Irish scientists ‘close to finding leukaemia cure’

Irish medical researchers have claimed they are tantalisingly close to a cure for leukaemia after encouraging results from tests on a new drug.

Experts from Belfast were among those who redesigned the current number one treatment before testing began on 18 patients suffering from the life-threatening blood and bone marrow cancer in Ireland.

And crucially, doctors believe they may be able to use the process as a blueprint for making other drugs more effective.

Professor Frank Giles, an Irish doctor based at the University of Texas in the US, said researchers around the world would view the study as a very significant step towards a cure for chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML).

He said: “This is an important breakthrough in terms of defining a new frontline CML therapy and it has occurred because of Irish medical leadership and collaboration.”

The clinical trial has shown the new drug Tasigna was more effective than its parent and produced few of the side-effects associated with Glivec.

The research linked Irish investigators in Dublin, Belfast and Galway with Prof Giles, widely regarded as a pioneering medic at the research facility in Texas.

Findings from the landmark investigation, led by consultant haematologists Professor Michael O’Dwyer of University College Hospital Galway and National University Ireland, Galway, Dr Eibhlin Conneally of St James’s Hospital and Trinity College Dublin, were announced in Dublin.

The study was run by Professor Giles, based at the Cancer Therapy and Research Centre in San Antonio. The life-threatening leukaemia disease affects roughly one in 100,000 people.

Last month it was revealed that top American basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had been diagnosed with the blood cancer.

Prof O’Dwyer, who had the idea for the research and designed the trial, said it underscored the value of investment in clinical research.

“Good collaboration — as occurred on this study — is beneficial and essential if Ireland is to maximise its undoubted intellectual and research potential,” he said.

Doctors in Liverpool and Berlin have joined up to the study and talks are under way to include patients in Scandinavian countries. Eighteen patients have been enrolled to date and it is hoped this will rise to between 60 and 80.

The trial was supported by pharmaceutical company Novartis. About 40 new cases of CML are reported in Ireland each year. Before the development of Glivec in the late 1990s, as the first drug to target cancer at a molecular level, many of those with CML faced inevitable decline and early death.

While the drug helped a large percentage of patients achieve full working lives, a small number got little benefit or experienced side-effects.