Thursday, July 2, 2015

ESH 2014: The Future Role of FCR and new data on venetoclax and rituximab in CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) and my latest lab results

I thought I sneak in one last post from LAX before I board my plane to Wroclaw, Poland via Munich.

It is mostly about the new posts on the CLL Society's website and our nonprofit's news, but I wanted to share that my latest lab results from my visit to the infusion center for IVIG remains most boring with a low normal hemoglobin, a high normal platelet count and an absolute lymphocyte count of 1.2.  YEAH! Of course that really matters is the count of clonal B cells and that takes flow cytometry, but at least I know that nothing major is happening. Slow and steady makes me happy.

This week on the CLL Society website we bring the second part of our interview with Professor Michael Hallek of Koln, Germany, the director of the German CLL Study Group and a major CLL researcher and thinker.

He starts by discussing his “fast boat” adaptive trial strategy (similar in many ways to that of Prof. Hillmen in the UK), essentially looking for the most tailored therapy based on not just predictive factors, but also on how we patients actually respond in trials. He is looking for what I call that perfect Goldilocks’ mix of “ as much as necessary, as little as possible” therapy.

In the second half of the interview, he makes a cogent argument for the ongoing use of FCR frontline in select patients. While many of us are not fans of chemo-immunotherapy (CIT), Professor Hallek has strong data to support his perspective. Listen with an open mind.

We also share my comments and background on an important oral abstract presented at the 20th Congress of the European Hematology Association (EHA), June 11-15, 2015 on venetoclax (ABT-199 or GDC-199) and rituximab. In relapsed patients, the total response rate, the complete response rate, the MRD- rate and the ability for some to be able to remain disease free after stopping the drug is important data that you can find here in our 2015 conference coverage section.

We have a significant backlog of important educational material mostly from large conferences such as ASH 2014 and others from 2015 that we plan to post over the next few months.

In a first step to speed up the process, our first high school intern volunteer, the granddaughter of the CLL Society's attorney, has joined us online to help her earn her community service hours by helping us catalog all the videos that we have produced and are storing on the web.

We are working hard to expand what we offer to the tens of thousands of online readers and to actuate our ambitious plans for patient-centric, physician-curated live education and support. One volunteer medical director (yours truly), his unpaid wife and one part-time RN can’t do it all, although I have to say we have made some amazing progress in our mission to meet the unmet needs of the CLL community in the less than 90 days since our nonprofit’s website launched. Our website is #1 in organic Google searches for CLL Society despite having no search engine optimization in place. We are too busy trying to get our content up.

There is so much more we must do. Your suggestions, help, support, donations, ideas, and feedback are what guide us and keep us going.

We remain forever committed to open content for all with no need to sign in or share any of your personal information to see a video or to get the help you need. If you haven’t done so already, we encourage you to please sign up to receive alerts regarding new postings and for our quarterly newsletters (first one will be published in September) and to share with other patients, caregivers or concerned family or anyone whose life is touched by CLL.

The CLL Society will be at iwCLL in Australia in September to cover the news and we are planning an amazing patient meeting the day before the researchers' meeting in Sydney with Lymphoma Australia. 

Stay strong.

We are all in this together.

Brian Koffman

Volunteer Medical Director, CLL Society

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Monday, June 29, 2015

The Trend is Our Friend: Living with Uncertainty with my CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia)

My lab test have shown a blip.

After a gradual but steady improvement in my tumor burden visit after visit at Ohio State University (OSU) during my last three years on ibrutinib (when I started it was then called PCI-32765), on my last visit my ALC (absolute lymphocyte count) rose the tiniest amount to about 2, but I didn't worry as it still was well within normal limits. It was just an unusual result for me. It hadn't been over 1.4 in a couple of years, now it was >2.

The rest of the CBC and the chemistry panel was all normal.

The next day back in California I was due for my IVIG and my repeat ALC was back down to around  1 again so I didn't think much of it. 

The fancy flow cytometry that checks for the small population of my clonal B cells, my CLL cells, is the test that really counts. That measures how many cancer cells that I still have and every test had shown fewer than the last. Both Dr. Byrd and I had predicted that already small number would continue to fall, but I would not yet be MRD negative.

