Most patients diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, face weeks of intense, brutal chemotherapy and maybe a stem-cell transplant. Even then, the American Cancer Society says only about 27 percent will live another five years.
Now, a Salt Lake City company is testing a targeted therapy that is showing promising early results.
Lila Javan was 39 years old when she was diagnosed with AML the first time.
"Thirty-six hours later, I was in UCLA hospital on IV chemo, 24/7. And I didn't leave that hospital for two months," Javan said.
After months of chemo and a stem-cell transplant, Javan was back home with her cat, O'Malley. But four years later, the cancer came back.
"There were times when I thought I wasn't going to make it," she said.
Tolero Pharmaceuticals, is testing a drug called Alvocidib, which targets a protein called CDK9.
"It affects a particular protein that those AML cells like to express. It's a survival protein. It's a protein that helps them not die," said David Bearss, Ph.D., of Tolero Pharmaceuticals.
CDK9 allows cancer cells to ignore signals to die. Alvocidib lets the chemotherapy in to kill the cancer. Trials show it is improving remission rates. Bearss says 25 percent of AML patients have something in them that allows Alvocidib to work. They're tested for that before getting into the trial.
"It asks the question, 'What is the mechanism the cell is using to live?' And if it's using this particular protein, then we know the drug will work," Bearss said.
Javan is in remission again, but she's still excited about Alvocidib's potential.
"It's amazing. You know, like I said, it would be a total game changer and so many people would be helped," she said.
The Alvocidib trial has enrolled 400 patients and is being run at nine sites in the U.S. and Canada. It's open only to people who have positive responses to the test. But, Tolero expects to run a bigger randomized study soon and will have a better idea of how long Alvocidib can extend people's lives.