Thanks to the coming together of several different areas of research, new medicines are starting to reach patients with various types of leukaemia after a 20-year period when the rate of progress was comparatively slow. Major progress is also being made in some chronic adult leukaemias.
As a result, today childhood leukaemias can often be cured and quality of life greatly improved by the use of medicines and bone marrow transplantation, the report, Target Leukaemia, published by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), says.
"While the number of children suffering from leukaemia is comparatively small, it is especially distressing," said Dr Richard Tiner, the ABPI's Director of Medicine. "Thus - although there is some way to go - it is particularly gratifying that research carried out by the UK-based pharmaceutical industry and others has been so successful at extending and saving lives.
"The fact that this is an area of research where there is still so much activity going on gives us all great hope that the dramatic improvements already made can be continued, yet more children's lives saved in the future, and this progress extended to adult leukaemias.
"The industry spends nearly £10 million a day on the search for new medicines, and it is every researcher's dream to be able to help people, but children in particular, in this way."
Target Leukaemia shows that 10-year survival from all kinds of childhood cancer has risen from just over 20 per cent in the mid-1960s to about 70 per cent today. In 1960, children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common form of leukaemia in children, lived for around four months after diagnosis. Today, more than 80 per cent of children with ALL will be alive at five years after diagnosis and treatment.
"These advances are the direct result of new medicines, more intensive combinations and an increased use of bone marrow transplantation," the booklet says.
Following a comparatively fallow period for research into the disease, several areas of research began to converge during the 1980s:
Molecular biology - giving rise to the science of genetic engineering.
Immunology - its role in cancer surveillance became clearer, and helped to develop many immuno-active molecules.
Cell signalling technology - revealing how cell growth is regulated by chemical signals operating inside dividing cells and externally between neighbouring cells.
The human genome project - pinpointing many genes that may cause increased risk of certain cancers.
Thanks to progress in these and other areas, researchers are gradually unravelling the underlying errors that cause the various types of blood cancer. "As a result, there is now a greater range and flexibility in leukaemia medicines than ever before," Target Leukaemia says.
Some of the differing types of medicines include monoclonal antibodies - the "magic bullets" that are designed to seek out and destroy cancer cells. They can do this by triggering the body's own immune system; by delivering agents such as radioactive isotopes or cytotoxics directly to the cells; or by triggering internal mechanisms to kill the cells.
Cancer cell markers are also the basis for vaccine development and - although the booklet stresses that the success of this approach has not yet been proven - first indications are "a cause of cautious optimism".
In fact, Target Leukaemia points out that such progress has been and is being made that this can fairly be described as an era of innovation and discovery. "There has been a lot of progress in recent years and we can look forward with optimism to the next decade, when we may witness a revolution in cancer treatment and major advances in the fight against leukaemia," the report says.
Target Leukaemia has been written for the ABPI by the well-respected medical writer, Dr Mike Hall.
For further information, please contact: ABPI Press Office 020 7747 1410
Note to editors
A copy of Target Leukaemia is attached to this press release. It is the 16th in a series of guides charting the pharmaceutical industry's progress in major disease areas. Copies of the other guides, also free, are available from the address above. Those still in print include: Target Pain, Target Cancer, Target Crohn's & Colitis, Target Epilepsy, Target Osteoporosis, Target Rheumatoid Arthritis, Target Diabetes, Target Stroke, Target Migraine, Target Prostate, Target Alzheimer's and Target Schizophrenia, Target Skin.