Liz Burtally
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Bloodwise scientists take on the Great Birmingham Run to beat blood cancer

Liz Burtally
Posted by
18 Oct 2016

On Sunday, a team of six dedicated scientists from the University of Birmingham swapped their lab coats for Bloodwise running vests as they took on the Great Birmingham Run to raise money for us.

Beating Birmingham's hills

Our scientists joined 20,000 other runners who tackled a hilly 13.1 miles that snaked through the city centre backdrop, and then towards the world famous cricketing arena of Edgbaston and Bournville, the home of Cadbury World.

I caught up with Dr Maria Rosaria (Rosie) Imperato, one of our running scientists, who said: “We were all looking forward to the day of the run with much enthusiasm and excitement! Our adrenaline levels throughout the day pushed us forward to the 13th mile. Not even the downpour of rain, that luckily stopped 10 minutes before the set off, would have stopped us from taking part to this great event.”

Challenging leukaemia

Rosie and the running team work with Professors Conny Bonifer and Peter Cockerill at the University’s College of Medical and Dental Sciences, on a wide range of projects supported by you. Here, our researchers are beginning to analyse the genetic changes seen in leukaemia, piecing together the puzzle on how these changes drive the disease in patients.

The origins of leukaemia
Billions of different blood cells each day are made by stem cells in the bone marrow. This process involves many sequential steps which are each tightly controlled by genes acting as regulators. Leukaemia arises when the DNA of a stem cell or a developing blood cell is changed by errors creeping in to the genetic code. These changes often occur in important regulator genes, disrupting the finely balanced sequence of blood cell production. The mutated cells then develop into leukaemic cells that multiply and take over the body.

What drives AML
Using state of the art technology, the lab is looking at the activity of all genes within a class of blood stem cells called myeloid stem cells, which normally give rise to some of the white blood cells that form part of our immune defence. They have found that gene faults, or ‘mutations’, can cause regulated genes to go haywire, so they switch hundreds of other genes on or off, many of them regulators themselves. And from this chaotic gene expression emerges acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).

But AML is even more complex, because regulator genes are deregulated in a different way in every patient. After further investigation, the lab has found that for one type of AML, removing the abnormal regulator sends cells back on the path to a normal and healthy state. They now want to identify the most important abnormal regulators that keep cells in a leukaemic state and target them, and they want to know how they differ in different types of AML. The group also want to know how patients respond to the treatment with drugs that aim at restoring normal gene function.

Finding new treatments
Rosie tells me that they are looking at a particular mutation called FLT3-ITD, which is known to generate a protein that sends a signal to the cell that activates a specific set of genes in AML. By studying the very precise mechanisms of how genes get turned on or off, they will map out where future therapies could intervene to interfere with cancer development. And through a better understanding of what drives blood cancer, new treatments can be designed to increase survival rates and improve patients’ quality of life.

Why we run for Bloodwise

Speaking to Rosie earlier this week, she said: “Our work needs a tremendous amount of resource, and Bloodwise has been a longstanding supporter of this advanced research in our lab. We feel so blessed to be part of such a big research community and are always moved by the hard work that fundraisers put into supporting not only our research, but also the patients and their families. We think that fundraisers, volunteers and scientists all need to join forces to maximise the impact on beating blood cancers. This is why we wanted to get personally involved in fundraising and show our personal commitment to Bloodwise and their supporters.”

And it’s not just the researchers in Birmingham who have raised money. We are also incredibly grateful to Dr Kate Cwynarski – a consultant haematologist at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Kate ran the iconic Royal Parks Foundation Half earlier on this month for us. Kate tells me that during the race, she felt moved at times, remembering the important causes many people are running for, but the prominent feeling was gratitude for the generous donations – now over the £4,400 mark – she had received for Bloodwise.

She ran for many reasons, and one of them being in memory of the friends and patients that we weren't able to cure, or for those we were only able to offer toxic treatment regimens. Kate added: “Bloodwise fund many of our clinical trials, and specifically support early phase clinical trials to help identify novel treatments to improve the outcome of patients with blood cancers.”

To support the University of Birmingham team go to www.justgiving.com/Bonifer-and-Cockerill-Lab

Kate’s fundraising page is still open, so if you want to support her, please go to http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/katecwynarskirpfhm20166558

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