PRESIDENT'S CORNER: Opinions & Reports from Dr. Michael Keating
Highlights from American Society of Hematology (ASH) (December 2009)
20,000 hematologists and other health care professionals flocked to New Orleans
for five days. Most spent their time attending academic meetings from 7 o'clock
in the morning until 6 to 8 o'clock at night. Of course, it helped a little that
the weather was cold and fairly miserable. Below, I will detail a number of the
highlights regarding treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
Watch and Wait
A number of advances occurred in our understanding of the biology of CLL. Heavy
water studies showed the ability to evaluate the doubling time of the early CLL
cells in patients. Normally, these patients would be in the "watch and wait"
category; the heavy water allowed investigators to identify those more likely
to be at risk. There is also an improved understanding of the cellular pathways
which switch on CLL cells and make them grow, but so far this has not evolved
into information that we can directly apply in the clinic.
As far as the "watch and wait" category goes, there is a group of
patients who have truly minimal evidence of CLL with less than 5,000 CLL lymphocytes
in the blood. These patients are classified as having monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis
(MBL) as they do not have significant symptoms or enlargement of the lymph nodes
and their blood cell production is normal. The likelihood these patients will
require therapy for CLL appears to be approximately one percent per year. Thus,
we can reassure many patients with very early diagnosis of CLL that it is very
likely that they are going to remain well with no need for treatment for many,
During ASH, many interesting studies were presented regarding frontline therapy
of CLL. Perhaps the most important one was the comparison of fludarabine and cyclophosphamide
(FC) alone or combined with rituximab (FCR). During the 2008 ASH meeting, the
German CLL study group reported an improvement in complete response rate and time
to relapse of responders. This year, they reported a survival advantage of FCR
over other treatment. This was the first time a survival advantage had been reported
in a comparative clinical trial. Thus, FCR is the new standard for therapy for patients under the age of 65 who are fit and are able to tolerate the treatment.
Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB) reported the long term follow-up for a
number of studies. The first was an analysis of a study in which fludarabine was
compared to chlorambucil as frontline treatment. Patients could crossover and
receive the other drug as treatment if they failed the initial therapy. Earlier
studies had shown that patients given fludarabine had a higher response rate and
a longer progression free survival. Dr. Kanti Rai presented the long-term analysis
that showed a survival advantage if fludarabine was given first rather than chlorambucil.
Long-term follow-up was also presented on study CLB-9712, where fludarabine was
combined with rituximab or given alone as induction therapy followed by consolidation
treatment. There was an improvement in the group that received fludarabine plus
rituximab with regards to late progression free survival but there was no difference
in overall survival. The median survival of patients on the study appears to be
approximately seven years. The progression free survival appears to be 39 months
with either regimen.
A CALGB study used alemtuzumab (Campath) as consolidation treatment after induction
therapy with fludarabine/rituximab. Unfortunately, there was a high level of toxicity
associated with alemtuzumab and no difference in the progression free survival
or overall survival of patients who received alemtuzumab as consolidation treatment.
Other studies which utilized alemtuzumab concurrently with chemotherapy showed
little advantage of the addition of alemtuzumab for frontline treatment and an
increase in toxicity. We continue to try and find the appropriate use of this
Results were also presented for a German Phase II, front-line study using the
newly approved drug bendamustine (Treanda) combined with rituximab (the BR regimen).
The overall response rate was high with 33% complete remissions and another 58%
partial remissions. There were no complete remissions in the group of patients
with abnormalities in chromosome 17 but 3 out of 7 with chromosome 17 abnormality
obtained a partial response. The BR regimen is now being compared in a frontline
comparison with FCR by the German CLL study group.
Another newly approved agent is ofatumumab (Arzerra). Comparisons were reported
of two different dose levels of ofatumumab together with FC to make the FCO regimen.
This regimen was well tolerated with no clear advantage of one dose over the other.
This FCO regimen will now enter into frontline studies in CLL in a number of different
countries. Additional information was reported on the ofatumumab studies which
led to its FDA approval. A 50% response was seen in the patients which were refractory
to fludarabine and alemtuzumab or refractory to fludarabine with bulky lymph nodes.
Dr. Anders Osterborg (Karolinska Institute) presented data clearly illustrating
that patients with higher concentrations of the drug after administration had
a greater probability of obtaining a response and significantly longer progression
Lenalidomide (Revlimid) continues to show clear activity in previously treated
CLL patients and elderly CLL patients requiring frontline treatment. The drug
is well established in multiple myeloma and myelodysplastic syndrome and is now
being combined with rituximab in CLL. Last year, the CLL group at UCSD reported
a favorable outcome and good tolerance with lenalidomide and rituximab as frontline
treatment. At this year's ASH meeting, Dr. Alessandra Ferrajoli (MD Anderson)
reported that the revlimid/rituximab (RR) regimen is well-tolerated and associated
with a good response rate in patients with relapsed or refractory CLL. Giving
rituximab before lenalidomide appears to improve the tolerance of the lenalidomide
with minimal episodes of flaring of the lymph glands (tumor flare) or excessively
rapid dissolving the cells (tumor lysis). This study has completed accrual and
additional data will be shared as the data matures. MD Anderson will combine
lenalidomide with ofatumumab to see if there is an improvement in outcome compared
to the rituximab experience.
The most interesting new agents are ABT263 and CAL101. ABT263 works to inhibit
the BCL-2 family of proteins. This family of proteins enables CLL cells to stay
alive for long periods of time. The results of the study showed that seven out
of 24 patients obtained a partial response. This response was seen in patients
refractory to fludarabine and some with abnormalities in chromosome 17 or 11.
The other agent of considerable interest is CAL101 which is a potent inhibitor
of the enzyme PI 3-kinase. The response rate in patients with CLL was 24%. Development
of the ABT263 and CAL101 is promising because they are effective oral regimens,
are well tolerated and can be inserted into other treatment programs.
The rest of the meeting was filled with maturation of studies confirming the
steady and significant improvement in outcome for patients at all stages of disease.
We clearly understand CLL much better than we did in previous years. We are applying
certain biologic characteristics to select treatment programs for the individual
patient rather than treating everyone the same. By ASH 2010, we hope even more
information will be available to continue to find the right treatment for each