The structure of nilotinib is similar to that of imatinib; however, it has a markedly increased affinity for the ATP‐binding site on the BCR-ABL1 protein. It was initially given regulatory approval in the setting of imatinib failure. Nilotinib was studied at a dose of 400 mg twice daily in 321 patients who were imatinib-resistant or -intolerant. It proved to be highly effective at inducing cytogenetic remissions in the second-line setting, with 59% of patients achieving a major cytogenetic response (MCyR) and 45% achieving CCyR. With a median follow-up time of 4 years, the OS was 78%.11
Nilotinib gained regulatory approval for use as a first-line TKI after completion of the randomized phase 3 ENESTnd (Evaluating Nilotinib Efficacy and Safety in Clinical Trials-Newly Diagnosed Patients) trial. ENESTnd was a 3-arm study comparing nilotinib 300 mg twice daily versus nilotinib 400 mg twice daily versus imatinib 400 mg daily in newly diagnosed, previously untreated patients diagnosed with CP-CML. The primary endpoint of this clinical trial was rate of MMR at 12 months.12 Nilotinib surpassed imatinib in this regard, with 44% of patients on nilotinib 300 mg twice daily achieving MMR at 12 months versus 43% of nilotinib 400 mg twice daily patients versus 22% of the imatinib-treated patients (P < 0.001 for both comparisons). Furthermore, the rate of CCyR by 12 months was significantly higher for both nilotinib arms compared with imatinib (80% for nilotinib 300 mg, 78% for nilotinib 400 mg, and 65% for imatinib) (P < 0.001).12 Based on this data, nilotinib 300 mg twice daily was chosen as the standard dose of nilotinib in the first-line setting. After 5 years of follow-up on the ENESTnd study, there were fewer progressions to AP/BP CML in nilotinib-treated patients compared with imatinib. MMR was achieved in 77% of nilotinib 300 mg patients compared with 60.4% of patients on the imatinib arm. MR4.5 was also more common in patients treated with nilotinib 300 mg twice daily, with a rate of 53.5% at 5 years versus 31.4% in the imatinib arm.13 In spite of the deeper cytogenetic and molecular responses achieved with nilotinib, this did not translate into a significant improvement in OS. The 5-year OS rate was 93.7% in nilotinib 300 mg patients versus 91.7% in imatinib-treated patients, and this difference lacked statistical significance.13
Although some similarities exist between the toxicity profiles of nilotinib and imatinib, each drug has some distinct adverse events. On the ENESTnd trial, the rate of any grade 3/4 non-hematologic adverse event was fairly low; however, lower-grade toxicities were not uncommon. Patients treated with nilotinib 300 mg twice daily experienced rash (31%), headache (14%), pruritis (15%), and fatigue (11%) most commonly. The most frequently reported laboratory abnormalities included increased total bilirubin (53%), hypophosphatemia (32%), hyperglycemia (36%), elevated lipase (24%), increased alanine aminotransferase (ALT; 66%), and increased aspartate aminotransferase (AST; 40%). Any grade of neutropenia, thrombocytopenia, or anemia occurred at rates of 43%, 48%, and 38%, respectively.12 Although nilotinib has a Black Box Warning from the US Food and Drug Administration for QT interval prolongation, no patients on the ENESTnd trial experienced a QT interval corrected for heart rate greater than 500 msec.12
More recent concerns have emerged regarding the potential for cardiovascular toxicity after long-term use of nilotinib. The 5-year update of ENESTnd reports cardiovascular events, including ischemic heart disease, ischemic cerebrovascular events, or peripheral arterial disease occurring in 7.5% of patients treated with nilotinib 300 mg twice daily compared with a rate of 2.1% in imatinib-treated patients. The frequency of these cardiovascular events increased linearly over time in both arms. Elevations in total cholesterol from baseline occurred in 27.6% of nilotinib patients compared with 3.9% of imatinib patients. Furthermore, clinically meaningful increases in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and glycated hemoglobin occurred more frequently with nilotinib therapy.12
Nilotinib should be taken on an empty stomach; therefore, patients should be made aware of the need to fast for 2 hours prior to each dose and 1 hour after each dose. Given the potential risk of QT interval prolongation, a baseline electrocardiogram (ECG) is recommended prior to initiating treatment to ensure the QT interval is within a normal range. A repeat ECG should be done approximately 7 days after nilotinib initiation to ensure no prolongation of the QT interval after starting. Close monitoring of potassium and magnesium levels is important to decrease the risk of cardiac arrhythmias, and concomitant use of drugs considered strong CYP3A4 inhibitors should be avoided.7
If the patient experiences any grade 3 or higher laboratory abnormalities, nilotinib should be held until resolution of the toxicity, and then restarted at a lower dose. Similarly, if patients develop significant neutropenia or thrombocytopenia, nilotinib doses should be interrupted until resolution of the cytopenias. At that point, nilotinib can be reinitiated at either the same or a lower dose. Rash can be managed by the use of topical or systemic steroids as well as potential dose reduction, interruption, or discontinuation.
Given the concerns for potential cardiovascular events with long-term use of nilotinib, caution is advised when prescribing it to any patient with a history of cardiovascular disease or peripheral arterial occlusive disease. At the first sign of new occlusive disease, nilotinib should be discontinued.7