New breakthrough drug for leukaemia trialled at The Christie

Press release posted 24 April

A new drug being trialled at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester could be a breakthrough for patients with a hard-to-treat form of leukaemia.

The drug, which is known as NX-5948, and so new it doesn’t have a name, is for the treatment of patients with CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukaemia) whose disease has come back after previous treatment or the cancer has stopped responding to treatment. CLL is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow. 

One Christie patient on the clinical trial who is benefiting from taking this trial drug is Joe Murphy (59) from Hulme in Manchester. His blood tests are now normal and show no evidence of the disease. 

Joe Murphy
Caption: Joe Murphy

In May 2015, Joe, who was 50 at the time, became unwell and was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. It was there he was given the devastating news he had CLL and needed an urgent bone marrow transplant. The previously fit and healthy bar manager, who has worked at some of Manchester’s top night clubs including Sankeys and The Warehouse Project, as well as bars at some of the UK’s biggest festivals, asked to be referred to The Christie. Despite the best efforts of doctors, a stem cell match couldn’t be found for a bone marrow transplant. So instead he was prescribed a series of drugs to treat his condition and went into remission for 5 years. 

Unfortunately this time last year Joe’s body became resistant to the treatment he was taking and it stopped working. Joe started to rapidly lose weight and he eventually lost more than three stone.  His immune system was very weak, and he developed a bacterial infection, sepsis and contracted meningitis and was hospitalised several times.  Doctors then discovered cancer in his spinal fluid and his brain, which is difficult to treat, and the prognosis was poor.

With no other options left, Joe was offered the chance to participate in an early phase (phase I) clinical trial at The Christie for NX-5948 for CLL, taken in capsule form once a day. He agreed to take part in research at the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Manchester Clinical Research Facility (CRF) at The Christie and started his first treatment in June 2023.

The drug developed by Nurix Therapeutics is in a new class of treatments for blood cancers known as ‘degraders’. It gets rid of a protein in the cell that is responsible for driving cancer growth by putting it in the cell’s ‘dustbin’, known as the proteasome, which removes unneeded and damaged proteins. CLL can develop a resistance to drugs currently available to treat the disease, and this new type of drug could resolve this problem.

Joe is on the dose escalation part of the study and has tripled the dose since the start of the trial. He now takes 6 capsules a day, feels fit and well and has monthly visits to see his doctor and scans every three months. His latest blood tests could not find any evidence of the CLL.

Talking about his experience, Joe Murphy, who is originally from Seaforth in Merseyside, said: “I was at death’s door 6 months ago with no options left. Mentally I wasn’t in a good place.  It’s been very tough, and if it wasn’t for this clinical trial I wouldn’t be here. This is an incredible drug like something out of a sci-fi movie. The science is amazing. It’s kept me alive and well since June last year. I’m putting weight back on, my blood count is fine, my lymph nodes have shrunk back to near normal, and it’s almost got rid of the cancer in my brain, which is such a relief. It’s been a very difficult 9 years, but I can now look to the future and plan to celebrate my 60th birthday in December.”

Dr Emma Searle, consultant haematologist at The Christie, and the principal investigator for the trial said: “This might be the breakthrough we’ve been looking for in the treatment of CLL. The new trial drug is designed to eliminate leukaemia from cells by degrading a critical growth protein. It works differently to current treatments that block the same protein. Sometimes CLL cells develop a resistance to existing drugs, which it seems this new drug can overcome.

“This is a very early phase clinical trial so we’re still working out what the highest safe dose can be. To already see some of our patients like Joe responding so well to the treatment, with minimal side effects is very promising. There has been a dramatic improvement in his condition. Given it’s at such an early stage of development, the results we’re seeing are impressive and make us cautiously optimistic that we have found a new way to treat patients with difficult to treat CLL. There’s still a lot of research to do, but potentially this drug could be an exciting breakthrough for patients with this type of leukaemia.”

CLL is the most common leukaemia diagnosed in adults (38% of all leukaemia cases). 40% of all new CLL cases in the UK are diagnosed in people aged 75 years or over. Over 3,803 people are diagnosed with CLL in the UK every year.

This commercial clinical trial is funded by Nurix Therapeutics. It is recruiting patients at several hospitals in the UK and abroad.

Any patients interested in taking part in clinical trials should discuss this option with their consultant or GP. Not all patients will fit the criteria for a specific trial. While clinical trials can be successful for some patients, outcomes can vary from case to case. More information about taking part in clinical trials can be found on our taking part in studies and trials page.

Last updated: April 2024