Interstate Oncology: Breast Cancer Patient On the Run


Of the one million new breast cancer patients diagnosed each year worldwide, approximately 170,000 of these cases are triple negative.

The term applies to patients who do not express the hormone receptors for estrogen or progesterone and are also HER2 negative. About 75% of these patients are of the basal type and the diagnosis is more common in young woman and the black population. Triple negative breast cancer is a distinct subtype of breast cancer and requires its own unique approaches.

Case: Triple Negative Breast Cancer

In August of 2017, I met a delightful 50-year-old British woman who had traveled to California from her home in Saratoga Springs, Utah. The patient was seen by her local physician for palpable mass in the right breast. A biopsy confirmed high grade triple-negative breast cancer. Staging identified eight positive axillary lymph nodes.

The patient was referred to a prestigious research center and obtained an opinion from a breast cancer oncologist. Despite the high-grade disease, high risk presentation, and triple negative finding, she was offered the standard chemotherapy combination of Cytoxan/Adriamycin followed by Taxol.

As a young woman and mother of six children, this patient had no intention of taking “off the shelf therapy.” She drove the many hours from Utah to California for an opinion.

I referred the patient to one of my skilled surgeons who conducted a biopsy in August and the tissue was evaluated in our laboratory.

Her Functional Profiling Results

The results were striking. Every platinum-based regimen killed virtually every cell. The other more standard regimens were less effective.

I suggested to the patient that a modification in the pre-operative (neoadjuvant) chemotherapy regimen would be warranted. In the interim, the patient was evaluated at the molecular level and found positive for the BRCA1 mutation.

At this point, everything fit together, the triple negative finding, the exquisite sensitivity to Cisplatin-based therapies, and the BRCA1 mutation are all “peas in a pod” for triple negative breast cancer. It was evident that a platinum-based regimen was essential.

With the recent memory of her interaction with the cancer center physician, the patient made a decision. She was going to commute to California for care.

Treatment Begins

In August, we began Carboplatin-based therapy and the tumor disappeared. Within two cycles, the large tumor and axillary nodes were gone.

Several cycles later, they were undetectable by radiographic means. With PET scan confirming a complete remission, and the BRCA1 mutation identified, the patient underwent bilateral mastectomies and was referred for future evaluation and prophylactic hysterectomy with oophorectomy.

Complete Remission Achieved

Now two years since diagnosis, the patient is in complete remission and having undergone the necessary surgical procedure to address any additional risks associated with the BRCA1 mutation is now living a normal life.

Her story is the subject of a recent breast cancer blog posting and serves as an interesting example of patients following their instincts as they seek the best possible and potentially curative therapy for their own individual cancers.


Although the patient was sensitive to several forms of chemotherapy and might have benefited from standard treatment, the therapies that she received were exactly right for her and provided immediate benefit with the least toxicity. Adriamycin-based treatments, widely used in this disease, are both less active than the platin and demonstrably more toxic.

We are delighted that the patient received exactly the right treatment for her, that she tolerated it well, and she gives us a call occasionally on her way from a soccer game or band practice with her six children in the car – a victory for intelligent cancer therapy.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts and comments.


Dr. Robert Nagourney, has been internationally recognized as a pioneer in cancer research and personalized cancer treatment for over 20 years.  He is a TEDx speaker, author of the book Outliving Cancer, a practicing oncologist and triple board certified in Internal Medicine, Medical Oncology and Hematology helping cancer patients from around the world at his Nagourney Cancer Institute in Long Beach, California.  For more info go to

There’s Something Sweet About Evolutionary Biology


Humans evolved around their food supply. The foods we eat, the herbs we consume, our sources of nutrition, indeed everything that makes it possible for us to meet our caloric needs can be traced through evolution. A new study examining the enzyme amylase has now traced the origin of this carbohydrate metabolizing enzyme through 47 different species.

Amylase, critical for the digestion of carbohydrates, hydrolyzes starch into sugars. It is found in the pancreas and in some species in the saliva. The authors examined duplication of the amylase gene which allows for multiple copies to produce more of the enzyme, allowing carbohydrates to be consumed in the diet and shows how evolution drives #nagouradaptation.

Species that live in close proximity to humans develop higher levels of amylase.

