Monday, June 25, 2012

June 25, 2012 – Tweaking the Cocktail

If ever there were a good time to be a lymphoma patient (not that I think there ever is), it’s now.  Every annual meeting of ASCO (the American Society of Clinical Oncologists) seems to offer news of some new variation on treatment protocols that promises a heightened survival rate.

The latest one for follicular lymphoma – as I learn today from an e-mail bulletin sent around by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society – is a new combination of Rituxan (the monoclonal antibody drug I received along with my CHOP chemotherapy) and an old drug that’s been around for a while, Revlimid:

John Leonard, M.D., of Weill Medical College of Cornell University presented promising results for a Phase III trial of a new Rituxan combination to treat patients with follicular lymphoma (FL). Dr. Leonard reported that using Revlimid plus Rituxan very much increased overall response rates for relapsed FL patients (73% in this trial vs. 50% for Rituxan only in previous trials). A Phase II trial of this combination for newly diagnosed FL patients is already underway.”

Revlimid, its manufacturers admit on their website, is an “analogue” of Thalidomide – one of the scariest names out there in the field of pharmacology. OK, let’s be real: Revlimid is Thalidomide, but with the drug’s notorious history I can understand why they’d rename it.  I still remember, as a kid, paging through an issue of LIFE magazine with its chilling, black-and-white photos of the children born with horrible birth defects as a result of that drug.  From 1957 to 1961, Thalidomide was commonly given to expectant mothers to prevent morning sickness.  No one knew that many of the children born to these unfortunate mothers would have no arms – other than small, vestigial appendages that could in no way substitute for the real thing. Very sad.  (Not to mention, a gold mine for the trial lawyers.)

As a cancer drug, Revlimid is evidently effective: and, as long as the patient isn’t an expectant mother, it’s supposed to be safe (or, at least, as safe as most other cancer drugs, all of which have a certain risk to them).  Lots of chemo drugs come with a warning label saying they’re not for expectant mothers, or may cause sterility.  Doctors have raised that sort of warning with me, at various times as I prepared for treatment, but when I tell them Claire and I are not only done having children, but that I’ve had a vasectomy, it lays those concerns to rest pretty quickly.

It’s not cheap, though: reports that Revlimid (medical name, Lenalidomide) costs an average of $163,381 per year.  Ouch.

Dr. Leonard’s work is only a Phase I trial, with Phase II now underway, so this drug cocktail is a long way from being ready for prime time.  I’m glad to know someone’s out there, though, with the medical-research equivalent of a cocktail shaker, trying out new drug combinations.  From early indications, chances are that this one may be in production in several years’ time, so it's one more reason to be hopeful, should the day come when I need treatment again.

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