Helen Heslop, M.D., leads a team of scientists being funded through LLS’s Specialized Center of Research Program (SCOR). The project brings together researchers from different institutions to test a half dozen novel approaches to cancer immunotherapy – all of which harness the patient's own immune system to fight the cancer. Heslop, a professor in the Department of Medicine and Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and the director of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, pioneered the adoption of T-cell immunotherapy for lymphoma and now proposes to translate this early success to additional blood malignancies, including multiple myeloma and acute leukemia.
In the simplest of terms, how would you summarize what you are hoping to do?
Our team is trying to develop immunotherapy approaches that we hope will kill tumor cells while sparing normal tissues and avoiding the toxicities associated with intensive chemotherapy. We want to address several pivotal issues whose resolution will make T cell immunotherapy more effective, simpler, safer and accessible to a broader cross-section of patients with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma.
The Food & Drug Administration’s accelerated approval of an immunotherapy for patients with Hodgkin lymphoma who have failed other treatments is a positive development for patients who face a very poor prognosis.
While Hodgkin lymphoma is now considered one of the most curable forms of cancer – with a more than 86 percent five-year-survival rate overall – those patients who relapse after treatment have a much reduced chance of survival.
FDA’s approval of nivolumab (Opdivo®), marks the first approval of this particular approach to therapy for a blood cancer. Nivolumab has previously been approved, either as a single agent or as a combination therapy, for a number of solid tumor cancers, including several types of metastatic melanoma; metastatic non-small cell lung cancer; and renal cell carcinoma.
Specialists in LLS's Information Resource Center answer thousands of questions via phone, email and chat every month. Here are a few they say are really important.
What is my actual diagnosis? Find out your exact diagnosis. Ask your doctor to write down the exact name of your sub-type and take the paper with you. For example, knowing you have “a B-cell lymphoma” isn’t good enough. Follicular and diffuse large B-cell are both B-cell lymphomas but with very different prognoses and treatment plans. Leukemia also has different sub-types. Knowing your specific sub-type helps you understand what disease you are dealing with, how aggressive it is, and what to expect from treatment. You can also contact The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Information Resource Center to ask about appropriate clinical trials or to be connected with a survivor who has been treated for the same disease.
Is doing nothing really an option? It may sound crazy to hear a doctor tell you to just “watch and wait” but for certain blood cancers that can really be the recommended treatment plan. Some patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, indolent non-Hodgkin lymphomas, or in the early stages of some other blood cancers, can go for years with no treatment at all as long as no other issues arise. However, it would still be important for you to continue to go for regular visits to be monitored by your doctor.