Development & Alumni Relations Office 

MEET THE RESEARCHER – PROFESSOR KEN MILLS  Left to right - Professor Ken Mills, Dr Lisa Crawford and Richard Buchanan, chairman LLNI on balcony in Lanyon Building

01 February 2021

Blood cancer is the fifth most common type of cancer, but the third highest cancer killer in the UK claiming more than 15,000 lives each year, while in Northern Ireland, three people every day are diagnosed with a blood cancer.

Professor Ken Mills (pictured above left), Chair of Experimental Haematology at Queen's is based in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences (MDBS), leads a team in the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research, researching new treatments for adult acute leukaemia, and specifically working on the development of more effective and less toxic therapies for leukaemia.

“I have been working on blood cancers since my post-doc position at the Beatson Institute in Glasgow,” explained Professor Mills.

“My project at that time was on identifying markers for chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML); that disease has an interesting course from affecting the more mature blood cells at the start but progressing to a more aggressive cancer of immature cells, and at time, an inevitably fatal disease. 

“It was the diversity of the diseases and how different mutations could influence the disease that led me to continue to work on blood cancers for over 36 years!”

Education and career

Ken attended Harvey Grammar School in Folkestone, Kent (1965 – 1974) before graduating with a BSc in Biomolecular Science (1977) at what was then Portsmouth Polytechnic (since 1992 the University of Portsmouth), before completing his PhD in Biochemical Cell Biology at the University of Southampton (1981).

His early career included four years as a post-doctoral scientist at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research (1984-88), followed by a similar period at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary as a Research Scientist in the Leukaemia Research Laboratories (1988-1992). Before moving to Queen’s in 2007 as Professor of Experimental Haematology, he held the post of Reader in the University of Cardiff for five years.

Professor Mills’ interests currently lie in translational research in Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) and Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), with the aim of improving diagnosis, prognosis and prediction of therapeutic responses. 

AML is a particularly aggressive cancer of the myeloid cells which normally fight bacterial infections, defend the body against parasites and prevent the spread of tissue damage in white blood cells. Acute means the cancer progresses quickly and usually requires immediate treatment.

MDS is a blood disorder that causes a drop in the number of healthy blood cells.

Ken combines his research activities with teaching Queen’s undergraduates who are the researchers and doctors of the future.

Over the years blood cancer research at the University has contributed greatly to studies of the disease, whether through the understanding of its molecular mechanisms, the identification of potential therapeutic options or by contributing to national and international networks.

“Research in Belfast has been recognised by the inclusion in studies such as Biomed2 that has led to the routine use of molecular assays for clinical diagnostics and disease monitoring,” said Professor Mills.

“More recently, we were named an associate partner of HARMONY, an EU / IMI2 big data project to identify and refine the impact of molecular interactions. Queen’s is also a leading partner in NEMHESYS which aims to improve educational aspects around the use of next generation sequencing for blood cancers,” he added.

Importance of LLNI funding

In recent years, much of the work of Professor Mills’ Blood Cancer Research Group (BCRG) has been funded by local charity, Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI (LLNI), which was set up in 1964.

LLNI supports research into the causes and cures of leukaemia, lymphoma, and myeloma in Northern Ireland, based on the study of cancers that develop from blood stem cells.

Under the chairmanship of Richard Buchanan (above right), LLNI is underpinning important research at Queen’s which has long-term implications for those suffering from blood cancer.  

"We are a local charity that prides itself on the global impact of our work, as well as benefits to local blood cancer patients," Richard said. "This would not be possible without the leadership and guidance of Professor Mills.

"Ken's experience, expertise and established position in this field of work has been vital in maximising the impact of our funding on research, and hence supporting the most vulnerable groups with the poorest outcomes."

Funding directed through the Queen’s University of Belfast Foundation by LLNI as part of a 5-year strategy (2017-2022), includes an initial gift of £790,000 and, just last September, a follow-up donation of £500,000 to support blood cancer research.

“All funding is important, but the fact that LLNI is a Northern Ireland based charity supporting research into blood cancer has been highly important in enabling my research,” Professor Mills said. 

LLNI, has provided support to the BCRG group by funding PhD studentships, fellowships and other opportunities to develop and train the future generation of scientists and clinicians in blood cancers. 

