Matilda S
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Discovery of cancer causing cells could improve treatments for leukaemia

Matilda S
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18 Jan 2011

Researchers at the University of Oxford have identified a new type of cancer-causing cell in patients with leukaemia which may explain why this blood cancer remains difficult to treat.

Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research scientists looking at how acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) develops found that patients have more than one type of leukaemia stem cell in their blood. These cancer stem cells fuel the disease and are likely to be the reason why many treatments are not effective in the long-term.

Stem cells are primitive cells capable of producing any type of cell in the body. Cancer stem cells therefore are the source of the disease and need to be targeted in order to find better treatments and an ultimate cure.

Around 2,200 people are diagnosed with AML in the UK every year. Unfortunately up to half of these patients relapse and the disease is very difficult to treat if it returns.

This study, which is published in the journal Cancer Cell on Tuesday 18 January, looked at samples taken from patients with AML. The majority of these patients had more than one type of stem cell-like leukaemia cell in their blood.

Scientists had suspected that there must be different types of leukaemia stem cell present in patients with AML. The confirmation that a single patient can have more than one cancerous stem cell driving the disease may explain why treatments for AML are not effective in many cases.

Dr Paresh Vyas of the University of Oxford, who led the study comments, “By identifying new cells that are responsible for driving this leukaemia, we can start to develop new and improved treatments that target these cells. Most significantly for patients with AML we can also look at better ways of tracking the disease in individuals and preventing relapse.”

Dr David Grant, Scientific Director of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, adds, “There are currently few treatments available for patients with relapsed AML. This breakthrough study is extremely positive and with more research is likely to lead to improved treatments that tackle the problem of relapse in patients with acute myeloid leukaemia.”