Designing drugs to cut acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) at its roots

Current treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), such as chemotherapy, can sometimes lead to serious side effects and long-term health problems for children with cancer. Prof. Olaf Heidenreich and his team are investigating the genes that cause ALL drug resistance and whether ALL cells can be forced to self-destruct. This pioneering work will help with future drug design and the development of drug combinations that target leukaemia cells with minimal damage to healthy cells. We’re partnering with Cancer Research UK to co-fund this £1.4 million programme of research.

Project Details

  • Project Title

    Designing drugs to cut acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) at its roots

  • Lead Researcher

    Prof. Olaf Heidenreich

  • Research Centre

    Newcastle University and the Princess Maxima Centre for Paediatric Oncology

  • City & Institution Postcode

    Newcastle NE2 4HH & Utrecht 25, 3584 CS

  • Start Date

    1 January 2017

  • Duration

    60 months

  • Grant Amount

    £447,000 (This project is co-funded with Cancer Research UK. The total cost of the project is £1,465,606.97)

a researcher with a pipette Olaf Heidenreich 768x475

Overview

All our cells begin life as a stem cell. Stem cells can give rise to almost any cell around the body. As stem cells divide, they produce another copy of themselves, in addition to a specialist cell type such as a muscle or brain cell. In leukaemia, however, this process has gone wrong. Prof. Olaf Heidenreich, based at Newcastle University and the Princess Maxima Centre for Paediatric Oncology in Utrecht, leads a project formerly led by Prof. Josef Vormoor to study this process in acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

With the help of Prof. Vormoor, they have discovered that different faults can develop in stem cells depending on where they are located. This means that within one single person, there can be a whole host of slightly different leukaemia cells that respond differently to treatment. Prof. Heidenreich and his team are trying to identify the different genes involved in causing certain groups of cells to develop resistance to standard treatments.

The team is also investigating the ‘self-destruct’ mechanism. This mechanism is normally activated in cells in response to irreparable damage or old age, but in cancer cells is often switched off, allowing the cells to grow and multiply unchecked. Prof. Heidenreich is studying whether different combinations of drugs that can switch on this self-destruct mechanism could be used to destroy leukaemia cells while leaving the healthy cells unharmed. As part of this work, they are developing a novel drug delivery approach that uses nanoparticles to interrupt a cancer cell’s ability to repair its DNA, forcing it to switch on its self-destruct mechanism.

Potential impact

This pioneering work will help with future drug design and the development of drug combinations that target leukaemia cells with minimal damage to healthy cells. This is a particularly important research area as current treatments for ALL, such as chemotherapy, can sometimes lead to serious side effects and long-term health problems for children with cancer. This research could help to discover less toxic, more precise therapies to help more children and young people with cancer.

About the research team

This research project is led by Olaf Heidenreich, a Professor of Molecular Haematology at Newcastle University and a world-leading expert in the biology of leukaemia. Prof. Heidenreich has played a vital role in increasing our understanding of the origins of leukaemia and regularly contributes to international studies.

Prof. Heidenreich’s research group focuses on developing more effective and less toxic therapies for childhood ALL.

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