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Leukemia pill shows promise against stomach cancer

Gleevec, which was just approved for treating leukemia, also shows promise against a type of stomach cancer

From Rhonda Rowland
CNN Medical Correspondent

(CNN) -- Last fall, 41-year-old Marina Symcox gave up on cancer treatment and began preparing for her funeral.

At 38, Symcox had been diagnosed with a gastrointestinal stromal tumor, or GIST -- a type of stomach cancer that affects as many as 5,000 Americans each year.

"I had absolutely been given no hope right from the beginning," she said.

Until recently, there was no effective treatment for GIST. But researchers reported Sunday that a new cancer pill approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a common type of adult leukemia showed encouraging results when used on stomach cancers like those Symcox had.

The pill was approved for use against leukemia last week and has been hailed as a major breakthrough. It is taken once a day and causes virtually no side effects.

Condition Clinic: Leukemia information

"It turns out that GISTs, or gastrointestinal stromal tumors, have a target that is very closely related and also drives their malignant behavior," said Dr. Charles Blanke, a researcher at Oregon Health Sciences University.

Unlike traditional chemotherapy, which attacks all cells randomly, this drug blocks the action of an enzyme that causes stomach tumors while leaving healthy cells untouched. And as with leukemia, researchers often saw results in GIST patients within days.

Symcox and her husband read about studies involving the drug, known as Gleevec, through the Internet. She began taking the drug, and doctors say her cancer is in remission. Symcox, who wanted to live long enough for her children to know and remember her, got her wish.

"My gosh. We have a family life, which we didn't have before," she said. "We were the town tragedy, truly ... It's just a big miracle."

A study of 148 GIST patients showed 59 percent went into remission, and the results were even better in those with the most common type of mutation. A second, smaller study had similar results.

The results were to be discussed Sunday at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual convention in San Francisco.

"We were very shocked but very highly encouraged," Blanke said.

Because Gleevec has been approved for the treatment of chronic mylogenous leukemia and since studies show the pill also works in GIST, theoretically doctors could prescribe Gleevec for so-called off-label use for treating GIST.

"Giving it to patients with gastrointestinal tumors or other kinds of cancers that might work would be a reasonable situation if it was done with full knowledge of the patient and doctor," said Dr. Harmon Eyre of the American Cancer Society.



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