In fact, wild dogs have virtually no amylase, while domesticated species have high quantities of amylase in their saliva. Thus, adaptation to the human diet through table scraps drove the production of amylase. Monkeys that store food in their cheeks have large quantities of amylase, while mountain lions have none.

But what has this got to do with cancer?

Possibly quite a lot. Investigators in the UK have begun to apply evolutionary principles to cancer therapy. Under Dr. Charles Swanton the clinical trial TRACERx (Tracking Cancer Evolution through Therapy) is using liquid biopsies to examine how cancer cells evolve and become resistant to therapy.

The similarity between the amylase study and cancer are interesting.

For one, amylase levels reflect a specific environmental pressure that provides an advantage to species with higher levels. Secondly, the evolutionary process is relatively rapid, as the domestication of dogs and the infestation of rats and mice in the human environment is historically comparatively recent. Thirdly, the adaptation is not driven by mutations, per se, but instead up-regulation of an existing normal gene.

If we consider cancer adaptation to the stressors that we call therapy, we can imagine that the process of evolution is accelerated as cells divide and live comparatively short periods of time compared to dogs and humans that proliferate comparatively slowly and live a rather long time. By condensing evolutionary adaptation, cancers can outdo our best therapies quickly.

In oncology, patients who show brilliant responses to initial therapy, breast cancer to estrogen withdrawal or prostate cancer to androgen deprivation, generally become resistant within two or three years as selective pressures lead to an outgrowth of resistant clones.

What are the lessons?

Among them is the growing thought that cancer therapy should not be continuous but instead episodic or intermittent. This may offer the opportunity to avoid selective pressures.

This approach has been utilized successfully in prostate cancer and may apply in other diseases. Unfortunately, most oncologists are afraid to find out, as removing therapy could result in progression even death. At least that is a very real fear.

Where the principle has been applied, however, it has shown some early signs of success. Among them is the use of chemotherapy in diseases like small cell cancer and even non-small cell cancer of the lung for defined periods of time with cessation or low-dose maintenance as the subsequent treatment.

One widely used approach in colon cancer is dubbed OPTIMOX which stops patient treatments after FOLFOX and observes them until recurrence, only then reinstating treatments. Survivals have been similar with improved tolerance for those patients who stop active treatment.

There are several questions that remain unanswered. For the amylase study, did amylase arise first and animals then seek starch or did the accessibility of starch render the expression of amylase an evolutionary advantage? Similarly, for those patients with relatively indolent cancers, does the introduction of therapy, particularly mutagenic chemotherapy set in motion the very process of resistance that we seek to avoid?

The field of evolutionary biology will provide extraordinary insights into cancer once we begin to apply its principles. Scientists around the world are beginning to take new looks at the way we think about and treat cancer. It will be refreshing to get the input of physicists, mathematicians, and biochemists in a field that has been uniformly managed by genomic scientists.

The future could be bright, maybe even sweet, as we move in these new directions.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts and comments.


For Mantle Zone Lymphoma: What Goes Around Comes Around

For Mantle Zone Lymphoma: What Goes Around Comes Around

Mantle zone lymphoma represents approximately 6% of all non-Hodgkin lymphomas diagnosed in the US each year.

It is named for the region in the lymph node where the malignant cell population arises. The cells characteristically express a cell surface protein known as CD5 and over-express cyclin D1 associated with a commonly identified t(11;14) chromosomal translocation.

It usually occurs in patients 60 or older and can be aggressive, with lymphadenopathy (enlarged lymph nodes), splenomegaly (enlarged spleen) and in some patients with high circulating lymphoma cells.

Case Study: Recurring Mantle Zone Lymphoma
In 2004, I consulted upon a 74-year-old gentleman with mantle zone.

The biopsy revealed activity for the drug combination R-EPOCH and he achieved a complete remission that lasted 10 years.

He then presented with lymphadenopathy and a biopsy of his axillary lymph node confirmed recurrence, but now the pattern of sensitivity favored the drug Bendamustine.

He received 6 cycles of R-Bendamustine and again achieved complete remission. He did well except for some respiratory infections that were managed with intravenous immunoglobulin.

It Comes Back Again – His Third Encounter
At year 3 he returned with a markedly elevated white blood cell count.

