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Three new Birmingham research projects launched to beat blood cancer

The Bloodwise logo. Bloodwise appears in black text against a white background
Posted by
25 Sep 2018

New research to improve survival rates for people with blood cancer is underway at the University of Birmingham, thanks to grants of nearly £850,000 from Bloodwise.

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The three different research projects are looking at ways to tailor intensive blood cancer treatment for individual patients, establish what goes wrong during cancer development, and investigate whether preventing common infections could improve survival rates for two aggressive types of blood cancer.  

Liz Burtally, Research Communications Manager at Bloodwise, said: “The University of Birmingham has a worldwide reputation for cutting edge research into new treatments for blood cancers. We are really thrilled about funding these three hugely promising new projects, which are searching for better ways to treat blood cancer and we hope will make a real difference to people’s lives.”

Investigating the link between infections and treatment-resistance

In the first project, a team led by Professor Chris Bunce, Dr Farhat Khanim and Professor Mark Drayson will investigate whether infections make myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) harder to treat. 

Survival rates for these blood cancers are extremely poor, with fewer than two in 10 people with AML and three in 10 people with MDS surviving for longer than five years after diagnosis. Patients are also at risk of dying from common infections because they do not produce enough healthy immune cells, which are further reduced by the intensive chemotherapy used in treatment.

The researchers are looking into a theory that these potentially fatal infections actually also cause MDS and AML to become more aggressive and resistant to chemotherapy. They have already identified specific proteins released by bacteria that send ‘survival signals’ to the cancer cells to grow more quickly. The team is carrying out experiments in the laboratory to study how these bacterial infections alter the behaviour of patients’ cancer cells, and will test whether existing drugs can prevent this from happening.

Dr Farhat Khanim

Improving the effectiveness of stem cell transplants

In the second project at the University’s Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy, Professor Paul Moss, Dr Jianmin Zuo and Dr Ram Malladi are leading a programme to develop new ways to improve the effectiveness of stem cell transplants, which can be the only chance of a long term cure for some blood cancer patients.

A stem cell transplant infuses donor blood stem cells into patients after they have undergone intensive chemotherapy to kill any cancerous cells and destroy their faulty bone marrow. As well as re-establishing a healthy bone marrow for the patient, donor white blood cells give the patient a new immune system that can hunt down and kill remaining cancer cells in the blood.

However, around four in 10 patients with AML relapse within a year of their transplant.  The new immune system can also recognise the patient’s healthy tissue as ‘foreign’ and attacks these cells as well – causing life-threatening side effects. Professor Moss’s project is looking at ways to make this immune response more carefully controlled and effective, reducing side effects and the chance of relapse. 

Prof Paul Moss

Understanding the genetic faults that lead to blood cancer

In the third project, Professor Jon Frampton at the University’s Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences is looking at how healthy blood cell production goes wrong during blood cancer development. ‘MYB’ is a protein that is particularly important to the controlled development of individual blood cell types and is thought often to be essential in the development of malignant blood disease.

Professor Frampton believes that having lower levels of MYB puts people more at risk of developing certain blood diseases as they grow older.  It is possible that up to 10% of the population have naturally lower levels of MYB, and the project will seek to confirm this and define what underlying effects this might have on blood cells. Understanding more about how normal blood development goes wrong and causes cancer could lead to new ways to treat the disease.

Prof Jon Frampton

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