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CLL Expert Explains Latest Treatment Developments in the Field

Danielle Bucco
Published: Tuesday, Mar 20, 2018

Neil E. Kay, MD
Neil E. Kay, MD
Novel agents for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)—including ibrutinib (Imbruvica), venetoclax (Venclexta), idelalisib (Zydelig), and acalabrutinib (Calquence)—have revolutionized the treatment landscape, according to Neil E. Kay, MD; however, the optimal sequence of these therapies remains unclear.

In an interview with OncLive, Kay, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, discussed the available options and sequencing challenges for patients with relapsed/refractory CLL, as well as next steps for advancing outcomes for this patient population.

OncLive: Please discuss the evolution of personalized medicine and sequencing in CLL.

Kay: [There is a lot to discuss with] the sequencing of treatment options for relapsed/refractory CLL. Since there are so many options available for CLL, it is not as straightforward because we still do not have all the data we need to definitively say which agent would go in which order. 

Can you discuss the role of molecular testing for determining the sequence of treatments? 

That is a critical step. For patients with IGVH mutations who have relapsed and do not have a 17p deletion or p53 mutation, they could theoretically be treated with chemoimmunotherapy, such as FCR. The treatment is a reasonable choice for the rare few patients who are relapsed/refractory; however, they need to meet the criteria for not having those adverse prognostic factors. 

What are some challenges facing these relapsed patients?

Based on prior clinical trials and prior drugs that were available, once a patient relapses after primary therapy, their responses were short lived. This causes mortality to be much closer [for them]. 

However, with newer drugs such as ibrutinib, idelalisib, rituximab, and venetoclax, which are all FDA approved for patients with relapsed/refractory CLL, there is much less emphasis on these prognostic factors being criteria that would prevent patients from receiving them. While it is important to know these parameters, it means less to a practitioner if they wanted to use ibrutinib or venetoclax for a patient even if they had an adverse prognostic factor.

However, these parameters still play a role. For example, if a patient relapsed and had 17p deletion as shown via fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), they would respond to these novel agents nicely—particularly ibrutinib, idelalisib, or rituximab. However, their responses would be less robust than if they did not have that defect.

To be specific, I believe the current data for patients receiving ibrutinib with 17p deletion is a progression-free survival (PFS) of around 26 months. Whereas, for the more favorable-risk groups, like 13q deletion or patients with no abnormalities, the PFS has not been reached. While this is an improvement over prior drugs, having that specific genetic defect would suggest that these patients will not respond for as long. 

Can you discuss emerging combination strategies?

There will always be a role for single-agent ibrutinib. The ability to tolerate 1 drug is always better than having to tolerate 2. For the individual who is older, such as in their late 70s or early 80s, being on ibrutinib for 4 or 5 years with a good response would be quite reasonable.

However, ibrutinib alone does not induce a high level of complete responses (CRs). If a patient has a CR, ibrutinib will not give them a minimal residual disease (MRD)-negative status. Therefore, combinations will be necessary if the goal is to get to a CR with MRD-negative status. 

There are ongoing trials that are investigating those combinations with preliminary data that look promising. The combinations are encouraging. 

What is the role of acalabrutinib in this setting?

Acalabrutinib is the cousin of ibrutinib. It works in the same mechanism, but has less off-target effects compared with ibrutinib in terms of enzyme targets. The toxicity profile is likely to be less than it is for ibrutinib. To summarize, ibrutinib’s major issue has not been the response level, since over 90% of patients respond to ibrutinib, but the chronic low-grade toxicity, such as arthralgia, diarrhea, rash, hypertension, and the occurrence of fibrillation. [It will lead to] a significant number of patients to ultimately go off ibrutinib. 


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Online CME Activities
TitleExpiration DateCME Credits
Medical Crossfire®: Management of Adverse Events Associated with Therapies for Hematological Disorders: Nurses' PerspectiveApr 21, 20182.0
Community Practice Connections™: 21st Annual International Congress on Hematologic Malignancies®: Focus on Leukemias, Lymphomas, and MyelomaApr 27, 20182.0
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