Research Will Push Forward Fight Against Leukaemia

A project which aims to make laboratory-grown leukaemia cells change form and then be used to prime a patient’s own immune system to kill off malignant cells has begun in Edinburgh. If successful, the study could give clinicians a way of destroying residual leukaemic cells which are undetectable by microscope. The findings could be helpful in the treatment of acute myeloblastic leukaemia (AML), one of the most common forms of leukaemia in adults.

Although about 70% of patients with AML achieve complete remission of the disease after chemotherapy treatment, around half of the younger patients and the majority of elderly patients will ultimately relapse and die as a consequence of the disease. Three years survival rates are about 40% in younger patients and 10% in older patients.

This study, based at the John Hughes Bennett Laboratories at the University of Edinburgh, is led by haematologist Dr Marc Turner, who is Clinical Director of the Edinburgh and SE Scotland Blood Transfusion Centre.Dr Turner explained: “Relapse after initial successful chemotherapy is caused by residual leukaemic cells which are below a level which can be detected by microscope. Sometimes, they can cause the disease to restart, and it is much harder to treat the second time around. Methods of eliminating this minimal residual disease, such as bone marrow transplantation, can be successful but this form of treatment is only suitable for younger patients who are able to withstand the side effects of the treatment.”

“However, research work during the past few years has shown that it is possible to grow leukaemic cells in the laboratory and force them to change into a kind of immune cell called the dendritic cell. Dendritic cells are responsible for generating primary immune responses which can lead to the destruction of leukaemia cells.”

The work has now moved forward to the next phase of clinical trials, where patients with AML will donate bone marrow or blood cells before undergoing chemotherapy treatment. If they go into remission, their stored leukaemic cells will be specially cultured and changed into dendritic cells, which will be given back to the patient by injection. The dozen patients in the study will be carefully monitored for clinical and immunological responses. The trial will last for 12 to 18 months and is funded by the Leukaemia Research Fund and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service.

Dr David Grant, Scientific Director of the Leukaemia Research Fund, said: “The study of immunology – harnessing the body`s immune system to fight leukaemia – has advanced amazingly over the last 20 years. It is now crucial that we translate this knowledge into benefits for patients.”

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