Health Beat: Experimental drugs turn off leukemia cells

Posted: 9:08 AM EST Dec 24, 2013   Updated: 5:35 PM EDT Sep 30, 2013
Leukemia cells drugs

About 12,000 people in the United States each year are diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, but a new drug has shown promise for patients who have lost all hope of beating the disease.

It’s the simple things, like enjoying the outdoors and taking family vacations that Dennis Hickey, 73, can look forward to once again.

"I’m very fortunate. I’m excited about life. I can do my job. I sell houses. I can enjoy the grandkids," said Hickey, who has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL, a common and deadly form of leukemia affecting older adults. "The prognosis was not good, but I was going to see it through no matter what."

With six months to live, Hickey got to take an experimental drug, called Ibrutinib, as part of a clinical trial for CLL patients. Dr. John Byrd, a professor of medicine at the Ohio State University, co-led the study.

"We have seen a drug come into the clinic that has really helped patients with CLL and related diseases that have been at the end of their life," Byrd explained.

The drug works by targeting the protein in CLL cells. Without the protein, the cancer can't grow.  Doctors say 90 percent of patients have had success with Ibrutinib and side-effects are minimal compared to chemotherapy.

"The patients tolerate it very, very well. Many patients say they feel like they did before they had CLL," Byrd said.

Researchers said Ibrutinib is a game-changer. Hickey said it’s a life-saver. 

"I'm still here and I'm so thankful," Hickey said.

Researchers said Ibrutinib is not a cure, but if patients follow treatment, they can manage CLL the same way they would manage diabetes or high blood pressure.

The drug is expected to be approved by the FDA in early 2014.

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DOWNLOAD and VIEW the full-length interview with Dr. John Byrd