An international consortium of scientists studying chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), based at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, has been awarded a 5-year, $20 million grant by the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. The grant is the second renewal of funding for a broad-based effort designed to better understand the pathology of CLL – the most common form of leukemia in the Western world – and develop new drugs and treatments.
“This funding allows us to continue critical research that has already produced substantial, new insights into how and why CLL develops and progresses differently in patients,” said Thomas J. Kipps, MD, PhD, professor of medicine in the UCSD School of Medicine, deputy director of research at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center and director of the Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Research Consortium (CRC). “Our work has revealed new targets and approaches for both mitigating the disease and perhaps eventually preventing it.”
The CRC consists of eight diverse institutions: UC San Diego, The Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, the Mayo Clinic, Ohio State University, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System and the BARTS and London Cancer Centre in England. Under the auspices of veteran CLL scientists, researchers and doctors in the CRC have created distinct projects addressing different aspects of the disease. Among them:
- The genetic basis for CLL and how genes change as the disease progresses
- The resistance of CLL cells to apoptosis or programmed cell death, a trait that makes them less susceptible to chemotherapy
- The potential of immunotherapy – using the body’s natural immune system to reject cancer – to halt and reverse CLL
- Repairing defective immune cells to maximize immunological response to mutations
- Development of new anticancer agents that either inhibit development of CLL or render the surrounding microenvironment inhospitable to cancer cells
CLL is a particularly confounding challenge. It is a blood cancer characterized by the accumulation of abnormal, dysfunctional lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) in the blood and bone marrow. As these lymphocytes swell in number, they interfere with normal body functions, including disabling of the immune system.
Prevalence of CLL in the United States is high: 1 in 20 people over the age of 40 may have apparently pre-cancerous CLL-like cells in their blood. These people may develop actual CLL at a rate of about 1 percent per year. More than 15,000 new cases of CLL are diagnosed each year in the United States. Roughly 4,400 patients with CLL die annually.