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Could you tell me how the medication Gleevec works? Also, is Gleevec a good alternative to Chemo?


Gleevec (imatinib) is an oral (taken by mouth) chemotherapy. All drug therapies are chemotherapies; some are given intravenously (IV) and some by mouth. Many of the IV chemotherapies have very mild side effects and many oral chemotherapies can cause severe problems. Your oncologist will recommend the best treatment for your cancer, regardless of how it is administered. Usually Gleevec is well-tolerated, but some people can get serious side effects from taking it.

Gleevec is approved for two types of malignancies: gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST) and chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). It is being tested in other tumor types, but at this time is not sanctioned for any other use. Gleevec works by preventing bcr-abl tyrosine kinase, a protein found in abnormally high amounts in the cancer cells in CML (and some cases of acute lymphocytic leukemia), from working. It also inhibits c-kit, a protein found in GIST. The job of these proteins is to keep the cancer cells alive and growing; when Gleevec interferes with their function, then the cancer cells die. The discovery of Gleevec was quite exciting, as it is very effective in treating CML and GIST.

Gleevec cannot be a substitute for any other chemotherapy, as Gleevec works in a particular way to kill only specific types of cancers. There are several other proteins that Gleevec can block, but unless your cancer uses these proteins to grow, Gleevec will not be helpful.

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Response by:

Joanna M Brell, MD Joanna M Brell, MD
Formerly, Assistant Professor of Medicine
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University