Sheffield researchers make blood cancer breakthrough

The University of Sheffield's Dr Martin Zeidler
The University of Sheffield's Dr Martin Zeidler
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An arthritis drug costing “pennies” could be used to treat blood cancer patients after a breakthrough by Sheffield researchers.

Each year 3,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with Polycythemia Vera (PV), a type of blood cancer which causes an overproduction of red blood cells.

The chronic condition generally affects elderly people for around 10 years and patients suffer with itching, headaches, weight loss, fatigue and night sweats. When it is not controlled it can be life-threatening, with the overproduction of blood putting strain on the heart or causing clots, which can lead to stroke, deep vein thrombosis and embolisms.

But scientists at the University of Sheffield have discovered that methotrexate (MTX), which has been used for 35 years to treat inflammatory diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and psoriasis, can disrupt the JAK/STAT signalling - the pathway activity which leads to the development of blood cancers like PV.

Dr Martin Zeidler, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Biomedical Science, said initial tests on fruit flies and mice showed success “pretty conclusively” and that re-purposing the drug for blood cancer patients could have substantial benefits - both clinically and economically.

The team now hope to go on to a full clinical trial early next year.

Dr Zeidler told The Yorkshire Post: “Methotrexate costs pennies - a year’s worth costs around £40 to £50. In terms of modern drugs it’s trivial. Here we have the potential to take a very cheap, established and well known drug to clinical trial.

“A similar drug being trialled in the UK at the moment costs £42,000 a year and it does basically the same thing. The NHS is not made of money, and we’re hoping we will be able prove the cheaper option works. There is also great potential for its use around the world in places like India and third world countries where the more expensive option is not affordable.”

Dr Ziedler said the trial was a “true Yorkshire success story”, combining the expertise of scientists at the University with haematologists at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, and a potential collaboration with Rosemont Pharmaceuticals in Leeds should a human trial go ahead.

Dr Kathryn Scott, chief executive at Yorkshire Cancer Research, said the research was a “promising development” in the treatment of blood cancers.

“It’s fantastic to see this type of ground-breaking cancer research taking place in Yorkshire,” she said.

“Hospitals that have a high level of medical research tend to have better outcomes, and clinical trials can bring the most pioneering and innovative treatments to local people. That’s why we’re dedicated to bringing more trials to the region.

“The fact that this drug is already being used to treat arthritis means it has the potential to become available to patients much sooner than new therapies.”