A class of drugs for type 2 diabetes could help fight against chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a rare blood cancer.
A study team led by Dr. Philippe Leboulch, Professor of Medicine and Cell Biology at the University of Paris, observed that patients with CML who received glitazones alongside imatinib, a standard CML drug, were free of the disease for nearly five years.
In type 2 diabetes, glitazones reduce the body’s resistance to insulin so that blood glucose levels can be more effectively controlled. Pioglitazone (marketed as Actos) is the only drug in this group available in the UK.
The CML drug imatinib, which is commercially known as Gleevec, is used to inhibit signals within cancer cells that make them expand. This enables patients to live as normal lives as possible.
24 patients with active CML were used in the study. They received pioglitazone and standard treatment – after 12 months, over 50 per cent of the patients were in remission. The first three patients to be given the combination treatment had no recurrence of CML within five years.
Lee Greenberger, Chief Scientific Offer for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, who wasn’t involved in the study, said: “Gleevec can control the disease but never get rid of the source of the disease. But adding in these glitazones, [the research] claims you can eliminate the disease entirely. These are still early days for this work, however.”
The researchers did not uncover how the leukemia cells were killed using this combination therapy, but an accompanying editorial said the cells are “probably either killed directly or driven to exit quiescence, which may lead to their eradication by [imatinib].”
While the small size of the study is a limitatio, these findings are promising, especially if larger trials display similar findings. If this is the case, the type 2 drug class could prospectively be applied to other leukemias.
The results of this study appear in the online journal Nature.

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