Harvard Women's Health Watch

Progress in treating multiple myeloma

Thanks to a host of effective new therapies, patients are enjoying years in remission from this malignant blood cancer.

If there's one disease that most shows the effects of recent improvements in cancer treatment, it's multiple myeloma. Advances in biotechnology have enabled scientists to identify several genetic and chromosomal abnormalities underlying the disease, while fostering the development of more effective and less toxic drugs. Although there's still no cure for myeloma, various treatments are bringing about lengthy remissions, and people who were once given two to three years to live are successfully managing their condition for five to seven years, with some living a decade or longer.

What is multiple myeloma?

The word myeloma derives from the Greek roots myelos (bone marrow) and oma (tumor); it's "multiple" because the tumors occur at many places in the bone marrow. The cause of the disease is unknown. It originates in plasma cells — white blood cells in the marrow called B lymphocytes, which differentiate in response to the presence of viruses and bacteria (pathogens) in the body. Normally, plasma cells make a different antibody to fight each type of invading pathogen. Thus, whenever that pathogen enters the body, the plasma cell becomes activated, reproducing in large numbers and generating enough antibodies to rid the body of the germ in question.

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