Drug combination prolongs lives of leukaemia patients

In collaboration with the Press Association

Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany have developed a new combination of treatments that prolongs the lives of patients with the most common type of leukaemia.

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) is often treated with the chemotherapy drug fludarabine.

However, a study showed that combining fludarabine with an antibody drug called alemtuzumab slowed the progression of the disease and significantly prolonged the lives of patients whose cancer had come back after treatment.

The trial involved 335 patients in North America and Europe whose cancer had returned or proved resistant to other treatments.

Researchers found that those given the drug combination survived for more than 7 months longer before their cancer started growing again than those who were only given fludarabine.

Overall survival also increased with the combination of treatments, although there was also an increased chance of serious side effects.

Significantly, older patients and those suffering from an advanced form of CLL were found to benefit more from the combined treatment than fludarabine alone.

The authors concluded: "The combination of fludarabine and alemtuzumab is another treatment option for patients with previously treated CLL."

Cancer Research UK's Chief Clinician, Professor Peter Johnson, commented, ""This study is further evidence of the power of antibodies for treating cancer. Combining antibodies with chemotherapy is often a more effective form of treatment, although in this case people having both treatments experienced more suppression of their immune system, causing side effects.

However, this did not stop the combination treatment improving the survival rate, and it will be interesting to see if modern molecular testing, which was not available when the trial was started, may make it easier to decide who is most likely to benefit from alemtuzumab".

The findings have been published online in The Lancet Oncology.

Copyright Press Association 2011