Charity Manager Explains Significance of Recent Breakthrough in Cancer Research

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Recently, a major new analysis, released by the UK Institute of Cancer Research revealed the likely cause of most cases of childhood leukaemia. Sputnik asked Liz Burtally, Research Communications Manager at Bloodwise, a UK-based charity dedicated to funding research into blood cancers, about the significance of the new study and more.

Sputnik: In your personal view how significant is this research and what impact can it have on the battle against cancer?

Liz Burtally: This has been an accumulation of 30 years of fantastic research, undertaken by Prof Mel Greaves – an expert in his field. The research has opened up the possibility that childhood leukaemia is linked to infections, and in the future may be preventable, which is a huge breakthrough I’m really excited about!

Our understanding of the biology of childhood leukaemia is deepening, and we are now beginning to think about ways in which to combat this dreadful blood cancer.

What we know at the moment there is a first unstoppable change to a gene that happens by chance when the child is still in the womb. But this is not enough to cause leukaemia, a second gene change is needed after the child is born.

What this research now reveals, is that the second gene change is caused by DNA damage that is inflicted by the immune system behaving in an abnormal way. So think of a child who has been in a ‘clean’ environment, who hasn’t had much exposure to harmless bugs. They may suddenly come across an infection that causes their immune system to respond in an abnormal way, because it’s not used to dealing with infections.

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Researchers now think the disease could be preventable if children interact with other infants or older children – exposing them to harmless infections and ensuring the immune system is working hard from an early age. Or we could even develop a vaccine of harmless bugs that do the same thing.

But it is also really important to assure parents of children who have or had leukaemia, that there is nothing you can do prevent this from happening. Childhood leukaemia is all down to genetics and chance (it’s down to that first mutation that occurs in the womb by chance).

To be able to prevent leukaemia from happening would be amazing. Because although we are seeing more and more children survive their leukaemia (about 8 in 10 children can now be cured), this success has a dark side. The treatment we have to give them is incredibly harsh, and acts like a blanket bomb, wiping out the leukaemia and also healthy cells. So even if a child survives their leukaemia, they are often left with devastating sides effects like infertility and heart problems. If we can find kinder treatments, or even prevent leukaemia from happening, it will give children a chance to grow up free from these awful life-changing side effects.

Sputnik: While the study has found that a germ free childhood could act as a trigger to leukaemia, other experts have  more specifics need to be confirmed, what is being done to support research in this sphere?

Liz Burtally: This is a very important point. The research is still in its early stages, and what we need to do now is run a series of experiments to test the theory. Some work has already happened in mice with leukaemia. Researchers have given them the first mutation that occurs in the womb, kept them in a very clean environment, and then exposed them to infection. These mice went on to develop leukaemia. So this is looking very promising, but we need to investigate this further and there is still much more to do before we can prevent childhood leukaemia from happening.

READ MORE: FDA Approves New Drug to Treat Adult Patients With Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Sputnik: Can anything else be done by lawmakers, local authorities and just regular people to increase the input put into the research of leukaemia and cancer in general?

Liz Burtally: Bloodwise funds a huge amount of childhood leukaemia (and all other major types of blood cancer) research in the UK, but we don’t receive any money from the government. We rely on the huge dedication and drive of our supporters — the people who shake buckets, climb mountains and run marathons for us. Our research, support and campaigning is truly changing the lives of people affected by blood cancer, so I say please give generously so we can continue our life saving work, because without our wonderful supporters, none of this work would have been possible!

Sputnik: What does your organization do to raise awareness to these causes and what would you like to be seen done in the near future?

Liz Burtally: We fund life saving research that is making a real difference, provide practical and emotional support to patients and their loved ones and raise awareness of blood cancer through our campaigning.

Our vision for the future is simple: we’re here to beat blood cancer, and are working towards a day when no one has to suffer from this terrible disease.

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