Prostate cancer is one of the most slow-growing of cancers in its early stages. This is why we can take so much time to decide on initial treatment, even in high-risk cases (see this link). It is also why low-risk men may safely choose active surveillance over immediate radical therapy. Progression is only weakly correlated with time since diagnosis, even for recurrences (see this link).
Early Use of Docetaxel
We have already seen that docetaxel is of limited (if any) use when combined with radiation therapy and ADT for high-risk cancer patients (see this link). It is also ineffective when combined with prostatectomy and ADT for high-risk cancer patients (see this link).
Oudard et al. conducted a randomized clinical trial of docetaxel+ADT vs ADT-alone in non-metastatic men with a recurrence after primary treatment. All 250 patients were "high risk," which was defined as at least one of the following:
- Gleason score ≥ 8
- PSA velocity > 0.75 ng/ml/year
- PSADT ≤ 6 months
- time to recurrence ≤ 12 months
- 73% had prior prostatectomy
- 27% had prior primary radiotherapy ± ADT
- 60% of men who had a prostatectomy also had salvage EBRT
- Median PSA progression-free survival was no different:19 months if they got docetaxel, 20 months if they didn't
- Median time to radiographic progression was no different: 9 years in each group
- There was no difference in 12-year overall survival rates: 60% in the docetaxel group, 55% in the no-docetaxel group. (The docetaxel group was 2 years younger)
- Adverse hematological events from docetaxel included neutropenia (48%), febrile neutropenia (8%) and thrombocytopenia (3%)
One small observational study suggested that docetaxel may benefit men who are castration-resistant but are not yet detectably metastatic. At the other end of the progression spectrum, in men who are both metastatic and castration-resistant, docetaxel added a median survival of 3 months (see this link), compared to a median of 17 additional months among men with high volume metastases in the CHAARTED trial.
Docetaxel remains effective even after second-line hormonals (e.g., Zytiga, Xtandi) have stopped working. In fact, there have been cases where use of docetaxel has reversed resistance to them caused by the AR-V7 splice variant. However, combining docetaxel and Xtandi did not result in a survival advantage over docetaxel alone in a randomized clinical trial.
The "sweet spot" for docetaxel seems to be after there are detectable metastases but before castration resistance is fully established. Used earlier, it seems to have no effect in most men; used later, it is still effective, but less so.
Early Use of Hormone Therapy
It is well established that hormone therapy alone adds nothing to the survival of localized prostate cancer (see this link and this one). We also know that hormone therapy adds nothing to the effectiveness of radiation therapy for favorable risk prostate cancer (see this link and this one and this one). Even with recurrent prostate cancer post-prostatectomy, a major randomized clinical trial (RTOG 9601) found that adding long-term antiandrogen therapy to radiation did not increase outcomes as much in men who had Gleason score ≤ 7, PSA ≤ 0.7 ng/ml or negative surgical margins.
However, an early analysis of the TOAD randomized clinical trial suggests that using androgen ablation on men who are recurrent after prostatectomy but not yet detectably metastatic may have a net survival benefit over the selective pressure it exerts towards castration resistance. In fact, men who started on ADT earlier developed castration resistance significantly later. This effect was also noted in the TROG 03.04 RADAR trial. The authors wrote, "The cumulative incidence of transition to castration resistance was significantly lower in men receiving [longer term ADT with their EBRT]."
Early Use of Second-line Hormone Therapy
We have learned that the use of abiraterone (Zytiga) in newly-diagnosed metastatic men increases survival markedly over waiting. Zytiga adds 4 months to survival among men who are castration-resistant and have had chemo (see this link). Median (50%) survival has not been reached with the limited follow-up of the STAMPEDE trial, but we can look at 60% survival and note that the curves are diverging, so the survival improvement is at least this large. In STAMPEDE, early Zytiga increased median survival by at least 18 months; In LATITUDE, early Zytiga increased median survival by16.8 months. Abiraterone was equally effective regardless of the number of metastases or whether they were classified as higher or lower risk (see this link).
