Chemotherapy brings dramatic improvements in survival rates
Blood cancer research has always been at the forefront – it was in a blood cancer that doctors first proved chemotherapy worked and now it’s used to treat a huge number of cancers. Before 1970 there wasn’t much doctors could do if someone was diagnosed with blood cancer. But intense chemotherapy drugs kill cells that divide quickly, like cancer, so more patients’ lives were saved. But these drugs kill non-cancerous cells too, giving patients lots of side effects – we’ll keep searching for less intense, more targeted treatments.
Developing drugs that seek out cancer
Because of the limitations of chemotherapy, the blood cancer community developed more targeted drugs. They’re made from the kinds of proteins that your body normally makes to attack foreign invaders, selectively homing-in on cancer cells. Again, these drugs were first shown to work in blood cancers and are now used to treat other cancers.
We’ve learnt more about the genetic faults at the heart of blood cancer, so our researchers have been able to design drugs that target these faults – a big shift away from the blanket approach of chemotherapy. One of these drugs – imatinib – transformed survival in chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) from 30% to 90%, giving patients a near normal quality of life through a single daily pill. Similar drugs have since been developed for other cancers, and we think they’ll play an even bigger role in the future.
Tailored treatment thanks to cutting-edge predictive tests
The minimal residual disease (MRD) test, which looks at how children with leukaemia respond to their initial chemotherapy, came out of blood cancer research. Thanks to our researchers, the test was used in a national clinical trial and showed that doctors could ease off treatment if a child’s disease had dropped below a certain level.
This reduced the harsh side effects these children were getting, without affecting their chance of a cure. This test’s now used for every child in the UK who gets acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).
Innovating with new cell-based therapies
This is the next big innovation. Instead of giving patients drugs, white blood cells – our body’s first line of defence – are taken from the patient and reprogrammed in a lab to teach them how to identify the cancer cells. The white blood cells are then given back to the patient so they can find and destroy the rogue cells.
Bone marrow transplants, where bone marrow cells from a healthy donor are given to a patient to kill the cancer, have transformed blood cancer treatment. Research has revealed how to combine transplants with chemotherapy and reduce side effects, how to match patients with unrelated donors and how to make it less invasive for donor and patient. Doctors have been able to successfully and safely treat more patients with more types of blood cancer.
Personalising therapy to fit each patient
We have the technology to predict who’ll respond to which treatments. One day we’ll be able to personalise each patient’s treatment – we’ve already started to do this in many blood cancers. It means that patients get treatments that give them the best chance of survival with the fewest side effects. And on top of that, what we learn from how patients respond to treatment will inform the next generation of researchers, who want to find out even more about how blood cancer works and – ultimately – the tools we need to beat it.
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