What hubris!

When those results were not forthcoming in the weeks following my visit, I calmed my catastrophic flights of imaginations with reminders that when counts are too low, sometimes it hard to get an accurate result.

Then I got the news that I had a "small number of B cells" on the flow, within the expected variation seen from test to test. 

That is "doctor talk" for the fact that my count had bumped up a little, but the number was still within the expected margins of error of the test, or not significant different than the prior result. 

I still haven't seen my flow report nor do I know my absolute number. I will need to know that number at some point, but knowing it would make absolutely no difference today in what I do now, so I will try to be patient (not my best trait).

What I do know is that if the count had gone down, even just a little "within the expected margins of error" I would have been told and cheered on.

As we know that the only major group where we have seen a higher rate of relapse of their CLL on ibrutinib are previously treated patients with deletion 17p such as myself. They are the only group where < 1/2 are still progression free after less than 2 1/2 years. I have enjoyed being part of the happy minority on the Kaplan Meyer graphs.

But is this my personal start of a bad trend, the first stirrings of a tiny resistant clone that will only grow over time to become dominant? Is this the beginning of the end of my super duper run with ibrutinib?

Honestly I doubt it. 

Here's why I am honestly not worried.

A week later I received the wonderful news that my BTK and PLCG2 mutation test was negative and since nearly all CLL resistance to ibrutinib is related to a growing clone with either the BTK and PLCG2 mutation that prevents the ibrutinib from blocking signaling, odds are excellent that my lab result is nothing but a meaningless blip. Richter's Transformation (RT), the other common and more sinister cause of relapse on ibrutinib, tends to occur early in treatment and three years out is not early.  I don't have RT. No signs or symptoms.

So although I won't rest completely easy until I see my next flow cytometry results sometime after my next OSU clinic visit in August, odds are really with me on this one.

The trend is our friend, and as I have coached so many others, I now must heed my own advice: One lab test means nothing.

I will be traveling for a couple of weeks in Poland on a Jewish Heritage trip with my rabbi. One purpose of the trip is to forget all about CLL and our nonprofit CLL Society for a few days, but I will be busy in the evenings in Eastern Europe writing for the CLL Society website (some great stuff from the CLL Research Consortium or CRC Patient Empowerment and Education Meeting and from EHA coming soon) and more critically, for a peer reviewed medical journal on CLL due the beginning of August. 

I am alright with that crazy balancing act though I do worry what I will eat in Poland, not exactly a vegan's paradise.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015



This week’s CLL update on the is the first part of my interview with Professor Hallek on possible drug combinations using new and old therapies in the hope of being able to offer long term disease control (he won’t use the world cure quite yet) with relatively short term therapies.

Professor Hallek heads up the important and innovative German CLL Study Group that has made enormous contributions to our understanding of how to best treat our CLL, so I listen carefully to all he has to say.

He has realistic concerns about prospect of lifelong therapies and points out some of the unpleasant truths about the limitations of treatments with signal blockers such as ibrutinib or idelalisib.

But he says some ideas of what to do about those issues.

To read my commentary and review and hear the interview, please click her in the past conference section of our website.

Stay strong.

We are all in this together.


Later this week I need to  discuss some personal health issues here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Biologic and Immune Therapies for CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia)

Hi Friends,

This week’s update on the CLL Society website is my unscripted recordings on biologic or immunotherapies.

I start by reviewing my take on the good and bad of the well known and novel antibodies directed against our B cells by targeting its surface marker CD20. These include rituximab (Rituxan), ofatuzumab (Arzerra), and obinituzumab (Gazyva). Among other topics,  I discuss the difference between type I and type II monoclonal antibodies.

I also cover other antibodies, new and old, IMIDS (immune modulating drugs) such as lenalidomide (Revlimid) vaccines, and more.

To listen please, visit the treatment section (found under the Basics tab) of the CLL website by clicking here:

Please let us know if this helps. I am particularly proud of this recording as it was done live and spontaneously with no notes. I think is ends up being more focused, ironically similar to the drugs discussed.

