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Anaemia treatment gives cancer patients new lease of life

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by Cancer Research UK | News

26 November 2002

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A treatment that tackles anaemia in cancer patients can help boost their energy levels and significantly improve their quality of life, researchers reveal in the British Journal of Cancer1.

Anaemia is a common side-effect of chemotherapy and often causes severe fatigue, leaving sufferers feeling excessively tired and unable to complete everyday tasks.

But in a new patient trial, researchers found that regular injections of a drug called epoetin alfa – used to treat anaemia – can help patients overcome their exhaustion.

Lead researcher Professor Lesley Fallowfield, from the Cancer Research UK Psychosocial Oncology Group at the University of Sussex says: “Fatigue is a major problem for cancer patients – affecting around 80 per cent of those receiving chemotherapy.

“Sufferers have no energy and find it difficult to do simple, everyday things like comb their hair or get dressed. It’s a condition that is not simply relieved by rest and it can be very frustrating and overwhelming for patients, especially when they are already having difficulty coping with cancer in their lives.”

Researchers recruited 375 anaemic patients due to start a 12 to 24 week course of non-platinum based chemotherapy drugs. They divided them into two groups – one group received injections of epoetin alfa and the other a placebo drug, three times a week, throughout the course of their treatment.

Patients completed questionnaires assessing physical and emotional well-being, the impact of fatigue and general quality of life, before, during and after their treatment. From the answers, researchers were able to give patients a quality of life score.

They compared the scores before and after treatment and found scores responding to patient’s energy levels, ability to do everyday tasks and general quality of life improved significantly in the group receiving epoetin alfa.

Professor Fallowfield, says: “Now that nausea and sickness caused by chemotherapy can be successfully alleviated by anti-sickness tablets, there is an urgent need to focus on treating the debilitating effects of fatigue.

“Our new study shows that epoetin alfa can have a profound effect on patients’ quality of life during chemotherapy, restoring them with enough energy to complete day to day tasks and lead life as normally as possible during their treatment.”

Epoetin alfa mimics a hormone naturally occurring in the kidneys that stimulates the production of red blood cells in the body.

Professor Fallowfield adds: “The underlying biology of fatigue is poorly understood. We know that it is partly due to a fall in levels of a molecule called haemoglobin, found in red blood cells, so it seems logical that increasing the levels of haemoglobin with epoetin alfa would have a direct effect on patient’s energy levels.”

Haemoglobin carries oxygen around the body and high levels of the molecule allow our muscles to get more of the oxygen that they need to produce energy.

Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, says: “In developing treatments that kill cancer cells, we must also focus on maintaining a cancer patient’s quality of life. Limiting severe fatigue during a course of treatment would enable patients to live a full a life as possible.”


  1. British Journal of Cancer87 (12)

Note to editors:

Patients were recruited from South Africa and 14 European countries including the UK