dr george vasssiliou

A research paper on combating Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), which was published in ‘Cell Report’ in mid-October was hailed as a significant step forward by the scientific community.

AML is a most aggressive type of blood cancer, with survival rates of less than one in three patients and loss of life occurring even within days if treatment is not immediately administered.

The breakthrough research was conducted by a team at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, with the Limassol born Dr George Vassiliou being one of the lead scientists.

“Our research results could be described as what we call ‘a game-changer’,” the Cypriot haematologist and researcher tells the Cyprus News Agency.

What his team has done is use the CRISPR-Cass9 genetic technique to inhibit genes that are necessary for the cancer’s survival. “Say you are a Trojan and you want to kill Achilles. You could try and point an arrow straight to his heel; or you could throw so many arrows at him that one would definitely hit his heel. So what we have basically done is target different cells each time, but in total millions of cells have been targeted; therefore, the 20,000 genes or so that are important within the cancer genome will have been hit.”

“Monitoring the cells that we have hit in the lab, we can see after 15-20 days which ones survive and which ones have been lost. The ones lost are the Achilles’ heels of the cancer,” Dr Vassiliou explains.

The total number of these vulnerable genes is about 1,500, however only 200 to 300 of them can become a treatment target without causing any serious side-effects.

“This is the first time that this specific technique has been adjusted and focused solely on various types of acute leukaemia. Now we don’t need decades to identify a vulnerable cancer gene, we have all of them lying in front of us. But the most important thing is that we have basically presented our technique to the whole of the scientific community, we have presented them with all the genes that can be targeted. What is now left to be done is verify the results of each relevant research and develop an appropriate medicine for the genes that can be targeted. This means that our work has now been redoubled; we need to contact pharmaceutical companies, chemists etc. so that we are able to proceed with treatment,” says Dr Vassiliou.

The first questions in the minds of patients and their families after every significant scientific breakthrough of this kind is precisely when treatment will be widely available.

“It’s only been two years since we embarked on this specific research. I wouldn’t have imagined such progress five years ago. What I mean to say is that the pace of progress has changed. On the other hand, we need to keep in mind that cancer is a mutation of the DNA. This means that even if a medicine is developed, apart from the time that will be needed to test it, leukaemia will mutate again and we will have to find another way of dealing with it. Of course in the meantime, with the new strong medicine, I will have been able to treat another percentage of my patients. I would say that a realistic target is to move from a 33%-35% of patients cured today to a 55% within the next decade,” is Dr Vassiliou’s answer.

Having the dual capacity of a physician and a researcher, Dr Vassiliou says that the relationship with his patients is one of his incentives to work hard. “I have in mind specific people who did not make it when I am in the lab; or people who did make it and they come to me and I see them with their families,” he says.

He points out that whatever has been achieved is the product of team work, a team of which he is very proud. He also declares his pride in being Cypriot. As he notes, growing up and getting educated in Cyprus helped him progress: “In Cyprus, as pupils, we grew up without any social, class distinctions; we learnt that we are all the same. After the Second World War, after the English rule, after the 1974 invasion, Cypriot society held up some very important principles. They were instilled into us and we nurtured them further. They were telling us to go out there and succeed and that’s what we are doing today. There are so many brilliant Cypriot scientists getting recognised all around the world.”

For him recognition has never been the issue. “I would say that what I feel is enthusiasm for the future, for the prospect of what can be achieved. It’s definitely nice to have people value your work, but we are not resting on that – on the contrary, we are now working even harder,” says Dr Vassiliou.

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