Enzalutamide (Xtandi) is probably also beneficial if used earlier. A non-randomized clinical trial of early use of Xtandi showed it is very effective if used earlier (see this link), and a Phase 3 trial for its use in hormone-sensitive prostate cancer has had good results, according to a press release.
The FDA has approved apalutamide (Erleada) and enzalutamide (Xtandi) for use in non-metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer. Darolutamide and abiraterone (Zytiga) will probably also be approved for this indication. Non-metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer is probably an early version of metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer, where micrometastases have not yet grown large enough to become detectable on a bone scan/CT.
Clinical trials suggest or are in process to determine if there is a role for advanced hormonal agents even earlier; for example in any of the following early settings:
• as part of an active surveillance protocol for men with favorable risk prostate cancer (see this link)
• adjuvant to radiation in high-risk localized prostate cancer (see this link)
• when it as advanced to only as far as pelvic lymph nodes (Stage N1 M0) (see this link)
• when it is recurrent but not yet detectably metastatic (see this link)
Early Use of Immunotherapy
Although Provenge is more effective when the patient's disease is less progressed (see this link), it was not any more effective when used for mHSPC in one small study (see this link). There are several clinical trials to help determine whether immunotherapy can play a role in extending the time that a man can stay on active surveillance (see this link and this one and this one).
In the "CHECKMATE 650" clinical trial of a combination of the two checkpoint inhibitor-type immunotherapies, nivolumab (Opdivo) and ipilimumab (Yervoy), there was some response (in 25% of pre-chemo men and 10% of post chemo men) from the combination, but no response from either drug alone in earlier trials. However, all of the responders (60% of the pre-chemo group and 40% of the post-chemo group) had a high mutational burden and/or showed the presence of PD-L1 in the tumors (33% of the pre-chemo group and 19% of the post chemo group). Conversely, none of the men who had low mutational burden or PD-L1 had any response to the combination therapy. Toxicity was unacceptably high. This indicates that the cancer must evolve to a high degree of genetic breakdown before such therapies become effective. Early use causes unacceptable toxicity without any survival benefit.
At some point, cancer cells start displaying antigens that can be recognized by the immune system as "non-self," but it is not clear when that occurs in prostate cancer progression. Perhaps the fragments generated by chemo or radiation may make the cancer more susceptible to immune attack (see this link). It is also unclear when immune infiltration into tumors can occur, when checkpoint inhibitors (like PD-L1) begin to appear, and when regulatory T cells are overwhelmed by killer T-cells. Pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines undoubtedly play a role in immune signaling and may occur at different stages.
Early Use of Radiopharmaceuticals
The ideal candidate for Xofigo will get all 6 treatments, preferably earlier, while bone health is still good (see this link). It has been found to work better on smaller tumors, so it is best used earlier rather than later (see this link). Because the combination of Xofigo and Zytiga caused excessive fractures and deaths (see this link), they can't be given simultaneously, at least not without a bone-preserving agent (like Zometa or Xgeva). Since a full cycle is completed in 24 weeks, taking Xofigo before Zytiga allows one to get the benefit of both in less time.
We do not know enough about the natural history of PSMA yet. We don't know when the PSMA protein first appears on the tumor surface. It has been detected in "high risk" patients, and is more often associated with higher grade cancer and in men with higher PSAs (see this link and this one). It as been detected in up to 95% of metastases. PSMA-based PET scans (Ga-68-PSMA-11 or DCFPyL) are used to check for PSMA-avidity before treatment. Without significant PSMA, the radiopharmaceutical would have nothing to latch onto, and might cause toxicity with no cancer-killing benefit. This is called the "tumor sink effect" and was noted in this study and this one.
A pilot test in South Africa suggests that Ac-225-PSMA-617 had good efficacy in patients who were not heavily pretreated, but their cancer was more progressed when treated. A trial with Lu-177-PSMA found that overall survival was 11 months in patients who had already had chemo (and were more progressed) and was 27 months in chemo-naive patients (who were also less progressed). Earlier seems to be better.
Although it is generally true that earlier treatment is better, we have learned that there are exceptions. There is tremendous individual variation, and it is likely that the window of opportunity varies.