Sharon Golowka.is now cancer-free thanks to the combination drug treatment. (ABC News: Nicole Asher)
A breakthrough in chemotherapy-free cancer treatment by Melbourne researchers has doubled the survival rate of patients with some forms of blood cancer.
Scientists at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the Royal Melbourne Hospital have found 85 per cent of patients with chronic leukaemia and lymphoma were cancer-free after two years while on a novel combination of cancer-melting drugs.
The breakthrough means people suffering from hard-to-treat forms of blood cancer could soon be able to take tablets, rather than rely on conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.
Two clinical trials of Venetoclax, which was first developed based on research conducted in Melbourne in the 1980s, have found the drug, combined with cancer drugs Rituximab or Ibrutinib, doubled the survival chances of people with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CCL) and mantle cell lymphoma (MCL).
About 1,000 Australians are diagnosed with CCL every year, and 389 patients were involved in the trial using Venetoclax and Rituximab.
The Venetoclax and Ibrutinib treatment for MCL, which is an uncommon type of lymphoma considered incurable with chemotherapy, was trialled on 24 patients.
Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Royal Melbourne Hospital director of haematology John Seymour described the results as remarkable.
“When we looked at the results, the novel chemotherapy-free combination was profoundly superior to the old fashioned chemotherapy,” Professor Seymour said.
“It more than doubled the likelihood of a patient’s leukaemia remaining under control and them being well at two years and beyond.
“Most remarkably, the rate of achieving no detectable leukaemia by our most sensitive tests in the blood of these patients was 85 per cent with the novel treatment and only 23 per cent with our previous chemotherapy.
“This remarkable degree of control led to a halving of the rate of dying from the leukaemia.”
Chemotherapy-free treatment life-changing for patients
Cancer survivor Sharon Golowka said the new drug combination meant she could carry on with her normal life while treating her cancer.
Ms Golowka was first diagnosed with MCL in 2012 and was admitted to the trial after her cancer returned two years later. She is now cancer-free.
“Being able to simply get up in the morning, take tablets and get on with your day with no side effects, it’s not debilitating,” Ms Golowka said.
“I’ve just got back on with life.
“It’s nice to be in the forefront of research for blood cancers.”
Her first cancer treatment, involving a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy, left her feeling sick and caused her to gain weight and lose her hair.
“It’s like chalk or cheese really,” she said.
Results not the work of an Einstein
Con Tam, who led the MCL trial, said the new combinations of drugs worked where traditional chemotherapy treatments no longer did.
He said because the two drugs involved in his trial, Venetoclax and Ibrutinib, worked well on their own, it was an obvious move to combine them.
“In MCL, about two out of 10 patients on these drugs will have complete clearance of the disease,” Associate Professor said.
“Two out of 10 might not sound like a very high number, but for these patients where there are no other treatment options it’s a minor miracle.
“It didn’t take Albert Einstein to understand that if you have two really good drugs that work well individually, if you put them together you might get a better result.
“But what we’re surprised by is that instead of getting two patients responding out of 10, we’re now getting seven, so clearly the two drugs have added to each other.
“It’s not just a multiplication effect, and we’re getting much better results than when using the drugs individually.”