Hair loss, nausea and vomiting are just some of the painful side effects cancer patients endure when they undergo chemotherapy to treat their illness. But a new drug may provide patients afflicted with lymphoma — one of the most prevalent forms of cancer — with a more effective treatment without having to bear chemotherapy’s physical costs.

Beth Dykstra
Graphic by Matthew Daniels

A study by researchers of the University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, published Feb. 3 in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed the effectiveness of a new drug called Bexxar on non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients. Lymphoma, a cancer of the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes — part of the human immune system — has thirty different variations. 

Typically treated with chemotherapy to force it into remission, lymphoma may require more than six months of cancer therapy. According to the American Cancer Society, lymphoma is one of the fastest-growing causes of cancer mortality and the sixth leading form of cancer death in the United States.

The University’s study focused on 76 patients diagnosed with advanced-stage follicular lymphoma — the most common variation of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Treated with Bexxar before any other treatment, the patients recovered with amazing results, with 75 percent showing signs of complete lymphoma remission. All the more significant is that advanced follicular lymphoma is commonly thought to be incurable.

Mark Kaminski, head of the study and director of the University’s Lymphoma/Leukemia Program, said in a statement, “(the results) support the notion that there’s a real possibility of putting chemotherapy on the back burner for this disease.” Kaminski developed Bexxar with former University Prof. Richard Wahl, now at Johns Hopkins University. The drug received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in June 2003.

Compared to traditional chemotherapy, Bexxar produces a much smaller range of negative effects. Kaminski said Bexxar’s most important advantage is that the drug offers “shorter treatment and less toxicity” than chemotherapy. While the price of the drug is comparable to that of chemotherapy, the time required for treatment is not. While chemotherapy may take half a year or more, Bexxar therapy is conducted over only one to two weeks.

Part of the drug’s effectiveness may come from how it is delivered, Kaminski said. Chemotherapy works by targeting cells that are rapidly dividing — a characteristic of cancerous cells — and restricts their growth. The problem with the treatment is that the chemotherapy may also target, albeit erroneously, normal cells within the body and cause negative side effects. Though the body is able to repair these cells, the damage can make treatment difficult and affect the patient’s health and mood.

Kaminski said the difference with Bexxar is the drug directly attacks cancer cells. Composed of both antibodies that can seek out cancer cells and radioactive iodine 131, Bexxar works by traveling through the patient’s bloodstream. The antibodies then deliver the iodine to the cancer cells, killing the diseased cells off with the radiation from the iodine. As a result, fewer normal cells are damaged and the treatment is less hazardous to patient’s health.

As of now, the drug is available for patients who have previously been treated with chemotherapy for low-grade or follicular lymphoma. The drug is marketed in the United States by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.


Science Facts

-Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, attacks the body’s immune system

-Unlike the more easily curable Hodgkins disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma is the sixth leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

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