New hope for leukaemia patients

Andrew RobertsThe New Year brought new hope for Victorians living with advanced chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) with the arrival of a new drug treatment.

Co-developed in Melbourne and the USA following more than 30 years of research, Venetoclax showed remarkably positive results in clinical trials involving patients with advanced forms of CLL.

Professor Andrew Roberts, clinical haematologist at The Royal Melbourne Hospital, head of clinical translation at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and chair of Cancer Council Victoria's board, said trials had shown Venetoclax substantially reduced leukaemia cells in participating patients, with 20 percent achieving complete remission.

"Some patients have remained in remission four years after their treatment began," Roberts said.

"In many cases we have seen the cancerous cells melt away. It is a very exciting result for a group of people who often have no other treatment options."

As around 1,000 people are diagnosed with CLL in Australia each year, this is a significant breakthrough. The new drug works by blocking the action of BCL-2, a protein that helps cancerous cells survive - protecting them and making them resistant to standard treatments. BCL-2 is overactive in many cancers, particularly some leukaemias.

The protective effect of the BLC-2 protein was first discovered by researchers at Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in the 1980s and scientists around the world have been trying to find a way to block it ever since. Venetoclax achieves this, and is the result of tremendous perseverance.

Research suggests the drug may eventually be used as a treatment component for other cancers - further testament to the significance of this breakthrough.

Thanks to your support, Cancer Council Victoria was able to fund a small part of this ground-breaking research. Since 2003, your funds have allowed us to invest more than $2.8 million in leukaemia research, including three studies starting this year.


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Updated: 05 Apr, 2017