Scientists are hoping to develop a new generation of therapies for myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer that is particularly difficult to treat. An international team led by Nottingham Trent University is looking at how patients' own immune system responses to the disease.

Treatment for  acute myeloid leukemia  (AML) has been relatively unchanged for about 30 years – and on average only about one in five people with the disease will survive five years beyond their diagnosis.

AML is recognized by the immune system but protects itself by attempting to adapt to the  immune attack  and escape it. The researchers say that a better understanding of this mechanism is crucial to the development of new, improved therapies.

The new work is focused on identifying specific genes which are involved in the activation of the immune system of patients. It will be the first time the genetic makeup of immune cells involved in leukemia has been analyzed in this way.

The immune system

It is hoped that the work might accelerate the discovery of important prognostic biomarkers and the design of effective immunotherapy approaches for each tumor subtype.

This could include new drugs, so-called 'small molecule inhibitors' which can unleash the power of the immune system's response to cancer. The work could also help to predict patients' response to treatments as well as their risk of relapse.

In 2014, more than 3,000 new cases of AML were diagnosed in the UK, with more than 2,500 patients die from the disease. AML is only cured in 40% of patients under 60 and ten percent of patients over 60, and it accounts for 20% of leukemia cases in children. More than a third (35%) of children with AML relapse, however, and only 30% of them will survive to adulthood.

"The development and delivery of new therapeutic strategies for AML remain a priority," said Sergio Rutella, Professor of Cancer Immunotherapy at Nottingham Trent University's John van Geest Cancer Research Center.

He said: "We want to characterize how patients' immune responses can be mobilized to kill leukemia. Immunotherapy , the activation of the patient's immune system against their cancer, could hold the key to treating the disease."

Despite this, however, the ability to predict the groups of patients and the subtypes of cancer that would respond well to immunotherapy remains limited. "This research would allow us to develop truly personalized and smarter therapies, which are tailored to each patient's specific type of leukemia ," said Rutella.

"It aims to broaden our knowledge and understanding of  leukemia-driven immune changes, and to identify molecules and mechanisms that can be targeted to restore immune capacity and improve clinical outcome," said Rutella.