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Our impact on leukaemia and lymphoma

Leukaemia progress 240pxWe're fighting over 200 cancers, leukaemia and lymphoma are in our sights. Every single pound donated helps fund our groundbreaking research, bringing closer the day when all cancers will be cured.

Thanks to research, survival from leukaemia and lymphoma has improved dramatically in recent years. The figures speak for themselves – compared to the 1970s, twice as many people today survive non-Hodgkin lymphoma for at least 10 years, and people with leukaemia are four times as likely to survive. And four out of five people can now expect to survive Hodgkin's lymphoma for 10 years or more, compared to fewer than half of patients in the 1970s.

Our work has played a vital part in the impressive progress that’s been made in diagnosis and treatment for kids and adults with leukaemia or lymphoma. We revealed many of the gene changes that fuel the development and growth of blood cancers, developed some of the first important drugs for these diseases, and pioneered treatment with radiotherapy.

Today, our scientists around the UK continue their groundbreaking research into leukaemia and lymphoma, working towards a day when these cancers are cured.

Our researchers are heroes. Find out how your donation could support their pioneering, life-saving work.

Here are just a few examples of the progress we’ve made over the years:

Understanding the causes

Burkitt’s lymphoma is a fast-growing cancer that mainly affects children and young people. We helped to fund research showing that Burkitt’s lymphoma may be due to an infectious agent. And we supported the work of Epstein and Barr that led to the discovery of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) in 1964, which causes the disease.1

This was the first time a virus had been shown to cause cancer, and opened up a whole new field of research. The discovery paved the way for a huge amount of research by Cancer Research UK scientists and others which continues to this day, developing more effective treatments for the disease.

Furthermore, we were the first to discover that the children of women who had frequently been given X-rays during pregnancy were more likely to develop lymphoma or leukaemia. As a result, X-rays are now limited during pregnancy, to help protect children from these diseases.2

Improving diagnosis

In the 1970s our scientists carried out landmark studies showing that there are many different types of leukaemia. This groundbreaking work improved the way that leukaemia is diagnosed and treated, helping doctors to choose the best treatment for people with the disease.3

Since then our researchers have gone on to describe many of the genetic faults that are responsible for fuelling the growth of leukaemia and lymphoma. This knowledge is helping to distinguish different types of leukaemia and lymphoma, helping doctors to choose the best treatment for each patient.4

Also in the 1970s, our researchers pioneered the use of CT scanning to identify the stage of a patient’s cancer. Researchers in Manchester published a major study of CT scanning in lymphoma, helping doctors to choose the best course of treatment for each patient.5

Lifesaving treatments

Our researchers have been working on lifesaving radiotherapy for lymphoma since the 1920s and improving chemotherapy since the 1950s. Their work has played a key part in the big rises in survival.

For example, just six in a hundred patients survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the 1940s6 compared to 80 out of a hundred today. This incredible progress is due to advances in radiotherapy technology, as well as more effective combinations of anticancer drugs.

As far back as the 1950s, our researchers developed three important early cancer drugs – chlorambucil, melphalan and busulphan and showed that they were effective treatments for some types of leukaemia and lymphoma. These drugs are still used today.7

From the 1960s onwards, we funded vital research at St Barts Hospital that changed the face of treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). The team at the Medical Oncology Unit pioneered a combination of the two drugs cytarabine(Ara-C) and daunorubicin for treating AML8 – a treatment that is still used widely today. The Barts team went on to run further studies helping to improve and refine treatment for the disease.9

In the 1970s we made a major breakthrough in the treatment of Hodgkin's lymphoma. The four-drug treatment, known as MVPP, was used extensively in the UK for many years and helped to improve survival.19

In the 1980s, our scientists carried out a number of crucial studies that helped other researchers to pinpoint the genetic fault involved in most cases of chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML).10 Together, their work underpinned the development of Glivec – a drug that has transformed survival rates for people with CML. We also funded research showing that Glivec could help 8 out of ten people with a rare gut cancer known as GIST.11

We funded the largest ever trial of intensive chemotherapy for Burkitt’s lymphoma, showing that up to seven out of ten patients could be successfully treated.12 And our scientists invented a completely new way to use tiny magnetic beads to “clean” leukaemia cells from patients’ bone marrow, improving their response to chemotherapy and boosting the chances of survival.13

Pioneering stem cell transplants

Our work on understanding stem cells in the bone marrow and blood has shaped the use of stem cell transplants for treating blood cancers. This approach now saves the lives of many patients in the UK and around the world.

In the 1990s, our scientists carried out crucial research underpinning the success of stem cell transplantation for treating blood cancers. They showed that a substance called GCSF could enhance stem cells in the blood, making them as good as bone marrow stem cells for use in transplants.14

This advance made it feasible to carry out transplants using a relatively small amount of the patient’s own blood without the need for a general anaesthetic. It has also allowed the use of more intensive chemotherapy - which would otherwise have not been possible - giving doctors the best chance of successfully treating the disease.

Beating childhood blood cancers

Our pioneering research into childhood leukaemia and lymphoma has benefited thousands of children.

In the 1970s and 1980s Cancer Research UK was involved in a number of key UK trials that have shaped how children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) are treated today. This includes a pivotal trial that led to the largest increase in survival in childhood ALL in the UK to date.15 And our scientists were part of international efforts to improve treatment for children with B cell lymphoma.16 

In the 1970s, children with Hodgkin lymphoma had poor chances of survival. But in the 1980s, our researchers led clinical trials that helped shape today’s treatments. Today more than nine out of ten children are cured.17 And in the 1980s our scientists developed a vaccine to prevent children being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma from developing chicken pox, which at the time could be lethal in these patients.18 

Today, we continue to carry out world-class research into leukaemia and lymphoma, working to understand the biology that underpins these diseases, and find ever more effective ways to beat them.

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Updated: 19 January 2011