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Chronic Myeloid Leukemia: April 6, 2012

“Chronic myeloid leukemia is a disease that’s really rare but really I think is a model of where oncology is hopefully heading,” says Dr. Frank Rodriguez, an oncologist on the medical staff of Lee Memorial Health System.

You may not have heard of chronic myeloid leukemia, but what researchers have learned from it speaks volumes.

“Chronic myeloid leukemia, a few years back before these drugs were discovered, was basically uniformly lethal within five years, and nowadays it’s really become a chronic disease just like diabetes or hypertension,” says Dr. Rodriguez.

People with this form of leukemia are often asymptomatic, meaning they had little outward signs, other than low-grade fever, increased number of infections, bruising and mild hip or joint pain. But a thorough exam would show an acquired genetic mutation.

“There were two genes or two chromosomes, that are supposed to be separate. One chromosome is usually dormant and the other chromosome is usually active. When somebody develops chronic myeloid leukemia, those two separate chromosomes for some reason came together. In doing that, it threw all those cells that were supposed to be resting, now into the replication cycle and eventually replacing the normal bone marrow with all these abnormal cells,” says Dr. Rodriguez.

Eighty-five percent of patients are diagnosed in the chronic phase. By the time treatment starts, their disease is accelerating. Now new tests and new drug inhibitors catch it early and increase survivability.

“We’ve been able to diagnose it through simple blood tests, we can treat the disease with a pill a day. With the pill you eliminate that fusion protein and once you eliminate that, then he cells can work perfectly normal again,” says Dr. Rodriguez.

It’s lengthening the life of chronic myeloid leukemia patients and extending hope for cancer treatment.

“You have changed the way you diagnose the disease, you have changed the way you treat the disease and you have changed the outcome of the disease."