One concern was that he might have drug-induced acute leukemia, an uncommon but serious side effect from chemotherapy and I submitted his cells for flow cytometry. While we awaited the results he required hospitalization to manage his underlying congestive heart failure.
I then had the opportunity to review his peripheral blood smear and recognized that the white cells were indeed mantle zone cells and not leukemic blasts as I had feared. A small quantity of residual blood from his ER admission CBC was submitted to the laboratory for analysis.

His Functional Profiling Results Are Again Very Revealing
The results were extremely interesting.

Having received the EPOCH combination, the patient was now resistant to the principal agents in that combination i.e. Cytoxan, Doxorubicin, etc. He was also resistant to Bendamustine, the drug he had received most recently.

I was more intrigued by the other results.

Despite the use and appeal of the class of drugs known as Bruton tyrosine kinase inhibitors, he was completely resistant to Ibrutinib, the oral drug of this class.

Without my lab results, Ibrutinib, would probably have been my first choice as it is widely used as a salvage regimen in this setting. More unexpected was his resistance to Gemcitabine plus Oxaliplatin, 2 drugs that he had never received and that I have used to great success in other patients in the past.

Recalling My Past Work with the Assay-Directed Drug Choice
What struck me was the patient’s exquisite sensitivity to Bortezomib (Velcade), a proteasome inhibitor that disrupts nominal protein metabolism in cancer cells and has proven profoundly important for the management of another B-cell malignancy known as Multiple Myeloma.

The results for Bortezomib truly resonated.

Over fifteen years earlier, in collaboration with investigators at Millennium Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts I had used our laboratory platform to identify Mantle Zone lymphoma as a target for their new small molecule Bortezomib.

I remember meeting with their principal investigator, Mark Rolfe, PhD at the ASH (American Society of Hematology) meeting in San Diego to forge a relationship for the study of Bortezomib. At that time, the drug had not received FDA approval for any indication.

Bortezomib is one of the most interesting therapeutic small molecules as its activity is based upon the atom Boron.

By disrupting the cell’s ability to clear itself of damaged proteins it unleashes one of the most potent cell death cascades, the mis-folded protein response.

While it was not surprising that our laboratory identified activity for myeloma, a disease characterized by excessive protein production in the form of antibodies, the findings for mantle zone were unexpected and ultimately led to an FDA approval of Bortezomib for this form of lymphoma some years later. Nagourney RA, Su, YZ, Horlick D, Chow C, Kollin C, Evans SS. Bortezomib (PS-341) alone and in combination with cytotoxic drugs: Ex vivo analysis in human tumor primary cultures. (3690) Amer Assoc of Canc Res 45, 2004 (abst)

Here, 15 years later, was an opportunity to take that discovery and apply it to one of my own patients.

Complications Arise
The patient was suffering from congestive heart failure, requiring aggressive diuresis.

Confident that I could help him, once he stabilized, I transferred him to the oncology unit to begin treatment but he continued to feel poorly enough to warrant observation in the ICU overnight after only a small dose of therapy.

Let’s Not Give Up Yet!
During his stay in the ICU he was seen by the intensivist, the pulmonologist, the cardiologist, respiratory therapists and a host of other staff.

With his advanced age, the cardiologist felt it was his duty to engage in end-of-life discussions, something that I had absolutely NO intention of doing.

With only a portion of one dose completed, the patient’s white count dropped by 50% in a matter of hours.

I immediately transferred him back to the oncology ward to continue therapy and a day later his white count fell to normal as he visited comfortably with family members.

I feel a sense of particular gratification that this earlier discovery made in collaboration with investigators at Millennium (now Takeda) Pharmaceuticals may be the very thing that saves the life of my long-term patient.

How fortunate that we had access to that sample of blood the day of his admission, a sample that forged his successful therapy.

Life Starts Again
At 89 years of age, it is difficult to know whether he can be cured, but I fully expect that he will return home where he lives independently in a lovely retirement apartment.

When I spoke with him on the day of his return from the ICU, I marveled at his vigor and well-being, the cardiologist’s gloomy predictions notwithstanding. “Not bad for an alter cocker” (Yiddish term of endearment for grouchy old men) he replied.

