Doctors Excited by New Cancer Treatment

ByABC News
April 4, 2001, 4:04 PM

April 4 -- Most existing cancer drugs and treatments are poisons, designed to attack and hopefully kill cancer cells, or at least slow their growth.

But most of these treatments attack not just cancer cells, but healthy cells, too. Thus, people taking the drugs too often suffer horrible side effects on top of whatever havoc the cancer itself is already wreaking. They become thin and weak. They lose their hair and their color.

But now, the next revolution in cancer therapy may have arrived.

Its called molecularly targeted therapy. The treatment consists of drugs designed at the molecular level of the cell to specifically attack and kill only the cancer cells of a specific type of cancer. And they are tailor-made to recognize specific molecules unique to specific cancers.

The model drug leading the way is Glivec, also known as STI571. It is active against a relatively rare form of leukemia chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML characterized by excessive overproduction of white blood cells. Approximately 7,000 Americans are diagnosed with CML each year.

Doctors are extremely hopeful that the drug could provide a model for similar drugs to treat cancers affecting many thousands more people. This year, alone, some 1.3 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer.

This is as important as it gets. A cancer-specific target, a drug specifically designed for the target, the most effective agent ever,says Paul A. Bunn Jr., president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Read my lips, this is real, not mice.

Designer Drugs

Dr. Brian Druker, director of the Leukemia Program at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, is the main researcher on the drug, which is being developed by Novartis Pharmaceuticals.

If we understand the critical abnormalities that drive a cancer, we can target the cancer with an effective and non-toxic therapy, Druker says. We need to identify the critical abnormalities in each and every cancer so drugs like STI571 can be developed for each cancer.