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The Evolving Treatment of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

Created Jan 10 2019, 04:22 PM by Caitlin Coles

Over the past 5 years, the field of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) has seen the emergence of multiple new classes of therapies, including Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) inhibitors, phosphatidylinositol-3-kinase (PI3K) inhibitors, and BCL-2 inhibitors. These therapies have revolutionized treatment of the disease, but we still have much to learn about their long-term safety and efficacy, the ways they can be combined, and the ways they can be improved. In this blog post, we provide an overview of some recent research that falls into each of these three areas.

                With regards to the long-term efficacy of these novel therapies, we are just beginning to see results of long-term follow-up studies of patients who received ibrutinib or venetoclax early in their development or approval. After 5 years of follow-up in trial patients who received ibrutinib, an impressive median progression-free survival (PFS) of 51 months was demonstrated in relapsed, refractory CLL; complex karyotype and/or del(17p) were predictors of a shorter duration of response (Blood 2018;131:1910-1919).

We are also now beginning to see phase III data comparing ibrutinib to chemotherapy for the treatment of up-front disease and, in general, the drug compares favorably. Ibrutinib plus rituximab has superior PFS and overall survival compared to fludarabine, cyclophosphamide, and rituximab (FCR) for the treatment of patients under 70 without del(17p) (ASH 2018, Abstract LBA-4), and ibrutinib or ibrutinib plus rituximab has superior PFS compared to bendamustine plus rituximab for the treatment of patients over age 65 (ASH 2018, Abstract 6).  At present, these findings have short follow-up and the benefits are seen in the subgroup of patients with higher risk IGHV-unmutated disease, without a significant difference in low-risk patients, who can have very long PFS with chemoimmunotherapy—even cure with FCR in the younger subgroup. 

Additionally, researchers examined the real-world experience with ibrutinib and found that toxicity—not disease progression—was the primary reason for ibrutinib discontinuation, with 41 percent of patients having discontinued ibrutinib after a median follow-up of 17 months (Haematologica 2018; doi:10.3324/haematol.2017.182907).

With regards to toxicity, we are developing a broader picture of the spectrum of ibrutinib-related toxicities.  Multiple reports this year documented an increased risk of invasive fungal infections, particularly aspergillosis, in patients receiving ibrutinib (Clin Infect Dis 2018;67:687, Blood 2018;131:1882-1884). This may be due to BTK inhibition within macrophages (Blood 2018: doi:https://doi.org/10.1182/blood-2017-12-823393).

Effects on the cardiovascular system range from mild to life-threatening. New hypertension develops in approximately 30-40 percent of patients on long-term ibrutinib (ASH 2018, Abstract 4423; ASCO 2017, Abstract 7525) and can usually be controlled with prescription medications. The incidence of atrial fibrillation increases over time on the drug and—in the real-world setting—has been reported in up to 25 percent of patients after a median follow-up of 17 months (Haematologica 2018;103:874-879).  Ventricular arrhythmias and sudden deaths have been reported at higher-than-expected frequencies as well (Blood 2017;129:2581-2584, Leuk Lymphoma 2018:1-4).

Data has been presented demonstrating that patients can safely receive venetoclax with rituximab continuously for at least 2 years, and 69 percent of patients have no detectable minimal residual disease (MRD) in the peripheral blood after this combination therapy (ASH 2018, Abstract 184). With more experience with venetoclax and with adherence to a 5-week ramp-up dosing schedule, the risk of tumor lysis syndrome (TLS) is very low; only two cases (1.6%) of laboratory TLS were seen in a recent aggregate analysis. Diarrhea (41%), neutropenia (40%), and nausea (39%) were the most frequent adverse events, but neutropenic fever is uncommon (Clin Cancer Res 2018; doi:10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-17-3761). In general, patients tolerate venetoclax very well after the initial ramp-up.

In most cancers, the use of a monotherapy eventually leads to the emergence of drug resistance. Thus, there has been much interest in combining BTK inhibitors, anti-CD20 monoclonal antibodies, BCL-2 inhibitors, and/or chemotherapy in the hopes of avoiding resistance and achieving deeper, more durable responses. We now know that venetoclax/obinutuzumab (Blood 2017;129:2702-2705), ibrutinib/obinutuzumab, ibrutinib/venetoclax, and ibrutinib/obinutuzumab/venetoclax (ASH 2018, Abstract 693) can be safely combined and achieve high rates of undetectable MRD, although we await longer-term efficacy and safety data. In these trials, we should pay close attention to rates of complete responses and achievement of minimal residual disease negativity, as these can likely serve as rapid proxies for a durable response.

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