Ian Hitchcock’s first encounter with cancer was as a schoolboy in Bedford. He played rugby there and became good friends with a team-mate.
“He was a lovely guy. Smart, pleasant and a talented sports person. He really was one of the most popular kids in the year,” says Hitchcock, who recently oversaw the creation of York University’s new centre for blood research.
Then one summer, Hitchcock – who is now a professor of experimental haematology at York – heard that his friend had been diagnosed with cancer. “This was a time before social media so it was just a rumour – that he had found a lump and it had to be removed. He couldn’t have been much more than 16 years old.”
Later that year, he learned that the treatment had failed and that his friend had died. “I was shocked as was the whole school. He was young and fit and healthy like me and I kept thinking: what is going on here?”
Hitchcock took the news personally and battling cancer became a special mission for him, as he turned his studies in biology into a crusade. “It became driven by what happened. Indeed, I am still driven by his death,” he said.
The result of those efforts is the Centre for Blood Research at York, which opened earlier this year. “Our main task is straightforward: we are primed to fight blood cancers – leukaemia, lymphoma, myeloma and other related conditions,” said Hitchcock.
Blood cancers, like solid tumours, remain a major health issue in the UK. In an ageing population, people become increasingly vulnerable to cancers that become more common as individuals get older. Better diagnosis also means that more cases are being reported.
“There has been progress, without 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 cancers in children.”
Risk factors are also unusual, he added. “If you look at most solid tumours, there are agents such as cigarette smoke and diet that increase someone’s chances of succumbing. But there aren’t really any lifestyle factors that increase the chances of developing blood cancers, with the only definite risk factor being old age and, for reasons currently unclear, being male. It really stands out.
“If we can find out the reason that males are more susceptible that would open up the possibility of developing new diagnoses and treatments for blood cancers.”
And this will be a key approach for the new centre which combines three areas of expertise: clinicians who treat blood cancers; epidemiologists who study variations in cancer prevalence; and experimental haematologists who understand the molecular changes in blood cells. Combining these approaches should shine new light on many blood cancers, said Hitchcock.
“We will be studying exactly why treatments for some blood cancers are now so successful – with the specific aim of using those lessons to create new drugs and therapies for other, more recalcitrant conditions.”
An example is provided by acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in children. “Survival rates in children and young adults are now fantastic – around 97%,” said Hitchcock. “However, those survival rates decline as patients get older even though we are dealing with the same disease. And that is another puzzle for medicine. How can we make therapies more effective and kinder for older patients? That will be another prime target for research at our centre. Certainly, there is still a lot for us to do in the coming years.”