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Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Expanding the cancer toolkit to tackle acute leukemia

Treatment for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), one of the most aggressive forms of leukemia, involves chemotherapy drugs that many patients find difficult to tolerate and long-term survival is low. New treatments are desperately needed.

Dr. Keith Humphries and his program project team based at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, BC are developing cell models of leukemia that could drastically change how leukemia research is conducted, and will use the latest genetic tools to search for targets for new therapies.

“Leukemia can arise from many different genetic mutations. Developing drugs to target each particular mutation would be challenging and take a long time to accomplish,” says the senior researcher at the BC Cancer Agency leading the Terry Fox New Frontiers Program in Core Pathogenic Pathways in Human Leukemia.

The program’s goal is to find the common pathways that all leukemias go through, regardless of the genetic mutation. These common pathways would then be the focus for creating new therapies. But the team must first tackle another problem: researchers studying leukemia cells in the lab are often limited by the number of patient samples available. To address this problem, the team will build on their program’s previous work.

One of the longest-running research programs funded by The Terry Fox Foundation, previous stages of the program created the genetic tools to modify normal blood-forming stem cells so that they mimic leukemia cells. The latest stage of the program started in 2012 and takes that work one step further, using those tools to create reproducible models of different types of leukemia. Researchers will be able to analyze large numbers of cells directly and repeatedly without having to rely on patient samples.

Dr. Humphries says: “To do research, you need a toolkit. You need ways to do things. The work we’re doing, the ability to create reproducible leukemia models from normal blood cells, is part of expanding that toolkit” He hopes these cell models will help his group get closer to their long-term goal of creating less toxic and more effective treatment(s) for acute leukemia.

Dr. Humphries credits Terry Fox funding for making his research program possible. “The Terry Fox programs allow for the sustained funding of multiple senior investigators and that allows you to really build momentum. There are very few mechanisms to fund teams of this sort. When you build strong teams, good things happen and the Terry Fox program projects are fuelling something very important.”

Project Title: The Terry Fox New Frontiers Program in Core Pathogenic Pathways in Human Leukemia

Duration: 1999-2017

Project lead: Dr. Keith Humphries (BC Cancer Agency/UBC)

Investigators: Connie J. Eaves (BC Cancer Agency/UBC), Aly Karsan (Genome Sciences Centre/UBC), Andrew Weng (BC Cancer Agency/UBC), Martin Hirst (Genome Sciences Centre/BC Cancer Agency/UBC)

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