The annual Light the Night event at Fresno’s Chukchansi Park helps contribute $2.5 million to blood cancer research from the Central California Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The organization has a goal to raise $3 million this year. Photo contributed

published on January 22, 2019 - 1:08 PM
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The Central California Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) has had a lot to celebrate as it rang in 2019, as the group’s members have more and more frequently seen the fruits of their labor.

Over the last two years, big strides have been made in battling blood cancers, including dozens of new treatments that have the potential to save countless lives. Since 2017, the US Food and Drug Administration approved 38 new drugs in the cancer space, 31 of which the LLS has supported or helped in getting approval.

“So one thing that we’re seeing is drugs that are helping with people who are older,” said Bethanie Mills, senior manager of patient access for the chapter. “So there’s going to be more people who are 70-plus who have more options and folks who have relapsed, or a refractory disease, that have more options.”

Perhaps the biggest of these treatments so far has been CAR T-cell therapy, which was approved by the FDA in 2017. The therapy involves removing a patient’s T cells (immune cells) and introducing modified cells with chimeric antigen receptors – or CARs – into the mix. After being reintroduced to the patient, the modified T cells bind to the cancer cells, killing them and then, in turn, dividing. Lee Greenberger, chief scientific officer for LLS, has described Car T therapy as a “tumor-killing factory” that is created in the patient.

Initially approved only for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the treatment is now being tested in myeloma. Researchers are also researching how to detect cells that may go awry in therapy to assist in a smoother treatment.

Another treatment to see breakthroughs has been the drug Ibrutinib. First approved by the FDA in 2013 to fight mantle cell lymphoma, it became a first-line treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2016. Since then, Ibrutinib has been expanded with the FDA’s blessing to indications for Graft vs. Host Disease and

Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia (WM).

At the heart of these breakthroughs has been the Central California LLS. Covering ten counties from Merced to Kern and San Luis Obispo, the Fresno-based chapter has seen a 26 percent year-over-year growth, making it the sixth largest in the country. Last year, they were able to raise $2.5 million, and have a goal of nearly $3 million for this year.

According to Debbie Truhett, executive director for the chapter, the cornerstone fundraisers for this organization have been Man and Woman of the Year and Student of the Year campaigns. Running at ten weeks for adults and seven for students, these competitions see candidates try to see who can raise the most for the title.

The Man and Woman competition in Fresno alone was able to raise $1 million, while the Student of the Year brought in $300,000. This year, Central California LLS will be running five competitions: Man and Woman of the Year in Fresno and Bakersfield, along with Student of the Year in these two cities and San Luis Obispo.

Other programs run by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society include the school-based Pennies for Patients and the two-mile, lantern-lit Light the Night walk at Chukchansi Park.

“So the funds that we’re raising here and what the community is giving back to our organization are significantly making an impact in what the overall fixture of what LLS can do in terms of funding these necessary drugs,” Truhett said.

LLS also runs has a clinical trial support team that has been part of the effort to educate patients on clinical trials and help them enroll. According Mills, these tests can often be cancelled due to low participation, so finding patients willing to take part is a crucial element to the process of fighting blood cancer.

In regard to the current fight and recent breakthrough, Truhett referred back to a statement from LLS president and CEO Lou DeGennaro, saying that while there’s never a good time to be diagnosed with cancer, it’s a phenomenal to time to be fighting. She also echoed her CEO’s optimistic claim that they should see a cure in their lifetimes.

“I believe that we’re on the brink of many new great advances,” Truhett said. “And I hope to be without a job because we cured cancer.”

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