The changing landscape of cancer treatments

(ARA) – In his recent bestseller, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee writes that a decade from now, it’s likely most Americans will know at least one person with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).

There’s no epidemic here, CML is still a rare disease. The same numbers of people are being diagnosed with this form of blood cancer, or leukemia, each year. It’s just that more and more people with CML are living out their lives. This is due to a fundamental change in how this cancer is treated.

The research leading to the new generation of medicines for CML spans decades, with hundreds of scientists around the world devoting their careers to understanding this mysterious disease. A key advance was made in the 1970s, with the discovery of possibly the first human oncogene (cancer-causing gene), Bcr-Abl. A flip-flop of two pieces of genetic material, Bcr-Abl sets off the cascade of signals that tells the body to produce the cancerous white blood cells that mark this form of leukemia.

The following years saw more research on the role of Bcr-Abl in CML and the simultaneous development of a new class of drugs that act differently from conventional chemotherapy. These drugs were not cytotoxic (cell-killing); instead, they specifically blocked the ability of the Bcr-Abl gene to send the signals that drive abnormal blood cells to divide and block out normal, healthy blood cells.

A retired train conductor read a story in his local newspaper about one of these new drugs, called Bcr-Abl inhibitors, under study at the University of Oregon. He had been diagnosed with CML. He knew it was a very bad disease, with a median survival of three to six years, and with limited treatment options.

He bravely volunteered to be the first person to try the treatment. He survived, followed by a few other volunteers in the first clinical study, then hundreds more in large clinical trials and thousands more in clinical practice.

Advances in research continue on Bcr-Abl, yielding ever-improving outcomes for CML patients treated with Bcr-Abl inhibitors. These new treatments have shown that therapies, developed based on a study of the biology of cancer cells, can improve control of the disease and work with fewer side effects. They also provide inspiration for research and understanding of the core makeup of other cancers in the effort to match the success seen with these CML treatments.

Learn more about Bcr-Abl inhibitors and other areas of cancer research by visiting the National Cancer Institute website (www.cancer.gov) and ClinicalTrials.gov. In addition, CML Earth (www.cmlearth.com) is a global, interactive social network for CML patients, caregivers, and patient groups, sponsored by Novartis Oncology, and dedicated to connecting the CML community from around the world.

 The changing landscape of cancer treatments

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