Multiple Myeloma
Multiple Myeloma
Margaret Alic, Ph.D.


Multiple myeloma is a cancer in which antibodyproducing plasma cells grow in an uncontrolled and invasive (malignant) manner.


Multiple myeloma, also known as plasma cell myeloma, is the second-most common cancer of the blood. It is the most common type of plasma cell neoplasm. Multiple myeloma accounts for approximately 1% of all cancers and 2% of all deaths from cancer. Multiple myeloma is a disease in which malignant plasma cells spread through the bone marrow and hard outer portions of the large bones of the body. These myeloma cells may form tumors called plasmacytomas. Eventually, multiple soft spots or holes, called osteolytic lesions, form in the bones.

Bone marrow is the spongy tissue within the bones. The breastbone, spine, ribs, skull, pelvic bones, and the long bone of the thigh all are particularly rich in marrow. Bone marrow is a very active tissue that is responsible for producing the cells that circulate in the blood. These include the red blood cells that carry oxygen, the white blood cells that develop into immune system cells, and platelets, which cause blood to clot.

Plasma cells and immunoglobulins
Plasma cells develop from B-lymphocytes or B-cells, a type of white blood cell. B-cells, like all blood cells, develop from unspecialized stem cells in the bone marrow. Each B-cell carries a specific antibody that recognizes a specific foreign substance called an antigen. Antibodies are large proteins called immunoglobulins (Igs), which recognize and destroy foreign substances and organisms such as bacteria. When a B-cell encounters its antigen, it begins to divide rapidly to form mature plasma cells. These plasma cells are all identical (monoclonal). They produce large amounts of identical anti-body that are specific for the antigen.

Malignant plasma cells
Multiple myeloma begins when the genetic material (DNA) is damaged during the development of a stem cell into a B-cell in the bone marrow. This causes the cell to develop into an abnormal or malignant plasmablast, a developmentally early form of plasma cell. Plasmablasts produce adhesive molecules that allow them to bond to the inside of the bone marrow. A growth factor, called interleukin-6, promotes uncontrolled growth of these myeloma cells in the bone marrow and prevents their natural death. Whereas normal bone marrow contains less than 5% plasma cells, bone marrow of an individual with multiple myeloma contains over 10% plasma cells.

In most cases of multiple myeloma, the malignant plasma cells all make an identical Ig. Igs are made up of four protein chains that are bonded together. Two of the chains are light and two are heavy. There are five classes of heavy chains, corresponding to five types of Igs with different immune system functions. The Igs from myeloma cells are nonfunctional and are called paraproteins. All of the paraproteins from any one individual are monoclonal (identical) because the myeloma cells are identical clones of a single plasma cell. Thus, the paraprotein is a monoclonal protein or M-protein. The M-proteins crowd out the functional Igs and other components of the immune system. They also cause functional antibodies, which are produced by normal plasma cells, to rapidly break down. Thus, multiple myeloma depresses the immune system.

In about 75% of multiple myeloma cases, the malignant plasma cells also produce monoclonal light chains, or incomplete Igs. These are called Bence-Jones proteins and are secreted in the urine. Approximately 1% of multiple myelomas are called nonsecretors because they do not produce any abnormal Ig.

Osteolytic lesions
About 70% of individuals with multiple myeloma have soft spots or lesions in their bones. These lesions can vary from quite small to grapefruit-size. In part, these lesions occur because the malignant plasma cells rapidly outgrow the normal bone-forming cells. In addition, malignant myeloma cells produce factors that affect cells called osteoclasts. These are the cells that normally destroy old bone, so that new bone can be produced by cells called osteoblasts. The myeloma cell factors increase both the activation and the growth of osteoclasts. As the osteoclasts multiply and migrate, they destroy healthy bone and create lesions. Osteoporosis, or widespread bone weakness, may develop.

There are more than 40,000 multiple myeloma patients in the United States. The American Cancer Society predicts an additional 14,400 new cases in 2001. About 11,200 Americans will die of the disease in 2001. Multiple myeloma is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths among African-Americans.

In Western industrialized countries, approximately four people in 100,000 develop multiple myeloma. The incidence of multiple myeloma among African-Americans is 9.5 per 100,000, about twice that of Caucasians. Asians have a much lower incidence of the disease. In China, for example, the incidence of multiple myeloma is only one in 100,000. The offspring and siblings of individuals with multiple myeloma are at a slightly increased risk for the disease.

At diagnosis, the average age of a multiple myeloma patient is 68 to 70. Although the average age at onset is decreasing, most multiple myelomas still occur in people over 40. This cancer is somewhat more prevalent in men than in women.

— Margaret Alic, Ph.D.

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