Blood cancer research in the 1990s

12 Nov 2015

Advances in understanding the biology behind the various diseases continue to point the way towards the future of blood cancer treatments.

Over the previous decades, the foundations have been laid for a much better understanding of the biology of blood cancers – thanks to technological innovation in techniques such as DNA sequencing, the use of antibodies, and many years of successive clinical trials. By the 1990s, because we know the faults at the root of the disease – the genetic errors driving the cancer –we’re able to design better, more precise treatments.

Read more detail about the scientific breakthroughs that have enabled new treatment approaches in ‘How blood cancer research is leading the way’ >

An important early example of this targeted treatment approach is a drug called all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA), which is established as an effective treatment for acute promyelocytic leukaemia after trials first in China and then in France.

Another innovative treatment that comes online in the 1990s are monoclonal antibodies – a non-toxic treatment that harnesses the patient’s own immune system and uses it to attack cancerous cells, avoiding some of the side effects of conventional chemotherapy. One of the flagship antibody drugs is rituximab, which is approved in 1997 and has been highly successful in treating certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Following discussions that begin in 1990, the Leukaemia Research Fund launches the Cytogenetics Database to better understand the genetics behind leukaemia. More than 20 years on, the cytogenetics team has studied samples from more than 25,000 adults and children with acute leukaemia in the UK, providing new insights into specific genetic mutations and how these can be used to guide treatments for individual patients.

A number of career development awards are established in order to attract and nurture bright and talented young scientists and haematologists. The Gordon Piller PhD Studentship is launched in 1991, followed by the Bennett Fellowship in 1997, and later our Clinician Scientist Award, in 2001.

The 1990s also sees the Leukaemia Research Fund back the development of the minimal residual disease (MRD) test, which is designed to accurately guide treatment for children with leukaemia. It allows doctors to identify those children that can be spared intensive chemotherapy and its side-effects, and those children who will need high intensity treatment to be cured.

After successfully being tested in the UKALL trials, the MRD test has now been adopted as standard in the NHS for every child in the UK with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Read more about treating childhood leukaemia in the 1990s >

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