Understanding the mechanisms that cause acute myeloid leukaemia

Dr Justin Wong

The University of SydneyCancer Council NSW Funding: $450,000Funding duration: 2019-2021


Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is a blood cancer that develops when the body makes too many immature white blood cells known as myeloid blast cells or myeloblasts. AML is the most aggressive type of leukaemia. For patients under the age of 55, the five-year survival rate is around 60% but this decreases dramatically for patients diagnosed over the age of 65 – with only around 5% surviving for five years or longer (Thein et al, Cancer 2013; Cancer Research UK, 2016).

Chemotherapy is the main treatment for AML and while it is effective for some patients, many patients will suffer relapse and treatment-resistance. Bone marrow, or stem cell, transplants are another common treatment approach however, not all patients are suitable for this stressful and risky procedure due to age and the challenge of sourcing matched donor stem cells. New treatment strategies are urgently needed to combat this deadly disease.

The research

Cancer is a complex disease characterised by abnormal behaviours in our genes and the molecular structures (DNA and RNA) that make up our genetic code. Dr Justin Wong’s research focuses on chemical changes that occur in DNA and RNA. Dr Justin Wong likens these chemical changes to exclamation marks we use in sentences. Just like exclamation marks add emphasis or excitement to a statement, these chemical changes in DNA and RNA enhance gene activation or repression. Specific proteins are responsible for regulating these chemical changes.

Dr Wong’s research is focused on the chemical changes in DNA and RNA that are associated with acute myeloid leukaemia. He hopes to uncover previously unknown protein abnormalities that cause these chemical changes and identify the genes that are affected. 

The impact

This project has the potential to increase knowledge and understanding of mechanisms that cause cancer as well as future diagnostic approaches and treatments in many cancers. By identifying the molecular abnormalities that occur in acute myeloid leukaemia, Dr Wong hopes to be able to establish new targeted drugs or genetic approaches to restore normal activity and stop this deadly cancer in its tracks.

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