Celebrating Survivors: A Pioneer in Leukemia Treatment and Hope For A Cure

Celebrating Survivors: A Pioneer in Leukemia Treatment and Hope For A Cure

06.04.14 | By Dr. Bill Chin

On June 1, patients around the world participated in a very special celebration, National Cancer Survivors Day. This is a day everyone in remission hopes for, and one those currently in treatment are working so hard to achieve.

In the United States alone, it is estimated there are 14 million people who have faced the challenges of a cancer diagnosis and are winning

As the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America honors those who have worked so hard to be counted as a survivor, we would also like to recognize the biopharmaceutical researchers and the medical breakthroughs that have helped make it possible for millions of people to be a part of such a joyous day.

Some biopharmaceutical researchers become household names.  These are supported by thousands of lesser known heroes in the world of research who dedicate great time and make enormous sacrifices to discover life-improving medicines.

One example of drug discovery icon is Gertrude Elion, who, 60 years ago received the patent for the first drug to treat leukemia effectively, Purinethol (mercaptopurine).

Personal Motivation to Help Others

After witnessing a family member lose their battle with cancer, Ms. Elion decided at a young age to enter a career in medical research so that those stricken with the disease would not have to suffer as her grandfather did.

Ms. Elion faced many challenges in her quest to become a cancer researcher, but she persevered and eventually, Burroughs Wellcome & Company, what is now GlaxoSmithKline, would give her the opportunity to pursue her dream. She would focus her efforts on childhood leukemia, which, in the late 1940s, had a dismal three- to five-month survival rate.

Because of the hard work of Ms. Elion and her colleague, lab director George Hitchings, Purinethol would have phenomenal success in extending the lives of those stricken with leukemia.

Paving the Way for Future Researchers

In the 60 years since the Purinethol patent was approved, subsequent research has led to a greater understanding of the disease and further advanced treatments have followed, such as antibody-based medicines and targeted therapies (i.e., Gleevec). As a result of this cumulative progress, 80% of children with leukemia now live five years or longer and the overall survival rate is over 90%. It is humbling when you think about such success rates and the vast number of people around the world able to take part in National Cancer Survivors Day.

And the story of Purinethol isn’t limited to just leukemia, as the immunosuppressive drug is now used to treat other types of cancer, colitis and Crohn’s disease. Researchers continue to build on this major milestone of 60 years ago as clinical trials today are showing promise in treating a wide range of other conditions.

The Path to 100% Survival Rates

Currently, there are more than 240 medicines in clinical trials or under review by the Food and Drug Administration for blood cancers – nearly 100 specifically for leukemia. While the vast majority of these will not make it through the clinical testing and regulatory review processes, each approved medicine – and the lessons learned from those that fall short – bring us closer than ever to a 100% survival rate. Imagine the promise these new medicines hold for the 50,000 Americans diagnosed with leukemia each year.  A dream yesterday, a possible reality tomorrow. 

Ms. Elion’s legacy is not only in the lives she saved with Purinethol, but in the future of cancer treatment through the researchers she has inspired to enter the field.

I believe Ms. Elion, who along with Dr. Hitchings was recognized in 1988 with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, would be proud of how today’s researchers have built upon her work, standing on her shoulders to bring new cancer treatments to patients. Now, more than ever, the future holds great promise for the 14 million who strive to be counted among those celebrating National Cancer Survivors Day. America’s biopharmaceutical industry stands with them.

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