Showing posts with label focal ablation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label focal ablation. Show all posts

Saturday, January 7, 2017

What should focal therapy be compared to and how does it compare?

In a recently published randomized trial of a new kind of focal ablation therapy for prostate cancer that was widely misinterpreted in mainstream media, the authors wrote:
"A pivotal comparative study was therefore necessary, but was challenging to design in a manner that would be acceptable to both patients and clinicians and in which the same primary outcome [histologically confirmed progression of cancer] could be assessed for the intervention and the comparator. We had three options for the comparator: surgery, radiotherapy, or active surveillance. For the first two options, a primary outcome that could be applied to both the experimental group and the control group proved difficult to find. Surgery (radical prostatectomy) would not be suitable for a biopsy-based outcome because there would be no prostate from which to take a biopsy. Radiotherapy would be amenable to a protocol-required biopsy, but the histological outcome would be confounded by the necessary neoadjuvant and adjuvant androgen suppression that constitutes the standard of care. Therefore, active surveillance was the only comparator that could reasonably be used over the intended time frame [2 years] of the study.
This is an odd statement, indeed. They rejected surgery as a comparator because salvage treatment is usually given before it is possible to obtain histological (biopsy) confirmation of spread to the prostate bed. This is reasonable. They rejected comparison to radiation because it is difficult to interpret a biopsy on tissue in which the cancer has been shrunk by androgen deprivation. However, all patients were low-risk patients who would almost never receive neoadjuvant or adjuvant androgen deprivation along with their radiotherapy, at least not in the US. Perhaps this is or was standard of care in Europe. That left them with active surveillance as a comparator, but the kind of active surveillance and patient selection for it bears closer examination.

Active surveillance as practiced at the time (2011-2013) in those European centers of excellence was different in some important respects from active surveillance as currently practiced in US centers of excellence. In the US, a confirmatory multiparametric MRI (mpMRI) is often given within a year of the first biopsy, and biopsy cores are obtained from any suspicious areas. The authors state that their study began before this practice became prevalent in Europe. In spite of that, all patients who received focal ablation were given an mpMRI before therapy, while none of the men on active surveillance received it. Certainly, many of the men in the active surveillance cohort had undiagnosed higher grade cancer, and should not have continued on active surveillance. It is impossible to say that any of the cancers progressed in the 2 years on active surveillance, or whether they were simply reclassified because the two repeat biopsies found the cancer that was always there, and which might have been found earlier had the received an mpMRI as the ablation cohort did.

The authors further state:
"The European Medicines Agency agreed that we could reasonably exclude very low-risk patients. Therefore, lower and upper thresholds of risk (defined by Gleason score and tumour burden) were set, below and above which men were excluded.
So "very low risk" prostate cancer patients, who make up most of the patients in active surveillance programs in the US, and all of them in some programs (e.g., Johns Hopkins), were excluded. Focal therapy is compared here to higher risk active surveillance patients than is typical in the US.

Patient selection was also atypical in that no more than 3 positive cores were allowed, and the length of cancer in any one core had to be between 3mm and 5mm. Men with very small (<25 cc and very large (>70 cc) prostates were excluded.

Progression was deemed to have occurred if any of several criteria were met:
  1. Gleason pattern≥4
  2. > 3 positive cores
  3. Cancer core length > 5 mm
  4. PSA>10 in 3 consecutive measurements
  5. stage T3 discovered
Only the first 3 had a significant effect. It should again be emphasized that many active surveillance programs now recommend radical treatment if a biopsy shows predominant Gleason pattern 4. Under such programs, many, if not most, in their active surveillance cohort would not be deemed to have progressed. This is especially true when mpMRIs are used early to rule out predominant pattern 4.

The procedure

The kind of focal therapy used here (called TOOKAD soluble vascular photodynamic therapy) involves treating the patient under general anesthesia with an intravenous injection of a photosensitizing chemical, called padeliporfin. Optical fibers were inserted transperineally with one end at the tumor to be ablated and the other end attached to a near-infrared laser that delivered an energy dose of 200 J/cm. I believe the authors err when they characterize this as "non-thermal." The operation took about 2 hours, and patients stayed overnight in the hospital. The catheter was removed the next day.

