The goals of therapy in patients with polycythemia vera (PV) are to improve disease-related symptoms, prevent the incidence or recurrence of thrombosis, and possibly delay or prevent the transformation into myelofibrosis or acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Cytoreductive therapies have been used in older patients and those with a history of thrombosis to achieve these goals. Hydroxyurea (HU) remains the first-line cytoreductive choice; however, up to one in four patients treated with HU over time will develop resistance or intolerance to HU. More importantly, patients who fail HU have a 5.6-fold increase in mortality and a 6.8-fold increase risk of transformation to myelofibrosis or AML; therefore, alternative therapies are needed for these patients. Interferon-α has been used in PV and has shown significant activity in achieving hematologic responses and decreasing JAK2 V617F mutation allele burden. JAK inhibition has also been investigated and recently garnered regulatory approval for this indication. In this review, we will discuss the current treatment options that are available for patients after HU and the novel therapies that are currently under investigation.
Implications for Practice:
The outcomes of PV patients who fail or who are intolerant of hydroxyurea are poor. Although pegylated interferon can be considered in younger patients, currently, ruxolitinib is the only U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved agent in this setting, representing a viable option, leading to hematocrit control and a reduction in spleen size and constitutional symptoms. Although a small number of patients will achieve a molecular response with continuous treatment, the implications of such response on the clinical outcomes are still unknown. Patients whose disease is not adequately controlled with ruxolitinib, or who lose their response, can be treated with low-dose busulfan or pipobroman; however, they should be encouraged to participate in trials with novel therapies.