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Multiple Myeloma: Has Crowd Control Ever Been As Important?

Medically reviewed on Jun 26, 2017 by L. Anderson, PharmD

Multiple Myeloma: A Crowded House

If you are loved one has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, you will no doubt have many questions about this form of cancer.

So what is multiple myeloma? Multiple myeloma forms when cancerous plasma cells, a white blood cell normally found in the bone marrow, crowd out healthy plasma cells and form 'multiple' tumors - hence the name 'multiple' myeloma. The tumors usually affect the bones, but may infrequently occur in other areas, too.

Multiple myeloma is a rare type of cancer, but that doesn't mean it doesn't take a toll. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be roughly 30,000 new cases of multiple myeloma in 2016, and about 12,000 deaths. A rare disease - also called an orphan disease in the US - typically occurs in less than 200,000 people.

Am I At Risk for Multiple Myeloma?

Remember, multiple myeloma is a very uncommon cancer. To put some numbers to it, the US lifetime risk of getting multiple myeloma is 1 in 143; about a 0.7% chance. But some factors that may increase your risk of being diagnosed with multiple myeloma are:

Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma

Early in the disease process, multiple myeloma may not cause any symptoms, and even after diagnosis, treatment may not be needed immediately. But as it progresses, symptoms can include:

  • Bone pain, often in the back and ribs
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Easy bruising due to low platelets
  • Anemia: cancerous plasma cells crowd out normal red blood cells
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach problems like nausea and vomiting
  • Mental changes like confusion
A greater risk for infections, bone fractures, dehydration, and kidney problems can also occur.

How Is Multiple Myeloma Diagnosed?

Usually multiple myeloma isn't caught early because the symptoms don't appear until a more advanced stage of disease. However, in some cases, your doctor might suspect multiple myeloma based on a blood or urine test or your symptoms, such as bone pain or easy bleeding.

To diagnosis multiple myeloma, your doctor might use these tests or procedures:

  • Blood tests (CBC) to look for blood cell counts and certain proteins
  • Urine tests to also look for proteins
  • Bone marrow biopsy to look for myeloma cells
  • Imaging tests such as X-rays, MRI, CT or positron emission tomography (PET)
Other tests and procedures may be used as well, depending upon your circumstances.

Staging Multiple Myeloma

Staging is the process of finding out how much the cancer has advanced. Your multiple myeloma will be staged into Standard (Stage I), Intermediate (Stage II) or High (Stage III) risk disease to help direct initial treatment.

The stage is determined by evaluating several factors, including lab results, protein levels, and bone lesions. Staging can also help to give your doctor the expected outcome over time (prognosis) for your myeloma and what to expect from treatment. Your doctor will be able to share this information with you. New treatments are rapidly expanding a patient's prognosis.

Broad Treatment Options for Multiple Myeloma

Multiple Myeloma: Treatments by Stage

Some patients with early disease may not have symptoms and can do well for years without treatment. This is called smoldering myeloma (SMM) and can be closely monitored for progression without treatment. However, some patients may need to have treatment based on the stage of the disease and symptoms. Presence of high calcium levels, kidney disease, blood cell counts, bone lesions, and symptoms all help to direct your treatment.

Drug treatment typically involves targeted therapy or chemotherapy, use of corticosteroids, and a possible a stem cell transplant (autologous hematopoietic cell transplantation [HCT]), if the patient is deemed eligible. Patients with high risk disease should discuss treatment options with their doctor. They may want to consider enrolling into a clinical trial with an investigational agent or use newer treatments, as standard treatments are often not as effective.

What Is a Stem Cell Transplant?

A stem cell transplant is a procedure to replace your diseased bone marrow cells with healthy bone marrow cells. If you and your doctor have decided that a stem cell transplant is the right option to treat your multiple myeloma, you will receive high doses of chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells before the transplant. Then you receive a transfusion of stem cells taken from your blood or bone marrow (autologous) before you received drug treatment, or from a donor (allogenic).

