Scientists studying an aggressive form of leukaemia have discovered that rather than displacing healthy stem cells in the bone marrow as previously believed, the cancer is putting them to sleep to prevent them forming new blood cells.
The finding offers the potential that these stem cells could somehow be turned back on, offering a new form of treatment for the condition, called Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML). The work was led by scientists at Queen Mary, University of London with the support of Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute.
Around 2,500* people are diagnosed with AML in the UK each year, both young and old. Although AML is curable in some the majority die from this disease.
Normally, the bone marrow produces haematopoietic stem cells which mature into "adult" blood cells. In people with AML the bone marrow is invaded by leukaemic myeloid cells which aren't able to develop into normal functioning blood cells.
The result is that the body does not have enough red blood cells or platelet cells, which can cause symptoms of anaemia, such as tiredness, and increase the risk of excessive bleeding. Patients are also more vulnerable to infection as the white blood cells, which fight bacteria and viruses, are not properly formed.
Dr David Taussig, from the Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary, University of London, who led the research, said: "The widely accepted explanation has held that AML causes bone marrow failure by depleting the bone marrow of normal haematopoietic stem cells by killing or displacing them.
"However, we have found that samples of bone marrow in both mice models and patients with AML contain the same, or more, of these normal stem cells than usual. So the cancer isn't getting rid of them, instead it appears to be turning them off so they aren't going on to form healthy blood cells.
"If we can find out how the cancer cells are doing this, we can look at exploiting it to find
|Contact: Katrina Coutts|
Queen Mary, University of London