Ibrutinib is a first in line of new treatments, known as tyrosine kinase inhibitors that display promise in promoting improved response rates in refractory CLL patients. Unlike chemotherapy which cannot differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells, ibrutinib specifically inhibits the Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) enzyme in the body’s cancerous B-cells. By inhibiting the enzyme, ibrutinib deprives B-cells of their activating chemical signal. This enzyme is expressed only in B-cells, allowing ibrutinib to exclusively target B-cells, affording a tremendous amount of specificity. This specificity allows for an excellent tolerability of ibrutinib in CLL patients, thus increasing quality of life.
This is significant for CLL patients as chemotherapy treatment often comes with disadvantages. A patient achieving a complete recovery will experience marrow toxicity, and be at risk of developing secondary acute myeloid leukemia and/or myelodysplastic syndrome. Even common CLL regimens like FCR (fludarabine + cyclophosphamide + rituximab), expose patients to major risks.
These initial disadvantages are exacerbated by patient relapse and further chemotherapy. For example a patient, who at diagnosis exhibits a very good response to their first line of chemotherapy treatment and another positive response in their second line of chemotherapy, would ultimately be given a 7-9 year median survival rate from their initial chemotherapy. Unfortunately, survival past that 9 year rate is unlikely, as increased chemotherapy leads to a corresponding decrease in longevity. Any increase in longevity beyond that 9 year mark would require treatment besides standard chemotherapy agents. Accordingly, length of survival is the long term promise and improvement held by tyrosine kinase inhibitors like ibrutinib. The side effects associated with chemotherapy regimens are non-existent for ibrutinib.
Due to the nature of currently available chemotherapy treatment, successful benchmarks are increasingly focused on complete response and partial response rates with chemotherapy, and not on overall survival. Chemotherapy focuses on the complete response, partial response, and minimal residual disease status of patients. Conversely, ibrutinib and other similar treatments display significant improvements towards progression free survival and overall survival, even when accounting for patients who develop resistance and require additional therapy.
Increasingly, the avoidance of chemotherapy is the most important aspect of CLL therapy. My hope is to begin using tyrosine kinase inhibitors like ibrutinib earlier in treatment, and avoid chemotherapy. This would lead to vast improvements in patient quality of life and the important metrics of long term survival.