Progress with blood cancer diagnosis

South Australian researchers are hoping to improve the outcome of patients with multiple myeloma after identifying a new protein associated with the most aggressive form of the disease.

A team from the University of South Australia (UniSA) and Flinders University has made the discovery in relation to the second most common blood cancer in the world.

Patients with high levels of this cell adhesion protein are three times as likely to die within six years of diagnosis compared to patients whose cancer cells express low levels of this protein.

The team, which includes Flinders University Multiple Myeloma Translational Research Laboratory leader Dr Craig Wallington-Beddoe, also a Flinders Medical Centre clinical haematologist, UniSA Head of Vascular Biology Professor Claudine Bonder and Professor Stuart Pitson, UniSA Head of the Molecular Signalling Laboratory, is working towards a new prognostic clinical test to quickly identify this protein and the patients who require immediate and rigorous treatment.

Dr Wallington-Beddoe hopes early-stage clinical trials on new therapies targeting this protein could be a reality within five years.

“This is a big step in the right direction as the protein opens up a whole new therapeutic approach to patient specific medicine,” he says.

“And it’s such an area of need to have better therapies to treat myeloma patients that not only kill the cancer cells effectively but also minimise harmful side effects of the therapies themselves.”

Professor Bonder says the findings mean multiple myeloma (MM) patients with the poorest outcomes can be rapidly identified and the most potent, appropriate and available drugs to be more quickly administered.

“Newly-diagnosed MM patients currently undergo genetic testing to match the most significant chromosomal mutations with the most potent drugs to prevent disease progression,” Professor Bonder says.

“These genetic tests can take up to two weeks which, for 20 per cent of patients with the most advanced form of MM, significantly delays their start of treatment.”

The researchers are also developing novel therapies for meticulous pre-clinical testing.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer that forms in white blood (plasma) cells found in bone marrow. In a healthy individual, these plasma cells make antibodies which help the body fight diseases and infection.

MM occurs when the plasma cells become abnormal (cancerous) and overcrowd the healthy blood cells in the bone marrow, causing damage to the bones, immune system and various organs.

Worldwide, about 140,000 people are diagnosed with multiple myeloma each year, including 1900 Australians, with the average life expectancy between four and seven years.

With an increase in the ageing population, the global burden of multiple myeloma has also increased significantly in recent decades with a 126 per cent jump in cases between 1990 to 2016 and a 94 per cent rise in deaths from the disease.

Dr Wallington-Beddoe says the high-risk patients will be helped by developing an antibody therapy to help manipulate the immune system to attack the cancer cells that express the protein.

“Multiple myeloma is a really hard cancer to treat at the best of times, even today it’s deemed incurable,” says Dr Wallington-Beddoe, who receives funding from the Hospital Research Foundation and Flinders Foundation.

“So, knowing about this protein and eventually having novel therapies to target it – it’s going to be a completely new playing field.”

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