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How we're beating childhood leukaemia

Posted by
12 Apr 2010

Leukaemia is the most common form of cancer in children. Around 450 children are diagnosed with leukaemia in the UK every year.

Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research is currently investing more than £17 million into research across the UK to beat childhood leukaemia.

This includes building on our understanding of why some children develop leukaemia, finding new and less gruelling treatments and funding the latest clinical trial to treat all children in the UK diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

Thanks to the advances made in research over the last 50 years, nine out of ten children now survive the most common form of leukaemia, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

Finding the cause

Breakthrough research led by Professors Mel Greaves and Tariq Enver confirmed that childhood ALL develops in the womb. Our scientists compared blood cells from identical twins Olivia, who was being treated for leukaemia, and Isabella who is healthy. The study found the same genetically identical pre-leukaemic stem cells in both children.

Research is now underway to understand how these pre-leukaemic stem cells are converted into full-blown leukaemia in some children and not others. Evidence suggests that the ‘second trigger’ is related to an unusual response to infection.

Difficult to treat children

A minority of children with leukaemia develop a type called acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), which is much more difficult to treat than ALL. At present, only one in six children with AML are cured.

We want to improve treatments for these children. Our research has shown that AML in children and teenagers is very similar to AML in adults, something which is not true for ALL. Dr Pam Kearns at University of Birmingham is running a national clinical trial to safely test how effective adult forms of treatment are for children and teenagers with AML.

Cell banks and databases

Every child with leukaemia is different. Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research have established cell banks and databases which play a vital role in developing and delivering personalised treatments to every child with leukaemia in the UK.

The Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research Cytogenetics Database in Newcastle, stores genetic information from over 25,000 adults and children with acute leukaemia in the UK, and is the largest of its kind in the world. Our scientists use this resource to identify children with specific genetic abnormalities that mean they are unlikely to respond standard treatments. This enables doctors to offer alternative treatments to these children, early on.

Refining treatments

Our scientists in Sheffield are developing a new test to help doctors deliver an essential chemotherapy drug to every child with ALL. This drug, called mercaptopurine helps to prevent the leukaemia from returning after intensive chemotherapy.

Some children metabolise this drug very quickly and need more of it to have any effect, while others metabolise it slowly and standard doses cause unpleasant side effects such as vomiting.

This test will ensure that every child receives the correct dose of mercaptopurine, which is safe and effective.

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