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New drug fights a chronic leukemia

A genetically engineered drug known as BL22 has sent a type of cancer called hairy cell leukemia into full remission in 11 of 16 patients, a study shows. Two other patients experienced partial remission.

The findings, reported in the July 26 New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that BL22 may become a treatment for this type of leukemia. The name hairy cell stems from the microscopic appearance of malignant white blood cells, which in this disease have irregular hairlike projections. This leukemia accounts for roughly 2 percent of leukemia cases, affecting thousands of people in the United States each year.

The chemotherapy compounds cladribine and pentostatin can control the cancer in as many as 85 percent of patients. However, when hairy cell leukemia patients become resistant to these drugs–as had all 16 people in this study–they face a dire prognosis. Some of the patients in the study already were getting weekly blood transfusions to survive.

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