We plan on bringing more of this type of content. Your feedback on the website or to me by email informs what we add and how we will grow the website. Although there is only myself, my wife (both unpaid) and a wonderful RN, Betsy Dennison as the team, we listen carefully to all comments to help brings what’s needed to best manage our cancer. 

Smart patients get smart care™.

As always, all our content is free and easily accessible to anyone but if you want you may sign up for our weekly alerts to know when we post new content, 1 to 3 x a week, and for our inaugural newsletters which will be amazing. We understand the importance of privacy and don’t share any personal info.

Our website traffic has grown phenomenally in its first 10 weeks. Over a 1000 page views on our busy days. We also hope it will be a launching site for anyone with CLL as we have links to nearly all the quality sites on our front page.

The artwork in the background of the video is again my son, Will Koffman’s tribute to Durer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Will rendered the entire work using only bleach on black cotton.

Nothing much new to report on the personal level with my CLL. Still get tired. Still traveling way too much (over the next 2 weeks I will be in Dallas, Seattle, Las Vegas and Poland to teach and to learn) and still doing too much and getting too sleep. Really it is a bit crazy.

I am waiting on my more granular lab results from OSU. Despite my best intentions, I always worry when I am waiting for my results.


Stay strong.

We are all in this together.


Volunteer Medical Director, CLL Society Inc.


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Thursday, June 11, 2015

This Week in CLL: (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) Chemotherapy, News of the Helios Trial, New Drug Approvals and the High Cost of Cancer Medications

The annual humongous meeting of ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) 2015 in Chicago did offer those of us with CLL ( chronic lymphocytic leukemia) a few interesting abstracts and one excellent education session, but this week we wanted to share some news unrelated to ASCO on our website.

This week on the CLL Society website we are posting news and educational material that relates in one way or another to chemotherapy, alone, in combos, and in trials.

We are adding another of my treatment monologues. This time I discuss what really is chemotherapy and how does it fit into the rapidly changing treatment paradigms for CLL. Spoiler alert: The key point here is that everything is changing, very fast. You can find that link here in the treatment section of the CLL Society website.

This is a good basic primer on what chemo is and isn't. The feedback from the earlier readers has been most gratifying. Please let me know what you think.

Just to emphasize the point of change coming, on June 4, 2015 the results of the final analysis of the Phase III RESONATE-2 were released comparing ibrutinib to chlorambucil in over-65 treatment-naïve patients, excluding those patients with deletion 17p. The big news is not that ibrutinib met its primary endpoint of better progression free survival (PFS) and secondary endpoints of better overall survival (OS) and overall response rate (ORR) as we might have predicted that based on the significant difference in the usual historical efficacy of the two drugs tested in prior trials. What is important about this Phase III trial for patients is that it is an important step towards getting FDA approval of ibrutinib as frontline therapy for those of us over 65.  The official press release can be found here and my commentary will be up on the CLL Society website on Wednesday, June 10, 2015 in the news section.

Finally, we share the good news that Quebec, home to my alma mater, McGill University, and often the leader in new therapies in Canada, is the first province to approve the use of obinituzumab (O) or Gazyva in combination with that same chlorambucil (C). On June 2, 2015, there was similar approval for patients in England and Wales. These two approvals on both sides of the Atlantic were based on the trial reported in NEJM in 2014 that demonstrated the superiority of the C-O over C-R (rituximab) or C alone in frailer patients with co-morbidities. That story and links to the original research can be found in the news section on Friday, June 12, 2015.

In our ongoing emphasis to consider clinical trials when making treatment decisions, we fielded another survey to explore search functions that CLL patients would want available in a CLL-specific Clinical Trials Search Engine. We're thankful to those patients and caregivers that took the time to complete the survey at the CLL Society booth during the CLL Patient Education and Empowerment Meeting prior to the CLL Clinical Research Consortium held in San Diego, CA from April 22-23, 2015. You can view those results in the Survey Results and Clinical Trials sections of the website on Friday, also.

One last thing: If you want to share your experience about how the high cost of our cancer meds impacts your care in a way that might make a difference, please contact me to discuss how we can get the word out.

On a personal note, I am still waiting for my final lab results form OSU, so I have nothing new to share.

