New Pre-clinical Research Shows Transcription-Targeting Drug Useful in T-cell Lymphoma

Peripheral T-cell Lymphomas (PTCL) are uncommon, but aggressive forms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that develop from mature T cells, a type of white blood cell. The most prevalent subtypes include PTCL-NOS (not otherwise specified), AITL (angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma), and ALCL (anaplastic large cell lymphoma). Patients with PTCL are usually treated with a combination of chemotherapy agents, mostly commonly CHOP (cyclophosphamide, adriamycin, vincristine and prednisone). With the exception of a rare variant called ALK-positive ALCL, only about a third of all patients could enjoy long-term disease-free survival, with most patients either having diseases resistant to treatment or recurrent after chemotherapy. As PTCL evolves, it becomes even more molecularly complex due to factors in the tumor microenvironment that make it hard to treat. Ongoing research has been performed in order to try and improve treatment options and increase overall survival for patients with this challenging disease.

To ultimately cripple tumors in patients with PTCL and eradicate the disease from the body, it’s necessary to target the molecular feature of PTCL that helps it grow. Leandro Cerchietti, M.D. Jia Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and other collaborators from the Lymphoma Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian are trying to do just that. New research conducted by the team has shown positive results for this hard-to-treat cancer.

Dr. Cerchietti and his research group have discovered that PTCL are sensitive to THZ1, a drug that targets transcription, the first step during gene expression when DNA is copied into RNA. THZ1 was developed by Dr. Nathanael S. Gray and collaborators from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. THZ1 works by stopping an enzyme called CDK7 (cyclin-dependent kinase 7) that controls the transcription of lymphoma genes. This interference changes the cells and primes the tumor to better respond to biologic agents, such as BCL2 inhibitors.

For this work, Dr. Cerchietti’s Lab established a collaboration with Drs. Nathanael S. Gray from Dana-Farber and Graciela Cremaschi from the Institute for Biomedical Research and the National Research Council of Argentina. After testing more than 120 FDA-approved compounds and new biologic agents from the Developmental Therapeutics Program, Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health and the Meyer Cancer Center Pre-Clinical Oncology Pharmacy, the investigators found that PTCL are susceptible to inhibitors of the proteasome, epigenetic drugs and compounds that target transcription, like THZ1.

tcell-lymphoma-graphic_cerchietti_thz1According to Cerchietti, they decided to focus on THZ1 since it demonstrated pre-clinical activity against PTCLs harboring the hard-to-target mutation STAT3. STAT can drive T-cell lymphomas and other tumors when activated by extracellular signaling that involves the phosphorylation of intermediate proteins like JAK. Although inhibitors of JAK proteins have been developed, they are thought to be inactive in tumors harboring the STAT3 mutation that does not require the activity of JAK. STAT proteins drive tumors by inducing the transcription of oncogenes like MYC and BCL2. Since this process requires CDK7, THZ1 can decrease the activity of STAT and the production of BCL2 and other proteins.

“Growing scientific evidence supports CDK7 inhibition as a treatment approach for cancers that are dependent on a high and constant level of transcription,” said Dr. Cerchietti. “Targeting CDK7 with THZ1 offers a way to circumvent the aggressive pathway responsible for tumor growth in many cancers, but particularly T-cell lymphomas which respond more positively to BCL2 inhibitors.”

BCL2 inhibitors are a class of drugs that are being tested to treat a variety of blood cancers. Venetoclax is an FDA-approved BCL2 inhibitor that is used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) with a specific mutation.

“We are excited about these research results and the potential to bring a new treatment to patients with this aggressive lymphoma who otherwise have very few options if their cancer does not respond to chemotherapy,” said Dr. Ruan who leads the T-cell lymphoma clinical program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.

“We aim to create transformative medicines that control the expression of disease-driving genes and believe this treatment can provide a profound and durable benefit for patients with a range of aggressive and difficult-to-treat solid tumors and blood cancers,” said Nancy Simonian, M.D., CEO of Syros, the biopharmaceutical company that is developing a next-generation version of the THZ1 compound for clinical trials. “Building on this research, we’ve used THZ1 as the starting point to create a selective CDK7 inhibitor that has better drug-like properties for use in humans.”

