For blood cancer therapy and treatment development, 2017 was not only a big year, but also “one of the most historic years on record,” says Lee M. Greenberger, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The Food and Drug Administration approved a total of eighteen new therapies to treat patients with blood cancers, including the first new therapies for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and two revolutionary therapies for patients with leukemia and lymphoma, known as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell immunotherapy (also referred to as CAR-T).

How it works

So what does that mean? “Scientists have found ways to supercharge the body’s own immune system to fight cancer,” explains Greenberger. The CAR-T therapy reprograms the body’s T cells to find and kill the cancer cells. “It’s kind of like having one soldier call out the troops to attack the tumor cells.” The therapies are approved specifically for children up to age 25 with relapsed or refractory acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and adults with relapsed or refractory non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), and are highly personalized for each patient, with only one infusion. “It is not without risks,” says Greenberger, “but for most patients, the major side effects soon subside and they go on to resume their normal lives.”

Seeing results

In a recent clinical trial, for example, approximately 80 percent of children with ALL who have failed other therapies go into remission with the CAR-T therapy. For those patients who achieve remission, over fifty percent sustain the remission for up to twenty months (as long has been evaluated in the trial used by the FDA to approve the therapy). There are other patients treated on some of the first CAR-T trials that have sustained remission for up to five years.

The research itself is very much ongoing. “The goal is to try to apply CAR-T therapy to all blood cancers, and then other cancers as well,” says Greenberger. “We’re getting there.”