Promising Gleevec on its way
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001
Physicians are hailing the cancer-fighter Gleevec as the world's new miracle drug. It may well be. Early trials in the United States and Europe offer hope to patients suffering from incurable cancer. The Food and Drug Administration was right to fast-track Gleevec's use against leukemia. But much more research needs to be done. The federal government should continue offering support as researchers delve deeper to determine the drug's potential in fighting other forms of cancer.
The FDA approved Gleevec last week as a treatment for chronic myelogenous leukemia, one type of the blood cancer. Clinical trials showed it could return a patients' blood counts to normal. Gleevec attacks a protein that causes white blood cells to proliferate. It targets the cancerous cells and leaves the normal ones alone. The deputy director of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, where Gleevec was tested, likened the drug to a "silver bullet," for its ability to root out the biological stepping stone of the cancer. On Sunday, at a meeting in San Francisco, American and European scientists also reported Gleevec had shown impressive success against an intestinal cancer known as GIST.
Oncologists hope the two discoveries point to broader advances in modern drug-making, with a pill such as Gleevec nimble enough for a range of applications. Trials thus far have shown Gleevec to be effective among patients with later stages of cancer. It could, one day, provide an alternative to the debilitating regimen of chemotherapy. The studies, however, are less than three years old and involve relatively small groups. There is no long-term experience to examine, and those taking Gleevec reported a range of side effects. Only further clinical trials can provide the fuller picture about Gleevec physicians, regulators and patients need.
Still, the announcements are major news in the battle against cancer. The government and private researchers should make a major commitment of money and expertise to follow through on Gleevec's early results. The pledge by the drug's Swiss manufacturer, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., to make the pill available to those who cannot afford it further justifies strong public support for research at hospitals across the country. The government has helped so far by letting professionals in the medical community lead the licensing debate. Such reasonableness will serve thousands of patients in the critical months and years ahead.
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