Blood Cancer Research

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2022 | Last updated: June 2022

Researchers continue to search for new ways to treat blood cancer. Emerging treatments for blood cancer can generally be grouped into the following categories:

  • Identifying features specific to the cancer cells, including genetic mutations, that can be a focus for targeted therapies
  • Harnessing the power of the immune system in immunotherapies
  • Creating cancer vaccines

Genetic mutations and targeted therapy

Targeted therapies block or slow the growth, survival, and spread of cancer. They do this by interfering with specific areas of cancerous cells that are involved in the cancer cell’s growth, or by focusing on specific features that are unique to cancer cells.1-4

In cancer cells, mutations make the cells grow out of control. Identifying these mutations can help researchers find new ways to treat cancer. By targeting the specific mutations that are only found in cancer cells, the side effects of these treatments on normal, healthy cells may be lessened.

Some targeted therapies are already approved to treat certain blood cancers. Research continues on other targeted therapies, including:1-4

  • Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKI), which block certain proteins that are key to cancer cells' growth.
  • Monoclonal antibodies, which block the cancer cell's growth or help the immune system identify the cancer cells. They may also be used to deliver chemotherapy drugs or radioactive particles to cancer cells.
  • BCL2 inhibitors, which target BCL2 proteins and cause the cancer cells to die.
  • Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors, which block JAK proteins that are important in certain cancer cells' growth.
  • Histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors, which block enzymes that help regulate the expression of different genes.
  • IDH inhibitors, which block mutated IDH to help immature cells become more mature.
  • FLT3 inhibitors, which inhibit an overactive signaling/growth pathway in FLT3-mutated cancer cells
  • Hedgehog pathway inhibitors, which target proteins produced by an overactive cell signaling pathway called hedgehog.
  • Other types of targeted therapies, such as FLT3 inhibitors, PI3K inhibitors, EZH2 inhibitors, nuclear export inhibitors, and polo-like kinase (Plk) inhibitors.

Not every blood cancer has the same features, so many different types of targeted therapy are being studied. Researchers are also studying who is best to be treated by each therapy and the possible side effects of these treatments.

Boosting the body’s immune system with immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a category of treatment that boosts the body’s immune system to fight the cancer.

One of the developments in immunotherapy has been chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. During CAR T-cell therapy, your T-cells are removed from your body. They are then modified in a lab and given new, cancer-recognizing receptors. The modified T-cells are then given back to you so they target and kill cancer cells.5,6

As of early 2021, there are 5 CAR T-cell therapies available to treat certain forms of blood cancer. More CAR T-cell therapies are being researched. Some studies are exploring the possibility of using donor T-cells for the therapy.5,6

Other forms of immunotherapy, such as immune checkpoint inhibitors, are being used to treat certain blood cancers. Research in this area also continues.

The promise of cancer vaccines

Traditional vaccines for viruses like the flu or measles work by introducing a harmless version of the virus into the body. This allows the immune system to identify and make antibodies against the virus. If the virus then later enters the body, the immune system recognizes it and destroys it using the antibodies it created.7

Cancer vaccines under development hope to leverage the same immune system response. They would help the immune system recognize specific antigens (proteins) on the surface of cancer cells. Because cancer cells develop from normal cells in the body, the immune system can have a difficult time detecting them. Plus, cancer cells can suppress the immune system’s normal response. This is one of the limitations of cancer vaccines.7

Participating in clinical trials

Many of these and other new treatments are being studied in clinical trials. People who enroll in a clinical trial may receive the latest treatment approaches. They can also be a part of research that may bring these new treatments to the public. Talk to your doctor about whether a clinical trial is an option for you.

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