Dr. Heather Cheng is an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Director of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Prostate Cancer Genetics Clinic.
Prostatepedia spoke with her about a clinical trial she’s running that looks at inherited genetics of men with metastatic prostate cancer.
What attracted you to medicine?
Dr. Heather Cheng: There are a couple of things I love about medicine and especially oncology. One is getting to know patients, finding out what’s most important to them as people, and using that information to help guide discussions and decisions about their treatment in a way that is true to what is most important to them. These days I guess you call this shared decision-making. That’s the most rewarding part about what I do.
Have you had any patients over the years who have changed how you see your own role or how you view the art of the medicine?
Dr. Cheng: I have a lot of patients who fit those criteria. My interest in this area started when I was a first-year Hematology and Oncology fellow. I was in the clinic and it was when we were at the beginning of this wave of new exciting drugs that prolong survival, such as Zytiga (abiraterone) and Xtandi (enzalutamide).
I met this patient who was 43 years old; he had new, aggressive metastatic prostate cancer. His disease blew through every one of the new drugs. It was extremely humbling and disappointing because we were so excited about these drugs, but they didn’t do much to slow his disease. And it was heartbreaking because he was so young. He had a family history of cancer but not prostate cancer. He had a teenaged son. We had a lot of discussions about the effect of his disease on his son. I wondered if there was something genetic, something that was making his cancer so aggressive. And then, what could this mean for his son? His memory has stuck with me.
When I think about the work and research that I do, it’s not just for the individual patient in front of me. I’m also thinking about how we can improve things and advance the field so things can be better for the next generation. How can we make progress as quickly and with as much positive impact as possible?
I met another patient who had a great effect on me. He had just been diagnosed with high-risk prostate cancer, Gleason 9. He was planning to get radiation. As part of a research study, we offered to sequence the DNA of his cancer because he had an unusual appearance of his cancer– ductal histology. He was kind and generous enough to volunteer and participate. It wasn’t going to affect his treatment, but he agreed to help us learn more.
In his cancer, we found a mutation in the BRCA2 gene, the one that many people may have heard of because of its association with breast and ovarian cancer risk. There was suspicion that the mutation could be inherited, so we brought him back for dedicated genetic testing for inherited cancer risk. And, it turns out he did have an inherited version of that mutated BRCA2 gene. He was the first person in his family to be found to carry the mutated version of BRCA2. Neither he nor his family would have known until later if we had not looked in his tumor.
After this, some of his relatives had genetic counseling and were also tested. The sister who had breast cancer had a recurrence and was found to carry the BRCA2 mutation. This information was important for her because it offers additional treatment opportunities for her cancer that might not have otherwise been considered. His daughter was also found to carry the BRCA2 mutation and after learning of this, had a mammogram and was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s still curable, so she’s going through treatment, but it is possible that she might not have known until much later otherwise.
The importance of test results can extend to relatives in a way that might help more than one person, not just the person that I see in the clinic, but other members of their family. I do want to be clear that these mutations are not found in most people— even those with cancer—but for the people who have these mutations, it can be life saving information for their family members.
What will you be doing, and what can men expect to happen, during your clinical trial?
Dr. Cheng: You can learn about the study from your doctor, support group, or by visiting our website, http://www.GentlemenStudy.org. There is information about the study. You can consent online, confirm that you have metastatic prostate cancer, and check that you’re interested in genetic testing for cancer risk.
There is a questionnaire that many take about 40 minutes to complete, that asks about your knowledge of genetics, basic health, family history of cancer, and demographic information about where you live.
You can upload supporting information about your diagnosis, or you can check a box saying you’d like help from the research team to gather that information on your behalf. Because there are strict privacy laws around medical records, you need to give permission to our team to get medical information for the study on your behalf.
To be eligible, you must have metastatic prostate cancer and must live in the United States. There’s one other exclusion, which is that if you have some blood disorders such as leukemia, we cannot be sure that the test results are valid.
If you meet criteria, you will be mailed a saliva kit, a medical-grade genetic test through Color Genomics, with instructions on how to provide a saliva sample. Follow the instructions carefully and then mail the kit back. Results are typically available within 4 weeks. You will have access to a genetic counselor following your results, and you are invited to follow up in person to our clinic if you live in the area. If you don’t live near us, we can direct you to resources to find a genetic counselor for in-person visit or by telehealth.
The testing for this study is not recreational testing. It is not the same as Ancestry.com or 23andMe. This is clinical, medically appropriate testing if you have metastatic prostate cancer.
Do you share this information with their doctor, or is it up to them to share the information with their doctor?
Dr. Cheng: We strongly encourage participants to share the results and information with their doctors, but our ethical board does not allow us to do this for participants without their specific consent.
Are there any fees for patients?
Dr. Cheng: There is no fee for the patient.
It sounds similar to the process for the Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project, except I don’t think they share their results.
Dr. Cheng: Yes, it is similar to that project. The difference is that the patient or the participant gets results that apply to them individually. The Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project, which is fantastic and an important and innovative study, is de-identified, and the patient doesn’t get individual-level results back.
Their goal is to amass as much data as they can for research.
Dr. Cheng: Correct, yes.
Are you also cataloging the information that you collect?
Dr. Cheng: Yes.
What will you do with the data that you collect?
Dr. Cheng: We’ll be looking at demographics, the proportion of people who have mutations (pathogenic variants), information about family history, and validated measures of knowledge, distress measures and satisfaction with testing.
If patients consent to re-contact, they will be contacted at the conclusion of the study. If there are other follow-up studies, they can opt to learn about those. There will also be an invitation for those who agree to subsequent studies, like treatment studies or PARP-inhibitor studies, for example.
We’re still learning about certain genes, such as ATM mutations and CHEK2 mutations. As we learn more, we may want to update participants on what the field has learned. There are still many important questions that the field needs to answer, and patient engagement and participation will make this happen more quickly. There will be opportunities for those downstream studies.
How many patients are you looking for, overall?
Dr. Cheng: The plan was for 2,000. We have sent kits out to over 350. We still have room for participation!