The Southampton team, led by Professor Graham Packham, is investigating the biology of CLL, which is diagnosed in around 3,300 people in the UK every year. By understanding completely how the cancer cells proliferate, new drugs can be designed to treat future patients.
CLL is a type of leukaemia in which the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells, causing a range of problems with the immune system. It develops slowly, often over many years and it remains incurable.
The scientists are focusing their research on the MYC protein, which studies have shown to increase the division of cancer cells and their accumulation in the body. Professor Packham is investigating whether this protein also plays an important role in the development of CLL. It is thought that a special characteristic of the surface of CLL cells could allow them to activate the MYC protein, driving the expansion of the cancer in the blood.
If the MYC protein is found to be important in the development of the leukaemia, the Southampton team will test drugs that disable the protein. If they can block the protein from functioning in CLL cells, they may have found a new way of preventing the cancer from progressing in patients.
Professor Packham, who is running the project, said “Our view of CLL has changed drastically over the last few years and we now know that cell division can play a major role in the accumulation of the malignant cells in this disease. Increased understanding of how MYC works within leukaemia cells may provide opportunities to develop new drugs. We are delighted to have received support from Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, which is essential for us to continue this work.”
Dr David Grant, Scientific Director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “We are very excited to be funding this work at the University of Southampton. Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia is the most common form of leukaemia diagnosed in adults in the UK, but it remains incurable. Many successful treatments being developed for blood cancers in recent years are designed to slow the progression of the disease and keep it in its early stages. We hope that this research will contribute to this progress.”
The University of Southampton is a Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research ‘Centre of Excellence’, and the charity is currently investing £6.5 million into vital blood cancer research in the institution.