What happens when the survival and fatality rates for a disease are reversed? That’s what’s happened with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), a rare slow-growing bone marrow and blood cancer. The ground-breaking development of targeted drug therapies means CML has evolved from a nearly always terminal cancer to a treatable, chronic illness for most patients.
Understanding how remarkable this change is requires understanding what newly diagnosed patients faced prior to 2001. For patients older than 40 the main therapy was interferon, which prolonged life for about a year in a small percentage of patients. Younger patients were treated with bone marrow transplants. While it stopped the disease for some, the process also had a death rate in the first year of 25 to 50 percent of those diagnosed.
The primary person behind this change is Dr. Brian Druker , an oncologist at Oregon Health and Science University, and a winner of the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, often called the “American Nobel Prize.” He discussed the breakthrough in a New York Times interview.
“When I started my training in the 1980s, you rarely cured people. You felt, 'if I can give my patient extra time, I’ve been successful.' But I could see there was a transformation of cancer treatment on the horizon thanks to breakthroughs in biochemistry and genomics. I wanted to be part of that, which is why I was a physician-researcher.”
Druker added, “So I started my laboratory career studying the regulation of cell growth — what turns the switch on, what helps it shut down. And that’s how [targeted therapy] is different from earlier chemotherapies, which basically poisoned every cell in the body in an attempt to kill the cancer. [Targeted therapy] turned off the light switch and only killed the cancer cells.”