UK scientists hope they can learn to better predict leukaemia (blood cancer) occurrence, and develop improved drug screening pathways to treat the disease, with funding worth £12million.

Two projects – led by the University of Glasgow and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – will engineer novel science and research tools to focus on understanding and predicting leukaemia and developing drugs for improved healthcare. The funding is part of a wider £36.5 million investment in healthcare technology by EPSRC, which will transform the way patients are treated for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

Leukaemia is a disease that kills more than 300,000 people in the world every year. However, there remain challenges to early diagnosis, which in turn reduce the impact of treatments. While leukaemia is much more common in older people, there is now evidence that cells in our body develop changes that can lead to leukaemia or other cancers many years before they can be identified with current diagnostic techniques.

The first project will develop engineered models of leukaemia in the bone marrow, to understand leukaemia development because of age, as well as factors such as smoking, or as a side effect from chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment for other cancers in the body. The team will also develop new technologies to follow disease progression and help improve the cancer and drug screening processes.

The researchers will then use these models to look at how cancer cells from other cancers – such as breast and prostate cancer – can migrate to the bone marrow and lie dormant, sometimes for years. Eventually, these dormant cancer cells will reactivate and cause devastating secondary cancers, termed “metastasis” which is almost always fatal.

Currently, scientists know very little about what makes dormant cancer cells re-awaken. But by creating ambitious models of the bone marrow – which contain human cells and have the ability to mimic blood cell growth, cancer development and dormancy – the team hope to develop the materials and technologies to greatly accelerate the search for improved cancer therapies.

The second project aims to examine very early changes in leukaemia’s cellular state – the physical properties of the leukaemia cells such as their ability to change shape – to improve early detection of the cancer, by developing a predictive engineered test for the disease.

By using a novel type of research called mechanobiology, the scientists will probe very early changes in cellular state by combining advanced biomaterials, novel microscopy techniques and robotics. The team will use mechanical stimulation to examine the potential of normal cells to become cancer cells by using a laboratory-based model of the bone marrow.

The research team want to assess whether the technology can help predict whether leukaemia can be induced as an effect of chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment of other solid tumours; and also learn whether the technology can better predict the transformation of the stem cells in the bone marrow that make all of our blood cells, into leukaemia.

Professor Manuel Salmeron Sanchez, Chair of Biomedical Engineering, 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 1 in 2 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.”

The University of Glasgow team – who have been supported to success by a range of industry partners, and by Blood Cancer Research UK and Leukaemia Care – straddle multiple disciplines, including the College of Science and Engineering and the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences.

 The majority of the team are based at The ARC (the University of Glasgow’s new Mazumdar-Shaw Advanced Research Centre) a cutting-edge facility designed to co-locate diverse research teams in an innovative space in order to stimulate cross-disciplinary activities. The other collaborators on the projects include the University of Strathclyde, Liverpool University, Birmingham University and Imperial College London.