The development of imatinib as a therapeutic agent for chronic myeloid leukemia

Michael Deininger, Elisabeth Buchdunger and Brian J. Druker


Imatinib has revolutionized drug therapy of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). Preclinical studies were promising but the results of clinical trials by far exceeded expectations. Responses in chronic phase are unprecedented, with rates of complete cytogenetic response (CCR) of more than 40% in patients after failure of interferon-α (IFN) and more than 80% in newly diagnosed patients, a level of efficacy that led to regulatory approval in record time. While most of these responses are stable, resistance to treatment after an initial response is common in more advanced phases of the disease. Mutations in the kinase domain (KD) of BCR-ABL that impair imatinib binding have been identified as the leading cause of resistance. Patients with CCR who achieve a profound reduction of BCR-ABL mRNA have a very low risk of disease progression. However, residual disease usually remains detectable with reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), indicating that disease eradication may pose a significant challenge. The mechanisms underlying the persistence of minimal residual disease are unknown. In this manuscript, we review the preclinical and clinical development of imatinib for the therapy of CML, resistance and strategies that may help to eliminate resistant or residual leukemia.

  • Submitted August 11, 2004.
  • Accepted November 29, 2004.
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