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September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month, which focuses on raising awareness about blood cancers and their treatment options.
Dozens of clinical trials at Swedish use innovative solutions and advanced expertise to improve the available care for patients with blood cancer.
A cancer research expert shares his insights on the importance of clinical research in fighting blood cancer successfully.
According to the National Foundation for Cancer Research, someone in the United States is diagnosed with blood cancer every three minutes. And despite advances in treatment, their numbers show more than one-third of blood cancer patients do not survive five years after being diagnosed. Cancer experts at Swedish are working to change those statistics with advances made possible through clinical research.
Blood cancer typically starts in bone marrow, which produces blood cells. In most blood cancers, blood cell development is interrupted by the uncontrolled growth of abnormal blood cells. Those abnormal cells disrupt your blood’s ability to function and perform vital functions such as clotting and fighting infection.
Three common ways to group blood cancers are:
- Leukemias, often start in the bone marrow. Leukemias may result in production of a large number of abnormal white blood cells. This limits the body’s ability to fight infection and reduces your blood’s clotting properties. Some types of leukemia can grow very rapidly and make people sick quickly, some grow slowly and might be safely observed without treatment.
- Lymphomas, are blood cancers commonly found in part of the immune system called the lymph or lymphatic system, which includes the lymph glands, thymus gland, bone marrow and spleen.
- Myeloma, which affects the plasma cells. Plasma cells produce antibodies that fight infection and disease. Myeloma prevents the normal production of plasma cells, increasing the chance of infection and disease. Myeloma is commonly found in bones.
September is Blood Cancer Awareness month – an annual event dedicated to raising awareness about blood cancers and their treatment. We talked to Krish Patel, MD, director, Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapy, about innovations in blood cancer treatment and the clinical research that’s helping make them possible. Dr. Patel and his team are currently working on between 70 and 80 clinical research studies focused on improving treatments for blood cancers and other clotting and bleeding disorders. Here’s what he shared about the work they’re doing.
“We have clinical trials of all kinds at Swedish. We do them to advance new knowledge. We want to push the boundaries and help to do better and better – not only for our patients here in the Northwest, but to advance knowledge for patients worldwide,” says Dr. Patel.
The role of clinical research
“Clinical research is important in the care of all cancer patients. The evidence that clinical research generates informs the whole community of cancer doctors and clinicians on how to best care for patients. It helps us know what to expect regarding side effects, risks and benefits,” says Dr. Patel.
“Clinical research is also important for what it provides for individual patients,” he adds. “Many of the therapies that we study in clinical trials are in very early development. They might only be available to patients with certain rare types of blood cancers. Providing access to further treatment is an important part of why we do clinical research.”
Improving the standard of care
“All of the medicines and treatments that we currently recommend were a study and a trial at one time. Every standard therapy we have has to go through that clinical evaluation process," explains Dr. Patel.
“Therapies are getting better and better. We are building on the knowledge that we have gained and trying to improve outcomes. If the outcomes are already very good, we try to lessen the side effects and impact our treatments have on our patients,” he adds.
“The types of trials that we participate in might involve only a handful of centers around the world. They are often global clinical trials, meaning there are sites from the US participating, but there might be sites from Europe or Asia or other parts of the world as well. We work collaboratively in those trials with other investigators around the world to try to improve outcomes for patients everywhere,” says Dr. Patel.
Identifying unmet needs
“We choose what clinical trials to take on by determining the most common diseases we see and the areas of unmet need,” explains Dr. Patel. “We attempt to have trials in every kind of space. One area that we might try to focus on is the immune system and its ability to help attack certain cancer. But another area might be targeted treatments that use medicines that work on the machinery inside of the cancer cell. We try to have a diversity of approaches.”
“We do a lot of clinical trials in the care of patients with lymphomas. One very exciting area where we hope to see continued breakthroughs is cellular therapies. This is the idea of using living cells that come from the patients themselves to better find and fight cancer.
“Perhaps even more exciting is using living cells from a healthy donor or cells grown in the lab. These are things that don't need to be made for individual patients. They might just be ready for us to use right away when a patient needs them,” he adds.
“We do a lot of cellular therapy trials that build on our experience of using the immune system to attack cancer cells. We also do a lot of clinical trials using antibody-based treatments that can be given to a patient. Once they're inside the patient's body, they can help activate the immune system to try to attack the blood cancer. These are exciting and promising areas of research,” says Dr. Patel.
“There's also a diversity of patients. We see young and old patients, patients with medical problems, patients without medical problems, etc. We try to have something for everyone,” continues Dr. Patel. “We're very fortunate to be offered a lot of clinical trials in blood cancers. We try to be very selective and find the areas of unmet needs for our population and the diseases under study that address those needs.”
A longstanding commitment to innovation
“The Cancer Institute, from its very inception, has been focused on developing new therapies for patients. The explosion of cancer research regarding blood cancers has happened over a short time at Swedish. But the traditions of doing research and oncology are long standing,” says Dr. Patel.
“Swedish as a whole is committed to advancing science and advancing new treatments for patients. Clinical trials are one example of that. That's very tangible. Patients come and receive treatment of medicines that are not yet available in many parts of the US, let alone the world,” adds Dr. Patel.
“To begin a clinical trial takes tremendous coordination behind the scenes. We need dedicated clinical research coordinators, regulatory staff and people who work on things like contracts and budgets. All of the support for those people comes directly from Swedish. We couldn't do it without those staff resources. This commitment to innovation is what we talk about when we say the institution as a whole is supporting clinical research. They have an infrastructure and skilled people to help do the work of treating patients on clinical trials,” he explains.
Research brings results
“We have one of the best hematology trials programs on the West Coast at Swedish. We're very excited to be in a place where we can do this kind of work and for what it means for our patients,” says Dr. Patel. “We have great examples of patients who might not have had other treatment options available. Then they enrolled in trials and happened to have excellent responses to the treatments they received. Many were able to live longer and, hopefully, with a better quality of life. Those are great success stories.”
“When we think about the output of our clinical research program, we want to advance that knowledge worldwide. We present the findings of our trials at national and international research meetings. We work with companies to advance the development of new medicines and drugs.
“We measure our success in many ways – individually with the patient, with our ability to share knowledge with the community of blood cancer doctors and then, ultimately, in our ability to contribute to new treatments that are approved all around the world,” says Dr. Patel. “That’s why we do what we do. We want to help people live better lives, longer lives and healthier lives.”
Learn more and find a provider
Swedish is one of the leading clinical research sites in the western United States, participating in numerous research studies throughout its five locations.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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