Innovation in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

Over the past few years, significant breakthroughs have been made to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a rare blood cancer that affects just 3 out of every 100,000 individuals in the United States.

These medical breakthroughs are tremendously important to the treatment and survival of these cancer patients. Today, we review what chronic lymphocytic leukemia is and how these breakthroughs have changed the lives of patients – as well has how current research efforts help continue to improve our treatment options.

What is Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia?

You’ve probably heard of leukemia, but you might not have heard about this particular type. Less than 200,000 cases are treated every year. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL, begins when particular cells in the bone marrow become lymphocytes, a specific type of small white blood cell. “B lymphocytes” (or B cells) can change, developing into chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells. Though these cancer cells may develop in the bone marrow, they can spread throughout the body.

According to, CLL “most often affects adults over the age of 55. CLL sometimes occurs in younger adults, but it almost never affects children.” This is unlike cancers such as acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common type of cancer found among children.

There are two types of CLL: one that grows very slowly and can go unnoticed, without symptoms, for years, while the other progresses more quickly. The five-year survival rate for CLL is 82% (

How Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Has Been Treated

Like many cancers, the treatment plans for chronic lymphocytic leukemia depends on the patients’ diagnosis and other health factors. There are now many treatments available, which has led to a high survival rate, as compared to other types of cancers. Historically, these treatments include various types of:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery, when organs such as the spleen are affected
  • Stem cell transplants

Many combinations of drugs are available for patients, especially in the earlier stages of diagnosis, when the patient’s health remains most stable.

While these therapies have performed well, new treatment options are showing promise and early success with CLL patients.

Recent Innovations & Current Research

Today, new targeted therapies have been developed that target the root cause of the disease. Targeted therapies seek out the genes and proteins that tell otherwise healthy cells to mutate into cancerous ones. Targeted therapies aim to affect the specific parts of the body’s cells that make them more likely to become cancerous. This is different than chemotherapy, which aims to kill entire cells that are dividing and spreading quickly, sometimes harming healthy ones in the process.

In 2001, a targeted therapy for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) called imatinib generated excitement among CLL researchers because its success provided support for the concept that a medicine could be designed to interfere with the underlying biological processes causing a particular cancer. This success encouraged researchers who were embarking on a journey to understand the underlying biology driving cancer in CLL. (PhRMA)

Targeted therapies are beneficial for a number of reasons. One of the most prominent are their promise and effectiveness for patients whose immune systems cannot stand to be suppressed further by traditional chemotherapy drugs.

Significant research led to breakthroughs in targeted therapy development, as scientists have dedicated their work to understanding the biology of CLL. By learning more every day about how this cancer originates and develops, researchers have been able to successfully explore the use of monoclonal antibodies, tyrosine kinase inhibitors and other forms of treatment to hone in on exactly what causes CLL to exist and endure.

This research is ongoing, as continued efforts seek to improve the treatments available for CLL patients. Scientists aim to curb cancer growth, treat symptoms more effectively and reduce side effects of therapies. Significant progress has been made, but there’s more to be achieved.