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More ‘good cells’, safer treatments for leukaemia patients | 2021 Metcalf Prize winner: Siok Tey, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital

December 07, 2021

Associate Professor Siok Tey is researching treatments that will improve the survival and quality of life for her patients with leukaemia or other blood cancers.

“Bone marrow transplantation is an important form of treatment for blood cancers, but it cures only two-thirds of patients,” says Siok, a clinician researcher at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital.

Siok will use her $55,000 Metcalf Prize to improve the outcomes of bone marrow transplantation, which rebuilds the blood and immune systems to protect patients from leukaemia relapse. Not all patients, however, stay in long-term remission, and the treatment often comes with serious side effects.

Siok plans to identify which transplanted cells provide protection from leukaemia relapse and which ones contribute to complications, and then to use this knowledge to develop better treatments.

In recognition of her leadership in the field, Siok has received one of two annual Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Siok Tey, Photo: QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

Fifty years ago, certain blood cancers, such as aggressive types of leukaemia, were essentially a death sentence. Nowadays, chemotherapy and radiation therapy ensures 70 to 80 per cent of cases go into remission, but some cancer cells evade treatment. For some patients, the risk of relapse can be as high as 90 per cent and bone marrow (blood stem cell) transplant is the only pathway to long-term remission.

Each year, about 700 Australians receive a bone marrow transplant, using cells from a healthy donor to treat leukaemia or other blood cancers.

“Bone marrow transplantation has saved thousands of lives, but it is very much a broad-brush approach,” Siok says.

“We infuse a mixed bag of donor cells: some are good cells that help rebuild the immune system and fight rogue cancer cells. But others are harmful and can attack the patient’s tissues and organs, resulting in complications that are life-threatening and can have long-term effects on quality-of-life.”

“I would have died in two weeks if I hadn’t been diagnosed and treated when I was,” says sculptor David White, a 52-year-old father of two and one of Siok’s patients. “But the side effects were tough. So, it’s exciting to see Siok working on better ways to keep saving lives.”

Siok has developed ways to improve transplant outcomes through her laboratory and clinical research. The Metcalf Prize will help her develop blood cell transplantations that are more precisely targeted and therefore safer and more effective.

“We now understand a lot more about the different cell types and the roles they play in bone marrow transplantation,” Siok says. “We are expanding on this knowledge through ongoing research and, at the same time, we are working on ways to select the good cells for use in transplantation or even directly create cancer-killing cells through cell and gene technology.”

Siok says that the Metcalf Prize is a particular honour in her branch of medicine: “Don Metcalf’s discovery of colony stimulating factors, which control the development of white blood cells from bone marrow stem cells, has transformed the way we perform bone marrow transplantation. He is a hero for our field, his research is inspiring, and his discovery has an enduring impact on our day-to-day practice.”

Siok’s research has been funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, a Metro North Clinician Research Fellowship, the Leukaemia Foundation of Australia, the Cancer Council Queensland, the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Foundation, and the Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Video: Ten News reports on Siok's work and David's leukaemia story

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