Philadelphia, PA—October 17, 2009
“There has never been a drug that has been shown to be effective for this condition. I think there is a very good chance of Gleevec becoming a real treatment for a previously untreatable disease,” said Robert Spiera, M.D., an associate attending rheumatologist at Hospital for Special Surgery who led the study.
For the study, investigators at Hospital for Special Surgery enrolled 30 patients with diffuse scleroderma, a widespread severe form of the disease, and gave them 400 mg of Gleevec per day. Patients were evaluated monthly for 12 months during treatment and were seen for follow-up three months after discontinuing the drug.
To measure the effectiveness of the drug, researchers used a tool known as the modified Rodnan skin score, a measure of how much skin is affected by the disease. “The skin score seems to be a very good marker of disease status and most scleroderma trials use this as an outcome measure,” said Dr. Spiera, who is also an associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. The investigators also measured lung function using tests for forced vital capacity (FVC), the maximum volume of air that a person can exhale after maximum inhalation, and diffusion capacity, a measurement of the lung’s capacity to transfer gases. Lung disease is the main cause of mortality in scleroderma.
The investigators reported an interim analysis of their results, although the study is ongoing. At one year, the investigators saw a 23 percent improvement in skin scores. The researchers also saw an improvement in forced vital capacity scores by 9.6 percent and diffusion capacity scores by 11 percent in the 18 patients who had completed one year of treatment.
“The lung function data was really exciting,” Dr. Spiera said. “In patients with scleroderma, you usually see lung function tests getting worse over time, and if doctors try a therapy for a year and a patient doesn’t get any worse, we get pretty excited. What is amazing to me in this study is that we actually saw improvements in both lung function tests.”
The study is the largest single center trial of Gleevec in scleroderma to date with the longest duration of treatment and follow-up. Before this trial, test tube studies of human cells indicated that Gleevec might have some activity in combating the disease, and the drug was shown to be effective in a rodent model of the disease. Only anecdotal evidence, however, had been published on the drug’s effectiveness in treating the disease in humans. Dr. Spiera said the findings of his open-label study need to be interpreted cautiously, and ultimately corroborated by evidence from a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of clinical trials.
Until now, no drug has been shown to be effective in treating scleroderma in a clinical trial. Several years ago, a small study provided some evidence that a chemotherapy drug called cyclophosphamide may help scleroderma patients, but the benefit was minimal and this drug causes side effects including infertility and secondary cancers.
Dr. Spiera’s study was funded primarily through the Rudolph Rupert Scleroderma Program at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Novartis, the manufacturer of Gleevec, provided some monetary support and donated drug. The company is not involved in the design or analysis of the trial. Gleevec is approved in the United States for two types of cancer: chronic myeloid leukemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumor.
Systemic scleroderma affects not only the skin, but also underlying blood vessels, and often muscles and joints, as well as the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, lungs and heart. According to the Scleroderma Foundation, roughly 300,000 individuals have scleroderma in the United States and roughly a third of these have the systemic kind. The disease typically strikes in the prime of patients’ lives, when they are 30-50 years old.
About HSS | Hospital for Special Surgery
HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the eighth consecutive year) and No. 3 in rheumatology by U.S. News & World Report (2017-2018). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has one of the lowest infection rates in the country and was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center four consecutive times. The global standard total knee replacement was developed at HSS in 1969. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State. In 2017 HSS provided care to 135,000 patients and performed more than 32,000 surgical procedures. People from all 50 U.S. states and 80 countries travelled to receive care at HSS. In addition to patient care, HSS leads the field in research, innovation and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration. The HSS Global Innovation Institute was formed in 2016 to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics and devices. The culture of innovation is accelerating at HSS as 130 new idea submissions were made to the Global Innovation Institute in 2017 (almost 3x the submissions in 2015). The HSS Education Institute is the world’s leading provider of education on the topic on musculoskeletal health, with its online learning platform offering more than 600 courses to more than 21,000 medical professional members worldwide. Through HSS Global Ventures, the institution is collaborating with medical centers and other organizations to advance the quality and value of musculoskeletal care and to make world-class HSS care more widely accessible nationally and internationally.