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About Multiple Myeloma

This section is for patients and family members who want to learn more about multiple myeloma. Multiple myeloma is a complex disease. And, while you, or the person you care for, may already know much about this disease, you may still have questions. Here are answers to several commonly asked questions.

What is multiple myeloma?

The simplest answer is that multiple myeloma is a cancer of certain type of blood cells, known as white cells.  White blood cells are produced in the marrow, or inner part, of bones in the central skeleton. In healthy people, white blood cells help fight off infections caused by viruses and bacteria. In people who develop multiple myeloma, white blood cells undergo a series of genetic mutations, which cause them to become cancerous and to proliferate. The cancer cells build up in the bone marrow and, as a result of this overcrowding and adherence, holes and soft spots (osteolytic lesions) occur in the bone, all of which leads to some of the key signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma — bone pain and bone fracture, tiredness, easy bruising, weakness and shortness of breath. Also, the overcrowding in the bone marrow by myeloma reduces the number of red bloods cell, which carry oxygen in the blood, and platelets that help prevent bleeding due to an injury such as a cut in the skin. Large groups of multiple myeloma cells are sometimes referred to as plasmacytomas.

What causes multiple myeloma?

Despite extensive research, scientists do not yet know for sure what causes multiple myeloma. It is believed, however, that it may be the result both of exposure to certain environmental factors and a genetic predisposition. Over many years, a series of genetic mutations occur in bone marrow cells which lead to white cell abnormalities and uncontrolled growth. The goal of current therapies for multiple myeloma is to suppress or eliminate these malignant cells while preserving the important functions of normal blood cells.

What are the symptoms of multiple myeloma?

The symptoms of multiple myeloma can vary from person to person, with some people having many symptoms and others experiencing few or none. The symptoms can also vary over time. The most common symptoms include:

  • Bone pain and fracture, often affecting the back, ribs and pelvis
  • Blood disorders, such as anemia
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Bruising
  • Weakness
  • Trouble breathing

Each of these symptoms is related to proliferation of plasma cells in the bone marrow.

How common is multiple myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is the second most common type of blood cancer; yet it accounts for only 1.4% of all new cancers in the U.S. The lifetime risk of getting this type of cancer is 1 in 143 persons, or 0.7%.

According to current estimates, approximately 24,050 new diagnoses of multiple myeloma will be made in 2014 in the U.S. According to the most recent data available, between 50,000 to 100,000 people in the United States are currently living with multiple myeloma in the U.S.

How is multiple myeloma treated?

You and your healthcare team will decide on the course of therapy that is right for you — and it may include the use of a single form of therapy or a combination of therapies.

The following are a few of the more common therapies for multiple myeloma, which could be part of your treatment plan.

  • Chemotherapy, which involves the use of medications that destroy or kill multiple myeloma cells
  • Corticosteroids, which are used because they reduce the production of certain substances (called M protein, or “monoclonal” protein) by the myeloma cells; corticosteroids can also help decrease nausea and vomiting sometimes associated with chemotherapy
  • Immunomodulating drugs, which are drugs that are used to either suppress or activate certain actions of the immune system to help fight cancer
  • Proteasome inhibitor drugs, which interfere with myeloma cells’ ability to break down misfolded or excess proteins – since myeloma cells make a great deal of so called “M-protein” they are more vulnerable to this mechanism than normal cells
  • Stem cell transplant or bone marrow transplant, a complex procedure that is aimed at helping the body produce healthy blood cells – it is used in combination with high doses of chemotherapy and possible radiation therapy to destroy as many myeloma cells as possible before transplanting new, healthy stem cells back into the bone marrow
  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells and alleviate pain in affected areas – this can be used to destroy cancer cells prior to stem cell transplantation
  • Clinical trials or new drug candidates

Why are people at Acetylon interested in multiple myeloma?

Acetylon was founded by two physicians from Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who treat patients with multiple myeloma. These physicians joined together with a chemical biologist from the Massachusetts General Hospital with the goal of developing new treatment options for this disease. Acetylon is currently sponsoring clinical trials with a new experimental drug, called ricolinostat, in multiple myeloma. The non-profit Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is also contributing to this effort.

Learn about Acetylon’s experimental drug, ricolinostat.

Where can I get additional information about multiple myeloma?

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) (1-800-955-4572) is one of the many non-profit cancer advocacy groups that can provide you with more information about multiple myeloma.

The LLS website provides information about the disease, treatment options, and clinical trials. In addition, you can find information about the Acetylon clinical trials, get a general overview of the LLS Therapy Acceleration Program (TAP), and subscribe to the LLS monthly Email newsletter, Myeloma Links.

The following organizations also provide information about multiple myeloma:

For information about cancer, please visit the following cancer organizations: