A new cancer-fighting drug has been developed in Melbourne, Australia and has already been given the approval for fast-tracked development in the U.S.
Known as Venetoclax, the drug was developed by David Huang and his team from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research to specifically target chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
In a clinical trial, it was proven that their product was able to treat 80% of cancer patients, with 1 out of 5 walking away completely cancer-free. For this, the team has won the Eureka Prize for Innovation in Medical Research at this year’s ceremony.
What is chronic lymphocytic leukemia?
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a type of cancer that develops in the bone marrow and slowly spread into the blood.
These leukemia cells, known as lymphocytes, build up slowly over time, which means that few symptoms can be found in the first few years. During this time, the cells can spread to other parts of the body.
How is Venetoclax administered?
The drug comes in the form of a pill that is administered orally every day. During the trial, the 116 participating patients received an increased dosage of 400 milligrams for five weeks, as opposed to the 20-milligram standard pill in order to prove its effectiveness.
Professor Andrew Roberts from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research said: “It truly does lead to the disease melting away completely in 20% of people.”
During the trial, 4 out of 5 patients showed positive results, with 1 out of 5 going into complete remission.
How does it work?
“Cells, when they are born, are destined to die and cancer cells and particularly leukemia cells delay that death by using a protein called BCL2 that stops the normal time of death. Venetoclax works by specifically blocking the action of that BCL2 and allows the cells to die in the way that they were destined to,” explains Professor John Seymour, who assisted in the coordination of the trial.
This drug is one of the revolutionary new developments that specifically targets the biological factors that cause cell-structure mutations. Assessing how the body’s own immune system can conquer cancer has marked an advance in immunotherapy, which has already proven to be highly effective in treating melanoma.
Are there any side effects?
One of the patients, Robert Oblak, was fighting a recurrence of chronic lymphocytic leukemia when he signed up for treatment in 2013.
He described his experience of taking the course of Venetoclax as “just like taking Panadol”, which is a mild over-the-counter pain pill.
“I think I was the 11th person in the world to have it, and it was amazing. It causes no side-effects. Nothing, absolutely nothing,” he said.
Within one year, he was in full remission, saying: “It’s quite amazing. So even when it’s killing cells, you feel great!”
Where is it available?
Venetoclax has already received approval from the United States and the European Union, but due to slower approval processes through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), it is not available in Australia yet.