1. Accelerating clinical trials
2014 has been a pivotal year for our Trials Acceleration Programme – the initiative to speed up and boost the number of blood cancer trials of promising new therapies or combinations. In May, an independent panel, made up of experts from around the world, gave the TAP pilot a glowing recommendation for a further five years of support. With 15 TAP trials on the books and nine already open – over 450 patients have been recruited so far! The future looks bright – 2015 will see the first wave of trials close and complete, plus more studies will be set up. We are also making changes to make it work even better, such as building a digital platform to let hospitals collaborate more easily and investing in expert staff to handle tricky and time-consuming contracts.
2. Souping up the immune system to target leukaemia
Early phase trials are the key to translating our laboratory-based research into tangible patient benefit. At UCL, Dr Emma Morris is trialling a therapy that reprograms a patient’s own immune cells to target acute myeloid leukaemia – this arose from research funded by Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. We had been funding the trial but it has been beset by technical and logistical problems from the start. These problems have not been of ours or Emma’s making, but rather have highlighted the poor infrastructure in the UK to support these kinds of new and complex trials. In address this, the Government established the Cell Therapy Catapult, which this year took over the sponsorship of Emma’s WT1 trial and its funding to the tune of up to £5M. And good news in December – the first patient has just received the treatment.
3. Getting new therapies from bench to bedside
To make sure we are best equipped to capitalise on all the fantastic blood cancer research going on in labs up-and-down the country, this year we formed a new strategic partnership with Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development. The alliance will see us jointly fund early phase clinical trials of exciting new treatments for patients with blood cancers. The agreement is initially for five years, and we hope to support up to five trials in that time. The ones with promising results can then move to the next phase of testing, potentially through TAP.
4. Opening up our research to all
In more exciting partnership news, this year saw a coalition of medical research charities launched a new fund to help make the results of our research freely available as soon as they are published. The Charity Open Access Fund, initially a two-year pilot, will allow research articles to be freed from paywalls so that they are free to read and to re-use, promoting wider knowledge sharing, collaboration and innovation.
5. Bringing new experts on board
We have three expert funding committees that help us decide how to prioritise the 100+ grant applications we receive each year. Each member serves a term, usually three years, before they step down and we invite new experts on board. This year, we welcomed:
- Professor Irene Roberts, University of Oxford, the new Chair of our Clinical Trials Committee – she is a leader in the biology of cancers affecting newborns and infants.
- Professor Christian Buske, University Hospital Ulm, joined our Research Committee – he is an expert in the genetic faults that drive leukaemias and lymphomas, especially in the ‘founder’ stem cells.
- Dr Mary Callanan, Université Joseph Fourier Grenoble, also joined the Research Committee – she works on how the abnormal activity of different genes can lead to non-Hodgkin lymphomas to find new ways to target these diseases.
- Professor Chris Pepper, Cardiff University, joined our Training and Career Development Committee – he is a leading researcher in the molecular signals controlling chronic lymphocytic leukaemia to find new treatments and ways to overcome drug resistance.
And 2015 will bring even more world leaders in blood cancer research to our committees:
- Dr Adele Fielding, UCL, will step up to chair our Training and Career Development Committee – she is reprogramming viruses to infect and kill acute lymphoblastic leukaemia cells in adults.
- Dr Rebecca Auer, Barts Cancer Institute, will join our Training and Career Development Committee – she is developing new therapies and running early phase trials for CLL and non-Hodgkin lymphomas.
- Professor David Grimwade, King’s College London, another new recruit to the Training Committee – he is an expert in understanding and treating acute promyelocytic leukaemia.
6. Supporting research leaders of now and the future
For our specialist programmes, we take the extra step of running a site visit for each proposal where we and a team of experts go to the applicant’s institution to hear the defence of the proposal and make a judgement on the merits of the research. In 2014, we ran eight different site visits to review eight programmes. The total spend on programmes in 2014 was £11.2 million – about 50% of our total spend on research – which indicates how important this research is to the charity and explains why such care is taken over their review.
New programmes included research into the founder cells of chronic myeloid leukaemia (Tessa Holyoake, Glasgow), the processes that go wrong in myeloma (Tassos Karadimitris, Imperial) and the role of inheritance in myelodysplasia/AML (Inderjeet Dokal, Jude Fitzgibbon and Tom Vulliamy, Barts).
Renewals were Tanja Stankovic (Birmingham) working on defeating drug resistance in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, Ghulam Mufti (King’s) on the transition of myelodysplasia to AML, Eric So (King’s) on basic understanding of leukaemia to provide future new treatments and Francesco Dazzi (King’s) who works on using the immune system rather than chemotherapy to treat blood cancer. David Linch (UCL) is also completing work on the personalisation of treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia.
We have also invested in the future, supporting up-and-coming researchers to start their own research group, training haematologists to also be researchers, and allowing promising early career scientists to learn new skills and knowledge from world-leading experts abroad.
7. Bringing the community together
Our annual Grantholders’ Day and Students’ Day is always a top moment for the research team. It is an opportunity for all our amazing researchers to come together, share their research and gain new insight, and talk about the future of blood cancer research. The two days in November were no exception – full of interesting research lectures from scientists and doctors who run blood cancer research projects and trials across the UK, as well as an opportunity for up-and-coming students and researchers to meet, share their ideas and form life-long collaborations. We also kicked off the year with a similar event for our TAP researchers to make sure we as a community are working harmoniously and pooling our collective world-leading expertise.
8. Showcasing our expertise to the community
This year, the excellence of our work was recognised in two publications by a leading national organisation representing medical and health research charity funders. The members of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) are responsible for over one third of all publicly funded medical research in the UK – £1.3 billion in 2013 – and its work is a hallmark of quality. Its 2013-14 Annual Review includes a quote from us about the new Charity Open Access Fund, why it is important for patient-centred organisations like us, and why working with others is so crucial. AMRC’s new An Essential Partnership: A guide for charities working with industry showcases our Prioritisation of Patient Need survey to emphasise how charities can provide the critical link to patients. It also features the Trials Acceleration Programme and how we and industry partners can benefit from improved clinical research infrastructure.
9. Working with others for patient benefit
We have also been working hard with our colleagues to provide research input wherever it’s needed for patient benefit. We have worked with our policy and patient services team to make sure life-extending drugs are available when they’re needed – such as brentuximab for some Scottish Hodgkin lymphoma patients. We have fed our knowledge into the new patient information booklets, so that readers understand research and new developments in each disease area – such as in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. We have helped our media team promote our research and increase the public understanding of blood cancers, as well as providing expert comment, like when a new CLL drug was given the green light for NHS approval. And for those who came to Impact Day earlier this year and saw the boards and videos outlining advances in the treatment of blood cancers through the decades – we helped with the content, if not the design!
10. A silver anniversary for a member of our team!
Our Grants Officer, Sara Darling celebrated 25 years of working with Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research in December this year. This occasion was met with a presentation from our Chief Exec, Cathy, and a gift from us all of an annual membership to the Royal Horticultural Society and a ‘seed club’ that will deliver special things for Sara to grow in her allotment throughout 2015. Sara has witnessed many changes in her time at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research: in the charity, in research and most importantly patient benefit! Sara has been an ambassador for our work and a key figure in the UK research community during that time. Here’s to the next 25 years, Sara!
Taking care of the young by Flickr user:selmaemiliano (CC BY-ND 2.0)