First advance in therapy for soft-tissue cancer in decades

Jul 21, 2016
New York - 

Adding a novel monoclonal antibody therapy to traditional chemotherapy increased median survival by nearly a year in patients with advanced sarcoma, a lethal soft-tissue cancer. Findings from a multicenter clinical trial of the combination therapy, led by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian, represent the first appreciable improvement in sarcoma outcomes in decades.

The study was published online earlier this month in The Lancet.

“We estimated from preclinical data that the new drug—olaratumab—might improve survival in these patients by a few months, but the extent of the improvement exceeded everybody’s expectations,” said study leader Gary K. Schwartz, MD, professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and chief of the division of hematology and oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. “While sarcoma remains a fatal disease, we’re encouraged that we’re on the right track and hope to build on this progress.”

Soft-tissue sarcomas are a group of cancers that arise in fat, muscle, nerves, joint linings, blood vessels, and other tissues that connect, support, and surround various body structures. There are more than 50 different types of soft-tissue sarcomas.

If caught early, sarcomas can be treated effectively with surgery. However, if the disease spreads, or metastasizes, treatment with chemotherapy does relatively little to slow disease progression or improve survival. The median survival time after diagnosis of advanced disease is 12 to 16 months. In 2015, 12,000 people were diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcomas and 5,000 died of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Several years ago, Dr. Schwartz (then at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center) reported that a cell-surface receptor called platelet-derived growth factor receptor alpha (PDGFR-alpha)—found in many people with soft-tissue sarcoma—appeared to play a key role in tumor growth in specific sub-types of soft-tissue sarcoma. By inhibiting this receptor, he was able to get the sarcoma cells to stop growing in his laboratory.

Working in close association with scientists at ImClone, since acquired by Eli Lilly and Company, he developed the clinical trial with the agent olaratumab, a human monoclonal antibody that blocks PDGFR-alpha and disrupts this signaling pathway, which is critical for sarcoma growth. The drug was also shown to enhance the effects of a standard chemotherapy called doxorubicin, which is routinely used in the treatment of sarcoma.

In a phase 2 clinical trial, 133 patients with metastatic soft-tissue sarcoma were given either doxorubicin or doxorubicin plus olaratumab. The median overall survival of patients in the doxorubicin group was 14.7 months, compared to 26.5 months in the doxorubicin-olaratumab group. Adding olaratumab to standard chemotherapy did not significantly increase treatment side effects.

“As an oncologist, I am ecstatic that the drug worked as well as it did,” said Dr. Schwartz. “As a physician-scientist, however, I remain frustrated because we still don’t know exactly why it worked as well as it did. It might be directly affecting the tumor cells, the tumor microenvironment (cells immediately around the tumor cells), or even the immune cells. The future development of this drug will be helped by figuring this out.”

Dr. Schwartz and his colleagues are currently studying other potential drug targets for arresting the progression of soft-tissue sarcomas. “Sarcomas are complex. There are, in fact, multiple receptors on the cell surface. PDGFR-alpha is just one of the receptors that are overexpressed on sarcoma cells. We now have some ideas about how to combine drugs that block multiple types of these receptors, which will probably be more effective that targeting a single type of receptor,” he said.

Eli Lilly recently completed a larger, phase 3 clinical trial of olaratumab, which included some of Dr. Schwartz’s patients at Columbia/NewYork-Presbyterian. Results of the study have not yet been published. In the meantime, the FDA has granted the drug priority review as a potential treatment for advanced soft-tissue sarcoma.

The study is titled, “Olaratumab and doxorubicin versus doxorubicin alone for treatment of soft-tissue sarcoma: an open-label phase 1b and randomised phase 2 trial.” The other contributors are: William D. Tap (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, NY), Robin L. Jones (University Washington, Seattle, WA, and The Royal Marsden Hospital, London, UK), Brian A. Van Tine (Washington University in St Louis, St Louis, MO), Bartosz Chmielowski (UCLA Medical Center, Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, Los Angeles, CA), Anthony D. Elias (University of Colorado Cancer Center, Aurora, CO), Douglas Adkins (Washington University), Mark Agulnik (Northwestern University, Chicago, IL), Matthew M. Cooney (University Hospitals Case Medical Center, Seidman Cancer Center, Cleveland, OH), Michael B. Livingston (Carolinas Healthcare System, The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, Charlotte, NC), Gregory Pennock (Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center, Jacksonville, FL), Meera R. Hameed (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), Gaurav D. Shah (Novartis Pharmaceuticals, East Hanover, NJ), Amy Qin (Eli Lilly and Company, Bridgewater, NJ), Ashwin Shahir (Eli Lilly and Company, Windlesham, Surrey, UK), Damien M. Cronier (Eli Lilly and Company, Windlesham), Robert Ilaria Jr (Eli Lilly and Company, Lilly Corporate Center, Indianapolis, IN,), Ilaria Conti (Eli Lilly and Company, Lilly Corporate Center), and Jan Cosaert (Eli Lilly and Company, Bridgewater).

This study was funded by Eli Lilly and Company.

Drs. Qin, Shahir, Croner, Ilaria, and Conti are employees of and shareholders in Eli Lilly and Company. Drs. Cosaert and Shah were employees of ImClone Systems (now Eli Lilly) during study design, and conduct, and Dr. Cosaert was an employee during the conduct and analysis. Dr. Tap reports personal fees from Eli Lilly, Advaxis, Ariad, Boehringer Ingelheim, EMD Serono, Daiichi Sankyo, Morphotek, and Plexxikon. Dr. Jones has received a grant from ImClone. Dr. Van Tine served on an advisory board for Eli Lilly. Dr. Chmielowski reports personal fees from Eli Lilly, Amgen, Astella, Genentech, and BMS. Dr. Adkins has received grants from Eli Lilly. Dr. Agulnik reports personal fees from EMD Serono, Janssen, and Novartis. Dr. Pennock reports personal fees from Bristol-Myers Squibb. Dr. Shah was an employee of Novartis during the conduct of the study. The other contributors declare no competing interests.

Columbia University Medical Center

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Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center

The Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital encompasses pre-clinical and clinical research, treatment, prevention and education efforts in cancer. The Cancer Center was initially funded by the NCI in 1972 and became a National Cancer Institute (NCI)–designated comprehensive cancer center in 1979. The designation recognizes the Center’s collaborative environment and expertise in harnessing translational research to bridge scientific discovery to clinical delivery, with the ultimate goal of successfully introducing novel diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive approaches to cancer. For more information, visit www.hiccc.columbia.edu.

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Media Contact:

Karin Eskenazi     212-342-0508     ket2116@columbia.edu