Measuring My Myeloma With MRD Testing: What Is My Disease State?

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Minimal residual disease (MRD) testing is a big topic of interest for many myeloma patients and care partners. What exactly is the role of MRD testing in myeloma and is it worthwhile?   

Dr. Elisabet Manasanch, an oncologist and Tiffany Richards, an advanced practice nurse at MD Anderson Cancer Center have an in-depth conversation on how myeloma is being measured to accurately define myeloma disease states. Cherie Rineker, a myeloma patient, author and blogger also joins to share how MRD testing has impacted her.

This is a Patient Empowerment Network program produced by Patient Power in partnership with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. We thank AbbVie, Inc., Celgene Corporation, and Sanofi for their support.

 

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Transcript

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Andrew Schorr:

Hello, and greetings from Southern California. I’m Andrew Schorr with Patient Power. Welcome to this Patient Empowerment network program. This should be very helpful over the next 90 minutes for all of you living with multiple myeloma. And some people, thank God, now have been living a long time. And we’re going to be discussing measuring my myeloma with MRD testing, what is my disease state. So, testing has come a long way, and we’re going to hear the latest.

Okay. Are you ready to go? All right. Now, let’s go to Houston, Texas. We have a lot of people to meet. And one of them is a physician who is a specialist in multiple myeloma. She is at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. And that’s Dr. Elisabet Manasanch. So, Dr. Manasanch, thank you so much for being with us. She’s going to pop herself on there. And thank you so much for being with us. And we’re going to learn a lot more about myeloma testing, as we go. Also, I want to have someone else join us from MD Anderson. She’s been on our programs before. She’s a nurse practitioner specializing in multiple myeloma.

And that is Tiffany Richards. Tiffany, welcome to our program. Hi, Tiffany.

Tiffany Richards:              
Hi.

Andrew Schorr:
Okay. And then, of course, on every program, we always have a patient. And some of you in the myeloma community have been following Cherie Rineker from Houston, who has been living with myeloma since 2012.

Not too long ago, nine months ago, had CAR T-cell therapy. But she’s been through so many treatments, and she’s in Houston as well. Cherie, welcome to our program. Cherie is going to pop herself—hi, Cherie, welcome back.

Cherie Rineker: 
Hi, Andrew. It’s great being with you again.

Andrew Schorr:
Okay. So, let’s hear a little bit of Cherie’s story because, for any patient going through, you want to know how are you doing. And then, we’re going to learn from the doctor and from Tiffany more about MRD testing or testing in general. And then, we’ll take your questions, of course. So, first, Cherie, to start with, you were diagnosed back in 2012. And I think you were traveling at the time, is that right?           

Cherie Rineker: 
No. I was actually going to school to become a natural esthetician before getting very sick.

Andrew Schorr:
In your professional background, I know you’ve been a triathlete. You’ve been a very active woman.

Cherie Rineker: 
Yes.

Andrew Schorr:
And you’ve done a lot of different things. You’ve been a massage therapist but particularly active. So, it started with pain in your arm and your side, right?

Cherie Rineker: 
Pain in my side, pain in my ribs and my sternum, in my back. I was a massage therapist, so I kept self-massaging myself with tennis balls that I would lay on trying to find the right spot. And it just would go to different places. It would never ease up. It was just slowly getting worse and worse.

Andrew Schorr:
And this went on for like six months, you were going through all sorts of problems and fatigue.

Cherie Rineker: 
Right, right. Yeah. Slowly, the fatigue was getting worse and worse, to the point that my daughter was 6, at the time, and I would still pick her up, and I couldn’t do that anymore.

And I had a hard time climbing up the stairs to my apartment. I ended up having low grade fevers and a lung infection that just didn’t want to go away. And I was being tested for all kinds of things. Everything came up negative. This little word, cancer, started creeping in my mind. And that’s what it ended up being.

Andrew Schorr:
And you have lesions on your bones, right?

Cherie Rineker: 
They were all over my rib cage, all over my spine and my scalp, on my pelvis, yes.

