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Utah researchers tackle gene mutation resistance in leukemia patients

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 20 2014 5:15 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 20 2014 5:32 p.m. MDT

Researchers at Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute have identified a specific gene mutation that helps regulate chronic myeloid leukemia, giving patients a normal life and normal life expectancy.

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A common blood cancer is meeting its match with a new discovery amid ongoing research at the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Researchers have identified a specific gene mutation that drives chronic myeloid leukemia, allowing them to potentially develop treatments that could help the 20 to 30 percent of patients for whom medication does not work.

The cancer — which, unlike most cancers, starts in the bone marrow and invades the blood — can be managed with drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors. The medication helps patients lead fairly normal lives, giving them a 95 percent survival rate in the past five years.

But some patients with chronic myeloid leukemia become resistant to the available drug.

"Fortunately, the problems we are studying affect a minority of chronic myeloid leukemia patients, but still, this leaves some patients with no good treatment option at all," said lead author and Huntsman investigator Thomas O'Hare. "Our goal is to have a tyrosine kinase inhibitor option for every patient."

The trouble with this type of leukemia is that cancer cells build up in the blood and prevent the body from working how it should. In rare cases, it can evolve into a more voracious cancer that could impact vital organs in the body.

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 6,000 new cases of chronic myeloid leukemia will be diagnosed this year. The cancer is more common in adults but occurs rarely in children; however, treatment is the same.

Before medications were developed, patients could expect a five-year survival rate of about 30 percent. Drugs to address single mutations have already been discovered, but compound mutations that are resistant to treatment have remained largely unaddressed.

The mechanism of the body's resistance to those drugs is what Huntsman researchers are believe to have deciphered.

"This puts us in position to evaluate new drug candidates and work toward developing new treatments," O'Hare said.

The research was published online in the journal Cancer Cell.

A team of more than 40 researchers from Huntsman, the U. and 22 other institutions worldwide came up with enough data to give physicians an idea of which drugs will be most effective in managing the disease. They also found that none of the available inhibitors work on the newly discovered compound mutations.

O'Hare said the research will kick off identification of other mutations that emerge in other cancers, including non-small cell lung cancer and acute myeloid leukemia.

"Our findings in chronic myeloid leukemia will provide a blueprint for contending with resistance in these highly aggressive diseases as well," he said.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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