‘Game changing’ leukaemia treatment test unveiled

The first test to quickly and accurately predict how people will respond to standard treatment for the most common type of leukaemia has been developed by a researcher at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), run by the universities of Brighton and Sussex.

The technology could guide doctors’ decisions on which drugs to give to patients.

Experts say the test could now be a ‘game changer’ in the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). It also has the potential to change how other cancers, including myeloma and breast cancer, are treated. While previous versions of the test had taken a week to process, results can now be ready in a day.

The research, which was funded by the blood cancer research charity Bloodwise, is published the journal Leukemia.

CLL is a slowly developing blood cancer in which patients produce mutated versions of white blood cells that build up in the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes and crowd out healthy blood cells.

CLL progresses at different rates in different people and never progresses at all in a third of patients.  Until now there has been no accurate test that can be used to indicate whether and how fast individual patients’ cancer will develop.

The high-throughput ‘STELA’ test measures the length of sections of DNA in cancer cells called telomeres, which are found at the end of chromosomes. Telomeres act in the same way as protective plastic tips on the end of shoelaces, preventing chromosomes ends from ‘fraying’.

Professor Chris Pepper developed the test while at Cardiff University with Professors Duncan Baird and Chris Fegan.

Telomeres shorten every time a cell divides to create a new cell and eventually the chromosome ends are left exposed – leading to extensive DNA damage that speeds up cancer progression.

The researchers have shown that people who have very short telomeres when they are diagnosed are much more likely to have a fast-progressing cancer.

The improved STELA test was used to analyse samples from 260 patients to see if it could predict how patients would respond to intensive chemotherapy combined with immunotherapy.  The test showed that people with short telomeres relapsed much sooner after treatment than patients with long telomeres – on average 3.7 years after treatment compared to 5.5 years.

Patients with cancer cells containing mutations to the IGHV gene are known to have a better outcome than patients without this genetic mutation. The STELA test was found to be a more accurate predictor of relapse than testing for the IGHV mutation or any other current prognostic or predictive test.

Professor Chris Pepper, from BSMS, who developed the test while at Cardiff University with Professors Duncan Baird and Chris Fegan, said: ‘Our study shows that some patients have a very long duration of response to chemoimmunotherapy, and may even be cured. These patients all have long telomeres.  In contrast, patients with short telomeres invariably showed an inferior response and should be considered for alternative treatments.’

Professor Pepper has now been awarded nearly £300,000 by Bloodwise to lead research at BSMS finding new targeted drugs for treatment-resistant CLL.

Dr Alasdair Rankin, Director of Research at Bloodwise, said: ‘People with CLL can experience great anxiety and uncertainty about how their cancer will progress. This test could give people the peace of mind that they will receive the most effective treatment possible if it does. It may even allow some people to be told that their cancer is unlikely to progress.’