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Myeloma: The Search For A Cure

Searching For A Cure For Myeloma

If caught early enough, some forms of cancer can be eradicated from the human body.

That’s not the case with the blood cancer known as myeloma. The disease can be controlled. But there’s no cure for it.

Myeloma: The Search For A Cure
UC San Diego researchers are looking for new treatments for myeloma, a blood cancer for which there is no cure.

In 1999, when Pacific Beach resident Elliot Recht was 45 years old, he went to the doctor for a checkup. His doctor found a high level of protein in his blood, and sent Recht to a specialist. Recht remembers what the specialist told him.

"So he says, 'well you can do a stem cell transplant, or chemotherapy?'" Recht recalled. "And I’m going, 'what are you talking about?' And he says, 'you don’t know this, do you?' I said, 'what?' He says, 'you have a blood cancer.'"

Recht was diagnosed with myeloma.

Myeloma is the second most common blood cancer, after non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. About 20,000 Americans are stricken with the disease every year.

Dr. Brian Durie chairs the International Myeloma Foundation.

"The special feature of myeloma is that it stays in the bone, or the bone marrow," Dr. Durie said. "So, myeloma: it’s a myelo, bone marrow, oma, tumor."

Dr. Durie said the disease is characterized by a tumor that grows like a lump in the bone marrow.

"And so it increases in size, and it damages the bones around it," Dr. Durie pointed out. "And so it can damage your spine, and cause a lot of pain and disability, bone fractures. This is a very disabling disease."

It wasn’t that long ago that a person with myeloma had only one treatment option: first, an infusion of chemotherapy, then, a bone marrow transplant.

But Dr. Durie said there’s been a dramatic change in the last decade.

"Since the year 2000, there really has been a huge impact with the introduction of what we call novel therapies for the treatment of this disease," Dr. Durie said.

Drugs like Revlimid and Velcade have emerged as frontline treatments. These medications have helped myeloma patients live longer.

But they’re not a cure, and they don’t suppress the disease forever.

Just ask Elliot Recht.

"Well, the Revlimid after about four years, within the last year, has started to fail a little bit," Recht said. "The myeloma has started to increase a little bit.”

That’s why the search is on at Moores UCSD Cancer Center for better treatments for myeloma.

Dr. Catriona Jamieson directs stem cell research at the center.

She said the reason people die from cancer is they relapse. Dr. Jamieson believes the key to myeloma is getting a better understanding of what happens inside bone marrow.

"So if we can understand the interplay, between the myeloma cancer stem cell and its environment," Dr. Jamieson explained, "then we’ll be able to devise better strategies, they’re likely to be combination strategies, that will be able to eradicate those cells that we think are at the root cause of relapse."

UC San Diego researchers are also involved in clinical trials of potential myeloma therapies.

Hematologist Erin Reid is the principal investigator for three of these trials.

"We don’t have a cure," Dr. Reid emphasized. "We have so much room for improvement. Without a cure, we need to find something that will get rid of the disease forever."

Elliot Recht heads up a myeloma patient support group in San Diego. Over the years, he’s seen a lot of people die from the disease. But Recht said he’s lived a lot longer than anyone expected.

"When I was diagnosed it was a three-year life expectancy, and that’s what I was told," Recht said. "I attribute it to good luck."

Today, thanks to the new therapies, people diagnosed with myeloma can expect to live an average of six years.

About 10,000 Americans die from the disease annually.