The Hairy Cell Leukemia Foundation (HCLF) and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) recently announced they are teaming up to support a research grants program of up to $10 million over 5 years. Their goal is to build a more comprehensive understanding of hairy cell leukemia, develop better therapies, and optimize outcomes for patients with the disease.
The two organizations share a commitment to finding better treatments and, ultimately, a cure for patients with hairy cell leukemia. They are soliciting proposals for the program, called HCL2025, from researchers around the world. Letters of Intent are being accepted until January 29, and full applications by invitation are due by April 16. The awarded grants will activate in October 2021.
Hairy cell leukemia is a rare hematologic malignancy that infiltrates the blood, bone marrow, spleen, and other organs. First described in the late 1950s, the disease is characterized by the overgrowth of abnormal white blood cells, which compromises the production of normal blood cells. It is named for the unique short, thin, hair-like projections on the surface of these blood cancer cells. Approximately 1,200 patients in the United States and 1,400 patients in Europe are diagnosed annually with hairy cell leukemia, the majority of whom have the classic type of the disease. Although hairy cell leukemia is not considered curable, patients generally respond well to cytotoxic chemotherapy and can experience durable remissions of 5 to 15 years or longer. Approximately 10% to 15% of patients have the variant form, a more aggressive type of the disease. Those patients tend to relapse more quickly and have a poor survival rate. Overall, the disease affects men four times more often than women. The cause of the malignancy and its striking male dominance is unknown.
Progress but Still No Cure
Despite some recent advances in treating hairy cell leukemia, further studies are necessary. After more than 20 years without new therapies, in September 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved moxetumomab pasudotox, an antibody linked with a toxin to target the cancer in patients who had relapsed from two prior therapies.
In addition, HCLF and LLS funding has supported other discoveries, including the detection of a mutation in a protein called BRAF, found in most patients with hairy cell leukemia. The mutant type of BRAF can be inhibited by the oral drug vemurafenib, which is approved by the FDA to treat some types of melanoma with the same mutation. The drug has been tested in patients with hairy cell leukemia and has demonstrated significant efficacy. Though vemurafenib holds promise, either given alone or with CD20 antibodies, patients still relapse, and therefore much more work is needed to achieve better outcomes and perhaps cures for patients with hairy cell leukemia.