Beating blood cancer since 1960
by Henry Winter 12th September 2012

Cambridge scientists receive £1.3 million to study faulty ‘gene switches’ in blood cancer

A team of Cambridge researchers are embarking on a new research programme which they hope will lead to the discovery of new treatments that will help rewire the faulty ‘switches’ that inadvertently cause the most common aggressive leukaemia in the UK.

Professor Bertie Gottgens and his team of researchers at the University of Cambridge will study a group of proteins called ‘transcription factors’ to establish new ways to treat acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).  They have been awarded a grant of £1.3 million by the blood cancer charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research to support their work.  

Transcription factors control the cell’s behaviour by switching genes on and off, but can go wrong when mutated.  Here, gene switches ‘get their wires crossed’ and turn on the wrong genes.  This changes the cell’s behaviour, making it cancerous and is often a cause of AML. 

In the UK there are 2,200 new cases of AML each year and the outlook for the blood cancer still remains poor.

Professor Gottgens and his team aim to discover how the gene switches become faulty and what they do within the cancerous cells.  The team will begin to understand the large networks of proteins within the cell to see how transcription factors interact in normal as well as cancerous cells.  From this they will devise potential treatments that will rewire and fix the faults in the gene switches.

Using ‘microfluidics’ technology, the team will be able to determine the activities of multiple transcription factors in individual cancer cells.  The resulting knowledge will provide significant new insights into how the cancer develops and thrives, and will identify the transcription factors that could be used as targets for drugs.

Professor Bertie Gottgens, head of the team in Cambridge, said: “Mutated transcription factors are one of the most common causes of leukaemia and we hope that by using new and sophisticated technology we will be able to devise ways to target these faulty gene switches with new drug treatments.”

Professor Chris Bunce, Research Director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said:  “With many AML patients having a poor prognosis it is important to find the causes of the disease so that we develop a better understanding of it.  In doing this we stand a better chance of finding treatments that target and stop this aggressive blood cancer.”