Some leukaemia patients could be cured of their disease by a standard drug treatment, new trial results suggest.

A proportion of patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) remained completely free of the disease two years after doctors stopped treating them with the drug imatinib, trial results indicated.

It had been believed that the disease would always return if treatment was halted, due to the presence of resistant stem cells.

Glivec, the standard treatment for CML, a slow-growing, long-term form of leukaemia, works by switching off an enzyme linked to the cancer, leading to reduced levels of an abnormal protein called BCR/ABL.

In some patients, imatinib can produce complete molecular remission (CMR), marked by the protein becoming undetectable.

The scientists, led by Professor Francois-Xavier Mahon, from Victor Segalen Bordeaux University in France, reported their findings in the journal The Lancet Oncology.

However, the authors pointed out that sustained complete molecular remission – the prerequisite for stopping treatment – did not often occur. Suitable candidates for treatment stoppage might represent only about 10 per cent of patients.