According to Syros, a phase I clinical trial built on this research is slated to open later this year to test the dosing and safety in people with solid tumors. The company plans to expand into hematological malignancies once the appropriate dose has been established in the initial phase I trial.

The bulk of this work was supported by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through a Translational Research Program awarded to Dr. Cerchietti.

Additional Weill Cornell Medicine contributors to this research include: Florencia Cayrol, Pannee Praditsuktavorn, Tharu Fernando, Rossella Marullo, Nieves Calvo-Vidal, Jude Phillip, Benet Pera, ShaoNing Yang, Kaipol Takpradit, Lidia Roman, Marcello Gaudiano, Ramona Crescenzo and Giorgio Inghirami.


Monitoring Minimal Residual Disease in Lymphoma: The Italian Experience

Paola Ghione, MD
paola-ghione
Dr. Ghione is a visiting hematology fellow from Torino, Italy who is working with the Weill Cornell Lymphoma Program for six months.

Minimal residual disease (MRD) detection refers to a group of techniques used to find a very small amount of disease, normally undetectable with imaging or clinical exam. Usually, this detection is performed after treatment and, in many cases, is predictive of outcomes such as whether patients will relapse, and how quickly this might happen. Often, the reappearance of MRD can anticipate recurrence of lymphoma before it becomes clinically evident. In other hematologic disorders, such as acute leukemia and chronic myeloid leukemia, MRD is used in standard clinical practice to monitor disease status or to evaluate response to treatment. In the setting of lymphoma, measurement of MRD is still considered experimental, but a lot of research is taking place around the world to find the best way to perform it.

Our laboratory in Torino, Italy, run by Dr. Marco Ladetto and Dr. Simone Ferrero, leads many MRD projects for lymphoma and is part of the EuroMRD Network, an institution born in Europe to standardize MRD techniques. Currently, we look for tumor-specific DNA alterations in the blood before and after treatment using a technique called Allele-Specific Oligonucleotide (ASO)-PCR. Depending on how much tumor DNA is present in the blood, we can figure out the relative amount of tumor left in the body. Unfortunately, ASO-PCR requires an expert laboratory team, and the method is expensive and time-consuming, which makes it hard to use outside of specialized settings. In addition, it seems more reliable if performed directly on bone marrow aspirate (blood from the interior of the bone) than peripheral blood (coming from a normal vein), making it less attractive to clinicians and people with lymphoma.

New techniques that can speed the procedure and reduce the cost are being evaluated. For example, the droplet digital (dd)-PCR is interesting because it is faster and uses less material (i.e., requires less blood for the test). Another interesting method is Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), which allows the detection of several different DNA mutations at once. NGS analysis of cell-free circulating DNA(cfDNA) (the DNA present in circulating blood outside the cells) could give a lot information. Studying cfDNA from the blood could give us a more accurate picture of the lymphoma that in theory could be even better than studying DNA derived from an open biopsy at one site of disease. This is also sometimes referred to as a liquid biopsy. The reason it might be better is that the circulating cfDNA could show us mutations coming from all the sites where the tumor is actively growing, not only the one site from which the open biopsy is taken.

In Italy, although MRD is not yet available in routine clinical practice for treating lymphoma, it is being tested in some innovative clinical trials to guide treatment decisions. In some studies MRD negativity at the end of treatment is the primary goal, while in others reappearance of MRD prompts a preemptive approach. As an example, if MRD reappears when the person is off therapy, we can give a short re-treatment in order to avoid clinical relapse. In one of our clinical trials, evaluation of MRD has been used to rule out the presence of lymphoma in the cells collected prior to autologous stem cell transplantation.

Measurement of MRD has a lot of potential uses, and experience from other diseases proves that it can be practice changing. The challenges provided by more than 50 different lymphoma subtypes as well as the rapid evolution of new laboratory techniques have delayed the adoption of a universal test for MRD. In the near future, however, we expect to see MRD analysis in standard clinical practice everywhere.


FDA Approves First-Ever Targeted Marginal Zone Lymphoma Treatment

On January 19, 2017, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ibrutinib to treat patients that have received at least one line of prior therapy for marginal zone lymphoma (MZL), a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

MZL is an indolent B-cell lymphoma that accounts for 5-10% of all lymphomas and lacks a standard of care. Current MZL treatments include anti-CD-20 antibody therapy (e.g. rituximab) or chemotherapy. However, ibrutinib is the first-ever treatment to specifically be approved for MZL.

