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New funding for cancer research

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​Today - on World Cancer Day (4 February 2022) - we’re committing £195,000 of new research funding towards areas of unmet need in cancer treatment.

These ‘Enhancing Research Awards’ will support three scientists who are carrying out vital research into treatments for paediatric leukaemia and ovarian cancer, and protecting the fertility of patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

Dr Christos Georgiadis

Tackling relapse in childhood leukaemia

Leukaemia is the most common cancer in children under 15.

Thanks to advances in medical research and treatment, survival rates have improved dramatically over the past 30 years. However, in around 10-20 per cent of children who have achieved complete remission after initial treatment, leukaemia can come back. The current standard of care for relapsed childhood leukaemia often relies on receiving a bone marrow transplant from a matched donor. These are complex treatments that can carry a significant risk of serious complications.

Recent breakthroughs have shown the exciting potential of gene therapy, which holds promise as an alternative for treating relapsed childhood leukaemia. These include the generation of tumour-targeting ‘killer’ cells, either from a patient’s own blood, or ‘universal’ cells from an unrelated healthy donor, which are modified using genome editing to be ‘invisible’ to the recipient – enabling them to resist rejection.

CAR – chimeric antigen receptor – T-cell therapy works by genetically engineering a patient’s white blood cells (called T-cells) to recognise and destroy cancer cells.

Dr Christos Georgiadis and colleagues from the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health have developed such ‘universal’ CAR T-cells with the aid of gene-editing ‘CRISPR’ technology. They are now evaluating the safety and potency of these cells in a Phase 1 clinical trial at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Although early trial data has been encouraging, reports from similar studies have brought to light instances of disease re-emergence, whereby the cancer cells can evade the CAR therapy by ‘hiding’ the surface markers that researchers are targeting.

Dr Georgiadis’ new research, evaluated initially in mice, will explore whether other markers can be targeted in this way, which could help to strengthen existing CAR therapies for childhood leukaemia.

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Dr Federica Lopes

Protecting the fertility of young boys with cancer

Although the number of children surviving cancer continues to increase significantly, studies show that cancer treatments can lower the probability of becoming a father due to damage to the reproductive system. Currently, no clinical options are available to preserve fertility in young boys, who do not yet produce sperm to be stored.

New research by Dr Federica Lopes, Lecturer in Reproductive Medicine at the University of Dundee, aims to preserve fertility in young boys who are undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

Two centres in the UK (Edinburgh and Oxford) are collecting testis biopsies from children with cancer before the onset of chemotherapy, with ongoing research looking at strategies to restore and protect fertility using these tissues.

Previous work by Dr Lopes has shown that an important type of cell within the testis are damaged by chemotherapy. This population of stem cells give rise to the sperm throughout adult life and, after chemotherapy drug exposure, activate a number of genes that are involved in the death of these important cells.

The aim now, for Dr Lopes, is to see whether promoting specific signals within these cells will rebalance the response to chemotherapy, so that cells proliferate rather than dying out – hence preserving fertility.

Dr Michael-Hohn Devlin

Identifying ovarian cancer patients most likely to benefit from immunotherapy

Clear cell ovarian cancer (CCOC) is a rare type of ovarian cancer, which accounts for around five to 10 per cent of patients with ovarian cancer in the western world. Unfortunately, when CCOC has spread beyond the ovary, patients have a poor response to conventional treatment and a limited life expectancy.

Dr Michael-John Devlin, Clinical Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, is aiming to improve prediction around which patients are likely to respond to immunotherapy treatment, following encouraging results in some patients with advanced CCOC.

So far, Dr Devlin has focused on understanding how CCOC interacts with our bodies’ immune system, in order to try and identify the mechanisms which underly an anti-cancer response, and why in some patients the cancer cells are able to evade this.

In around half of patients with CCOC, the cancer cells lose the ability to produce a protein called ARID1A. Dr Devlin and his colleagues think these patients are more likely to respond to immunotherapy. To investigate this hypothesis, they will analyse samples from 48 patients with CCOC who received immunotherapy treatment as part of a clinical trial. If the researchers are able to validate that activity surrounding the ARID1A is linked to response to treatment, they will be able to identify which patients are more or less likely to respond to this treatment. This will help to inform clinical decisions and patient choices around treatment.

These Enhancing Research Awards are only possible thanks to gifts in Wills from Grace Muriel Selby and Rachel Jeanette de Saxe.