In memory of his wife, Henry Firebrace set up a foundation to raise money for research into acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). But why research? An interview with Dr Marc Mansour.

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Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow — the tissue inside bones where blood cells are made.

On 15th June 2015, Andrea Firebrace, mother of two young children and wife to Henry Firebrace, sadly lost her battle with AML, having been diagnosed with the disease just one year earlier.

In Andrea’s memory, husband Henry set up a charitable foundation to raise money for research into the disease and the foundation has recently been taken over by UCLH Charity through the UCH Cancer Fund. The money raised will fund a PhD research project, to explore the reasons why people get AML. “I want to know why my wife contracted this disease”, says Henry. “I want to put one small piece of the AML jigsaw together. I know Andi would have valued this more than anything.”

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Unlike treatments of other cancers, which have undergone revolutionary change in the past two decades, specialists remain very much in the dark with AML, and the disease is not yet widely understood. Scientists are yet to discover what causes the cancer and treatment methods have not changed significantly in 20 years.

Dr Marc Mansour, a Haematologist specialising in AML and friend of Henry Firebrace, says that research into AML is necessary as it could lead to developing a more specific and therefore more successful way to treat the disease.

Marc explains that research and treatment for AML lags far behind a similar cancer of the white blood cells called acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), which is the most common cancer to affect children.  “Scientists have developed specific ways of treating ALL”, Marc says. “This has resulted in a modern day survival rate of 90% for childhood ALL. We hope that this will one day be the same with AML”, Marc continues.

On a personal level, Marc has known Henry Firebrace for a number of years; their friendship began from playing rugby together, and due to this Marc was very much involved with the treatment of Andrea Firebrace upon diagnosis in 2014.

“The treatment of Andrea was very up and down. At one point Andrea went into remission, and it was a great moment. But soon after Andrea received her bone marrow transplant, she relapsed again. This was devastating.”

AML is a very aggressive cancer, and treatment like Andrea’s can be unpredictable. That’s why a wider understanding of AML is needed to develop a specific treatment. This could increase the survival rate which currently stands at around 50% three years after diagnosis.

Marc says that supporting PhD research is the best way to find answers, and this is what motivated Henry to fundraise. Having set a target of £150,000, Henry hopes to support a PhD student through three years of research. The research will focus on the role of “non-coding DNA”, how genes get switched on and off, and what role this plays in AML. “Mutations in our actual genes do not make up the whole story with AML”, explains Marc. “We want to find a completely new way to link genetics with AML, one that could help explain why some people get AML; that will in turn help us find new drug targets.”

Marc says that investing in PhD research is a long term investment as the foundation has the potential to launch a scientist into a life-long career in AML biology. “This is an investment from the bottom up. You’re potentially investing in decades of research.”

With the UCLH/UCL connection, Marc knows from first-hand experience that UCL is best placed to undertake research, and the connection allows specialists excellent access to patient samples. “We house thousands of AML samples collected from national trials”, Marc says, before adding that “UCLH is one of the largest centres to treat AML in the UK, meaning we can take findings from the lab directly back to patients”.

Due to his personal connection with Henry, Marc has himself fundraised for the Andrea Firebrace foundation by swimming the length of the Serpentine River in Hyde Park, and raised over £6,000. However, the fund still has a long way to go, and Marc urges people to donate to help form a better understanding of the devastating disease that is AML. “The war against AML can only be won in the laboratory. Be part of Andi’s legacy”, Marc concludes.

The Andrea Firebrace fund is part of UCLH Charity. To donate or fundraise for the fund, visit: