Close up of researcher working with samples in a lab

Research projects

Spot the difference: revealing differences between leukaemia cells and healthy cells

Dr João Barata
Project period
Jan 2024 - Dec 2026
Research Institute
iMM Lisboa
Cancer types
Award amount

Project aim

Dr João Barata and his team are investigating leukaemia cells' weaknesses to develop novel treatments for an aggressive form of the disease, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. They hope to find new therapies with fewer harsh side effects than current treatments.

Hope for the future

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, or ALL, is type of blood cancer that affects bone marrow and is the most common cancer in children. It progresses very quickly and is usually treated with several rounds of chemotherapy. This can cause harsh side effects which can be very distressing for young patients. Unfortunately ALL also has a high rate of recurrence, meaning the cancer often comes back after treatment. Gentler and more effective treatments are desperately needed.

Dr João Barata and his team are investigating new targeted treatments that could be more efficient, and have fewer side effects, using drugs that just target the leukaemia cells – unlike chemotherapy which affects healthy cells too. Targeted therapies for ALL could help young patients with this devastating disease receive gentler, more effective treatment.

Headshot of Joao Barata in his lab wearing a dark blue jumper

Meet the scientist

Dr Barata has hobbies and interests that go beyond science, and that, he believe, help him a better scientist. He loves comics and he has listened to and played music all his life - he currently has a pop-rock band, called Tricycles. Do check them out on music platforms!

The science

Research shows that the development of both healthy bone marrow and leukaemia cells depends on a particular protein – called interleukin 7 or IL7. If this protein isn't working, our immune system can’t function and healthy bone marrow can’t grow. This means that therapies that attack this protein are not a smart strategy for targeting the cancer.

What Dr João Barata and his team have discovered is that while healthy bone marrow just needs the IL7 protein to be working, leukaemia cells can only grow when IL7 also interacts with a specific enzyme called SK.

This incredible discovery opens up potential in developing a targeted approach to attacking leukaemia cells - without damaging healthy cells at the same time. By inhibiting SK, healthy cells can continue to grow largely unharmed, the immune system can keep fighting disease, but leukaemia cell growth will stop.

While this research is in very early stages, this is a huge breakthrough in understanding ALL biology, and could lead to innovative new therapies that have the potential to transform patients’ lives – all thanks to the support of our Curestarters.

Headshot of Joao Barata in his lab wearing a dark blue jumper Dr João Barata
Thank you. Not only for allowing our research to take flight (and hopefully someday bear fruit), but most of all because of your generosity and vision. I believe we can eradicate cancer or at least make it really a chronic, manageable disease.

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