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The Latest in Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma News From ASCO

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Published on June 19, 2018

Dr. John Leonard from Weill Cornell Medicine joined Patient Power to provide an update on the latest research news in non-Hodgkin lymphoma coming from major medical conferences around the world. Dr. Leonard provides an explanation of the results of the RELEVANCE study in follicular lymphoma and what the information means for patients. He also addresses CAR T-cell therapy, describing how this treatment works in the body and if it has a role in the treatment of lymphoid malignancies. Tune in to hear a well-rounded overview from Dr. Leonard.



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Transcript | The Latest in Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma News From ASCO

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That's how you’ll get care that's most appropriate for you.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Andrew Schorr:         

Hello and welcome to Patient Power.  I'm Andrew Schorr.  We're visiting with a leading expert in lymphoma, particularly the non-Hodgkin follicular lymphomas.  Joining us is Dr. John Leonard from the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City where he is the Richard T. Silver distinguished professor of hematology and medical oncology.  And we love Dr. Silver, who is really a senior guy in the field.  Thank you for joining us, Dr. Leonard.  

Dr. Leonard:

Oh, thank you very much, Andrew.  It's good to be here today. 

Andrew Schorr:

So, Dr. Leonard, we are recording this as we are having two major medical meetings, one is ASCO, American Society of Clinical Oncology, across all cancers, but lymphoma is discussed.  And then the more specific European Hematology Association meeting in Stockholm going on right now, as you reported, for people, patients and family members living with what we used to call NHL, but follicular lymphoma is part of that.  What's the news that's significant? 

Dr. Leonard:

Well, I think there—as you alluded to, the key meetings are going on right now, and I think there's some overlap in what's being presented.  I would say that the most important recent and new data is in follicular lymphoma a study called the RELEVANCE study, which is a clinical trial that's been going on for some time now.  And it is essentially exploring the opportunity for what we would term a chemo-free regimen, and that's a little bit of a semantic description, because what you call chemo versus nonchemo but yet obviously a medication is open to some debate. 

And so this study looked at lenalidomide, also termed Revlimid, and lenalidomide has been approved in multiple myeloma.  It's approved for certain types of lymphoma in myelodysplastic syndrome, and basically a series of studies have shown that lenalidomide is active and a useful treatment in patients with various types of recurrent lymphomas.  So various clinical trials then led to combining it with rituximab (Rituxan), an antibody treatment that lymphoma patients are familiar with, and the combination of lenalidomide and rituximab showed very high response rates and a fairly manageable side effect profile for patients. 

So it led to the question of could you instead of getting chemotherapy-based treatment with a regimen called bendamustine (Treanda) and rituximab or CHOP plus rituximab, could you instead get a regimen with lenalidomide substituted for chemotherapy as initial treatment, and would that efficacy be potentially better, and would the side-effect profile be potentially better as well.  And so it's really, I think, a kind of seminal point in follicular lymphoma to say can we at least get rid of or push aside chemotherapy. 

The trial was designed to show superiority of lenalidomide-rituximab, and so strictly speaking it was a negative trial, meaning lenalidomide-rituximab was not superior to chemotherapy plus rituximab.  But it did show that the outcomes with respect to response rates, tumor shrinkage and duration of response, meaning how long did the treatment work, were quite similar between chemotherapy and rituximab versus lenalidomide-rituximab. 

So in my perspective the side effects were a little bit different.  There was not hair loss.  There was a little more fatigue.  Low blood counts or cytopenias were similar, perhaps slightly better with lenalidomide.  And this is a more chronic treatment regimen, so it's something the patients were on over the course of about two years on this study.  So it provides in my mind another option for patients that basically says, look, you can have a similar outcome with a less chemotherapy-based approach. 

And I think—you know, I'm all for giving patients choices.  I think this is an opportunity for patients to speak with their doctors and have other options and know that these other options can be effective comparably with a little bit different side-effect profile. 

