A NEW cure for leukaemia has been developed by scientists in Scotland who hope it will free thousands more patients of the disease.

The breakthrough led by Glasgow University is the result of six years of pioneering research using advanced technology and tackling cancer cells in new ways.

At the moment patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) have little chance of cure unless they undergo a bone marrow transplant – which itself can be life threatening.

However, mice who were given the new drug combination to tackle CML experienced an 88 per cent reduction in the leukaemia stem cells perpetuating the disease in just four weeks.

Now preparations have begun to give the drugs to patients who are not responding well to existing therapies.

It is anticipated the first group of patients, who face a lifetime on medication with unpleasant and serious side-effects, could commence the new treatment regime within 18 months.

Professor Tessa Holyoake, who led the research at Glasgow University, said around 10 per cent of CML patients are currently able to stop taking drugs without the disease coming back.

She said: “In my dream scenario, if these drugs work when we go into clinical trial I would like to see that proportion increasing over the next five to 10 years to more than 50 per cent.

"I would like more and more patients to become drug-free and get rid of the short-term and long-term side-effects.”

Like leukaemia, CML is a blood cancer where a genetic mutation in the stem cells causes far too many white blood cells to be produced. Around 700 people in the UK are diagnosed with the condition each year. The cancer progresses slowly and the vast majority of patients under the age of 65 are still alive five years after diagnosis. But it can be fatal.

The team of Glasgow researchers, working with staff at Manchester University, began work by exposing the ‘Achilles heel’ of CML. They found two proteins, p53 and c-Myc, that are key to the survival of CML stem cells.

Ms Holyoake said it was “unbelievably exciting” to then discover that there were drugs already in trials which could be used to control these proteins and potentially eradicate the disease.

The results, published in the journal Nature, have potential implications for other cancers including brain tumours and acute myeloid leukaemia – the more aggressive form of the illness.

Cancer Research UK and patient charity Bloodwise, which both helped fund the project, have expressed excitement about the findings.

Diana Jupp, director of patient experience for Bloodwise, said: “These are very exciting findings for CML patients. Currently, many patients with this type of leukaemia are on long term treatments.

"At present, the only hope for a cure is a gruelling stem cell transplant, but this isn’t appropriate for all patients and doesn’t always work.

"Although it’s early days, these hugely significant findings provide hope for more effective and kinder treatments for patients.”

Laura Boyd, a Scottish TV presenter, was diagnosed with CML when she was in her late 20s and said she felt as though her world was crumbling around her.

Now 35, she controls her disease with drugs which she has to get up at 5am to take every day. She said: “I always remember Professor Hollyoake saying to me her aim was to make CML not sound like a deadly illness, but more like an illness you live with like diabetes and it very much feels that it is going that way.

“It is still a frightening and awful thing to have, but knowing these scientists are working so hard and they are excited by this breakthrough, really does give me hope.”

Professor Holyoake, who worked with biologist Sheela Abraham and computer expert Lisa Hopcroft, said their success was only possible because patients and their families from across the UK had donated blood for research.

Dr Áine McCarthy, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “By recognising the important roles p53 and MYC play in helping chronic myeloid leukaemia stem cells to survive, this study has identified two new ways to target and kill these cells.

"Excitingly, this early-stage laboratory work also showed that two experimental drugs which target the effects of these molecules can kill CML stem cells in mice. The next step will be to test if this combination works the same way in people, and if it is safe to use.”