ROCHESTER, Minn., Jan. 14 (UPI) -- The drug thalidomide, which became infamous for causing birth defects in the 1960s, could extend the survival times of patients with an incurable form of blood cancer by a year or more, researchers reported Tuesday.
About one-third of patients with multiple myeloma who had failed on other treatments had a remission that persisted for an average of one year after being treated with thalidomide, study author Vincent Rajkumar of the Mayo Clinic told United Press International.
The findings, which appear in the January issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, show "the response to thalidomide is durable and lasts one year or more for those patients responding to treatment," Rajkumar added. "That's a meaningful benefit for a disease where the average survival is 3 to 4 years," he noted.
In addition, "a number of patients in our study lived for 2 years" in addition to the 3-4 year average survival time, he said.
Multiple myeloma is an incurable cancer of the blood with symptoms that include pain, fatigue and recurrent infections. It often destroys segments of bone and increases the chance of fracture. About 45,000 Americans have the illness and more than 14,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. The cause of the disorder is unknown and it typically hits people in their 60s although some evidence indicates it might be striking earlier.
"The study represents an important advance in improving patient outcome," Ken Anderson, professor of medicine at the Jerome Lipper Center for Multiple Myeloma at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, told UPI. It shows thalidomide treats multiple myeloma effectively for a sustained period and it is effective in patients who have failed on other therapies, added Anderson, who wrote an accompanying editorial to the study.
Although only about one-third of the study patients had a good response to thalidomide, those patients had advanced cancer and had failed standard treatments, including chemotherapy and stem cell transplants. A previous study indicated the percentage of patients who obtained a good response to thalidomide could be increased to two-thirds if the drug had been used earlier in the course of the cancer.
This suggests that "its reasonable to try it up front as a primary treatment," Rajkumar said, adding he currently is heading a trial aimed at determining whether thalidomide would be more effective as a primary treatment.
"We are hoping to have results sometime later this year," he said.
This strategy raises hope for improving the treatment of this cancer, Anderson said.
"The important aspect is that thalidomide combined with conventional treatments like steroids has been shown to be effective as the initial treatment for myeloma," he said. This might turn out to be a more effective treatment strategy for this cancer and it still allows for using other drugs and stem cell transplants if those are necessary, he said.
(Reported by Steve Mitchell, UPI Medical Correspondent, in Washington)