Improving blood cancer treatment

15 Aug 2015

While chemotherapy has played a big role in improving survival rates, today we're not happy with it. It causes too many side effects.

Biological therapies

Because of the limitations of chemotherapy, the blood cancer community has developed more targeted drugs. Some are made from the kinds of proteins that your body normally makes to attack foreign invaders, which can then selectively home-in on cancer cells; others are molecules that block cancer cell growth. An even newer approach is to engineer immune cells to recognise and attack rogue cancer cells. Many of these were first shown to work in blood cancers and are now used to treat other cancers.

Magic bullet pills for people with chronic myeloid leukaemia

We’ve learnt more about the genetic faults at the heart of blood cancer, so the blood cancer community 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. Not long ago, the only hope for people with CML would have been a stem cell transplant.

Using new technologies

Another exciting area of research we’re funding is genome sequencing – with the ability to sequence a patient’s DNA in the clinic, doctors can more accurately understand the biological make-up of a patient’s cancer. This is helping doctors to tailor treatment for individual patients, by better predicting the likely progression of a patient’s disease, how they might respond to certain treatments and how likely their cancer is to return in the future.

Immunotherapy: the new frontier

We’re breaking new ground by funding research into cell-based treatments, which reprogramme a patient’s own immune cells to fight the cancer. We’re also developing the next generation of targeted drugs that act as homing missiles to seek out the cancer cells without harming healthy cells.

Biological therapies like these will be vital if we want to see people with blood cancer not only surviving but going on to live their lives to the full.