Ground breaking research into rare bone cancer funded by inspirational legacy

A ground breaking research project into a rare type of bone cancer which affects young adults, has been made possible thanks to the legacy of an inspirational teenager.

A groundbreaking research project into a rare type of bone cancer which affects young adults has been made possible thanks to the legacy of an inspirational teenager.

The University of Sheffield’s world-leading Department of Oncology and Metabolism has been awarded £230,000 to fund pioneering research into osteosarcoma from the charity Hannah’s Willberry Wonder Pony.

The charity was established by talented horse rider, Hannah Francis, following her diagnosis with the aggressive form of bone cancer in 2015. A big part of Hannah’s dream for her charity was to support vital research into osteosarcoma which usually develops in growing bones.

The disease affects about 160 children and young adults in the UK each year and attracts relatively little funding because of its rarity. This means that there has been equally limited research conducted in this area and treatment for the disease has not improved in the last 30 years.

Allie Gartland, Professor of Bone and Cancer Biology at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Oncology and Metabolism, will be leading the new research project made possible thanks to the generous grant.

Osteosarcoma is a particularly nasty disease which has very poor survival rates,” said Professor Gartland.

Unfortunately, not all patients respond to chemotherapy – their tumour becomes chemo-resistant and their overall five-year survival rate is then drastically reduced. It is shocking to think that treatment for this particularly aggressive form of bone cancer hasn’t changed in the past 30 years.

There is clearly a need to understand the mechanisms by which chemo-resistance develops so we can find more effective treatments.

Allie Gartland, Professor of Bone and Cancer Biology

University of Sheffield | Department of Oncology and Metabolism

The grant from Hannah’s Willberry Wonder Pony Charity will allow Professor Gartland and her dedicated team to identify new drugs that can be used either alone or in combination with the existing chemotherapy strategy.

Professor Gartland added: “Our aim is to identify drugs that are currently used to treat other diseases, which may also be a more effective way to treat osteosarcoma – whether on their own or in combination with the current chemotherapy strategy.

“In addition to the grant, the charity is also funding a PhD researcher who will investigate why osteosarcoma cells become resistant to chemotherapy using the most up to date technologies such as ‘next-generation sequencing’ which will provide vital new information and help to find ways to prevent it.”

Hannah was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in May 2015 at the age of just 17. The prognosis was very poor indeed and Hannah subsequently endured many months of painful and debilitating treatment, fighting the disease with extraordinary courage and dignity.

During this period, tens of thousands of people followed Hannah’s story, told through the voice of her mascot, Willberry the Wonder Pony. Hannah’s sheer determination was plain to see and she defied all medical opinion, continuing to ride right up until she died at only 18 years of age in August 2016.

Miles Toulson-Clarke

Trustee at Hannah’s Willberry Wonder Pony Charity

During Hannah’s illness, Hannah and her family contacted Professor Claire Lewis at the University of Sheffield to discuss her innovative Trojan Horse research. Although there was sadly no opportunity for Hannah to benefit from this, they kept in contact with Claire and a meeting followed with her and Allie Gartland where the idea of the grant arose.

Miles added: “Osteosarcoma can strike anyone, but many of the patients are young. The outlook is bleak and the condition causes immense physical pain, never mind the mental burden it imposes on the patient and those close to them.

“It became very evident to us during Hannah’s illness that more research was critical if progress was to be made.

“With her typical focus on others rather than herself, Hannah’s overriding ambition was to ensure that patients diagnosed with osteosarcoma didn’t have to endure the horrific treatment regime she went through and, critically, that hope could be provided in the future.”

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