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Norfolk scientist’s role in amazing cancer breakthrough

PUBLISHED: 07:04 07 November 2015

Layla Richards who has become the first person in the world to receive a

Layla Richards who has become the first person in the world to receive a "designer" immune cell therapy to cure her "incurable" cancer. Photo: Great Ormond Street Hospital /PA Wire

It is the uplifting story which has gripped the world – how a little girl has had her apparently “incurable” cancer reversed.

Scientist Matt Moscou at the Sainsbury Laboratory.
Matt developed a technology that has help cure a little girl who had leukaemia.

Picture: James BassScientist Matt Moscou at the Sainsbury Laboratory. Matt developed a technology that has help cure a little girl who had leukaemia. Picture: James Bass

Today, we can reveal the pivotal role played by a Norfolk scientist in this sensational breakthrough that has stunned the scientific community – and beyond. Matt Moscou, who works at the Sainsbury Laboratory, at the Norwich Research Park, only realised the significance of the part he had played in the revolutionary treatment of Layla Richards when he read about her story in the media.

It emerged this week that pioneering genetic therapy at London’s Great Ormond Street had seen Layla, one – who was diagnosed with incurable aggressive leukaemia five months ago – have her condition reversed. Doctors used “designer immune cells” to fight the cancer and say her improvement was “almost a miracle”.

The revolutionary treatment built on research Dr Moscou had carried out into curing plants from harmful conditions. He developed techniques to target specific cells in plants and “cure” viruses.

He said: “It’s wonderful what has been done for the little girl. It is awesome and monumental. Once you understand what makes plants and people sick, it can be fixed.

“How it works is it is like having a postcode of where you want to go and being able to target that area, because once you can target something directly, you can change it.”

It is too soon to know if Layla, from London, has been cured, but there is no trace of disease in her body and her progress already marks a huge moment.

Dr Moscou, originally from southern California, has lived in Norwich city centre for five years.

He developed the technology in 2009, while in the US, when he was studying for his PhD.

“Originally two of us were just trying to understand how a pathogen takes advantage of a host in plants and it is amazing to see my work saving human lives.

“It is a gold star to us but the next big challenge is making sure people have enough to eat by making sure plants resist viruses so people in undeveloped and developing countries can grow crops.”

His work led to the development of “designer cells” that had, until now, only been tested on mice.

Layla’s family turned to the experimental treatment after chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant failed.

The day before her first birthday, her parents were advised to consider palliative care.

Her father, Ashleigh told the BBC: “I didn’t want to go down that road, I’d rather that she tried something new and I took the gamble.”

If you have a story about something that could change lives email jemma.walker@archant.co.uk

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