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EHA annual conference 2020: the promising future of blood cancer research

24th Jun 2020

Here’s a research round-up of all the exciting breakthroughs in blood cancer research discussed at this year’s European Haematology Association conference. From potential new treatments for people with myeloma to understanding more about how blood cancers develop and why they return.

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The 25th European Haematology Association (EHA) conference took place last week. This annual event provides an opportunity for researchers to come together and talk about their latest research findings.

Due to the pandemic, the conference was held virtually. Our Research Communications Manager, Rachel Kahn, reflects on these sessions and explores what the future could hold for people with blood cancer.

A potential new treatment for people with myeloma who are not responding to treatment

Professor Philippe Moreau presented results from a study which looked at adding a drug called isatuximab with other drugs to treat people with multiple myeloma, whose cancer had returned or was not responding to treatment.

This study is ongoing, but early results suggest that this drug can increase the amount of time before someone’s disease gets worse – definitely one to keep watching!

Could blood cancer drugs be used to help people with coronavirus?

The conference opened with some interesting news on coronavirus. There was a stimulating discussion on how drugs called Bruton tyrosine kinase inhibitors, commonly used in the treatment of blood cancer, may help people with coronavirus by reducing inflammation in people’s lungs. This would protect them from lung damage.

It was great to see how existing blood cancer drugs could be repurposed to help people with the virus.

New drug combinations could create more options for elderly people with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)

Professor Courtney DiNardo spoke about results from a clinical trial for elderly people with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) – a group of people who often can’t receive intensive treatment for their disease. The study found that combining venetoclax with azacitidine improved survival in the elderly, compared to giving them azacitidine alone.

Professor Lars Bullinger presented some initial findings from a study called HARMONY – an alliance of countries all over the world looking to increase our knowledge of AML.

We found out more about clues in the genes of people with AML that can influence the outcome of their disease. These findings could help guide future decisions about treatment and help clinicians to understand who might be more at risk of their disease returning.

How can we better tailor treatment for people with acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL)?

Screening cancer samples to test how the cancer will respond

Dr Jean-Pierre Bourquine spoke about an interesting new method, currently being tested, which could help to guide treatment decisions for people with acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL).

He spoke about a new platform which can screen cancer samples from people with ALL. This would test whether the cancer will respond to a treatment or not. It is currently being tested in Europe and could ensure that everyone is given the most appropriate treatment, at the earliest possible stage.

How gut bacteria might affect the development of leukaemia

In addition to this, one of the talks I found most interesting was by Dr Carolina Vicente-Dueñas. Her research looks at whether the bacteria in our gut might affect the development of leukaemia.

Dr Vicente-Dueñas explained that the type of bacteria in our gut can be used to predict who might develop leukaemia. Also, that certain antibiotics which alter the bacteria in the gut may also be involved in its development. Her work could help us to understand who is likely to develop the disease by monitoring gut bacteria early in life. This could prevent some cases of the disease.

Treatment combinations for children and young people with ALL

Blood Cancer UK-funded Anthony Moorman described some early results from a study called UKALL2011, which aims to find the most appropriate treatment combinations for children and young people with ALL.

The study showed that a drug called imatinib could be beneficial for young people who have a particular genetic change in their cancer. This could decrease the likelihood of their cancer returning and could lead to more effective treatments in the future.

CAR-T cell therapy

CAR-T cell therapy is a promising new treatment for some adults. There was an update on a trial looking at this treatment in a new group of people. For adults with high risk ALL whose cancer has returned or stopped responding to treatment, Dr Claire Roddie gave us some initial results from the ALLCAR19 trial.

Those taking part in the trial were given a type of CAR-T cell therapy, and 58% of people remained disease free after a year. This is a promising new treatment for this group of people. The next stage of testing this treatment has already started.

Treatments showing long term benefits for people with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)

I heard about some interesting new findings from a trial called CLL14. Previous results from the trial showed that people with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) – who had not yet received treatment for their disease – had a better outcome if they were given the drugs venetoclax and obinutuzumab. This was in comparison to those who took the drugs chlorambucil and obinutuzumab.

This follow-up study showed that even after two years, fewer people had seen their disease get worse if they had been given venetoclax and obinutuzumab. This shows the long-term benefits of this drug combination.

Sticking on the subject of CLL, there was also a session which included the final results of the ASCEND trial. This showed that a combination of acalabrutinib and rituximab proved to have the most benefit for people with CLL that had returned or stopped responding to certain treatments.

Both of these trials may influence treatment given to people with CLL in the future.

Understanding more about why Richter’s syndrome develops in people with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)

Richter’s syndrome is a complicated condition which occurs when CML develops into diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and can be hard to treat. Dr Stuart Blakemore presented some of his research, which found an increase in certain genes in cancer cells that may be responsible for this change. This helps us to understand more about the disease and hopefully paves the way for new treatments to be developed in the future.

Also in CML, there were results from a study which found that people with newly diagnosed CML responded well to a combination of a drugs called dasatinib and Pef-IGNa2b. This drug combination could give people a greater chance of coming off treatment in the future.

New clues helping us to understand why burkitt lymphoma returns

Burkitt lymphoma is one of the most aggressive types of lymphoma and it can be difficult to treat if it returns after initial treatment. During a session with Dr Anne Christine Wilke, she explained that the levels of a gene called SHMT2 are increased in some cases of burkitt lymphoma which has returned. It’s thought that this causes cells to survive and grow. This could be a new drug target, helping to treat the disease in the future.

Professor Gilles Salles also covered the state-of-play of follicular lymphoma. He spoke about work which had been done to show factors that might increase or decrease the risk of developing lymphoma. We also found out about some new research, which has shown that a drug called tazemetostat could help around 20-25% of people with follicular lymphoma, with a particular genetic error, in the future.

That’s all from this year’s EHA, which presented some promising research. A big thank you to the organisers who worked hard to deliver this year’s conference despite challenging circumstances. Hopefully next year, we’ll all be able to meet in person.

Chris Bunce

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