Although blood cancers are relatively rare, their root causes may not be so different from those of other cancers. And since blood cancer samples may be more easily accessible than solid tumor samples, it can help research efforts and make excellent models for research.
“We’re able to make faster progress in blood cancer because we’re studying the real cancer in the patient,” said Louis DeGennaro, president and CEO of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “When you draw a leukemia patient’s blood sample, you have an exact representation of their cancer. That’s not the case in solid tumors, where you’d have to manipulate and grow the cells in a lab to study them.”
That’s why the LLS is especially focused during Blood Cancer Awareness Month on raising awareness of this second leading cause of cancer death in the United States (behind only lung cancer).
Blood cancer is actually a family of over 140 distinct diseases that affect blood cells, acting as “bullies” within the circulatory and immune systems. These abnormal blood cancer cells typically grow more quickly and survive longer than normal, interfering with the production and functioning of healthy cells.
Like all families, though, blood cancers have their differences. Lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), four major types of blood disorders, affect specific cell types in particular neighborhoods of the body. For instance, lymphoma alters white blood cells in the lymphatic system, while multiple myeloma disturbs plasma cells in the bone marrow.
These four diseases branch out into further subtypes. Leukemia comprises acute myeloid leukemia (AML), acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL); lymphoma includes over 60 different forms. The distinction between all those subtypes lies partly in the specific cell type impacted. But scientists are learning that commonalities are more critical than distinctions.
“When it comes to treating cancer, we’re beginning to understand that the kind of cell affected is not the most important aspect,” DeGennaro said. “It’s the underlying mutations and mechanisms—which are shared by many types of cancer—that matter more.”
For instance, researchers have found mutations in a tumor-suppressor gene called TET2 in multiple blood cancers, suggesting it plays a role in how blood cells are regulated in the body. But even beyond blood cancer, the TET gene family has also been linked to breast, liver, lung, pancreatic and prostate cancers.
Their commonalities may mean medical advances in one blood cancer could provide insights into others.
An example is a class of therapies called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), which have nearly doubled the five-year survival rate for CML since they were introduced 15 years ago. Today, TKIs have been approved to treat many other diseases, including lung, thyroid, kidney and breast cancers.
“Blood cancer research is paying dividends to other cancers and diseases, and that will only continue as we learn more about these diseases,” said DeGennaro.
To learn how you can help the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in supporting blood cancer research, read “Why I’m Walking in Light The Night® This Year.”