I had a weird experience yesterday. I flew from my home in Barcelona, Spain, changed to a bigger plane in Paris, and flew to Atlanta where the American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting is taking place this weekend and into next week. On the Paris to Atlanta flight the 300 or so seats were mostly filled with physicians and researchers devoted to understanding and curing blood-related cancer. Over a nine hour flight, I spoke with people from France, Italy, Germany and Austria – all consumed with “beating the beast.” It was very cool. I also spoke to one physician scientist, my seat mate, at length and what he is working on could make a big difference.

Dr. Medhat Shehata is originally from Egypt but has been in Vienna for 20 years. He is a hematologist/oncologist and Director of the Tumor Microenvironment Laboratory at the Medical University of Vienna where there is a major comprehensive cancer center. We spoke a lot about CLL, my original diagnosis and the one that affects hundreds of regular visitors to Patient Power. But the story for CLL can be extended to other conditions, as well.

Dr. Shehata does very early research. What he is excited about now is testing a patient’s’ blood and bone marrow within a few days after they receive a standard therapy, FCR for example – the one I received in 2000, and assessing the patient’s micro response right then and using that as a reliable way to predict if the patient will respond at all or how well. Imagine being spared six months of treatment if it wasn’t bound to work OR imagine them having a drug that fixes your resistance to the treatment so it WILL work in your case, and knowing that almost right at the start! This is another aspect of personalized medicine

We’ve talked about genetic testing to see if you have a subtype of a disease like CLL to then picking the most targeted treatment. That’s now Step One. But Step Two, my fellow passenger explained, is assessing each patient to see how well their biology will process that therapy. We are not all the same and it is thought that even if you and I have the same subtype of a disease, one of us may have another gene that gets in the way of us responding equally as well to the therapy. So we both may be on the right road, but my therapy is blocked or pushed to the shoulder of the road because there’s a big truck blocking the road. (One of my funny analogies, but you get the image.)

So in labs around the world, like Dr. Shehata’s, they are now refining approaches that could truly make more cancers “chronic,” where we can live pretty long, full lives and, as some doctors say, if you live so long something else “gets” you, maybe that could even be considered a cure.

I got to thinking of all that brain power on my flight. In seat after seat, someone devoted to making me, and you, well. And by today planes like this have converged on Atlanta from around the world where these folks, at the ASH meeting, get to trade test results and passionately talk about their strategies to beat cancer. I am truly energized because, in the years I have been coming to this meeting, I have seen tremendous progress. Yes, Imatinib for Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML) was a shining breakthrough and we haven’t matched that yet. But if that was a home run, there have been many singles, doubles and triples (if you are a baseball fan). And, just maybe the work of researchers like Dr. Shehata will be the next breakthrough we can all celebrate.

Look for our reports and stories from medical experts and patient advocates at ASH to help all of us have optimism for a brighter future.

Wishing you and your family the best of health!

Andrew