Blood Cancer Research in Sussex


It’s the last day of September and so it means it’s the last day of blood cancer awareness month, but just because the month is finished does not mean that blood cancer should be forgotten about (obviously). I don’t think that’s going to happen, not only because someone sadly receives a blood cancer diagnosis every 20 minutes, but also because every day there are hundreds of scientists studying this disease and they are making headway. In fact I found out that right here in Sussex there is a team of very clever people doing just that. Professor Michelle West works at The University of Sussex, she leads a team of biochemists and cell biologists, who are studying a particular type of blood cancer, as she explains:

“We work on a virus called the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) and that’s the one that’s responsible for causing the type of blood cancer called lymphoma. What it does is it infects a particular type of white blood cell called the B-cell and it changes them from ones that would only live 2-3 weeks, their normal life span, into cells that can grow indefinitely. That’s a key feature of what cancer cells do, they don’t die, they keep growing and growing which is what causes a tumour. We’re trying to understand exactly what the EBV does when it infects those cells, how does it change them and how does it make them grow indefinitely. By understanding these details we can hopefully work out how lymphoma develops and it gives us opportunities to try and stop the lymphoma cells from growing.”

As someone who is very unsciencey (yes that’s a word!) I also got Michelle to explain a bit more about cells – this is what I now understand. In our cells there is a balance between growth and death, so we have genes that make our cells grow and genes that, if they sense something has gone wrong and it cannot be fixed, these genes will make the cells die, so suicide genes.

Cancer cells stop the suicide genes from working and so the unhealthy cells (cancer cells) are not switched off and cannot die, which is bad for the body…MINDBLOWN!!

Michelle’s research is going well and in fact they recently made an exciting discovery, again she explained in nice simple terms:

“We’ve discovered the way in which the EBV switches on the gene that promotes growth and the way in which it switches off the gene that would normally make the cells die. We’ve discovered the virus actually hijacks special control regions that enable genes to be switched on and off. These control regions, called enhancers, are found in DNA that is long way a way from the gene that they control. We’ve also found the factors in the b-cell that the virus uses to do it and these are factors that you can target with drugs, so it’s possible that in the right circumstances we might be able to reverse these changes, which is obviously good news.”

Michelle has been studying blood cancer for a number of years. She is 4 years into this research project, which has been funded by Bloodwise, and there is still another two years left. Michelle is hoping they can continue to make the same incredible headway and is now looking forward to the next stages and how that might change treatment.

It seems that over the last decade treatment has come on in leaps and bounds. Speaking to Andy for my earlier blog I learnt how new drugs are being brought onto the market the whole time. This means fewer people are having to risk a bone marrow transplants as they can take medicine to keep the cancer at bay. Professor West agrees:

“Treatments have improved enormously, what’s exciting is that researchers like me are making big difference in what treatment people get now. In the past there was always a big gap between the research and the new drug, but now we have a whole new generation of drugs that have been discovered because of research like mine.”

I guess it really does go to show how important it is that we continue to fundraise for charities. The money people raise for them really is making a big difference and although we may still be a long way from a cure the progress is still incredible.

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