Medical Minute 4-29: Arsenic for Leukemia

By: Vanessa Welch Email
By: Vanessa Welch Email

It's a notorious poison straight out of the movies. But what if your doctor wanted to give it to you?

John Williams, Leukemia patient: 11
"I knew what arsenic was because I worked on farms and stuff, and it's rat poison, and I was like, 'What, you're kidding me.'"

44-year-old John Williams is being treated with arsenic to fight an acute form of leukemia called APL. It's where abnormal white blood cells grow instead of normal, healthy ones. That's where the arsenic comes in.

"Supposed to retrain the bad cells into thinking that they were good cells again and they get back to doing their normal stuff."

Doctors at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center put patients on two, five week IV regimens of arsenic trioxide after getting standard treatment to put their leukemia in remission. Principal Investigator Doctor Bayard Powell says this arsenic is less toxic than chemo.

Bayard L. Powell, MD: 52
Prof. of Internal Medicine,
Wake Forest University
"You know, there's a lot of trepidation as people first start. They're a little bit anxious about getting arsenic, but once they get it, especially those who've already had chemotherapy, they're so excited about how they feel."

90 percent of the patients treated with arsenic were disease-free after three years compared to just 70 percent of those who didn't get arsenic.

"There's a better response rate, better cure rate, for patients and also it's with less toxicity."

Now, John can look forward to spending a lot more time with his best friends. Eight months after a leukemia diagnosis, he's cancer-free.

"All because of some rat poison."

For more information on other series produced by Ivanhoe Broadcast News contact John Cherry at (407) 691-1500,


BACKGROUND: Leukemia is cancer of the bone marrow and blood. It is characterized by the uncontrolled accumulation of blood cells. Leukemia is divided into four categories: myelogenous or lymphocytic, which can be acute or chronic. These terms describe the cell type that is involved. The four major types of leukemia include: acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

People can develop leukemia at any age. In 2010, about 43,050 adults and 3,317 children were expected to develop leukemia. The disease is most common in people over age 60. The most common types in adults are AML and CLL. ALL is the most common form of leukemia in children.
(SOURCE: The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society)

APL: Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a type of acute leukemia that accounts for between 5 percent and 15 percent of all adult leukemias in the United States. There are about 30,800 cases of acute leukemia diagnosed yearly, and about 1,000 of these are APL. In APL, abnormal white blood cells grow instead of normal, healthy ones. The average age for onset of APL is about 40 years. It was first described in the late 1950s in Norway and France as a "hyperacute fatal illness associated with hemorrhagic syndrome." Signs and symptoms of APL are nonspecific and may include fatigue, minor infections, or a tendency to bleed. Patients usually have low levels of red blood cells, low levels of white blood cells and low levels of platelets. (SOURCE: eMedicine and

ARSENIC FOR APL? Researchers are now using arsenic to treat APL. It's not the same chemical as what's in rat poisoning, but it is knocking out leukemia in patients. In a clinical trial, patients went on two, five-week IV regimens of arsenic trioxide after receiving standard treatment to put their leukemia in remission. About 90 percent of the patients treated with the arsenic were alive and disease-free after three years compared to just 70 percent of those who didn't get the arsenic treatment. Those undergoing the arsenic treatment also had fewer side effects than those who received chemotherapy. Researchers say the arsenic is less toxic than the chemo. This approach is still experimental but is being used more frequently. In the United States, arsenic is approved for use in patients whose leukemia has come back.

Bonnie Davis, Media Relations Manager
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center
Winston-Salem, NC

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