Saturday, February 24, 2018

A PSMA-based PET scan can change salvage radiation treatment decisions

The new PSMA-based PET scans provide a way to locate exactly where the cancer has spread to after an unsuccessful prostatectomy. Formerly, the only tools we had were scans that could only detect very large or rapidly growing tumors at PSAs well above the levels most radiation oncologists would be comfortable treating with salvage radiation; that is, there is widespread agreement that success rates improve the lower the PSA is when SRT is used. Even the newly approved Axumin PET scan only detects cancer in 38% of patients if their PSA is in the range of 0.2-1.0 ng/ml. By contrast, as we saw recently, the Ga-68-PSMA-11 PET scan has detected cancer in half of men when their PSA was still below 0.2, and in about two-thirds of men whose PSA was 0.2 - 0.4. The PSMA-based PET scan has the power to change SRT treatment decisions.

Calais et al. reported the results of a multi-institutional study of the Ga-68-PSMA-11 PET/CT in 270 men with biochemically recurrent prostate cancer after prostatectomy while their PSAs were still below 1.0 ng/ml (median 0.44). The institutions comprised UCLA, Technical University of Munich, Ludwig-Maximillian University of Munich, and University of Essen. Patients received PET scans from 2013-2017. Researchers painstakingly mapped all sites of cancer to find the locations of cancer that would have been missed if they had just blindly treated the prostate bed and/or the pelvic lymph node field recommended by RTOG guidelines.

The following table shows how treatment decisions might change based on their findings.

So, all in all, about half of treatment decisions might change - 30% in a minor way, 19% in a major way. The major changes would be: 
  • forgoing SRT entirely in up to 12%
    • consider metastasis-directed radiation in 8% - a treatment of unknown significance
  • changing from prostate bed-only to whole pelvic SRT in 11%, so as to potentially render curative what would have been a non-curative treatment
  • expanding the pelvic treatment field in 7%, so as to potentially render curative what would have been a non-curative treatment
At the above institutions, extended pelvic lymph node dissection (ePLND) is common practice - 81% of patients had a PLND. Consequently, 20% of patients already had detected pelvic LNs (N1) before the scan. At many institutions in the US where ePLND is less common in intermediate and high risk patients, this can cause a much larger and potentially curative change in the treatment plan from prostate bed-only to whole pelvic radiation. The researchers are to be congratulated for the painstaking work in contouring and comparing so many pelvic scans.

As one might expect, PSMA-based cancer detection was higher for those with Gleason score more than 7, and those with pathological stage N1 and T3. The patient's PSA at the time of the scan played a major role. While almost two-thirds had a PSA ≤ 0.5 ng/ml, the detection rate was 41% for those patients vs. 60% for those with higher PSAs. While detection improves with higher PSA, it is important for patients to understand that it is unwarranted (and potentially unsafe) to wait for PSA to rise just so that more cancer can be detected. That would be a self-fulfilling prophecy: by waiting for the cancer to put out more PSA, one is virtually ensuring that the cancer will grow, spread, and possible metastasize. Although we await definitive clinical trial data, most radiation oncologists recommend early treatment (before PSA reaches 0.2 ng/ml) for men with adverse pathology or for those evincing a distinct pattern of PSA progression after prostatectomy.

While a previous analysis showed that the Ga-68-PSMA PET had little effect on SRT decisions, and no patients were upgraded from incurable to potentially curable, this larger, more detailed study indicates that about 1 in 5 patients can be upgraded, and 1 in 6 can be spared SRT. This would seem to justify the cost. UCLA charges $2650 for recurrent (and high risk) patients. NIH is recruiting recurrent and high risk patients for an improved PSMA-based PET scan (called DCFPyL) that  is free (and transportation to Washington D.C. is covered as well).

Saturday, February 10, 2018

What to expect immediately after prostate radiation

Urinary, rectal and sexual side effects of treatment are usually mild and transient, although they may be worse if you are especially sensitive to radiation, are an older man, or had symptoms before you started radiation therapy. Some side effects described below may occur in many men starting anytime from a week to a month after treatment and continuing for weeks or months. These are called "acute" side effects. The duration and intensity vary greatly between men.

If any of those symptoms interfere with your day-to-day living, call your doctor. He may be able to prescribe medication that can help alleviate those symptoms.


Total incontinence is uncommon. There may be some leakage or dribbling. Other common side effects are irritation, burning or bleeding while urinating, feeling like you have to urinate immediately even when you know your bladder isn’t full, having to wake up several times during the night to urinate, or having to urinate frequently during the day. You may pass small amounts of blood or blood clots; however, if you are bleeding copiously when you urinate, contact your doctor immediately.

A rare but potentially serious side effect is urinary retention. If you find that you can’t urinate even though your bladder feels full, go to the Emergency Room of the nearest hospital immediately and tell them you are suffering from urinary retention. They must catheterize you to allow the urine to flow out.


There may be a feeling like you have to pass a stool but you cannot, and this feeling may recur often. This is called tenesmus. You should be aware that that feeling is from inflammation in your rectum (proctitis), not from actual stool there, and if you strain, you may create hemorrhoids. You may have frequent bowel movements. There may be blood in your stools or blood may drip out. Hemorrhoids may occur. Sometimes stool may leak out, especially when you are passing gas. Stool may be loose, or it may be especially hard.

