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A round-up from our Grantholders' Day 2017

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13 Nov 2017

250 of our grantholders and co-workers got together to showcase their findings and discuss blood cancer research

On 8 November, around 250 scientists, made up of our grantholders and co-workers, gathered together for a day packed full of exciting research updates and lively discussions surrounding blood cancer research.

Remembering Tessa Holyoake

We started the day by remembering the fantastic Prof Tessa Holyoake, a world-renowned expert in chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) and one of the most exceptional scientists and clinicians of her generation. Profs Gerry Graham and Mhairi Copland – two of Professor Holyoake’s colleagues and close friends from The University of Glasgow – gave us a moving insight into her brilliance and dedication.

Prof Gerry Graham delivers a presentation

Prof Gerry Graham celebrating the life of Prof Tessa Holyoake.

Her research record is outstanding, and she made a number of ground-breaking discoveries that have transformed our understanding of CML and how we treat it. Prof Holyoake was the first to identify cancer stem cells in CML, and demonstrated the resistance of these cells to mainstay tyrosine kinase inhibitors, such as imatinib. She later identified key CML stem cell survival pathways that could be targeted with potential new treatments. Her research will continue to have an enormous impact on the lives of people with CML. 

Leukaemia in early life

One of the biggest dilemmas doctors face is in personalising the chemotherapy each child receives – to make sure that children with hard-to-treat leukaemia have the best chance of survival, while also reducing toxic side effects for those children who are responding well to treatment.

Professor Anthony Moorman from Newcastle University opened the day by presenting his recent findings. He explained that current methods used to determine the correct level of chemotherapy required for each child may be improved by looking at the genetic make-up of their cancer cells. This fantastic research could potentially lead to changes to treatment tailoring for newly diagnosed children. We hopefully will be able to give you more of an update next week, so check back for more news!

Next we heard from Professor Irene Roberts from the University of Oxford, who gave a fascinating talk on the link between Down syndrome and leukaemia. Professor Roberts has been looking at the gene changes during the course of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) in babies with Down syndrome, and her team have now mapped out a unique model of blood cancer development in early childhood.

These findings could have far reaching implications in how we treat and manage leukaemia in childhood. And they have also been able to understand which babies with Down syndrome are at risk of developing blood cancers, which has massive potential to change the way we manage high-risk babies. We hope to be updating you on this ground-breaking research soon.

Prof Irene Roberts delivers a presentation

Prof Irene Roberts presenting her fantastic work on the genetics of AML.

Up-and-coming cancer researchers of the future

Our second session allowed some of our scientists who are establishing themselves in blood cancer research to present their recent work.

Dr Lekh N Dahal has been working with Professor Mark Cragg and Dr Stephen Beer from the University of Southampton, who have recently found a way to reverse treatment resistance in lymphoma. Early research shows that an immune response stimulating drug called a ‘STING agonist’ reverses lymphoma-mediated resistance to antibody therapy. This could overcome drug-resistance to drugs like rituximab, which is commonly used to treat lymphoma. Read read more about this exciting research.

Next up, Dr Sunniyat Rahman from the University College London, who is working with Dr Marc Mansour, told us about finding a hotspot in ‘junk’ DNA – areas of the genome that do not code for genes – that appears to be controlling how a nearby cancer-causing gene called LMO2 behaves. Finding mutations in the ‘junk DNA’ may help highlight new ways to target the genes that drive T-ALL that so far have been under the radar, and could in the future lead to new treatments for people living with leukaemia. Find out more about this fascinating work.

Dr Sunniyat Rahman delivers a presentation

Dr Sunniyat Rahman talking about the inner workings of leukaemia progression.

Our last speaker was Dr Antonio Galleu, from King’s College London, who is working alongside Professor Francesco Dazzi to improve the success of stem cell transplants. Although stem cell transplants can be life-saving, many people experience a potentially lethal complication, in which the donor white blood cells also attack the patient’s healthy cells and tissues – a phenomenon known as graft versus host disease or (GvHD). They are looking at refining an intervention that can prevent GvHD, opening up the option of stem cell transplants to more people with blood cancer. Look out for a media announcement next week, which will highlight some exciting findings from this team!

