Research breakthrough could lead to better treatments for blood cancer patients

Posted 7th November 2022

Dr Andy Pettitt

New research into blood cancer involving Clatterbridge patients has pinpointed important differences in the most common type of leukaemia which could lead to better, more personalised treatments.

The study has found a new way of classifying patients with different types of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), so effective therapies tailored to their specific cancer can be given.

Prof Andy Pettitt, Consultant Haemato-oncologist at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, led two of the national clinical trials used for the Oxford University-led research, which has now been published in the journal Nature Genetics.

Prof Pettitt, pictured, said: “The study findings are important to patients as CLL is one of the most common types of blood cancer and behaves very differently in individual patients in terms of how quickly it grows, how well it responds to treatment and to what extent it becomes more aggressive over time.

“This new study shows that the behaviour of CLL can be predicted much better by looking at all the genetic changes in the disease rather than just some of them, and it is hoped that whole genome sequencing will become routinely available and give patients and doctors more information to help with treatment decisions.”

The study, part of the UK’s 100,000 Genomes Project, was the first to analyse all the relevant changes in DNA across the entire cancer genome, rather than targeted regions, to classify patients with CLL and link these subgroups to clinical outcomes. It is hoped targeted therapies to patients in these subgroups can be more effective and have fewer side-effects.

The research could have positive implications for treatment of other types of cancer if patient genome analysis becomes routine in the UK.

Prof Pettit, who also works at the University of Liverpool, said: “This pivotal study is a paradigm for what can be achieved through a nationally coordinated approach to collaborative working that allows the application of cutting-edge science to a large number of high-quality samples obtained from uniform, well-defined patient cohorts and linked to high-quality clinical outcome data.”

Samples used in the study – involving researchers across the UK and 485 patients, including some from Clatterbridge – were housed at the UK CLL Biobank in Liverpool, funded by Blood Cancer UK and founded by Prof Pettitt.

He said: “The biobank, which currently contains samples from more 2,400 patients attending more 100 hospitals across the UK, played an absolutely central role in the study as a source of patient samples.”

Professor Anna Schuh, from the University of Oxford, who led the study, said: “We know that cancer is fundamentally a disease caused by changes in DNA that are acquired over the lifetime of an individual. The lab tools we currently use to predict whether or not a patient is likely to respond to a given therapy usually focus on single abnormalities in the cancer DNA and do not accurately predict the patient’s clinical outcome. This is why we asked the simple question: can we increase the precision of current testing by looking at all the acquired DNA changes in cancer at once?”

Prof Sir Mark Caulfield, Vice Principal for Health for Queen Mary University of London and lead of the 100,000 Genomes Project at Genomics England, added: “Our work shows that the entire genome is superior in classifying patients into groups compared to the conventional targeted approaches and that we can predict response to treatment more precisely and in more patients.”