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York researcher awarded £1.2 million for new blood cancer research

Posted on 10 August 2017

A University of York scientist has been granted significant new funding from Cancer Research UK to carry out research into a specific kind of blood cancer.

Dr Ian Hitchcock, Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences in York’s Department of Biology, will investigate myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) - a group of blood cancers that cause the over-production of red blood cells and platelets.

There are over 3,000 new MPN cases diagnosed in the UK each year and the majority of these occur in older people.

Treating disease

Unfortunately, current treatments for MPNs focus more on reducing patients’ symptoms rather than treating the disease itself.

For example, patients with the MPN polycythameia vera often have blood taken on a regular basis. This process, known as phlebotomy or ‘blood-letting’, helps to thin the blood and reduce the risk of blood clots. But it does not treat the disease itself.

Using this new funding from Cancer Research UK, the largest ever awarded to the University of York and the North Yorkshire region, Dr Hitchcock wants to change this.

Underlying biology

He will study how mistakes in the JAK2 gene, which are found in many MPN cases, activate the cells in the bone marrow that produce red blood cells and platelets, promoting development of these diseases.

The aim is to use these new insights to develop targeted treatments for MPNs that treat the underlying biology of this group of cancers and so have the potential to halt disease development and progression.

Carried out over the next six years, Dr Hitchcock will work with researchers in York’s Department of Biology, in addition to collaborators based at the region’s largest hospitals in Leeds and Sheffield, medicinal chemists at Newcastle University, biophysicists at Osnabruck University in Germany and structural biologists from Stanford University, USA.

Targeted treatments

Dr Hitchcock said: “Right now there are a limited number of curative treatment options available to people with MPNs.

“With this funding from Cancer Research UK we hope to change this. We will use truly groundbreaking technologies to answer questions about MPNs which previously would have been impossible and use these answers to develop new, targeted treatments.

“This award is critical for our research at York. It will allow us to make key new findings in the field of blood cancers and hopefully help patients lead better lives and survive longer. It’s very exciting and I can’t wait to get going!”

Dr Áine McCarthy, Senior Science Information Officer at Cancer Research UK said: “Without understanding the fundamental biology of MPNs, progress in treating the disease can’t be made. Research like Dr Hitchcock’s will provide us with a much needed insight into MPNs and will underpin the development of new treatments in the future.”