The Hero initiative will be launched on Thursday at the Jennings Gallery in University College Cork. It is hoped a new research project will eventually result in the development of novel treatments for leukaemia, for which Ireland has the highest rate in Europe.
Set up in 2011, the Hero trust provides funding for research projects and education in haematology.
Professor Mary Cahill, a consultant haematologist at Cork University Hospital and UCC, said: “The name stands for haematology, education, and research trust, but we put on the O at the end of Hero to make it easy to remember.
“In the last decade alone, there has been extensive progress made in treating blood cancers and curing some. Our researchers seek to build on and extend this progress.”
A type of cancer found in the blood and bone marrow, leukaemia, which accounts for one in 40 cancer deaths in Ireland, according to the National Cancer Research Institute, is caused by the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells. These are unable to fight infection, and impair the ability of the bone marrow to produce vital red blood cells and platelets.
The research led by Dr Sharon McKenna, of the Cork Cancer Research Centre, in collaboration with Prof Cahill, has shown how cancer cell survival mechanisms can be ‘tamed’ and manipulated to cause early leukaemia cancer cells (called blasts) to grow into more mature, well-behaved cells.
“All cancer cells have the ability to ‘batten down the hatches’ and go into survival mode when the going gets tough for the cancer and the patient is receiving chemotherapy,” said Dr McKenna.
“This process is called autophagy. Cancer cells use this process to hibernate and can wake up again once the chemotherapy is over. This, of course, will cause the cancer to relapse, sometimes with devastating consequences for the patients.”
The UCC researchers have shown autophagy is a key component in making troublesome, immature cancer cells grow into responsible adult cells that do vital work. “This represents a newer way of looking at cancer treatment. Increasingly, we are learning that cancer can be effectively ‘tamed’ where it can’t be eliminated,” said Prof Cahill.
The research group is working to discover how to manipulate the autophagy process to cause cells to mature quickly in cases of urgent clinical need, such as when a person develops acute leukaemia.
Dr McKenna said: “We are already aware of a number of compounds which can bring this about. Some are surprising; for example, high doses of a certain kind of Vitamin A can trigger this mechanism.”