Current and emerging treatments for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.
Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) is the most common adult leukaemia in Europe and North America. The disease is characterized by proliferation and accumulation of small CD5+ B cells in blood, lymph nodes, spleen, liver and bone marrow. The natural clinical course of CLL is highly variable, and chemotherapy is usually not indicated in early and stable disease. However, patients with progressive and more advanced CLL require treatment. For many years, chlorambucil with or without corticosteroids was used in previously untreated patients with CLL. More recently, purine nucleoside analogues (PNAs) [fludarabine, cladribine and pentostatin] have been included in treatment approaches for this disease, and chlorambucil is no longer the leading standard everywhere. Currently, this drug is rather recommended for the treatment of older, unfit patients with co-morbidities, especially in European countries. Significantly higher overall response (OR) and complete response (CR) rates in patients treated initially with PNAs than in those treated with chlorambucil or cyclophosphamide-based combination regimens have been confirmed in randomized, prospective, multicentre trials. Moreover, PNAs administered in combination with cyclophosphamide produce higher response rates, including CR and molecular CR, compared with PNA as monotherapy. Recent reports suggest that the administration of monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) can significantly improve the course of CLL. At present, two mAbs have the most important clinical value in patients with CLL. The first is rituximab, a human mouse antibody that targets CD20 antigens, and the second is alemtuzumab, a humanized form of a rat antibody active against CD52. Several recent reports suggest that in patients with CLL, rituximab combined with a PNA can increase the OR and CR rates compared with PNA or rituximab alone, with acceptable toxicity. In randomized trials, the combination of rituximab with fludarabine and cyclophosphamide (FC-R regimen) demonstrated higher rates of OR, CR and progression-free survival in patients with previously untreated and relapsed or refractory CLL than fludarabine plus cyclophosphamide (FC regimen). Several reports have confirmed significant activity with alemtuzumab in relapsed or refractory CLL, as well as in previously untreated patients. Recently, several new agents have been investigated and have shown promise in treating patients with CLL. These treatments include new mAbs, agents targeting the antiapoptotic bcl-2 family of proteins and receptors involved in mediating survival signals from the microenvironment, antisense oligonucleotides and other agents. The most promising are new mAbs directed against the CD20 molecule, lumiliximab and anti-CD40 mAbs. Oblimersen, alvocidib (flavopiridol) and lenalidomide are also being evaluated both in preclinical studies and in early clinical trials. In recent years, a significant improvement in haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) procedures in patients with high-risk CLL has been observed. However, the exact role of HSCT, autologous or allogeneic, in the standard management of CLL patients is still undefined.