Blood cancer

Our vision is to improve the chances of survival for people with blood cancers, enabling them to live healthier for longer.

We are working…

Blood cancers are caused by uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the blood and immune systems.

1 in 10 people diagnosed with cancer each year in Australia will have blood cancer.

Blood cancer is the third biggest cause of cancer death, more than breast or skin cancers.

There are three common types of blood cancer.

Blood cancers can grow very fast and cause life-threatening illness by crowding out essential blood cells and preventing the development of healthy, mature immune cells to fight infection.

Other blood cancers grow more slowly, but cause harm by damaging the immune system and other parts of the body. Some blood cancers are curable with existing treatments, but many are not.

We are exploring how some types of leukaemia survive chemotherapy.

One of the significant barriers to successfully treating people with leukaemia is that some cancer cells can ‘escape’ being killed by cancer drugs. This can mean patients relapse and, in general, have poorer outcomes.

The popular theory was that treatment-resistant leukaemia cells were able to hide deep in the bone marrow, where they were untouched by chemotherapy drugs.

However, our research with collaborators at London’s Imperial College has overturned this theory, using a revolutionary high-resolution imaging technology, a type of ‘microscopic CCTV’.

Associate Professor Edwin Hawkins said the team found that while chemotherapy was able to eliminate the majority of leukaemia cells, a few remaining treatment-resistant cells were doing the exact opposite of ‘hiding’ in order to survive.

“We realised that instead of playing ‘hide-and-seek’ with the chemotherapy, the treatment-resistant leukaemia cells were in a ‘catch-me-if–you-can’ game of ‘tag’.”

– Associate Professor Edwin Hawkins

"Our new technique allowed us to watch the cancer cells in action for days. Right before our eyes, the leukaemia cells were sprinting off in all directions: dividing, jumping in and out of blood vessels and using such ‘highways’ to migrate and recolonise.”

We now know that to successfully treat or cure leukaemia, we must focus on developing a treatment that targets the leukaemia cells’ ability to ‘run’ around the body, so we can stop them in their tracks.

Together we are helping people live healthier for longer.

We explore how healthy blood cells grow and what goes wrong to cause blood cancers to develop.

Dr Ian Majewski is studying genetic faults linked to childhood leukaemia

Without this knowledge we can’t develop new treatments. Our researchers scrutinise thousands of genes for faults that give us clues about how blood cancers begin, what makes them grow and spread, and how they change and evolve over time.

We investigate, trial and test ways to kill or halt the growth of blood cancers.

Dr Gemma Kelly is researching anti-cancer agents for their ability to kill lymphoma cells

Using specialised techniques, we manipulate potential ‘treatment targets’ within cancer cells to learn how we can impact cancer survival. We do this both in the laboratory and in preclinical models.

Our researchers trial new anti-cancer agents on their own and in combinations, using our knowledge and expertise to help guide future human trials.

We discover potential new treatments using advanced technologies and expertise.

(L-R) Professors David Huang, Guillaume Lessene, Peter Czabotar and Andrew Roberts won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation for their role in the discovery of anti-cancer drugs

We don’t stop once we have made fundamental laboratory discoveries about how to stop blood cancer cells.

Our teams of experts at WEHI use structural biology and to create detailed 3D blueprints of disease-causing molecules. These help them to design, create and test new potential drugs, taking discoveries from the bench to the bedside.

We advance our understanding by continuing to study new treatments in the lab.

Dr Gabriela Brumatti (right) has made a discovery about cancer drugs that will help to identify the patients who will best respond to treatment

Our researchers examine new and existing treatments. They study the genetics of patients’ cancers to personalise treatment options and uncover how blood cancers become resistant to therapies, so they can be used more effectively and have better outcomes.

We have more than 60 years of experience working together to discover and trial new treatments for blood cancers.

Our history includes transformative discoveries that have underpinned new medicines, changing and even saving millions of lives.

1971

Finding a crucial clue about leukaemia

WEHI researchers discover chronic lymphocytic leukaemia is a cancer of B cells. The discovery is a crucial piece of information for researchers worldwide who are studying this disease.

The revelation that there are two types of lymphocytes (a kind of white blood cell), called T cells and B cells, set the scene for this discovery. Fifty years later, leukaemia remains in our researchers’ spotlight.

1983

Discovery of a cancer-causing ‘mistake’ in the DNA of lymphoma cells

Our researchers are among the first in the world to discover that a type of blood cancer called Burkitt’s lymphoma is caused by a specific DNA rearrangement.

The rearrangement activates a known cancer-causing gene called MYC.

They show that mistakes made in the DNA by this rearrangement can trigger lymphoma by driving uncontrolled cell growth, leading to cancer.

1988

We identified a gene that stops cells from dying, creating a revolution in understanding and treating blood cancer

Normal cells can activate an inbuilt self-destruct mechanism when they are sick or not needed. This is essential for our overall health.

WEHI researchers discovered that, when this self-destruct system fails, it can lead to cancer. They discover a gene – called BCL-2 – that can build up and override cell death signals, letting cancer cells survive and multiply.

It is the spark for more than 30 years of work to understand cell death. It culminates in the discovery and development of anti-cancer drugs now used to treat people with some types of leukaemia, and in clinical trials for many more cancers.

1991

A new treatment is approved that helps people recover after chemotherapy

CSFs – colony stimulating factors – are approved for use in humans. It is the culmination of 25 years’ work at WEHI to discover and purify CSFs, and show how they can be used to help people who are sick.

CSFs stimulate the body to make infection-fighting white blood cells. They are now used to repopulate the immune system of people recovering after chemotherapy, to collect stem cells for bone marrow transplants, and to treat critically ill children with chronic neutropenia (lack of immune cells).

Since being approved for use, more than 20 million people have been treated with CSFs. It shows how the successful pursuit of fundamental discoveries about how the body works can have an incredible impact on people’s lives.

2016

A new class of anti-cancer drugs is approved for some types of leukaemia

Anti-cancer treatment venetoclax is approved in the US, Europe and Australia for people with certain forms of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

Venetoclax was discovered and developed by AbbVie and Genentech, a member of the Roche group, as part of a collaboration with WEHI.

The development of venetoclax was preceded by three decades of research into how the BCL-2 protein controls cell survival.

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