Beating blood cancers since 1960
by Henry Winter 8th July 2011

Cambridge scientists' childhood lymphoma drug progress

Research by scientists at the University of Cambridge could lead to improvements in the treatment of childhood lymphoma.  

The researchers investigated how ‘anaplastic large cell lymphoma’ develops. This is a blood cancer that mostly affects children and teenagers and is caused when genetic ‘mistakes’ result in the uncontrolled spread of abnormal white blood cells. While many children can be cured, the disease will return after treatment in up to 40% of patients.   

Current treatment consists of intensive chemotherapy drugs which can have devastating long term side-effects on children including heart disease and infertility. 

In research published in the journal Laboratory Investigation, the Cambridge team examined the relative contribution of genetic abnormalities towards the development of childhood lymphoma.

A genetic mutation in the patient’s cells causes not only the loss of half the normal amount of the NPM protein but also the production of a new protein called ‘NPM-ALK’, which is believed to drive the growth of the lymphoma. With funding from Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, the scientists studied the relative importance of the two consequences of this specific mutation to lymphoma development. 

Dr Suzanne Turner, of the Department of Pathology at the University of Cambridge, said: “Using laboratory models we were able to show that high levels of the novel protein, NPM-ALK in the tumour is far more important than levels of the protein NPM in causing the lymphoma. This is very important because it shows that new drugs which target and reduce levels of NPM-ALK will offer an invaluable tool in treatment of lymphoma and should be developed further.” 

Dr David Grant, Scientific Director of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “Finding safer and less toxic drugs are a priority if we are to improve survival rates for this type of lymphoma. We can’t give children gruelling chemotherapy time after time if they are not responding to it. This research provides vital scientific information which will guide the design of effective, targeted drugs for this lymphoma.”

The University of Cambridge was named a ‘Centre of Excellence’ by Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research in 2010 in recognition of its world-class research into blood cancers. The charity has £9 million currently invested in 20 research projects at the Centre.