The transplanted stem cells develop into healthy new blood cells. Targeted drug therapy, chemotherapy, and stem cell transplants are not a cure, but these therapies may control your multiple myeloma for years. To learn more about stem cells, review this paper from Mayo Clinic.

Multiple Myeloma: Drug Therapy Options

After your stem cell transplant, if you have one, you'll most likely receive specific types of drugs - called targeted drug therapy or biological therapy - to help prevent a recurrence of myeloma. If a stem cell transplant is not in your regimen, your initial therapy may include chemotherapy, corticosteroids, targeted therapy or biological therapy.

There may be other complications from multiple myeloma that need treatment, too, including bone pain, kidney disease, vaccines to prevent infections, bisphosphonates like zoledronic acid (Zometa), pamidronate (Aredia) to help prevent bone loss, and medications for anemia to increase your red blood cell count.

Specific Drugs Used in Multiple Myeloma

Treatment choice will depend upon if you are newly diagnosed with multiple myeloma and your stage at diagnosis, or if you are experiencing a recurrence of the disease. Treatments are often combined for greater success and to help lower side effects. Drugs your doctor will select from may include:

Many newer treatments have been approved as well, and are detailed on the following pages.

Common Treatment Regimens

Drug treatment regimens for multiple myeloma typically involve a combination of medications, given over a period of time (a cycle, from 21 to 28 days), usually for 2 to 4 cycles. Your treatment may be different based on your risk profile, tumor targets, drug availability, your doctors preference, and whether or not you are having a stem cell transplant.

Lenalidomide, bortezomib, and thalidomide may be used in initial treatments of multiple myeloma. For recurrent myeloma, lenalidomide, panobonostat, pomalidomide, bortezomib, and carfilzomib may be options. These agents are often combined with corticosteroid agents like dexamethasone or prednisone to enhance therapy. Some patients continue maintenance therapy with agents like lenalidomide to extend survival time. Chemotherapy drugs that stop cancer growth like cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, or melphalan may also be combined with targeted treatments.

Can Side Effects Be Controlled?

Palliative care, or preventing and controlling side effects during treatment, will be a major goal of your health care team.

For example, an anti-emetic agent like ondansetron (Zofran) can be given before treatment sessions to lessen nausea and vomiting if there is a risk.

If there is a chance of infection, some patients may receive antivirals or antibiotic medications. If treatments increase the risk of a blood clot, a blood thinning agent might be used to prevent a heart attack or stroke.

More Palliative Care

Bisphosphonates, for example alendronate (Fosamax) or ibandronate (Boniva) can increase bone density, reduce bone pain, and lower the risk of fractures. Doses may be lowered in patients with liver or kidney disease and to help prevent side effects like peripheral neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that may cause weakness, numbness and pain.

Hair loss, a worry for many, is not common with all treatments, so be sure to ask your doctor about your specific regimen. And remember, if you do lose your hair, it usually grows back after treatment ends.

Latest Approvals: First-Line Use for Revlimid

In February 2015, Revlimid (lenalidomide) plus dexamethasone was given another approved use for patients newly diagnosed with multiple myeloma and can now be used as first-line treatment. Lenalidomide is a derivative of thalidomide, another drug used in multiple myeloma.

Median progression-free survival (PFS), the length of time a patient lives from starting a study to disease progression or death was the primary endpoint of a study evaluating Revlimid. PFS for patients receiving Revlimid plus dexamethasone was about 25 months compared to 21 months in those receiving melphalan, prednisone and thalidomide.

Common side effects include fatigue, low white blood cell count, constipation, and diarrhea, among others.

Latest Approvals: Farydak by Novartis

In February 2015, FDA approved Farydak (panobinostat) for multiple myeloma. Farydak, a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor, slows or kills the excess development of the cancerous plasma cells in the bone marrow.

Farydak is used in those who have received at least two previous regimens. In studies, people who received Farydak, plus bortezomib and dexamethasone, saw a delay in disease progression of about 10.6 months, compared with 5.8 months among people who received bortezomib and dexamethasone alone.

