Liz Burtally
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From chromosomes to cakes: lessons from our Newcastle University researchers

Liz Burtally
Posted by
13 Sep 2017

Our researchers at Newcastle University opened their lab doors to show us their findings

Liz Burtally looks at chromosomes through a microscope
Liz Burtally

Last weekend, I was lucky to attend a special Bloodwise open afternoon at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research at Newcastle University. Our researchers not only showed us the inner workings of their lab and the fantastic research that they carry out, but we even got to sample some delicious cakes afterwards inspired by Tea with the Girls.

Improving the lives of children with leukaemia through tailored treatments

Cytogenetics is the study of chromosomes, which contain tightly packed DNA. In cancer, rearrangements occur between and within chromosomes, either as the cause or as a result of the disease. Different chromosome rearrangements indicate the type of leukaemia someone has, and how an individual will respond to treatment. ‘Primary’ genetic changes, which include loss or gain of chromosomes, are easy to spot. But smaller genetic changes, such as gene changes and deletions, have a bigger role to play, and are harder to find.

Claire Schwab, Senior Research Cytogeneticist, was able to show us how she picks up these changes, and we were able to look down a microscope and see them for ourselves.

Work from this lab has been instrumental in improving the way we treat children with leukaemia — something Dr Amir Enshaei told us more about.

Number crunching to improve outcomes for children with leukaemia

Dr Amir Enshaei is Bloodwise/14M Genomics Integrative Biology Fellow. Although he is an experienced scientist, he has never stepped into a lab. That’s because he is a data scientist. He gave us a fascinating presentation on how we can use information from clinical trials to place people in different groups according to their risk of treatment relapse.

So, how does this work? Dr Enshaei is looking at demographic data such as gender, age and weight, alongside genetic changes from children enrolled in the acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) clinical trials in the UK. So far, Dr Enshaei has analysed 30,000 samples that have been collected over the last 20 years.

Using this data, clinicians have stratified children into different risk groups. So children who are at a great risk of relapse are given more intense treatment so they have the best chances of surviving. And those who are at a low risk of relapse can be given less treatment, sparing them from unnecessary side effects. This approach has been highly successful already, and the now the group want to refine the current risk stratification criteria even further.

Lab at the Northern Cancer Institute

A lab at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research

Searching the lymphoma genome for drug targets clues

We then had a fantastic talk about the genome of Burkitt lymphoma – a blood cancer that develops from B cells that are found in the bone marrow. Dr Vikki Rand, Bloodwise Senior Bennett Fellow, is using a combination of cutting-edge techniques to characterise the genetic changes in Burkitt lymphoma. But this is no easy task.

The information in DNA is stored as a code made up of four bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). Dr Rand said the Burkitt lymphoma genome is made up of 3 billion of these base pairs. If the genome of 3 were represented by a book, it would be three copies of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel War and Peace. So we are dealing with a huge amount of information to sift through. We had a go at analysing some genetic code by comparing the DNA of Burkitt lymphoma with a healthy B cell. Thankfully, technology has moved on so that the comparisons are not done manually but by complex computer programmes that are able to flag up changes pretty quickly.

Work in the lab has already found a mutation in a gene called ID3 is found in 50-60% of Burkitt lymphoma cases. Dr Rand says that finding the genetic changes that happen in Burkitt lymphoma will help improve our understanding of the biology of the disease, and could lead to the identification of new treatment strategies to improve the outlook for people suffering from this lymphoma.

We also heard about other research taking place at Newcastle University which is helping to further our understanding of blood cancer, and how to treat it.

FISHing for treatment answers

Dr Frederik van Delft, Honorary Consultant in Paediatric and Adolescent Oncology, is helping to improve the care for young adults with leukaemia or lymphoma who receive treatment at the Great North Children’s Hospital. Dr van Delft talked about a patient who was not responding to conventional chemotherapy. Using FISH analysis that can detect genetic changes in cells, he could pinpoint the genetic mutation that was driving this case of ALL. Once he knew the change, Dr van Delft was able to match a targeted drug to this mutation and the patient was able to be treated successfully.

Liquid biopsies: a window to finding out if drugs are working

Circulating tumour cells are cancer cells that have detached from a solid tumour and are able to travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other parts of the body. Although these cells are problematic, they can also be used to our advantage. But there is a big problem. Circulating tumour cells are incredibly hard to detect because of their small numbers. For example, a typical blood sample contains approximately 60 million white blood cells, 50 billion red blood cells and as few as five circulating tumour cells.

However, Dr David Jamieson, Research Associate, has developed a way to detect and visualise the circulating tumour cells and is using them to work out whether drugs are working as predicted in early phase cancer trials. He is able to do this through a simple blood sample, which is much easier and less painful than a surgical biopsy.

Dr Deepali Pal

Dr Deepali Pal

Finding the right drug combination in leukaemia

Dr Deepali Pal, NC3Rs Training Fellow, and Ryan Nelson, Research Technician, are working out ways to grow leukaemia cells from patients in the lab. Previously, this has been very hard to do because the leukaemia cell’s natural environment is very complex and is difficult to replicate in an artificial setting. But Dr Pal and her team have created an artificial bone marrow environment which has been very successful in supporting the growth of leukaemia cells. They are now able to test combinations of drugs on these cells to see how effective the treatment is at killing the leukaemia cells.

After a whirlwind tour of the research labs, we were then able to sample some of the delicious cakes friends and family of our North office team made in support of Tea with the Girls. Although I may be biased, my favourite was made by Lauren Syms, our Regional Manager in the North, who made an amazing clementine cake from a recipe by Diana Jupp, our Director of Patient Experience.

Find out more about the life-saving research we're funding at Newcastle University and the research we’re funding across the UK.

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