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YOUR HEALTH: New chemical compound targets leukemia stem cells

BOULDER, Colorado – Acute myeloid leukemia, also known as AML, is an aggressive cancer that attacks the bone marrow.   About 30,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with it each year.

It's the most common type of leukemia in older adults yet continues to have the lowest survival rates.

But now, a new drug combination is stopping it in its tracks.

David Cade remembers when he got the AML diagnosis.

"It was just like life was leaving me."

His wife, Dawn, also remembers those days.

"He just went to bed so I knew he was really sick."

In just hours of arriving at the hospital, he was given the news.

"He said you've got two weeks to two months to live," Dave remembered.

Diagnosed with AML, doctors said at 71, David wouldn't survive traditional high-intensive chemotherapy.

"I basically told my kids goodbye, my grandkids goodbye."

Oncologist Dan Pollyea did have one option: an FDA approved clinical trial testing a low dose chemo combined with the pill venetoclax, a drug that targets leukemia stem cells.

"We've never seen a drug work like this, to target any type of cancer cell, let alone a stem cell," said Dr. Pollyea, Clinical director of Leukemia Services at the University of Colorado's Cancer Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus.

The drug kills a protein called BCL-2.

This protein feeds the leukemia stem cells.   When it dies, so does the stem cell.

"This is a completely new way to kill a cancer," explained Dr. Pollyea.

Before venetoclax only a minority of older patients would respond to their therapies.

With this new treatment, more than 70% achieve a remission.

"That's the dream of a lifetime," added Dr. Pollyea.

Dave received the treatment.

And eight days later...

"He says we can't find it," recalled Dave.

"It's not in your body," he was told.

Now more than a year out and they still can't find a trace of the cancer.

"I'm so blessed, I've been blessed all my life, but this is truly a blessing."

There are two clinical trials enrolling patients right now, including the very first one for younger AML patients.

The University of Colorado cancer hematology teams believe this new approach to killing cancer could destroy other tumor types including breast, pancreatic and colon.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com

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