Project Spotlight: Peter Henley, immunology researcher

In our ‘Project Spotlight’ blog series, we chat to some of our fantastic researchers and hear all about their work and life as a cancer researcher. This week, we’re speaking to Peter Henley, who is completing a PhD investigating the role of the immune system in leukaemia, funded by Cancer Research Wales. Leukaemia is a cancer that affects the white blood cells of our immune system, and can be split into several types according to how quickly it develops (acute or chronic) and the type of white blood cells that it affects (myleoid or lymphatic). Around 500 people in Wales are diagnosed with some form of leukaemia every year. Together with his supervisor, Dr Stephen Man, Peter is working to understand more about the role of different immune cells in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia. 


Tell us about the problem that your research is trying to address:

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL) is the most common leukaemia in adults, but despite this there is no known cause and in most cases the cancer is incurable. Many patients have slow-developing disease that does not require treatment for many years, if at all. However it is very difficult to predict if and when an individual’s cancer will get worse. Equally, those who do receive treatment may not respond and might have to try several different therapies to find one that works for them. Therefore, clinicians often cannot offer definitive reassurance to patients and their families, so there is a need to better understand CLL and the factors that influence its development and susceptibility to treatments.


What does your research group work on?

Our lab works on a type of cell of the immune system called T cells, which usually detect and destroy infections and cancer. However, in CLL the T cells do not function as they should, and cannot kill the leukaemia cells. Cancer Research Wales has funded several of our projects over a number of years investigating why the T cells in CLL do not work, and what impact this T cell dysfunction has on patients. There are several different kinds of T cells in our immune system, and we have found that the relative balance of these different T cells can be quite profoundly altered in leukaemia patients. Our most exciting discovery so far has been the effect of what we term an ‘inverted ratio’. In healthy people CD4 T cells outnumber CD8 T cells by about 2:1, but in around 1 in 3 CLL patients the CD8 T cells outnumber the CD4 T cells. Our work has shown that those 1 in 3 patients with an inverted ratio have a worse disease prognosis and need treatment sooner.


What is your project investigating?

My project follows on from the previous Cancer Research Wales-funded work in our lab and has two main aims: Firstly, we want to track CLL patients long-term to observe the effects of various factors including the inverted ratio and any treatments they receive. Secondly, I am trying to discover the role of a specific type of T cell which our lab has previously shown to be important in determining the prognosis of CLL patients.


How did you become a cancer researcher?

I’ve always been interested in science and that lead me to study a degree in Medical Science at the University of Birmingham. I really enjoyed my degree, especially the research projects that we undertook, so I knew I wanted to stay in the science world. I spent a year working as a research technician studying the impact of multiple sclerosis treatments on the immune system before applying for my PhD. The chance to move my interest in immunology to a cancer setting really excited me, so I’m grateful to Cancer Research Wales for funding my project!


What common misconceptions do people have about your job?

I think a lot of people picture scientists as eccentric academics locked away in darkened labs all day, but in reality we’re nice normal people (most of us anyway!). Although our work might seem very different, we face a lot of the same challenges as most other jobs and I think people would be surprised at the similarities – we still get inundated with emails while we’re in the lab!


What’s your favourite thing about your work?

The sense that what I do is trying to benefit patients. I think that day-to-day it’s easy to forget the bigger picture that we’re all working towards better information and treatments for patients, but meeting people through Cancer Research Wales whose lives have been affected by cancer really drives home the impact that we hope our research will have.


What do you do when you aren’t at work?

I’m a keen racquet sports player and regularly play both squash and badminton. I’m also a season ticket holder at Cardiff City and am looking forward to a promotion push next season!


Is there anything you’d like to say to Cancer Research Wales supporters?

Firstly I’d obviously like to thank everyone who has donated or raised funds for Cancer Research Wales, as without them I wouldn’t be here at all! And on that note, a huge thanks to all the patients and healthy volunteers who kindly donate blood samples for our research, they are quite literally the lifeblood of our lab!

I’d also encourage anyone who hasn’t done so to attend Cancer Research Wales events or get involved with the charity in some other way – it’s a wonderful charity with some fantastic staff and volunteers who I’m sure would appreciate the support.