If you have diarrhea for more than a few days, call your doctor. If the bleeding is copious, call your doctor.


Semen will usually dry up soon after treatment, although there may be small amounts of fluid. Occasionally, you may see some blood in that fluid or a few drops of blood may drip out after orgasm.

You may notice that, over time, erections are not as hard or as long-lasting. To protect the blood vessels supplying your penis with blood, your doctor may have prescribed Viagra or a similar medication. You should continue to take that medication for at least 6 months after the end of treatment, even though it seems like you don’t need it.

Testosterone levels often drop following radiation, but may eventually return to normal levels. Because of this, you may notice a drop in the level of your sexual desire/libido. Some men experience difficulty reaching orgasm.

If any of the symptoms are bothersome, you may want to consult with a doctor who specializes in Sexual Medicine.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Inexpensive screening for germline mutations to personalize treatment

Pritchard et al. last year discovered that certain rare germline mutations that interfere with DNA-repair mechanisms occur with greater than expected frequency in men with aggressive prostate cancer. A "germline mutation" means that it is inherited from one's parents and is part of a man's normal genetic profile, for better or worse. By contrast, a "somatic mutation" means that it occurs only in tumor tissue and not necessarily in normal cells. There are several genes responsible for repair of our DNA. Their job is to fix random replicative errors as they crop up, and to cause cells that cannot be repaired to commit suicide (apoptosis) before they can become cancerous. When our inherited germline DNA repair genes are faulty, cancers may appear at any time and grow unchecked. They also often results in radio-toxicity because healthy cells can't fix the X-ray damage to their DNA and die off en masse. When tumor DNA repair is faulty, as it often is, the cells become immortal, DNA errors proliferate and lead to such phenomena as EMT (cells able to exist outside of the prostate and migrate easily), castration resistance, and drug resistance.

The table below shows the incidence of several of the most important DNA-repair genes and their prevalence (1) in men with metastatic prostate cancer (2) in men with localized prostate cancer, and (3) in men in the general population who don't have prostate cancer. About 1 in 8 (12%) men who have detected metastases have a germline DNA repair defect. That falls to only about 1 in 22 men who have localized prostate cancer, and 1 in 37 men without prostate cancer.

It is only worth knowing about if there is something we can do about it. Someday we may have gene editing tools that can correct those aberrations throughout the body. CRISPR and Zinc Finger technology are in their infancy, and have only just started to be used in pre-clinical studies for prostate cancer. The two medicines we have in our armamentarium against prostate cancer in those with germline DNA-repair defects are PARP inhibitors (e.g., olaparib, rucaparib, talazoparib, etc.) and platinum-based chemotherapy (e.g., carboplatin, oxaliplatin, etc.).

Color Genomics

Color Genomics is a division of Genome Dx, the same company that offers the Decipher test. They are now offering a 30-gene panel listing the most frequently observed mutations in DNA-repair genes. It includes all of the genes listed in the table above plus other genes that have been implicated in other cancers (see the list here). They also look for aberrant TP53 and PTEN - two gene mutations that have been implicated in the loss of tumor suppression and loss of apoptosis, and are prognostic for aggressive prostate cancer variants. What is astounding is the price -- only $199! A full genomic analysis of BRCA2 would cost somewhere between $2,000 to $3,000. By limiting  their analysis to the most common site mutations, they are able to make it affordable, albeit not as thorough. It can be ordered by a physician (they will provide one if necessary). It is a simple saliva test that the patient mails in, and genetic counseling is included with the results.

Associated with other indicators of poor prognosis

A team at Johns Hopkins reported on their use of the Color Genomics test in 150 patients to determine whether germline DNA-repair defects were associated with two rare and aggressive prostate cancer variants: ductal and intraductal prostate cancer. They also looked for associations with lymphovascular invasion discovered at pathology. Velho et al. reported:

  • Ductal/intraductal histology was discovered in 48% who had the defects vs only 12% who were free of those defects.
  • Lymphovascular invasion was discovered in 52% who had the defects vs. only 14% who were free of those defects.
  • 44% of patients with a positive germline test would not have been offered genetic screening according to current National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines. (update note: NCCN has changed its guidelines)
Other tests

While 23andMe offers a germline test that the consumer can order without a doctor, it is inferior. There are, say, 10,000 or more genetic mutations that can occur within a single BRCA2 gene. 23andMe only looks at a narrow pre-defined range of genomic abnormalities, using a silicon SNP array. Color Genomics uses "next generation sequencing" to look at many more types of genomic aberrations. There are other tests available from AmbryGenetics and Myriad.

Those who test positive may wish to investigate a clinical trial of a PARP inhibitor:

Carboplatin trials specifically for men with DNA-repair defects:

Most (7 out of 8) metastatic patients will learn nothing from this test and it will be a waste of money. But for some who seem to have an unusually aggressive prostate cancer variant, have ductal/intraductal histology, or have had lymphovascular invasion identified at pathology, it may be worth paying for the relatively inexpensive test. It may indicate that a platin may be a preferred form of chemo, or that a clinical trial of a PARP inhibitor may be warranted.