Dr Elaine Willmore
Professor John Lunec and Dr Elaine Willmore of the Northern Institute for Cancer Research, Newcastle University, received £133,000 for a two-year project to develop tests for patients with the most aggressive types of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL).
CLL often develops slowly and, in some cases, never needs treatment. For others, however, the leukaemia progresses quickly and treatment is needed straightaway. This means the key is to be able to distinguish these cases at diagnosis.
Professor Lunec and Dr Willmore will study a protein called p53, which is made from the TP53 gene, and plays a central role in protecting cells from DNA damage and preventing flawed cells from multiplying. If TP53 is faulty, this safety mechanism misfires and an aggressive form of CLL can develop that is unresponsive to standard treatment. Their team will use state-of-the-art DNA sequencing techniques to develop ways of testing for these genetic errors to predict patient outcome and guide treatment choices.
Professor Lunec said: “Many patients’ CLL can be kept under observation and under control. The appearance of cancer cells containing a defective TP53 gene is often a warning sign that it is progressing. We need more sensitive testing for the presence of this mutation, so that treatment can be stepped up for these patients.”
Using samples of CLL cells from patients, the research team will also test a new class of drugs to see whether they kill cancer cells and what the effect is of a normal versus faulty p53 protein.
Professor Chris Bunce, Research Director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “Treatment for CLL usually consists of a combination of drugs and most people undergoing this have a relatively good quality of life. Not all patients do respond well, however, so we need better ways to predict who will have high risk disease. This research should help to identify these patients early on and to develop appropriate therapies.”