In 2007, the readers of Lifeline generously helped fund four research posts at the Institute of Child Health (ICH) to help find ways to better treat Leukaemia. Two years on we caught up with Jasper De Boer, who took up one of the posts, to see how the research is going.
What attracted you to this post ?
I’ve always had a natural interest in science, and studied immunology because I’m particularly interested in how diseases affect the human body. I chose to join the ICH because I like how it is attached to Great Ormond Street Hospital, it’s fairly unique to have scientists and clinicians working together – for me that’s the key benefit of working here.
What conditions do you research?
My recent work has focussed on severe forms of leukaemia. I’m looking at what happens at a genetic level to cause the disease. If we know which genes are misbehaving then we can try and switch them off – helping us find a treatment to prevent the disease from occurring.
What have you discovered?
We managed to find a faulty gene responsible for a form of drug-resistant leukaemia that’s currently incurable. We used a special lab technique to block the effects of the gene, and then found a drug that replicates this blocking effect in living leukaemia cells.
So did you have to invent a new drug?
Luckily not – that takes an awful lot of time and money! No, what we did was look at all of the existing drugs on the market that have been through the vigorous safety procedures, in the hope that there was already one available that we could use. This way, it will be much easier to trial the drug in patients when the time comes.
What are the risks with trying a new drug on children with this type of leukaemia?
At the moment this condition is always fatal, we don’t really have anything to lose. Hopefully we’ll be able to give these children a chance. A chance they don’t have currently.
Will this research help other forms of leukaemia?
My next project will be looking at a different type of acute leukaemia which is more common, but still very severe. Using the techniques we’ve learned we’ll be able to identify the faulty genes much more quickly and hopefully we’ll have the same success.
What has this research fellowship meant to you?
It has given me the time and resources I needed to investigate the genetic basis of leukaemia. Quite a few people are now using the techniques I’ve developed, both here and in labs in the Netherlands, Italy and Israel. There’s quite a lot of potential to apply what we’re learning to other types of cancer. Without this funding it would have taken much longer to make the breakthroughs we have at the Institute of Child Health. Thank you!