Andrew Schorr:

Let me throw one question in, though, the oral therapies for many people, depending upon their insurance, are expensive, and so it seems like you have side effects profiles and chemo-free, that the cost for some, depending upon their reimbursement situation, might come into play on this. 

Dr. Leonard:

I think that's a very important issue.  It's a major issue, obviously, for patients, the cost of their medications, and so for some people it's not going to be tenable.  They may prefer that option but may not be able to pursue it because of the financial aspects of it. 

On the other hand, it's a more or less equivalent option as far as efficacy.  So I think it's not an easy problem to solve, the financial part, but at least it gives some patients another possibility if they pursue and are able to go in that direction without really losing anything or perhaps gaining something from the standpoint of their perceptions of how the experience will go. 

Andrew Schorr:

Just one question about side effects.  I know that some people who receive chemo for follicular lymphoma also need growth factors, so additional supportive care.  Is that needed if you're on this other approach? 

Dr. Leonard:

It's typically not needed with lenalidomide-rituximab.  There are dose adjustments, and with chemotherapy we try to maintain the dose so try not to reduce doses but instead give the growth factors to help boost up the white blood cells if they go too low to prevent infections and other complications.  With lenalidomide there are dose modifications so that what you typically do is rather than giving the growth factor, although you can do that if needed, more typically we reduce dose to smaller pill size or lower milligram dose when side effects occur. 

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  So just so patients and family members understand, new data from the RELEVANCE trial.  Could there be a chemo-free regimen for you, an oral therapy along with Rituxan which is infused—I think there's even an injectable version now, too—versus having the R-CHOP or other approaches, bendamustine approaches that have been used before.  Okay.  Well, we'll wait and see, and I think that's a discussion with your doctor. 

So, Dr. Leonard, let's go on to something else, CAR T-cell therapy, chimeric antigen receptor therapy.  Can a drug be made to boost your T cells to fight the lymphoma?  A lot of buzz about that in acute lymphomas and even being tried in CLL and myeloma.  What about for people with your area?  What about NHL? 

Dr. Leonard:

Well, that's a great question and gets a lot of attention.  And at the various meetings going back some time and I'm sure going forward as well, so it's an issue that people will need to continue to pay attention to even if they're not getting CAR-T cells.  Now it's something that will be front and center for the discussions at least for many people going forward. 

So the whole concept of immunotherapy is a hot area in cancer, different ways of stimulating the immune system to fight the tumor cells, whether they're antibodies that kind of remove the shields that tumor cells have to protect them, these called checkpoint inhibitors, or other drugs that stimulate the immune system. 

So the concept of a CAR-T cell is that we normally have T cells or a type of immune cell in our body that fight infections or can in some cases fight tumors.  And there's evidence that the T-cell profiles, meaning certain aspects of one's own immune cells, can correlate with outcome, meaning that certain profiles of people do better, certain profiles of people do less well, and the concept being that the immune system may be to some degree getting rid of the tumor cells or checking the tumor cells.  But, unfortunately, those T cells are not always functional or adequately functional to be an able to fight or reduce the growth of the tumor cells. 

And so the concept of CAR-T cells that you alluded to is the idea of removing the T cells, they circulate around in the blood.  It's kind of like a fancy blood donation.  They can be removed through this procedure.  They can then in a laboratory be engineered to essentially be better able to react to tumor cells.  And then they're reinfused into the patient, again like a fancy blood transfusion, to essentially then set up shop and go after the tumor cells in order to reduce them. 

And so this is a very powerful technology.  It is a technology that has been shown to shrink tumors in certain malignancies, particularly acute lymphocytic leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL, as well various B-cell lymphomas, although there are clinical trials looking at this in solid tumors.  There are trials looking at this in multiple myeloma.  So it's an area that's spreading in other areas of oncology although the lymphoid cancers is where—are where they have been most developed and approved. 

