Hannah Francis’ legacy: Willberry Wonder Pony funds groundbreaking research

A groundbreaking research project into a rare type of bone cancer has been launched thanks to Hannah’s Willberry Wonder Pony Charity.

The charity, founded by eventer Hannah Francis who died two years ago from osteosarcoma aged 18, has awarded £230,000 to the University of Sheffield’s department of oncology and metabolism for research into the disease.

The grant will be spent on research in the hope of identifying new drugs that can be used either alone or in combination with chemotherapy to treat osteosarcoma.

Allie Gartland, professor of bone and cancer biology at the department, will be leading the research.

“Osteosarcoma is a particularly nasty disease which has very poor survival rates,” said Professor Gartland.

“Unfortunately, not all patients respond to chemotherapy – their tumours become chemo-resistant and their overall five-year survival rate is then drastically reduced.

“It is shocking to think that treatment for this particularly aggressive form of bone cancer hasn’t changed in the past 30 years.

“There is clearly a need to understand the mechanisms by which chemo-resistance develops so we can find more effective treatments.”

The disease affects about 160 people in the UK each year, of which 30 are children, and attracts very little funding because of its rarity.

This means that there has been limited research conducted in this area and treatment for the disease has not improved in the last 30 years.

“Our aim is to identify drugs that are currently used to treat other diseases, which may also be a more effective way to treat osteosarcoma – whether on their own or in combination with the current chemotherapy strategy,” added Professor Gartland.

In addition to the grant, the charity is also funding two PhD researchers to investigate why osteosarcoma cells become resistant to chemotherapy.

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Miles Toulson-Clarke, from the charity, added: “During Hannah’s illness, we contacted Professor Claire Lewis at the University of Sheffield to discuss her innovative ‘Trojan Horse’ research.

“Although there was sadly no opportunity for Hannah to benefit from this, we kept in contact with Professor Lewis and a meeting followed with her and Professor Gartland where the idea of the grant arose.

“Osteosarcoma can strike anyone, but many of the patients are young. The outlook is bleak and the condition causes immense physical pain, never mind the mental burden it imposes on the patient and those close to them.

“It became very evident to us during Hannah’s illness that more research was critical if progress was to be made.

“With her typical focus on others rather than herself, Hannah’s over-riding ambition was to ensure that patients diagnosed with osteosarcoma didn’t have to endure the horrific treatment regime she went through and, critically, that hope could be provided in the future. We’re immensely grateful to our tens of thousands of supporters for making this possible and this is just the beginning of our research funding.”

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