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Gleevec Overview

Gleevec (imatinib mesylate) is the brand name for a prescription drug that doctors use to treat some cancers. Gleevec prevents cancer cells from growing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Gleevec in 2001 when Novartis submitted it for review.

Two types of cancers Gleevec treats are chronic myeloid leukemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumors.

Here, we'll discuss the side effects of Gleevec. We'll also explain what factors to consider when deciding whether to take Gleevec.

Conditions Gleevec Treats

Oncologists and physicians prescribe Gleevec to patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) or gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST).

CML is a disease where the body makes too many abnormal white blood cells. As a result, people with CML get sick more often and feel weak and tired much of the time. Gleevec helps the body stop making these abnormal white blood cells.

GIST is a group of cancer cells growing in the stomach, intestines, or rectum walls. Gleevec helps the body stop making these abnormal cells.

Gleevec targets specific proteins in your body that help cancer cells grow. These proteins are tyrosine kinases or Bcr-Abl proteins. By preventing these proteins from assisting the growth of cancer cells, Gleevec can help prevent the spread of invasive cancers.

In 2006, the FDA approved the use of Gleevec for other diseases. These include specific cancers and blood diseases that respond to tyrosine kinase inhibitors.

These new uses include:

  • Relapsed/refractory Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (PH+ ALL)
  • Philadelphia chromosome positive chronic myeloid leukemia (PH+CML)
  • Tumor lysis syndrome
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia
  • Aggressive systemic mastocytosis
  • Myelodysplastic and myeloproliferative diseases (MDS/MPD)
  • Chronic eosinophilic leukemia (CEL)
  • Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (PDGFR)
  • Hypereosinophilic syndrome (HES)

There's no need to try to memorize these medical terms. But you can check if any of these diseases match your diagnosis. If they do, then Gleevec may be an option for you.

The FDA approved Gleevec for treating these diseases after reviewing the results of clinical trials at Novartis Oncology. The FDA has also approved the use of Gleevec to treat unresectable cancers. These are cancers that your surgeon can't completely remove from your body.

Talk to Your Healthcare Provider Before Taking Gleevec

Always talk to your healthcare professional before taking Gleevec. Certain conditions make taking this medication unsafe.

Inform your oncologist if you suffer from any of the following:

  • Unusual allergic reaction to Gleevec
  • Other allergies (foods, preservatives, or dyes)
  • Pregnancy (or if you are breastfeeding)
  • Anemia
  • Platelet problems
  • White blood cell
  • Chickenpox or Shingles
  • Liver disease
  • Any infections

Always seek medical advice as you research cancer treatment.

Some People Should Not Use Gleevec

Women taking Gleevec should not try to get pregnant while taking the drug. People with anemia or low white blood cell counts should also avoid Gleevec. This is because the medication temporarily lowers the number of white blood cells in your blood, increasing your chance of getting an infection.

Gleevec can also lower the number of platelets. Platelets are necessary for proper blood clotting. Talk to your healthcare professional about steps to reduce the risk of infection or bleeding.

Gleevec Side Effects

Almost all drugs have adverse side effects. The same is true for Gleevec.

According to the Mayo Clinic, common side effects of Gleevec include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fluid retention
  • Muscle cramps
  • Skin rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Heartburn
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Joint pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bone pain
  • Headache
  • Serious side effects are uncommon but include:
  • Severe fluid retention (edema)
  • Liver problems
  • Potential for bleeding (hemorrhage), especially in older adults

Tell your healthcare professional if you experience swelling or weight gain from water retention.

Gleevec and Other Medications

Gleevec can interact with other medications, alcohol, or recreational drugs. Tell your doctor about all your medicines, including prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbs, and supplements.

Be sure to tell your healthcare professional if you take the following medications or foods. They can put you at a greater risk of side effects. The following medications and food may increase the amount of Gleevec in your blood:

  • Ketoconazole
  • Itraconazole
  • Erythromycin
  • Clarithromycin
  • Nefazodone
  • Indinavir
  • Atazanavir
  • Grapefruit
  • Grapefruit juice
  • Grapefruit-containing food or vitamins

Conversely, other medications may decrease the amount of Gleevec in your blood. This decreases its effectiveness. These medications and supplements include:

  • Dexamethasone
  • Phenytoin
  • Carbamazepine
  • Rifampicin
  • Phenobarbital
  • St. John's Wort

Preventing Infections While Using Gleevec

Gleevec can increase your risk of getting an infection. This is because it lowers your white blood cell count. So, you'll want to be extra cautious while using Gleevec. Gleevec can also lower your platelet count, which decreases your blood's ability to clot properly.

To reduce the risk of infection or bleeding, you can take the following precautions:

  • Avoid people with infections
  • Check with your doctor immediately if you notice any unusual bleeding, bruising, or pinpoint red spots on your skin
  • Be careful when using a regular toothbrush, dental floss, or toothpicks
  • Avoid contact sports and situations where bruising or injury could occur

Pay attention to your doctor's instructions and read your medication guide. This will help you prevent infections and stay safe while taking Gleevec.

Research on Gleevec

Studies show that Gleevec can cause heart problems. Researchers have also conducted studies in patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). But the overall cancer survival rate of CML patients using Gleevec is exceptionally high. So, while the reported rate of heart failure is low, many healthcare professionals say the benefits of Gleevec outweigh its risks.

Getting Legal Help

Most medications have side effects. But drugmakers must make their products as reasonably safe as possible. They must also inform the medical community and the public of their drugs' side effects and health risks.

If a manufacturer fails to do so, it may be responsible for patients' injuries. This is especially true if patients get hurt due to inadequate warnings or by an unreasonably dangerous drug.

Most patients who suffer an injury file a product liability lawsuit against the drug manufacturer. Others file a medical malpractice lawsuit against their doctor. It all depends on the facts surrounding your case.

If you or a loved one experiences dangerous symptoms or medical conditions while taking Gleevec, seek immediate medical attention. Talk to an experienced product liability attorney to discuss your options.

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