Retreatment was allowed if the 12-month biopsy indicated residual cancer. It's important to keep this in mind when looking at the oncological outcomes. 32% received another treatment on the contralateral side. 6% received retreatment after 12 months. There is no analysis provided showing the toxicity among men who received multiple treatments compared to those who only received a single treatment.

Oncological outcomes

After 2 years of follow-up among the men who received up to two treatments of the focal photodynamic therapy (PDT):
  • 28% progressed, mostly with higher Gleason grade
    • 58% progressed or were reclassified in their active surveillance cohort
  • 51% had a positive biopsy
    • 86% had a positive biopsy in their active surveillance cohort
The European PRIAS study of active surveillance found that only 23% had progressed within 2 years, which was even less than the 28% progression rate found here with focal treatment, but PRIAS comprised patients who were very low risk only. In the Klotz study of low-risk patients, 30% progressed in 5 years - about the same as progressed in 2 years here with focal therapy. (See this link.)

Since this is only with 24 months of follow-up, we can conclude that 30% were able to avoid radical treatment for 2 extra years. (Update 6/2018: Even after 4 years of follow-up, the difference was maintained at about 30%). But if the active surveillance group had been initialized with mpMRI detection, it's not clear that this benefit would persist.

It's also worth noting that 52% had no evidence of disease in one active surveillance study on a confirmatory biopsy (see this link), similar to what was seen here with focal treatment. The apparent remission rate was about 40% even using mpMRI-targeted biopsy (see this link). These are much higher than the apparent remission rate of 14% in this active surveillance cohort, again calling into question how active surveillance was defined here. With treatment with Proscar or Avodart, the apparent remission rate has been found to be 54% (see this link), which is equal to that observed here with focal therapy. Could the same rate of apparent remissions be achieved simply by taking a pill?


Side effects of treatment, while seldom serious enough to warrant intervention other than re-catheterization for a period of time, did occur. One in three patients suffered some kind of toxicity from the treatment. Most were low grade (grade 1 or 2) and transient. The ones that occurred significantly more in the treated cohort were (cumulative incidence within 2 years):

  • Erectile dysfunction 38%
  • Blood in urine 29%
  • Painful urination 26%
  • Urinary retention 17%
  • Perineal pain 16%
  • Urinary urgency 11%
  • Urinary tract infection 11%
  • Urinary incontinence 10%
  • Urinary frequency 10%
  • Ejaculation failure 8%
  • Prostatitis 6%
  • Inguinal hernia 4%
  • Rectal hemorrhage 4%

There was one case of anaphylactic shock due to the anesthesia. Three men had urinary retention serious enough to require surgical intervention.

Would these men have been better off with radical therapy? We can look at these results side-by-side with some toxicity outcomes of SBRT treatment. The table below shows the highest incidence of side effects reported by both studies. I chose this Georgetown study because they gave 2-year outcomes and because they included Grade 1 toxicity - often only grade 2 or higher toxicity is reported. As with focal therapy, almost all of the side effects were mild (grade 1) and acute, occurring within the first month of treatment, and returning to baseline within 2 years. Potency retention was 79% at 2 years. Similar to focal ablation, only 1% had any serious (grade 3) toxicity. However, none were life-threatening.

In the SBRT study, there were no biochemical failures in the first two years among the low risk and intermediate risk patients in the study. This compares to 51% with evidence of disease, and 28% with higher risk prostate cancer already in the first 2 years for the focal therapy, even with retreatment in some.

It should be clear to patients that the benefits of focal therapy depends on what it is compared to. This analysis should also alert patients to be wary of media hype. For a discussion of the unresolved issues in focal ablation, see this link.

(update 2/2020) FDA Rejects TOOKAD for low-risk prostate cancer

The FDA oncologic drugs advisory committee rejected Steba Biotech's new drug marketing application. The decision may be revisited after Steba presents the results of a longer-running trial expected in 2025. In a Medpage interview, Patrick Walsh, on the committee, said:

"I think most of these patients [treated with TOOKAD] won't be told that at 2 years half of the men will still have cancer and in 28% it will be progressing."