Andrew Schorr:
How old were you, at the time of diagnosis, Cherie?

Cherie Rineker: 
I was 44 years old. But I really believe that I had some form of myeloma for years, because I remember at 40 feeling very fragile, in my bones. And I asked my gynecologist, if I could get a bone density test. And he asked me if I was still having regular periods. I said yes, and he said you’re fine, don’t worry about it.

And I think that maybe they could have found something, at that time, already.

Andrew Schorr:
I have a question for Tiffany just while we’re talking about diagnosis. So, Tiffany, she was a pretty young woman. Often, we think of people older with myeloma. But really, there is an age range, isn’t there?

Tiffany Richards:              
There is. Certainly, the median age is about 69 years of age. But we do see patients who are younger being diagnosed with myeloma.

Andrew Schorr:
Okay. So, Cherie, you had your diagnosis. It’s a shocker. So, since 2012, you’ve been through a whole range of treatments.

Cherie Rineker: 
Yeah. They started out they were going to do surgery on my spine. I had plasmacytomas on T3 and T4, one at one end to the spinal canal, so they were worried I was going to be paralyzed. The surgery was too tricky, so they chose for radiation. And after that, I moved from Tempe, Arizona to Houston, Texas to be closer to MD Anderson and went through nine months of induction chemo, which we changed up I think three or four times.

And the side effects got worse and worse. So, we went ahead with bone marrow stem cell, my first one, in August 2013, even though I still had 80 percent of my lung and my bone marrow. And four months later, I chose for a second stem cell transplant, which only brought my numbers down to 20 percent. And then, I’ve been on continuous chemo through December of 2017, when I told Dr. Lasky I am done with chemo. It was destroying my immune system. And I was just very sick. And that’s when I started searching for a CAR-T trial.

Andrew Schorr:
Oh, man. So, you’ve been through it. There are some people who have done pretty well with transplant.

Some people even have had oral therapies or infused therapies. But for you, you kept running through them.

Cherie Rineker: 
Yes. And I found out later I had translocation (11;14), which is not supposed to be very aggressive myeloma. But Dr. Lasky said mine was just very stubborn. And it just didn’t do good with medicine. I would have short responses, and then, I would relapse again. And that’s how I went through the 13 different regimens.

Andrew Schorr:
And so, you had testing many different times. But the news often came back not so good.

Cherie Rineker: 
Yeah. Some months, it would go better than others. And I would have a graph, in my bathroom sink, just for positive affirmation. And seeing that go down to zero, my first one, I think based on that analogy, I was supposed to be in complete remission August of 2013, which, obviously, didn’t happen.

And it was just so devastating every time to see the numbers go down for a bit and then, creep back up again. And going up, Dr. Lasky often said that sometimes happens. But after so many relapses, I knew, as soon as those numbers went in the wrong direction that meant I had become refractory, and I had relapsed.

Andrew Schorr:
All right. So, just for our audience, CAR T-cell therapy that some people have heard about for this blood related cancer and for some others now, too, remains experimental, in some areas. And some lymphoma is approved, but not yet in myeloma. But you entered a trial. And, so far, over nine months now, it’s worked out, right?

Cherie Rineker: 
Yes. I got my CAR T-cells back on March 12. It’s my fourth birthday now, after my birth and two stem cell transplants.

And I went through a serious cytokine release storm for about a week and then, came out and started feeling better than I had in years real quick. And about three weeks later, I had my first complete remission, negative, no Bence Jones in my urine, no kappa light chains, ratio good. And then, the first bone marrow biopsy showed complete negative. They couldn’t find any myeloma.

Andrew Schorr:
And you’re going to go back for another check up soon where we hope that that still goes that way. And I should just mention, some people have seen some things we’ve posted along the way, and Cherie has, too, where I was thrilled when Cherie sent me a picture. And having been really almost at death’s door, she was out gardening, right, Cherie?

Cherie Rineker: 
Yes. I do everything now. I’m back to teaching yoga and meditation. I’m doing reflexology again.

