A new combination of two oral drugs may help leukemia patients survive and recover from their disease, a new study shows.
The researchers looked at three years of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) data and found that patients had a 96 percent survival rate and 75 percent had cancer disappeared after the cocktail.
All patients in the study were older or had genetic markers that indicated they were at high risk for leukemia.
The team at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, says additional drug research such as the combination tested in this study will make it easier for leukemia patients to beat their disease and live healthier lives.
A combination of two already approved drugs for leukemia dramatically increases patients’ chances of survival and remission, a new study shows
Patients in the study had 96 percent survival and 93 percent survival without cancer progression
Leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow, lymphatic system and other parts of the body that carry blood.
Someone in the United States is diagnosed with blood cancer every three minutes, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, with approximately 60,000 people diagnosed with leukemia in 2020.
Leukemia and other blood cancers cause about one in ten cancer deaths in the United States, but the survival rate of the disease has improved significantly in recent decades thanks to research and new treatments.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (or CLL) is a type of disease that is most common in adults in the United States.
Adults can develop CLL in their bodies for years without knowing they have it, and the survival rate is higher than other forms of leukemia, about 83 percent.
Doctors rely on certain genetic markers – abnormalities in human DNA – to identify patients with chronic leukemia.
Previous cancer treatments, exposure to certain chemicals and smoking can also increase the risk of leukemia.
There are several drugs approved for the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, including three Bruton tyrosine kinase inhibitors – which stop blood cells involved in leukemia from multiplying out of control.
In past studies, these drugs were used on their own, leading to partial recovery.
But two of these drugs may work better when given together, according to a study published in JAMA Oncology.
After previous studies showed that the combination of ibrutinib and venetoclax (two existing leukemia medicines) worked well in a laboratory, they performed this treatment on the patients.
The study included 80 patients who had not been previously treated for leukemia. Half of the patients are in a later, more critical stage of the disease – and most have genetic markers that predispose them to leukemia.
Many patients are older, about a third are over 70 years old, and the majority of patients – 94 percent – are white.
The researchers used the combination of leukemia drugs for about two years. If patients still had evidence of cancer after those two years, they were entitled to a third year of treatment.
The majority of patients in the study saw lower levels of bone marrow cancer after taking the drug combination for two years.
The results of this study show that the two drugs tested work better together than separately.
Three-quarters of the patients in the study achieved remission of the cancer – meaning the disease was gone – within three years of starting treatment.
Some patients achieved remission even faster, with 66% achieving remission in two years and 56% achieving remission in just one year.
Almost all patients, 93%, survived the study without cancer progression and 96% survived overall.
In none of the patients did the leukemia progress to a later, more severe stage during the study, although a small number suffered from other forms of cancer.
In particular, patients with different genetic make-up – including those with a predisposed high risk of leukemia – responded well to the drug combination.
Leukemia patients have a much better chance of survival now than they did decades ago, thanks to advances in treatment
“These long-term results indicate that two years of oral targeted therapy can achieve permanent remission of the disease in patients with CLL,” said Dr. Nitin Jane, lead author of the study, in a statement.
“The majority of patients achieved remission of bone marrow MRD and none of the patients in the study had any progression of CLL disease.
The results of this study are consistent with another study that used the same drug combination.
However, because the study predominantly looked at patients with white leukemia, it may have missed side effects or complications for patients with color.
The need for a variety of trials has increased in the focus of the medical research community in recent years.
Future studies will need to examine how well the drugs work for more diverse groups of patients, as well as the timing of treatment.
The two drugs studied in this study could have their own side effects if patients used them for a long time.
“I think this will be one of several standard care treatments available for CLL patients,” Jane said.
“Each of these approaches has pros and cons, and doctors will need to decide which option is best for their patient.”