Tackling myeloma: new drug targets, preventing progression and bone damage

In the afternoon, Dr Daniel Tennant from the University of Birmingham, Dr Andrew Chantry from the University of Sheffield, and Prof Anastasios Karadimitris from Imperial College London gave us a fascinating overview of their myeloma research.

Dr Daniel Tennant is interested in how a non-cancerous blood cell disorder termed monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) can sometimes transform into multiple myeloma. His team have uncovered the early changes that occur in the bone marrow of individuals with MGUS, which has given us a better understanding of the mechanisms of progression to myeloma. This could identify means to better predict, slow or stop progression of MGUS to myeloma. Full details on this research should be available soon.

Multiple myeloma cells

Multiple myeloma cells – can we prevent the disease? (image used under a Creative Commons license)

One aspect of Dr Andrew Chantry’s research is to prevent the devastating bone damage seen in myeloma. His team are assessing the effects of a number of bone-building drugs, either alone or in combination with drugs, such as zoledronic acid, that prevent bone being reabsorbed in myeloma.

They have already successfully prevented myeloma-induced bone damage in mice, and now want to establish when these treatments should be given for optimal results. The team are conducting the further studies to prove that an optimum window does exist, and the bone damage associated with myeloma can be tackled.

Our last myeloma session was from Prof Anastasios Karadimitris, who is identifying biological pathways that are important for myeloma cell growth and survival. The team have recently discovered a protein that regulates other cancer causing processes within the myeloma cell, which could lead to a new treatment target.

Myeloid diseases – from MPN to AML

Our last session of the day was around myeloid diseases, which include myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) and AML. We heard from Profs Tony Green and Brian Huntly from the University of Cambridge, and Prof Constanze Bonifer from the University of Birmingham.

Prof Green is interested in a cellular pathway called JAK/STAT, which modulates normal blood stem cell behaviour. When this pathway goes awry due to genetic changes, it can cause blood cancer. The team have already gained a greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms of MPN, which has been rapidly transferred to the clinic, changing the way we diagnose and treat the disease. Prof Green presented some new data that reveals further insights to what is driving MPN.

Prof Bonifer is interested in the role of transcription factors – proteins that can switch other genes off and on – in AML. This is a hugely complicated process, but the team are making great headway in mapping these pathways, and have already identified which ones could potentially be targeted by drugs.

Our final Bloodwise researcher of the day was Prof Huntly, who presented his work on the UTX gene, which is frequently mutated in AML. His team are looking how changes to UTX drive AML, with the hope of identifying targets and test novel therapeutics to improve the dismal outcome in this aggressive disease.

Delving into the AML genome

Wrapping up the proceedings was our Guest Lecture, which was delivered by Professor Timothy J. Ley from the Washington University School of Medicine, USA. He gave us a fascinating overview of his work that is shedding light into why there is such a varied response to chemotherapy within AML. He has been looking at the complex array of genetic and biological changes that are driving treatment resistance and relapse - some of which have until recently been undetectable using current technology. It was incredible hearing what he had found, which hits home how complex and varied AML is. But it also gave hope that our increased understanding of this complexity is opening up new avenues in how we can treat AML.

Dr Alasdair Rankin holds an award with Professor Timothy Ley

Dr Alasdair Rankin, our Director of Research and Patient Experience, presenting the Grantholders Day Guest Lecturer certificate to Professor Timothy Ley.

Students’ Day

On 7 November, our PhD students and clinical research training fellows met to communicate their exciting research findings and develop ideas with each other. Students in their final year of their PhD presented their work, students just starting out summarised their research in a poster.

Although this is a much smaller event than our Grantholders’ Day – with around 25 people attending – it gives our students and clinical fellows a valuable opportunity to hone their research presentation skills in a friendly and supportive environment.

We hope to put up a more detailed blog about our student’s research soon, so watch this space!

Read more about our life-changing research or find out how you can ensure we continue to beat blood cancer.

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