Research sheds light on Gleevec mechanism

In collaboration with the Press Association

Researchers at the University of Munich have made a discovery that sheds new light on how revolutionary leukaemia drug Gleevec works.

The finding could allow the drug to be used to treat other types of cancer. But the researchers cautioned that it also means that Gleevec could actually accelerate the growth of certain tumours as well.

Gleevec, also known as Glivec and Imatinib, was designed to treat chronic myelogenous leukaemia (CML). It has changed the disease from being a hard-to-treat disease into a condition that can usually be successfully managed.

The drug is often held up as an example of a 'targeted' cancer therapy. It was designed to correct a specific defect that causes CML.

But studies of how the drug works in patients have revealed that it works by other mechanisms as well.

The latest study, led by Dr Hermann Shatzl's team in Germany, found that Gleevec activates a process inside cells called 'autophagy' - literally 'self-eating'.

Gleevec switched on autophagy in every type of cell the team studied, hinting that the drug would be effective against cancers other than CML.

But the links between autophagy and cancer aren't properly understood, and some researchers believe that certain cancers use autophagy to protect themselves from chemotherapy.

"Although we're a long way from knowing if Gleevec could be used to treat other types of cancers, these interesting lab tests help us understand more about how the drug work," said Dr Kat Arney of Cancer Research UK.