£3m award for pioneering Scottish leukaemia trial

UofG scientists are set to receive £3m funding to help more patients survive a rare form of blood cancer.CML cells 450

Researchers at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Cancer Sciences have been awarded £3.1 million by Cancer Research UK to lead a pioneering study to help find new treatments for chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML).

In a first-of-its-kind experimental medicine programme scientists will carry out laboratory experiments in tandem with a clinical trial to monitor how patients’ cancer cells respond to a series of new experimental drugs.

Taking a ‘precision medicine’ approach, the scientists hope that data from their experiments will help guide which drug will be most effective for individual patients.

Around 50 people are diagnosed with CML in Scotland each year and each year around 20 people in Scotland die from the disease.

CML is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. Normally, blood cells are produced in the bone marrow, from a kind of ‘starter cell’ called a stem cell. CML occurs when blood stem cells produce abnormal white blood cells that grow out of control. It can be treated with drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), which tackle the cancerous white blood cells. But these drugs don’t kill the CML stem cells and in some patients the cancer can eventually become resistant to treatment.

The Glasgow scientists leading the study aim to find new treatments that could help more people survive the disease by targeting these stem cells.

Dr David Vetrie, senior lecturer in epigenetics at Glasgow University and scientific lead for the study, said: “We will take and analyse thousands of individual CML stem cells from patients enrolled in our clinical trial, and study the biology of these cells both before and after treatment with new drugs.

“This highly-detailed analysis will help us identify, for the first time, subtle differences between the stem cells in each patient. We can then use this information to help doctors decide which treatment to give patients in the trial.”

Professor Mhairi Copland, Director of the Paul O’Gorman Leukaemia Research Centre, and clinical lead for the study, said: “Around a quarter of CML patients develop resistance to the standard treatment. For some patients we can try a different drug or sometimes a bone marrow transplant, however, CML tends to be a disease of older people for whom a bone marrow transplant isn’t an option.

“Our hope is that this study will help more patients with difficult-to-treat CML to survive, and give them more time with their families with better quality of life.”

The study will continue the life-saving work of world-leading cancer specialist and founding director of Glasgow’s Paul O’Gorman Leukaemia Research Centre, Professor Tessa Holyoake, who died from breast cancer in August 2017.

Professor Holyoake transformed scientists’ understanding of CML and its treatment. She was first in the world to identify the existence of cancer stem cells in CML and biological targets in these stem cells that have paved the way for the development of new drugs to treat the disease.

Some of these drugs will be tested in the clinical trial that forms part of the new study.

STV entertainment reporter Laura Boyd, from Glasgow, was diagnosed with CML eight years ago. She knows all too well why research is so important to find new ways to treat the disease. When she was diagnosed in September 2009, her first thought was ‘Am I going to die?’, but her cancer has been kept under control with drugs.

Welcoming the new study, she said: “This is the most wonderful news. I was diagnosed with CML in 2009 and thanks to the pioneering work carried out by the likes of Professor Mhairi Copland and Professor Tessa Holyoake, I have largely kept well and led a normal life. The future, however, is uncertain and that’s why it comes as such a relief to know that this funding will enable scientists to carry forward the groundbreaking work they have already done to try and find new treatments and drugs.”

She added: “It gives hope and it means the world to me to know that the legacy Professor Holyoake left when she sadly passed away last year, will be carried on. She was my doctor and the most remarkable woman I have ever met.”

The study is the first in the UK to receive funding from the prestigious Cancer Research UK Experimental Medicine Award programme, which supports highly ambitious laboratory research conducted in association with a clinical trial.

Professor Copland said: “We are absolutely delighted and proud to have been awarded this funding from Cancer Research UK. It’s the first time in the UK that an award has been made by this programme, cementing Glasgow’s reputation as a world-leading centre for CML research.

“It’s fantastic recognition of all the work that’s taken place over a number of years in Glasgow, including Tessa’s pioneering work, to help more people survive CML.”

Enquiries: ali.howard@glasgow.ac.uk or elizabeth.mcmeekin@glasgow.ac.uk / 0141 330 6557 or 0141 330 4831

First published: 15 August 2018

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