Blood cancer research in the 1960s

Updated 21 Feb 2018

The money the Eastwoods raise helps to open the first ever research unit dedicated to leukaemia, set up by Dr Gordon Piller at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

The Leukaemia Unit at Great Ormond Street is the first of its kind in Britain. The unit is officially opened on Saturday 9 December 1961 in front of the Eastwoods’ Teesside Leukaemia Committee.

Dr Werner Jacobson, a medical research chemist based at the unit, carries out pioneering trials of chemotherapy as a treatment for acute leukaemia. In 1962 he becomes the first to use the then newly developed drug Vincristine on children in the UK. The drug is still a mainstay of treatment for childhood leukaemia today.

Read more about treating childhood leukaemia in the 1960s >

The Leukaemia Research Fund sets up a Medical Advisory Panel to advise on research, and it’s agreed that additional research centres other than the unit at Great Ormond Street can be supported as part of the fund’s work – laying the foundations for the charity to become a national research organisation.

International collaboration is also encouraged from the beginning. Relations are established with the Leukemia Society in the United States, and in 1963 the first Annual Guest Lecture – a tradition which still stands today – is given by the distinguished leukaemia specialist from Paris, Professor Jean Bernard.

An important breakthrough in understanding the possible causes of blood cancer comes in 1964, when scientists in London first identify the link between a common virus called the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and Hodgkin lymphoma. Research today suggests that each person’s genetic make-up is important in determining how they will react to infection with EBV, and whether they will go on to develop Hodgkin lymphoma. Clarifying these links is helping to develop better treatments and possibly even prevent Hodgkin lymphoma altogether.

At the Medical Advisory Panel’s recommendation, the decision is taken to establish a university chair, with a professor overseeing a number of blood cancer research fellows. Frank Hayhoe at the University of Cambridge is duly appointed to the Leukaemia Research Fund Chair of Haematological Medicine in 1968.

Alongside the fund’s investment in supporting this position, a number of project grants are awarded to centres around the country for research into the diagnosis and treatment of leukaemia and related conditions.