Characterized by their location in the blood or lymphatic system, blood cancers include leukemia, myeloma and lymphoma. There are 162,000 new cases of blood cancer a year in the U.S.

How we’re treating

Some modern treatments for these cancers, such as cytotoxic drugs and radiation, have been around for decades and can still be very effective. Bone marrow transplants are also a common treatment option. Newer options include precision medicine, tailoring medical treatments to the individual’s specific tumor cells and, most recently, immunotherapy.

“Immunotherapy is a type of therapy that activates the immune system one way or another,” says Dr. Lee Greenberger, the chief scientific officer for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. “This therapy, by either genetic engineering or using antibodies to ultimately activate the immune system, has produced very dramatic results in certain blood cancers and is being expanded out across many different types of blood cancers, including also being deployed to solid tumors.”

Gaining credibility

One factor that makes immunotherapy so exciting, Dr. Greenberger adds, is its potential. “One reason why we have good confidence in this therapy is because it is now being used by multiple laboratories for clinical sites across the country,” Greenberger continues. “It’s always important for a scientist’s approach to validate the results in somebody’s hands, in a completely independent manner. And it has been done for this therapy.”

“'While 10 percent of all cancers are blood cancers, 40 percent of the newly approved drugs by the FDA are blood cancer drugs.'”

The immune system is composed of a variety of cells, which includes the T-cell. T-cells are trained to recognize a foreign protein; once they recognize it, they will act to eliminate it. Immunotherapy essentially involves T-cells attacking proteins on tumor cells, and has proven particularly effective in treating many types of tumors, particularly B-cell lymphomas.

Staying diligent

Although this therapy is extremely promising, Dr. Greenberger cautions that it’s still experimental. But there is definitely room for optimism in future treatment options.

“It’s being run in clinical trials, and the therapy is being used only in patients at the moment who have a disease that has not been controlled by other therapies,” he says. “It is not being used as an initial therapy, although perhaps someday it can [be].”

Precision medicine has also proven to be a crucial advancement for cancer care. Precision medicine can allow doctors to define the exact change in a tumor cell, for instance, and develop or determine a therapy that will treat that exact change.

“We’ve been able to identify the sequence for all the human genes,” Greenberger adds. “When a patient has tumor cells, you can define each particular mutation. Once you do that, you identify therapies that can reverse the switch.

“While 10 percent of all cancers are blood cancers, 40 percent of the newly approved drugs by the FDA are blood cancer drugs,” he sums.  “That gives you an idea of the progress we’ve made.”