Blood cancers are cancers derived from blood, bone marrow and immune cells and include leukaemias, lymphomas, myeloma, myelodysplastic syndrome and myleoproliferative disorders. They are often aggressive and potentially fatal malignancies which can affect people from childhood through to older age. Current standard treatments include chemotherapy and immune suppressive therapies which are associated with significant side effects and reduced quality of life for patients. Bone marrow transplantation can be curative, but is associated with potentially life threatening side effects including graft-versus-host disease and infection. All treatments can be complicated by a need for intensive medical support including blood product transfusion and in-hospital admission for administration of chemotherapy and complications including infection. More effective and safer treatments are needed to improve outcomes and quality of life for all patients with blood cancers.
Pioneering work in leukaemia and lymphoma produced ground-breaking and paradigm shifting treatment strategies which have transformed the way all cancers are treated. Understanding the genetic basis of chronic myeloid leukaemia resulted in design of targeted therapies, and now many patients worldwide benefit from targeted medications which are specifically designed to counteract specific genetic mutations causing cancer. Use of antibody treatments in lymphoma began the revolution of immunotherapy, where the immune system is recruited to destroy cancer cells, in much the same way it recognises and destroys foreign cells which cause infection. Immunotherapy has now evolved to include ‘living drugs’ or cell therapies, where a patient’s own immune cells are genetically modified to be cancer fighting. These therapies are not only lifesaving, but have radically changed our scientific understanding of ways that we can manipulate the immune system to treat cancer.
Effective translational research in blood cancer spans understanding of the genetic causes of cancer, the role of the immune system in cancer control and treatment, use of cell therapy for cancer treatment and for infectious complications of cancer treatment, and molecular biology of treatment resistant cancer. Additionally research into side effects of chemotherapy and immune therapy, including graft-versus-host disease occurring after bone marrow transplantation has uncovered better understanding of fundamental aspects of immune system function in health and disease. This dynamic and productive field of scientific research at QIMR Berghofer is complimented by a strong focus on translation of scientific findings into clinical medicine, with many clinician researchers at QIMR Berghofer having links to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Cancer Care Services.