Leukaemia: Cardiff University breakthrough in disease treatment

Scientists helped to develop drugs which target the disease at a molecular level

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Scientists at Cardiff University say they have made a significant breakthrough in the treatment of the most common form of leukaemia.

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) affects 3,000 people in Wales and 20,000 in the UK.

A new drug has been developed that targets cancer cells, stopping them in their tracks before they have time to multiply and travel through the body.

Scientists said the disease would become less of a clinical problem.

A team at the institute of cancer and genetics at the University Hospital of Wales has been working on the project which has been led by Prof Chris Pepper, who has worked on the disease for 20 years.

Start Quote

I confidently predict that within 10 years certainly, and probably five years, this disease will become much less of a clinical problem”

End Quote Prof Chris Pepper Cardiff University

"These drugs will transform the outlook for patients, without a doubt," he said.

"They are massively going to change the landscape for individual sufferers of this disease.

"I confidently predict that within 10 years certainly, and probably five years, this disease will become much less of a clinical problem.

"And people like me won't be working on this disease much longer. These new agents are likely to completely alter the clinical path of this disease."

The team's research has focused on three main elements of CLL:

  • Understanding the basic biology of the disease - what makes the cancer cells survive and grow out of control.
  • Understanding what makes some patients have a particularly aggressive form of the disease, while other patients have a strain of the disease that doesn't require immediate treatment.
  • Using that knowledge to devise better treatment for patients with CLL.

That treatment has resulted in the development of a drug called Ibrutinib.

Cancer cells

It is already in advanced clinical trials in the UK and is expected to be licensed for use in Wales by the end of the year.

The drug targets cancer cells, stopping them in their tracks before they have time to multiply and travel throughout the body.

When the CLL cells circulate around the bloodstream, some of them burrow their way through the blood vessel wall and escape into the body's solid tissues, attaching themselves to the lymph nodes or bone marrow. That is when the cancer cells multiply and become a clinical problem.

Cardiff University's research has concluded that one particular molecule in the body - NF KappaB - plays a critical role in determining whether the tumour cells escape the blood vessel.

The drug Ibrutinib will target this molecule and get the cells to break free from the solid tissues and recirculation around the bloodstream.

Prof Pepper is confident that his team's research will change how CLL is treated in the coming years.

"I'm not suggesting that we're going to cure this disease or completely eradicate the leukaemia," he added.

"But what I'm telling you is that these drugs will effectively arrest the progression of the disease.

"So patients will be able to live with a normal age-adjusted life expectancy with their disease. That's something I could never have predicted even five years ago."

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