Leukemia Treatments

Meet Director Joseph Alvarnas, M.D.
We offer not just the best known therapies, but also the best therapy for a particular person.
Joseph Alvarnas, M.D.
Professor, Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation

What Leukemia Treatment Options Are Being Offered?

Your cancer is every bit as unique as you are, and that is why treatment at City of Hope is focused around you and your loved ones.

This means our physicians will personally consult with you about your disease, treatment options and desired outcomes. We will also analyze your specific cancer for genetic and molecular markers that can guide us to more effective therapies. Afterward, our multidisciplinary team will work together to discuss, design and deliver an individual treatment plan to best meet those goals.

The innovative treatments we use to treat leukemia include drug therapy, radiation therapy and bone marrow/stem cell transplantation.

What Is Drug Therapy?

Drug therapy may be given to patients to fight leukemia cells throughout the body by killing them or stopping their growth and spread. These drugs include:

  • Chemotherapy: which targets rapidly dividing cells, including leukemia cells
  • Targeted therapy: which selectively identifies and attacks leukemia based on specific markers expressed by the cancerous cells
  • Immunotherapy: which stimulates the patient’s own immune system to attack leukemia cells
  • CAR T cell therapy: City of Hope continues to be at the forefront of a powerful form of immunotherapy known as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy. Using this approach, immune cells are taken from a patient’s bloodstream, reprogrammed to recognize and attack a specific protein found in cancer cells, then reintroduced into the patient’s system, where they get to work destroying targeted tumor cells. Learn more about our CAR T cell clinical trials for leukemia.

Drugs may also be prescribed to treat conditions related to leukemia or its treatments such as low blood cell counts, nausea or pain.

The drug or drug combination used depends on the leukemia subtype, disease prognosis, previous treatments used, the patient’s health and overall treatment goals. This personalized medicine approach also evaluates the leukemia cells’ molecular and genetic makeup, which can help identify treatments that are more effective and with fewer side effects.

City of Hope has a wide portfolio of cancer-fighting drugs available in its on-site pharmacy, allowing our medical oncologists to plan and prescribe a drug regimen that can best fight leukemia while minimizing side effects.

In addition to standard drug treatments, patients may also be eligible for other new, promising drugs through our clinical trials program.

Leukemia and Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses focused, high-energy X-rays or other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells.

For leukemia, radiation is typically used in the following manner:

  • To treat leukemia cells that have accumulated in specific areas of the body such as the brain or the spleen
  • Before a stem cell transplant to help kill leukemia cells throughout the bone marrow and body
  • To treat symptoms caused by leukemia such as bone pain

City of Hope is a leader in the use of radiation to treat cancers. Our advanced technologies and experienced staff can plan and deliver radiation precisely to the bone marrow, where leukemia originates while sparing nearby organs and tissues. This results in fewer radiation-associated side effects while maintaining excellent clinical outcomes.

What Is Bone Marrow / Blood Stem Cell Transplantation?

Blood stem cell transplantation allows doctors to deliver greater doses of radiation and drugs to fight leukemia. After the high-intensity treatments, patients are infused with blood stem cells that will grow and mature in the bone marrow, restoring their blood-forming functions.

Stem cell transplants may also fight cancer through its graft-versus-tumor effect, where the newly transplanted stem cells produce an immune reaction against remaining leukemia cells throughout the body.

The stem cells may come from another donor (allogeneic transplant) or the patient’s own cells (autologous transplant).

City of Hope is one of the country's largest and most successful bone marrow and blood stem cell transplant centers. Our Hematologic Malignancies Research Institute is a leader in setting standards for this lifesaving procedure, improving outcomes for leukemia patients of all ages.

Highlights of our transplant program include:

  • Recognition as an “overperforming” transplant center by The Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research Center
  • One of the first and most experienced centers to use nonmyeloablative (mini) transplants, which allow a greater range of patients (particularly those older or too weak to tolerate a standard transplant) to be treated with this lifesaving therapy
  • Integration of transplant and nontransplant therapies, so there is a smoother transition of treatments for leukemia patients who will eventually need a stem cell transplant
  • Experience in treating a wide range of leukemia cases, including advanced disease and higher-risk patients
  • A long-term, follow-up program that monitors for late effects and provides timely interventions


Active Surveillance

For slower-growing, less aggressive leukemias, active surveillance – also known as watchful waiting – is a viable treatment option. This method involves closely monitoring a patient with regular checkups and blood work, and beginning therapy when the disease begins to show signs of progression. Active surveillance allow doctors to deliver treatment when it is the most effective, sparing patients from unnecessary therapies and side effects.