12 June 2023

Some £12 million is to be invested in two bioengineering projects aimed at understanding the causes of leukaemia and improving drug screening, it was announced last week.

The projects at the University of Glasgow will seek to build models of the blood cancer to improve understanding of the disease. This funding is being backed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The first Glasgow project will engineer models of leukaemia in bone marrow, and use these to study how the disease develops with age, and the influence of factors such as smoking or treatments for other cancers. They will use this to model disease progression, with a view to improving screening of drugs.

The researchers will also use the bone marrow models to study metastasis of solid cancers. The researchers promise “ambitious” models of bone marrow, using human cells, and mimicking blood cell growth and cancer development and dormancy.

A second project will examine early changes in the cellular state of disease cells, in a novel type of research called mechanobiology. The project will combine advanced biomaterials, novel microscopy, and robotics.

The researchers hope to get insights into the transformation of stem cells into leukaemia, which could eventually lead to predictive tests for the disease.

The chair of biomedical engineering at Glasgow, Professor Manuel Salmeron Sanchez, said: “As we live for longer, our blood stem cells change in order to allow them to continue to grow. These age related changes can lead to the development of cancers such as leukaemia. Currently, we can’t predict if these age-related changes are a concern or not and so we miss the opportunity to advise on lifestyle changes and, indeed, to treat pre-disease/early disease. 

“A major problem is that we rely on non-human rodent models to understand disease progression and to identify new treatments. By developing new materials that mimic the bone marrow, where leukaemia develops, and using human cells within these models, we can focus on these earliest stages of the disease to provide new understanding, new screening methods and new drugs.”

Professor Mhairi Copland, professor of translational haematology at the University of Glasgow, said: “We live in an ageing society where one in two of us will get cancer during our lifetime. Solid tumours metastasis to bone marrow and the development of acute leukaemia in older people is usually fatal. Existing cancer drug development often doesn’t accurately predict new treatments which will be safe and effective in patients. Hence this research programme is a hugely welcome investment in leukaemia research.

“Furthermore, using the mechanical properties of blood cells to identify accelerated ageing and risk of leukaemia development is a major breakthrough with huge promise to enable preventive medicine strategies in the future, reducing health problems in the general population, allowing people to remain healthy for longer.”

Sarah McDonald, deputy director of research at Blood Cancer UK, said: “At Blood Cancer UK we’re pleased to have supported this research team and in this collaborative project they will look at ways of improving the detection and treatment of leukaemia - a form of blood cancer. Currently blood cancer is the UK’s third biggest cancer killer but with research like this, we will beat it within a generation.”

Source: University of Glasgow


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