Great Leaps in Leukemia Treatment

Leukemia treatment declared Advance of the Year because of dramatic improvements to patient care

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Cancer research has led to longer lives and better quality of life for millions of people. This year, the transformation of leukemia treatment has been singled out as the “Advance of the Year.”

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has named the progress against a type of leukemia the "Advance of the Year" for 2014.

For the past 10 years, ASCO has issued a yearly report on progress in the fight against cancer. This report highlights the biggest steps forward in cancer research and care for the year. “Clinical Advance 2015” has highlighted breakthroughs for several cancers, such as those of the breast, prostate and lung.

For the first time, however, ASCO selected an Advance of the Year. The area of progress that rose above the rest this past year was the treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), according to ASCO. The organization found that four therapies newly approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are expected to greatly enhance the outlook for patients with the CLL.

Gregory A. Masters, MD, of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center in Newark, DE, and the co-executive editor of the ASCO report, worked with 18 other cancer experts on writing this report.

“These new therapies fill an enormous need for thousands of patients living with CLL,” Dr. Masters said in a press release. “For many older patients, especially, these drugs essentially offer the first chance at effective treatment, since the side effects of earlier options were simply too toxic for many to handle.”

CLL is a cancer of the white blood cells often found in bone marrow. Two of the new treatments for CLL are immunotherapy medications designed for previously untreated CLL. These therapies are obinutuzumab (brand name Gazyva) and ofatumumab (brand name Arzerra). Immunotherapy may stimulate the immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells.

When given in combination with the standard chemotherapy chlorambucil, these medications may delay disease progression by about a year.

Dr. Masters and his colleagues also highlighted two molecularly targeted therapies. Ibrutinib (brand name Imbruvica) and idelalisib (brand name Zydelig) block different molecular pathways that control leukemia growth. These two treatments have been proven effective in patients with previously treated CLL that has become resistant to standard treatment or relapsed.

These authors noted that early trials have shown that these medications may be able to reduce the need for chemotherapy. Many elderly patients with CLL find chemo to be too hard on their bodies.

Dr. Masters and team also recognized precision medications the FDA approved in 2014. These may target either cancer-driving proteins on the surface of or inside cancer cells or molecules on immune system cells.

“The new approvals bring hope for patients with hard-to-treat types of melanoma and lung, stomach, blood, and cervical cancers,” Dr. Masters and colleagues wrote.

This report was published Jan. 20 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The Conquer Cancer Foundation of the American Society of Clinical Oncology Mission Endowment Fund funded this research. Study authors disclosed potential conflicts of interest with companies like Astex Therapeutics, Celgene, Eisai, Eli Lilly/ImClone, Novartis and others.

Review Date: 
January 20, 2015
Last Updated:
January 20, 2015