I don't think I can keep up the pace of 4 new posts a week, but we will try to bring you the latest news and fill in the missing gaps as best and as fast as we can.


Stay strong

We are all in this together.

Brian Koffman
Volunteer Medical Director of the CLL Society
E- cancer advocate
Husband, father and grandfather

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Living With CLL (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia): My Personal Clinical Trial News and Travails from the James and My Take on IV versus Oral Therapies.

"Brushstrokes in Flight" by Roy Lichtenstein at CMH airport

If you want to skim through my long miserable travel story, and just get to the lab results and my reflections on all these goings-on, my feelings won’t be hurt.

Monday, May 25, 2015, I got out of bed around 5 AM after only 4 hours sleep in order to catch my early flight to Columbus via Dallas (DFW), so that I might arrive in Ohio (CMH) in time to spend some hours with a good friend over dinner.

All went well at the airport (breezed through security in 5 minutes) and with my first flight.

Little did I know that I would be spending time with news friends, my fellow travelers sitting on the tarmac for 3 hours the first time, and more than two hours the second time.

And I must have looked mighty strange during much of that hurrying up and waiting. Having somehow lost my N95 mask after the first flight, I wore the cloth eye mask that I had in my bag over my nose instead of using it for its true purpose of blocking out the light to allow sleep.

Torture by a million blows: 

First, after boarding the plane and a minute away from take off, comes the first 15 minute delay at the gate due to the rain that’s coming but not there yet, then another 30 minutes delay, and then more and more, then finally we are pushed out the gate as the ground crew are back in action now that the rain threat has passed, but when we get to our runway there are no longer any flight corridors to the north, so we wait and wait and wait again, then make the decision to make the long taxi to the other side of the airport for a take off on the still open longer southern route to our destination (FACT: DFW is bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island), only to wait again…. until we become too low on fuel to make it to Ohio, so back to the gate, where just before  things are looking as if we finally might get airborne, we next learn that our flight crew has just passed the “legal limit” of how long they can be at the controls, so we need a new pilot and first officer. More delays at deceptively optimistic 15-minute increments, until the final cancellation is not really announced, more just realized and we all march off the plane.

I am one of the lucky ones who left the long, long line at the unlucky gate and walked to the next open gate (a flight to NYC as I recall) where the helpful agent helped me grab one of the few remaining seats on the next flight out, originally scheduled for a departure about three and half hours after the first one.

I was OK with all this until the almost identical story started repeating itself on my second flight, right down to losing our crew as we were within minutes of departure.

Now I was starting to get panicky.

I was stuck at DFW. It was after 10PM and we had no crew. As a result of having no one in the cockpit, we, of course, had no air conditioning. No one could turn it on.

There weren’t even any flights available the next day that would get me to the clinic in time for an afternoon appointment. And I have my important IVIG infusion scheduled back in sunny California the day after. And the day after that, I’ll be off to Orlando, and the day after that, Chicago for ASCO. My dominoes were tightly lined up.

No clinical trial appointment at OSU would mean no more magic pills.

I was completely out of my ibrutinib, having stretched this clinic appointment to the maximum at 13 weeks. AND I had just read the ASCO abstract about increased relapses when we miss more than a week of pills. More on this critical subject later.

It got me thinking.

This cancer-controlled life is such a fragile construct and there are so many ways it can blow up. Let’s face it: Those of us with CLL that need treatment, especially in a clinical trial, especially in a clinical trial across the country, are high-maintenance and high-risk for something messing up.

Of course my dinner was canceled. And any food plans. No 7/24 vegan catering in Columbus.

But amazingly American Airlines did find a fresh first officer and about 45 minutes later, a new captain for my second flight.

That plane ride to Columbus ultimately left a little more than 8 hours later than planned and instead of arriving at 6:45 PM, I got in well after 2 AM. All the car rental stalls were closed. Got into bed at my friends’ house (without waking anyone up) around 3:15 AM and was up again at 6:45 AM for an 8 AM clinical appointment.

All of this with a lingering cold! And with less total sleep times in two days than total time on the tarmac.

But it all worked out.

