Patients with blood cancer spared chemotherapy with two daily tablets

Patients with blood cancer can be spared chemotherapy with two daily tablets, which can keep disease in remission for an extra three years

  • Drug ruxolitinib, can keep a blood cancer in remission for up to 3 years longer
  • It has fewer side effects and complications when compared to chemotherapy

Two daily tablets could soon spare some blood cancer patients from having to go through gruelling bouts of chemotherapy.

The drug, called ruxolitinib, can keep a type of blood cancer called polycythaemia vera in remission for up to three years longer than traditional methods, according to British research.

Around a third of patients with polycythaemia vera suffer severe chemotherapy side effects such as leg and mouth ulcers, sickness and unbearable fatigue.

But ruxolitinib triggers fewer side effects and reduces the risk of cancer-related complications – such as headaches, night sweats and concentration problems – by 50 per cent when compared with chemo.

Now it is thought NHS watchdogs will give it the green light following impressive trial results.

SUFFERER: DJ David Hamilton – pictured in a Radio 1 studio in 1973 – revealed last year he has the rare polycythaemia vera blood cancer

‘Until now there really hasn’t been very much for these patients,’ says Professor Claire Harrison, blood cancer specialist at Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust in London and co-author of the most recent trial.

‘Now we’re presenting health officials with the most positive data on ruxolitinib yet. We believe it could be approved in the near future.’

About 4,000 people in the UK live with polycythaemia vera, when red blood cells are made too quickly by the bone marrow. In some patients, white blood cells and platelets – responsible for clotting the blood after injuries – are also produced excessively. It means an increased risk of a host of complications, including damage to bone marrow – which can cause other blood cancers such as leukaemia – and blood clots that can lead to strokes and heart attacks.

It is incurable and also causes severe migraines and swollen, red, itchy skin.

One patient is veteran BBC radio DJ David Hamilton, 84, who revealed his polycythaemia vera diagnosis last year.

At first most patients are offered venesection, a treatment where a pint of blood is removed regularly to reduce the number of red blood cells in the body. Aspirin is also given to reduce the risk of clots. Most patients also need chemotherapy to destroy the excess cells but this can further increase the risk of life-threatening blood clots and leaves many incapacitated.

In a third of patients, chemo also fails to stop the cancer developing.

The hope is that ruxolitinib will vastly improve survival rates after a study co-ordinated by the University of Birmingham concluded the drug can ‘dramatically improve quality of life’ and cut the risk of blood clots by 50 per cent.

Ruxolitinib works by ‘pausing’ a gene called JAK2, which helps to control the number of red and white blood cells and platelets that are made in the bone marrow.

In a trial involving 180 polycythaemia vera patients across 39 UK hospitals, researchers compared outcomes in two groups of patients – half taking ruxolitinib and others standard treatments.

It found that ruxolitinib patients had half as many excess blood cells as others and were four times less likely to end up in hospital due to new cancers or blood clots.

One patient to benefit is 64-year-old Mark Hill from London, who was diagnosed with polycythaemia vera in 2004.

The retired teacher was first treated with venesections every three months, as well as aspirin. But within five years the condition had grown ‘out of control’.

Ruxolitinib, can keep a type of blood cancer called polycythaemia vera in remission for up to three years longer than traditional methods, according to British research

‘Every time I went in, they told me I had to come back in six weeks to have more blood taken out as it was getting dangerous,’ says Mark.

Doctors gave him the chemotherapy drug hydroxycarbamide which he took as a daily tablet for a year.

‘The chemo made me feel like I was falling apart,’ says Mark. ‘My hair fell out, I was foggy-headed and so tired I was struggling to work.’

In 2012 Mark took part in a medical trial for ruxolitinib.

‘I immediately felt better,’ he says. ‘My blood cells came into the normal range, my hair came back and I felt I could function again.

When the trial ended in 2017, the drug company gave Mark access to the pills on compassionate grounds – and he is still taking them today.

‘Now I live an active and healthy life,’ he says. ‘I thought I’d be dead within a decade of my diagnosis. Now, nearly 20 years later, I’m still here and fighting fit.’

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