Old Drug Inspires New Approach in Blood Cancers

Cancer Issues

Old Drug Inspires New Approach in Blood Cancers

Jan 3, 2008 - 3:37:37 PM

(HealthNewsDigest.com) - It was once pulled off the market in the 1950s, but now a new version of the drug thalidomide is giving some cancer patients hope. When it comes to some hard-to-treat blood cancers, it’s easy to see why researchers are so encouraged.

When Norman Zobel was diagnosed with leukemia, he never thought his battle with cancer would come down to something as simple as taking a pill. Norman volunteered to help test a new drug and he says this is one of the most effective therapies he’s had.

“The first week of taking these pills – I take one in the morning – the elevated white cells depleted right away and I went back into remission again,” says Zobel.

The pill Norman is taking is called lenalidamide. It was developed from the old drug


, which was first used in the 1950s as a tranquilizer. Thalidomide was removed from the market after causing birth defects.

But now the new drug is giving patients new hope. At Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, researchers are using lenalidamide in cases of chronic lymphocytic leukemia – and they’re seeing remarkable results.

“Over half of the patients went into some kind of remission. And around 18% of these patients went into a complete response where we can’t even detect their cancer by the most sophisticated methods that we have,” says Asher Chanan-Khan, MD, at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Doctors say the drug may be so effective in battling cancer because it doesn’t attack the cancer itself, but the areas around it. In fact, experts say if you put the drugs directly on cancer cells in the lab, nothing happens. But in the body, it’s a different story.

“They really are involved in altering what we call the microenvironment, or where these cancers have to live and the normal cells that support them. These drugs seem to alter that balance and now they’re no longer supporting the cancers anymore,” says Kelvin Lee, MD, at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Zobel says the amount of cancer cells in his body has been cut to less than 1%… allowing him to spend his retirement enjoying life instead of constantly fighting to save it.

The drug is also showing promise in other blood cancers. When combined with steroids, one out of four patients with multiple myeloma had a strong response or went into complete remission. Results of two international studies were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.


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