Friday, December 16, 2016

Focal Ablation: Unresolved Issues

(frequently updated)

Focal ablation is the highly targeted destruction of cancerous prostate tissue, usually with some kind of heat or cold (called “thermal” ablation). There has been a lot of patient interest in focal ablation, spurred on by doctors and institutions promoting it and media reports. There has been much hype in the last year over focal ablation using high frequency focused ultrasound (HIFU) focal laser ablation (FLA), and photodynamic therapy (PDT). Cryoablation has been around for the longest time of any. There have been pilot trials of radiofrequency and microwave ablation as well. Irreversible Electroporation (IRE) may be the only form of ablation that is non-thermal, but so far seems to share characteristics with thermal ablation therapies. The promotional announcements for all of these therapies are often unbalanced, so it behooves anyone interested in pursuing it to get an understanding of the issues involved.

I am sincerely agnostic on this subject, and am very happy to see a potential prostate cancer therapy explored in tightly circumscribed clinical trials where patients are informed of the risks. I do believe that until we have learned more, clinical trials with strict protocols should be the only circumstances under which focal ablation is performed.

The Hope

Focal ablation has been touted as “the male lumpectomy.” This is a term borrowed from breast cancer. Breast cancer sometimes starts as a single tumor (called “unifocal”) that may be cured if it is removed with a negative margin. Just as the breast is preserved by such excision, the hope is that prostate function, and especially the function of nearby organs (bladder, rectum, urethra, bladder neck, neurovascular bundles, erectile function, and continence) can be fully preserved. Let’s understand why “lumpectomy” may be very different for the prostate.


Prostate cancer is overwhelmingly a multifocal disease. 80-90% of prostatectomy specimens have separate tumors distributed throughout the organ. Removing the largest, highest grade tumor (called “the index tumor”) does not remove all the cancer from the prostate.


One way to get around the multifocality issue is to ablate half the prostate, either the right lobe or left lobe, but not both.This is called hemiablation. The hope is that the damage to nearby organs will be significantly reduced in so doing. Prostate cancer often appears to predominate in one lobe. But appearances are deceiving, even when saturation biopsies have been used to determine that the cancer was unilateral, it turned out to be bilateral in 3/4 of those cases (see this link), and may be as high as 90% (see this link). With traditional TRUS biopsies, unilateral cancer was misidentified in about 80% of men (see this link). Multiparametric MRI is not good at finding small tumors on the contralateral side. Pompe et al. showed that it missed cancer on the contralateral side in 58% of patients. The main issue is that it has not been proven that hemiablation is curative. In a study of 55 men in Belgium who received hemiablative HIFU, a quarter of the men relapsed and required further treatment. In a US study of 100 men receiving hemi-ablative HIFU, followed up with a biopsy after 2 years, a quarter had relapsed with Grade Group 2 or greater prostate cancer.

Index Tumor Theory

Proponents of focal ablation argue that it doesn’t matter if there are small amounts of prostate cancer that remain untreated. Prostate cancer, they believe, spreads by cloning daughter cancer cells from a single “parent” tumor within the prostate. This is called “Index Tumor Theory.” Under this theory, if the index tumor is removed by ablation, the prostate cancer will not spread further. In theory, the small untreated daughter foci of cancer are not malignant and will cause no further problems. In theory, the index tumor is identifiable as the largest, highest Gleason score tumor within the prostate.

Index tumor theory relies on the findings of two studies. Liu et al. and Mao et al. showed that metastases arise as clones from a single parent cancer cell. The Liu et al. study was based on cancers from 30 men who died of prostate cancer. The Mao et al. study confirmed the earlier study in a sample of 16 men. While both studies showed that metastases arose from a single prostatic parent cell, they did not show that the parent cell was in an index tumor. In fact, a case report from Johns Hopkins showed that lethal metastases at least sometimes could arise from a small, low grade tumor within the prostate, rather than from an index tumor. Adding to the complexity, Cheng et al. found that multiple tumors had independent origins. In 15/18 tumors, they found that they arose independently rather than from a parent tumor within the prostate, and in only 3/18 tumors they arose through intraglandular dissemination from an index lesion. Similarly, Wei et al. looked at prostate tumors taken from 4 patients, and found there was considerable genetic diversity within their index tumors as well as their other cancer foci. Ibeawuchi et al. discovered that a unifocal tumor could be as genetically diverse as multifocal tumors. Løvf et al. found that the various tumors in the same prostate only rarely shared genetic mutations, suggesting independent origins. Kneppers et al. found among 30 men with lymph node metastases that for 23%, their metastases were not clonally derived from the index tumor.

All of the above-mentioned genetic studies have been conducted in small numbers of patients. Genetic studies are tremendously difficult to conduct and interpret. Genetic breakdown is a characteristic of cancer, which complicates the subjective determination of what constitutes a clone from the index tumor.

