Blood cancer research: 2000-2014

12 Nov 2015

An era of unprecedented progress in blood cancer research begins with the approval of a drug that’s transformed the treatment of chronic myeloid leukaemia.

2001 brings one of the most widely heralded success stories in blood cancer treatment worldwide, as the drug imatinib – also known as Glivec – is approved. It’s the culmination of many years of breakthroughs, and our researchers have been at the forefront of the UK’s contribution.

Imatinib is another example of a therapy that targets the genetic fault at the root of the cancer, in this case chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). The drug and its sister drugs have transformed survival in CML from 30% to 90%, giving patients a near normal quality of life through a single daily pill. Previously, the only hope for people with CML would have been a stem cell transplant.

2003 sees the completion of the UKALL national clinical trial for children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), which delivers an increase in overall survival to over 90%, a reduction in relapses and significantly fewer treatment-related deaths.  We’re now funding the next stage of work, the UKALL 2011 trial, to further refine MRD-based personalised treatments for children diagnosed with ALL.

Read more about treating childhood leukaemia in the 2000s >

In 2004, the Haematological Malignancy Research Network (HMRN) is established – a unique project in Yorkshire which collects data on every single one of the 2,200 people diagnosed with a blood cancer each year in its catchment area. This data can be used to improve survival rates and quality of life – in the UK and beyond.

In January 2008, breakthrough research establishes that the origin of leukaemia is in the womb. Our researcher Professor Mel Greaves compares blood cells from identical twins Olivia, who is being treated for leukaemia, and Isabella who is healthy. The study finds the same genetically identical pre-leukaemic stem cells in both children.

This means we know these cells are present at birth in far more children than the number who go on to develop leukaemia – and we understand that a second ‘event’ is needed to trigger the development of the disease. This raises the hope that if we understand the molecular changes taking place during this ‘second event’ we could stop it happening, and prevent the leukaemia from developing in the first place. We’re currently funding research that aims to do exactly this.

In 2011, our Trials Acceleration Programme is set up to deliver clinical trials for blood cancer patients more efficiently, allowing quicker and easier access to potentially life-saving drugs and treatments. A central hub at the University of Birmingham coordinates 13 trial centres at hospitals around the UK. The way it works is recognised as ‘bang on’ by National Cancer Director Sean Duffy.

At the end of March 2012, Dr David Grant retires as our Research Director after 22 years of service. Professor Chris Bunce, who has been supported by us throughout his impressive research career, from his PhD to his professorship, takes up the position.

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