Blood Cancer Research

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 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 spread of cancer by interfering with specific areas of cancerous cells that are involved in the cancer cell’s growth, or by focusing on particular characteristics that are unique to cancer cells. In cancer cells, mutations have occurred to make the cell grow out of control. Identifying these mutations can help researchers find new ways to treat cancer, and ideally, by targeting the specific mutations that are only found in cancer cells, the side effects of these treatments on normal, healthy cells are lessened. Some targeted therapies are currently being used to treat certain blood cancers, and research continues on additional agents, including:

  • Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKI), which block certain proteins that are critical to the cancer cell’s growth
  • Monoclonal antibodies, which identify cancer cells by a specific feature and block their growth, or may be used to deliver chemotherapy medications 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 enzymes that are important in certain cancer cell growth
  • Histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors, which block enzymes that are important for cell division and may block the growth of cancer cells
  • IDH inhibitors, which block IDH proteins made from mutated IDH1 or IDH2 genes
  • 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, among others1-4

Not every blood cancer has the same features, so many different types of targeted therapy are being investigated, as well as determining who is best to be treated by each. In addition to proving effectiveness, researchers also must understand the potential 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, in which the patient’s own T-cells are removed from their body and changed in the laboratory to attack cancer cells. There are currently three CAR T-cell therapies available that target a protein (CD19) on cancer cells. Additional CAR T-cell therapies are being researched, and some studies are investigating the possibility of using donor T-cells rather than the patient’s own T-cells for the therapy.5,6

Some other forms of immunotherapy, such as immune checkpoint inhibitors, are currently being used to treat certain blood cancers, and research continues in this area as well.

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 for the immune system to identify and make antibodies against it. Then, if the virus later enters the body, the immune system recognizes it and destroys it using the antibodies it created.

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Cancer vaccines under development hope to leverage the same immune system response by helping the immune system to 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. In addition, cancer cells can suppress the immune system’s normal response, which 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. By enrolling in a clinical trial, patients have the potential to receive the latest treatment approaches and be a part of research that can possibly bring these new treatments to the public. Patients should talk to their doctor to see if clinical trials are an option for them.

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Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: October 2020