FDA Approves Leukemia Drug Tested At Ohio State University


UPDATED: Thursday February 13, 2014 6:18 PM

The FDA gave "Breakthrough Status" approval to a drug tested at Ohio State, designed to keep leukemia from recurring.

For almost 60 years, Dennis Hickey has had a link to Ohio State.  As a teen in Mentor, he babysat future football coach Jim Tressel.

"That's right.  That's my claim to fame," he laughed.

Now his link is through Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center.  

Hickey, a father and grandfather, is celebrating his remission from C-L-L, the most common type of adult leukemia, thanks to three gray capsules a day.  They contain a drug called Ibrutinib.  He was diagnosed nine years ago, when he went to a hospital emergency department from bleeding blisters in his mouth.  Doctors admitted him, and ran tests.  The next morning, a doctor shocked him with the diagnosis.

"You have terminal cancer.  It's stage four.  And without treatment, we'll give you six months. And I said, doctor, how can that be?  I'm not even sick."

But he was.  Hickey says his blood platelet count was around 2,000, when it should have been more than 150,000.  He started chemotherapy.

"You would take one drug. It would work for a while and you'd go into remission," Hickey said.  

But months later, the cancer would return.  Then doctors would have to try a new drug.  There were always side effects, including enlarged lymph glands.  After a few years, the doctors had exhausted the list of standard drugs to treat him.  His physician asked if he would be interested in a clinical trial with a specialist at OSU's Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. John Byrd.

"I said, how soon can I start?"

Dr. Byrd and his team had some lab work on Ibrutinib.  The doctor, Director of Hematolgy, was about the start the clinical trial.  He said the drug attacks a protein that the cancer needs to live.

"It essentially shuts this off, like you would shut a light switch off.  And when you do that the CLL cells...the cancer cells...stop growing, and they die," Dr. Byrd explained.  "Most patients, they're able to stay on the drug and have a sustainable remission. With drugs even that work, we expect that over time they're going to stop working."

Hickey took a pill three times a day, and was amazed at the results.  He said that he started feeling much better within two weeks.

"I went back to being my old self again.  On three pills!  There were no side effects! " he exclaimed.

Dr. Byrd said there can be some side effects, but they usually are mild.  He said that in clinical trials, doctors not only look for physical evidence, but they also listen carefully to what their patients have to say about how their bodies are reacting.

"The common thing that we hear people say who are on this, is it makes me fells like I did before I had C-L-L," he said.  "To be part of a team that's brought forth a drug to help patients like this is just very humbling and just makes you warm all over."

Dr. Byrd said some of the funds to support this clinical trial came from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, as well as the Pelotonia.  The annual Pelotonia bike ride raises millions of dollars for cancer research at OSU and the James Cancer Hospital.

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