Several treatments are available, and successful control of the disease is common.
Not everyone needs treatment. Treatment is usually given when the symptoms of the disease interfere with the patient's everyday life, or when white blood cell or platelet counts decline to dangerously low levels, such as an absolute neutrophil count below one thousand cells per microliter (1.0 K/uL). Not all patients need treatment immediately upon diagnosis, and about 10% of patients will never need treatment.
Treatment delays are less important than in solid tumors. Unlike most cancers, treatment success does not depend on treating the disease at an early stage. Because delays do not affect treatment success, there are no standards for how quickly a patient should receive treatment. However, waiting too long can cause its own problems, such as an infection that might have been avoided by proper treatment to restore immune system function. Also, having a higher number of hairy cells at the time of treatment can make certain side effects somewhat worse, as some side effects are primarily caused by the body's natural response to the dying hairy cells. This can result in the hospitalization of a patient whose treatment would otherwise be carried out entirely at the hematologist's office.
Single-drug treatment is normal. Unlike most cancers, only one drug is normally given to a patient at a time. While monotherapy is normal, combination therapy—typically using one first-line therapy and one second-line therapy—is being studied in current clinical trials and is used more frequently for refractory cases. It is unclear whether combining rituximab with cladribine or pentostatin will produce any practical benefit to the patient.[http://bloodjournal.hematologylibrary.org/cgi/content/abstract/107/12/4658 Combination therapy is almost never used with a new patient. Because the success rates with purine analog monotherapy are already so high, the additional benefit from immediate treatment with a second drug in a treatment-naïve patient is assumed to be very low. For example, one round of either cladribine or pentostatin gives the median first-time patient a ten-year remission; the addition of rituximab, which gives the median patient only three or four years, might provide no additional value for this easily treated patient. In a more difficult case, however, the benefit from the first drug may be substantially reduced and therefore a combination may provide some benefit.
First-line therapy: purine analog chemotherapy
Cladribine (2CDA) and pentostatin (DCF) are the two most common first-line therapies. They both belong to a class of medications called purine analogs, which have mild side effects compared to traditional chemotherapy regimens.
Cladribine can be administered by injection under the skin, by infusion over a couple of hours into a vein, or by a pump worn by the patient that provides a slow drip into a vein, 24 hours a day for 7 days. Most patients receive cladribine by IV infusion once a day for five to seven days, but more patients are being given the option of taking this drug once a week for six weeks. The different dosing schedules used with cladribine are approximately equally effective and equally safe.
Relatively few patients have significant side effects other than fatigue and a high fever caused by the cancer cells dying, although complications like infection and acute kidney failure have been seen.
Pentostatin is chemically similar to cladribine, and has a similar success rate and side effect profile, but it is always given over a much longer period of time, usually one dose by IV infusion every two weeks for three to six months.
(A third related chemical, fludarabine, is not used for hairy cell leukemia, despite being chemically similar.)
During the weeks following treatment the patient's immune system is severely weakened, but their bone marrow will begin to produce normal blood cells again. Treatment often results in long-term remission. About 85% of patients achieve a complete response from treatment with either cladribine or pentostatin, and another 10% receive some benefit from these drugs, although there is no permanent cure for this disease. If the cancer cells return, the treatment may be repeated and should again result in remission, although the odds of success decline with repeated treatment. Remission lengths vary significantly, from one year to more than twenty years. The median patient can expect a treatment-free interval of about ten years.
It does not seem to matter which drug a patient receives. A patient who is not successfully treated with one of these two drugs has a reduced chance of being successfully treated with the other. However, there are other options.
Second-line therapy: immunotherapy
If a patient is resistant to either cladribine or pentostatin, then second-line therapy is pursued.
Monoclonal antibodies The most common treatment for cladribine-resistant disease is infusing monoclonal antibodies that destroy cancerous B cells. Rituximab is by far the most commonly used. Most patients receive one IV infusion over several hours each week for four to eight weeks. A 2003 publication found two partial and ten complete responses out of 15 patients with relapsed disease, for a total of 80% responding. The median patient (including non-responders) did not require further treatment for more than three years. This eight-dose study had a higher response rate than a four-dose study at Scripps, which achieved only 25% response rate. Rituximab has successfully induced a complete response in Hairy Cell-Variant.
