Striking new path in leukaemia research

Ulm University has always been strongly committed to researching the haematopoietic system and leukaemias. Basic science and clinical application particularly complement each other in CRC 1074: this is where scientists explore the molecular properties of leukaemias and use this information to develop individualised therapies. Innovative treatment approaches are applied in the Comprehensive Cancer Center Ulm.

Microscopy in a research laboratory
Microscopy in a research laboratory

From tumour development to personalised therapy

For a long time, being diagnosed with leukaemia was tantamount to a death sentence. Now, however, over 80 per cent of all children and adolescents with leukaemia can be cured. Adult patients have a much less favourable outcome: many adults succumb to the disease in old age, and tolerate standard therapies poorly. This is why Ulm University is striving to develop new, individualised treatments.

At Ulm University, research into the most common chronic and acute forms of leukaemia in all age groups is concentrated in Collaborative Research Centre 1074 Experimental Models and Clinical Translation in Leukaemia. Basic science and clinical investigations go hand in hand at the CRC, which received € 8.8 million in funding in 2012: it is hoped that greater understanding of the biology of these malignant diseases will lead to targeted and, ideally, “tailor-made” therapies.

Working under sterile conditions.
Working under sterile conditions.

Focus on the genetic basis

In the first project line, physicians and other life scientists use experimental models to explore how leukaemia develops. In this context, they focus on genetic basics, and endeavour to find out what happens in cells when cancer develops.

Secondly, the researchers analyse patient samples from Ulm’s Leukaemia Biobank – one of the largest in the world. One of the things the scientists are searching for in these samples are genetic and epigenetic anomalies in different types of leukaemia.

Using new sequencing methods, they want to gain greater understanding of the mechanisms of disease generation, which may help them to find new therapeutic target structures.

This approach reflects the guiding principle: every patient is different and requires individual treatment. Treatment should be based on the molecular “architecture” of the cancer. This approach would avoid therapeutic failures and unnecessary side effects.

“At the beginning of every innovative therapy is research. We want to closely link basic research, translational and clinical research, and the further development of therapy standards,” says Prof Hartmut Döhner, Coordinating investigator of the CRC and Medical Director of the Department of Internal Medicine III at Ulm University Hospital.

Prof Döhner has in fact identified genetic changes in leukaemia, which enable a better assessment to be made of the course of the disease and the success of the treatment. His findings also led to the creation of internationally applied therapy guidelines for treating acute myeloid leukaemias and chronic lymphocytic leukaemias.

From the lab to the patient’s bedside

At the Comprehensive Cancer Center Ulm (CCCU), patients benefit from new forms of treatment. For each case of illness, an interdisciplinary team of physicians devises the best possible treatment plan.

Only recently, an evaluation panel of German Cancer Aid attested the excellent patient care and oncological research performed at the Centre by Ulm’s University Hospital. The CCCU may now refer to itself as a “Oncological Centre of Excellence” – one of just 13 German oncology centres that received funding.

Cervix tumor cell
Cervix tumor cell

Leukaemia research with tradition and a future

Ulm University attaches great importance to research into the haematopoietic system and leukaemias. This tradition was established by Prof Ludwig Heilmeyer, the first Vice Chancellor of what was then Ulm College of Medicine and Natural Sciences.

Other founding fathers, most notably Professors Theodor Fliedner and Hermann Heimpel, established bone marrow transplantation at Ulm; they also proved the significance of stem cells in blood formation, and conducted research into rare blood diseases.

This heritage is also continued at the Institute of Experimental Tumor Research and the Institute of Transfusion Medicine. The key issues currently under investigation are “stem cells and cell therapy” and “molecular pathophysiology, diagnosis and therapy”. The “routine activities” involved in the supply of blood and stem cell products take place in the closely related Institute for Clinical Transfusion Medicine and Immunogenetics, a joint institution operated by the German Red Cross Blood Donor Service Baden-Württemberg – Hessen and Ulm University Hospital.

Today, it is not only qualified haematologists who contribute to the relevance of the location in this field. The key area of ageing and degeneration, for example, has close ties to the field. At the Institute of Molecular Medicine, researchers explore stem cell ageing, which is associated with “leukaemia among the elderly” and anaemia, for example. In addition, specialists at the Centre for Rare Diseases diagnose unusual diseases of the haematopoietic system.

Almost 50 years after Ulm University was founded, the University continues to develop its success story of research into leukaemias and the haematopoietic system. Patients at the hospital can only benefit from this success.