For decades, medical science has developed new treatments and medications to battle cancer, cautiously hoping that somewhere out there lies a "magic bullet"--a cure. Several weeks ago, for a time, it seemed that one might have been found. But this is all part of the highs and lows of the hi-tech war on cancer.
"Initially it gave me a year and a half of life that I would not have had," says Carol Stuckey.
In 1999, Carol Stuckey was given just a few months to live. The blood cancer she'd battled for years--chronic myelogenous leukemia or CML--had decimated her body. In a last-ditch attempt to buy some time, Carol's doctors gave her an experimental new cancer drug called Gleevec.
"So my big goal was to see my daughter graduate from high school, and my daughter graduated just last month," says Stuckey.
Unlike other cancer drugs that poison every cell in an attempt to kill the cancerous ones, Gleevec works like a smart bomb--targeting just the cancer. For Carol, the results were dramatic.
"When I started Gleevec, I was back to running around and tending to my family and living a normal life again," says Stuckey.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rushed to approve Gleevec. The media heralded it as a "miracle drug." Scientists were bubbling about its potential application for other cancers. But as expectations rose to stratospheric heights, suddenly bad news: Carol Stuckey's cancer was back.
"It was devastating--very disappointing," says Stuckey.
And Carol wasn't the only one. As more results became public, some said Gleevec was not the "magic bullet" many people had first thought it. Still, the drug's developers stand by its benefits--saying that while it is very effective in treating early stage CML--in later stages, the disease can overwhelm the drug.
"Right now when we treat patients with high doses of chemotherapy it doesn't work well at all. Gleevec works in over half the patients in this advanced phase of the disease and in over 20 to 30% we've even seen durable responses," says Dr. Brian Druker, of Oregon Health Sciences University.
Bob Ferber is among that 20 to 30% that saw a lasting effect from Gleevec. Like Carol Stuckey, Ferber was close to death and out of options when he began treatment. Doctors were quite clear that the effects might not last.
"I'm back at work. I'm playing with my animals. I'm doing more work. I have more energy than I know what to do with," says Ferber. "They kept warning me that it looks like about 3 months after taking the drug I will relapse. But 3 months went by and 6 months went by and 9 months went by and before you knew it, it was a year and that was last February was a year and I was still doing very well."
Doctors aren't sure why some patients in the late stages of CML respond better than others, but they hope by evaluating cases where Gleevec fell short they can figure out how to make it work even better.
"What we're finding out now is hy some of these patients relapse, and again, that gives us great optimism that when we understand why patients relapse we'll be able to very intelligently treat them to prevent that relapse," says Druker.
Dr. George Demetri of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute adds, "We hope to test probably 50 different diseases in the next 3 months."
Demitri believes that despite some setbacks, Gleevec's "smart bomb" approach to treating cancer has huge potential for a whole line of new drugs.
"The excitement here goes well beyond Gleevec and how we'll learn from this experience and move forward the whole field of drug development," says Demetri.
Though her own treatment options are now severely limited, Carol Stuckey has faith that her case will help others.
"I think our contribution is that they'll go further with the research and help people like myself and maybe even myself hopefully in the near future," says Stuckey.
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