And there were some unexpected surprises:

In Dallas, I was introduced to a wonderful 91-year-old women aviator, flight instructor and former WASP. At the request of her friends who discovered that we were on the same flight, I helped shepherd her through the same confusing mess that so many of were enduring. She was charming and full of great stories and she walked faster than I did.

When we arrived at CMH, she asked if I might help drive her home as we discovered she lived close to my friends’ home north of Columbus, so after some fumbling with the GPS in her new KIA parked in an offsite lot, I drove to my destination and she continued the less than 2 miles to her home.
At the clinic early the next morning, Dr. Byrd checked out my head cold and declared it was a head cold. No chest rattles or swollen nodes. No treatment.

My blood count was basically normal- borderline anemia, but all else was good including normal platelets. Blood chemistry was normal too, except for the usual low protein. That’s what happens when we don’t make immunoglobulins, so no surprise there

But I always seem to manage to find some cause for worry. My ALC (absolute lymphocyte count) was a very normal 2.48 but that is double what it has been over the last few years. It usually lingers around 1 or less. 

Why the jump up?

Could it be from my cold? You bet, but I still will be happier when I see that it is not the start of a trend.

(HAPPY UPDATE: ALC was 1.2 the next day back at my local infusion center at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton)

My small number of myelocytes probably also signifies nothing. You are not supposed to see any myelocytes in the peripheral blood

My LDH was just a tiny high too. 207 and normal tops out at 190. There are a million causes for that blip. Most are innocuous, but it can herald cancer resurgence when it climbs and climbs and climbs. Again it makes me more vigilant, but I know and I counsel others that the trend is your friend and will tell the tale, not one isolated and trivially elevated level.

Putting it all together (and more critical lab is pending) it probably doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, but I have been spoiled by a few years of mostly boring results.

One last sweet encounter to share:

As most of you know (probably to the point of annoyance at this point), I am vegan and eating on the road is always my personal challenge. Despite the heartening finds of lentil and kale/quinoa salads at DFW on Monday, unless I took some bold action, it looked like my food fare on the way home from breakfast until 10 PM when back in my own kitchen would be only the raw organic nuts, green teas, and the vegan cookies that usually accompany me in my carry-on bag for such contingencies.

CMH might have a fabulous Lichtenstein sculpture, but it is lacking in vegan cuisine. My connection in Phoenix is too tight to grab a snack even if there was an option.

So I sleepily waited at the James Cancer clinic after my appointment was done until the lovely Portia’s Café opened its doors at 11 AM, and then treated myself to a cab drive to to this Clintonville haven of delicious organic vegan and raw food. After a naturally sweet vegetal loose green tea, the tasty fortifying raw broccoli soup, a deeply satisfying gluten free raw hummus and sprout wrap and a to-die-for vegan chocolate “cheesecake”, my batteries were recharged. I wasn’t hungry any more.

The same cabby picked me.

Here’s the cool part of day two:

Magid, the cab driver, was born and grew up in Fez, Morocco and is a geography student. We talked and talked (some in English, some in French, none in Arabic) about his wonderful unique corner of the world that I have been lucky enough to visit twice. His wife has just joined him from Maroc.

He insisted on cooking me a vegetable tagine next time I am in town and I think I will take him up on the offer.

So despite all the delays and near panic and my dangerous lack of sleep (I wrote this on the first leg of my plane trip home), my travel adventure was full of some magical encounters, an on-time clinic visit and good news from Dr. Byrd.

I am flying home with 13 weeks of ibrutinib, and for my wife (SSSHHH!), two pounds of Tim Horton’s whole bean coffee and one squished apple fritter, treats for her that are woefully unavailable in southern California.

On a different note, please check out the CLL Society website today for the first of my monologues on therapy, this time on oral versus IV drugs. It’s a more nuanced decision than I thought when I first started researching the material for the post. The direct link is here and I would appreciate your feedback on this new format and content.

I think this is all working out.

My blog is reverting back to my personal story and where I postulate and pontificate however I want, sharing the good and bad.

The CLL Society website is evolving to be more about the facts and research news, their unpacking and contextualization in our effort to make them useful and accessible.

