‘He found a lump’: how school tragedy motivated British scientist’s mission to fight blood cancers | Research against cancer

Ian Hitchcock’s first encounter with cancer was as a schoolboy in Bedford. He plays rugby there and becomes friends with a teammate.

“He was a lovely guy. Intelligent, pleasant and a talented sportsman. He was truly one of the most popular kids of the year,” said Hitchcock, who recently oversaw the creation of York University’s new training center. blood research center.

Then, one summer, Hitchcock – who is now a professor of experimental hematology at York – learned that his friend had been diagnosed with cancer. “It was a time before social media, so it was just a rumor: he had found a lump and it had to be removed. He couldn’t have been older than 16.”

Later that year, he learned that the treatment had failed and his friend had died. “I was shocked, as was the whole school. He was young, fit and healthy like me and I kept thinking: what is going on here?

Hitchcock took the news personally and fighting cancer became a special mission for him, as he turned his biology studies into a crusade. “It was driven by what happened. Indeed, I am still motivated by his death,” he said.

The result of these efforts is the York Blood Research Centre, which opened earlier this year. “Our primary task is simple: We are prepared to fight blood cancers – leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma and other related conditions,” Hitchcock said.

“Blood cancers are the fifth most common form of cancer in this country”… Ian Hitchcock. Photography: Alex Holland

Blood cancers, like solid tumors, remain a major health problem in the UK. In an aging population, people become increasingly vulnerable to cancers which become more common as individuals age. Better diagnosis also means more cases are reported.

“There has been progress, no doubt, but blood cancers, as a class, are the fifth most common form of cancer in this country. More importantly, they are one of the most common childhood cancers.

The risk factors are also unusual, he added. “When considering most solid tumors, there are agents such as cigarette smoke and diet that increase the chances of succumbing. But there aren’t really any lifestyle factors that increase the risk of developing blood cancer, the only definite risk factor being old age and, for reasons that are still unclear, being a man. This really stands out.

“If we can discover the reason why men are more susceptible, it would open up the possibility of developing new diagnostics and treatments for blood cancers.”

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And it will be a key approach for the new center which combines three areas of expertise: clinicians who treat blood cancers; epidemiologists who study variations in cancer prevalence; and experimental hematologists who understand molecular changes in blood cells. Combining these approaches should shed new light on many blood cancers, Hitchcock said.

“We will study exactly why treatments for certain blood cancers are so successful today – with the specific aim of using these learnings to create new drugs and therapies for other, more intractable conditions.” »

An example is acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children. “Survival rates for children and young adults are now fantastic – around 97%,” Hitchcock said. “However, these survival rates decline as patients age, even though we are dealing with the same disease. And this is another headache for medicine. How can we make therapies more effective and gentle for older patients? This will be another prime target for research in our center. Certainly, we still have a lot to do in the years to come.”

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