Stephen M. Ansell, MD, PhD

Follicular lymphoma (FL) is normally an indolent (slow-growing) cancer, but in roughly 30 percent of patients it transforms into an aggressive large cell lymphoma. In 2010, Dr. Stephen Ansell, who is a Consultant in the Division of Hematology as well as Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, was awarded a Follicular Lymphoma Clinical Study Grant from the Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) to examine the tumor microenvironment of FL — particularly how the non-cancerous immune cells that exist in many lymphoma tumors participate in this transformation. As part of the project, Dr. Ansell and his team are testing whether a subset of the immune cells in the lymph node suppresses the function of other immune cells in the tumor, thus allowing the lymphoma B-cells to transform and grow unchecked. "If we can identify the cells responsible for promoting lymphoma cell growth, we can develop ways to prevent this happening," Dr. Ansell says.

Stephen M. Ansell, MD, PhD

As they approach the conclusion of their three-year grant, Dr. Ansell's team has recorded significant differences in the number and location of the non-cancerous immune cells when FL transforms, as well as identified cytokines – a product of the immune system that can boost or suppress immune response — that are associated with a poor patient outcome. The results of the project will not only contribute to scientists' overall understanding of the biology of FL and its transformation, but may lead to new treatments to prevent the transformation from occurring.

Dr. Ansell began his medical training in his native South Africa. As a medical student, he was asked to participate in a new project in lymphoma. "It proved very stimulating and led to a subsequent project and then another," he says. His interest in continuing lymphoma research eventually led him to the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Ansell notes that there has been dramatic progress in understanding the biology of lymphoma since the beginning of his career. "When my career began, treatment was based on chemotherapy alone, which essentially killed all growing cells (good and bad)," he says. "Treatment now still uses chemotherapy, but antibodies and targeted small molecules are being used more and more. This has led to greater efficacy of treatment with less toxicity." He advises young researchers to be persistent when applications or ideas are initially rejected, interact with the research community in their field, and to pay attention to unexpected results. "The unexpected can lead to new areas of discovery," he shares.

Working at the Mayo Clinic has also helped Dr. Ansell provide optimal, individualized patient care. "Those working at Mayo Clinic strive to live up to the statement that 'the needs of the patient come first,'" he says. He encourages patients diagnosed with lymphoma to gather a strong support team of family, friends, and health care providers, and to do their best to understand their disease and treatment. Above all, he advises patients to not lose hope. "Patients diagnosed with lymphoma can be treated successfully and many have very durable remissions after treatment," he notes. "Furthermore, with new, promising treatments in development, the outlook for lymphoma patients continues to improve."

To learn about another LRF funded project in FL, read our July 2013 Featured Researcher profile of Wing (John) Chan, MD.

To learn more about the LRF research program, or the research and investigators supported by the Foundation please click here.

To read about other Featured LRF Researchers, click here.