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The impact of LLS funding

over decades in the fight against cancer

A Timeline


In 1949, Rudolph and Antoinette Roesler de Villiers, who lost their teenage son, Robert, to leukemia in 1944, established the first incarnation of what became The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The impact was felt right away and the 1950s and 1960s saw some major treatment advances that were revolutionary for the time.


George H. Hitchings, PhD, and Gertrude B. Elion, D.Sc., began collaborating in 1945 and developed the most widely used anti-leukemia drugs in 1950-1951. Both later served as medical and scientific advisors to LLS, and earned the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Photo: Wellcome Library, London


In 1955, William Dameshek, MD, became a medical and scientific advisor to LLS, organizing its grant review process. In 1946, he was a lead investigator of studies that led to the first anti-cancer chemotherapy.


James Holland, MD, was among the first LLS grant recipients, receiving funding in 1955; he went on to become one of the first researchers to advance combination chemotherapy.

Photo: PBS/Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies


E. Donnall Thomas, MD, conducted the first successful bone marrow transplant on a leukemia patient in 1956. Thomas was an LLS advisor in the 1960s, and was awarded the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Photo: Susie Fitzhugh


The first combination chemotherapy was developed for childhood leukemia patients by Emil “Tom” Frei, MD (background), and Emil J. Freireich, MD, under the leadership of Gordon Zubrod, MD, (foreground), Director of the National Cancer Institute’s Clinical Center.

Photo: The Zubrod Family


The advent of the 1970s brought an early understanding of the genetics of cancer with the discovery of oncogenes. For his role in identifying oncogenes, J. Michael Bishop, MD, an advisor to LLS, later received the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. By the 1980s, researchers advanced this knowledge further.

Photo: PBS/Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies


Riccardo Dalla-Favera, MD, and his LLS-funded research team studied the molecular pathway involved in immune B-cell activation and how those pathways became dysregulated in B-cell cancers. A few decades later, he led a team of LLS-funded researchers investigating the genetic origins of B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.


In 1985 and again in 1989, Hagop Kantarjian, MD, received LLS scholar awards to study new approaches to treating patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). He later played a significant role in the development of the first targeted therapy to treat CML patients.


By the 1990s, the discovery of genetic pathways was followed by the first FDA approvals for targeted blood cancer drugs. In 1990, LLS-funded researcher Susan Rabinowe, MD, and others, showed the protein CD20 is consistently present on B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells.


In 1996, LLS-funded investigator Brian Druker, MD, tested a BCR-ABL-blocking drug. This resulted in the first clinical trial, led by Druker and Charles Sawyers, MD, of STI-571, later known as imatinib (Gleevec®) in 1998.


Charles Sawyers, MD, began studies that helped identify the genetic causes of resistance to imatinib, leading the way to the development of follow-on therapies for patients with imatinib-resistant CML.


From 2001 to 2005, LLS-funded researchers David Maloney, MD, Margaret Shipp, MD, Felipe Samaniego, MD, and others showed rituximab (Rituxan®) improved the effectiveness of the standard chemotherapy regimen for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma patients.


A multi-institution Phase II trial in 2004, led by Alan List, MD, and clinical colleagues, including LLS-funded investigator Richard Stone, MD, confirmed the efficacy of lenalidomide (Revlimid®) for patients with a rare form of myelodysplastic syndromes (del(5q) MDS).


Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD, played an instrumental role in the advancement of immunotherapy, particularly in treating pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) patients. Almost two decades before, LLS awarded Grupp with a Career Development Special Fellow Award, which he credited with helping to launch his career.


LLS-funded research continued to drive breakthroughs and advances, transforming cancer’s grim past into a promising future. From 2010-2012, John Byrd, MD, and colleagues published Phase II trial results for ibrutinib in CLL and small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL) patients, showing safety and lasting remissions.


New advances in immunotherapy include an approach called immune checkpoint inhibitors, that unleash the immune system by removing the “brakes.” This approach is advanced by researchers, including LLS-funded investigators Margaret Shipp, MD, and Steve Ansell, MD, PhD.


In 2016, FDA approved of a new therapy, venetoclax (Venclexta®), for patients with a high-risk form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Since 2002, LLS continuously supported research by Jerry Adams, PhD, Andrew Roberts, MBBS, PhD, and colleagues to advance this therapy.


LLS is supporting emerging work to understand how mutations lead to blood cancers. Today, LLS supports the work of Benjamin Ebert, MD, PhD, and Irene Ghobrial, MD, who are studying how to prevent recurrence after treatment as well as preventing precursor diseases from progressing to blood cancer.

image of Gary Gilliland

“LLS is where it is today because it has groomed a remarkable generation of scientists and physician scientists who have led the extraordinary advances in treatment of hematologic malignancies.”

History of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

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