About 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with a blood cancer every year. September is National Blood Cancer Awareness Month, a time to increase public awareness and understanding of these many and related diseases so that patients can be provided effective treatments and the means to obtain these treatments. Legislators also need encouragement to support issues related to blood cancer such as government funding for research and patient access to affordable care. Organizations such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society are leading the way.
Blood cancers—lymphoma, leukemia, and myeloma—and their subtypes are related. It is thought that blood cancers result from acquired mutations in the DNA of a single lymph-forming or blood-forming stem cell. Without the controls that healthy cells have, these mutated cells multiply and accumulate in the lymphatic tissue, blood, or bone marrow. The amassing of these cells interferes with the production and function of white cells, red cells, and platelets.
An estimated 700,000 Americans are living with lymphoma. Lymphoma originates in the lymphatic system. The 2 major types of lymphoma are Hodgkin disease and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
About 300,000 Americans are living with leukemia. There are 4 major types of leukemia: Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, is the most common type in children under the age of 15 years. Acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, is the most common form of acute leukemia in adults. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL, is the most common type of leukemia overall. CLL occurs most often in adults older than 55 years of age and twice as often in men. In chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, the chance of acquiring the disease increases with age.
3,800 children a year are diagnosed with leukemia, the leading cause of death from cancer in children.
Myeloma is less prevalent than lymphoma and leukemia; about 85,000 Americans have myeloma. This blood disease, which originates in plasma cells, is more common in older adults and is typically resistant to treatment. One type of myeloma progresses slowly and is referred to as “indolent” myeloma.
Few if any preventive or screening methods exist for blood cancers, unlike for many other types of cancers.
Over the last 50 years research has not only increased our understanding of blood cancers and the different therapies they require but also has led to a wide variety of effective new treatments. More than 50 drugs are available to treat blood cancers, which have had a profound effect on survival rates. For example:
- The survival rate of Hodgkin lymphoma is 86% today compared with 40% in the 1960s
- The 5-year survival in children with ALL increased to more than 85% in 2014 from 3% in 1964
- New drug therapies for myeloma are increasing the rate and duration of remissions, so much so that the survival rate for patients has more than tripled over the last 10 years
Not only have new drugs for blood cancers been developed, but many new classes of drugs have been introduced over the last 25 years: Bcr-Abl tyrosine kinase inhibitors, histone deacetylase inhibitors, hypomethylating or demethylating drugs, immunomodulators, monoclonal antibodies, antibody-drug conjugates, and proteasome inhibitors.
240 drugs are in development for blood cancers.
The development of 240 drugs reflects even more new approaches to the treatment of blood cancers, according to a report from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). At the time of the PhRMA report in 2013, all of these drugs were either in clinical trials or under review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In July of 2014, the FDA approved a first-in-class inhibitor of PI3K delta to be used in combination with a monoclonal antibody for patients with relapsed or refractory CLL and for monotherapy in patients with 2 types of indolent lymphomas. In August of 2014, a phase 1/2 clinical trial of a vaccine for indolent myeloma was initiated.
Despite major successes in the fight against blood cancers, they take the life of 1 person every 10 minutes.
That’s a total of 55,000 Americans lives taken every year. Hopefully, the outcome of increasing awareness of blood cancers will be to ultimately push research past the current tipping point of offering every patient a longer higher-quality life to offering every patient a cure.