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Novartis claims breakthrough in battle against leukaemia

Novartis boss, Daniel Vasella, receiving an award for the new drug at a ceremony in New York last week

(Keystone)

The Swiss healthcare giant, Novartis, says it has achieved a breakthrough in the treatment of leukaemia. A study showed that 30 per cent of sufferers were completely free of the disease after taking an experimental drug, pioneered by the company.

Announcing the study's findings in California last weekend, Novartis, said that of 532 patients who had been given the experimental drug, "Glivec", 30 per cent showed no traces of the disease.

"We are extremely encouraged by the growing body of scientific evidence on our investigational agent, Glivec, and its potential role in treating certain forms of leukaemia," said David Epstein of Novartis Oncology.

The company has its sights set on next year for making the newly developed medicine available to the public. "We are definitely hoping we can put the drug on the market by the end of 2001," Novartis spokesman, Mark Hill, told swissinfo.

The oral drug, which is taken once daily, works by inhibiting a protein which causes chronic myelogenous leukaemia (CML), a usually fatal disease that affects up to 23,000 people in the United States at any given time.

Researchers said the drug appears to be able to eliminate CML in newly diagnosed patients for long periods and even perhaps indefinitely.

"Last year we reported that patients in the trial had their blood counts return to normal," said Brian Drucker, a researcher at Oregon Health Sciences University. "This year, we are reporting that with a much larger patient population, nearly 30 per cent have no detectable leukaemia."

Novartis has said it expects the drug to become a "first-line" alternative to bone marrow transplantation and "alpha interferon" - a painful treatment administered by injection.

Glivec is one of a new class of anti-cancer drugs, which selectively targets genetic defects without causing the severe side-effects typically associated with chemotherapy.

Genetic research is widely being pursued by drug companies in their bid to develop breakthrough medecines.

Hill told swissinfo: "With the completion of the human genome project, we know an awful lot more about the issue and it is publicly available knowledge. So, there are a number of centres worldwide that are working on identifying targets that could be targets for potential medicines."

Last week, Novartis boss, Daniel Vasella, was awarded the "distinguished industry leadership award" for the company's success in developing Glivec.

swissinfo with agencies


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