The potentially lethal blood cancer has a long track record of being unkind to anyone unfortunate to get the disease. The prognosis for one form of this blood cancer, acute myeloid leukemia or AML, was grim – with a 5-year survival rate of just 25 percent.

A devastating diagnosis

Toronto-based Jennifer Marley, an athletic 38-year-old, was in the midst of training to mountain bike through Utah when her back and neck began to ache. After a series of doctors failed to pinpoint the cause, a trip to the emergency room provided an answer – leukemia. The working mother of two children, ages 5 and 6, envisioned a long life watching them grow up. With two family friends who had already passed away from the disease, the main thought that emerged out of the fear and shock was: “This is a death sentence.” But she had a young family and she was determined to fight the disease with every ounce of her strength.

And fight she did – through rounds of chemo, radiation and a bone marrow transplant. Her normal life and her career as partner at Sklar Wilton, a consulting firm, were put on hold. “I couldn’t even risk going to a movie while I was receiving treatment,” Marley recalls. “I was susceptible to any kind of virus. It would have been dangerous for me, if anyone in the theatre even sneezed.”

Nano-medicine is giving AML patients of today the hope for a better tomorrow. Photo:Elif Rey Photography

New hope for survival

Fast forward 12 years. Marley is cancer-free and enjoying every day of what she calls “bonus time.” She realizes not every AML patient is as fortunate, so she supports The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada. Marley, along with her colleagues at Sklar Wilton & Associates, have formed a team devoted to fundraising and participation in events such as the annual Light The Night Walk, held to support patient support services and vital research. Those efforts to raise funds are crucial for the development of new treatments.

One of the latest AML therapies being developed is CPX-351, created by Dr. Lawrence Mayer, president and chief scientific officer, Celator Pharmaceuticals. Its creation was sparked by his recognition of the lack of progress in tackling AML. “We looked at different types of cancers where there was still a big unmet need, a lack of technology and treatments making inroads,” Dr. Mayer says. “That’s why we chose AML.”  He has worked tirelessly on developing and getting CPX-351 to patients since 2006.

This nano-medicine is indicative of a new breed of smart therapy capable of attacking cancer cells directly in the bone marrow, leaving surrounding tissue and organs healthy. In recent clinical trials, CPX-351 has had impressive results. It has not only boosted the chance of clearing leukemia from the body by 43 percent and allowed patients to live longer, while foregoing certain unpleasant side effects. Twelve years later, Marley still experiences after-effects like cataracts in both eyes.

Brighter days ahead for AML patients

Marley hopes future patients of leukemia won’t have to endure the same side effects she experienced, like losing her hair. CPX-351 treatment doesn’t cause that.  It’s a small but important benefit intertwined with patients’ emotional well-being.

It’s something Marley understands. She told her kids they could help by making her laugh, a proven booster to the immune system. They told her jokes and sent her notes to make her smile while in the hospital. Her five-year old daughter wrote: “Mommy, when you come home, can I borrow your lipstick?”

“...survival times nearly double for high risk AML patients treated with CPX-351.”

Dr. Mayer’s work received funding from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, part of a select number of Therapy Acceleration Program initiatives. It helped to bring CPX-351 from the initial concept of a targeted nano-medicine to patients in need much faster than traditional research grants.

“In the early stages of testing, we try not to have high expectations because they can be disappointing,” says Mayer. “But we were amazed to see how effective the drug was on tackling cancer cells while leaving organs healthy. Those results were confirmed in clinical trials where we saw survival times nearly double for high risk AML patients treated with CPX-351 compared to the currently used chemo treatment.”

The urgent need for a cure

The nano-medicine, now in stage three clinical trials, is the biggest breakthrough advancement in AML treatment in more than 40 years. Getting CPX-351 to more patients quickly and securing additional research funds is more critical than ever so future AML patients can have a happy outcome like Jennifer Marley’s.