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Scientists team up with York Hospital to study DNA mutations behind blood cancers

Posted on 23 May 2024

Scientists from the University of York are working with doctors and patients at York Hospital to understand the DNA mutations linked to a group of chronic blood cancers, and investigate why, in some cases, they can suddenly become more aggressive.

Dr Katherine Bridge. Image credit: University of York

The researchers, from the newly formed Centre for Blood Research at the University of York, are recruiting participants from York Hospital with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), a group of blood cancers characterised by the overproduction of red blood cells and/or platelets.

There are around 4,000 cases of MPNs in the UK each year and they most commonly affect people over 60. Often, they remain stable and progress slowly, which means people can live with them for a long time without being very unwell. 

However, in a few rare cases, they can transform into more aggressive cancers which need urgent treatment, such as acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), where faulty myeloid cells – which include red blood cells and platelets – build up in the body and stop the blood and immune system from functioning normally.

Valuable insights

Dr Katherine Bridge, from the Department of Biology and Centre for Blood Research at the University of York, said: “We want to better understand the DNA mutations that cause these cancers, and to see whether there are additional factors that cause them to suddenly transform and become more aggressive.

“MPNs behave like the early stages of other blood cancers, offering valuable insights into their progression. Often, these crucial initial stages occur too quickly in other cancers for us to be able to track them effectively. By focusing on MPNs, we have a unique opportunity to scrutinise these early events, potentially uncovering strategies to halt the advancement of more aggressive malignancies." 

All female team

Patients with MPNs who consent to taking part in the research will donate extra blood samples for the scientists to analyse. Patients can ask questions and decide whether or not to take part at any face-to-face clinical appointment at York Hospital. 

The research is funded by the cancer charities the Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund and Cancer Research UK and a UKRI Medical Research Council Impact Acceleration Award to University of York. The study has been set up by an all female team: Dr Katherine Bridge, Dr Alyssa Cull and Dr Alexandra Smith from the University of York, and Dr Kate Foley and Dr Annika Whittle from York Hospital. 

Consultant Haematologist at York Hospital, Dr Kate Foley, said: “It is very exciting to be working with Dr Bridge and her team on this project which will give our patients with MPNs the opportunity to participate in cutting edge research here in York.  Developing this link with the new Centre for Blood Research has given us a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with scientists working to improve the lives of patients with blood cancers."

Power of collaboration

Lydia Harris, Head of Research and Development at York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, added: “We are delighted to be supporting Dr Bridge and the Centre for Blood Research with this important area of research. It is a fantastic way for our patients and our staff to contribute towards the fight against blood cancer and demonstrates the strong power of collaboration between our Trust and the University of York”

By furthering understanding of blood cancers, which together are the fifth most common form of cancer and the third largest cause of cancer death in the UK, the researchers hope to pave the way for kinder and more effective treatments. 

Currently, a common treatment for blood cancer is stem cell transplant where the patient's own stem cells are destroyed by chemotherapy before being replaced with transplanted cells. 

Side effects

“While stem cell transplant can be used to treat blood cancers, there are many side effects for patients which mean it is often not suitable for older people or those with additional health conditions”, Dr Bridge said. 

“The majority of us know someone who has been affected by cancer and have witnessed the impact of going through cancer treatment. My key motivator is using advances in biology and biotechnology to create kinder and smarter therapies for patients. 

“We are in a better position for treating cancer than ever before, but there is much more work to be done to reduce the suffering adults and children go through while receiving treatment.”


Further information:

Over 40,000 people of all ages, from children to adults, are diagnosed with blood cancers and related disorders every year in the UK. It is a complex disease area made up of over 100 individual diseases.  Some affect thousands of people, such as common forms of leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.  Others affect only a handful.

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