The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society targets unmet needs in research, training, and clinical development.

“We're seeing very encouraging signs of progress for blood cancer research,” says Richard Winneker, PhD, senior vice president for research at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). Among them, “new therapies are being approved, like carfilzomib [Kyprolis; Onyx Pharmaceuticals] for multiple myeloma, and the drug development pipelines look pretty full,” he says.

The White Plains, NY, nonprofit organization aims to accelerate such progress with about 300 active research grants, says Winneker. LLS's overall research commitments, which totaled around $68.4 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, are divided into 4 major efforts.

One effort, accounting for about 20% of LLS research funding, goes to Marshall A. Lichtman Specialized Center of Research (SCOR) grants. In September, the society released 4 SCOR awards that provide 5-year, $1.25-million-per-year support to “very specialized and highly synergistic projects to greatly advance research progress through collaborative research,” says Winneker. “The awards put leading researchers in a position to capitalize on the science they've developed, with all SCORs ultimately leading to important clinical work.”

In late August, LLS gave $12 million in new grants for a second major initiative focused on high unmet medical needs in blood cancers as part of its Translational Research Program (TRP). This program, with funding of $200,000 annually for 3 years, helps researchers take discoveries out of their labs and into the clinic. Overall there were 48 new grant commitments last year as part of the TRP, which represents about 30% to 35% of LLS's research spending, Winneker estimates.

In the past year, 20 of the TRP grants have been funneled into 4 areas: leukemic stem cells in acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndromes; novel therapeutic strategies for noncutaneous T-cell lymphoproliferative disorders; development of therapeutic strategies for high-risk myeloma patients; and mechanisms underlying long-term toxic effects resulting from traditional chemotherapy.

A third major funding program, accounting for roughly 20% of the LLS research budget, goes into training in the form of fellowships—helping to attract new investigators and keep midcareer researchers in the field of blood cancer research.

LLS's fourth research effort, the Therapy Acceleration Program, makes up about 25% of its spending and focuses on partnerships with academia or the biotech community primarily for late preclinical development or clinical proof-of-concept stage therapy development. “More and more academic researchers want to contribute to drug discovery, and this is our way to fill some critical gaps in funding,” Winneker explains.

Overall in blood cancer research, “we see many new targets being identified, and some potential breakthroughs, such as BTK [Bruton's tyrosine kinase] inhibitors in non-Hodgkin lymphoma and CLL [chronic lymphocytic leukemia], and T-cell engineering in immunotherapy,” Winneker notes. “There are new therapies and combinations of therapies in the pipeline for treating AML, a disease that has seen few new therapies over the last 30 years. Quite a few drugs being developed for other diseases are now being examined for their potential in blood cancers, and there also are many efforts to use existing drugs more efficiently.”

He expects collaborations across organizations to further drive advances. “We need the ability to predict which drug combinations might work best, and we'd like to see more drug companies collaborate so that novel compounds that are in clinical development can be combined across companies to get to the best possible outcomes for patients,” Winneker says. “We're a neutral party, and we hope that we can play a role in setting these up.”