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Improving the lives of children with leukaemia through tailored treatment

While we know that multiple genetic changes can cause Leukaemia, it's hard to identify them without comparing lots of leukaemia DNA samples. Professor Christine Harrison's project collects and analyses genetic information from children with leukaemia to try and understand how to treat the disease.

The challenge

The leukaemias are a group of cancers affecting the bone marrow and blood. It is now widely accepted that all leukaemia cells have at least one, but probably more genetic changes which cause the disease.

Being able to understand and identify these changes helps doctors to diagnose more precisely and match people with the treatment most likely to be effective for them. However, because genetic makeup varies so much from person to person, it is very difficult to learn anything from studying the DNA of one person in isolation and we need to look at the bigger picture.

The project

To deal with this problem Blood cancer UK are funding a project that aims to create a national database of all 550 children diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) in the UK each year and analyse all of their genetic information together. Doing it this way means that patterns start to emerge, and scientists can focus on the genetic changes that the children with ALL often have in common. This was how the Leukaemia Research Cytogenetics Group (LRCG) begun nearly 30 years ago and the group have made an enormous contribution to advancing treatment and understanding of leukaemia ever since. The LRCG database is now one of the largest and most advanced leukaemia genetics research resources in the world and holds information on more than 28,000 children that have had ALL. Now led by Professors Harrison and Moorman, the LRCG are collaborating with scientists in the UK and across the globe to identify the genetic changes that drive leukaemia and causes some people’s cancer to stop responding to treatment. Their work continues to help doctors predict how people will respond to treatment so that they can individualise care, understand why some drugs don’t work in some people and identify targets for the development of new targeted treatments.

The future

In the future, the group want to create new targeted therapies for some of the poor outlook childhood leukaemias, giving hope to those who do not respond to current treatments and providing all patients with less toxic therapies. The group also hope to work alongside the 100,000 Genome Project to establish whole genome sequencing (a technique that maps out all of a persons’ DNA, allowing scientists to identify genetic changes that can cause disease) as an effective and routine diagnostic tool for leukaemia patients.