Cancer breakthrough for North East scientists at Newcastle University

Newcastle University researchers have made a breakthrough that could lead to better treatment for cancer sufferers in the region

Mark Radford A scientist at work
A scientist at work

Scientists in the North East have made a breakthrough that could lead to better treatment for cancer sufferers.

Researchers at Newcastle University have found that people born with a rare abnormality of their chromosomes have a 2,700-fold increased risk of developing a rare form of childhood cancer, called acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

For this abnomality to happen, two chromosomes are fused together and become prone to shattering, which leads to cancer.

Scientists say the finding could result in better treatment for other types of cancer, as the abnormalities are more common in some types of the illness.

Geneticist Claire Schwab, who is part of the research team at Newcastle University, says a small group of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia patients have repeated sections of chromosome 21 in their affected cells.

“This rare form of the disease requires more intensive treatment than many other types of cancer,” she said. “It has to be aggressive to clear the blood of leukaemia.

“This research has enabled us to find out how a cancer develops and what causes it to develop. By doing so, we can target the treatment better.

“We want to limit the amount of therapy given to patients and improve the treatment we administer. The methods we’ve used to investigate this abnormality can be applied across the board and will hopefully improve the treatment of various cancer types.”

Laura Howe, who lives in Newcastle, was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in 1995 when she was seven years old.

The next nine years were spent fighting the condition, including two relapses and a bone marrow transplant in September 1998, thanks to a donation from little brother Joe.

Before the transplant, Laura’s chances of beating leukaemia were given as 50-50. After her second relapse, in October 2000, it fell to just 15%.

Four years later, Laura’s treatment was stopped and the leukaemia has never returned.

The 26-year-old, who now works as a children’s nurse at Newcastle’s RVI, has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for cancer charities over the years. She is now planning a Grand Canyon trek in September, for which she needs to raise £4,500.

“A lot of children are on research trials for treatment because that’s the way it is,” she said.

“I know I was on a trial when I was first diagnosed but obviously you don’t find a cure if you don’t do the research. My friend Jordan Thompson died from leukaemia when he was 15 years old.

“This discovery by Newcastle University scientists is a major breakthrough and could help to ensure people like Jordan and me, go on to lead full and long lives.”

Professor Christine Harrison, who co-led the research team at Newcastle University, said: “Advances in treatment are improving patients’ outcomes, but some acute lymphoblastic leukaemia patients require more intensive chemotherapy than other leukaemia patients.

“Although rare, people who carry this specific joining together of chromosomes are specifically and massively predisposed to the rare condition.

“We have been able to map the roads the cells follow in their transition from a normal genome to a leukaemia genome. And the lessons were are learning with this should be able to be applied to other, more common types of cancer.”

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