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Sussex scientists leading way in blood cancer research

The Bloodwise logo. Bloodwise appears in black text against a white background
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07 Apr 2016

Scientists at the University of Sussex have been granted £460,000 by Bloodwise for two research projects that are helping to uncover how a number of common types of leukaemia and lymphoma arise in children and adults.

Scientists at the University of Sussex in Falmer have been granted £460,000 by the blood cancer charity Bloodwise for two research projects that are helping to uncover how a number of common types of leukaemia and lymphoma arise in children and adults and find new ways to treat them.

The Sussex researchers, led by Prof Michelle West, are studying how the common Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) can sometimes trigger the development of certain lymphomas. These include Burkitt and Hodgkin lymphomas and lymphomas that can develop in transplant patients. 

Around 1, 700 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma each year in the UK. Over 200 people, including 60 children, are diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma each year. 

Most people will be infected by EBV early in life with no symptoms. The virus enters white blood cells and ‘reprogrammes’ them, causing them to grow rapidly and continuously, but the immune system normally keeps the virus under control preventing any ill effects. A severely deficient immune system or other triggers can however result in EBV driving cancer development.  

The normal functioning of white blood cells relies on specific bits of DNA in the cells orchestrating the correct activity of genes. These ‘enhancer’ regions of DNA can be far away from the genes they control. The University of Sussex team found that the Epstein-Barr virus interferes with this long range communication between genes and their enhancers in white blood cells, altering their behaviour.

Prof West said: “We are investigating how the virus uses this long-range gene control to switch on lymphoma-driving genes and switch off the genes that would normally trigger cell death and prevent lymphoma development. We’ll be testing existing drugs in the laboratory to see whether they can disrupt or reverse these changes.”

The team are growing lymphoma cells in the laboratory and using newly-developed techniques to examine how enhancer regions contact genes located long distances away through DNA ‘looping’ and how this is altered in cells infected with EBV.

Dr Matt Kaiser, Head of Research at blood cancer charity Bloodwise, said: “Finding new ways to treat lymphoma requires a full understanding of exactly how lymphoma arises. While survival rates for these types of lymphoma have improved in recent years, new, more targeted, drugs are needed to make treatment not only even more effective but also kinder – especially for older patients.” 

A family from East Kilbride, Scotland, have so far raised an amazing £55,000 for Bloodwise to specifically support Prof Michelle West’s work. Elizabeth-Anne Jamieson’s son died of Burkitt lymphoma in 2014 at the age of 12. Her family’s 'Live it for Lee' fundraising campaign has included events ranging from a charity ball, a yoga fun day, a fundraising football match and a race night.

In a related project in collaboration with Dr Erika Mancini at the University of Sussex, Prof West’s team are also investigating how gene control is altered in leukaemia. Using X-ray techniques, they are examining the three-dimensional images of the proteins involved to identify regions that could be targeted by drugs.