On Wednesday, the Duke of Kent paid a visit to the laboratories at the University College London, (UCL), to learn about an innovative research project. The cutting edge research is examining how to overcome resistence to the treatment methods in the most common form of leukaemia in children.
Bloodwise, a cancer charity, is funding the programme. The Duke of Kent is the royal patron of the charity. Bloodwise granted £1.6 million last year to fund the five-year project. Professor Tariq Enver, “a world-leading expert in the field of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia,” (ALL) is leading the programme. The research team is specifically targeting genetic “faults and networks” which allow cancer to resist treatment. They hope to develop kinder treatment options than the current chemotherapy which are commonly offered to treat this illness.
UCL scientists are working in tandem with researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton. Approximately 400 children are diagnosed with ALL every year in the United Kingdom. Nine in ten now survive for five years after diagnosis. However, current chemotherapy treatments can take its toll on the body and can have long-term side effects such as infertility and a secondary cancer diagnosis. Treatment can last for up to three years, and if a child does receive another cancer diagnosis, it can be much harder to treat than the first.
The team of researchers has figured out why it’s so difficult to treat a secondary leukaemia diagnosis. As leukaemia cells multiply from the original cancer stem cells or master cells, they grow in separate branches and develop sets of genetic errors over a long period of time. These genetic error cells could explain why it’s so tough to treat a child who relapses after receiving traditional chemotherapy. Even with just one branch of leukaemia cells containing genetic changes in their DNA, the cancer cells will multiply even stronger and become more dominant.
Professor Enver went into greater detail about what they’ve already discovered: “We are using a variety of techniques to help us identify those faulty molecules that cause the most aggressive and treatment-resistant strains of the disease, and we’ve already made some promising discoveries. Knowing which genetic errors are responsible for driving relapse in leukaemia patients is key to the development of targeted drugs capable of stopping cancer cells in their tracks.”
The Duke of Kent heard about the evolution of leukaemia cells and how they change genetically as the disease progresses. They can see firsthand how genetic faults are allowing cells to be resistant to treatment by examining them both before and after chemo. His Royal Highness also saw how the cutting edge equipment works. One such technique used is “fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) analysis.” This technique uses light to count, profile, and sort leukaemia blood and bone marrow cells down to their genetic faults.
In the press release from Bloodwise, Dr Alasdair Rankin, Director of Research at the charity, said: “Chemotherapy currently used to treat childhood leukaemia is not always effective and can cause serious damage to healthy cells and tissue. This project provides hope of pinpointing the specific cancer pathways that lie at the root of treatment resistance in childhood leukaemia and could lead to exciting new targeted treatments.”