This weekend will mark 50 years since the first successful manned mission to the moon, with the Apollo Lunar Module making its landing on 20th July 1969. The following day, Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon’s surface, arguably one of mankind’s greatest ever technological achievements.
Perhaps slightly less famously, while footage of the original moon landing was still doing the rounds on an analogue television, Leukaemia Care’s founding member, Bill Norris, put pen to paper to sign “The Leukaemia Society” as an official registered charity.
Since 1969, a lack of both funding and public interest towards manned missions to the moon has meant that research into space travel has somewhat fallen by the wayside in the past 50 years. Mankind has since focused its attention on other fields of science, to produce some equally remarkable scientific and technological advancements. One prime example is the research into treatments for leukaemia that have skyrocketed since 1969, and as a result, the survival rates for childhood cancer have risen from 10% to almost 80%.
A timeline of developments in leukaemia
1947 – Mustine (a compound based on a poisoned gas from World War 1) became the first chemotherapeutic agent used to kill leukaemia and lymphoma cells.
1948 – American pathologist, Sidney Farber, demonstrated that aminopterin could achieve remission in children with acute leukaemia for the first time. This led to the development of a new category of chemotherapy called ‘antimetabolites’.
1957 – E. Donnall Thomas carried out the first bone marrow transplant using identical twins, one of whom had leukaemia. This set out the foundations for bone marrow transplants, which became successful in the 1970s due to the advent of tissue matching.
1958 – Combination therapy was shown to extend survival rates or cure patients. This is where combining chemotherapy drugs from different groups helps to eliminate the cancer.
The idea of combination chemotherapy was inspired by the treatment of tuberculosis at the time, whereby bacteria could be eliminated by using a combination of antibiotics to lower the risk of resistance. Subsequent discoveries of cytarabine (ara-C), vinblastine and doxorubicin in the 1960s massively accelerated this new method of treatment.
1960 – A chromosomal abnormality linked to chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) was discovered whereby parts of chromosomes 9 and 22 switch places. This later inspired the use of a new line of treatments for CML called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs).
1969 – The Leukaemia Society was registered with the Charity Commission on 11th September as a children’s leukaemia charity, providing care for parents and children effected by blood cancers.
1975 – The first successful bone marrow transplant was performed in a lymphoma patient.
1977 – The chemotherapy drug chlorambucil was found to be effective against chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL).
1986 – The National Marrow Donor Program was founded in Minneapolis and become the world’s largest bone marrow registry.
1997 – Rituximab became the first drug based on a monoclonal antibody to be approved for medical use. It is used for the treatment of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, along with CLL.
2001 – Imatinib (Glivec) was approved by the FDA after it was shown to stop the growth of CML in many patients.
2008 – Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) became the first cancer to have its genome fully sequenced. Several new genes were linked with the disease, providing potential therapeutic targets in the future.
2011 – A large clinical trial showed that progression of CLL can be slowed and survival rates increased when rituximab is combined with fludarabine (standard chemotherapy drug).
2017 – The FDA approved the first gene therapy, tisagenlecleucel (Kymriah), for certain cases of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). The drug uses the body’s own immune cells to destroy the leukaemic cells.
Survival since the sixties
Unsurprisingly, these breakthroughs in treatment have meant that, as with most cancers, the survival rates have improved massively since 1969. Leukaemia Care first began as a support system solely for the parents of children with leukaemia, but it quickly went on to expand during the 1970s to embrace adult patients. Somewhat fittingly, this shift in agenda was very much the result of a giant improvement in the medical treatment during the 60s for childhood leukaemias. In 1960, less than 1 in 10 children with ALL survived into adulthood, whereas nearly 8 in 10 survived in 2010.
The progress hasn’t stopped at childhood leukaemia. From 1971 to 2010, the five-year survival in adults increased from 34% to nearly 70% when taking into account all types of leukaemia. With new treatments having been approved since these dates, and with the growing presence of new treatments such as immunotherapy in the last few years, survival rates are likely to be higher than ever and are set to improve in the future.
How is Leukaemia Care helping?
Whilst developments in medical therapies have continued to boost survival rates in leukaemia since the charity began, we are determined to campaign to improve survival through another route; by spotting the symptoms of leukaemia early and thereby lowering the occurrence of late diagnosis.
Alongside our golden anniversary celebrations, the #SpotLeukaemia campaign will continue to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of leukaemia amongst both the public and primary healthcare providers, so that patients can be treated quickly, at a stage where these amazing new therapies are a viable option.