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Arsenic used to fight acute form of leukemia

April 21, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
This year in the U.S., doctors will diagnose 43,000 new cases of leukemia. Though many of these cancers are highly curable, it can recur, even after successful treatment.

Researchers are now using arsenic to stop a potentially deadly type of adult leukemia from coming back.

"I knew what arsenic was because I worked on farms and stuff, and it's rat poison. And I was like, 'what, you're kidding me,'" said patient John Williams.

The 44-year-old is being treated with arsenic to fight an acute form of leukemia called APL. It's where abnormal white blood cells grow instead of normal, healthy ones. That's where the arsenic comes in.

"[It's] supposed to re-train the bad cells into thinking that they were good cells again and they get back to doing their normal stuff," said Williams.

Doctors at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center put patients on two five-weekly IV regimens of arsenic trioxide after getting standard treatment to put their leukemia in remission. The principal investigator, Dr. Bayard Powell, says this arsenic is less toxic than chemo.

"You know, there's a lot of trepidation as people first start. They're a little bit anxious about getting arsenic, but once they get it, especially those who've already had chemotherapy, they're so excited about how well they feel," said Powell, professor of internal medicine-hematology and oncology at Wake Forest.

Ninety percent of the patients treated with arsenic were disease-free after three years compared to just 70 percent of those who didn't get arsenic.

"There's a better response rate, better cure rate, for patients, but also it's with less toxicity," said Powell.

Now Williams can look forward to spending a lot more time with his best friends. Eight months after a leukemia diagnosis, he's cancer-free.

Obviously, the form of arsenic used in this experimental treatment is not the same chemical they put in rat poison. This new approach is still considered experimental but is being used more often.