UCL Cancer Institute


HRH The Duke of Kent visits UCL Cancer Institute

1 February 2017

Royal visit…


His Royal Highness The Duke of Kent visited laboratories at University College London (UCL) today to hear about a cutting-edge research project looking at ways to overcome treatment resistance in the most common form of childhood leukaemia. 

Blood cancer charity Bloodwise is funding the programme led by Professor Tariq Enver, a world-leading expert in the field of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). Professor Enver’s team are aiming to specifically target the genetic faults and networks that drive drug-resistant cancer, making treatments kinder and more effective than current chemotherapy options. 

The UCL scientists, working with researchers at The Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, have already shown that when leukaemia cells multiply from the original cancer stem cells or ‘master cells’, they develop in separate branches that each accumulate different sets of genetic errors over time. This process of cancer growth could explain why some children relapse after traditional chemotherapy. If a child has just one branch of leukaemia cells containing genetic changes in their DNA that makes them resistant to treatment, these cancer cells will grow back stronger and become dominant.

Around 400 children are diagnosed with ALL in the UK each year. Thanks to research, much of which has been funded by Bloodwise, nine in 10 now survive for at least five years after diagnosis. But current chemotherapy is gruelling, and can last up to three years, often causing life-long side effects such as infertility and even a secondary cancer. And children whose leukaemia returns after treatment are much harder to treat.  

The Duke of Kent heard how the researchers are studying how leukaemia cells evolve genetically as the disease develops, mapping the very first genetic faults that arise in healthy blood cells and all the subsequent changes that occur. By looking at the genetic makeup of leukaemia cells before and after treatment, the scientists can home in on the key genetic faults driving treatment-resistant disease. 

Developing targeted drugs

Professor Tariq Enver, Professor of Stem Cell Biology and Director of the UCL Cancer Institute, said: “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.” 

Researchers demonstrated to The Duke of Kent, who is Royal Patron of Bloodwise, the cutting-edge equipment needed for the project. One technique shown was ‘fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) analysis’, which uses light to count and profile large populations of leukaemia cells. Leukaemia samples can contain a myriad of cancer cells that carry lots of different genetic faults, but a FACS machine can sort out a whole blood or bone marrow sample – cell by cell – into varying groups according to their genetic fault.

Bloodwise granted the researchers £1.6 million to fund the five year project in 2016. 

Dr Alasdair Rankin, Director of Research at Bloodwise, 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.”

Further information

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