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Beating blood cancers

September is blood cancer awareness month, and Tuesday 15th September 2015 is World Lymphoma Awareness Day.  We are therefore looking at what we are doing to help beat blood cancers.

You might not have heard the phrase ‘blood cancer’ before. But you are likely to know the cancers it refers to – lymphoma, leukaemia and myeloma. Every 20 minutes, someone in the UK is told they have a blood cancer. These cancers can affect people of any age, and account for over a third of all cancers in children.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma affects your lymphatic system – an important part of your immune system. The lymphatic system looks similar to your blood system but the tubes are much thinner. Instead of carrying blood, they carry a colourless liquid called lymph. Lymph contains a high number of lymphocytes.  These are special white blood cells that fight infection and destroy unhealthy or damaged cells. The lymphatic system also acts as a refuse collection. It takes bacteria, waste products and cancer cells away from tissues to be destroyed.

There are two main types of lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) and the much less common Hodgkin's lymphoma.

How are we helping beat lymphoma?

You can search for current research projects using our interactive world map. One current lymphoma project is Professor Christian Münz at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.  He is trying to prevent Hodgkin's lymphoma by developing a vaccine against the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). An effective EBV vaccine would prevent up to 200,000 cases of cancer worldwide every year, including cases of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Dr Libor Macurek at the Institute of Molecular Genetics, Prague, Czech Republic is investigating a new mutation in the PPM1D gene. He wants to know if the mutation affects the development of lymphomas and other cancers.  If it does, scientists may then be able to design drugs to stop it from causing cells to become cancerous.

Professor Graham Packham at the University of Southampton, England is studying Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In many lymphomas a type of immune system cell, called a B cell, gets incorrectly switched on, even when no foreign body is present.  Professor Packham and his team have found a new way the cells are incorrectly switched on, and they believe it may play a role in nearly all cases of follicular lymphoma.  Their new research will provide new information about human lymphomas, which could be used to improve the way we treat this disease, and possibly find new treatment options.

Leukaemia

Leukaemia affects the white blood cells that normally fight infections. In leukaemia, too many immature (not fully developed) white blood cells are made. These block your bone marrow and stop it making other blood cells.

There are four main types of leukaemia: Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) and Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) are all more common in adults. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) affects both adults and children, and is the most common form of cancer in children.

How are we helping beat leukaemia?

One current childhood leukaemia project is Dr Steven Gamblin’s work at The Francis Crick Institute in the UK.  He is investigating how a type of childhood leukaemia called Mixed Lineage leukaemia (MLL) begins.

Dr Christoph Merten at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany is testing a new type of personalised antibody therapy for leukaemia. Dr Merten is excited that this new treatment could be a real step forward. He told us:

If our method works, we think this approach should cause fewer side-effects and be more effective, compared to more conventional anticancer treatments like chemotherapy. Ultimately this therapy could be used not just to treat leukaemia, but to tackle a variety of other cancers.

Myeloma

Myeloma, or multiple myeloma as it is sometimes called, is cancer of plasma cells. Plasma cells are also made in your bone marrow. They produce antibodies to help fight infection. When you have a vaccination it is your plasma cells that make antibodies to fight that disease, should you encounter it in the future.

Myeloma occurs in a similar way to leukaemia.  High numbers of abnormal plasma cells in the bone marrow stop it working properly.

How are we helping beat myeloma?

Working at University Medical Center Utrecht, in the Netherlands, Dr Tuna Mutis has recently made progress in understanding why myeloma cells can sometimes become resistant to immunotherapy. He is now investigating if combining immunotherapy with agents that block these resistance mechanisms might make treatment more successful.

Is research helping?

Real progress has, and still is, being made against blood cancers. Back in the 1970s only around 5 in 100 people with leukaemia survived beyond ten years. Today, more than half survive. A lot of this is thanks to research. Even research we funded a long time ago is still making a difference right now.  For example ten years ago, we awarded separate grants to Dr Aswin Menke, Radboud University, the Netherlands and Professor Hans Stauss, Imperial College London.  Their work helped show that a protein produced inside leukaemia cells, WT1, could be used to direct the immune system to attack leukaemia cells. WT1-targeted immunotherapy for leukaemia that has returned is now in the early phases of clinical trial. There are now several trials involving children as well as adults.

We funded Dr Adina Aviram’s work in Israel in 1999, which has helped diagnosis for patients with myoproliferative disorders (MPDs). These are conditions like leukaemia which affect the blood and bone marrow.

And finally, a Worldwide Cancer Research project run by Professor David MacEwan at the University of Liverpool has resulted in a clinical trial in the US which is recruiting AML patients, directly due to his grant.

While blood cancers are still claiming lives, we will continue to fund research all over the world.  We aim to help beat this disease and ensure no life is cut short by cancer. If you feel inspired to do something to help raise money for more research then please check out our fundraising pages.

Further information

Photo credit: Professor Christian Münz. It is a microscope picture of stained human spleen tissue. The red/orange areas show the tight contact between different immune system cells, DEC-205 positive dendritic cells and CD3 positive T cells.

Macmillan Cancer Support has lots of information about different types of cancers, their treatments and ways to manage side effects.

You can find out more about stem cell and bone marrow transplants through the Anthony Nolan Trust.

Science Communication Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

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