2003, neither of these agents existed for CLL. Despite the feeling among us patients that progress can never come fast enough, here is a case where two new drugs may make a significant impact on my disease. So there is indeed some
wisdom in playing for time if you have the stomach for it.

Playing for time is something that you have to finesse as you go, since the disease is not static. Much depends upon your biological markers -- IgVH mutational status, chromosomal deletions per FISH, ZAP-70, and CD38. But the bottom line, which I think is sometimes given short shrift in patient discussions, is your actual disease progression, clinical history, and ability to respond to treatment. 

To my mind, it's the practical stuff that counts. Which brings us to the stem cell or cord blood transplant, sometimes seen as the CLL end game. For many of us, and maybe even yet for me, that will be the case. But I think it is a little premature to be swept along on some kind of bandwagon, thinking that transplant is inevitable and maybe even desirable. Perhaps, if meaningful control of CLL can be obtained by means of OL and other agents in the pipeline, some of us will have a realistic alternative.

Frankly, transplant results are virtually impossible to predict. Talk about arbitrary and capricious: You can die. You can be cured, or at least disease free for a long, long time. You can also relapse and have to wake up to fight the whole messy, draining battle all over again. You can struggle along for years with debilitating graft vs. host conditions, from skin reactions to gastrointestinal problems to seizures.  Many patients are grateful to be alive despite the side effects; others have regrets. 

One wrote to me off the blog: "Do not underestimate the effects of chronic GVHD. When you read about them, they might not sound too bad; however, the collective experience of multiple GVHD effects can make life after a transplant quite miserable.  And chronic, in this sense, must be seen as a permanent condition."

I will never forget Dr. Terry Hamblin's comment that he knew of two patients who were so beset by post-transplant graft v. host problems that they killed themselves.

There is a yin and yang to this, of course, and I am not discounting the success stories, those who write that they are "recovering nicely" after two years, and those who are a few years in with only minor problems, nothing to get too excited about, and with no regrets about having taken the big step. 

I keep a list of blogs on the right side of this page. Scroll down and click on those of the transplant patients: Brian Koffman, Jackie Sue, Ron Gottula, Dan O’Mara, and Harvey's Journal. Take a look at Tom McCune’s website; Tom was once the CLL cure “poster child,” now in relapse. Check the posts at CLL Forum and ACOR from patients like Chonette and JursyGurl, both of whom are having success with minimal trouble so far (you go, girls!). Read Raywood's Great Stem Cell Transplant Caper, and then read all the nice comments about him on CLL Forum's "In Loving Memory" page; Ray was a character, an irrepressible optimist and guitar picker who put CLL to Country music. But all the sunshine in the world doesn't guarantee success. Neither, for that matter, does a Vulcan-like level of meticulous preparation.

Gather all this –- and more -– into your head and you may conclude, as I have, that the transplant is unpredictable at best, freakishly difficult much of the time, and, obviously, fatal at worst. You may as well go into the hospital singing "Luck Be a Lady."

"They call you lady luck
But there is room for doubt
At times you have a very un-ladylike way
Of running out . . ."

I think the outcome is well out of your hands despite however many statistics you arrange in your favor (the optimistic configuration of published data can indicate an element of wishful thinking that creeps into even the most rational of minds.) When the chips are down, you're putting all your chips on the table. A transplant, to my mind, is something you do when you HAVE to do it and no sooner.

It is not a battle that I am afraid of, but it is not one I am jumping to fight if there is a wiser way to conduct the war. 

I am hoping that OL will be an effective weapon, something of a game-changer, at least for a reasonably long time. I’m 53, healthy other than the CLL -– my blood pressure tests out these days at around 120 over 70 and my primary care doctor wants to frame my lipid profile.  My quality of life is good (when I’m not hemolysing).

Beyond the medical facts, CLL has taught me that I am mortal, and so it has ironically given me the gift of being able to live life fully today, to let go of old regrets and unhealthy patterns, and I am happier than I have ever been.

So why not still play for time? 

There is a fine line in CLL between being too proactive and too reactive. Much of my CLL journey has been spent trying to find and stay close to that line. At times I have been more successful than others. I think -- I hope -- that I have found it with the OL protocol.

It's the line of scrimmage between me and the disease. It’s first-and-ten and I will move the ball down the field as best as I am able, however many yards at a time. I’ll report on it as I go.