September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month, which aims to raise awareness for patients with one of several types of blood cancer, including leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.
Not only are blood cancers the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States, these cancers are particularly tragic because they can strike at an early age. Unlike lung, colon or breast cancer, leukemia is the most common cancer in children and teens today, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. However, blood cancer can affect anyone, at any time.
There is no way to prevent or screen for most blood cancers, so the health care community is instead focused on finding cures.
In recent years, science has advanced quickly and opened doors for more precise treatment, as we have seen exciting progress in our understanding of and ability to treat blood cancers. For example, we now know that “diseases of the blood” – as they were known a few decades ago – include at least 35 types of leukemia and 50 different lymphomas, based on genetic differences. Many new medicines are able to target cancers at the molecular level, and the treatment outlook has never been better for patients.
This progress has meant that survival rates for blood cancer patients has doubled, tripled and sometimes even quadrupled. For example, five-year relative survival rates for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in children under age 15 jumped from three percent in 1964 to 92 percent in 2010, and the overall five-year relative survival rate for leukemia patients has more than quadrupled since 1960 from 14 percent to 60.3 percent. Similar improvements have been seen in the ability to treat two other major types of blood cancers: Hodgkin lymphoma and myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma.
Additionally research into treating blood cancer has led to substantial innovation in the ability to treat cancer, generally. Almost 40 percent of the new anti-cancer drugs developed since 2000 were first approved for blood cancer. One of these new therapies, which saw its first FDA approval in 2017, is called chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR-T) therapy, which is approved for certain pediatric and young adult patients with a form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia as well as adult patients with relapsed non-Hodgkin lymphoma. By genetically altering and boosting special immune cells of patients suffering from certain forms of cancer, those altered cells–often referred to as a “living drug”–may serve to eliminate the disease. In the future, researchers hope to be able to use this therapy to treat a variety of cancer types, including brain and lung cancer.
In addition to acting as extraordinary examples of scientific innovation, treatments for blood cancers are also serving as a lens through which we can analyze new and better ways to pay for medicines. For instance, many companies are exploring the use of value-based contracts (also known as results-based contracts), an innovative approach to paying for medicines that often involve greater risk-sharing among payers and biopharmaceutical companies to improve patient access. Last year, in tandem with the announcement that the FDA had approved the first CAR-T therapy, a ground-breaking value-based contract was launched as a way to help patients afford this high-value, personalized treatment.
Due, in part, to the hard work of biopharmaceutical researchers, blood cancers provide some of the most hopeful success stories of today, yet we still have progress to make. Right now, there are 334 medicines in development for various blood cancers. Learn about them here.