Celebrating 300 years

Masonic charity grants helping to lead the way in cancer research

Tuesday, 08 March 2016

On medical grounds

Freemasonry is helping to fund pioneering work into lung cancer and leukaemia treatments. Aileen Scoular found out more at the UCL Cancer Institute Research Trust

When 18-year-old Gareth King was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) in November 2013, time was of the essence. ALL’s rate of progression can be so swift that any delay could be fatal. And so Gareth found himself in the local hospital on the same evening as his diagnosis, being given an urgent blood transfusion. As soon as he was stable, Gareth was transferred to The Christie, a specialist NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester, and a frightening two years for the King family began.

Like thousands of cancer patients diagnosed every year, for Gareth and his mother Sandra the biggest fear was that of the unknown. Cancer attacks with stealth and, despite some pioneering treatments, some types of cancer simply refuse to respond.

Leukaemia is one of them and ALL is the single most common form of childhood cancer. Each year in the UK, 400 adults and 300 children are diagnosed with ALL and of these, 100 adults and 30 children will have an aggressive sub-type called T-cell ALL. Its sufferers are at particular risk of chemo-resistance and relapse.

Lung cancer is another disease that continues to confound cancer experts. It is now the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK, and the most common cause of cancer death. Often diagnosed at a very late stage, more than 42,000 cases of lung cancer are confirmed every year and some 35,000 lives are claimed because of its ability to develop rapid resistance to treatment. 

Research is desperately needed into treatment for both diseases, which is why two recent donations from The Freemasons’ Grand Charity and the Masonic Samaritan Fund (MSF) have been welcomed with open arms by the UCL Cancer Institute Research Trust (CIRT). 

UCL CIRT is a small charity whose role is to source seed funding for research projects that have the potential to become self-sustainable. 

UCL is currently one of the UK’s leading research universities and, together with the University of Manchester, it formed Cancer Research UK’s first Lung Cancer Centre of Excellence in 2014. 

The UCL Cancer Institute’s ambitious intentions are well matched by the masonic charities’ commitment to cancer-related medical research. 

As a result, in November last year the Grand Charity donated £60,000 to help fund pioneering research into immunotherapy as a potential treatment for lung cancer, while a sum of £100,000 from the MSF will enable a research team to explore new treatments for ALL and, in particular, T-cell ALL.

Exploring immunotherapy

Research into the use of immunotherapy in treating lung cancer struck a particular chord with Dr Richard Dunstan, Chairman of the Non-Masonic Grants Committee, and his committee colleague, retired surgeon Charles Akle.

‘We chose this research project for several reasons,’ explains Richard. ‘Lung cancer is still extremely common but the outlook is dreadful – it really hasn’t improved despite all the new treatments. We probably won’t see the full impact of social changes in smoking for at least another 20 years, and younger people are still not listening. Surgery isn’t always logical because the lung has a very rich blood supply, so any tumours will spread like wildfire, and radiotherapy and chemotherapy can cause many unpleasant side effects. As a GP, I witnessed those side effects in my patients.’

Richard and Charles describe immunotherapy as ‘extraordinarily exciting’ because it involves arming the body’s own defence mechanisms against the cancerous cells. This, in turn, creates the potential for personalised immunotherapy treatments.

In this project, tumour and blood samples from 10 patients with operable grade 1-3 lung cancer will be studied in micro-detail to understand how, and why, the lung cancer cells are not being detected and destroyed by each patient’s own immune system. The same patients will be enrolled in a parallel clinical trial called TRACERx, so that cell analysis can be compared with clinical outcomes.

The project will involve a team of researchers, including Professor Charles Swanton, chair in personalised medicine at the UCL Cancer Institute and co-director of the UCL/Manchester Lung Cancer Centre of Excellence, and Dr Sergio Quezada, who is the TRACERx immunological lead. 

‘I visited UCL and we assessed the application carefully,’ adds Richard. ‘It’s potentially very exciting for lung cancer, and it has a huge application for other cancers, too. Immunotherapy could be the breakthrough we need in cancer treatment, and we’re proud to make such a significant contribution to its development.’

Investigating gene editing

Elsewhere in the Institute, haematologist Dr Marc Mansour is working on another research project related to targeted cancer therapies. His team’s study was nominated by Metropolitan Grand Lodge for a Silver Jubilee Research Fund grant. 

‘We are always keen to support medical conditions that affect people of all ages,’ says John McCrohan, Grants Director and Deputy Chief Executive of the MSF. ‘Family lies at the heart of Freemasonry. To know that the donations the masonic community entrust us with can potentially help young people with illnesses such as leukaemia will reassure our donors that we are fulfilling their wishes.’

Mansour and his team have discovered that T-cell ALL patients who develop chemotherapy resistance are often missing a gene called EZH2 in their leukaemia cells. The loss of this gene could be the key to identifying safer, more effective treatments and, by targeting specific genes with pre-tested drugs, the leukaemia cells could be destroyed without harming the rest of the body. 

Thanks to the MSF’s donation, Mansour’s team will be able to create genetically identical leukaemia cells, with and without the EZH2 gene, using pioneering genome engineering techniques. They can then test how and why some genes in T-cell ALL prevent the chemotherapy agents from working. Simultaneously, a library of up to 2,000 FDA-approved drugs will be tested to see which ones successfully destroy the EZH2-deficient precursor cells while leaving normal cells unharmed.

‘ALL is a “blameless” cancer,’ observes Mansour. ‘Most of the time, it’s a genetic abnormality. We know that a lot of children are born with abnormal cells in their blood – sometimes they develop into leukaemia, and sometimes they simply burn out.’

Mansour hopes that his findings in T-cell ALL will also be relevant to acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), a condition common in the over-65s that has similarly poor survival rates. ‘It’s very satisfying to know that our findings could have wider benefits.’

Thanks to the support of the Freemasons, both projects have the potential to save lives. ‘We’re very glad to be able to support them,’ says Richard. ‘Every year, Freemasons donate money towards research into cancer but it is our great hope that the day will come when our help in this area is no longer needed.’

Find out more at www.ucl.ac.uk/cancertrust

Coping with the diagnosis

Gareth King was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in November 2013, aged 18, and received a bone marrow transplant in June 2014. His mother Sandra, whose late partner was a Freemason, recalls the experience and the support she received from the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys (RMTGB)

‘Gareth’s diagnosis was completely unexpected and made more challenging because he has Asperger syndrome. His treatment took place at The Christie in Manchester, a specialist NHS cancer hospital, about two hours from our home. This was difficult because I have two younger sons, one of whom has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

‘Gareth’s diagnosis came after a few weeks of symptoms, including tiredness, a very sore throat and unexplained bruising, and was followed by a blood transfusion and intensive chemotherapy. It was a very frightening time. I was trying to keep my younger sons in school, but I also needed to be with Gareth in hospital. Without help, I simply couldn’t have coped. 

‘The RMTGB offered support and helped fund my travel and childcare costs. They’ve been an important part of our lives, and the local almoner keeps in touch regularly. 

‘Gareth’s second round of chemotherapy worked and he had a bone marrow transplant in June 2014. He’s now back at college studying for a BTEC in Sport, and although the treatment saved his life, there are permanent side effects: his spleen stopped working, he tires easily, and it has affected his IQ and ability to concentrate.’ 

‘It was a very frightening time. Without help I simply couldn’t have coped.’ Sandra King

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