Clare Jonas
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In their own words: Bloodwise researchers give their highlights of 2018

Clare Jonas
Posted by
21 Dec 2018

We asked Bloodwise-funded researchers to tell us about the most exciting things that have happened in blood cancer research this year, both in their own labs and in the wider research community.

Dr David Kent (R) and research team at the University of Cambridge
Dr David Kent (R) and research team at the University of Cambridge

What’s the most exciting development that’s happened in your lab this year?

“We found out more about how healthy blood production works” – Dr David Kent

“We’ve been looking at individual healthy blood stem cells and cancer-driving blood stem cells in our lab at the University of Cambridge. We now have a much better idea of how many blood stem cells there are in a human body and which molecules govern their cell fate choices on the way to cancer.”

 “Each year we gain a better understanding of the biology of blood cancer” – Professor Irene Roberts

“At the University of Oxford, we’re researching why Down syndrome can make babies more susceptible to leukaemia. We found that babies with Down syndrome have a remarkably high frequency of genetic errors that can lead to the early stages of leukaemia in a gene called GATA1.

“We’ve helped develop new clinical guidelines and testing which mean we can now detect early signs of this condition.”

Professor Irene Roberts and Professor Paresh Vyas

Professor Irene Roberts (L) with collaborator Professor Paresh Vyas.

“We got closer to new ways to treat and manage acute myeloid leukaemia” – Professor Brian Huntly

“At the University of Cambridge, we’ve been working on leukaemia in adulthood. Our most significant work relates to determining how a protein called UTX can lead to acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). We uncovered a complex role for this protein, which can coordinate a cell’s development in ways that make it more or less likely to turn into an AML cell.

“We’re excited about this because it gives us a deeper understanding of how AML starts and could lead to new ways to treat and manage this disease.”

“Studies around the world have had a beneficial impact on our own research” – Dr Alexandra Irvine

“Results are coming out from a huge study in America looking at the genetic make-up of myeloma. Screening of this genetic information has led to the discovery of DNA changes in new genes involved in the development of myeloma.

“One of the genes they have found to be particularly important is the one we’re working on at Queen’s University Belfast. This is exciting as it allows us to relate our observations to clinical outcome in a large group of patients, and has provided new areas to explore to understand how this gene helps myeloma cells grow.”

“We’ve been able to spare children the most intensive treatment” – Dr Amir Enshaei

“Our research at Newcastle University has shown that current methods used to determine the correct level of chemotherapy required for each young blood cancer patient may be improved by looking at the genetic make-up of the child’s cancer cells. Findings have already led to changes to treatment tailoring for newly diagnosed children, with around half of youngsters with good risk genetics being spared intensive treatment.”

“We’re on the cusp of repurposing a drug for leukaemia patients” – Dr Farhat Khanim

“At the University of Birmingham, we’ve identified a drug that’s already in use for another disease which can be repurposed to help make some chemotherapy-resistant leukaemia cells more sensitive to chemotherapy. We’re hoping to publish these new findings in 2019.”

Yao Jiang, Jennifer Butler and Farhat Khanim, cancer researchers at the University of Birmingham

Dr Farhat Khanim (R) with members of her research team, Yao Jiang (L) and Dr Jennifer Butler (middle)

What’s the most exciting development that’s happened in blood cancer research this year?

It’s no surprise that most of the researchers we asked named the introduction of CAR-T therapy as the biggest breakthrough of 2018.

Dr Irvine explains: “There has been great progress in using the body’s immune system to fight cancer. A new type of therapy called chimeric antigen receptor or CAR-T therapy takes a patient’s own T cells (a type of lymphocyte) and modifies them to recognise the blood cancer. This allows the cells to fight the cancer in a selective way.”

Dr Kent urged caution, saying, “CAR-T almost certainly won't work for as many diseases as currently hoped, but the ones it does work for have had incredibly promising early results.” Even so, it’s still wonderful news, especially for children.

Dr Enshaei points out that it offers “a massive chance of long-term cure to kids who did not respond to chemotherapy.”

Beyond the excitement of CAR-T therapy, Professor Roberts highlighted the advances in ‘gene editing’ – where DNA can be inserted, replaced, modified or deleted in a living cell.

Looking further to the future, Professor Roberts says, “The application of gene editing has helped us develop our understanding of the steps that lead blood cancers and potentially curing some of these diseases.”

Thank you to our researchers for their hard work, and to everyone who’s supported Bloodwise in the past year. None of these breakthroughs would have been possible without you. You can read more about our research highlights from 2018 here.

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