Chasing leukaemia

24 October 2016


Surprising insights into chemotherapy-resistant leukaemia cells open up routes for more effective treatments.

LeukaeEnvironments in bone marrow (blue, purple and green) as they are invaded by leukaemia cells (yellow). Image: Edwin Hawkins/Delfim Duartemia is a cancer of the blood and the most common type of cancer in children. While chemotherapy is initially highly effective in treating the disease, a few leukaemia cells often survive and so the disease recurs. This reduces the chances of survival to under fifty percent.

Previously, scientists had assumed that the leukaemia cells hide away in the bone marrow of the patient, seeking refuge from the therapy. But nobody had ever studied the mechanism until this week.

A team at Imperial College London led by Dr. Cristina Lo Celso revealed how the cells avoid the chemo: They move around rapidly.

In the Nature paper, Lo Celso followed the movement of leukaemia cells in living mice before and after chemotherapy.

While the treatment killed the vast majority of the cancerous cells, the few surviving ones were moving even faster than before. The team could validate their results with human leukaemia cells in the mouse model.

"Now that we know that the cells don't hide, we can explore why that is and how their movement helps them to survive", says Lo Celso.

"Ultimately we want to find out whether we can stop the movement, and whether this could kill the treatment-resistant cells."

Approaches to slow down the movement of cells already exist. The researchers now want to explore if combining chemotherapy with these approaches could overcome the problem of chemoresistance.

Because they observed how the leukemia cells actively attack the healthy blood production whilst moving around, they also suggest how they might safeguard the bone marrow.

"What we are planning on doing now is to start with a number of already existing drugs and see if we can apply them to improve the treatment of leukaemia," says Lo Celso.

"This research is still in its early stages, but we believe we have already gained valuable insights to open up new avenues in the development of novel, more effective leukaemia treatments."


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