Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow and is the most common leukemia in Western countries, according to the American Cancer Society.

Oncologist Randall Davis, M.D., has grants from The V Foundation for Cancer Research, the Cancer Research Institute, The Dana Foundation and the NIH to study a family of receptors that can influence cellular events, including those related to CLL.

A receptor is a protein on the cell membrane that binds to a specific molecule. Davis is investigating the properties of a recently discovered family of receptors in normal cells, termed B cells, and their role in individuals battling CLL.

“We don’t know what they bind to, but we know they could have an activating or inhibitory influence on cell growth,” Davis says. “We’re trying to figure out if these receptors are responsible for influencing indolence or aggression of the disease.

“If they have an influence on the aggression of leukemia, they could serve as possible drug targets.”
Davis’ research would not be possible without the benefit of private foundations like Light the Night. The funds raised support the work of hundreds researchers in their search for better therapies and cures for leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

“The type of research I’m doing is a direct benefit of private foundations,” Davis says. “All investigators are being affected by very limited NIH funding right now. The money that the public puts forth can make a big difference.”

Under normal circumstances, human bone marrow produces immature cells (stem cells) in a controlled way, and they mature and specialize into the various types of blood cells, as needed. When these cells grow old, they die naturally and are replaced by new cells, in a continuous cycle. In chronic lymphocytic leukemia, this process goes awry. The bone marrow produces abnormal lymphocytes. These cells don’t fully mature or die normally. Over time, they accumulate in large numbers and eventually crowd out other healthy cells, leaving people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia vulnerable to infection and other life-threatening problems.

When a patient is diagnosed with CLL, the results of several new diagnostic tests can almost serve as a crystal ball for caregivers. A decade ago, doctors could not predict the course of the disease, and watchful waiting was the treatment of choice.

Today, new laboratory tests, new medications and a new understanding of CLL are dramatically changing the rules for treatment of this type of leukemia.

“We’ve found a family of receptors that are expressed by malignant B cells – leukemias and lymphomas – and several of these receptors appear to be surrogate markers of the antibody signature or developmental background of the CLL cell,” Davis says. “It lets you know if the patient has a more aggressive disease and you will need to treat it earlier or if it’s indolent and you may not have to treat it for many years.”