Common side effects include diarrhea (which can be severe), tiredness, nausea, swelling in the arms or legs, decreased appetite, fever, vomiting and weakness.

Latest Approvals: Empliciti by Bristol-Myers Squibb/AbbVie

Approved in November 2015, Empliciti (elotuzumab) injection, a Signaling Lymphocyte Activation Molecule (SLAMF7)-directed immunostimulatory antibody, activates the body’s immune system to attack and kill multiple myeloma cells.

In studies, patients experienced a delay in the amount of time before their disease worsened (19.4 months) compared to participants taking only Revlimid and dexamethasone (14.9 months).

Common side effects include fatigue, diarrhea, fever (pyrexia), constipation, cough, nerve damage/peripheral neuropathy, upper respiratory tract infection, decreased appetite and pneumonia.

Latest Approvals: Ninlaro by Takeda

Takeda’s Ninlaro (ixazomib), an oral proteasome inhibitor used in combination with Revlimid (lenalidomide) and dexamethasone was approved in November 2015 for use in patients with multiple myeloma who have received at least one prior therapy.

In clinical trials, participants in the Ninlaro treatment group lived longer without their disease worsening (average 21 months) compared to the group taking placebo plus lenalidomide and dexamethasone (15 months).

Common side effects of Ninlaro included diarrhea, constipation, low blood platelet count (thrombocytopenia), peripheral neuropathy, nausea, peripheral edema, vomiting and back pain.

Latest Approvals: Darzalex by Janssen Biotech

Darzalex (daratumumab), approved in November 2015, is an injectable human anti-CD38 monoclonal antibody for patients given at least 3 prior treatments including a proteasome inhibitor and an immunomodulatory agent.

In November 2016, Darzalex was also approved to be used in combination with dexamethasone and either Velcade (bortezomib) or Revlimid (lenalidomide) for patients who have received only one prior therapy.

In June 2017, Darzalex was also approved in combination with pomalidomide and dexamethasone for the treatment of patients with multiple myeloma who have received at least two prior therapies including lenalidomide and a proteasome inhibitor.

In pivotal studies, Darzalex monotherapy reduced the cancer's spread (disease progression) from 29 to 36 percent. As part of the combination regimens, disease progression or death was reduced by over 60% compared to the standard treatments used alone.

Common side effects have included allergic-like reactions, infusion reactions, diarrhea, and upper respiratory tract infections, fatigue, nausea, back pain, fever and cough.

Latest Approvals: Evomela

Evomela (melphalan) is classified as an alkylating agent and is the first new formulation of melphalan since 1964. Evomela is approved for use as a high-dose conditioning treatment prior to stem cell transplantation in patients with multiple myeloma, and for the palliative treatment of patients for whom oral therapy is not appropriate.

Approved in March 2016, Evomela's new melphalan formulation does not contain propylene glycol and is stable for 4 hours at room temperature in addition to the 1 hour following reconstitution. Common side effects include diarrhea, hair loss, nausea, and vomiting.

The Path Forward

It is important to work with your healthcare team and maintain a network of local support as you move through the initial stages of multiple myeloma treatment. Newly approved medications are helping patients to live longer and with a better quality of life. Plus, don't be afraid to ask questions of your doctor, get second opinions, and lean on your family and loved-ones when you need a lift.

Consider joining the Drugs.com Multiple Myeloma Support Group, too. Here, you can keep up with the latest news, read about new medications, and ask questions and express concerns to others who know exactly how you feel!

Finished: Multiple Myeloma: Has Crowd Control Ever Been As Important?

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Sources

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  • National Institute of Health (NIH). Plasma Cell Neoplasms (Including Multiple Myeloma) Treatment–Patient Version (PDQ). Updated: October 1, 2015. Accessed 11/23/2016 at http://www.cancer.gov/types/myeloma/patient/myeloma-treatment-pdq
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