Leukemia has one of the longest and richest histories of progress in cancer care. Since Dr. Sidney Farber discovered the first effective leukemia treatment in the 1940s, researchers have amassed a growing toolkit of therapies to induce remissions, extend survival and cure many different forms of the disease.
Today, multi-drug chemotherapy regimens can induce long-lasting remissions and treat recurrences for each of the approximately one dozen types of primary leukemia. Bone marrow and stem cell transplantation offer cures to many more patients, in part because a variety of transplant sources can now be used – like umbilical cord blood, family and non-family donors.
Targeted drugs are also beginning to have a major impact. For one type of leukemia, chronic myelogenous leukemia, easy-to-take oral drugs such as imatinib (Gleevec) induce long-term remissions, often with minimal side effects.
While certain forms of leukemia can be cured in up to 95 percent of patients using existing therapies, other types of the disease are far more challenging. Some types, including chronic lymphocytic leukemia, are managed as chronic diseases and require long-term drug therapy, close monitoring and sometimes aggressive treatment for periodic recurrences. Such treatments, while effective, can cause long-term side effects.
Leukemia has proven far more complex than researchers could have imagined in the 1940s. Yet deeper understanding about the disease is fueling the continuous development of new, more effective therapies and is improving survival and quality of life for patients.