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Leukemia & Lymphoma

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New Treatments for Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma

The rate of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has nearly doubled since the 1970s, but advances in treatments are offering new hope.

NHL: Diagnoses Are Up; So Are Options continued...

Lymphomas result when certain blood cells, called lymphocytes, multiply and refuse to obey normal signals -- especially the command to die normally. Lymphocytes build up, especially in lymph nodes, and eventually cause serious problems by their size and their ineffectiveness at fighting infections, which is their usual job.

For slow-growing lymphomas, long-term survival is common, although they cannot be cured. More aggressive tumors are more dangerous, but a permanent cure is possible. The lymphoma type, its effects, and its growth rate determine the best treatment.

The most common types of NHL are:

  • The usually slow-growing follicular lymphoma
  • The often more aggressive diffuse large B-cell lymphoma

Less common types include:

NHL Treatment: From Neutral to 180

For decades, treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma remained stuck in neutral. Conventional chemotherapy beat back disease and kept many people in remission, especially for slow growing lymphomas. But each time lymphomas return, they learn to better survive these toxic drugs.

By turning new scientific breakthroughs into new medicines, however, cancer specialists are raising the ante.

"There have been enormous advances over the past 10 years in our fundamental understanding of what makes a cancer cell a cancer cell," says Owen O'Connor, MD, a Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center medical oncologist. "Understanding these developments has given rise to a panoply of new drugs."

Antibody Therapy for Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma

One new hope came in the 1990s, when researchers learned how to mass-produce antibodies against a kind of immune B-cell found in 90% of non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. Called monoclonal antibodies, they kill lymphoma cells by harnessing the power of the human immune system.

How it works: Monoclonal antibodies are given as part of a chemotherapy regimen; they stick to lymphoma cells and the immune system attacks and kills the tumor cells.

The FDA approved the first monoclonal antibody, Rituxan, in 1998 for treatment of lymphomas that failed conventional chemotherapy. Oncologists, excited by promising early data, quickly embraced this new weapon and believed Rituxan would work not just on relapsed lymphoma, but on early disease as well.

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