Not bad for an alter cocker, not bad at all.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts and comments.

Dr. Robert Nagourney, has been internationally recognized as a pioneer in cancer research and personalized cancer treatment for over 20 years. He is a TEDx speaker, author of the book Outliving Cancer, a practicing oncologist and triple board certified in Internal Medicine, Medical Oncology and Hematology helping cancer patients from around the world at his Nagourney Cancer Institute in Long Beach, California. For more info go to

The Right Treatment at the Right Time: Double-Hit Lymphoma


On February 5th, 2018 I was asked to consult on a 53-year-old patient who was admitted to the hospital with a one month’s history of low back pain. An MRI of the lumbar spine a few days earlier revealed a mass impinging on the spinal canal extending down to the pelvis.

I arrived to find a strapping, healthy, vigorous gentleman complaining of pain.

Diagnosis:  B-Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL)

He had no evidence of neurological deficit and was able to stand and walk without difficulty. The differential diagnosis of a mass in the lower spine includes metastatic disease from a distant site i.e. lung, etc. versus a primary tumor such as CHORDOMAversus LYMPHOMA.

A needle biopsy confirmed B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL).

As NHL is generally responsive to therapy we opted against surgery in favor of radiation. Although I would gladly have used the EVA-PCD PLATFORM to treat him, I suggested he move forward with radiation as I awaited completion of staging, flow cytometry and special studies.

Late Friday evening, 2 days after admission, the patient lost the ability to move his lower extremities and emergency surgery was undertaken that night. My colleagues in neurosurgery kindly provided a sterile portion of tissue to my laboratory for analysis.

While I awaited final pathology, we set up a broad array of cytotoxic drug combinations, targeted agents and synergy studies. The patient slowly recovered but with impingement on the lower spinal cord it was uncertain whether he would regain the full use of his legs.

Functional Profiling Results

A few days later the results of the EVA-PCD analysis returned.

Though B-Cell NHL is considered highly drug sensitive, this patient’s cells could not have been more drug resistant.

I was surprised by the degree of resistance to almost every drug and combination tested in the lab. Adriamycin, Vincristine, Corticosteroids, and Fludarabine were all inactive.

I was puzzled. Isn’t B-cell lymphoma one of the success stories of modern oncology? Isn’t this tumor supposed to melt away with treatment?  Was there a mistake?

I reviewed his findings with our hematopathologist.  What gives, I wondered?

Not Your Typical Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

A week later, the answer to my question became clear.

This was not a run-of-the-mill B-cell NHL.

This was not one of those cancers you treat with conventional combinations.

Quite to the contrary – this was a double-hit lymphoma, with over-expression of both the c-MYC oncogene and the Bcl-2 oncogene and a proliferation rate of more than 80%.

This was a B-cell lymphoma that was not going to play by the rules.

As I examined my laboratory findings one result stood out, the clear and unequivocal activity and synergy for Gemcitabine and Cisplatin, used clinically as R-GemOx.

We had studied these combinations in my laboratory for two decades and previously published our findings (DEOXYNUCLEOSIDE ANALOGS IN CANCER THERAPY, HUMANA PRESS, 2006). We had pioneered their use in ovarian cancer, triple negative breast, bladder, and other cancers.

Today these doublets are used around the world.

However, R-GemOx the one we found for this gentleman is never, ever used in the first line (newly diagnosed) setting. Never!

I returned to meet with the patient, now bedridden, as a physical therapist worked to recapture the use of his lower extremities. We sat and had a long heart-to-heart discussion.

Contrary to the guidelines, the literature and the NCCN (National Comprehensive Cancer Network), I was recommending that this patient take a “so called” salvage regimen as his first-line therapy.

It was more than uncomfortable, as I could easily be criticized for failing to provide the patient potentially “curative therapy” with R-CHOP, R-EPOCH, CODOX, hyper-CVAD or others.  What would possess me to use my EVA/PCD laboratory studies to make changes in a patient’s management when everyone knew that R-CHOP or modified R-EPOCH were the standards of care?

Thinking Out of the Box

The answer was not all that hard to find.  One need only read the literature more closely to see that double-hit lymphomarequires out of the box thinking.

It is now well-recognized that conventional treatments like R-CHOP are inadequate.