It is more effort to keep both going, but I believe they are both important in their own way.

What do think? Please let me know.

PS. We were sideswiped on our way out of the airport. Thankfully no one was hurt, but the rear and both door panels on the passenger side are going to need work. OY!

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Dr. Wiestner on Novel Therapies for CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia), Oral versus IV therapies, Idelalisib plus Chemo-immunotherapy Update and my Lingering Cold

Our very thin CLL Society team is busy preparing for the ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) 2015 Annual meeting which starts at the end of this week in Chicago, but we still found time to bring three diverse and instructive new topics to our website for this week.

Today, Monday, May 25, 2015, we posted Dr. Adrian Wiestner's thoughtful and well-considered interview from ASH (American Society of Hematology) 2014 on what is known and unknown about novel therapies. You can find that here.

Expect more video interviews and commentaries from ASH 2014 over the next several weeks.

On Wednesday, the camera is turned on yours truly for my personal take on CLL topics of interest. We include the short video and an updated transcript on this week's topic of oral versus IV medications. I think you might be surprised at some of the issues and non-issues in what would seem at first glance to be should be a simple choice. I have posted extensively about the tragedies that were associated with potent oral medications before we knew about the risk of tumor lysis with ABT-199 now known as venetoclax or in the case of lenalidomide (Revlimid), where there is also the risk of tumor flare. These risks have largely been mitigated now with new dosing protocols. Please see this prior blog post for part of the story.

 This new section on the CLL Society website using monologues and text will roll out here.

And this will be only the first in a long series of instructional postings on the various CLL therapies.

On Friday, we will post an up to the minute review of and link to an important ASCO 2105 abstract about the latest data on combining idelalisib with chemo-immunotherapy. You will find it here on Friday.

Please let us know what you think, especially about my reading and the transcripts of my monologues. You can contact the CLL Society here or email directly, but the 1st method is preferable.

We are constantly working to respond to the unmet needs of the CLL community, so we listen carefully to what you write us and try to respond as best we can.

We don't have a big production budget and team or large institutional backing, but we keep going to offer up the most robust and recent, yet still accessible information with no gloss and no agenda other than to inform our community.

Because we believe that SMART PATIENTS GET SMART CARE™

Switching to a personal update, my wife and I are stilling struggling with a lingering upper respiratory infection aka a cold that my beautiful granddaughter shared when visiting from Chicago. No fever or cough for me. With the frequent use of a Neti pot, normal saline and steroid nasal sprays and a single shot of a decongestant (and no antibiotics), I have managed to control the symptoms and survive the pressure changes in the first of several air flights.  Both of us remain “under the weather” after a full week of symptoms, but we are slowly improving.

For most of my immune-competent patients, I would never recommend an antibiotic in such circumstances, but I am not most patients and either are any of my fellow CLLers. We are all immune comprised. Our immune systems are as dysfunctional as hyperactive adolescents who are asked to focus on a single boring multi-step math problem while the rest of the vibrant world pours on around them. Like those teenagers, my immunity’s focus is weak and easily diverted to the wrong target, having lead in the past to my nasty autoimmune problem of ITP.

Tomorrow I am at Ohio State for my three-month follow up on my ibrutinib trial.

Expecting another good lab report. Usually my neutrophils jump up when I am sick at all, even with a viral illness.

I wonder if Dr. Byrd will add an antibiotic and chide me for treating myself, always an ill-advised choice.

Personal confession: I worry about my admittedly relatively mild added illness. Worrying is already too easy to do with CLL, and even more so when we are sick. URIs can lead to chest infections and pneumonia is still the leading cause of mortality in CLL.

I will be much happier when this infection is gone.

I will be home one day this week, long enough to get my every 6 week dose of IVIG.

Late in the week, I will be Orlando for less than 24 hours to lecture on anemia and gout to some 400 primary care providers. Then I fly onto Chicago for the very busy ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) Annual meeting.

Rest is not in the picture. But it is a good busy and I will be with friends everywhere I travel.

I may even get to see the little girl who gave me the cold in Chicago. If we are both well.


Stay strong

We are all in this together.

Brian Koffman

Volunteer Medical Director of the CLL Society

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