During March each year, the United States observes National Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month. The goal is to build public awareness regarding blood cancer and to encourage aggressive research into treatments and interventions. At UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center, groundbreaking multiple myeloma research happens every day.
“Blood cancers affect all of us, whether or not we know it,” says UT Health San Antonio oncologist Robyn M. Scherber, M.D., MPH.
Multiple myelomas is a largely hereditary and fairly uncommon blood cancer that affects the plasma cells, the blood component that carries the red cells, white cells, and platelets through the body. The disease affects approximately 32,000 new patients in the United States each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Because multiple myeloma, unlike some cancers, is not linked to specific avoidable risk factors, prevention in the traditional sense isn’t always possible. So, a focus of Dr. Scherber’s investigative work since 2008 has been developing a broader understanding of how the blood and bone marrow work. “There are so much new data and so much new research teaching us just how important the blood really is,” she says. “Knowing more about how the blood and marrow function within the body can help us predict and prevent a wide variety of health problems – cancer, blood clots, stroke, heart attacks, and more.”
One recent discovery, a genetic mutation known as Clonal Hematopoiesis of Indeterminate Potential (CHIP), paves the way for treatments aimed at delaying the onset of hereditary blood cancers such as multiple myeloma or preventing them altogether.
“The discovery of this mutation’s role in blood cancers, for one, is giving us an opportunity to utilize genetic screening to identify patients whose family histories may increase the risk of cancers such as multiple myeloma,” says Dr. Scherber. “If identified early, patients with the CHIP mutation have access to a wide array of strategies and interventions designed to delay the onset of blood cancers and/or greatly slow their progress.”
An outgrowth of this area of study at UT Health San Antonio is a focus on interventions aimed at enhancing patients’ comfort and quality of life. “We’re looking now at ways to address symptoms because the research has shown us that symptom severity is related to survival,” says Dr. Scherber. “In other words, when people feel better, they live longer and enjoy a better quality of life.”
Related research at UT Health San Antonio deals with the role played by cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) in the onset or pace of multiple myeloma and other blood cancers. “High cortisol levels have been linked with increased inflammation in the body,” Dr. Scherber shares. “The inflammation can signal certain types of cells to multiply and grow. If someone is at risk for a blood cancer like multiple myeloma, this can be a problem.”
At least three studies currently underway at UT Health San Antonio focus on interventions designed to reduce inflammation as a way to delay the onset of blood cancers and slow their progress. Two studies specifically address the effectiveness of stress regulation techniques and reducing patients’ cortisol levels and the associated inflammation “Our research so far using techniques such as yoga and mindful practice has been really encouraging,” says Dr. Scherber.
A third study is monitoring the benefits of diet choice in reducing inflammation and helping the body. “We have seen a lot of evidence that a few targeted diet changes can have a big impact on the inflammation that causes so many problems for people with mutations such as CHIP.”
“We are also really excited about CAR T-cell therapy,” Dr. Scherber says. This new treatment being studied by UT Health San Antonio and other leading institutions use the body’s own immune system to precisely target and eradicate cancerous cells in the blood. The process, according to Dr. Scherber, is proving more effective and reliable and far less invasive and risky than previous treatments.
The primary benefits of all of the new research and treatments are, of course, measured in terms of how they impact a patient’s life, Dr. Scherber asserts. “The bottom line is that we are now able to regard cancer that was previously considered very aggressive as a chronic condition rather than a terminal diagnosis.”
To learn more about multiple myeloma, or to schedule an appointment, visit UTHealthsaMDAnderson.org or call 210-450-1000.