None of this disproves index lesion theory entirely. In fact, there must be some truth to it or focal ablation would never be effective. Focal ablation trials with 5 years of follow-up demonstrate that focal ablation seems to halt progression in most men. However, because the studies have not been randomized, we cannot rule out that those mostly low risk patients were caught early and would not have progressed appreciably in that time frame anyway. We also know from long-term active surveillance trials that about half of all men with confirmed low-risk tumors will eventually progress – the smaller Gleason 6 tumors must be monitored. The most likely scenario is that there are index tumors in some men but not others. Unfortunately, we have no easy way of predicting which patients have index tumors and which have multiple tumors that are capable of malignant spread.

Targeting the index tumor

Assuming there is an index tumor, the next question becomes: can we precisely locate the tumor for targeted ablation? Our best current tool for doing so is using a multiparametric MRI (mpMRI) to target what seems to be the index tumor, and to confirm the location with a biopsy (either ultrasound fusion or in-bore). This poses special challenges.

Most patients who choose focal ablation are those who have predominant Gleason pattern 3 (either Gleason score 3+3 or 3+4). mpMRI is not at all sensitive at finding such low grade tumors if they are small; in fact, it is no better than a standard TRUS biopsy. In a study of mpMRI and Ga-68-PSMA PET/CT, both imaging techniques missed more than half the prostate tumors found after prostatectomy. Perhaps Color Doppler Ultrasound or transperineal template mapping biopsy perform better (see this link), but they are seldom used. However, mpMRI is a good tool for finding larger and higher grade tumors. In a study at UCLA, 80% of “index tumors” were found using mpMRI. In another UCLA study, mpMRI found that half of all men with intermediate or high-risk prostate cancer had satellite tumors in addition to their index tumor, but 2/3 of those same men were found to have satellite tumors when their prostates were surgically removed. Over half of the satellite tumors were Gleason score ≥ 3+4.

While mpMRI may detect index tumors, it is not a good tool for delineating even higher grade tumors. Priester et al. compared the dimensions of tumors found via mpMRI in 114 men to the dimensions of their same tumors determined via post-prostatectomy pathology. They found that the actual tumors were 3 times larger than their MRI estimates – they missed 80% of the tumor’s volume by relying on the MRI. It is worth noting too, that these MRIs were read by arguably the best radiologist in the business, Daniel Margolis at UCLA. He literally wrote the book (PIRADS 2.0) for interpreting mpMRIs. In a study of 461 lesions in 441 men, the average size of tumors was only 1.6 cm on the mpMRIs but was 2.4 cm after prostatectomy. The correlation between MRI and actual size was poor (0.13- 0.65). Pompe et al. found that mpMRI could not detect extracapsular invasion, and missed cancer in 58% of patients who had cancer in the contralateral lobe from the index tumor.

If satellite tumors are to be ablated as well as the index tumor, mpMRI performs even worse in finding them. Hollmann et al. found that satellite tumors were a median of 1 cm, and up to 4.4 cm, away from the index lesion, so they would not be destroyed within the ablation zone of the index lesion, and it would be difficult to locate them. (Update 5/2019) Stabile et al found that mpMRI missed 30% of the significant (Gleason score≥3+4) cancer outside of the index lesion, and the missed tumors had a median length of 2.6 mm, which is smaller than anything an mpMRI can detect.

Incomplete ablation in the ablation zone

Now let’s assume you do indeed have an index tumor, and you were able to accurately delineate it somehow, the next question becomes: Can focal therapy be used to completely ablate the tumor? So far, the answer seems to be – not completely. In some studies, treated patients had MRI-guided biopsies of the ablation zone within 6 months of treatment. Cancer was found in the ablation zone:

Focal Laser Ablation (FLA):  

(Update 5/2020) Feller et al. reported on the 10-year outcomes of 158 men and 248 cancer foci treated with MRI-guided FLA. All men had low or intermediate-risk prostate cancer. 122 had an MRI-targeted biopsy of their treatment sites after 6 months.
  • 26% were positive with clinically significant cancer
  • 15% were positive with clinically insignificant cancer
  • 59% were negative
(Update 5/2021) Mehrahlivand et al. reported that 3 years after MRI-guided FLA of 15 low and favorable intermediate-risk patients, almost half had residual cancer in, adjacent to, or in close proximity to the treatment area.

