Closing In on a Cure

Someday is Today for blood cancers

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Someone diagnosed with any type of leukemia in the early 1960s had about a 14 percent chance of being alive five years later. Today, those chances are vastly greater. 

Most people - including children - diagnosed with blood cancers today have not just a few years, but many years of productive life ahead of them.

The same trends are being seen with lymphomas, or cancers that start in the lymphatic system. The majority of lymphoma patients – 86 percent, up from 72 percent in 1975 – are alive five years after diagnosis.

Why this remarkable progress?

More than 40 different medicines are available today to fight off all forms of leukemia (blood cancers), lymphomas (cancers of the lymphatic system) and myelomas and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), both of which start in the bone marrow.

An estimated 150,000 Americans will be diagnosed with blood cancers this year. So hundreds of thousands are living with or beyond these diseases.

And one patient advocacy organization – the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) – has played a critical role in the development of drugs that have been life-changers.

The organization has recently launched its campaign – Someday is Today – to build awareness of LLS and all it is doing to cure blood cancers. The group, with chapters throughout the United States, puts major dollars behind its mission.

To date, LLS has invested more than $875 million in the development of new blood cancer therapies. Which new blood cancer drugs are we talking about? All of them.

Gleevec (imatinib) was the breakthough medication when it was introduced in the spring of 2001. For the first time, chronic myeloid leukemia patients weren’t looking at a few more years but many years of life.

LLS was part of that discovery.

Research investments

The organization has several different programs geared toward developing new ways to beat blood cancers.

The Specialized Center of Research (SCOR) supports teams made up of experts from different specialties. These smart people work together to think outside the box, coming up with new approaches to outsmart cancer cells that show up in the blood, the lymphatic system and the bone marrow.

The Therapy Acceleration Program (TAP) is just what its name says – a way to speed up therapy development projects. In TAP projects, universities, biotechnology companies and pharmaceutical companies work together to find new medications.

Recently, dailyRx had a question and answer session with LLS Senior Vice President of Research, Richard C. Winneker, PhD.

dailyRx: How many blood cancer drugs has LLS supported through the years?

Dr. Winneker: LLS has touched the discovery or development of nearly every drug used in the battle against blood cancers – including targeted therapies like Gleevec, Velcade, and Kyprolis, and immunotherapies like Rituxan.

Many advances help patients even beyond those for whom the treatments were first developed. Gleevec, first developed to treat chronic myeloid leukemia, is now approved to treat six other diseases, including other cancers. Rituxan, approved first to treat follicular and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, is now used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

dailyRx: What are specific examples of multi-drug chemotherapy regimens that started as blood cancer therapies? 

Dr. Winneker: Here are just a few examples:

  • R-CHOP – Rituximab (Rituxan) – provided the first survival improvement for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma patients in 25 years, when used in combination with other drugs in a treatment called R-CHOP.
  • FCR – fludarabine, cyclophosphamide and Rituxan – is a chemotherapy regimen for patients with chronic lymphatic leukemia, CLL.
  • Revlimid (lenalidomide) is paired with another chemotherapy – dexamethasone (brand name Decadron) – to treat multiple myeloma patients who have previously received at least one other treatment.

LLS-funded researchers have previously shown that Pomalyst (pomalidomide) plus low-dose dexamethasone can be effective against myeloma for patients who are refractory or who have relapsed after treatment with Velcade and Revlimid.

dailyRx: What are the biggest disease challenges that LLS is helping to eradicate?

Dr. Winneker: An explosion of innovative science, sustained research investment and the clinical successes of a new wave of targeted therapies are transforming the treatment landscape in blood cancers. And while there have been tremendous advances in blood cancer therapy over the past few decades – with five-year survival rates for patients with certain types of blood cancers doubled, tripled or even quadrupled – there are still many unmet medical needs.

We continue to fund projects for every type of blood cancer, and our goals are to advance safer and more effective treatments. In particular, we have identified several areas of unmet medical need in blood cancers and recently awarded grants in these areas. They are:  

  • The leukemic stem cell in acute myelogenous leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes and the identification of potential targeted therapies
  • Novel therapeutic strategies for non-cutaneous T-cell lymphoproliferative disorders
  • Development of therapeutic strategies for the high risk myeloma patient

We are also focused on developing measures to prevent or reduce long-term and late effects resulting from cancer treatment.

dailyRx: How are you accelerating blood cancer therapy development?

Dr. Winneker: Our new Targets, Leads and Candidates program is a novel approach to venture philanthropy partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry, working together to identify and fund promising blood cancer research projects. The collaborations will leverage LLS’s infrastructure for the identification and acceleration of innovative research at academic centers and through our TAP program. Our first partnership through this program is with Celgene.

For LLS, venture philanthropy simply means using our dollars as effectively as we can in partnership with academia, biotech and big pharma to accelerate the development and availability of improved therapies and cures for patients as quickly as possible. 

LLS is currently funding 314 grants and 20 TAP projects globally. Last year, LLS gave nearly $68.4 million to research projects in the US, Canada and seven other countries. 

Someday is Today

"The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s mission is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma and improve the quality of life of patients and their families," Dr. Winneker tells us.

The Someday is Today campaign offers a glimpse into the progress that’s already been made. We've learned that, “Hundreds of thousands of people diagnosed with blood cancer are today living normal, productive lives.”

And there’s much more to do. Visit the sites below to learn more about what you can do to help close in on a cure.

Review Date: 
March 6, 2013