Researchers at Cambridge University have made a breakthrough in discovering a potential new treatment for lymphoma.
The scientists found that the drug, Imatinib, which is already used to treat patients with the blood cancer chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), could be equally effective in treating some types of the blood cancer non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Research published online in the journal Nature Medicine suggests that Imatinib could be an effective treatment for anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL), an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma which predominantly affects children and young adults.
After positive tests by the team in the laboratory, a 27 year old patient who had failed to respond to all standard treatment was given access to Imatinib. After just 10 days, the patient entered complete clinical remission and remains so 19 months later.
The international collaborative team, partially funded by the blood cancer charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, showed that Imatinib works by neutralising the activity of the PDGFR-β molecule, which is found in high levels on the surface of ALCL cells in many patients. This ‘receptor’ molecule plays a key role in aiding the rapid spread of the cancer cells.
PDGFR-β is present in particular in patients whose lymphoma is driven by a cancer gene formed by the fusion of the NPM and ALK genes. The researchers found in the laboratory that by treating lymphoma positive for the NPM-ALK cancer protein, they could significantly extend survival times.
Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research Bennett Fellow Dr Suzanne Turner, who works in the Department of Pathology at Cambridge University, said: “The exact mechanism by which Imatinib controls lymphoma remains to be determined but what is clear is that it holds much promise in the future treatment of these patients.
“The next steps in future clinical trials are to analyse patients for the presence of PDGFR-β on their tumour cells and find out whether these patients should be treated separately at diagnosis with additional Imatinib.”
Imatinib is thought to be effective in other sub-types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma as well. Three further patients who did not respond to standard treatment for different types of lymphoma that were positive for PDGFR-β had a longer lifespan as a result of access to Imatinib. The researchers think that the drug could be even more effective if used when patients are first diagnosed
Professor Chris Bunce, Research Director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “ALCL has unacceptably high rates of relapse, condemning patients to rounds and rounds of chemotherapy that can have life-long side-effects. This important research shows that we might already have the drug available to save many patients’ lives.”