Leukaemia Busters Turns 30
Celebrating 30 years of Life Saving Research 1989-2019
In celebration of 30 years of magnificent progress in the treatment of childhood leukaemia, Leukaemia Busters are arranging a series of special events this year. A Pearls of Progress Gala Ball at St Mary’s football stadium, home of Southampton FC on Friday 3rd April 2020 has been postponed until further notice due to Coronavirus pandemic.
The birth of Southampton-based Leukaemia Busters 30 years ago was not an easy one; it was from personal pain and ultimate tragedy that the charity was brought into existence. It was the Southampton Evening Echo (as it was called in 1989) who eased the charity’s birth, acting as a midwife to help bring Leukaemia Busters into the world with a mission to develop a cure for children with incurable forms of leukaemia.
The founders of Leukaemia Busters were three sets of parents whose children were receiving harsh chemo-radiotherapy for leukaemia and lymphoma at Southampton General Hospital. Watching their children suffer from the effects of highly toxic drugs and radiotherapy, they decided together to do something about improving treatment. It was on the back of that intention that the charity was born in early 1989 and then named Leukaemia Busters later that year by nine year old leukaemia patient Simon Flavell.
The turning point for the fledgling charity came on the 27th July 1989 when the Southern Echo newspaper (predecessor of the Southampton Daily Echo) published a story about the two senior scientist Doctors David & Sopsamorn (Bee) Flavell who were leading the research team for Leukaemia Busters from their long established leukaemia research laboratories at Southampton General Hospital. What was not revealed in that newspaper article was the fact that the Flavell’s only son Simon (age 9 at the time) was also being treated for a very aggressive form of leukaemia and that they themselves were one of the three sets of parents that had founded Leukaemia Busters a few months earlier. It wasn’t until February 1990 following a relapse of Simon’s leukaemia that it became public knowledge that the Flavell’s had a son with the very disease they were committed to fighting through their work. But Simon’s leukaemia was highly aggressive and resistant to the antileukaemia drugs of the day. Early in 1990 he relapsed with recurrent leukaemia and was in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant to save his life but being of mixed English/Thai descent there was no suitable donor available for him. The Echo newspaper ran with the story “Can You Save Simon” on the front page of the newspaper on the 10th February 1990 in an appeal to find a bone marrow donor for the Flavell’s son, an appeal that went worldwide after it was initially set in motion by the newspaper who then continued to support the campaign through to its conclusion. Despite everyone’s best efforts a suitable donor was never found for Simon and he died at home in the arms of his Mum and Dad on the 8th June 1990. It was a devastating blow for them but they took strength in the advice that Simon had given them just a few days before his death that they must carry on with their research work no matter what happened to him. This was all it took to set them more firmly than ever on course to pour all their energies into their potentially life-saving research. Following Simon’s death the Southern Evening Echo once again took the decision to support the Leukaemia Busters cause and ran a campaign to help raise money for a new laboratory at Southampton General Hospital where the Flavell’s would be able to extend their work to develop new antibody-based drugs for patients like the son they had just lost. Over £150,000 was raised largely by Echo newspaper readers towards the cost of a new laboratory at Southampton General Hospital from where the Flavell’s would pioneer new antibody-based treatments for children with relapsed leukaemia. The new laboratory was named The Simon Flavell Leukaemia Research Laboratory and was formally opened by Gary & Michelle Lineker on the 10th February 1993 following which the Lineker’s became the charity’s Patrons for the next eleven years. The Lineker’s had had personal experience of leukaemia when one of their children, George, was diagnosed with the disease as a newborn baby and it was this which persuaded them to back Leukaemia Busters.
From their new laboratory The Flavell’s pushed their research ahead unrelentingly, developing and producing in their own laboratory several different antibody drugs for the treatment of patients whose leukaemia stubbornly refused to respond to conventional treatments. After testing and proving the safety of their antibody-based immunotoxin drugs in two separate clinical trials in adult patients, the regulatory authorities finally allowed them to use one of their drugs called BUSAP in children with relapsed leukaemia. Leukaemia Busters now working together with Cancer Research UK and the UK Children’s Cancer Group (UKCCSG) undertook the first ground-breaking clinical trial in the UK of their antibody-based drug BUSAP in children with relapsed or drug resistant leukaemia. All this was made possible through the generosity of Echo newspaper readers who had supported the charity from the beginning.
Work today in the Simon Flavell Leukaemia Research Lab at Southampton General Hospital, still under the leadership of the Flavell’s, continues with an ever increasing urgency as they continue to build on research findings of the past to create a legacy of better and safer treatments for future generations of patients. Now at 30 years of age Leukaemia Busters can look back at their achievements with some pride in knowing that the work of the past has helped make a difference and that the work they will continue into the future will improve things further still until leukaemia is no longer a fatal disease. Scientific Director of Leukaemia Busters, Dr David Flavell when asked about the charity’s 30th anniversary and what it meant for him and his co-worker wife made the following comment:
“Whilst it is impossible not to look back at the past, we continually take a forward look remembering that the successes we are now seeing with immunotherapy for cancer are the direct result of past research. Our own personal circumstances with the loss of our only child was, and still is, a great motivating force for us, pushing us on to do things that might otherwise seem impossible. One thing we can be sure of, the outlook for future generations of leukaemia patients will continue to improve year on year and we are very pleased to have played our small part in this process, motivated by the memory and love we have for the son we lost. It’s good to know that what we and many thousands of scientists and doctors worldwide have achieved will eventually banish leukaemia as a fatal disease in the not too distant future. We are immensely grateful to everyone who has supported us over the past 30 years all of whom have contributed towards making this dream become reality”.
LEUKAEMIA BUSTERS FIRSTS
- The first laboratory dedicated to developing new antibody-based drugs for children with leukaemia.
- The first to launch a multicentre clinical trial at 11 children’s cancer centres in the UK with an antibody-based drug in children with relapsed leukaemia.
- Amongst the first to show through research that cocktails of different antibodies were more effective in treating leukaemia experimentally.
- The first to show that innate immunity acts together with an antibody-based drug called an immunotoxin to achieve a better curative effect.