(Update 5/2019) Chao et al found that 8/32 (25%) had an mpMRI suspicious for cancer in the ablation zone within 2 years after FLA (Median time to positive mpMRI in the ablation zone was 6 months). All were confirmed by biopsy. Only one of those patients had low volume GS 6. 24/32 (75%) had an unsuspicious mpMRI, but biopsy at 2 years after FLA was nevertheless positive in 9 of the 14 men (64%) who had a biopsy. So 17/22 men (77%)  had a positive biopsy in the ablation zone after 2 years. Change in PSA did not predict a positive or negative mpMRI or a positive or negative biopsy.

In this study, MRI-detected cancer was found in 10/27 patients after 12 months, with cancer found in the ablation zone via biopsy in 3 patients. Cancer was found in the ablation zone in 2/9 patients (22%) in this study, 7/10 (70%) patients in this study that used a targeted biopsy, and 4/12 (33%) in this study. In one study, 2/13 (15%) had residual cancer within the ablation zone, but only 13 of 23 patients had a targeted biopsy. Knull et al. compared the pre-operative mpMRI images with MRIs obtained immediately after FLA in 23 lesions. They found that FLA did not completely overlap the intended ablation zone in about half of the lesions, and those tumors extended a median of 0.9 mm past the edge of the ablation zone.

High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU): Cancer was found in the ablation zone in 36% of the patients who had biopsies for cause in this study. In a hemi-ablation study, 28% had biochemical recurrence and 3/8 biopsied patients (38%) had cancer in the treated lobe. In another hemiablation study, 16% had cancer in the ablated lobe. In a large study of whole gland HIFU, 29% were given a repeat treatment. Cancer was found in 42% of high risk men in the ablation zone in this study - 10% were given a repeat treatment. In a US hemiablation study, 17% had Grade Group 2 or greater cancer in the treated lobe.

(Update 3/2020) Klotz et al. reported the 1-year outcomes of an MRI-guided and MRI-thermometry HIFU-ablated kind of thermal ablation called TULSA-PRO. The favorable risk men were all biopsied a year after whole gland treatment. Cancer was found in 35% of the treated men even though they barely had a prostate left (3 ccs.) and their PSA was very low (0.5 ng/ml). Full article here.

(Update 6/21/20) Lumiani et al. reported the 16-month outcomes of 52 consecutive TULSA-PRO patients, mostly focal. 27% were positive for recurrence on follow-up MRI, and the recurrence was confirmed by biopsy in all those who had a biopsy. Recurrence rates were similar for focal and whole-gland.

Photodynamic Therapy (PDT) /TOOKAD: In a hemiablation study, 11/21 men (52%)had a positive biopsy in the treated lobe.

Cryo: In a whole-gland study of cryoablation, 37% had residual cancer in the ablated prostate.

Irreversible Electroporation/NanoKnife (IRE): In a study of focal IRE, which is largely a non-thermal form of ablation, 4/25 patients (16%) were found to have residual cancer in the ablation zone. In another study that used mpMRI to detect residual cancer up to one year after treatment, 9/30 patients (30%) were found to have residual cancer in the ablation zone. Colletini et al reported in-field treatment failures by 18% of low and intermediate-risk patients detected via mpMRI-targeted bioosy after 6 months.

So we observe that ablation is sometimes incomplete within the treated area. There are thermodynamic and biochemical reasons that may explain those failures.

Heat Sink Effect

Most kinds of ablation (e.g., FLA, HIFU, cryo & PDT) are thermal, which means they rely on the local application of heat or cold to ablate the tumor tissue. The second law of thermodynamics guarantees that heat (or cold) will never stay exactly where it is put. This is true for the thermal energy generated by laser beams, by ultrasound, contact with cold, or by any kind of electromagnetic energy. Water is a very good conductor of thermal energy, and prostate tissue is mostly water. The thermal energy always flows away from where it is placed, leaving the ablation zone with less ablative energy, and areas around it with more ablative energy. This translates to sub-lethal killing of cancer cells within the ablation zone, and killing of healthy tissue outside of the ablation zone.

