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From chemo to CAR-T – cancer research starts in the blood

The Bloodwise logo. Bloodwise appears in black text against a white background
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19 Aug 2019

More people are surviving cancer than ever before, thanks to nearly a century of blood cancer research. From the first chemotherapy drugs, to the advent of CAR-T therapy – we looked at some of the medical milestones in cancer care.

Chemotherapy – a weapon of war that went on to save lives

The origins of chemotherapy can be traced back to the trench warfare of World War I.

When doctors examined the bodies of soldiers on the battlefield exposed to mustard gas, they discovered that the chemical had not only blistered their skin, but destroyed the white blood cells of their immune systems.

The significance of this lay hidden for 20 years until World War II, when scientists realised that if the gas could kill healthy cells it might also kill cancerous cells. This had massive implications for treating leukaemia and lymphoma.

A crude form of chemotherapy was first administered to a blood cancer patient in 1942, and although his condition did improve, remission was short-lived. But it was the beginning of a revolution in cancer treatment that would save countless lives.

Bone marrow transplants – first performed 40 years ago

Bloodwise donated £3,000 to Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1961, opening the first ever leukaemia research unit of its kind. And 18 years later, the UK’s first bone marrow transplant was performed successfully at Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1979, on a child whose immune system wasn't working properly. 

Bone marrow transplants replace damaged blood cells with healthy cells. This is important for hard-to-treat blood cancers, including leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. Bone marrow transplants are still used by the NHS, but today you'd be much more likely to have a stem cell transplant than a bone marrow transplant, which involves collecting stem cells from the blood rather than bone marrow.

They make collecting stem cells a lot easier, and it’s less painful and invasive for the donor.

Targeted drugs – making a once fatal condition manageable

A major breakthroughs for blood cancer treatment was the advent of targeted drugs, which stop cancer cells developing into a more aggressive ‘advanced’ stage. This was a huge improvement on chemotherapy, and in some cases, cancer can now be managed by just taking a daily pill.

Tyrosine kinases inhibitors (TKI) were developed to help treat some blood cancers, including chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). The first of these drugs was imatinib, which was introduced in 1998. TKIs have effectively turned a once deadly cancer into a chronic disease with a normal life expectancy.

CAR-T therapy – leading the next generation of treatments 

This is one of the most exciting innovations in blood cancer treatment of recent times, the pinnacle of personalised medicine.

CAR-T is known as a “living drug”, tailor-made for each patient using their body’s own T-cells.

The treatment involves several steps over a number of weeks. First, the patient’s blood is taken and is sent off to the laboratory, where it is ‘trained’ to fight the cancer cells. The CAR-T cells are then transported back to the hospital and the cells returned to the patient, where they seeks out and destroys cancer cells in the body.

> What is CAR-T therapy? An expert explains

Currently, CAR-T is approved for use in the NHS for treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL).

Cancer research began in the blood, and for the past century blood cancer researchers have driven forward the discovery of new, lifesaving treatments. With next-generation therapies like CAR-T breaking through, your support will ensure our scientists can continue to drive forward the pace of research.

Will you support the next generation of blood cancer researchers?


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