Award winner on the hunt for leukaemia’s evil root

Canadian Dr. John E. Dick is to receive Rigshospitalet’s International KFJ Award, and part of the honour is for his work in the fight against leukaemia.

In many ways, leukaemia is like a dandelion. If you just tear off the leaves of a dandelion, the weed will return again and again. To eradicate the dandelion, you have to destroy the root.

In the fight against leukaemia, this dandelion root is the stem cell of the leukaemia, which spreads the disease. If you do not attack the stem cell, the disease will return, even though it seems to have disappeared.

Canadian Dr. John E. Dick is behind this discovery, and this is partly why he has been selected to receive Rigshospitalet’s International KFJ Award of DKK 1.5 million.

Dr. Dick has been researching blood stem cells for more than 30 years, and he has discovered that leukaemia is a stem-cell disease and that leukaemia is built up as a cell hierarchy in just the same way as the normal blood system. 

“Dr. Dick has demonstrated that a leukaemia tumour is not made up of identical cells. The most important cell initiates and determines the process when the cells lower down in the hierarchy divide and the leukaemia spreads. So, if we only aim treatment at the dividing cells, as we did previously, the patient can well seem entirely healthy, but a year later the disease can have spread again,” explained Bo Porse, Head of Department at Rigshospitalet, professor in molecular biology, and the man who recommended Dr. Dick for the KFJ Award.

Of mice and men

Dr. Dick’s research reached a turning point when he succeeded in transplanting human cells to special immune-deficient mice in 1988, making it much easier to research blood stem cells. He then turned his attention to transplanting human leukemia cells into mice and this helped make it possible to identify the single stem-like cells behind leukaemia.

“It’s vital that we can recognise them and then, hopefully, find their Achilles heel so that we can attack the best point,” said Dr. Dick.

This is the future target for Dr. Dick, who is optimistic about the fight against cancer.

“There’ll be no miracle cure for leukaemia or cancer in general. It’ll always be an ongoing struggle and a steady flow of small steps forward. We’ve seen improving survival rates in the fight against cancer, and we’ll see the same in the fight against leukaemia,” said Dr. Dick.

The award winner will invest the DKK 1.5 million from the KFJ Award in this fight.

“It’s always an honour to be recognised for your work, so I’m extremely grateful for the award, and I look forward to investing the generous donation in collaboration with Rigshospitalet,” said Dr. Dick.

With Bo Porse and Rigshospitalet, Dr. Dick has a research project aiming to make it easier to recognise and attack what is popularly referred to as leukaemia’s master cell, and this project will benefit from the award money.

“The cell doesn’t go around with a banner stating ‘I’m evil’. However, Dr. Dick has now identified the cell and we’ll be working together to find out how we can attack the cell without damaging anything else,” said Professor Porse.

The prize will be awarded on Tuesday, 10 January 2017 at 02:30 p.m. at Rigshospitalet in the Board of Management reception room on the 5th floor. There will be a reception afterwards.

The KFJ Award

The KFJ Award is awarded by the Kirsten and Freddy Johansen Foundation in collaboration with Rigshospitalet. Since 2005, the Kirsten and Freddy Johansen Foundation has awarded significant amounts to various causes, often health science research. Read more about the Kirsten and Freddy Johansen Foundation (in Danish) here.

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