Scientists have discovered a better way to identify and treat a commonly misdiagnosed cancer affecting young adults and teenagers, a study published in Blood* reveals today (Monday).

A screen for a genetic marker for Burkitt’s lymphoma** – a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – will now enable all cases to be correctly identified.

The researchers have shown that using this screen can detect which patients need the most intensive chemotherapy, and spare those who can be treated with lower doses. Together these findings will ensure that lymphoma patients have the best possible chance of cure, but are not exposed to high intensity chemotherapy unnecessarily.

The study – to date the world’s largest trial for Burkitt’s lymphoma – was run by the Medical Research Council Trials Unit and funded by Cancer Research UK. Its results will change clinical practice for patients with this cancer worldwide.

Burkitt’s lymphoma affects around 200 people in the UK each year and is most commonly diagnosed in teenagers and young adults. Around a third of these cases are in children.

Lead author Dr Ben Mead, honorary senior lecturer in medical oncology in the University of Southampton’s School of Medicine, said: “Patients with Burkitt’s lymphoma are now likely to be successfully treated, but this has not always been the case.

“Being able to correctly diagnose this form of cancer is the key to successful treatment. The screen we have developed and the new treatment methods will significantly improve the care of patients with the disease. Crucially, the new treatment regime will also reduce the side effects of chemotherapy, which traditionally have been particularly severe for this group of patients.”

Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician also based at the University of Southampton, said: “We are delighted with the results of this important international trial. This study sets the standard for the way we diagnose and treat Burkitt’s lymphoma. We have known for some time that intensive chemotherapy can cure a high proportion of patients, but we now have a really good way to tell those that need this, and those whose chances of cure will be just as good with less toxic treatment.”


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* A prospective clinicopathological study of dose modified CODOX-M/IVAC in patients with sporadic Burkitt lymphoma defined using cytogenetic and immunophenotypic criteria (MRC/NCRI LY10 trial). Mead et al. Blood. 2008.

The study was funded by Cancer Research UK and run by the Medical Research Council Clinical Trials Unit, with infrastructure funding from the NCRI.

128 patients were involved in this study, including 58 patients with Burkitt’s lymphoma.

** About Burkitt’s lymphoma

Burkitt’s lymphoma is a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. How the disease develops remains unclear but research has shown that the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) may be involved. It is thought that the Epstein-Barr virus ‘transforms’ immune cells called B-lymphocytes into cancerous cells. But in Burkitt’s lymphoma seen in the UK, the way normal B-lymphocytes change to cancer cells doesn’t always involve the Epstein-Barr virus.

About the University of Southampton

The University of Southampton is one of the UK’s leading research universities, offering first-rate opportunities and facilities for study and research across a wide range of subjects in health, humanities, science and engineering. The University, which has over 22,000 students, 5000 staff, and an annual turnover in the region of £350 million, is one of the country’s top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine, and home to a range of world-leading research centres. These include the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies.

About the Medical Research Council (MRC)

The Medical Research Council supports the best scientific research to improve human health. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health medicine and has led to pioneering discoveries in our understanding of the human body and the diseases which affect us all. Visit the MRC homepage.

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