A longstanding Terry Fox-funded project on hard-to-treat leukemias has been renewed, and the new injection of funds – $6.3 million over five years – will help to further understand the differences between acute leukemia and normal blood stem cells to develop better therapies for patients.
Dr. Aly Karsan, based at BC Cancer and the University of British Columbia, is now leading the project. Understanding the biology of the most aggressive forms of leukemia is critical, he says, such as the changes in the DNA sequence that drive leukemias and epigenetic changes that affect tumour growth.
“This project renewal is comprised of two big things: one is that we’re spending a lot of effort trying to understand those epigenetic changes, and two is we’re trying to find therapies that will actually make a difference to patients,” he explains.
Despite advances in survival rates for some forms of the disease, prognosis remains poor for those with acute leukemias, which affect around 300 children and 1,600 adults a year in Canada. Current treatment plans involve intensive chemotherapy regimens and/or stem cell transplants that often compromise quality – and length – of life.
“There have been no real changes in treatment in the last three or four decades, which is a very long time,” Karsan says. “We want to be able to give patients better treatments with less toxicity. We have to try and kill the cancer cells but not the normal blood cells, which we need to come back – and with current treatments almost all those normal cells are killed.”
His team is currently investigating a potential therapy with the goal of bringing it to clinical trials in the near future. Other treatments are also being developed with the help of TFRI funding.
“The support of TFRI has been instrumental in some cutting-edge work already, and we hope we can continue to make breakthroughs,” says Dr. Karsan. “Most members of the team have been working together for a long time, it’s a very cohesive group - and we really appreciate the support of TFRI as we try to improve outcomes for those with acute leukemias.”