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Research team gives leukaemia patients real hope

Northern Ireland scientists at very forefront of the battle against the deadly disease, Lisa Smyth speaks to a doctor involved in medical trials

A doctor involved in the trial looking at the effectiveness of a drug for Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML) has said early findings are positive.

Professor Mary Frances McMullin, professor of clinical haematology, said medical research into the disease has already achieved great success and revealed the survival rate for people with the disease has risen dramatically as a result of studying the genetic make-up of the tumours.

In 2000, 20 patients a year would be treated at Belfast City Hospital but this has risen to about 80 due to the life-prolonging effects of the new drugs, Prof McMullin said.

And the research team at the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre in Belfast is now working to build on this success in conjunction with other scientists around the world.

They are studying the effects of a second generation drug called nilotinib, which blocks a protein made by CML cells that have an abnormal chromosome — 95% of people with CML have this abnormal chromosome — which in turn stops the leukaemia cells from growing.

Researchers are currently looking at nilotinib as a first treatment for CML before imatinib — the current standard treatment for people with the disease.

Prof McMullin said: “People are not dying of the disease anymore. Before all this came along the only certain treatment was a bone marrow transplant.

“First of all there is the issue of mortality associated with this procedure and secondly you can only do a bone marrow transplant if you can find a donor and the patient is young and fit enough.”

Prof McMullin said a bone marrow transplant would almost never be done in patients over 60, meaning the new treatments have brought hope to older people, such as Maureen Mack, who are diagnosed with CML.

She said: “We would have given patients drugs to control blood count but it didn’t do anything to get rid of the disease. These treatments have totally changed the disease. We can’t talk about survival rates anymore as it looks like they are going to survive for many years and nilotinib looks like it’s even better.

“The initial results of the first patients were presented to the American Society of Haematology in December and the findings showed the vast majority of patients had gone into cytogenic remission at three months.

“With the older treatments you would not have gone into remission at that stage and that’s why I can be positive about it.”

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