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The new 7-year research collaboration with Janssen Research & Development, LLC (Janssen) will study patients at higher risk of developing certain types of blood cancers that arise from the immune system, such as chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and multiple myeloma, to identify markers that could be used to predict who will go on to develop symptomatic disease.

Blood cells

The programme, led by Professor Anna Schuh at Oxford, will recruit 1650 participants from across the UK with abnormal immune tests who are otherwise completely healthy. Researchers will examine blood and bone marrow samples and perform scans on the patients to study genetic and immune markers, and track patients over the lifetime of the programme to identify those who go on to develop leukaemia or myeloma.

 About 10% of people over 70 years old will have a “pre-malignant” change in their immune system. However, of these, only 1% per year will go onto develop cancer that requires treatment. By studying these conditions in more detail, the research alliance aims to identify the specific make-up in the DNA and the immune system of people who go on to develop cancer.

 Studying this group will help to find new ways to find and treat blood cancer sooner, whilst also knowing which people do not need to be followed-up in specialist cancer centres.

 Prof Anna Schuh said:

“Together, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and myeloma are the most common blood cancers found in adults, and they become more common as people get older. Currently, many patients diagnosed with these conditions remain well and are initially managed by active surveillance as early treatment with conventional chemotherapy has not shown to be of benefit and can have unwanted side-effects.

 In the last few years, we have witnessed a transformation in treatments for these diseases. Very often we no longer give chemotherapy but other agents that specifically target the cancer cells and that are usually much better tolerated than chemotherapy. These have led to very significant improvements in survival.

 However, CLL and myeloma remain essentially incurable as the cancer cells ultimately evade treatment. It is therefore time for a paradigm shift and to consider treating these cancers earlier, when they have not had time to evolve. In order to do this effectively, we need to make sure that we can confidently distinguish patients who will develop symptomatic disease from those who will not, ideally by using simple blood tests. This programme is about advancing such an approach.”

 Professor Mark Middleton, Co-Director of the CRUK Oxford Centre said “we are delighted that Oxford is forming a long-term collaboration with Janssen to support early detection research for blood cancer. We believe that the study of high risk patient groups has the potential to provide insights which will support much earlier diagnosis and appropriate treatment for many patients. This collaboration forms part of our on-going strategy to support early detection and intervention research building on Oxford’s world leading expertise in both fundamental biology, and clinical experimental medicine expertise.

Leukaemia Care said “Many patients on active surveillance, or Watch and Wait, face significant uncertainty about when, or if, they will require treatment. This leads to around half of patients feeling more depressed or anxious following diagnosis, despite the fact that many will be relatively well. This new research has the potential to give greater clarity about a patients disease progression, which could prevent a large numbers of patients watching and worrying unnecessarily”.