Treatment of CLL
One of the first questions that patients with CLL ask is, "Can it be cured?" Currently, there is no cure for CLL, but it can be treated.4 However, in many cases it is not necessary to begin treatment immediately.9 This is because CLL often progresses so slowly that it poses little threat to the patient's well-being when first diagnosed. Physicians refer to this "treatment" strategy as "watchful waiting."3 Treatment is usually initiated when symptoms start to interfere with quality of life.9
Regular blood tests are an important part of this process so that the annual rate of the lymphocyte count can be monitored. If the lymphocyte count more than doubles in a 6-month period, this can indicate the need for anticancer treatment.11 Other signs of disease progression that prompt treatment are anemia, weight loss, enlarged lymph nodes, or presence of B-symptoms.4,9-11
There are a number of different treatments that the doctor can offer. While none of these treatments can cure CLL, they can delay the progress of the disease and improve the patient's quality of life considerably.4
The treatments offered are:
Chemotherapy means treatment with certain anticancer drugs. It is the standard treatment offered to CLL patients who have symptoms of their disease or are showing signs of progression, such as increasing anemia, painful lymph nodes, or a rapid increase in the lymphocyte count in the blood. Chemotherapy is intended to stop the progression of the disease and decrease any symptoms the patient may be experiencing.4,9-11
Some patients do not respond to their initial treatment or, having initially responded, fall back within 6 months. They are said to be resistant or refractory to this form of chemotherapy and they are offered an alternative treatment.4,9
The commonly used chemotherapy drugs are:
Alkylating agentsdrug that interferes with the cell's DNA and inhibits cancer cell growth. Alkylating agents may be given as continuous therapy (tablets/infusions are given every day for an indefinite length of time) or as courses, or pulses, lasting 2 to 4 weeks. Treatment may be given on 1 or more days at the beginning of the pulse followed by a break in treatment for the rest of the cycle. Sometimes these agents are combined with other drugs.4,11
Purine analogsanticancer drugs that interferes with cancer cell division and causes their death. Purine analogs may produce a higher response rate than alkylating agents when used either in previously untreated patients or those who have failed on other therapies.4,11
Corticosteroidsalso known as glucocorticoids. They have an important role to play in the treatment of CLL and in patients who have a condition called autoimmune hemolytic anemia or thrombocytopenia. Corticosteroids make the patient feel better and reduce problems such as swollen lymph nodes and spleen. They also may be used in combination with other forms of chemotherapy.11
High doses of corticosteroids for short periods may be used in patients with advanced disease who do not respond to other treatments.
Biological therapy uses biological preparations rather than synthetic chemicals to treat the disease. One type of biological therapy uses monoclonal antibodies, which are able to bind to specific proteins called CDs (or antigenic markers) on the surface of lymphocytes.4
Monoclonal antibody therapy offers another option for patients. Monoclonal antibodies may be used alone or in combination with chemotherapy.
Campath is a monoclonal antibody that is marketed by Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals. Campath has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as a single medication for treating B-cell CLL, also known as B-CLL. It is the first and only monoclonal antibody that has been approved for this purpose. Campath is available only by prescription from your doctor.
Campath targets the CD52 molecule, an antigen that is found on the surface of many cells, including leukemia cells. This allows Campath to turn on the body's immune system to help attack the leukemia.
Some chemotherapeutic agents may be frequently used in combination. These combinations may often be more effective than their individual components because they attack the cancer cell at more than 1 stage during its division.11,12
Radiotherapy may relieve symptoms such as enlarged lymph nodes and/or spleen. Only those areas affected, such as painful lymph nodes, are irradiated.11 This involves bombarding cancerous tissue with high-energy x-rays, usually as a series of treatments of only a few minutes, over several days or weeks.
Bone marrow transplantation
Bone marrow transplantation is usually carried out in young people with diseases such as acute lymphocytic leukemia for whom other treatments have not worked. Now it is available for some younger CLL patients who have achieved long periods of remission and who have a donor.4,11