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New cancer drug may be game changer for some leukemia patients

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SALT LAKE CITY — The day Karen Wilson got a bone marrow transplant was the final step in an exhausting process. The executive director at University Medical Billing had always been healthy. But two years ago, something wasn't right.

"I would try to do my normal hiking or walking and just had no energy," said Wilson, who lives in Kaysville. "Walking a block was becoming an effort."

After a blood test, she got the call. "It was my nurse practitioner saying, 'You need to go into the emergency room.' I said, 'Why?'" Her lab results were not good. Doctors in the ER ran more tests.

"The physician came in and said, 'You've got cancer,'" Wilson said. "It's the last thing you expect to ever hear." She had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow that affects white blood cells.

Six-thousand people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with ALL this year. Thirty percent of adult patients have a Philadelphia chromosome, where two segments of chromosomes have fused together. Essentially, it makes the cancer more resistant to drugs.

"Over time, they build up resistance because they cannot accumulate enough damage," said Srividya Bhaskara, a scientist with the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

The chromosome makes the DNA constantly repair itself. That's bad in cancer cells because they need to die off.

Scientists worked to overcome the negative effects of the Philadelphia chromosome by testing a new cancer drug on mice. "When we combined our drug with the chemotherapy drug, we saw a significant reduction in leukemia cells in these mice," Bhaskara said, adding that the drug without chemotherapy also shows promise.

It was a team effort that took years and long hours in the lab. "That was super exciting," Bhaskara said. "We were like jumping up and down. We were running around. We were so happy."

While Wilson is in remission, the breakthrough is good news. With current treatments, the drugs may work for a little while, but often, the cancer comes back. "If I were to have a relapse, I would be looking to see what's the newest that's out there to see what could be done for the cure," she said.

The drug would make her treatment much easier. Wilson's family, who made all the difference during her ordeal, are glad to hear it, too. "I think we're as close or closer than we were ever before," Wilson said. "It means so much and they mean so much to me."

She hopes the science translates to easier and more effective treatments for patients.

The drug, which doesn't have a name yet, could also help patients with other types of cancer. Scientists hope to begin clinical trials soon.


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