Rituximab's major side effect is serum sickness, commonly described as an "allergic reaction", which can be severe, especially on the first infusion. Serum sickness is primarily caused by the antibodies clumping during infusion and triggering the complement cascade. Although most patients find that side effects are adequately controlled by anti-allergy drugs, some severe, and even fatal, reactions have occurred. Consequently, the first dose is always given in a hospital setting, although subsequent infusions may be given in a physician's office. Remissions are usually shorter than with the preferred first-line drugs, but hematologic remissions of several years' duration are not uncommon.
Other B cell-destroying monoclonal antibodies such as Alemtuzumab, Ibritumomab tiuxetan and I-131 Tositumomab may be considered for refractory cases.
Interferon-alpha Interferon-alpha is an immune system hormone that is very helpful to a relatively small number of patients, and somewhat helpful to most patients. In about 65% of patients, the drug helps stabilize the disease or produce a slow, minor improvement for a partial response.
The typical dosing schedule injects at least 3 million units of Interferon-alpha (not pegylated versions) three times a week, although the original protocol began with six months of daily injections.
Some patients tolerate IFN-alpha very well after the first couple of weeks, while others find that its characteristic flu-like symptoms persist. Perhaps as many as 40% of patients develop a level of depression. It is possible that, by maintaining a steadier level of the hormone in the body, that daily injections might cause fewer side effects in selected patients. Drinking at least two liters of water each day, while avoiding caffeine and alcohol, can reduce many of the side effects.
A drop in blood counts is usually seen during the first one to two months of treatment. Most patients find that their blood counts get worse for a few weeks immediately after starting treatment, although some patients find their blood counts begin to improve within just two weeks.
It typically takes six months to figure out whether this therapy is useful. Common criteria for treatment success include:
- normalization of hemoglobin levels (above 12.0 g/dL),
- a normal or somewhat low platelet count (above 100 K/µL), and
- a normal or somewhat low absolute neutrophil count (above 1.5 K/µL). IFN-alpha works best on classic hairy cells that are not protectively adhered to vitronectin or fibronectin, which suggests that patients who encounter less fibrous tissue in their bone marrow biopsies may be more likely to respond to Interferon-alpha therapy. It also explains why non-adhered hairy cells, such as those in the bloodstream, disappear during IFN-alpha treatment well before reductions are seen in adhered hairy cells, such as those in the bone marrow and spleen., HA22 and LMB-2. All of these protein-based drugs combine part of an anti-B cell antibody with a bacterial toxin to kill the cells on internalization. BL22 and HA22 attack a common protein called CD22, which is present on hairy cells and healthy B cells. LMB-2 attacks a protein called CD25, which is not present in HCL-variant, so LMB-2 is only useful for patients with HCL-classic or the Japanese variant. All three of these therapies are available only at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. While initial results are generally favorable, it is likely to be a number of years before these drugs are available on the market.
Other clinical trials (trial NCT00412594) are studying the effectiveness of cladribine followed by rituximab in eliminating residual hairy cells that remain after treatment by cladribine. It is not currently understood if the elimination of such residual cells will result in more durable remissions.
Other treatment options
Splenectomy can produce long-term remissions in patients whose spleens seem to be heavily involved, but its success rate is noticeably lower than cladribine or pentostatin. Splenectomies are also performed for patients whose persistently enlarged spleens cause significant discomfort or in patients whose persistently low platelet counts suggest Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura.
Bone marrow transplants are usually shunned in this highly treatable disease because of the inherent risks in the procedure. They may be considered for refractory cases in younger, otherwise healthy individuals. "Mini-transplants" are possible.
Patients with anemia or thrombocytopenia may also receive red blood cells and platelets through blood transfusions. Blood transfusions are always irradiated to remove white blood cells and thereby reduce the risk of graft-versus-host disease. Patients may also receive a hormone to stimulate production of red blood cells. These treatments may be medically necessary, but do not kill the hairy cells.
Patients with low neutrophil counts may be given filgrastim or a similar hormone to stimulate production of white blood cells. However, a 1999 study indicates that routine administration of this expensive injected drug has no practical value for HCL patients after cladribine administration. In this study, patients who received filgrastim were just as likely to experience a high fever and to be admitted to the hospital as those who did not, even though the drug artificially inflated their white blood cell counts. This study leaves open the possibility that filgrastim may still be appropriate for patients who have symptoms of infection, or at times other than shortly after cladribine treatment.
Although hairy cells are technically long-lived, instead of rapidly dividing, some late-stage patients are treated with broad-spectrum chemotherapy agents such as methotrexate that are effective at killing rapidly dividing cells. This is not typically attempted unless all other options have been exhausted and it is typically unsuccessful.
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