2023 Research Round Up: Melanoma and Health Equity

September 12, 2023
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The theme of the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting was “Partnering With Patients: The Cornerstone of Cancer Care and Research.” From June 2 to 6 in Chicago, Illinois, and online, cancer researchers and clinicians from around the world gathered to discuss the latest cancer research and how to ensure that all people receive the cancer care they need.

In the Research Round Up series, members of the Cancer.Net Editorial Board discuss the most exciting and practice-changing research in their field presented at the meeting and explain what it means for people with cancer. In today’s episode, our guests will discuss new research in melanoma and health equity.



ASCO: You’re listening to a podcast from Cancer.Net. This cancer information website is produced by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, known as ASCO, the voice of the world's oncology professionals.

The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. Guests’ statements on this podcast do not express the opinions of ASCO. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement. Cancer research discussed in this podcast is ongoing, so data described here may change as research progresses.

The theme of the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting was “Partnering With Patients: The Cornerstone of Cancer Care and Research.” From June 2 to 6 in Chicago, Illinois, and online, cancer researchers and clinicians from around the world gathered to discuss the latest cancer research and how to ensure that all people receive the cancer care they need.

In the Research Round Up series, members of the Cancer.Net Editorial Board discuss the most exciting and practice-changing research in their field presented at the meeting and explain what it means for people with cancer. In today’s episode, our guests will discuss new research in melanoma and health equity.

First, Dr. Katy Tsai discusses new research in melanoma.

Dr. Tsai is a medical oncologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also the 2023 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Melanoma & Skin Cancer.

You can view Dr. Tsai’s disclosures at Cancer.Net.

Dr. Tsai: Hello. Welcome to the ASCO Cancer.Net Research Round Up. I'm Katy Tsai, an associate professor of medicine and the clinical medical director of the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program at the University of California, San Francisco. I'm happy to be here today to discuss research on melanoma and skin cancers presented at the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting. I do not have any disclosures relevant to the studies to be discussed.

So, it's always exciting to see the latest research presented at ASCO. One theme in particular that I'd like to highlight in this podcast is recent advances in the field of adjuvant therapy. For the listeners who may not be familiar with this terminology, adjuvant therapy refers to drugs given after surgery to try to decrease the risk of cancer recurrence. Specifically, late-breaking abstract 9505 presented updates from KEYNOTE-716, an adjuvant study of pembrolizumab, or pembro, in patients with resected high-risk stage II melanoma. Late-breaking abstract 9503, which I'll also discuss, presented data from KEYNOTE-942, a pivotal study of a personalized cancer vaccine plus pembrolizumab in patients with resected high-risk stage III and stage IV melanoma.

So, let's start with KEYNOTE-716. We've known for some time in our field now that adjuvant pembrolizumab or nivolumab can help decrease the risk of recurrence for patients with resected stage III or IV melanoma. What may not be as well-known, however, is that patients with stage IIB or IIC melanomas, in other words, thicker, ulcerated primary melanomas, even without lymph node spread, actually have a comparable risk of melanoma recurrence compared to patients with early stage III melanomas. KEYNOTE-716 was a large, international phase 3 study that randomized patients with stages IIB and C melanoma to receive either pembro or placebo. The positive results showing improvement in relapse-free survival led to approval of adjuvant pembro in December 2021, but what was presented at ASCO was an update on distant metastasis-free survival. This is obviously an important endpoint for us because ultimately, if someone is going to develop widely metastatic disease, unfortunately, it is a development of these distant metastases that we are concerned about. So what we saw here is that with landmark 36-month follow-up, there was a 41% reduction in the risk of developing distant metastasis in patients who were treated with pembro compared to those who received the placebo. In addition, there was a consistent maintained benefit in relapse-free survival, and importantly, no changes in the side effect profile. These are important data because I believe it is practice-changing in the sense that this is a population of patients who historically might not ever have been referred to medical oncology, maybe just monitored serially with their dermatologists. And this is an option that should be discussed.

Ultimately, the risk versus benefit about whether to pursue a year of therapy versus maybe consider treatment only at the time of recurrence is a very personalized discussion between a patient and their treating oncologist, but it is an option that should definitely be offered. So let's move on to KEYNOTE-942. The novel drug being tested in this trial is very exciting. We're calling it “individualized neoantigen therapy.” So this is basically a platform that allows us to develop individualized treatment for someone based on characteristics of their own cancer. This involves taking the actual tumor specimen, genomic sequencing, specifically whole-exome sequencing is performed to try to identify any changes in the DNA. And then through a bioinformatic pipeline, the mutations in the DNA that are thought to be most likely to generate proteins that can be bound within presenting molecules are then identified in the computer program, then synthesized within mRNA. So very similar to the way that COVID vaccines have been made. So this actually becomes the actual drug product. So in this study, patients were randomized to receive either pembrolizumab by itself for a year, which is, as we alluded to earlier, standard adjuvant therapy, but then with the addition of this individualized neoantigen therapy starting with dose 3 and then throughout the rest of the year.