Biochemical Effects

Human cells, especially cancer cells, have self-preservation mechanisms that may defeat efforts to ablate them. One such mechanism is “heat shock protein (HSP).” Whenever cells are threatened with heat, they enlist HSPs to protect themselves. (There are actually separate “cold shock proteins” that have been identified.) HSPs play an important role in protecting cancer cells, and scientists are developing HSP inhibitors that may one day help other medicines to treat cancer. HSPs are known to play a special role acting as chaperones in bringing the androgen receptor to a more protected place inside the cell. They also encourage cells to enter a dormant phase where they are less subject to destruction. Cell cycle dormancy may play a role in ablation therapy. It is possible that in malignant cells that are not destroyed, cell cycle arrest may delay cell replication for some time. Paradoxically, activation of HSPs may turn cancer cells more aggressive. (See this link and this one). This has not been studied in regard to focal ablation, but should be.

We are coming to recognize the effects that cancer cells may have on nearby “bystander” cells. In a recent lab study, prostate cancer cells stressed by PDT released nitric oxide that caused bystander cells to become more aggressive. The role of extracellular vesicles/proteasomes in promoting malignancy in nearby cells under ablation conditions has yet to be elucidated.

Organ-at-risk damage/toxicity

Because of the heat sink effect, there will always be some impact on surrounding healthy tissues. Depending on where within the prostate the index tumor is, and how large the ablation zone is, ablation may damage the urethra, the rectum, the bladder neck, or neurovascular bundles. In most modern trials of focal ablation, side effects have been low, but are not zero.

At the same time, there has been much progress made in reducing the toxicity of radical (whole gland) radiation therapy. Take for example, a report of HDR brachytherapy as a monotherapy for treating intermediate risk patients, and compare it to the recent report by the Ahmed/Emberton group of (mostly) intermediate risk patients treated with focal HIFU in the UK, the largest study of focal HIFU. Both studies had 5 years of follow-up.

HDR brachy
Recurrence-free survival
Potency preservation
Percent pad-free
Serious rectal injury
2 patients

Oncological control was 30% better with HDR brachy and only required a single treatment. Sexual, urinary, and rectal late term side effects were equivalent for both treatments. What is the advantage of focal ablation, then?

Re-do rates

As we’ve seen, some recurrences occur within the ablation zone, but most recurrences occur outside of the treated area. In the above-cited report on HIFU, 28% of patients had a recurrence. This is typical for focal ablation. An advantage often cited for focal ablation is that patients who have a recurrence can be retreated with a second round of focal ablation therapy. In the Ahmed/Emberton HIFU study, 25% of all patients were treated with HIFU multiple times (others chose radical salvage therapy (7%) or permanent hormone therapy (1%)).

“Re-do’s” incur extra costs and may increase morbidity of treatment. There’s no guarantee that they will be effective. As we’ve seen, recurrences are common even when the whole gland is ablated.

Lack of long-term data

The longest running studies of focal ablation, other than cryotherapy, have only 5 years of follow-up. While 5 years may be enough for therapies that are simply an improvement over existing therapies, focal ablation requires longer follow-up because of all the open questions that may affect long-term results. Because many of the focal ablation patients so far have been low risk patients who are likely to enjoy long progression-free times anyway, it is not at all clear that the remissions are lasting ones. Both the AUA nor the EAU consider focal ablation to be experimental and unproven.

Tracking progression after therapy

After radical prostatectomy, we hope that PSA will become undetectable permanently. If it rises afterwards, we suspect recurrence. After radical radiation therapy, PSA reaches a nadir, usually less than 0.5 ng/ml. If it rises 2 or more points above that, we suspect recurrence. However, with focal ablation, there is no reasonably expected PSA nadir, and there is no rise in PSA we can label as a biochemical recurrence. The PSA changes will be different for every patient. Because only the index tumor has been ablated, we don’t expect PSA from small foci of cancer outside of the ablation zone to vanish, nor PSA from BPH or prostatitis. The Chao et al trial showed that change in PSA is not a good predictor of recurrence. Because PSA cannot be used to monitor remission, we have to use imaging and periodic biopsies. Such imaging and biopsies requires experienced radiologists and pathologists because ablated tissue is qualitatively different from unablated tissue. Again, the Chao et al trial showed that while a positive mpMRI always predicted a positive biopsy, a negative mpMRI led to a positive biopsy in most cases treated with FLA. If found to be true of other kinds of focal ablation, periodic biopsies will have to be part of routine follow-up.

