A group of UK scientists believe they may have taken the first major steps towards finding a way of vaccinating against leukaemia. Led by a team from the Research Institute at The Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Trust (ANRI) the breakthrough could be the beginning of a cure for Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia.
The possibility of a cancer vaccine on the shelves within the next few years is being hailed as a major breakthrough, but what exactly have the scientists found and how will it potentially help leukaemia patients?
While the reality is complex, in simple terms the findings mean it is now possible to identify an antigen, or marker, unique to the surface of leukaemia cells that does not exist on normal cells. These identifying markers can then be used to focus the attack on the leukaemia, leaving healthy cells alone, and potentially creating a vaccine against the cancer.
"One of the goals of the Immunotherapy group at the ANRI has been to characterise the antigens by which our bodies can recognise and eliminate leukaemic cells," explained Professor Madrigal, at the Anthony Nolan Research Institute laboratories in Hampstead, London.
The scientists are keen to stress, however, that while they are confident of their progress this should not be heralded as an overnight fix for this serious illness. "While we are certain that this is a major step forward in finding a way to treat CML effectively, we have to stress that we are a long way from putting the results into practice," explained Professor Madrigal.
The Anthony Nolan Trust was founded in 1974 as the first Register of volunteers willing to donate bone marrow in circumstances where a match cannot be found within a patient's family. The Anthony Nolan Trust now holds one of the largest databases of unrelated donors in the world. The Trust is named after Anthony Nolan, a child born in 1971 who suffered from a rare bone marrow disease, which left his immune system unable to fight infection.
No matching donor was found for Anthony and he died in 1979 aged seven. However, it was during the search for a donor, that his mother Shirley discovered that no register of potential donors existed and that no funds or facilities were available to establish one. She determined to find the money and resources required to set up a register. On July 14th of this year, Shirley Nolan died, aged 60. Her legacy is an organisation that can test 500 blood samples a week from potential donors wishing to join the Register and the Trust has direct links with around 60 other registers around the world. The Register now stands at 319,000 volunteer donors, and more than 300 matches being provided for patients every year.
In order to continue its work, the Anthony Nolan Trust needs financial support. A spokesperson for the Trust said charitable contributions from the public are "vital" adding that "without voluntary funding... we simply couldn't afford to do our work. We need £12m in 2002 alone and we receive no core government funding." If you want to make a financial contribution to the Anthony Nolan Trust you can donate online using a Credit Card here. If you want to get involved, the Trust runs various fund raising activities around the UK and is always looking for volunteers to help with its work. Details of local fundraising activities are given on the Anthony Nolan Trust Web site.