Ibrutinib works by inhibiting Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK), an enzyme responsible for transmitting pro-growth and survival signals from the surface of a cell to its nucleus. In this way, ibrutinib may interfere with chronic stimulation arising from inflammation in the tumor microenvironment; thus slowing the growth of B-cells.

The Weill Cornell Lymphoma Program is proud to have played a role in the phase 2 trial — the largest trial to date for people with previously treated MZL of all subtypes —leading to FDA approval for ibrutinib. Roughly half of all patients had a significant response to ibrutinib, with some degree of tumor shrinkage observed in almost 80% of all patients in the trial. Roughly one-third remained on treatment 18 months after beginning treatment.

The most common side effects included fatigue, diarrhea, and anemia. These side effects were manageable, and consistent with previous research, although some cases required the discontinuation of treatment with ibrutinib.

Results from this study support the use of ibrutinib as an effective well tolerated chemotherapy-free option for the treatment of previously treated MZL. However, some questions remain. MZL is a heterogeneous group of lymphomas, and it is unclear which subtypes might respond best to ibrutinib. With only half of all previously treated MZL patients responding to ibrutinib, improvements might be realized by combining ibrutinib with other drugs and/or using it earlier in the treatment of MZL.

At Weill Cornell, we are currently studying ibrutinib in combination with the immunotherapy drug durvalumab in people with previously treated indolent non-Hodgkin lymphoma, including MZL.


Targeting New Pathways for the Treatment of an Aggressive Form of B-Cell Lymphoma

lecBy Leandro Cerchietti, MD

Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) is an aggressive and fast-growing lymphoma that is the most common form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the United States. Nearly 1/3 of DLBCL patients experience relapse. The outcome can be worse for patients with DLBCL that harbor activation of multiple oncogenes. An oncogene is a gene that can “hit” a cell to transform it into a cancer cell. Some cells are “hit” with more than one oncogene. When hit by two or three oncogenes they transform into a very aggressive lymphoma called double-hit and triple-hit lymphomas (DH/TH). These DH/TH are largely insensitive to combinatorial chemotherapy and are more frequently found in the elderly. To grapple with the complexities of treatment of DH/TH lymphomas, alternate pathways for the development of future treatments must be found by researchers.

The three oncogenes that could drive these lymphomas are MYC, BCL2 and BCL6, but it is not know whether all three work simultaneously. In a paper recently published in OncoTarget, researchers from my lab at Weill Cornell Medicine found that DLBCL cells that survive BCL6 targeted therapy induce a phenomenon of “oncogene-addiction switching” and super activate one of the other oncogenes, preferentially BCL2. The activation of BCL2 by the anti BCL6 therapy allows lymphoma cell to survive this targeted treatment. My team found that to be effective in killing lymphoma cells a therapy should inhibit both the BCL6 and BCL2 oncogenes.

This phenomenon occurs because these three oncogenes share the regulation of common pathways responsible for the survival of DLBCL. If one oncogene is targeted, the others can take the leading role. In the case of BCL6, specific targeting of BCL6 releases BCL2 inducing on-target feedback resistance to this therapeutic strategy. However, this “oncogene-addiction switching” mechanism can be harnessed to develop rational combinatorial therapies for DLBCL.

An alternative strategy to target DH/TH DLBCLs could be to simultaneously dismantle all three oncogenic networks. In a separate paper recently published in Blood, researchers from my lab and the University of Montreal found another potential therapeutic pathway for the treatment of these aggressive DLBCLs. They found that the protein Hsp90 binds to and maintains activity in eIF4E a protein that controls MYC, BCL6, and BCL2 networks. Inhibition of eIF4E using the antiviral drug Ribavirin decreases simultaneously MYC, BCL6, and BCL2 avoiding “oncogene-addiction switching” and inducing regression of DH/TH DLBCLs. The researchers used a novel pre-clinical model of lymphoma called “patient-derived tumorgrafts”, that are mouse models faithfully resembling the complexity of human lymphomas.