Salvage after ablation

If ablation doesn’t succeed and further ablation is either futile or dangerous, what are the salvage options? Salvage prostatectomy is complicated by the ablative tissue alterations, and may lead to increased morbidity. There is no reliable data on whether or not salvage radiation is effective after ablation failure. There are no experts in such salvage therapies.

Comparison to active surveillance

Focal ablation is often put forward as a middle ground between active surveillance and radical treatment. However, unlike active surveillance, there is some risk of morbidity after focal ablation. There is no long-term clinical evidence for the index tumor theory, and we have learned from long-running active surveillance trials that up to half of all Gleason 6 cancers eventually progress. Because of this, the patient is actually on a lifelong active surveillance protocol anyway: he must continue to have periodic imaging and biopsies to track progression, but is disadvantaged by not being able to use PSA to track progression.

Some focal ablation proponents, notably Ahmed and Emberton, argue that focal ablation should only be offered to intermediate risk patients and to those low risk patients who refuse active surveillance. This seems reasonable.

Inexperienced practitioners and practices

Focal ablation is still very new in the US, there are few practitioners who have adequate experience, and the learning curve is steep. There are no standard protocols. It may be years before there is consensus on best practices.

Danger of procedures

Ablation often requires anesthesia, local or general. IRE, for example, requires artificial paralysis and respiration throughout the high-voltage process.


No form of ablation is covered by insurance or Medicare, and out-of-pocket costs are typically in the $20,000 range. Because “re-do’s” are often required, future costs are unpredictable. There will be ongoing costs of periodic imaging (usually mpMRIs) and biopsies.

As with all new therapies, methods and outcomes will undoubtedly improve over the years. This first wave of practitioners and brave patients are taking risks that may eventually benefit many others. It is important that patients understand those risks before making their treatment decision.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Another NanoKnife® pilot study

In the previous post, I reported on a pilot study of focal irreversible electroporation (IRE or NanoKnife®) in Sydney and London. Murray et al. have published the early results of a pilot test at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

A chart review of 25 patients treated with partial gland IRE ablation revealed the following complications after a median follow-up of 10.9 months:
  • ·      14/25 patients incurred transient and mild to moderate (grade 2 or less) urinary symptoms, including blood in urine and urinary tract infection.
  • ·      2 patients had severe (grade 3) complications requiring intervention: epididymitis and urinary tract infection.
  • ·      Among those with good baseline urinary function, 94% were back to baseline function at 12 months. Two patients required pads.
  • ·      At 12 months, 1 previously potent patient had new erectile dysfunction.
There was a routine follow-up biopsy 6 months after treatment. At that time, 4/25 patients (16%) were found to have residual cancer in the ablation treatment zone. In the previously reported pilot study, 6/24 patients (25%) had residual disease after a first treatment. It is surprising that residual disease was found within the treatment zone here, indicating incomplete ablation. These levels of local recurrence are about the same as has been reported with other kinds of focal thermal ablation (e.g., HIFU, cryo, and laser).

IRE requires full anesthesia with complete paralysis, so if there is no advantage in terms of toxicity or cancer control, one of the other forms of ablation that require only local anesthesia may be a better choice for some. Still, these are only small pilot studies, and continued trials may perfect the technique and get better results.

Nanoknife® or irreversible electroporation (IRE) is a promising focal ablation therapy

IRE is unique among focal ablation therapies in that it is non-thermal and precise down to the cellular level. There was a very thorough analysis of IRE on The New Prostate Cancer Infolink in 2013, which interested patients are well advised to read. There is still not enough clinical data to recommend it, but there has been one promising pilot study with published results.

Valerio et al. reported on 34 low and intermediate risk patients treated at two institutions (St. Vincent Cancer Centre in Sydney and Princess Grace Hospital in London) between 2011 and 2013. All patients received multiparametric MRI-targeted biopsies in which 20-30 cores were taken. Patients were selected who had a single significant focus of cancer, either:
  • ·      Predominantly Gleason grade 4, or
  • ·      Core length ≥ 4 mm
Patients had to have good performance status, as the procedure involves full anesthesia and complete muscle paralysis.

Acute complications included blood in urine (18%), urinary tract infection (15%), painful urination (15 %), and urinary retention (6%). All toxicities were low grade - grade 1 (35%) or grade 2 (29%) - and were transient. One patient developed tachycardia and had to be watched for a day after the operation. At 6 months follow-up, all patients were continent and potency was preserved in 95%. One of the potential dangers of focal ablation is recto-urethral fistula, but none have so far been reported for IRE.

