01 Aug 2022 Research

New research could help detect leukaemia earlier in older people

New research findings, published in the scientific journal Nature Medicine, could help better predict risk of leukaemia in older people and ultimately improve early diagnosis of the disease. The research study was part-funded by a Leukaemia UK John Goldman Fellowship, awarded to co-lead author of the paper, Dr Kristina Kirschner, in 2019.28 new patients are diagnosed with leukaemia every day in the UK, that is more than one every hour. Each year over 40% of all new leukaemia cases in the UK occur in people aged 75 and over.

As we age, our blood system can become damaged and if this happens our chance of blood cancers developing increases. Investigating the effects of ageing on the blood can often take years of study. This research makes use of an existing long-term cohort study in Scotland, which collects data from people overtime as they age. The research team explored changes to blood cells over a 12-year period, in a group of 85 people from the age of 70 onwards.

The researchers, based at the University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow and the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, specifically looked at the special cells that produce all the other blood cells in the body. These are known as ‘haemtopoietic stem and progenitor cells’. These rare cells are vital to the development of our blood.

These cells can sometimes carry mutations that cause blood cancer. If lots of these cells with mutations develop, the risk of cancer grows. The chances of these groups of mutated cells developing increases with age.

Exploring the mutations in more detail meant the researchers could better identify gene changes that were likely to go on to cause disease such as leukaemia. If we know people have these mutations, they can be more closely monitored to diagnose and treat disease earlier.

Dr Kristina Kirschner, Principal Investigator at the University of Glasgow and Leukaemia UK John Goldman Fellow, said:

“In this paper we assess fitness effects, or growth speed, of clones carrying mutations associated with clonal hemopoiesis using mathematical modelling of longitudinal sequencing data. We have demonstrated the clinical utility of this approach as we can now estimate time to clinical follow up based on fitness with only two time points necessary to deliver our estimates. This method will help pave the way towards early detection of transformation to leukaemia in the elderly population, reducing treatment costs to the NHS and improving outcomes for patients.”

Dr Dawn Farrar, Director of Research & Advocacy at Leukaemia UK, said:

“These are exciting new findings. The ability to detect leukaemia at the earliest opportunity in the elderly may provide options for less harsh but effective treatments. Identifying a future risk of development of leukaemia may ultimately offer the possibility of prevention and therefore save more lives.”

These early stage findings provide an important stepping stone for further research to build on, with the potential to transform and personalise monitoring and follow up for patients in the future and could ultimately play a role in preventing disease.

Find out more about Dr Kirschner’s research project.

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