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Cardiff scientists develop new understanding of common blood cancer

19 Gorffennaf 2008

Dr Chris Pepper

A team of scientists from the School of Medicine has identified a key protein in the blood that prevents chemotherapy killing leukaemia cells.

It is believed the new research is another step forward in the School’s ongoing exploration of better treatments for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, the most common form of leukaemia in the Western world.

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia is an incurable and slowly progressing blood cancer, characterised by a build up of malignant cells in the patient’s blood.

Funded by leading blood cancer charity Leukaemia Research, the research is being led by Dr Chris Pepper, Research Scientist in the Department of Haematology.

Dr Pepper explains: "The relentless accumulation of malignant cells is caused, at least in part, by the inability of the leukaemia cells to die naturally. We believe a group of proteins in the blood collectively known as the Bcl-2 family help leukaemia cells resist the normal cell death mechanisms."

Dr Pepper’s team has been investigating exactly how the Bcl-2 family of proteins protect the leukaemia cells from dying after chemotherapy. Dr Pepper explains: "We undertook the largest study of these proteins ever carried out. We showed that one member of this protein family, Mcl-1, plays a very important role in the progression of the disease. In short, we found that leukaemia patients with lots of the Mcl-1 protein in their blood had a much shorter lifespan than those without it."

"Our work demonstrates that the Mcl-1 protein is key to the resistance of leukaemia cells to conventional chemotherapy drugs. Now we know this, we are developing treatments that can specifically single out this protein and stop it keeping leukaemia cells alive. We hope to use this new knowledge to directly help patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia live as long and as normal a life as possible."

Leukaemia Research currently has over £700,000 invested in research into blood cancers in Cardiff University.

Dr David Grant, Scientific Director of Leukaemia Research, says: "Cardiff University is one of the leading centres for research into this form of leukaemia. The response to treatment with chemotherapy is very variable. It is crucial to identify those patients who have a poor prognosis at an early stage so that they can be offered treatment that can overcome resistance to conventional anti-cancer drugs. This research is an important step in this direction. "

The article is published in the journal Blood in the July 2008 edition.