We’ve seen therapies for patients with blood cancers approved this past year at a pace that would make your head spin.
With the latest U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval coming just today, I thought it would be a good time to take a step back and look at all of the remarkable progress that has occurred in this year alone. Today’s approval marks the eleventh therapy for a blood cancer approved in 2017, many of which are the result of groundbreaking discoveries supported by LLS funding.
This is a testament to our sustained investment in research leading to a new era in cancer treatment, allowing innovative new treatments to get to patients at an unprecedented speed and in disease areas previously thought impossible.
Today the FDA approved a targeted therapy called acalabrutinib (Calquence) that works by blocking an enzyme that allows cancer cells to proliferate. The FDA accelerated this therapy’s approval to treat adult patients with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) who have failed to respond to or have relapsed from at least one previous treatment. Today’s approval is good news for patients with this aggressive disease, which makes up approximately six percent of all non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) cases. NHL strikes more than 80,000 patients a year in the United States and causes more than 20,000 deaths.
As with most of the therapies approved this year for the blood cancers, LLS played a role in this advance. We have been a long-time supporter of John Byrd, MD, at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. Byrd has been conducting research on acalabrutinib, as well as a previously approved therapy, ibrutinib, both of which target the same molecule called Bruton’s tyrosine kinase or BTK in B-cell malignancies. You can read more about this approval here.
But there’s more.
Consider acute myeloid leukemia (AML). This deadly blood cancer, which kills more than 10,000 patients in the U.S. each year, has seen little progress in more than 40 years. That’s why LLS launched our Beat AML initiative almost one year ago. Read more about that here.
But thanks to advances in technology that allow greater understanding of the multiple subtypes of this cancer, and more investigational agents in the pharmaceutical pipeline than ever before, we are seeing things rapidly change. Since April, the FDA has approved four new drugs to treat AML, each designed to precisely treat a specific subtype of the disease. After four decades and millions of dollars invested, we are finally seeing results for AML patients that give us real reason for hope. Read more about these advances here.
Harnessing the immune system
Scientists have found ways to supercharge the body’s own immune system to fight cancer, resulting in two historic immunotherapy approvals, one in August and another at the beginning of this month. This therapy, known as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell immunotherapy, reprograms the body’s T cells to find and kill the cancer cells. All it takes is one infusion of this highly personalized therapy. It is not without risks. Many patients experience some very serious side effects but doctors are figuring out how to mitigate these responses. But for most patients, the side effects soon subside and they go on to resume their normal lives.
The therapies are approved for patients with relapsed or refractory acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and NHL, and many of these patients who participated in the clinical trials that led to these approvals are now alive five years or more after their treatment. Now more studies are being done in other blood cancers and even in solid tumors. LLS has supported work in this area for more than two decades – a $40 million investment at multiple institutions. And we’re continuing to support this work, investing in research to make these therapies safer, easier to manufacture and more widely available. You can learn more about the history of CAR-T and our role here.
Other approvals this past year include another type of immunotherapy to treat patients with Hodgkin lymphoma, a targeted therapy for ALL, and a therapy for follicular lymphoma. In addition, ibrutinib received approval for a new indication – to treat patients with the life-threatening condition called graft versus host disease, which frequently occurs in patients receiving stem cell transplantation.
Even with such exciting news, we can’t stop now. Since our founding more than 68 years ago, we have recognized the urgency of finding new and better treatments, particularly in areas of unmet medical need. We will keep forging ahead until we can achieve a world without blood cancers. Please join us in this quest.
Louis J. DeGennaro, Ph.D., is CEO and president of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
After months of rigorous training, all five LLS Team In Training teammates finished at the 2017 IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii on October 7. The team came together from across the U.S. and Canada to compete in the 140.6 mile iconic triathlon – raising an incredible $435,000 and counting, for blood cancer cures.After months of rigorous training, all five LLS Team In Training teammates finished at the 2017 IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii on October 7. The team came together from across the U.S. and Canada to compete in the 140.6 mile iconic triathlon – raising an incredible $435,000 and counting, for blood cancer cures.
KONA is one of the world’s most demanding athletic events – featuring a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. The team joined more than 2,000 athletes from around the world. Each of them went above and beyond to raise funds to cure cancer, as the cause is personal for all of them. Here are their stories…
Chris Wilno – Orange County, California
Chris has experienced a whirlwind of tragic events in the past several years. His father, Al was diagnosed with leukemia in September 2002. Shortly after, his pregnant wife, Crea lost their daughter Isabella at birth. Then, after a 16-month battle, Chris’s father passed away.
Chris saw light at the end of the tunnel when he learned his wife was pregnant again, but soon they learned she had cancer too. Thankfully, she gave birth to their healthy son, Jaden, and Crea is in remission today.
This adversity fueled a fire in Chris to make a difference. “My story is born out of sad events but my story is about hope. It is about believing anything is possible,” said Chris.
He joined Team In Training, has completed 12 endurance events and raised more than $350,000 for cures. He also serves as a marathon coach and has led hundreds of individuals across the finish line while at the same time raising millions of dollars towards cancer research.
