Recently the Oncology Times asked Dr. Richard Furman his opinion on whether a complete response (CR) and minimal residual disease (MRD) negativity are still requisites for the successful treatment of CLL patients. MRD refers to the small number of leukemic cells that remain in a patient after treatment and can only be detectable using sensitive techniques. In patients who achieve complete responses, MRD can remain and cause relapse. Dr. Furman believes that while MRD negativity is always preferred, it is not the most important measure of outcomes. He stated,
“The most important part of the debate surrounds survival. From a patient’s perspective, overall survival is the single most important goal,” Furman said. “If achieving MRD negativity comes at a cost of toxicities, short term or long term, it may not translate into improved survival.”
The combination of fludarabine, cyclophosphamide, and rituximab (FCR) generates deeper remissions and more MRD negativity than fludarabine and rituximab (FR), but can have an impact upon long term marrow health, leading to 8 percent of patients developing secondary myeloid neoplasias (MDS and AML). We may have 60 percent long-term survival with FCR in mutated CLL patients, but if we are losing 8 percent of patients to bone marrow failure, that has to be considered. Still the long-term effects of FCR chemotherapy are unknown.
Fortunately, CLL patients have another option with BCR and Bcl2 antagonists that may markedly improve survival. The ideal circumstance for a CLL patient would be to obtain MRD negativity without having any additional toxicities. This is where the novel treatments, including BCR antagonists, BCL2 antagonists, and CAR T cells will hopefully take us. With BCR antagonists, the depth or remission continues to improve with continued therapy. While almost all of the initial responses were partial responses with very few complete responses, over time the number of complete responses has increased. This will hopefully translate into MRD negative responses one day. This is the importance of progression free survival, as these patients who have not progressed, and remain on therapy, have the potential to continue to improve their response.
Improved survival of CLL patients over the past few decades shows an apparent change in the natural history of the disease. But Furman claims the advance in overall survival is related to lead-time bias. “We are diagnosing patients earlier in Binet stage A. There has been an increase in overall survival for patients as a group. By stage, there is no benefit for Binet stage A and B. A benefit is seen for Binet stage C. This may be due to better supportive therapies and novel agents, or to a shift to earlier stage disease at diagnosis,” he said, noting there is a great need for prognostic markers.
The full debate and rest of Dr. Furman’s response can be read on the Oncology Times website.