When an outright cure for a disease isn’t possible, medicine is going for the next best thing: keeping disease in a sort of suspended animation.
It’s worked for HIV. Many people living with the virus, such as basketball legend Magic Johnson, suppress the disease with powerful drugs taken every day. And this strategy also has worked for many with chronic myelogenous leukemia, like Johnson’s former teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They survive for years after their diagnosis thanks to the drug Gleevec, which can stifle the leukemia and make it manageable.
Now researchers are trying to make similar strides against multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer with no known cure.
City of Hope researchers and their colleagues around the world are working on combinations of treatments that could help many patients live longer with the disease, a blood cancer that develops in the bone marrow.
So far, no one treatment seems to get rid of the cancerous cells in multiple myeloma completely. Even when signs of cancer have vanished, the cells usually return. But using a series of new treatments could both improve patients’ response and reduce side effects — potentially helping many patients keep their cancer at bay for years.
In multiple myeloma, doctors are testing combinations of drugs that boost the immune system to fight cancer together with other new drugs that prompt cancer cells to kill themselves. Together the drugs can knock down and suppress multiple myeloma. More recently, physicians started to give them after blood stem cell transplantation to keep cancer in check.
A variety of approaches are now reaching patients through clinical trials, and researchers have found ways to make some medications powerful enough to suppress cancer while being gentler on the patient.
“We see reasons for optimism,” said Amrita Krishnan, M.D., director of City of Hope’s Multiple Myeloma Program. One recent City of Hope study showed that a new drug combination given after transplantation seemed to knock out cancer cells more deeply in many patients, “which we hope will ultimately translate into better survival.”