Post-ASH Reflections

Post-ASH Reflections

The ASH21 Meeting of blood diseases is in the books. What I can share with patients, care partners, and all who are interested is that the myeloma research world is on fire! There are so many new questions for new and veteran researchers, so many creative possible solutions were a part of this annual meeting with a usual attendance of 30,000 health professionals with interests in hematology. 

I wanted to share the many advancements being made in the myeloma world – to be able to communicate hope for treatment options and high hopes for a cure for multiple myeloma (MM). There was something new at every level of myeloma treatment — from the newly diagnosed to those who are considered to have relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma (RRMM).

There were an incredible 879 myeloma-related abstracts submitted to the conference — a compelling evidence of increasing interest and progress in this rare cancer by researchers from all over the world. This was a huge increase compared to the number of myeloma abstracts during my first ASH conference 7 years ago in 2014.

The science was sometimes difficult for me to follow, but I knew I would have several opportunities, including leaning on team members to try to understand the mechanisms of new therapies. I knew that I should not get distracted by trying to follow p-values, levels of significance or by understanding the intricacies of targeted therapies. These targeted therapies are moving us closer to precision or personalized medicine. I could gain better understanding of the biology of multiple myeloma and the new strategies to control it.

Some outstanding advances included the seeming omnipresence of the monoclonal antibody, daratumumab, in many therapies – both front line and after three or four therapies. Daratumumab was approved by the FDA in 2015 along with three other drugs. It is interesting to see it taking center stage in combination with various other drugs. The evidence of several clinical trials shows that there may be a change from the current “gold standard” of newly diagnosed myeloma therapy —from three drugs to four drugs.

Population Studies and Biologic Determinants of Myeloma Control

There were several important progress reports on two population studies, one of which is the iStopMM Study (Iceland Screens, Treats, or Prevents Multiple Myeloma) —a part of the Black Swan Research Initiative (BSRI) of the IMF. In this innovative nationwide, randomized clinical trial (RCT), approximately 80,000 adults over 40 years of age who consented to participate were screened for the myeloma precursor monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). There were an impressive eight presentations from this clinical trial, including four oral and the remainder poster presentations. One of the significant results is the occurrence of MGUS, expected in the general population as they increase in age. Smoldering multiple myeloma (SMM) incidence was higher than expected. Observations have determined that the use of mass spectrometry versus Serum protein electrophoresis (SPEP) should be used to determine myeloma protein levels. 

Because of this unique longitudinal trial, there is genetic sequencing information on all volunteer participants. Finding SMM during screening can allow earlier intervention. The question arises as to whether widespread screening is advisable. The ethics of screening without having an appropriate treatment plan needs to be considered. The results of the studies that come from this trial are highly significant, but come with the limitation of being a homogeneous, virtually all-white population.

Early results from another population clinical trial called the PROMISE Study were presented. In contrast to the demographics of the iStopMM study, the PROMISE Study enrolled myeloma patients 40 and over who self-identified as African American or Black and patients of any race who had a family history of myeloma.

Over 7,200 were screened using SPEP and mass spectroscopy. Overall, MGUS was detected in 10% of volunteers using mass spectroscopy, 6% using SPEP. Some subgroups showed even higher prevalence of MGUS, like African Americans over age 50 with 17% MGUS using mass spectrometry. Clearly, these population studies with different demographics —age, race/ethnicity, geography, genetic sequencing, etc.— will help us unravel the many mysteries of myeloma. 

New Approaches to Myeloma Control

Other study results focused on immunotherapy called CAR T therapy, including ABECMA® (idecabtagene vicleucel). On March 26, 2021, the FDA approved idecabtagene vicleucel (also called ide-cel), which targets B cell maturation antigen (BCMA) protein that lives on the myeloma cell. There has been so much work since this therapy was first introduced to reduce major side effects and the expense of CAR T as major barriers for access to this therapy. 

The reported outcomes demonstrate remissions that are deeper and last longer, allowing patients and their families a longer period of no treatment. With these advances, there was discussion among some scientists that someday CAR T therapy might replace stem cell transplant as a consideration for earlier therapy than after four prior treatments.

Another major area of research and hope for those who have already been heavily treated for myeloma is the research of bispecific antibodies – an emerging immunotherapy. Bispecific T-cell Engagers (BiTEs) are antibodies that simultaneously target BCMA or other proteins, GPRC5D, and FcRH5 and immune effector cells (like T-cells). Research on all these therapies is ongoing with reports especially on working to decrease side effects like cytokine release syndrome (CRS), cytopenia, and infections.

Social Determinants of Health

I was excited to witness more attention being given to the equally important Social Determinants of Health (SDoH). With all the bench research, and phases I-IV of clinical trials, translating that research to delivery of results to patients and communities must also take center stage. I was encouraged to see the Anti-Racism Studio as a part of the daily agenda at ASH. I believe this heightened awareness of the need for diversity in clinical trials and suggestion from the audience could move the inclusion of diversity in research to a policy level at these scientific sessions. We have to include community engagement in the recruitment of “partners or participants,” not “subjects” to clinical trials. We have to learn from studies like iStopMM and take the clinical trial to the community to remove barriers to participation, such as transportation. We need to consider institutional racism and unconscious bias on the part of providers to be successful in equitable access to care. We should find ways to ensure that all myeloma patients will have access to newly discovered therapies —removing yet another potential barrier to participation. Acknowledging and monitoring for health equity is essential.