And so there are a number of different companies.  I'm not going to say all the names of these because it's an alphabet soup, but there's a number of different companies and investigators, and a couple of them that are FDA approved now that kind of follow the same pathway.  And so the net of this is that it's a very exciting technology.  However, the approval of these drugs has really been in the lymphoid malignancies in patients who have been through multiple prior therapies, so relapsed or refractory disease where the standard treatments are really no longer working. 

So they're not appropriate for a newly diagnosed patient or even someone who has just had their disease come back one time, for example.  They have really been developed and studied in patients with disease that's been much more resistant and relapsed. 

And so the net of this is that these can be effective, and most patients have some element of a response.  I tell patients that with aggressive lymphomas that have been through multiple therapies that about a third of patients can have remissions that last over a year or so, about a third of patients have short remissions, meaning they respond but it only lasts perhaps six months or so, and about a third of patients don't have any response at all.  So really it is in flux. 

Most patients will have some response, but only about a third of patients will have what we would term a durable remission, although some of these patients we hope may be cured from this disease although--their disease with this treatment although we need to have longer follow-up.  And I think it is very exciting new treatment. 

The downsides are that obviously everyone doesn't respond and that there are some important side effects of this treatment, something called cytokine release syndrome or CRS, where the immune system gets revved up and releases a bunch of chemicals much as a very extreme case of the flu, the same sorts of chemicals that get released when you have a bad infection, and this can in some cases cause neurologic issues, the confusion, brain swelling in some extreme cases and rarely can be life threatening. 

And so there's a lot of work going on.  This is not a trivial treatment.  It's not as simple as getting chemotherapy or some of the other treatments.  On the other hand, it's a powerful treatment.  So I call this version 1.0.  I think that there will be versions 2.0 and 3.0 in the coming years, and so patients should stay attention to this—pay attention to this.  It's really something that is, I would say, not applicable to most people today but over time will continue to be applicable to more and more patients, depending on how the treatment improves, when it becomes more effective and can it be better tolerated. 

Andrew Schorr:

Great explanation, Dr. Leonard.  Let's say that somebody comes into your clinic today, newly diagnosed in New York City, and they, you know, maybe have no treatment yet, maybe they won't need treatment right away or for some time, and they're looking ahead, and they're is saying, Doctor, are you hopeful for me?  What do you tell people?  I know you need to look at their specific situation, and that could vary or change over time, but generally what are you telling people today given that you're in research as well? 

Dr. Leonard:

Sure.  Well, I say, I would say that for most lymphoid malignancies outcomes have improved over recent years, and I have no doubt they will continue to improve over time.  That is important because when you look at historical data, when you say, well, how many people live five years or 10 years, whatever, with some medical problem, some sort of cancer, that takes into account that 10 years ago or five years ago the treatment was largely in many cases obsolete, meaning its treatments, how did people do with treatments that we don't use as much anymore? 

So I am very optimistic.  I think that the field is changing quite rapidly.  That doesn't mean we're going to solve all of these problems, but I think we're making a great deal of progress.  I think the pace of research, the pace of new treatments, is quite, quite accelerating.  And I think patients often have to learn about clinical trials and some of the other new treatments that are out there being studied, some of which will come to fruition, some won't.  But I think that's how we're making progress, and I'm very excited and very optimistic that we'll continue to improve outcomes for patients over time. 

Andrew Schorr:

That's very hopeful.  One other thing I wanted to ask you is when we talk about lymphoma, there are a lot of different subtypes, and things can even change over time.  How important are we in this age of precision medicine for you and your doctor know exactly what's going on with you and your subtype, if you will, so that whether in a trial or an approved singular or combination therapy you get what's right for you? 

Dr. Leonard:

Sure.  Well, there are over a hundred different types of lymphoma, and so in some ways if you call precision therapy or precision medicine the idea that we're going to take a group of patients, figure out what makes them different and give them a treatment that is more appropriate for their subtype, in some ways we've been doing that in lymphoma for a while, because we've identified the differences between these hundred different subtypes, and in many cases we're using very different treatments.  So I think lymphoma is really at the forefront of that area. 

