We are delighted to have recently committed over £7million to fund some exciting and innovative blood cancer research. So I wanted to share this excitement by telling you a bit more about what will be carried out.
We need to make every penny raised by our dedicated supporters count. I’m confident that this newly funded research will take us closer to the day when our mission – to cure, prevent and improve treatment of blood cancers – is complete.
The awards fall under three broad aims that are central to our mission to beat blood cancers. These boundaries are less than black-and-white, though, as many researchers push their laboratory findings towards the clinic.
Revealing how blood cancers work
The first set of projects aim to figure out the faulty cues that cause cancer cells to go awry.
Professor Tessa Holyoake at the University of Glasgow will test whether disrupting two central master ‘watchdog’ signals – p53 and c-Myc – in chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) cells is enough to kill all CML cancer cells and CML stem cells. In chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), Professor Graham Packham at the University of Southampton will look at how the genetic messenger that translates DNA sequence into protein is altered by the activation of a protein stuck on the surface of some immune cells – a key step in the progression of the disease.
Dr Markus Müschen at The Institute of Cancer Research will investigate what happens in acute lymphoblastic leukaemia when two, normally separate proteins – BCR and ABL1 – fuse together and kick-start uncontrollable cell multiplication. The twist is that too much signal can lead to cell death, meaning there is a ‘goldilocks zone’ of activation where cancer can thrive. Professor Paul Farrell at Imperial College London will study defective versions of proteins in the so-called ‘RUNX’ family, which are necessary for immature blood cells to develop into mature cells.
Dr Daniel Tennant at the University of Birmingham will explore some of the changes that occur in the supporting network of cells within the bone marrow, as this can create a safe haven for abnormal white blood cells to gather, potentially leading to multiple myeloma.
And why is all this important?
By understanding these faulty protein signals, scientists can detect rogue cells earlier and design drugs to hit the root cause.
Driving smarter, faster diagnosis
We know that the earlier we pick up a cancer, the better the chances of a cure, so early diagnosis is crucial to improve survival.
Professor John Lunec at Newcastle University wants to detect leukaemic cells earlier by using the latest DNA sequencing technology to spot genetic mistakes underlying faulty ‘p53’ proteins. This is a gatekeeper signal within our cells that normally senses when DNA is too damaged for the cell to multiply.
Professor Philip Blower’s team at King’s College London will inject radioactive molecules – specially designed to home in on cancerous cells – into multiple myeloma patients. His sensitive cutting-edge imaging techniques will then provide an accurate way to detect and locate early cancers and monitor response to therapy in real-time.
Professor Duncan Baird at Cardiff University will develop a unique laboratory test to quickly and accurately segregate newly diagnosed CLL patients into those whose disease is progressing so slowly that they may never need treatment and those whose disease will progress more rapidly. He may even be able to adapt it for other blood cancer patients too. This direct translation of basic research findings into the development of technology to be used in the clinic seems particularly exciting.
Taking a different tack, Professor Richard Houlston at The Institute of Cancer Research will compare DNA from people with and without blood cancer, to find out how the small variations in the DNA inherited from our parents may raise our risk of developing leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. This will better predict who is at risk, potentially leading to more informed personalised treatment and screening programmes.
Inspiring new treatments & better care
Other projects will use our existing knowledge of blood cancer biology to improve treatment.
Professor Michael Overduin at the University of Birmingham will work out exactly which parts of a faulty 'PTPN11' protein’s minute 3D structure can be hit with drugs, to cripple the wayward molecule in juvenile myelomonocytic leukaemia. Also homing in on precise faults in the cell’s machinery, Drs Richard Darley and Alex Tonks at Cardiff University seek to improve acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) therapy by hitting the disease’s “Achilles’ heel”.
Current treatments that harness a patient’s own immunity to attack rogue cancer cells are promising, but they rely on large doses and previous toxic chemotherapy. Dr David Gilham at the University of Manchester will tweak the immune cells to perform better in the absence of prior treatment and examine other immune reactions that may impede anti-cancer activity.
Professor Mark Drayson and Dr Farhat Khanim at the University of Birmingham will study how the combination of a cholesterol-lowering drug and a female contraceptive pill can kill rogue cells in some blood cancers and whether other drugs can enhance the anti-cancer effect.
In a technically ambitious venture, Dr Elisabeth Walsby at Cardiff University will build a laboratory replica of the intricate structure of cancer cells and supporting cells. Similar to Dr Tennant’s work, this is to more thoroughly probe how CLL cells can survive in protected ‘microenvironments’ in bone marrow and lymph nodes.
Moving directly into the clinic, Professor Alan Burnett at Cardiff University is testing a suite of potential drugs in a series of innovative clinical trials to more quickly determine which ones are most suitable for and most effective in elderly AML patients.
And, finally, we were thrilled to extend our investment in a co-ordinated network of leading clinical trial centres around the UK. The initiative, having already won plaudits in the clinical community and government, will give more blood cancer patients access to life-saving treatments and set a model for establishing clinical trials in the UK.
As you can see, the projects will probe a real diversity of blood cancers. And there is a spectrum of ‘basic’ research – that is, investigation into the biology of blood cancers – and efforts to translate this knowledge into patient benefit – the ultimate goal of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research.
Many of the lead researchers of these projects have not received LLR support before, and we’re really glad to broaden LLR’s community and welcome fresh ideas to tackle blood cancers.