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£4m research project in Cambridge will identify those at high risk of blood cancers and develop interventions





A five-year, £4million research project in Cambridge to identify individuals at high risk of certain blood cancers and develop interventions to prevent them developing has been announced.

Blood Cancer UK and US-based nonprofit The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) confirmed the move on Sunday - World Cancer Day.

Prof George Vassiliou, of the University of Cambridge’s Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (CSCI)
Prof George Vassiliou, of the University of Cambridge’s Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (CSCI)

Prof George Vassiliou, at the University of Cambridge’s Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (CSCI), will lead the project, focusing on myeloid blood cancers, a group of blood cancers that claim more than 11,000 deaths each year in the UK.

Affecting both the bone marrow and blood, these cancers include acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPN) and rarer cancers like chronic myelomonocytic leukaemia (CMML).

Dr Rubina Ahmed, Blood Cancer UK's director of research, said: "Blood cancer is the UK’s third biggest cancer killer, so this programme to transform our understanding of myeloid blood cancers and help us develop effective prevention strategies is much needed.

“Prevention into solid cancers that form tumours is an advanced area of research and clinical practice, but we’re simply not at that stage with blood cancers yet. So we’re pleased to work together with another international funder and scientists in world leading research institutes, to beat blood cancer in a generation.”

Dr Rubina Ahmed, Blood Cancer UK's director of research
Dr Rubina Ahmed, Blood Cancer UK's director of research

Many myeloid blood cancers do not yet have a cure, but previous work from Prof Vassiliou’s team and their collaborators has shown many people at high risk of developing them can be identified years in advance.

Prof Vassiliou said: “In this project, we will be developing sensitive screening tests that will help us identify the people at risk but in parallel, we will be conducting detailed experimental studies to find new treatments or repurpose existing treatments that will help us delay, or entirely avert, progression towards these cancers.”

The plan is to build, at Addenbrooke’s, the clinical infrastructure to enable the implementation and testing of clinical interventions in those at high risk.

Prof Vassiliou - who is based with seven of the nine lead investigators - at the CSCI, added: “One of the crucial parts of this project is the establishment of a specialised clinical network, where patients at high risk of developing myeloid blood cancers, will undergo an in-person visit, followed by remote or virtual follow-up visits.

“The virtual element to the programme will be important for scaling up blood cancer prevention to a national level, in collaboration with leading NHS hospitals, something we expect to establish over the next few years.”

Prof George Vassiliou, left, of the University of Cambridge’s Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (CSCI)
Prof George Vassiliou, left, of the University of Cambridge’s Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (CSCI)

Ellie Bray, from Cambridgeshire, was 18 when she died from a myeloid blood cancer, AML. She had been diagnosed in 2020 and underwent six months of tough chemotherapy, which put her into remission in March 2021. During remission, Ellie lived the life of a normal teenager but, devastatingly, in July 2021 her cancer returned.

Despite further chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant followed, a year after she was first diagnosed, doctors told Ellie and her family that there was nothing more they could do.

Her sister, Emma, said: “We held on to the hope that she was going to be OK but the trial sadly didn't work for Ellie. She was a kind girl and so full of life and, while we received great support, losing Ellie from blood cancer is still all too painful. The development of a national clinical network focused on preventing blood cancers like Ellie’s gives us hope for better outcomes for others. It's a step towards a better future."

Prof George Vassiliou, centre, of the University of Cambridge’s Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (CSCI)
Prof George Vassiliou, centre, of the University of Cambridge’s Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (CSCI)

Dr Lee Greenberger, chief scientific officer at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, added: “We want to improve outcomes and quality of life for patients affected by these challenging blood cancers. This funding collaboration between Blood Cancer UK and The Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society marks a significant stride towards advancing research, treatment, and prevention strategies for myeloid blood cancers on an international scale."



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