Disease area focus: Myeloma

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Current treatments can extend lives by 10 years.

Myeloma is a cancer that arises from plasma cells – a type of white blood cell. Normal plasma cells produce different antibodies to fight infection but, in myeloma, large numbers of abnormal plasma cells interfere with the production of other types of blood cell in the bone marrow, releasing one type of antibody – paraprotein. This has no useful function or has an abnormal level of free light chains; the proteins produced by plasma cells.

It’s a difficult disease to detect because symptoms, such as tiredness, are not specific to myeloma. Blood and urine tests can detect paraproteins, though, and a bone marrow biopsy will confirm the presence of abnormal plasma cells.

Myeloma accounts for only 1–2% of all cancers. The exact cause is unknown, but risk increases with age, family history of the disease, radiation exposure and obesity. It is also more common in men and people of African and African Caribbean descent.

It affects multiple sites in the body – hence ‘multiple myeloma’ – causing kidney, bone and nerve damage, blood clotting problems, anaemia, raised calcium levels and infections.

Current treatments are very effective, but the disease returns. Research is progressing on many fronts, while advanced imaging techniques and detection of minimal residual disease are improving diagnosis. New treatments in development include monoclonal antibodies, histone deacetylase inhibitors and cell cycle inhibitors.    Go to myeloma.org


Treating myeloma

Modern treatments can control the disease for long periods: One in three patients now live for 10 years or more. Initial therapy uses a combination of drugs.


• Chemotherapy stops cancerous cells from dividing

• Biological therapy targets proteins inside or on the surface of cancer cells, blocking their growth and limiting damage to healthy cells

• Steroids help to kill myeloma cells and increase the effects of chemotherapy or biological drugs.

• Some patients also receive autologous stem cell transplantation.