UK scientists have developed immune cells which can locate and destroy leukemia cells. The discovery could mean new treatments for the 18,000 people diagnosed every year in Britain with leukemia or related blood diseases.
Researchers from Hammersmith Hospital and Imperial College School of Medicine in London have worked for six years to develop the process.
The key was the discovery of a single gene, WT1, which is over-active in cells that cause leukemia.
That breakthrough enabled the scientists to develop immune cells that specifically seek out cells with the over-active form of the WT1 gene and destroy them. In tests so far, the immune cells target leukemia cells and ignore healthy cells of the same type.
The research team, led by Dr Hans Stauss, is joining up with haematology experts to conduct clinical trials on leukemia patients over the next two years.
The research, which has so far had an investment of £750,000 from the leukemia Research Fund, is published in the journal Hammersmith Research.
Dr Stauss, Reader in Tumour Immunology at Imperial College, said: "The principle we have developed can be applied to almost all forms of leukemia and could signal a huge step forward in how we treat the disease.
"What makes this work even more exciting is that our findings can also be applied to solid cancers, such as breast or lung cancer, where there is similar over expression of WT-1. The possibilities for new treatments are enormous."
Elizabeth Rees has leukemia. She was given five years to live, but could be one of the first to benefit from the new treatment.