With up to 2 years of follow-up with mpMRI, 6 patients (18%) had residual disease:
  • ·      2 stayed on active surveillance
  • ·      3 had a second ablation treatment
o   1 with IRE
o   2 with HIFU
  • ·      1 had a radical prostatectomy
Multiple treatments

As with all forms of focal ablation, residual disease was found in some cases, and multiple treatments may be necessary. With IRE, its sub-millimeter precision is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The strength is in its low risk of harming nearby structures like the bladder neck, urethral sphincter, neurovascular bundles, and rectum. It is also believed to be somewhat sparing of the connective tissue in muscle, blood vessels and nerves. The weakness is that even with our most accurate mpMRIs, it is impossible to discern microscopic amounts of cancer in the prostate. Even leaving a 5 mm margin around the index lesion, it is impossible to know if it ablated all the cancerous tissue.

Heat sink effect

Thermal ablation therapies, like HIFU, cryo or laser, are problematic because heat (or cold) dissipates away from the intended treatment zone. That can result in sublethal ablation of the intended target while causing thermal injury to nearby organs at risk as well as the neurovascular bundles. Tumors may repopulate in the sub-lethal ablation zone with enhanced vigor. With IRE there is no sub-lethal ablation, and no thermal damage to nearby healthy tissue.

Index tumor theory

Another issue that applies to all focal therapies is the theory of index tumors. There is a theory that the spread of prostate cancer is from a primary, relatively large and often higher-grade tumor called an index tumor. According to this theory, all metastases are clones from the original index tumor. If true, ablating the index tumor will stop the cancer. Prostate cancer is known to be multifocal (lots of little tumors) in 80% of men, but if the index tumor theory is correct, the multiple tumor foci will not seed any spread -- only the index tumor can do that.  Liu et al. and Mao et al. showed that metastases arise as clones from a single parent cancer cell, but did not show that the parent cell was in an index tumor. Several studies provide evidence to the contrary:
  • ·      A case report from Johns Hopkins showed that metastases arose from a small, low grade tumor rather than an index tumor.
  • ·      Cheng et al. found that multiple tumors had independent origins. In 15/18 tumors, he found that they arose independently within a single gland, and in 3/18 tumors they arose through intraglandular dissemination from an index lesion.
  • ·      Ibeawuchi et al. showed that there was as much genetic diversity in a unifocal tumor as there were in multifocal tumors.
Clinical evidence for the index tumor theory is based on the fact that a single focal therapy treatment is effective much of the time, at least in the short term. Most likely, it is true in some men but not in others, and it may be true of some, but not all, of the cancer within a single man. The other issue raised by the multifocal nature of prostate cancer is that the satellite tumors, whether they arise independently or are spawned from the index lesion, may be outside of the treatment range of the focal therapy. Hollmann et al. found that satellite tumors were a median of 1 cm, and up to 4.4 cm, away from the index lesion.

Active Surveillance

It has not yet been established that immediate focal ablation has any advantage over active surveillance. In low risk men, active surveillance is certainly safer. Active surveillance is increasingly being used by men with favorable intermediate risk prostate cancer. Arguably, there is a window of time during which focal ablation is possible, but we really don’t know that with any certainty. Men who have focal therapy must be closely followed for recurrence because we don’t know whether residual tumors may become active. Focally treated patients are effectively on lifetime active surveillance anyway.

Clinical Trials

There is obviously much to be learned from clinical trials. There is a second small-scale clinical trial (NEAT) that has been completed and should have results soon. NEAT included patient-reported quality-of-life outcomes, and allows for adaptive surgical technique to optimize treatment. They treated increasingly larger margins unless toxicity increased. To avoid risk of recto-urethral fistulae, only anterior zone tumors were treated.

There is an on-going full-scale clinical trial (NCT01835977) in Amsterdam. They are also running a registry and expect to treat 2,000 patients before 2020.

In the US, there are a few practitioners who are experimenting with IRE: Jaime Wong (Jenkins Clinic, Atlanta, GA), Gary Onik (Carnegie Mellon University), and  Jonathan Coleman (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center) have done over a dozen cases each. There is a pilot trial of 6 cases at Duke University (NCT01972867).