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Blood Cancer Breakthroughs: Targeted Therapies Take the Lead in the Future of Treatment

Publication: Austin Medical Times

Splashed across the cover of TIME magazine on May 28, 2001, an oral therapy for cancer was introduced to the public as a revolutionary targeted cancer treatment unlike anything on the market at the time. It was deemed the leukemia “miracle pill.” As an oncologist specializing in hematology, this was an exciting development. It also garnered the attention of my patients, their families, and the public, and marked the beginning of a promising chapter in the treatment of patients with blood cancers.

Nearly two decades later, targeted therapy sits squarely at the forefront of cancer care. Targeted therapy is different from conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy in that it is designed to treat only the cancer cells, minimizing damage to normal, healthy cells.

Today, we continue to see incredible advancements in the area of targeted therapies leading to better chances of good outcomes and minimized side effects for patients with blood cancers, including Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, acute myeloid (AML), and chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).

To put the future of blood cancer treatment into context, look no further than improvements in therapies for CML. Once deemed a highly challenging cancer to eradicate, CML is one example of a cancer that has responded well to targeted therapy. By attacking cancer cells and minimizing damage to healthy cells, patients experience fewer side effects from treatment, live longer, and have greater quality of life.

Below are several of the latest treatment options making it possible to target and eliminate cancer cells in patients with blood cancer.

Chimeric Antigen Receptor – T Cell (CAR-T)

CAR-T is a breakthrough treatment that has shown promising results in patients with blood cancers. A type of immunotherapy, CAR-T therapy uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Genetically engineered immune T cells can recognize certain proteins on cancer cells. To target the cancerous cells, white blood cells are extracted, modified, and replicated from those proteins on the cancerous cells, then injected into the patient so they can recognize and attack the cancer. This is a highly targeted therapy for eligible patients, and oncologists and hematologists are keeping a close eye on further developments in CAR-T.

Monoclonal Antibodies

Antibodies are proteins that are considered a form of immunotherapy. Administered through a vein, antibodies for cancer treatment can be used on their own or in combination with chemotherapy to target cancerous cells while preserving the healthy cells. Antibodies essentially latch onto cancer cells and kill them at the source. This form of treatment has shown to be less harsh on the patient’s body and with fewer side effects than treatments like conventional chemotherapy and radiation.

Oral Therapy (Targeted Agents)

Another type of targeted therapy is in the form of a pill taken orally to target cancers like chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). This cancer occurs most frequently in older adults and grows slowly, making it difficult to treat with treatments like conventional chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Oral targeted therapies have been successful in not only minimizing side effects but also providing better chances for good outcomes compared to chemotherapy. The use of oral therapy has also been successful in patients with AML. Whereas previously the standard treatment was intense chemotherapy, now less aggressive therapy in conjunction with oral agents may be used.

A combination of conventional and targeted therapies are options for patients who may not be eligible for immunotherapies like CAR-T and targeted oral agents. As an oncologist specializing in blood cancer, it is gratifying to see the tremendous progress made since that 2001 breakthrough and to guide my patients through these new treatment regimens – offering them better chances for good outcomes.

Jason Melear, M.D., is a medical oncologist and hematologist at Texas Oncology–Austin Midtown, 901 W. 38th Street, Suite 200 in Austin, Texas.

This article originally appeared in the February issue of:

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