Innovative cancer drug offers a gentler alternative to chemotherapy

Some children undergoing cancer treatment are benefiting from a new, less toxic drug therapy compared to traditional chemotherapy.

Arthur has returned to school and resumed his hobbies.
Arthur has returned to school and resumed his hobbies.

Arthur, 11, received this innovative treatment at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for his blood cancer. Described by his family as “a little bit of sunshine,” the therapy proved effective without causing significant discomfort for Arthur.

The convenience of administering the treatment outside the hospital allowed him to spend more quality time at home with his loved ones, carrying the drug in his “blina backpack.” Blinatumomab, or blina, became Arthur’s primary choice after chemotherapy failed to completely eradicate his cancer, leaving him weakened.

Arthur carrying his blina backpack
Arthur carrying his blina backpack.

Blina, currently approved for treating adults with cancer, is being explored for its safe application in pediatric cases. In about 20 centers across the UK, the drug is being used off-label for children diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (B-ALL).

Functioning as an immunotherapy, Blina targets cancer cells, allowing the body’s immune system to recognize and eliminate them. Unlike chemotherapy, this targeted approach ensures that healthy cells remain unaffected during the process, marking a significant advancement in cancer treatment.

Arthur commencing his blina therapy
Arthur commencing his blina therapy.

Blina is delivered in a liquid form through a slender plastic tube that remains connected to a vein in the patient’s arm for an extended period, often spanning months.

A battery-operated pump regulates the gradual infusion of the drug into the bloodstream, allowing a single bag to last for several days. The entire apparatus conveniently fits into a backpack smaller than an A4 textbook, ensuring portability. For patients like Arthur, this meant the freedom to engage in other activities, such as playing on the swings in the local park, while undergoing treatment.

In contrast to the debilitating effects of his prior intensive chemotherapy, which had become ineffective, Blina did not compromise his strength, enabling him to enjoy his days more fully.

‘Perpetual struggle’

Similar to other individuals undergoing blina treatment, Arthur received pre-medication to minimize the risk of severe reactions or side effects before the infusion began.

Initially experiencing bouts of fever, he required hospital stays for monitoring, but soon after, he was able to return home.

The portable backpack accompanied Arthur continuously, even during sleep, and despite the pump’s noise, he managed to get a restful night’s sleep.

For Arthur, transitioning from challenging chemotherapy to blina was a relief, according to his mother, Sandrine. Reflecting on the intense chemotherapy, she expressed the difficulty of witnessing her son endure the constant challenge of harsh drug effects in the pursuit of healing. She remarked, “We were curing him by making him feel worse—it’s a very difficult thing to process.”

‘Significant leap’

Arthur visited the hospital every four days for doctors to replenish the blina kit, but for the remaining time, he could manage the treatment at home. Sandrine shared, “He enjoyed the fact that he was able to hold it and be responsible—he embraced all of it.”

In April 2023, Arthur underwent the final operation to remove the tubing from his arm, marking a significant milestone. Sandrine expressed, “It was a big step – he was free.”

Medical experts suggest that blina has the potential to substitute for a substantial portion of chemotherapy, possibly up to 80%. In the UK, around 450 children each year receive a diagnosis similar to Arthur’s type of cancer.

Arthur accompanied by his parents during his chemotherapy and steroid treatment.
Arthur accompanied by his parents during his chemotherapy and steroid treatment.

Prof Ajay Vora, the chief investigator and consultant paediatric haematologist, emphasized, “Chemotherapies are poisons that kill leukaemic cells but also harm normal cells, leading to their side effects. Blinatumomab provides a gentler, kinder treatment approach.”

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Another advanced immunotherapy drug, Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell therapy (CAR-T), has recently emerged as an option. However, it comes with a higher cost compared to blina, and the patient’s cells need to be extracted and modified in the laboratory before being reintroduced as the medicine, a process that takes time.

Thanks to the comprehensive treatment, Arthur is now cancer-free. Sandrine shared, “We received the fantastic news on New Year’s that the blina had effectively eliminated any residual cancer. It was truly amazing, leading to double celebrations for us.”

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  • AYAN ZEESHAN

    An accomplished journalist boasting a decade of expertise, Ayan Zeeshan excels in the meticulous exploration, thorough research, and compelling presentation of news. Renowned for his perceptive analyses and unwavering dedication to journalistic ethics, he has made significant contributions to several esteemed publications. Going beyond the confines of traditional journalism, Ayan Zeeshan is a fervent advocate for staying well-informed and actively involving global audiences, viewing his role not just as a profession but also as a personal mission.

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