By February of last year, Victoria Reiter, 63, figured she had only a few months to live. A writer and translator living in Manhattan, she was suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia, an especially deadly form of blood cancer. The only treatment available was interferon, an immune-system booster that wasn't really working and that made her violently ill. Reiter had spent most of 1999 in bed, too sick to read, to walk, to do much of anything--although she had managed to put together lists dividing her possessions between her two daughters.
Then she went on an experimental drug called Gleevec, and within weeks everything changed. "All my energy started coming back," she says. "Suddenly I could read. I could take a walk." By August, tests showed her bone marrow was clear of leukemia cells; in December, she took up the Argentine tango. She still has the lists of what her daughters will get, but, she exults, "They're not going to get it yet!"
For Bob Ferber, a Los Angeles prosecutor specializing in animal-abuse cases, the Gleevec experience was very much the same. Less than two years ago, he was lying in a hospital room considering suicide to escape the pain radiating from his bones. "From crawling across the floor on my knees to go to the bathroom, I'm now back at work," says Ferber, 48. "I go to the gym. I'm volunteering for an animal-rescue group. I have a girlfriend. It's the dream of any cancer patient in the world to be able to take a pill that works like this. It's truly a miracle."
That's a tempting way to look at it, anyhow. Gleevec is effective enough that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it in record time two weeks ago--even as researchers announced that it also works against a rare form of stomach cancer. The drug doesn't help everyone, and it can have side effects, including nausea, muscle cramps and skin rash. Moreover, nobody is claiming that it actually cures cancer. Patients may have to continue taking the drug, probably for the rest of their lives, and unless Gleevec is used in combination with some other drugs, it is likely their cancer will come back.
Despite all these caveats, Gleevec is still a breakthrough--not only for what it does but, more important, for the revolutionary strategy it represents. A full 30 years have passed since President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer and called for a national commitment comparable to the effort to land on the moon or split the atom. But over those three decades, researchers have come up with one potential miracle cure after another--only to suffer one disappointment after another. Aside from surgery, which almost invariably leaves behind some malignant cells, the standard treatment for most cancers continues to be radiation and chemotherapy--relatively crude disease-fighting weapons that have limited effectiveness and leave patients weak and nauseated.