blood-cancerDoctor looking at vials of blood

The blood cancer treatment that has got scientists all excited

CAR T-cell therapy is being used to fight blood cancer – and it could be used in the future to fight other cancers too.

Today, 53 Australians will be told they have blood cancer.

Tomorrow, the same number again will receive the same diagnosis.

There are many types of blood cancer and they affect people of all ages, from babies to the elderly.

But the latest treatments have the potential to save patients’ lives – and could be used down the track for other cancers too.

What are blood cancers?

The three most commonly known blood cancers are leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

Unlike with breast and bowel cancer, there is no routine screening program and there are no lifestyle steps you can take to reduce your risk of a diagnosis.

Blood cancer is caused by spontaneous changes in blood cells that cause those blood cells to behave abnormally.

Leukaemia Foundation health services general manager Kathryn Huntley says normally, our white blood cells help us fight infections and our red blood cells carry oxygen.

“But when changes or mutations happen, our blood cells can no longer function normally because they are crowded out by cells with the mutations, and mutated cells do not function as they should,” Kathryn explains.

“Those mutations are replicated again and again.”

Why does blood cancer happen?

Blood cancer is more common as people age and it isn’t caused by the sun, smoking, alcohol, diet or family genetics.

It can be difficult to recognise because symptoms often appear like a flu that is hard to shake, fatigue, night sweats, bone pain, unexplained weight loss, bruising or enlarged lymph nodes.

“When these symptoms don’t go away, or if you have a combination of these, see your GP who may recommend a blood test to check what is going on,” Kathryn says.

How treatment for blood cancer is rapidly advancing

In the past five years, great advances have been made in treatments for blood cancer.

Some of those are being researched and implemented at Melbourne’s Epworth Centre for Immunotherapies & Snowdome Laboratories.

The centre is led by Professor Miles Prince, an internationally renowned clinical haematologist, who nominates CAR T-cell therapy as one of the most exciting advances in treatment for many years.

“When a cancer starts to grow, it subverts the immune system and suppresses the body’s immune response,” Prof Prince says.

“New cancer immune therapies are using different ways of turbocharging the immune system to attack the cancer.

“CAR T-cell therapy is a highly specialised treatment where we remove the patient’s own T-cells, add a gene that is able to recognise the cancer, reinsert the cells back into the patient and those adjusted cells immediately recognise and start attacking the cancer cells.”

CAR T-cell therapy is currently available for some childhood leukaemia and lymphomas and was recently approved to treat multiple myeloma.

What is the impact of the new treatments?

Prof Prince says targeted therapies such as CAR T-cell therapy have the potential to save lives and, in the future, could be used to treat other types of cancer.

“Some of these immune therapies have the potential to cure the disease,” he says.

“We are seeing some myeloma patients who are living for three to four years when they would otherwise have died after three months.

“This advancement has stopped me from retiring!

“This is an incredibly hopeful time as a scientist and clinician.

“It is a moment of change that will have amazing and impactful outcomes for patients.

“Now we have to look at how we can translate this for other cancers.”

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Written by Sarah Marinos.