They also found that DH/TH could be targeted with Hsp90 inhibitors. Still targeting Hsp90 activity has met with limited success in the past due to the counter regulatory elevation of Hsp70, which induces resistance to Hsp90 inhibitors. However, researchers were able to identify Hsp70 as a target for eIF4E. Accordingly the combination of eIF4E and Hsp90 inhibitors should result in a potential new pathway for the development of new treatments for DLBCL, an approach WCM clinicians will test in future clinical trials.


“Improving the Odds”: Clinical Care & Research for Lymphoma Patients

The latest issue of Weill Cornell Medicine, the magazine of Weill Cornell Medical College and Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Science, profiled the lymphoma program and the improvements in treatment and better outcomes being developed by our physicians and researchers on behalf of our lymphoma patients. If you turn to page 30 of the reader you can find the full article.

A full list our our open clinical trials is available.


Researchers Find New Role of Gene that Could Lead to New Strategies for the Treatment of B-Cell Lymphomas

The activation-induced cytidine deaminase (AID) gene has long been understood to play a role in the body’s defense against pathogens. The AID gene ensures that the B-cells responsible for antibody production can generate the antibodies that defend the body. Recently a team of research scientists at Weill Cornell Medical College published results outlining a new role for the AID gene. In these first of their kind findings researchers demonstrated the epigenetic role of the gene:

“…the researchers discovered that the enzyme encoded by the AID gene is also involved in removing chemical tags from DNA. These tags, known as methyl groups, regulate gene expression. Removing these methyl groups, a process called hypomethylation, allows B cells to rapidly change their genome in preparation for antibody production.”

“AID is a gene traditionally not known to be linked to DNA methylation, but we found that it is a player in removing methyl groups — the first time anyone has found molecules that perform this powerful form of gene regulation,” said co-senior author Dr. Olivier Elemento, an associate professor of computational genomics in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics who heads the Laboratory of Cancer Systems Biology in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell and co-chairs the Meyer Cancer Center Program in Genetics, Epigenetics and Systems Biology. “What is interesting is that many tumor types, and that includes B-cell lymphomas, tend to be linked to global — genome-wide — hypomethylation, compared to normal cells. How hypomethylation occurs is not well understood. AID is so far the only enzyme that has been directly linked to this active process. So AID or related enzymes could be involved in other cancers as well.”

These new findings have the potential to reveal a new cause of blood cancers and lead to the development of new strategies to treat B-cell lymphomas.


Cross Campus Collaboration Leads to Potential New Development of Treatment of B-Cell Lymphomas

Researchers at Cornell University announced the development of a second generation of functional, synthetic immune organoids that can be independently controlled by medical researchers. This development has many potential utilities though it hold special promise in the development of treatments for B cell lymphomas. Specifically in testing compounds with the potential to eliminate the malignization of lymphocytes and/or to increase the antibody production capacity of B-cells.

“The synthetic organ is bio-inspired by secondary immune organs like the lymph node or spleen. It is made from gelatin-based biomaterials reinforced with nanoparticles and seeded with cells, and it mimics the anatomical microenvironment of lymphoid tissue. Like a real organ, the organoid converts B cells – which make antibodies that respond to infectious invaders – into germinal centers, which are clusters of B cells that activate, mature and mutate their antibody genes when the body is under attack. Germinal centers are a sign of infection and are not present in healthy immune organs.”

The immune organoid was created in the lab of Dr. Ankur Singh at Cornell University, and resulted from an ongoing collaboration with Dr. Leandro Cerchietti, a research collaborator of the Lymphoma Program at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Dr. Akhilesh Gaharwar of Texas A&M University. This collaboration between Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medical College is known as the P.A.Th pipeline. P.A.Th. was designed to expedite the bench to bedside approach taken by the Lymphoma Program as Weill Cornell Medical College.

For patients with B-cell lymphoma Dr. Singh commented,

“In the long run, we anticipate that the ability to drive immune reaction ex vivo at controllable rates grants us the ability to reproduce immunological events with tunable parameters for better mechanistic understanding of B cell development and generation of B cell tumors, as well as screening and translation of new classes of drugs.” 

Full results for this new discovery were published online in Biomaterials, and will appear in print. Look to this space for further updates on further collaborations between Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medical College.