New Leukemia Drugs Allow Some Patients to Live Normal Lives

Two new research drugs are showing great promise for treating patients with a certain type of leukemia that has usually meant a death sentence in the past. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, a local doctor is at the forefront of a study that's testing what some patients consider "miracle drugs."

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Researchers at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center say the two drugs, nilotinib and dasatinib, have proven to be effective in treating patients with chronic myeloid leukemia, who in the past were only expected to live between three and five years. Many patients taking another drug called Gleevec have also done well, but about 20-percent of those patients developed a resistance to it. The new drugs are much stronger and are able to circumvent that resistance. Dr. Hagop Kantarjian is the chairman of the leukemia department at M.D. Anderson and the lead investigator of a study testing the effects of the new drugs.

"We think that both of these agents are new turning points in the treatment of CML because we've found the solution for the people who become resistant to Gleevec, and those two drugs being more potent, we can give them now up-front to people with CML and hopefully be able to control the disease and perhaps cure it in a better way."

Both drugs are still considered research drugs, but are on the fast-track for FDA approval, which could come later this year. Kantarjian says the new treatment options mean almost normal lives for patients with CML.

"Since they are pills, it's almost like somebody taking blood pressure medications or heart medications or diabetes medications. The side-effects are minimal. You control the disease very effectively and the patients can live a normal life-span with their disease and they probably will die with the disease rather than of their disease."

One of those patients, 50-year-old Houston resident Norman Quarles, was diagnosed with CML on April Fools Day in 2003 and had entered what's known as the "blast"or the terminal stage of the disease when he started on Gleevec. After developing a resistance to that drug, he began taking nilotinib.

"My blood count started leveling-out and getting back to normal and I've been following the protocol ever since and been getting the excellent care from MD Anderson Cancer Center and Dr. Kantarjian and all of his staff literally snatched me from the jaws of death and now I'm doing great."

The results of the study are published in this month's New England Journal of Medicine. You can find more information about chronic myeloid leukemia through a link on our website, KUHF.org.

Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...