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Bristol Myers Squibb Co. (BMY), Pharmacyclics, Inc. (PCYC): Hedging Against Leukemia

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One of the Easiest Ways to Build a Retirement Nest Egg I've Ever SeenAs I noted 11 weeks ago, cancer statistics are both staggering and disappointing. Although cancer deaths per 100,000 people have been on the downswing since 1991 thanks to access to more effective medications and better awareness about the negative health effects of smoking, there is still a lot of research and progress yet to achieve. My focus in this 12-week series is to bring to light both the need for continued research in these fields, as well as highlight ways you can profit from the biggest current and upcoming players in each area.

Over the past 10 weeks, we’ve looked at the 10 cancer types most expected to be diagnosed this year:

Prostate cancer

Breast cancer

Lung cancer

Colorectal cancer

Melanoma

Bladder cancer

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Thyroid cancer

Kidney cancer

Endometrial cancer

Today, we’ll turn our attention to the projected 11th-most diagnosed cancer: leukemia.

The skinny on leukemia
This year, nearly 49,000 new cases of leukemia are expected to be diagnosed. While that’s well below some of the previous cancer’s we’ve examined, the virulence of leukemia — which is a cancer of the bone marrow or blood — is higher than many we’ve reviewed in recent weeks. Leukemia is forecast to claim close to 24,000 lives this year, which makes it the sixth-deadliest cancer for both men and women.

There are four primary types of leukemia: acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), which is a cancer that starts from white blood cells called lymphocytes and is most common among children; acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which is a cancer usually found in adults where the bone marrow makes abnormal myeloblasts; chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), which is where the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells; and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), which is the most common adulthood leukemia and causes a slow increase in white blood cells called B lymphocytes, which helps spread cancer.

Although early stage detection really doesn’t exist unless you’re already presenting symptoms (fatigue, paleness, weight loss, bruising easily, etc.) or happen to be in the right place at the right time and are diagnosed during a blood test, the curability and severity of symptoms depends on which of these four diseases you have. Five-year survival rates for all leukemias have increased dramatically, from 34% in 1975-1977 to 58% as of 2002-2008, according to the American Cancer Society (links opens PDF file), but some offer better hope than others. As the ACS notes, those with CLL have an 82% chance of five-year survival, whereas AML patients have just a 25% chance.


Sources: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program and the National Center for Health Statistics.

The risk factors associated with leukemia are just as varying as the statistics with regard to five-year survival. Cigarette smoking, for instance, is a big risk factor for AML, while the probability of CLL has a lot to do with the genetics in your family. One common theme that appears to be a risk factor across all types of leukemia is radiation exposure — especially through the course of receiving chemotherapy or treating an existing cancer.

Where investment dollars are headed
Although there are numerous medications targeting leukemia, we’ll stick to these four most common types listed above. Here’s a look at some of the most common therapeutic agents used to treat leukemia.

Sprycel: Developed by Bristol Myers Squibb Co. (NYSE:BMY), Sprycel was approved in 2006 as a second-line treatment for patients who had Philadelphia chromosome-positive (Ph+) ALL or Ph+ CML, and had resistance to prior therapy. In trials, 42% of patients with Ph+ ALL showed a complete or partial response while taking the drug and it delivered a median response time of 4.8 months.

Gleevec: Marketed by Novartis AG (ADR) (NYSE:NVS), Gleevec is also a secondary treatment used to treat Ph+ ALL and CML in patients who haven’t responded to previous treatments. More recently, Gleevec was granted FDA approval to treat children with Ph+ ALL, which is an important win for Novartis AG (ADR) (NYSE:NVS) because, as I mentioned, ALL is the most common form of leukemia in children. Gleevec is part of a class of drugs known as tyrosine kinase inhibitors that blocks a protein crucial for cancer cell development.

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