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Gleevec approved for rare stomach cancer

Gleevec, which is already approved for treating a type of leukemia, has now been approved to treat a rare stomach cancer.
Gleevec, which is already approved for treating a type of leukemia, has now been approved to treat a rare stomach cancer.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Food and Drug Administration Friday approved the use of a promising anti-leukemia drug for treatment of a relatively rare form of abdominal cancer that is usually fatal, if not caught early.

The drug, Gleevec, administered as a pill once a day, is effective in treating both forms of cancer because of its ability to target and kill cancer cells without attacking healthy cells and causing severe side effects.

Approved last spring for a common type of adult leukemia, Gleevec can now be used to treat gastrointestinal stromal tumors, or GIST, which affect as many as 5,000 people in the United States each year. Studies have shown it to be as effective in treating chronic cases of GIST as it has been in treating chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).

Researchers reported 59 percent of patients with advanced-stage GIST went into remission and up to 75 percent showed some type of improvement with limited side effects, such as abdominal bleeding and tissue swelling.

Some study patients had tumors as large as 20 or 25 pounds.

Learn more about stomach cancer from the  
National Cancer Institute 
American Cancer Society 

"These are the sickest of the sick who, before Gleevec, had no other treatment options, " said Dr. George Demetri of Harvard Medical School's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "This is an unbelievably emotional time to be a doctor. The opportunity to bring something like this to patients in need is one reason people go into medicine in the first place."

Gleevec, a capsule taken once a day, is one of a new class of cancer drugs that disables an abnormal enzyme in the cancerous cell, kills it, but leaves healthy cells virtually untouched. Other cancer therapies, such as chemotherapy, attack healthy cells as well as cancer cells, leaving patients with unpleasant and often severe side effects.

"Many of our patients are walking around and feeling great. Many have returned to work and are engaged in normal activities," Demetri said.

Brian Druker, cancer researcher at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, put it another way: "We've been able to disable the cancer, without disabling the patient."

GIST accounts for about two percent of all abdominal cancers. If caught early, these tumors can usually be removed surgically, but growths often return. GIST diagnosis can be tricky: the majority of patients have no symptoms or simply complain of abdominal swelling or feel as if their stomach is full. As a result, doctors often find large tumors and end up with few treatment options.

Prognosis for advanced stages of GIST is bleak; it is generally fatal in less than two years.

Additional Gleevec research to combat the disease is under way. The National Cancer Institute has funded several studies, some for further research with end stage patients, others to include patients in the early stages of the disease.

According to its manufacturer, Novartis Oncology, Gleevec also is being studied as a possible treatment for prostate cancer, small-cell lung cancer and a rare type of brain cancer.


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