Newcastle University: Funding boost to research cancer in children

A Newcastle University scientist is to lead a ground-breaking study looking at the cells of children with cancer in the hope of designing new treatments to tackle the disease.

Christine Harrison, Professor of Childhood Cancer Cytogenetics, is one of a group of scientists awarded just short of £1m from the new Cancer Research UK–Children with Cancer UK Innovation Awards.

Co-funded by Cancer Research UK and Children with Cancer UK, the study will explore why chromosome duplication occurs in the cells of children with cancer, particularly acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) and medulloblastoma, and if it can be used to design new treatments and improve outcomes for young patients.


Newcastle is really well positioned for this kind of research as we have access to patient samples from the children’s hospital and a wealth of expertise at the university to support the work
Professor Christine Harrison

Treatment response
Most DNA in our cells is packaged into tiny structures called chromosomes. Our cells usually contain 46 chromosomes. When a cell has one or more extra or missing chromosomes, this is known as aneuploidy, and is often found in the cancer cells of children and young people with different types of cancer.

Aneuploidy happens in around 60% of children with ALL and its presence can be used to know whether a child will respond well to treatment.

Why aneuploidy occurs is not well understood, but Professor Christine Harrison and her team, including Professor Jonathan Higgins, who specialises in chromosome biology, and Professor Steve Clifford, who specialises in childhood brain tumour development, at Newcastle University Centre for Cancer, intend to explore it further using a range of exciting novel approaches.

In this study, they will look for what drives the formation of these aneuploidies, including genetic factors, to understand how they cause cancer in children and young people and, in turn, discover new, innovative ways to treat and possibly even prevent these types of cancer.

Professor Harrison said: “The results from this study have the potential to improve our understanding of cancer in a way that may eventually help scientists identify children at greater risk of developing aneuploidy, allowing for better monitoring of those individuals.

“They may also lead to us discovering new ways to treat these types of cancer and potentially prevent certain cancers from developing in the first place.”

Professor Harrison’s work has already changed the treatment children with ALL receive improving their survival, and this new study, which is the first of its kind, hopes to pave the way for better outcomes for children with cancer.

Professor Harrison said: “Newcastle is really well positioned for this kind of research as we have access to patient samples from the children’s hospital and a wealth of expertise at the university to support the work, such as that of Professor Higgins and Professor Clifford.

“But we are ever conscious of the enormous support of fundraisers that allow grants like this to be awarded permitting us to make these important steps.

“I’m constantly in awe of the dedication of supporters and the work they do in order for us to be able to carry out our research. This commitment motivates us and spurs us on to succeed.”

Research projects
This is one of five research projects across the UK to receive up to £1 million each from the Cancer Research UK–Children with Cancer UK Innovation Awards to delve into the biology of children’s and young people’s cancers, with the hope of finding new ways to prevent and treat these complex diseases.

Funding for these projects totals £4.3 million and signifies a much-needed boost for research into children’s and young people’s cancer, Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said.

Thanks in large part to the work of Cancer Research UK and Children with Cancer UK, more children and young people in the UK are surviving cancer than ever before.

But despite improvements in overall survival over the last 40 years, cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease in children and young people in the UK. Some of these cancers continue to have low survival rates and many who survive do so with serious long-term side effects.

Part of the issue is that cancer in children and young people is different to cancer in adults, from the types of cancer, to the impact of treatment and long-term side effects survivors often experience.

Researchers also still do not know enough about why children develop cancer in the first place, and their underlying biology is extremely complex.

The Cancer Research UK–Children with Cancer UK Innovation Awards will allow researchers to gain a better understanding of cancer in children, which they hope will lead to the development of better and less toxic treatments.

‘Commitment to change’
Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “We’ve listened to both parents and researchers and their concerns about lack of progress for children’s and young people’s cancers.

“That’s why we made a commitment to change this through our Cancer Research UK for Children & Young People research strategy.

“We are thrilled to be working with Children with Cancer UK in co-funding the Innovation Awards. This funding represents the dawning of a new age of investment into cancers that affect children and young people, and the awards are a key part of our research strategy.

“We hope this funding boost will build momentum in the field to improve our understanding of these types of cancer and ultimately lead to fewer children and young people losing their lives to this disease.”

Dr Nick Goulden, Trustee of Children with Cancer UK said: “We are delighted to be working together with Cancer Research UK to co-fund the Innovation Awards.

“Scientific research, largely funded by charities, has underpinned the massive improvement in survival for children and young people with cancer seen over the last 30 years.”

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