Leukemia Lymphoma

According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, over the past 50-plus years survival rates for such cancers "have doubled and tripled, and in some cases quadrupled." Despite these advances, they say, "more than 1 million North Americans are fighting blood cancers, the third leading cause of cancer death." Among children, leukemia alone is responsible for 40 percent of cancer fatalities.

Fortunately, world-renowned researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science are actively investigating cancers of the blood-forming organs. Over half of all life sciences research at the Institute is focused on cancer, and Weizmann's unique multidisciplinary environment means that collaborative teams armed with the most advanced research tools, as well as with a massive body of institutional expertise, are bringing their considerable resources to bear on the unique problems posed by blood-related cancers.

The hematological malignancies, such as lymphoma, leukemia, and myeloma, arise due to errors in the genetic information of an immature blood cell. As a consequence, the cell's development is arrested and it does not mature further, but is instead replicated over and over again, resulting in a proliferation of abnormal blood cells. Nearly every stage of the hematopoietic process, which is the formation of blood cells, can give rise to a distinct type of cancer. (While lymphoma is technically a disease of the lymph nodes, it often spreads to the bone marrow, thus affecting the blood.)

Below are just a few examples of the outstanding leukemia and lymphoma research conducted at the Weizmann Institute.

Bone marrow transplants from mismatched donors.

Prof. Yair Reisner of Weizmann's Department of Immunology pioneered a new method that makes it possible to perform a bone marrow transplant even if the leukemia patient and donor share only half the immunological markers previously needed for such transplants. He created the approach, which is based on the use of megadoses of donor marrow that overwhelm the recipient's rejection mechanism, in collaboration with Italian physicians, and the technique is now used at dozens of hospitals around the world. Read more:

Improving the Odds: A New Method for Bone Marrow Transplantation from Mismatched Donors Restores the Immune System Faster
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A Matchless Achievement

Basic research leads to complete leukemia remission.

In the late 1980s, Prof. Zelig Eshhar of the Department of Immunology developed an immune cancer therapy that employs "T bodies" — white blood T-cells engineered with receptors that possess the antibodies' recognition unit, which helps them identify tumors. Decades later, in August 2011, University of Pennsylvania researchers reported in The New England Journal of Medicine that they had successfully used this approach in a pilot trial of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). The patients were treated with their own T cells, genetically engineered based on Prof Eshhar's method. Encouraged by this initial success, the researchers plan to apply the method to the treatment of other malignancies, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, acute lymphocytic leukemia, and childhood leukemia. Read more:

An Immune System Trained to Kill Cancer

Development of first-of-a-kind drug.

Prof. Eli Canaani of the Department of Molecular Cell Biology provided the basic research foundation for the development of Gleevec®, a drug that has won unusual praise and attention as the first therapy based on the molecular understanding of a specific cancer: chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). The researcher isolated two genes that abnormally swap pieces of genetic material and lead to the production of a fused protein that triggers CML. Using these findings, the pharmaceutical company Novartis developed a molecule that seeks out and destroys cancer cells making the fused protein. It was the first – but not the last – discovery of cancer initiated by protein fusion. Gleevec® was approved by the FDA in 2001 to treat CML, and is now routinely prescribed to CML patients around the world. Read more:

Taking Action at Step 1: Malignant Transformation

Discovering a survival mechanism for blood cancer cells.

In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), white blood cells called B lymphocytes, or B cells, lose the internal self-destruct program for limiting their lifespan, continuing to grow and building up to dangerous levels in the blood, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. A team of scientists headed by Prof. Idit Shachar of the Department of Immunology have discovered what keeps CLL cells going. A specific receptor binds to another protein, initiating a series of events that lead to enhanced cell-survival capabilities. The team treated the CLL cells with an antibody that attached to the survival receptor, blocking its activity and significantly raising cancer cell mortality rates. Their findings may lead to future treatments for CLL, as well as for other illnesses in which B lymphocytes accumulate in the blood. Read more:

Weizmann Institute Scientists Discover a Survival Mechanism for Blood Cancer Cells