Eric Braate – Houston, Texas
In 2010, Eric completed his first marathon with Team In Training in Paris. More than 30 marathons and triathlons later – including two IRONMAN triathlons – the Houston NBC meteorologist was elated to pair his passion for endurance sports once again at KONA this year. He even used his media platform several times to help raise awareness and drive donations.
Eric saw the devastation that blood cancer can bring early in his life when his childhood friend lost a long battle with leukemia. He’s since witnessed the impact of blood cancer many times throughout his life as both sides of his family have a long history with various forms of cancer.
While training on his bike for his first IRONMAN triathlon in 2014, he was hit by a truck and broke his neck. After a long and arduous recovery, he came back a year later to cross the finish line of IRONMAN Canada.
Eric completed the KONA race in just over 14 hours and said, "We crossed the finish line today. Hopefully we cross the finish line sometime soon in the battle against blood cancer.”
Sonya Heitshusen – Des Moines, Iowa
Sonya, an NBC affiliate news anchor in Iowa, first got involved with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society when her co-anchor’s daughter was diagnosed with leukemia in 1999. Ten years later, her brother was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Sonya has completed multiple endurance events in honor of her friend’s daughter and her brother —both who are cancer free today — but says that KONA was her most difficult race by far.
“My training and the competition was challenging, but nothing in comparison to those facing a cancer diagnosis and the ensuing treatment,” said Sonya.
Keith Ramon – Aurora, Ontario
Keith is currently a teacher at St. Andrew’s College, an all-boys private school, in Aurora, Ontario Canada where he also coached the school triathlon team. In addition, he coaches cross-country running, Nordic skiing, biathlon and weight training athletes.
He has completed numerous IRONMANS and triathlons, but this year was his first time as a fundraising participant with Team In Training.
Keith’s entire family was involved in helping him reach his fundraising goal for KONA 2017. His father-in-law, Paul passed away in June 2016 after a battle with acute myeloid leukemia. Keith completed KONA 2017 in his honor, and finished at an incredible time of 12:32:51.
Teri Abrahamzon – San Francisco, California
Teri first got involved with TNT in 1997, and since then, she’s been touched by blood cancer in many ways. Her sister-in-law, Tina has been battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia since 2005 and inspired her to take on IRONMAN Arizona in 2014. Also, her good friend Lindy was recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Teri works as an architect at Genentech and says that her passion for LLS and her job align perfectly. “TNT will not only help you realize your athletic goals but more importantly, it will help you find a way to help so many individuals and that will bring you gratitude,” says Teri.
Teri completed IRONMAN Kona in honor of Tina, Lindy and friend, Stacie.
Team In Training's triathlon program allows multisport athletes of all experience levels to support the LLS mission through a variety of challenging event experiences – from elite Ironman events to Olympic and Sprint triathlons. To learn more, visit TeamInTraining.org.
On Friday, October 20, 1944, Robert “Robbie” Roesler de Villiers was only 16 years old when he died from leukemia. Robbie’s parents, Rudolph and Antoinette, were stricken with grief and frustrated by the lack of effective treatments for what was then considered a hopeless disease. In his memory, the family started a foundation in 1949.
Today, it is The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). In our 68-year history, we have invested more than $1 billion in research to advance lifesaving treatments and cures, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families. This investment has led to remarkable progress in treatments for patients.
Robbie’s legacy continues to live on in the progress we have made. To mark this date in LLS history, below are excerpts from a 1945 letter written by his father published in a book his parents wrote to preserve his memory…
From Robbie's Father:
I admit that it is my greatest delight to speak of our boy, as it was when he was still with us; but I feel that to do so here is also my duty in order to preserve his living picture as well as I can. In addition, it is a small expression of our thanks for the sixteen-and-a-half joyful years he gave us.
I am writing this at his desk in our home, where he put many of his thoughts on paper. On May 14, 1944, just a year ago today, he came home from Millbrook School happy to be on the Honor Roll. And therefore permitted to spend an extra weekend with us. In June 1945 he would have graduated from Millbrook and entered Yale, to which he was looking forward with such eager anticipation….
On Friday, October 20, 1944, Robbie left us forever – a victim of that terrible disease, leukemia. On October 24, we buried him at Ferncliff Mausoleum in Ardsley-on-Hudson. The following Christmas Eve, he would have been seventeen years old….
He had unlimited confidence in us. He was certain that we would find means to bring him back to health. He therefore accepted the painful and often exasperating treatment stoically and like a hero when we told him that it was necessary if he was to get well. We had hoped that we would succeed in keeping our Robbie alive until a cure for his illness had been found. Alas, our efforts and prayers were in vain.
Fortunately, he did not suffer much. ‘Everything will be well if my parents are with me. I do not understand why they seem worried,’ he told his nurse. He did not know how desperately ill he was, and how small the hope was to save him. Probably children and young people cannot conceive that they may be taken away. We felt the same….
He was our joy, our life, our future. He was gentleman in character and manner. We lost our best friend, a delightful companion, and in this book we would preserve his memory as it is preserved in our hearts.
Rudolph Roesler De Villiers, New York, May 14, 1945
To honor Robbie and others lost from blood cancers, please share memories of your loved ones in the comment section.