Drug could extend lives of cancer patients
Up to 80 people a year with blood disease may benefit
Up to 80 people a year could be given a new lease of life as a radical new drug for treating some forms of blood cancer is helping patients live up to four years longer.
Following successful clinical trials in Ireland, the drug Imbruvica is now available for a range of elderly patients with limited treatment options.
Dr Patrick Thornton, who led the study into the drug here, told the Irish Independent, that the once-daily oral treatment prolonged survival for patients with three types of blood cancer.
"For those on the trial, this was the end of the line… without this therapy, many of them wouldn't be here today," explained the consultant haematologist at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin.
"Most of them responded well to the drug and I would say they have been given another three-and-a-half to four years more life than they could have expected before.
"It could even be much more than that for some."
Blood cancers account for around 10pc of all deaths from cancer globally and Imbruvica is aimed as a treatment for three rare and complex variations.
These are chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), mantle cell lymphoma (ML) and Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia (WM).
"There are approximately 200 people in Ireland diagnosed with CLL each year," said Dr Thornton, "and of these, 10pc suffer from a chromosome abnormality called TP53, which usually leads to a grim prognosis.
"Most of these die within three years of diagnosis as chemotherapy isn't really an option for them.
"Similarly, if you relapse following chemo, especially within two years, survival rates are very low.
"The majority of the patients on the trial fell into these two categories, with some having undergone up to four rounds of chemotherapy before trying Imbruvica."
According to figures from the National Cancer Registry Ireland (NCRI), 38 people are diagnosed with MCL and 12 with WM each year in Ireland and these groups will also benefit from Imbruvica.
Nine Irish patients were involved in the trials, with seven under the care of Dr Thornton in Beaumont.
A patient was also treated with the drug in University Galway and another in St James's Hospital in Dublin.
Some 390 people took part worldwide and while nine might seem like a small number, Dr Thornton is quick to point out that the first European patient to trial the drug was an elderly patient at Beaumont.
"These are rare blood cancers and it is not common that such trials take place in Ireland," he said.
"We lobbied hard to get this successful trial and on the back of it, we secured involvement in a huge European CLL trial being led by Germany.
Dr Thornton continued: "Those on the Irish trial had limited treatment options. They got this drug in 2012 and its now 2016. They are alive because of it.
"Plus, all these new therapies are of no cost to the State and the people who received the drug during the trial will remain on it at no cost to the State. So it's a net win for the HSE."
He explained that Imbruvica works by blocking B cell receptors in a patient's blood.
This receptor is responsible for stimulating white blood cells when a person is sick.
However, in patients with blood cancer, the receptor does not 'switch off' and white blood cells are created, even when a patient is well.
Dr Thornton added: "Remember, chemo doesn't cure cancer. So eventually most patients will relapse and for the bulk of these, they'll be able to take advantage of this new treatment."