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New research will target earliest stages of bone marrow cancer

A new programme, funded by Cancer Research UK and led by BHP founder-member the University of Birmingham, has set out to attempt to eradicate a major and incurable bone marrow cancer.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers will investigate the underpinning biology of the very early stages myeloma, a cancer that develops from plasma cells – a type of white blood cell – made in the bone marrow. This is game changing research because the early stage, called MGUS, is common and only an unpredictable minority of cases go on to develop the killer disease of myeloma.

MGUS patients have non-cancerous expansion of immune cells in their bone marrow. In most patients this will be stable for many years and will never cause significant harm. The problem is that, in some patients, the cells will become more aggressive and cause full-blown cancer.

For decades it has not been possible to sufficiently tell these two types of patients apart. Until now this challenge has been considered insurmountable resulting in all cases of myeloma being diagnosed very late. However, thanks to the funding by Cancer Research UK it is time to make a change. Using biological and bioinformatic research the team aim to devise ways of accurately predicting which patients with MGUS are truly at risk of developing life threatening myeloma and those that will not.

With the help of experts in the economic challenges faced by health providers such as the NHS the team will then will design the best possible screening strategies to detect the disease and the quickest possible route to clinical trials of ways to prevent myeloma occurring.

Lead researcher Chris Bunce is Professor of Translational Cancer Biology, in the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham. He said: “Despite decades of academic and pharmaceutical company research, costing eye watering amounts of money and human endeavour, a cure for myeloma remains elusive.

“All myeloma cases, however, arise from an easily diagnosed pre-condition that remains virtually ignored by researchers. This funding from Cancer Research UK reverses that stance and turns the focus onto the very early stages of myeloma with a view to stopping the disease in its tracks.”

The research aims to provide a deeper understanding of how specific chemicals in the blood change as patients transition from MGUS towards developing myeloma. These changes – first identified by researchers at the University of Birmingham – could help distinguish ‘high risk’ MGUS from ‘low risk’ MGUS, as well as helping to identify potential drug targets for treatment.

Mark Drayson, Professor of Clinical Immunodiagnostics in the University’s Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy, and co-lead research for the project, said: “By bringing together different approaches and expertise we aim to overcome the existing barriers to developing an effective test for stratifying risk of progression from MGUS to myeloma that is recognised as both affordable and effective.”

Dr Marianne Baker, Science Engagement Manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “To beat cancers that are often diagnosed late, like myeloma, we need to understand the earliest stages of its development – the underlying biology of the disease. This is a historically underfunded area, so we’re excited to see what the project brings; the more our researchers discover, the less room cancer has to manoeuvre. It’s vital we translate results into innovations, like tests that can predict risk, and give treatment the best chance of success.”

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