Imatinib mesylate


Generic Name Brand Name
imatinib mesylate Gleevec

Imatinib is available as capsules you can swallow.

How It Works

Imatinib blocks signals within cancer cells. This keeps cancer cells from growing and spreading.

Why It Is Used

Imatinib is used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), one type of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and some types of rare stomach cancer.

How Well It Works

Imatinib is an effective medicine for the treatment of CML.1

Treatment with imatinib is expected to continue for life to keep the cancer from coming back.2 A study suggests that over 80% of people with CML who keep taking imatinib still have no disease activity after 5 years.3

Clinical trials are testing how well imatinib works for other types of cancer.

Side Effects

Side effects of imatinib are generally mild and can include:

  • Decreased white blood cell counts, which may lead to increased infections.
  • Decreased platelet counts, which may lead to bleeding in the digestive tract, causing tarry stools.
  • Nausea or vomiting. You may be able to decrease these side effects by taking your medicine with a meal and a full glass of water.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Heartburn.
  • Headache.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Fluid retention and swelling, especially around the eyes.
  • Rash.

In a small number of people, use of imatinib seems to have led to heart failure.4

Imatinib may cause depression in some people. If you have symptoms of depression or thoughts of suicide while you are taking it, talk to your doctor right away.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

Imatinib should be used only under the supervision of a medical oncologist or hematologist. He or she will monitor your blood counts regularly.

You may not be able to become pregnant or father a child after taking this drug. Talk about this with your doctor before starting treatment.

Imatinib can cause birth defects. Do not use this drug if you are pregnant or wish to become pregnant or to father a child while you are taking it. Do not breast-feed while you are taking this drug.

Imatinib can interact with many other drugs. Be sure that your doctor knows all the prescription and over-the-counter drugs you are taking.

If imatinib becomes less effective over time, your doctor may increase your dose, prescribe it along with another drug, or try other drugs to treat your cancer.

Do not take imatinib with grapefruit juice. Grapefruit juice can make imatinib useless.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.



  1. National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2006). Chronic myelogenous leukemia, version 1.2006. Available online:
  2. Lichtman MA, Liesveld JL (2006). Chronic myelogenous leukemia and related disorders. In MA Lichtman et al., eds., Williams Hematology, 7th ed., pp. 1237–1294. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  3. Druker BJ, et al. (2006). Five-year follow-up of patients receiving imatinib for chronic myeloid leukemia. New England Journal of Medicine, 355(23): 2408–2417.
  4. Kerkelä R, et al (2006). Cardiotoxicity of the cancer therapeutic agent imatinib mesylate. Nature Medicine, 12(8): 908–916.

Last Updated: November 26, 2008

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