“Beneficiaries of these awards are currently working across Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Ireland, and in the United States and Canada,” he added.    

“In addition, the LLNI funding has enabled projects to be developed that have bought in funding from other charities and organisations; whilst the support of research nurses has enabled a vital link with the clinicians and patients.”   

That initial 2017 funding resulted in the recruitment of Senior Lecturer, Dr Lisa Crawford (pictured centre) in January 2018 and subsequently lead to Dr Crawford obtaining funding for three PhD studentships, to the publication of a number of high quality papers, and to the development of several key local, national, and international partnerships.

Besides these important achievements, there are additional indicators of success, as Professor Mills outlined.

“Being involved in the MILE study, which was an international project examining gene expression across all types of leukaemia, was a major achievement for the Queen’s research team.”

Microarray Innovations in LEukemia (MILE) was a large, 3,000 sample, sequential study set up in 2005 to assess the clinical accuracy of the microarray test compared to standard leukaemia laboratory methods (the so-called gold standard) for 16 classes of leukaemia, MDS and non­leukaemia/normal bone marrow.

“The data from this project – one of the biggest at that time – is still making an impact by being analysed by groups across the globe to enable a better understanding of these diseases.” 

Professor Mills has also published over 180 peer reviewed papers during his career. In addition to his work on chronic myeloid leukaemia, acute myeloid leukaemia and myelodysplastic syndromes, he has also been able to contribute to publications on many other blood cancers and even on some breast cancer papers using the bioinformatic and molecular expertise from the Queen’s BCRG group.  

Acknowledged for his academic leadership and his scientific, professional and pastoral support for students and early career researchers, Professor Mills has been described as ‘an incredible mentor who goes above and beyond for all his staff and students’.

COVID-19 and hopes for the future

As with many aspects of cancer research, treatment and care, the arrival of the coronavirus had an impact on the work of Professor Mills’ team. It delayed and interrupted laboratory research during lockdown closures and reduced working patterns such that some experiments had to be modified, though ironically not all was doom and gloom.

“It also meant that we could focus on writing our work for submission for publication. This has enabled us to publish several papers and reviews in the latter part of 2020 and that is continuing into 2021,” Professor Mills said.   

A further unforeseen outcome of the pandemic found the BCRG group working as part of a cross-disciplinary research team with other scientists at the University testing current drugs to see if they could be repurposed to treat the coronavirus. 

“One unexpected activity that arose early in COVID-19 was the opportunity to form a partnership with Professor Ultan Power in the University’s Centre for Experimental Medicine,” explained Professor Mills. “We combined our laboratory’s expertise and technology on repurposing drugs with his international expertise on virology to win one of the earliest grants awarded by UKRI for COVID-19 research in March 2020.    

“This is an exciting collaboration and shows the benefit of interdisciplinary research.” 

And what of his hopes for blood cancer research at Queen’s in the coming years?

“I hope that the BCRG will grow particularly through the recent, and hopefully future, appointments in the group,” said Professor Mills.

“I also hope that Queen’s will continue to lead the way in our understanding of the disease and continue to work towards identifying novel and repurposed therapies that are more effective and less toxic than many of those used currently for all ages of patients but particularly for the elderly and the very young patients.” 

Ken Mills lives in Belfast with his wife Anne, though due to COVID-19 travel restrictions they currently spend much of their time on the Isle of Man where Anne is Chief Executive of Hospice Isle of Man. Ken travels back and forward to the island “when airline failures and COVID-19 have allowed.” They have three sons, Calum, Euan and Finlay, all of whom are in their 30s.

Supporting blood cancer research

“The research undertaken by Professor Mills and his team in the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s is hugely important,” said Teresa Sloan, Head of Health Fundraising.

“Local research such as this has an immediate impact on the lives and future health prospects of people in Northern Ireland.

“Thanks to Ken’s team – and the on-going support of LLNI and others – our understanding of the molecular complexity of AML and MDS has increased dramatically in recent years, though as available therapeutic options are limited due to the disease complexity it is vital that we continue this research.”

To support blood cancer or other health-related research projects at Queen’s, visit the Development and Alumni Relations Office website or contact Teresa Sloan, Head of Health Fundraising. 

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast.

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