Cancer stem cells causing childhood leukemia found

A breakthrough study of identical twins has for the first time confirmed the existence of cancer stem cells that cause the most common form of childhood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) ? backing evidence that this childhood cancer starts in the womb. The research should lead to less aggressive treatment for childhood ALL and provides the hope of new, more effective drugs.

The new research is published in the journal Science, funded by the UK’s leading blood cancer charity Leukaemia Research and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Scientists have compared cells in the blood of four-year-old identical twins Olivia, who is being treated for leukaemia, and Isabella who is healthy. They found that both twins had the same genetically abnormal primitive cells in their blood. These ?pre-leukaemic’ stem cells reside in the bone marrow and either ?lay dormant’ or go on to develop into full-blown leukaemia stem cells.

Research shows that pre-cancerous stem cells arise from an abnormal fusion of two genes during the mother’s pregnancy to create a hybrid protein ?TEL-AML1′. This genetic mistake can set in motion a series of events that cause the cells to become leukaemic. The authors confirmed their findings in the twins, Olivia and Isabella, by putting the TEL-AML1 gene into human cord blood cells and confirmed a direct link between the specific genetic malfunction and leukaemia.

Professor Tariq Enver, who led the research at the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit, says: “This research means that we can now test whether the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in children can be correlated with either the disappearance or persistence of the leukaemia stem cell. Our next goal is to target both the pre-leukaemic stem cell and the cancer stem cell itself with new or existing drugs to cure leukaemia while avoiding the debilitating and often harmful side effects of current treatments.”

Source: Leukaemia Research, UK

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