Doctors at East Kent Hospitals have been able to cure patients of a type of leukaemia – without the need for a bone marrow transplant or life-long drug treatment.
People diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia, or CML, have been able to come off their medication after positive results in clinical trials, with some patients remaining free of the disease for almost 10 years so far.
The breakthrough could save the NHS up to £50,000 per patient per year, and also means people avoid side-effects associated with some of the anti-cancer drugs they had been taking.
Dr Christopher Pocock, haematology consultant at East Kent Hospitals Trust, said it was a significant development.
He said: “This is an example of clinical research allowing patients to be potentially cured of a leukaemia that 20 years ago was only cured by performing a bone marrow transplant – a procedure that in itself carried a 25 per cent risk of death, and risk of long-term debilitating side effects.
“It suggests that we will be able to get a significant number of patients into treatment-free remission through drug therapy alone, and that they will be able to enjoy a totally normal life without the need to take any further medication or treatments.”
Peter Williams, from Folkestone, was one of the first patients to be able to successfully stop treatment.
He was diagnosed with CML in 2009, at the age of 40, while working in Cambodia.
The dad of two, whose daughters were just four and one at the time, said: “Looking back, there were symptoms I didn’t take any notice of, like night sweats and feeling run down.
“But it wasn’t until I was lying on my stomach and I could feel something was enlarged that I actually went to the doctor.
“When I was told it was CML, I had no idea what that was. It then took five weeks to get me and family back to England; I had to sell everything, quit everything, say goodbye, and arrange passports and visas.”
Peter registered with a GP and was referred to the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, where he met Dr Pocock.
He was able to join a new drug trial and the treatment proved effective in combatting the disease, but left him with side effects including fluid on the lung which regularly required hospital treatment.
Researchers elsewhere had seen positive results after taking patients off the drugs, and after yet another in-patient stay to deal with his lung issues, Dr Pocock decided to try the same with Peter.
He said: “Before then, it was thought that patients had to stay on the drugs for life and if they came off then their CML would come back.
“But a study in France demonstrated that 40 per cent of patients were able to stop treatment indefinitely, and we were then able to take part in a UK trial where we halved patients’ dosages and monitored them for changes.
“We found that for people who had responded to the drugs and had no leukaemia cells in their body, 70 per cent were able to stop treatment without it coming back.
“As Peter was experiencing the side effects of fluid on the lungs, and had been responding well to the treatment, we decided to try reducing his medication.”
Tests revealed no change in Peter’s leukaemia status after cutting his dose in half and, after he was admitted to hospital in August 2016 with more fluid on his lung, the medical team decided to stop the drug treatment altogether.
Peter said: “I wasn’t frightened at any point. Dr Pocock is very reassuring and it was very easy to go along with his suggestions.
“I consider myself very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, so everything lined up and it ended up saving my life.
“I can now spend time with my family, I was a founding trustee of a charity and I volunteer as a governor at two primary schools.
“I can enjoy life and I am so grateful to Dr Pocock and the team for making that happen.”
East Kent Hospitals is the only district general Trust invited to join the Destiny trial, offering patients the option of stopping treatment – other patients must travel to London or specialist centres in the north of England.
Dr Pocock said: “Not all patients want to stop treatment, and it can be a daunting prospect.
“But we monitor them closely and will restart the drug if there is any significant change. If someone has got to 18 months off treatment with no sign of the leukaemia cells returning we can be reasonably confident they are not going to undergo molecular relapse.
“Peter has now been treatment-free for three years and judging by the results of other trials and our experience we can say he is probably cured of his CML.”