I’m going to the gym, for the last month, trying to get strength in my body and my bones and my muscles. I have weened myself off all opioids. So, my medicine cabinet that was just bursting at the seams before, now, just has three little things that Valtrex, we, I guess, have to be on indefinitely and a couple of other little things. But, yeah, I feel healthier than I did probably one or two years prior to my diagnosis. So, it’s really incredible.

Andrew Schorr:
This is maybe the new age of myeloma care, with a much broader range of treatments than we’ve ever had before. And for someone like Cherie where so many other treatments that have worked for some of you who are watching were not working for her. And Doctor, I’m sure, when you hear this story, that makes you feel great that medical science has advanced, in this way.

Dr. Manasanch:
Yes. It’s great that we can use our own cells to treat diseases, including cancer. I do think that, of course, these therapies are some of the major advances that we’ve had over the last five years. In fact, when the CAR-T cells were starting, I was a fellow at the National Institutes of Health. And the first patient that got one of those infusions was a patient with, actually, leukemia. And I was on-call that night, and I was called because the patient was getting a cytogram release, so I had to send this patient to the ICU. And the patient, subsequently, did all right, but this was many years before this was going to be done in myeloma.

And then, I remember very well, when I left NIH to come here, that was in 2014, one of the days I was leaving, I kind of ran into Dr. Korkendorfer who is really the person, the scientist, that has developed this in myeloma with targeting the PCMA antigen.

So, he really should have a lot of credit for this. He’s the one that really started the identification of this target that now is used in many other therapies, as well in clinical trials, not just for CAR T-cells. And he kind of was waving to me and saying, “You know, I’m going to be starting this PCMA CAR T-cell study here. So, send me some patients.” So, this was back in 2014, of course. This therapy seemed to work very well. Unfortunately, most patients still do relapse from these therapies. And so, this just means to us that we have to keep fighting to improve these therapies. So, these are still first generation of these therapies.

I think that we can improve on them. And I think there’s a lot of research going on on that.

Still there are some patients, like Cherie was saying, that are years out and doing well. So, I know that is not like this for everybody. But the hope is still there that we can improve on these therapies.

Andrew Schorr:
Okay. So, that brings us to testing. So, Tiffany, you’ve been working in myeloma for a number of years. You’ve done a lot of programs. The testing keeps getting better, right? But patients are saying to you, “How am I doing, how am I doing?” Like Cherie had the picture on the wall of the bathroom charting herself. Tell us about how testing is changing and this whole term of minimal residual disease. What does that mean?

Tiffany Richards:              
Yeah, it’s a good question. So, when I started working here at Anderson 14 years ago, the light chains had recently been introduced. And we were starting to incorporate them into our response assessments.

But, predominantly, we were looking at SPEPs and UPEPs. But, certainly, the light chains would give us an early indicator, if a patient was starting to relapse. And then, over time, the response criteria have improved to now that we have minimal residual disease. And how I explain it to patients, I’m sure you’ve seen the slide with the iceberg. And patients, I think, relate to that. And I explained it to them that we pushed the iceberg far down below the level of detection that, with the most testing that we have, we can’t detect the iceberg anymore.

Andrew Schorr:
Okay. But that detection of cancer cells has become super sensitive now, right?

Tiffany Richards:              
Yes.

Andrew Schorr:
So, okay, Dr. Manasanch, help us understand how are we assessing MRD?

So, if you are working with a Pathology Department or whoever, what tests are they doing to determine whether a patient has been treated successfully, basically?

Dr. Manasanch:
So, we’re very fortunate here at MD Anderson because we have a fantastic flow cytometry lab. And so, we have minimal residual disease testing by flow cytometry. And that’s just sending aspirate of bone marrow, so just the blood and the aspirate, when you get a bone marrow biopsy done, and sending it for analysis through a special machine that really can look very carefully at the markers around the surface of the myeloma cells. And by looking at these markers, we can determine whether the plasma cells are normal or abnormal.