That doesn't mean that we've taken it down to as granular a level as we would like to within some of the more common types of lymphoma, especially like diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, follicular lymphoma.  We know that there are sub groups of patients that are going to do better, are going not do as well with our standard treatments, and we need to continue to be able to identify those patients so that we can figure out which therapies are the right ones. 

But I think we're getting more and more like in other cancers where we're looking at the individual subtypes and in many cases have treatments that can be targeted to the molecular abnormalities specific for individual patients.  And so I think it's essential that patients know what subtype they have.  Sometimes that means getting another biopsy, getting sophisticated molecular testing. 

And I think to some degree it's important that people have in their corner a lymphoma specialist who is familiar with all of those subtypes because, you know, I don't take care of breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer.  I have a hard enough time with the hundred different types of lymphoma, and so sometimes you need a pathology expert and perhaps another lymphoma expert to at least weigh in on your case given the fact that the specifics and the nuances of each of these individual subtypes is very important. 

Andrew Schorr:

You're really getting at the last thing I was going to ask you about, and that is for our listeners, what questions should they be asking, let's say, upon a diagnosis or suspected diagnosis?  What questions should be asked?  It sounds like one is are you a lymphoma specialist, could we have a second opinion with one, and what tests should be needed.  But I'd love to hear you explain what questions should be asked. 

Dr. Leonard:

Sure.  So I think I would say that the first thing is what's the diagnosis, what subtype of lymphoma or other malignancy for that matter that the patient has within all the different subtypes, I think that's essential.  Is that really nailed down, or is additional testing needed to sort all of that out?  I think the staging issues are less important in lymphoma than they are in other cancers, but certainly that's important to know, kind of the lay of the land of where the disease stands. 

I think that when one then has a lymphoma diagnosis made the first question is really do you need to do any treatment right now or not, because there are some subtypes of lymphoma that basically always require immediate treatment or relatively soon, relatively immediate treatment. But others don't need any treatment right away, because there's not necessarily an advantage to starting treatment early, so understanding that aspect. 

And then looking at the goals of therapy.  Is this a lymphoma that we're hopeful that the treatment will get rid of the disease, or are we trying to extend survival, or are we trying to just control the symptoms and side effects of the disease?  And I think that those are important as kind of a Venn diagram and certain scenarios may have goals that encounter or encompass all of those aspects.  Obviously everyone is concerned about quality of life, whether they're going to be cured or potentially cured or live with the disease as a chronic illness. 

And then I think what are the options for treatment.  And the options that—what are the tradeoffs?  Are there choices to make?  Are there more effective, less effective treatments?  Are there more toxic, less toxic treatments?  How does that fit within the goals of therapy? 

And then I think any time one needs treatment one should explore the opportunity of clinical trials.  There's a lot of research going on.  Doesn't necessarily mean one's getting a new therapy, but I think there's research going on for every stage of the disease and new treatment options available at every stage of the disease.  And often in community practices doctors are offering clinical trial that may require going to a more specialty center or academic center, but I think one should always ask about that as a possibility.  And most people, that's not going to be the right thing to do for whatever reason, but if you don't educate yourself then you're not going to avail yourself of the latest technologies, the latest treatments, and potentially the best outcome. 

Andrew Schorr:

Very well said.  And I'll just say in my own case having lived with chronic lymphocytic leukemia for 22 years, I was in a Phase II trial not nearby, but I chose to go, and then I think that offered me a long remission which ended up years later turning out to be approved standard therapy.  So I am very grateful, so I urge our listeners to consider that. 

Well, Dr. John Leonard from Weill Cornell in New York City and the Richard T. Silver distinguished professor of hematology oncology, thank you so much.  Send our best to Dr. Silver.  He's one of our favorites, and we really appreciate your time with us today. 

Dr. Leonard:

You thank you very much.  I've enjoyed the discussion and wish all the listeners well. 

Andrew Schorr:

I'm Andrew Schorr.  Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all. 

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.