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Cancer Drug May Help Scleroderma

Gleevec improved skin and lung function in patient study

TUESDAY, Oct. 20, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- A new study suggests that the cancer drug Gleevec may benefit people with scleroderma, a chronic connective tissue disease.

No effective treatment currently exists for scleroderma, which affects the skin, blood vessels and often muscles and joints, as well as the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, heart and lungs. About 300,000 people in the United States have scleroderma, which typically strikes people between the ages of 30 and 50, according to the Scleroderma Foundation.

This study included 30 patients with diffuse scleroderma, a widespread, severe form of the disease. They took 400 milligrams of Gleevec a day and were evaluated monthly for 12 months during treatment and were seen for follow-up three months after they stopped taking the drug.

The researchers assessed the effectiveness of the drug treatment by using a tool called the modified Rodnan skin score, a measure of how much skin is affected by the disease.

"The skin score seems to be a very good marker of disease status and most scleroderma trials use this as an outcome measure," study leader Dr. Robert Spiera, an associate attending rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery and an associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, said in a hospital news release.

They also used two tests (forced vital capacity and diffusion capacity) to measure patients' lung function. Lung disease is one of the main causes of death in scleroderma patients.

Interim findings showed a 23 percent improvement in skin scores and improvements in the lung function tests -- 9.6 percent in forced vital capacity scores and 11 percent to 18 percent in diffusion capacity scores.

"The lung function data was really exciting," Spiera said. "In patients with scleroderma, you usually see lung function tests getting worse over time, and if doctors try a therapy for a year and a patient doesn't get any worse, we get pretty excited. What is amazing to me in this study is that we actually saw improvements in both lung function tests."

The interim results were presented Sunday at the American College of Rheumatology annual meeting in Philadelphia. The study received funding and donated drugs from Novartis, which makes Gleevec.

The drug is approved in the United States to treat two types of cancer -- chronic myeloid leukemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumor.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease has more about scleroderma.

SOURCE: Hospital for Special Surgery, news release, Oct. 17, 2009
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