So the recurrence-free survival data were actually presented earlier this year at another major conference, AACR [American Association for Cancer Research], and were highly positive. At ASCO 2023, I think what was most impressive about the presented data is that distant metastasis-free survival, so again, a similar important endpoint that we discussed with the other trial, is that the distant metastasis-free survival here was quite impressively maintained. There was a hazard ratio of .35, meaning really a 65% reduction in the risk of recurrence for patients who received the personalized neoantigen therapy plus pembrolizumab. So this is a huge advantage for distant metastasis-free survival in this particular population of patients. What was even more intriguing is that usually when we combine therapies, we tend to see additive toxicity, more side effects. And what was really exciting about this particular trial is that the additive toxicity really wasn't as much as you would expect for giving 2 immunotherapies at the same time. I'll also highlight that even though these results are really exciting within melanoma, that part of the reason this data is so exciting is that it represents a really promising platform for therapeutic development and application in other tumors besides melanoma.

So this is definitely super exciting. While perhaps not practice-changing in this moment, it’s potentially practice-changing. And I look forward to seeing additional data coming in from planned trials using this particular combination in the metastatic setting in addition to the adjuvant setting.

So on the whole, I do think that updates in adjuvant therapy for melanoma were super exciting to see at ASCO 2023. As I mentioned earlier, it's a very large conference. A lot of exciting data being presented. So I do think that other themes to pay attention to as we continue to sort through existing data and look forward to incoming data from forthcoming trials is looking at neoadjuvant therapy. For example, drug given before surgery to try to improve long-term outcomes. For example, at ASCO this year, there was interesting neoadjuvant immunotherapy data presented not for melanoma, but for a different type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. So that would definitely be another theme to pay attention to in the coming months and years.

Thinking about novel combinations, for example, what's new in immune checkpoint inhibitors, we've been used to for a long time referring only to anti-PD1 antibodies, anti-CTLA4 antibodies. What was interesting to see this year were updates in novel combinations, for example, PD1 antibodies combined with LAG3 antibodies. Antibodies against TIGIT. So I think this will be another exciting space to pay attention to both in the metastatic skin cancer setting and in the adjuvant and neoadjuvant settings.

Thank you for your time and attention. That concludes my research roundup for melanoma and skin cancers. Thank you.

ASCO: Thank you, Dr. Tsai.

Next, Dr. Manali Patel discusses new research in health equity. Dr. Patel is a medical oncologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Stanford University. She is also the 2023 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Health Equity.

You can view Dr. Patel’s disclosures at Cancer.Net.

Dr. Patel: Hi, my name is Manali Patel. I'm the Associate Editor for Health Equity for Cancer.Net, and I'm so incredibly excited to present some really amazing work that was presented at our ASCO Annual Meeting this past June in Chicago. Before I start, I do have one disclosure. I will be talking about studies that were presented relating to patient navigation and one study in particular that my group presented looking at community health workers. And so that is a little bit of a disclosure that I would like to address upfront.

And now, just to get right started. I thought what was really interesting was the amount of work this year that was presented on disparities in health equity. As in past years, we actually saw quite an influx, probably more so this year than previously, on studies that looked at differing outcomes, inequities in cancer care delivery, describing disparities in terms of receipt of treatment, so if people were receiving treatment. There tended to be a lot of studies that focused on looking at and describing a lot of these disparities. But what I was really impressed by came out from the pediatric colleagues, individuals who are taking care of younger patients, children who are less than the age of 18, and how many of those particular studies were focused on moving from description to actually intervening and making a difference in health equity. And so I want to highlight a couple.

There was one that was done out of Dana-Farber, and actually, a multi-site group of authors. So lots of authors from all over the place, but Emily Jones was the lead author. And they described and actually evaluated how they could collect, in the context of clinical trials for children, which is called Children's Oncology Group Trial-- how they could collect social determinants of health data, meaning data that evaluates people's income, transportation, where people live, what kind of work they may do, if they have food and housing insecurity. And what they were able to show is that, by embedding a lot of these data points-- they actually made these data points optional for patients when they came into the clinical trial. And they found high feasibility, meaning lots of people that were signing up to do clinical trials for the Children's Oncology Group Trial were able to complete this extra data, which is extremely important and is a remarkable willingness of individuals to participate in providing this data which is important for their treatment.

