The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a new study about Imatinib, a drug to treat Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML) launched in 2001, showing that the medicine can keep patients alive for more than ten years.

After almost 11 years studying the effects of Gleevec, Imatinib’s brand name, they discovered that its positive effects persist even after ten years following a regular treatment.

Imatinib can keep patients alive for more than ten years. Image credit:

The study was carried on a random selection of 1,106 patients with CML 10 years ago. Scientists followed-up those patients for ten years looking for three elements: Overall survival, response to treatment, and severe adverse events. The research was developed at 177 cancer centers in more than 16 countries.

CML is a disease associated with cancer. All types of cancer represent a genetic change, in CML the change starts in an immature version of myeloid cells, which are in charge of making red blood cells and platelets.

Imatinib represents a biological therapy composed of proteins that act as chemical messengers for the body cells, blocking the tyrosine kinases, and that stops the cancer cell growing, according to the American Cancer Society.

After ten years, they have the results

500 patients were treated with Gleevec since the diagnosis was given to them, and the results showed that more than 415 are still alive today, ten years after the beginning of the research. This represents a lot, considering that before Gleevec,  1 in 3 CML patients survived five years after diagnosis, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“It’s a 10-year survival of 83 percent, which is extraordinary,” Said Richard Silver, a hematologist, and oncologist at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center, according to Techtimes. “It has led to what we call biological cures”. Silver helped first test the drug in patients.

Gleevec, Imatinib’s brand name. Image credit: Carlos Chavez / LA Times via Getty Images / NBC News

Also, the results show that the patients under Gleevec treatment have a normal life and that long-term administration was not associated with unacceptable cumulative or late toxic effects.

Gleevec also has shown effects not only against CML but also against gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST). According to Michael Heinrich, a professor of medicine and a researcher at the Oregon Health and Science University, before Gleevec, GIST patients had a life expectancy of only 18 months, now 1 in 4 GIST patients could survive ten years or more.

Not everything is so good

Gleevec certainly represents a big hope for CML patients and doctors, but the costs are not cheap. According to Hagop Kantarjian from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Gleevec, made only by Novartis, costs more than $140,000 a year.

Not in the US yet, but in other countries, a solution could be the generics developed by Canadian and Indian companies. The Indian version costs $400 a year, and the Canadian one costs $8.800 a year, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Tasigna and Sprycel are other options for CML patients, especially for those whose cancer has mutated to resist Gleevec effects. However, both of them could cost $150,000 a year.

On the other hand, a recent study made in Europe discovered that some patients under Gleevec treatment could stop it without collateral damages, and some American doctors agree with that, but the decision is not easy for patients, although some of them want to try this alternative.

This is not an option for all CML patients but represents an alternative that could help some of them to reduce their medical expenses,  and guaranteeing them not having health issues in the future.

Gleevec saved Sam Fields from cancer

Recently, the Sam Fields case was outlined in the press as one of the first CML patients that were treated with Gleevec.

Fields was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, at the age of 27, when he was a professional hockey player of Chicago. After the diagnosis, he was in the hospital for six months, and doctors said he would need a bone marrow transplant, but before that, they needed to increase his blood cells number.

Dr. Chadi Nabhan suggested him a Gleevec treatment. At that moment the drug was under clinical trials. Field said yes to Gleevec and took the risk.

“I had two choices,” Fields said to JTA. “I could quit or I could fight, and I wasn’t about to quit. If this is the only shot I have, why not try it and die than not try it and die?”.

Fields said in 2015, at the Israel Cancer Research Fund’s gala event that he is eternally grateful for the drug that saved him.

Now, he is 40 years old and has been cancer free for almost 15 years.

Source: The New England Journal of Medicine