Arsenic trioxide has been approved to treat a specific type of leukemia called acute promyelocytic leukemia, where the undeveloped blood cells found in the bone marrow and blood are in excessive numbers. When doctors turn to arsenic trioxide, it typically means that chemotherapy has not worked. It's part of a list of drugs called anti-neoplastics, and it is believed to slow or stop cancerous cells from growing.
Some cancer specialists use arsenic trioxide to treat multiple myeloma or cancer found in the bone marrow plasma cells. Other specialists use it to treat other cancers of the bone marrow and blood, such as acute myelogenous leukemia and chronic myelogenous leukemia. As additional uses for the drug are discovered, doctors may choose to use it to treat other conditions as well. In fact, as long as a drug is approved to treat one condition, it can be used to treat any condition deemed appropriate by a doctor.
The most common way to use arsenic trioxide for medical uses is through injection into a vein. It is usually in a powder form, but once it is converted into a liquid, a doctor or nurse may inject the drug over a one to four hour period. The injections usually occur one time a day and most doctors prefer to have them concentrated over an hour or two. The amount of the drug that a patient receives depends on various factors, such as the patient’s weight and height, the patient’s general health, and the kind of cancer or medical problem that is being treated.
Side effects may be experienced by people receiving injections of arsenic trioxide. In most cases, the side effects are reversible and they will usually stop after the treatment has stopped. Side effects that most commonly occur include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, cough, fatigue, fever, headache, shortness of breath, and a rapid heart rate. Some patients also experience swelling of the some body parts, a sore throat, rash, insomnia, joint pains, chills, and anxiety.
There is an extremely serious side effect from arsenic trioxide that should be treated by a doctor called acute promyelocytic leukemia differentiation syndrome. It is actually a reaction between the leukemia and the drug. Patients typically experience fever, problems breathing and weight gain, if they are affected by the syndrome. In most cases, a doctor will simply treat the syndrome with a high-dose of steroids. Usually, treatment of the leukemia will continue, after the syndrome is controlled.