Meet Dr Williams

Dr Owen Williams is Head of the Cancer Section at the Institute of Child Health and is also a Reader in Cancer Biology.

He is currently researching how to produce new leukaemia treatments for children that will be more effective, less toxic and with fewer side effects than those currently used.

“New treatments are important because even though most children diagnosed with leukaemia will be cured, a sub-set remains that’s difficult to cure with current medicine,” Dr Williams explains.

Around 500 children are diagnosed with leukaemia each year in the UK. With Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), specifically, that figure falls to about 80 children every year.

A leukaemia diagnosis can have a devastating impact on families. Dr Williams explains that while most people still think leukaemia is fatal, which was the case around 50 years ago, medicine has made tremendous strides in the treatment of childhood leukaemia since then. “Most children will now survive,” he says, "however, children will have to undergo many years of treatment and this is a huge burden on families.”

The cure rate for the most common leukaemia in the UK is currently more than 90%. Despite that, children will experience many years of intensive chemotherapy; which also affects their bodies as they grow.

What is Leukaemia?

“Leukaemia is a blood cancer that forms when there’s a mutation in the stem cell,” explains Dr Williams. “Stem cells produce all our normal blood cells and we need those to function well in our bodies every day. When there’s a particular kind of mutation, a cancer gene may form that stops the blood cell developing normally, but the cell grows and grows and eventually forces all our normal blood cells out of the bone marrow. This is why children with leukaemia frequently have problems. They can have anaemia, infections and problems with their blood clotting, all because the leukaemia cell is stopping normal cells developing.”

Dr William's Research

Research that hopefully leads to a new drug for children with leukaemia is difficult and, typically, a new drug takes anywhere from 10 to 15 years to develop. Millions of pounds are spent on development and few make it through to approval.

Dr Williams explains: “an alternative way is to find old drugs, drugs that are used for different illnesses, and see which of those can be repurposed for treating leukaemia. This development route is currently part of my research.”

Dr Williams and his team recently discovered that mebendazole can be used as a treatment against leukaemia, a real revelation as mebendazole is used to treat worm infections in children.

“We discovered mebendazole has a specific activity in leukaemia cells and the grant, funded by Sparks, will allow us to establish whether mebendazole can be used in patient leukaemia cells,” says Dr Williams. “These are leukaemia cells that we take from patients and see whether they will respond to various drugs in the laboratory. This grant will allow us to research whether mebendazole can be used to treat these cells and eliminate them.”

It’s important for researchers like Dr Williams to discover new treatments for childhood leukaemia because, although most children with leukaemia are cured, there are some cases where the disease is difficult to cure.

Dr Williams explains: “so far, chemotherapy against childhood leukaemia has been successful because of ‘intensification’. This means the levels of chemotherapy we give to children are increased, which, in turn, has resulted in a huge increase in the number of children cured. Unfortunately, the side effects are more pronounced and the children have a certain threshold that you can’t push beyond. Some children aren’t being cured because we can’t intensify the chemotherapy anymore. We need to find new drugs and new ways of treating them.”

Chemotherapy can severely affect children. Clinicians and scientists are always looking for less toxic therapies that effectively fight leukaemia. “It’s our hope that mebendazole will be one such example,” Dr Williams says. “Mebendazole is used in millions of children throughout the world and we know its toxicity profile, therefore we know any side effects are likely to be caused by mebendazole and should be less severe.”

“Research is fundamental to finding new cures.”

“Without research, we’re blind,” Dr Williams says. “We really don’t know where the new treatments are going to come from. Unless we research, we’re not going to find the new cures that will save children’s lives.”

“The UK charity sector is fundamental to supporting research. Although research councils such as MRC and the Wellcome Trust do support research, a lot of research wouldn’t be possible unless it was funded by charities like Sparks. People donating to Sparks is vital for us to continue our research.”

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