Henry Winter 23.05.2013

Cambridge scientists’ mission to destroy cancer ‘queen bees’

A team of University of Cambridge scientists has been granted £390,000 by the blood cancer charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research to develop ways of attacking types of cancer cells described as the ‘queen bees’ of childhood lymphoma.

Lymphoma is a solid tumour found in glands known as lymph nodes, which are crucial to the immune system's ability to fight infection. The Cambridge team, led by Dr Suzanne Turner, is looking at a type of lymphoma called anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL), which primarily affects children. They will focus on the cancer stem cells that drive the tumour's growth, so that better treatments can be developed to return the immune system back to its normal state.

Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research Lecturer Dr Suzanne Turner, who works in the Department of Pathology at Cambridge University, said: “Once the tumour is established it needs to be maintained, like a colony of bees. There is inevitably a high rate of turnover, with cancer cells or 'worker bees' dying off and replaced by new bees. As long as births outweigh deaths the colony will survive”.

“All worker bees are produced by the 'queen bee', the cancer stem cell, so to kill the colony, the queen must be eliminated. With current treatments we are only killing the worker bees and not the queen bees. If these queen bees survive, the tumour can regenerate after seemingly successful treatment and the child will relapse."

Currently up to 40% of children with ALCL relapse after treatment. These children can still respond to chemotherapy, but with each relapse the side effects of treatment worsen. The chemotherapy is effective but relatively crude and indiscriminate in the cells that it kills. This toxicity can cause many short and long term side-effects including infertility, bone degeneration, heart problems and secondary cancers.

The Cambridge researchers will use a number of cutting edge techniques in the laboratory to examine how different cancer cells interact with each other and the immune system to enable tumour growth. By identifying the 'queen bee' cancer stem cells and establishing how they 'talk' to the worker bees during tumour growth, new drugs can be developed to target properties unique to these cells. In this way the driving force behind the lymphoma can be eliminated.

Professor Chris Bunce, Research Director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “The chemotherapy needed to cure ALCL is particularly gruelling, especially if the child relapses and needs to be treated again. Research into this disease will enable us to develop less toxic drugs that will let these children go on to live a normal life after treatment.”


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