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The hallmark characteristics of cancer include an unrestrained proliferation involving activation of growth signals, loss of negative regulation and dysfunctional apoptotic pathways. Targeting abnormal cell signalling pathways should provide a more selective approach to cancer treatment than conventional cytotoxic chemotherapy. Tyrosine kinases play an essential role in the signalling pathways involved in the control of cellular proliferation and growth. Imatinib is a small-molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitor of the ABL fusion gene, platelet derived growth factor receptors (PDGFR) and KIT. This agent has demonstrated considerable activity in chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) by inhibiting the BCR-ABL fusion protein and gastrointestinal stromal tumours (GISTs), which are predominantly driven by activating mutations in KIT. A number of other rare conditions are also responsive, for example, dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans, which is driven by a chromosomal translocation involving PDGF-B and Col1A1, resulting in overexpression of PDGF-B, and hypereosinophillic syndrome, which can be caused by activating PDGFR mutations. The pivotal registration study for newly diagnosed CML was a large randomised trial comparing 400 mg/day of imatinib to a combination of IFN-alpha and cytarabine, which demonstrated a significantly higher complete haematological and cytogenetic response rate in the imatinib arm. In the case of GIST a randomised study in patients with inoperable or metastatic disease explored doses of 400 - 600mg and reported a response rate of > 50% in each arm plus disease stabilisation and an improvement in performance status. Large randomised trials have subsequently been performed, comparing 400 with 800mg/day. The first to report indicates that the larger dose is associated with improved progression-free survival, although it is not yet known whether or not this will translate into a difference in overall survival. The most common KIT mutation involves exon 11 and is associated with a statistically significant better response and prognosis compared with other mutations or no detectable mutations. Mutational analysis is likely to become increasingly important in the selection of patients for neoadjuvant and adjuvant treatment and in helping to understand the nature of acquired resistance.


Robin L Jones, Ian R Judson. The development and application of imatinib. Expert opinion on drug safety. 2005 Mar;4(2):183-91

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PMID: 15794712

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