Leukemia drug works so well that some patients are now quitting it

Patients diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a kind of cancer that originates in the bone marrow, generally require a lifetime of pharmaceutical treatment to deal with their disease.

Patients diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a kind of cancer that originates in the bone marrow, generally require a lifetime of pharmaceutical treatment to deal with their disease. Freedom from the costly drugs and their adverse effects, however, could be on the horizon for many CML sufferers—who number as many as 100,000 in the United States, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The cancer almost always is caused by a gene flaw that develops rather than is inherited, but that gene activity is blocked in the vast majority of patients who take imatinib mesylate (Gleevec—Novartis). Research suggests that prolonged treatment with the drug and two similar products may eliminate so many cells with the bad gene that the immune system may be able to squelch the disease if it tries to resurface. Based on the evidence, new National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines find it reasonable to consider terminating treatment in patients who have been in deep remission for at least 2 years. Some are jumping at the chance to shed the financial burden of imatinib mesylate and its counterparts, to the tune of $60,000–$150,000 annually. Others, and their doctors, prefer to play it safe rather than run the risk of the disease returning.