19 June 2006

Progress In Fighting Leukemia

The husband of a cousin of mine has been diagnosed with leukemia (crudely speaking, blood cancer). Not long ago that would have been a death sentence. But, prospects for treating it are much improved from just a few years ago.

I recently attended a business meeting with a woman in full remission from the disease. Science News suggests why this might be possible:
In the past few years, the breakthrough drug imatinib has changed chronic myeloid leukemia from a death sentence to a treatable disease. But 17 percent of patients taking the drug, also called Gleevec, become resistant to its protective effects over 5 years, and their cancer recurs.

Now, two experimental drugs pick up where imatinib leaves off. In many patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) that's impervious to imatinib, the new compounds suppress the malignancy, two studies show.

"In the 1990s, when we saw a patient with CML, we gave them the bad news that they were going to live 3 to 5 years," says hematologist-oncologist Hagop Kantarjian of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who coauthored both studies. With imatinib and the new drugs, most CML patients may live a normal life. "And with some refinements, these drugs might cure most patients," Kantarjian adds.

The new drugs, called dasatinib and nilotinib, target the same protein that imatinib does. . . .

Patients with the less aggressive phase of the cancer showed the best results. Of 40 such patients given dasatinib, 37 had their disease go into remission, as indicated by their normal blood cell counts. So did 11 of 12 such patients who received nilotinib, the researchers report in the June 15 New England Journal of Medicine.

Patients benefited less if their imatinib-resistant CML had already turned aggressive. Fewer than half of such patients went into remission during treatment with either drug. Some patients with highly aggressive leukemia died during the study.

In the United States, more than 90 percent of CML cases are diagnosed in the least aggressive phase.
Here's to hope through science.

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