In what is great news for those suffering from chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), the drug Glivec looks like being one of the biggest breakthroughs in cancer therapy for a years.
It seems that 90 per cent of the patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) who have been taking the drug for five years are still alive.
Between 600 and 800 cases of CML diagnosed in the UK each year.
Glivec is the drug that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence , a government watchdog in Britain, initially wanted to deny to National Health Service (NHS) patients.
Glivec has produced amazing results in it's five years of use and it is only because of the outcry from both the medical profession and patients that the government reconsidered its original advice in May 2002 and made the drug available to more patients.
Clinicians and patients gathered in London to hear the latest data and many survivors credited the drug with saving their lives.
Charles Craddock, Professor of Haemato-oncology, University of Birmingham and Director of Stem Cell Transplant Unit, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham presented the results at the meeting.
Professor Craddock says any scepticism that a single drug could give such a prolonged response has been dismissed and the future appears very promising for drugs based on Glivec which eliminate the cells that cause the problems.
CML is a cancer of the bone marrow and is caused by an unusual rearrangement of chromosomes 9 and 22, generating a new chromosome that in turn produces a protein that drives the disease.
Experts say that before Glivec came along the outlook for such patients was grim and the disease progressed to the advanced stage within four to six years.
Patient outcomes were extremely poor and bone marrow transplants only provided a cure for a minority.
The drug interferon alpha was effective in some cases but left patients permanently feeling that they had flu.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration fast-tracked Glivec and licensed the drug in record time, on June 5, 2001.
More than 1,000 patients have been monitored since then and in 90 per cent of those on Glivec, the aberrant chromosome was eliminated.
Although Glivec produces some adverse effects they are less than those of interferon alpha.
The drug is also an effective treatment for a rarer cancer, gastro-intestinal stromal tumours (GIST), which form in the digestive system.
Prior to Glivec, there was no treatment for GIST except surgery, and the tumours often returned.
The drug has been shown to extend the survival of GIST patients and in many the tumours have disappeared.
The drug costs £14,000 per patient per year, and for some patients with CML a bone marrow transplant may still be preferred, but for GIST patients there is no alternative.
Patient groups CML Support and GIST Support UK welcomed the latest data at the meeting.
Dave Cook from GIST Support says the data confirms what he has experienced himself. He says when six separate GISTs were removed he was devastated, but after four years on Glivec, my scans now show no signs of any abnormality. Glivec, he says is a life saver.
The results were reported at the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference.