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Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects your blood cells and bone marrow. As with other types of cancer, there’s currently no cure for leukemia.

People with leukemia sometimes experience remission, a state after diagnosis and treatment in which the cancer is no longer detected in the body. However, the cancer may recur due to cells that remain in your body.

The exact outlook depends on the type of leukemia, the stage of the disease, and your age. But research and advances in treatments point to the possibility of a cure that makes leukemia unlikely to recur.

Immunotherapies and targeted therapies are of particular interest to researchers. Learn more about the current research into treatment advances for leukemia, including treatments for the main types of this cancer.

Traditionally, leukemia is primarily treated with chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Stem cell transplants may also be used in conjunction with chemotherapy, particularly in children.

Immunotherapy and targeted therapies are newer treatments for certain types of leukemia. Ongoing research is looking at different forms of these therapies to possibly treat the cancer in earlier stages before it progresses.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy works by altering your immune system, making it easier for healthy cells to attack cancerous cells in the body. Immunotherapy drugs may be taken orally or intravenously.

Depending on the type of immunotherapy, treatment may help:

  • boost your T-cells (T-cell transfer therapy)
  • preserve the integrity of immune cells by helping prevent them from responding too strongly to leukemia cells (immune checkpoint inhibitors)

Targeted therapy

Consisting of oral medications, targeted therapy has been used with increasing frequency for certain types of leukemia over the last 20 years.

As the name suggests, this treatment approach works by targeting genes or proteins that may be helping cancerous cells grow. By disrupting the cancer’s environment in this way, new cells are less likely to survive.

The treatment your doctor recommends depends not only on the stage of cancer you’re in but also on the type. Acute leukemia types progress quicker than chronic types — early, aggressive treatment may be warranted.

Here’s what the research says about emerging treatments for each of the main types of leukemia.

Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)

AML is one of the quickest-forming leukemias. It’s also the most common type of acute leukemia in adults. Children with leukemia may be at risk of developing AML as adults.

Due to its rapid progression, AML is typically treated with either chemotherapy or radiation therapy to quickly destroy cancer cells.

But targeted therapies have recently emerged in AML treatment, especially for earlier stages of AML. There are currently five targeted therapies approved for AML treatment, and more options continue to be researched.

Other possible future treatments include:

  • adding proteins to chemotherapy to lessen the adverse effects posed to healthy cells during treatment
  • genetic modifiers

Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)

CML is the slower-growing version of AML. This means that treatment may not be as aggressive in the earlier stages, leaving room for emerging options like targeted therapies.

Researchers believe that targeted therapies may work so well in early CML that survivors may enter remission and achieve a typical life expectancy.

Based on the success of targeted therapies for CML, researchers are looking at whether people can stop taking these drugs during remission. Currently, targeted therapies are meant to be taken for the rest of your life.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)

ALL makes up the majority of childhood cancers. While early treatment may be more successful than with the other major acute form of leukemia (AML), ALL can still spread quickly.

Although chemotherapy and stem cell transplants may be used in children with ALL, researchers are also looking at other treatments that don’t carry as many risks of side effects in aging patients as chemotherapy poses.

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a newer type of immunotherapy for childhood ALL.

Your body already has T-cells, but when you have cancer, they may not work as they should. With CAR T-cell therapy, some T-cells are removed and genetically modified with receptors to fight cancer more effectively.

CAR T-cell therapy is also being researched as a substitute for more toxic treatments for adult ALL, such as chemotherapy. Researchers also hope it will someday replace stem cell transplants in older adults with B-cell ALL.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)

Newer treatments for CLL include targeted therapies, especially in combination form.

As with CML, researchers are studying whether it’s possible to stop taking targeted therapies during remission. CAR T-cell therapy is also being investigated as a possible treatment for this type of leukemia.

Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) is a type of CLL that doesn’t respond well to the same treatments. But researchers are currently testing different targeted therapies to treat this type of leukemia.

Both CLL and HCL progress slower than any other types of leukemia. To prevent side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy, a doctor may try targeted therapies first.

Another option may include “watchful waiting” to see how initial treatments work before attempting more aggressive treatments.

Leukemia in babies and young children

Acute leukemias are more typical in babies and children than slow-growing versions. For this reason, standard treatments tend to include:

  • chemotherapy (sometimes with stem cell transplant)
  • radiation therapy

Due to the risk of lifelong side effects, researchers are looking into other options, such as targeted therapies and immunotherapies.

A drug called sorafenib (Nexavar) is being investigated as a possible treatment to be taken alongside chemotherapy to weaken the side effects.

Aside from more potential targeted therapies, researchers are also looking at gene fusions that may be taken with these medications.

Despite successful emerging treatments for leukemia, there’s no existing cure for this type of cancer.

And even if you respond well to treatment, it can be challenging to receive a leukemia diagnosis — no matter which subtype you have or which stage you’re currently in.

Here are some ideas that may help you cope with the effects of leukemia and its associated treatments:

  • Learn more about the type of leukemia you have. Empower yourself with knowledge and talk with doctors and experts about existing treatment options and what to expect.
  • Seek the support of friends and loved ones. Ask those close to you for help as you cope with the symptoms of leukemia or the side effects of treatment.
  • Talk with others who can empathize. It can be helpful to share your story with others who are either living with leukemia or supporting a loved one with this cancer.

Talk to a doctor about the possible side effects of newer forms of immunotherapy or targeted therapy for leukemia.

Risks can vary between individuals and depend on the exact drugs you’re taking in your treatment plan.

If you take immunotherapy intravenously, you may experience reactions at the injection site, including:

  • redness
  • rash
  • swelling
  • itchiness
  • pain

Oral immunotherapy side effects

Oral immunotherapy medications may cause flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • chills
  • fever
  • body aches
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • sinus pain and congestion
  • breathing difficulties

Complications of immunotherapy can include:

  • heart palpitations
  • blood pressure changes
  • infections
  • organ inflammation
  • severe allergic or inflammatory reactions

Targeted therapy side effects

Possible side effects from targeted therapy may include:

  • fatigue
  • skin rashes
  • fever
  • headache
  • mouth sores
  • nausea
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • infection
  • hand or foot swelling
  • delayed growth (in children)
  • liver damage

The overall 5-year survival rate for leukemia is estimated at 63.7 percent.

As new, earlier treatments have emerged, the death rate for this type of cancer is also declining. In 2020, leukemia made up only 3.8 percent of all cancer-related deaths.

Acute types of leukemia may impact your outlook, as these tend to progress more quickly. Your age, overall health, and individual responses to treatment also affect your outlook.

The survival rate is also higher in people under the age of 65, with children experiencing the lowest percentage of leukemia-related deaths.

There’s currently no cure for leukemia, but emerging treatments and technologies may help researchers find cures for cancer one day.

Targeted therapies and immunotherapies are currently being researched to effectively treat leukemia subtypes in earlier stages.

Talk with a doctor about the best treatment options available for your type of leukemia. You can also ask a doctor about participating in clinical trials if you’re interested in experimental treatments.