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New Leukemia Drug Works for Incurable Stomach Tumors, Too

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Around that time, Hendrickson met University of Minnesota transplant surgeon Tim Sielaff, MD. "He told me that he could keep cutting me to keep me alive until I could find the science to cure me," says Hendrickson. As surgery followed surgery, Hendrickson tried six different chemotherapy regimens, but each one failed to stop the cancer. Then last year, an oncologist at UCLA "referred me to Chuck Blanke."

That's Charles Blanke, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center in Portland. Blanke's colleague Bruce Druker, MD, developed STI571. "Chuck sent me to Druker, who tested my tumors and they were full of c-kit."

Blanke tells WebMD that Gleevec hones in on c-kit, a gene that sends a signal that tells cells to grow. This gene is present in many cancer cells, he says. If c-kit is abnormal it causes uncontrolled cell growth and multiplication, which forms a tumor. The drug blocks the signal. Oncologist Michael Gordon, MD, of the Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson, says that Gleevec works like a circuit breaker to shut down the power to the cell.

In his study of 139 patients with GIST, more than half of the patients responded to treatment, says Blanke. Hendrickson was patient No. 1.

"They rushed the study because I was so near death," Hendrickson says. "I knew the drug was working right away because in seven days I went from severe pain to moderate pain and after 40 days my first CT scan showed that the tumor was reduced by 47%."

Allan T. van Oosterom, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Leuven in Belgium, says that a smaller study of 36 patients with GIST suggests that the most effective dose is actually 800 mg or twice what Hendrickson takes. "I have two patients who didn't respond at 400 mg; we increased to 800 mg and now they are responding," van Oosterom tells WebMD.

At a press conference Sunday where the Gleevec results were presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncologists meeting held here, he said "I have been waiting 30 years to report results like these."

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