The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has approved a new cancer drug that can melt away some advanced forms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). The drug is called venetoclax, which will be marketed as VENCLEXTA™, and is intended for patients with relapsed or refractory CLL as well as for those whom standard cancer treatments did not work.

“TGA approval of venetoclax is a major milestone in a journey spanning decades of powerful and innovative research by teams of leading scientists, clinicians and entrepreneurs, including more than one hundred researchers at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research,” said Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research director  Professor Doug Hilton.

In 1988, researchers at the Eliza Hall Institute identified that the protein BCL-2 allows cancer cells to survive. Since then, scientists have tried to find ways to solve this problem and eventually, they invented the venetoclax.

The drug, like what Hilton said, is: “Like a lethal arrow, venetoclax flies straight to the heart of BCL-2.” Scientists from the US pharmaceutical companies AbbVie and Genentech collaborated with the institute to create the drug. The first clinical trials for the drug were conducted by Australian hematologists in Melbourne at the Institute’s Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre partners, The Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

According to Andrew Roberts, who is a clinical hematologist at The Royal Melbourne Hospital as well as a cancer researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the University of Melbourne, the drug is now being combined with other cancer drugs and is currently tested in the phase 2 and phase 3 of clinical trials in the treatment for other blood cancers.

“The hope is that venetoclax, potentially in combination with other approved drugs, could benefit more patients including those with other hard-to-treat types of blood cancer,” adds Roberts. “Ongoing research suggests that this drug will be very active against other cancers, so this milestone may just be the beginning,” he said.