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Detecting blood cancers earlier than ever before

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

13 September 2018

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A new international Accelerator Award is funding researchers from the UK, Spain and Italy to improve early detection and intervention of haematological malignancies. The team is working together to develop disease models and produce data for studying blood cancers at an earlier stage. We talked to the lead investigator, Professor Jesus San Miguel – the Director of Clinical and Translational Medicine and Vice-Dean of the Medical Faculty at the University of Navarra – to learn about how they are combining their expertise to accelerate early detection for blood cancers. 

Why blood cancers?

Haematological malignancies have been at the forefront of new therapeutics for many years, but when it comes to their early detection, research is lagging behind. This project focuses on three common haematological malignancies: myelodysplastic syndromes and acute myeloid leukaemia; monoclonal gammopathies; and follicular lymphoma. They share stages of progression, meaning that the team can develop integrative models of how they evolve from a pre-malignant stage to malignant disease. The models can then be used by researchers world-wide to pick up the pace of developing new treatments for blood cancers.

Meet the team

The consortium consists of groups from the UK, Italy and Spain, which were independently studying the early stages of haematological cancers and came together to apply for the Accelerator Award. Their complementary skills are just what’s needed to deliver on this ambitious project.

“The UK group is led by Professor Jude Fitzgibbon, who’s the expert in the evolution of follicular lymphoma,” explains Jesus. “But there are also people in Spain and Italy working in the same area. Under the leadership of the UK group, they will bring together their experience in areas including cell separation and bioinformatics.”

Jesus and his lab in Spain are leading on the multiple myeloma aspects, with the help of the UK and Italian groups, while Professor Mario Cazzolin and his team in Italy will be leading on the myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloid leukaemia arm.

Advancing early detection of blood cancers

“Only a small fraction of adult patients with blood cancers are cured,” says Jesus. “We think it’s because we typically only treat patients once full blood cancer has developed. But the best opportunity to eradicate the disease is early detection.”

The main goal of the project is to develop tools that can detect, purify and characterise the transformed cells at the premalignant and minimal residual disease stages.

We know already that some of the malignant cells in blood cancer are already present in healthy individuals – so we want to isolate these cells and learn what are the commonalities and differences between these early malignant cells and the malignant cause.Professor Jesus San Miguel

They aim to define new biomarkers of early transformation, understand more about the immune system, and create human-like mouse models for both stages of cancer progression.

Researchers will then be able to access all the data through novel bioinformatic tools, which will facilitate further studies into new interventions for haematological malignancies.

“We hope that by the end of the award,” says Jesus, “we will have generated international guidelines such as for early intervention programs and created an international working group focusing on this area that will change the paradigm of treating haematological malignancies.”

Advice to future applicants: Provide for the future

“Applying for the Accelerator Award was a learning process,” says Jesus. “It isn’t a typical scientific project where you have aims that you are trying to get results from as soon as possible.”

The Accelerator Award is to develop tools and resources that will enable the scientific community to develop new solutions. It was only when I realised this that I truly understood what the award was looking for.

“You can’t just think about yourself and your team. You have to think about the future of other groups – how they will need new tools and how you can provide them.”