Final Note

I am honored and humbled to be a member of this patient advocate team. It still melts my heart each time I see and hear a researcher-presenter include patients and participants in their acknowledgments. I extend my sincerest appreciation to the IMF and all the sponsors who supported our attendance at this very important annual ASH meeting.

Gail McCray, on Twitter @IMFgailMYELOMA 

Searching for the ‘Magic Wand’

Searching for the ‘Magic Wand’

What a whirlwind of information it was this weekend! #ASH21 #IMFASH21  

We learned about new and exciting studies related to monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance(MGUS) smoldering myeloma (particularly high-risk), and then active myeloma. I am so blessed to be able to participate in these presentations and gain this new level of insight into the myeloma world.

As a current high-risk myeloma patient with two young children, I started out as high-risk IGA MGUS and then developed high-risk smoldering myeloma (SMM). However, I continue to hope for a “magic wand” (as my son says) to cure this disease.  Therefore, I am writing this blog from that perspective: (1) to encourage other multiple myeloma patients and caregivers, especially those with young children; (2) to provide uplifting information; and (3) to empower those with myeloma through these new educational resources.

As a previous high-risk IGA MGUS patient who had it for almost five years, the new studies out of Iceland with the iStopMM (Iceland Screens,Treats, or Prevents Multiple Myeloma) Study showed the importance of tracking MGUS.  Depending on which type of MGUS you have, MGUS may have a greater tendency to turn into active disease.  The iStopMM Study demonstrates the importance of tracking the disease so that doctors can monitor who may or may not progress into a different stage. Tracking the disease at an early stage allows myeloma patients and their medical team to monitor it carefully and decide when and if to move on to doing treatment. With early detection, a person can hope to avoid certain struggles and issues that they could face without early treatment.  

If a patient moves from MGUS to smoldering myeloma, wow! What choices are coming down the road!  Very exciting!  As a patient who went from high-risk smoldering myeloma to active myeloma within 8 months, it is so encouraging to see the latest studies that show the benefits of treatment on high-risk SMM. It used to be that many high-risk SMM patients would use the “watch and wait” approach.  While that still is a viable option (as there are considerations of starting therapies), it seems that there are some great outcomes when treating high-risk SMM patients.  Some studies are showing promising results by using Kyprolis® (carfilzomib), Revlimid® (lenalidomide), and dexamethasone (also known as KRd) and even KRd with a stem cell transplant. [Carfilzomib, Lenalidomide and Dexamethasone (KRd) as Induction Followed by HDT-ASCT, Consolidation with KRd and Maintenance with Rd.  GEM-CESAR, paper 1829.]

If the patient then goes into active myeloma, again – I just have to say, wow!  There are all sorts of options!  There were a lot of presentations that added daratumumab to various drug combinations. From a non-medical standpoint, it seems that in most cases, Dara added to these various drug combinations increased the survival rates and deepened the responses.  However, for some patient groups, Dara wasn’t always the “magic wand.” While Dara may still help that segment of myeloma patients, it was not as effective as it was in other groups.  But overall, it was great to know about the effectiveness of the drug, and how Dara provides another available option in the treatment arsenal in this myeloma journey.

Another interesting topic point was the discussion on CAR T therapy and minimal residual disease (MRD) negativity.  CAR T therapy may be another treatment option for myeloma patients that could beneficial. Again, looking at it from a lay person’s perspective, it seems that CAR T therapy has advanced and some of the side effects have gotten a bit better. The stats related to progression free survival (PFS) and overall survival is amazing!  It is also exciting to see how CAR T affects MRD negativity. MRD negativity seems to be a key factor in a person’s success in their myeloma journey. It is interesting to see how CAR T continues to develop as part of the myeloma treatment plan.

One of the primary outcomes of attending ASH this weekend was gathering INFORMATION!  While I may not completely understand the ins and outs of the therapies, drugs, side effects, charts, stats, and everything else (my head is still spinning!), ASH provides the latest information that allow for intelligent and meaningful conversations with the medical/treatment team.  

Information allows myeloma patients to be empowered, be their own advocate, and partner with their healthcare team to help make the right decisions with current available information.  By learning more about different treatment options, myeloma patients can ask questions like: Is the current treatment plan still the best approach?  Are there novel advances that may work better at the current stage of myeloma? Is now the best time to hit myeloma harder?  For all these questions, I have no answers.  But, by learning about new treatment options and therapies, myeloma patients are empowered to talk to their doctors about options and to see if status quo is the way to go or if there are any changes that should be considered based on the new research.  

Furthermore, as most people on this journey know, each person’s path is unique and can change at any moment.  I believe that partnering with your medical team is key to understanding what is right for each person’s situation and their type of myeloma.  This concept was supported by some of the studies which are researching the need for personalized therapies. [A Machine Learning Model Based on Tumor and Immune Biomarkers to Predict Undetectable Measurable Residual Disease (MRD) in Transplant-Eligible Multiple Myeloma (MM), Paper 1596.]

I have learned so much this weekend!  It was interesting to see the developments that are happening within the myeloma community.  The treatments are advancing every day.  Hopefully, one day, we will find that “magic wand.”

My son and what he would love to be his magic wand!

Sue Massey, on Twitter @Mmfamilies_IMF