Outcomes Research in Review

Does Oral Chemotherapy Venetoclax Combined with Rituximab Improve Survival in Patients with Relapsed or Refractory Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia?

Seymour JF, Kipps TJ, Eichhorst B, et al. Venetoclax-rituximab in relapsed or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia. N Engl J Med 2018;378:1107–20



Study Overview

Objective. To assess whether a combination of venetoclax with rituximab, compared to standard chemoimmunotherapy (bendamustine with rituximab), improves outcomes in patients with relapsed or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Design. International, randomized, open-label, phase 3 clinical trial (MURANO).

Setting and participants. Patients were eligilble for the study if they were 18 years of age or older with a diagnosis of relapsed or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia that required therapy, and had received 1 to 3 previous treatments (including at least 1 chemotherapy-containing regimen), had an Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group performance status score of 0 or 1, and had adequate bone marrow, renal, and hepatic function. Patients were randomly assigned either to receive venetoclax plus rituximab or bendamustine plus rituximab. Randomization was stratified by geographic region, responsiveness to previous therapy, as well as the presence or absence of chromosome 17p deletion.

Main outcome measures. Primary outcome was investigator-assessed progression-free survival, which was defined as the time from randomization to the first occurrence of disease progression or relapse or death from any cause, whichever occurs first. Secondary efficacy endpoints included independent review committee-assessed progression-free survival (stratified by chromosome 17p deletion), independent review committee-assessed overall response rate and complete response rate, overall survival, rates of clearance of minimal residual disease, the duration of response, event-free survival, and the time to the next treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Main results. From 31 March 2014 to 23 September 2015, a total of 389 patients were enrolled at 109 sites in 20 countries and were randomly assigned to receive venetoclax plus rituximab (n = 194), or bendamustine plus rituximab (n = 195). Median age was 65 years (range, 22–85) and a majority of the patients (73.8%) were men. Overall, the demographic and disease characteristics of the 2 groups were similar at baseline.

The median follow-up period was 23.8 months (range, 0–37.4). The median investigator-assessed progression-free survival was significantly longer in the venetoclax-rituximab group (median progression-free survival not reached, 32 events of progression or death in 194 patients) and was 17 months in the bendamustine-rituximab group (114 events in 195 patients). The 2-year rate of investigator-assessed progression-free survival was 84.9% (95% confidence interval [CI] 79.1–90.5) in the venetoclax-rituximab group and 36.3% (95% CI 28.5–44.0) in the bendamustine-rituximab group (hazard ratio for progression or death, 0.17; 95% CI 0.11 to 0.25; P < 0.001). Benefit was consistent in favor of the venetoclax-rituximab group in all prespecified subgroup analyses, with or without chromosome 17p deletion.

The rate of overall survival was higher in the venetoclax-rituximab group than in the bendamustine-rituximab group, with 24-month rates of 91.9% and 86.6%, respectively (hazard ratio 0.58, 95% CI 0.25–0.90). Assessments of minimal residual disease were available for 366 of the 389 patients (94.1%). On the basis of peripheral-blood samples, the venetoclax-rituximab group had a higher minimal residual disease compared to the bendamustine-rituximab group (121 of 194 patients [62.4%] vs. 26 of 195 patients [13.3%]). In bone marrow aspirate, higher rates of clearance of minimal residual disease was seen in the venetoclax-rituximab group (53 of 194 patients [27.3%]) as compared to the bendamustine-rituximab group (3 of 195 patients [1.5%]).

In terms of safety, the most common adverse event reported was neutropenia (60.8% of the patients in the venetoclax-rituximab group vs. 44.1% of the patients in the bendamustine-rituximab group). This contributed to the overall higher grade 3 or 4 adverse event rate in the venetoclax-rituximab group (159 of the 194 patients, or 82.0%) as compared to the bendamustine-rituximab group (132 of 188 patients, or 70.2%). The incidence of serious adverse events, as well as adverse events that resulted in death were similar in the 2 groups.

Conclusion. For patients with relapsed or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia, venetoclax plus rituximab resulted in significantly higher rates of progression-free survival than standard therapy with bendamustine plus rituximab.


Despite advances in treatment, chronic lymphocytic leukemia remains incurable with conventional chemoimmunotherapy regimens, and almost all patient relapse after initial therapy. Following relapse of the disease, the goal is to provide durable progression-free survival, which may extend overall survival [1]. In a subset of chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients with deletion or mutation of TP53 loci on chromosome 17p13, their disease responds especially poorly to conventional treatment and they have a median survival of less than 3 years from the time of initiating first treatment.

Apoptosis defines a process of programmed cell death with an extrinsic and intrinsic cellular apoptotic pathway. B-cell lymphoma/leukemia 2 (BCL-2) protein is a key regulator of the intrinsic apoptotic pathway and almost all chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells elude apoptosis through overexpression of BCL-2. Venetoclax is an orally administered, highly selective, potent BCL-2 inhibitor approved by the FDA in 2016 for the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients with 17p deletion who have received at least 1 prior therapy [3]. There has been great interest in combining venetoclax with other active agents in chronic lymphocytic leukemia such as chemotherapy, monoclonal antibodies, and B-cell receptor inhibitors. The combination of venetoclax with the CD20 antibody rituximab was found to be able to overcome micro-environment-induced resistance to venetoclax [4].

In this analysis of the phase 3 MURANO trial of venetoclax plus rituximab in relapsed or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia by Seymour et al, the authors demonstrated a significantly higher rate of progression-free survival with venetoclax plus rituximab than with standard chemoimmunotherapy bendamustine plus rituximab. In addition, secondary efficacy measures, including the complete response rate, the overall response rate, and overall survival were also higher in the venetoclax plus rituximab than with bendamustine plus rituximab.

There are several limitations of this study. First, this study was terminated early at the time of the data review on 6 September 2017. The independent data monitoring committee recommended that the primary analysis be conducted at that time because the prespecified statistical boundaries for early stopping were crossed for progression-free survival on the basis of stratified log-rank tests. In a letter to the editor, Alexander et al questioned the validity of results when design stages are violated. In immunotherapy trials, progression-free survival curves often separated at later time, rather than as a constant process; this violates the key assumption of proportionality of hazard functions. When the study was terminated early, post hoc confirmatory analyses and evaluations of robustness of the statistical plan could be used; however, prespecified analyses are critical to reproducibility in trials that are meant to be practice-changing [5]. Second, complete response rates were lower when responses was assessed by the independent review committee than when assessed by the investigator. While this represented a certain degree of author bias, the overall results were similar and the effect of venetoclax plus rituximab remain significantly better than bendamustine plus rituximab.

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