And we can determine how many, in that specimen, are plasma cells and then, how many are normal and how many are not normal. And so, if we do find any that are not normal, then, that’s what we call minimal residual disease in a patient that has been treated.

So, if you have multiple myeloma, and you have been treated for multiple myeloma, it is very common to do not just the blood studies and the 24 hour urine but also to do a bone marrow biopsy. And when you do the bone marrow biopsy, usually, that’s when you take a sample for analysis. Now, that’s what we do here at MD Anderson. Basically, we can detect one cell in hundred thousand, which is the sensitivity people are always talking about 10 to minus 4, 10 to minus 5, 10 to minus 6. So, ours here, with our flow cytometry testing, is 10 to minus 5, which is quite good.

And it’s probably almost the best that you can get with flow cytometry, in the bone marrow. And so, we get the result within a few days. And so, we’re very lucky with that. Now, there is also another technique. There’s a company called Adaptive Biotechnologies. And they have a test that is FDA approved. It’s called clonoSEQ.

And they have different versions. And the most recent one, actually, is quite potent. And they can detect cells one in a million. So, I’m not sure, Cherie, if I may ask you, in the test that you had done, did you have the clonoSEQ test done, with flow cytometry?

Cherie Rineker: 
I just emailed my oncologist, the trial oncologist, about that. And he said that I was MRD negative, with the clonoSEQ was 10 to the negative 6.

Andrew Schorr:
Yeah. Because it’s very difficult to get the 10 to minus 6. So, the level of sensitivity is, basically, how many cells can you detect, in a sample of millions of cells, how many can you detect that are abnormal with myeloma. And so, with flow cytometry, it’s very difficult to get to one in a million. So, that’s why I suspected that’s probably done with the clonoSEQ assay. So, that test, basically, is available. The doctor has to send a sample to that company, Adaptive.

And then, what I’m not very clear on is how the billing is done. Now, for here at MD Anderson because we already have an assay that is set up, it really doesn’t cost extra to patients to do. We really do it through flow cytometry. And so, that’s really what we’re doing at MD Anderson right now is flow cytometry minimal residual disease. It works pretty well. We know, from many studies, that it is predictive of how long a remission will last, in most patients. However, each patient is so different that this is something that, whether, in your particular case, you need minimal residual disease or not is something that really has to be addressed with every patient because every patient is a little bit different.

And one of major limitations of minimal residual disease is that it comes from the bone marrow. And the bone marrow is a blind biopsy, right. And so, people can have other things in other places, and we don’t see them.

Now, it seems that, for most patients, it still works pretty well. But if you have a collection of plasma cells somewhere else that is not in that specific location where we do the bone marrow, that’s not going to show up. And so, that’s one of the limitations of this. And what we try to do with that is you can combine some imaging with the bone marrow test. And that even has a better prediction probably. So, you can do like a whole body MRI or a whole body PET CT. And then, you can look to see are there any lesions, anything that we’re not looking at the bone marrow.

But I’m definitely having minimal residual disease negative but one to one million, which is a very good sensitivity, after CAR T-cell therapy is excellent. It’s fantastic.

Andrew Schorr:
Oh, good. So, you got a second opinion here, Cherie.

Cherie Rineker: 
And I will say I had the PET scan done as well.

So, my only concern is because I relapsed so many times and so fast, how durable is this one? Will this one pop back, too? So, there’s some fear attached still.

Dr. Manasanch:
But that’s so difficult to tell because every patient is so different. Every patient is so different. And this is where it’s very easy to take a study and say 50% of these patients did this, 50% did this. But when you have that patient in front of you, it’s so hard to predict the individual rates because you mentioned, for example, I your case, all you had was this translocation (11;14), which really doesn’t signal this that this is going to happen. But it happened. And so, it’s so hard, when patients say how long am I going to live. I don’t think that we can tell. We can say, based on average, for your case, maybe this is what could happen.

But really, no one knows. So, each case is very, very individual.

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Page last updated on January 14, 2019