Along those same lines, Amy Newman from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia really did a very nice study looking at the feasibility of what they called PediCARE. And it was this intervention that was focused on trying to ensure that people-- again, children less than the age of 18 across 2 different clinics. They evaluated whether PediCARE would help people to receive necessary and important resources as it relates to social and economic needs. And so they screened for food insecurity, for housing insecurity, for people that had difficulties paying for utilities, and transportation security. And then they randomized individuals to either PediCARE or to just usual cancer care. And what they found was that 100% of the people that were randomized to PediCARE successfully received grocery and transportation resources. They felt that it was easier to buy food for their family, and they reported it was easier to get to and from the hospital and that they would be very likely to report and to recommend this intervention to other individuals. And so it really shows how these interventions can move from just describing that housing, food insecurity or problems-- number 1, it starts with the collection of the data, right? What's really important is making sure that we collect this data because we don't currently do that in cancer care. And then number 2, when we actually do collect the data, what are we going to do about it? And it shows that these interventions really do help people to move past their housing and social and economic issues that they may experience into actually receiving care that's important and necessary to improve outcomes.

We did see a lot of data reflecting the importance of health insurance and big policies, what I call Big P, which are these national policies, like the Affordable Care Act. And now we've seen, just year after year and including this year, plethora of studies showing how beneficial the Affordable Care Act has been on reducing disparities and improving cancer outcomes overall.

We also saw other studies, such as one presented by Dr. Gladys Rodriguez from Northwestern, which looked at disparities in the intensity of care at the end of life amongst patients with gastrointestinal cancers. And the team revealed, across almost 20 years of data in California, that patients were receiving higher rates of what would be considered low-quality care. Now, this is lower hospice use, which we know helps to actually improve survival, lower rates of palliative care use, and greater rates of burdensome hospitalizations. And now, why I think this is particularly important is because this study evaluated what we know is a problem, that there is low-quality care amongst patients from particular racial and ethnic populations, such as Black and Hispanic patient populations, that aren't receiving the right care when they're diagnosed. And then what this reveals is that, even at the end of life, they're perhaps still receiving low-quality care.

Another study looked at screening, which I thought was really impressive. It was by Nicole Anne Gay from the UM Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami. And what they evaluated was essentially a quality improvement program to reduce disparities in lung cancer screening. As a lung cancer doctor myself, it's still shocking that fewer than 6% of people that should receive lung cancer screening, meaning a screening test to help us identify and to treat patients with lung cancer-- they aren't receiving lung cancer screening. And so we know that this is a problem overall. They put into place what's called a multi-level, meaning that there were improvements in the electronic health record that they embedded. They also provided patients with navigation, and they also helped clinicians in the primary care clinics obtain information about who should be eligible and which patients should be receiving screening. And what they found was that they were able to move screening rates from 25% improvement completed during the project period from their baseline, which is actually quite impressive.

We also saw an interesting study, and actually, just an interesting evaluation, of childhood leukemia survival on the U.S.-Mexico border. And it was a description of how to implement changes by strengthening care partnerships. And so they evaluated and they described the implementation of this program to achieve what they called sustainable high-quality care for children with leukemia. It was done by Paula Aristizabal and was really in a unique border health setting. It was in partnership between the North American and Mexican institutions. And they used what was called the strengthening model developed by the World Health Organization to evaluate specific domains and to try to improve a sustainable program for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at a public referral hospital right on the border region. And I thought that that study was particularly interesting because it shows how to be able to use an approach to improve the staffing of a leukemia service, to implement a sustainable training program as well for other clinicians to learn how to provide leukemia care, and then also to try to improve clinical outcomes and funding for patients to receive medications through local partnerships. I thought it was a really fantastic description of how to begin to do this work that is extremely necessary in low- and middle-income nations but also even on our own U.S.-Mexico border.

There were also a lot of studies that evaluated the importance of social and economic factors. We know that financial toxicity, which is an unfortunate side effect of cancer treatment and cancer care and a cancer diagnosis overall, is associated with worse outcomes. Financial toxicity means the burdens and costs that arise with having a cancer diagnosis. And now we've seen studies that were presented at ASCO this past year by Dr. Khan, who showed that, within 2 years of diagnosis, are at higher risk for dying after adjusting for many social and also clinical factors. And Dr. Hu also presented data looking at the implications of having a lot of medical debt and death. And what both of these studies showed is that medical debt is associated with having perhaps a lower likelihood of surviving. It does make sense for Dr. Hu's study that one would have a lot of medical debt if they also have a lot of other conditions, but it does begin to shed some light on the fact that there are worse clinical outcomes, meaning people aren't doing as well, depending on how much other medical care expenses they may have.

And then finally, one important piece, which I think is really crucial for what's happening now in the way that oncologists may perhaps be able to advocate for payment for services that are important, is looking at navigation studies. Now, this is patient navigators, and that is a very broad topic. And so there were lots and lots of studies that came out at ASCO that evaluated the importance of navigation, including our own work that looked at what happens to veterans after receiving a lay health worker or a navigator to assist with advanced care planning, meaning helping veterans to understand their goals and preferences. And what these studies have shown is that there's actually not only clinical benefit but also, in our own study, that perhaps there may be a survival benefit even 10 years later. It was very wonderful to be at ASCO this past year, and I really hope that you all can look at some of these studies or take away the important and amazing work that's going on in the health equity space. And I thank you for listening to our podcast.

ASCO: Thank you, Dr. Patel.

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