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Cork researchers on the trail of way to 'tame' cancer to launch new campaign

The team at UCC are looking to fund their ground-breaking research into leukaemia.

Image: Shutterstock/Tonhom1009

A GROUP OF researchers in Cork have identified how cancer cells can be “tamed” and manipulated to cause them to develop into non-cancerous cells in patients with leukaemia.

This week, the HERO charity will launch a campaign to fundraise for the latest step of this research, which aims to discover how this process can be quickly and effectively used so patients with leukaemia can benefit.

Leukaemia is a cancer found in the blood and bone marrow. It is a rare cancer, but still accounts for one in 40 cancer deaths in Ireland, and is the eighth most commonly diagnosed cancer here.

Although cancer cells are very adaptable and able to survive through many different forms of treatment, the team at University College Cork led by Dr Sharon McKenna with Professor Mary Cahill say they’ve found a way whereby a cancer cell’s survival mechanisms can be “tamed”.

Dr McKenna said: “All cancer cells have the ability to ‘batten down the hatches’ and go into survival mode when the going gets tough for the cancer and the patient is receiving chemotherapy.

“This process is called autophagy. Cancer cells use this process to hibernate and can wake up again once the chemotherapy is over.

This, of course, will cause the cancer to relapse, sometimes with devastating consequences for the patients.

The researchers have found, however, that this process has other functions, and has the ability to make troublesome cancer cells grow into normal, adult cells that carry out vital work in the body.

Professor Cahill said that this discovery was significant. She explained:

This represents a newer way of looking at cancer treatment. Increasingly, we are learning that cancer can be effectively ‘tamed’ where it can’t be eliminated.

The team hope to discover new ways to effectively treat leukaemia early by finding ways to trigger this “taming” of cancer cells.

Dr McKenna added: “We are already aware of a number of compounds which can bring this about. Some are surprising, for example, high doses of a certain kind of Vitamin A can trigger this mechanism.

“We are investigating how this happens to see if the mechanism can be triggered by any other agents.”

The HERO campaign will be launched by former Clare hurler, and leukaemia survivor, Ger Loughnane, on Thursday at the Jennings Gallery at UCC.

Read: Missed cancers at Wexford hospital: ‘For daddy, nothing will change – but they have apologised’

Read: Discovery from Irish researchers could pave way for new treatments for oesophageal cancer

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Sean Murray

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