One investigator from the Wilmot Cancer Institute at Rochester University said “…it is clear that R-CHOP is not sufficient induction therapy for this group of patients, since the majority of patients will have disease progression after standard therapy “ (Jonathan Friedberg, MD BLOOD 2016).

None-the-less, in 2018 and in the absence of controlled clinical trials, physicians continue to give these patients R-CHOP, R-EPOCH and related regimens. If I were to diverge from these standards of care, say to provide first-line R-GemOx, would I be viewed as compromising his well-being?

My Dilemma

This was a crisis, a dilemma.

I knew that the patient needed R-GemOx. My instincts told me that he should receive it, but I was clearly veering off the standard guidelines and about to commit the most heinous of all crimes, diverging from “community standard.”

The patient’s wife had brought her husband to me in the first place because she was the close friend of one of my longest surviving lung cancer patients, a delightful young woman who lived nearly a decade with highly aggressive non-small-cell.

Based on that experience, she was determined that her husband be treated under my care, no matter what. As a nurse and someone who knew my work, the treatment that I recommended was going to be the treatment her husband would receive, regardless of guidelines or protocols.

We agreed to move forward with the laboratory-identified R-GemOx.

The patient required radiation and we arranged one course of chemotherapy before it began. As this chemotherapy combination is too toxic to combine with radiation, I had to bide my time until the 10 days of radiation were complete. The next day, I again instituted R-GemOx.

How the Patient Responded

Slowly, the patient’s lower extremity strength improved. He began to use a walker.

Every two weeks, I treated the patient, shepherding him from the rehabilitation hospital to the acute care hospital and back each time. Two cycles later, he was able to be discharged

Once discharged, the patient continued physical therapy as I treated him every two weeks.  At first, he came with a walker, then with a cane and then recently, walking without assistance.

I had known from the start that a “double-hit lymphoma” would require bone marrow transplantation. I wrote a letter of referral to a colleague at a large transplant center but anticipated that the response might be one of dismay at my choice of therapy.

After all, we had diverged from protocol; we had used a non-standard salvage regimen, as his first-line therapy. We had not applied the standard of care and had instead veered off the path, using the laboratory to guide our drug selection. I was concerned that he might be disqualified.

Despite my concerns, it was obvious that with each cycle, the patient’s condition improved.

I was buoyed by his physical well-being and improving parameters of his disease. The PET/CT revealed near complete resolution of all measurable disease after only 3 doses.

Time had come. He was ready for his consultation at the transplant center.

Just before he departed, I repeated all of his laboratory measures of his disease and had them forwarded to my colleague. All were completely normal. I waited with some trepidation, anticipating a critical review of my unconventional therapy recommendation.

This week, the patient and his wife returned.

They had met with the trans-planters. The conversation had proven quite jovial.

This accomplished consultant smiled when she looked at the patient’s PET/CT and lab results.

She pointed out that this was not the standard of care.

But then went on to say that she knew my work, and that although I had veered off the path, she very impressed with the good result. She would indeed accept the patient into the transplant program. He will undergo, what I hope will prove to be, a curative bone marrow transplant in July.

Final Thoughts

This story is emblematic of my philosophy in medicine, that patients should receive the right treatment the first time, every time. But it represents a broader collection of issues.

First, in medicine today, we do not reward physicians for success but we punish them severely for failure.

Had this patient had less than a perfect response, I would have been pilloried for not administering standard treatment; despite their well-recognized lack of benefit. In this environment, physicians are increasingly afraid to do the right thing. I must admit my own concern when I followed what I knew to be the right course of therapy for this patient, fearing the consequences of failure.

Second, there are no right treatments, even for the most treatable malignancies.

Each patient is a unique story unfolding in real time. I am gratified by this patient’s good outcome and feel a particular sense of accomplishment in that the patient’s referral was predicated on the good outcome of one of my longest surviving lung cancer patients who received laboratory directed therapy as well.

Finally, the key to each patient’s diseases lies within their own tissue. Failing to use each patient’s tumor to select treatments relegates them to protocol therapies that may be very wrong for them.

I will await the patient’s final PET/CT scan with anticipation but look forward to the very real likelihood of curing this patient with, what many oncologists might consider, an incurable lymphoma.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts and comments.