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Leukemia Research Group

LRG research focus

The LRG is focused on answering fundamental questions in order to drive development of innovative leukemia-specific therapies: Where do leukemic cells come from? What normal cells give rise to these cancers? What are the cellular and molecular mechanisms leading to the transformation of a normal blood cell into leukemic cells? Can these mechanisms be exploited by therapies that target processes important to leukemic cell survival and growth?

Specific areas of interest to researchers of the LRG include: Why does leukemia sometimes invade the central nervous system, a complication that has a big impact on the child’s treatment, and chances for long-term cure? Despite the clinical importance of leukemia in the central nervous system, we have limited tools available to predict this complication at diagnosis and we do not understand why the leukemia involves the CNS in some patients and not in others.

Why do children with Down syndrome have a significantly increased risk of developing both myeloid and lymphoid leukemia? In addition to helping children with these combined medical challenges, understanding the heightened risk of leukemia in these children may enhance our understanding of risk factors for leukemia and potentially identify new avenues for therapy. 

Another important area of research is the development of improved supportive care and better prognostic factors for the development of acute complications, such as infections, and of late effects of leukemia treatment. For example, long-term survivors who receive cranial irradiation may exhibit long-term neuropsychologic effects including learning disabilities and show an increased risk of obesity, short stature and second malignancies.

Improved methods are urgently needed to detect minimal amounts of residual leukemic cells following treatment. This area of research requires integration of new molecular methods together with routine diagnostic tests to identify patients at high risk of relapse. These diagnostic results are needed to guide the optimal use of bone marrow transplantation for children with acute leukemia to and improve outcomes for children receiving these therapies.

Another central interest of the LRG is to translate new mechanistic knowledge about the origins and behavior of leukemic cells into the identification of novel drug targets for myeloid or lymphoid leukemia. Thus, some members of the group are experts in evaluation of new therapeutic agents, while others are focused on acute and long-term outcomes of these treatments.

In summary, the objectives of the LRG are to answer fundamental questions about the origins and molecular alterations leading to leukemia, to improve our ability to predict and minimize clinical complications of treatment, to enhance the detection of minimal residual disease following therapy, and to translate this understanding into the identification of new and targeted therapies that will spare healthy cells and tissues in growing children.

The LRG at The Hospital for Sick Children is headquartered in The Toronto Medical Discovery Tower (TMDT) that houses over 100 biomedical research laboratories affiliated with The Hospital for Sick Children and the University Health Network. The TMDT is part of the MaRS Discovery District (www.marsdd.com), Toronto’s new centre of biomedical innovation. Adjacent to the TMDT academic research labs, MaRS is also home to 22 companies with portfolios in information technology, life sciences, biotechnology and medical devices. This location enhances the opportunity of the LRG to implement new clinical practice from fundamental discoveries in leukemia.