Blood cancer is an umbrella term for cancers that affect the cells of the blood or the organs where blood cells grow and develop, such as the bone marrow and the lymphatic system. It includes cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. Blood cancers make up approximately 10% of all cancers and are the fourth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in Ireland, with more than 1,500 people diagnosed and more than 450 people dying from blood cancers each year.
The Apoptosis Research Centre is home to world-leading blood cancer researchers, Professor Michael O’Dwyer and Dr Eva Szegezdi. Professor O’Dwyer is Director of the Blood Cancer Network Ireland, a collaborative network of clinicians, scientists, and population health experts with a shared interest in blood cancer research. Dr Szegezdi leads the Blood Cancer Biobank within this network.
Research over the last 10 years has shown that bone marrow tissue protects blood cancer cells from apoptosis, which is central to their survival. Professor O’Dwyer and Dr Szegezdi’s efforts are focused on overcoming the bone marrow-driven protection of blood cancer cells with the aim of developing new therapeutic approaches. Their collaborative research epitomises the modern ‘bench to bedside’ approach, bringing basic research discoveries and clinical observations right through to the patient in the form early-stage clinical trials.
Prior to joining the Apoptosis Research Centre, Michael O’Dwyer worked with Brian Druker at Oregon Health & Science University in the late 1990’s, and was involved in developing the first ever targeted cancer treatment, Gleevec. This treatment was hailed as the ‘magic bullet’ in the war against cancer and has transformed the treatment of chronic myeloid leukaemia and the direction of cancer research in general over the last decade.
Since 2015, with the support of Blood Cancer Network Ireland, Professor O’Dwyer and his colleagues are providing blood cancer patients in Ireland with the opportunity to be among the first in the world to test new, potentially life-changing, drugs and treatments. Patients in Galway are currently being recruited to two separate phase I trials using the Glycomimetics E-selectin inhibitor GMI-1271 to mobilise leukaemic and myeloma stem cells, respectively out of their protective environments in the bone marrow and make them more sensitive to chemotherapy.
An investigator initiated study, led by Professor O’Dwyer and funded by Janssen pharmaceuticals is exploring the combination of a cyclophosphamide containing induction regimen (CyBorD) with the CD38 monoclonal antibody Daratumumab in newly diagnosed transplant eligible patients with multiple myeloma.
Professor O’Dwyer was involved in an international clinical trial comparing the tyrosine kinase inhibitor, ibrutinib, with the chemotherapy drug, chlorambucil in older patients (>65 years) with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia or small lymphocytic lymphoma, who had not yet received any treatment.
This study showed that the more targeted treatment, ibrutinib, was more effective than chemotherapy in this group of patients, and resulted in better overall survival (Burger et al., N Eng J Med., 2015). This important study has led to a new standard of care in CLL.
Ongoing research at the Apoptosis Research Centre in the area of Blood Cancers includes:
Dr Eva Szegezdi’s group:
- Investigating the interaction between blood cancer cells and normal cells in their neighbourhood (“bone marrow microenvironment”)
Professor Michael O’Dwyer’s group:
- Translational research in blood cancers with an emphasis on Multiple Myeloma and Acute Myeloid Leukaemia
- Role of glycosylation in Multiple Myeloma
- Immuno-oncology, NK cell therapy, Drug Development