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Leukaemia blood testing has ‘massive potential’

The Bloodwise logo. Bloodwise appears in black text against a white background
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17 Aug 2016

Researchers funded by Bloodwise at The University of Manchester have identified potential new ways that doctors could diagnose and monitor the most common form of childhood leukaemia in the future.

Researchers funded by Bloodwise at The University of Manchester have identified potential new ways that doctors could diagnose and monitor the most common form of childhood leukaemia in the future.

Dr Suzanne Johnson, who carried out the research, says that acute lymphoblastic leukaemia cells produce and release special structures that can be traced in the blood. Until recently, the ‘extracellular vesicles’, as they are known, were thought to be worthless debris. Dr Johnson investigated their presence in the plasma from bone marrow biopsies and discovered their ability to circulate in the blood using mice.

The findings could have major implications on the diagnosis, monitoring, drug delivery and treatment of childhood leukaemia.

Though there is an 85 to 90% success rate in treatment, children must endure repeat bone marrow biopsies to assess the progress of treatment. But the researchers hope this discovery might reduce the frequency of the painful procedures, which can also cause bruising, bleeding and infection.

The research, which was led by Professor of Paediatric Oncology Vaskar Saha, is published the leading journal Blood. It was funded by Bloodwise, Cancer Research UK, the European Union and The Wellcome Trust.

Dr Johnson said: “Our discovery of extracellular vesicles could be a game changer in terms of the way we care for children with lymphoblastic leukaemia. Our research has shown that leukaemia cells have the ability to package parts of themselves and then send these structure – vesicles – to anywhere in the body though the blood.

“That opens up a world of possibilities in terms of monitoring the progress of the disease and making diagnosis quickly and efficiently.  They are also internalised by other cells and act as an effective route for cell communication. Now the challenge is to investigate whether other cancers produce and release these structures as well.”

Further down the road, the discovery could have implications on the way drugs are delivered to patients, explains to Dr Johnson, if we can find a way to combine them with the vesicles.

And the team also hope that the vesicles might provide individualised information about the tumours, eventually helping doctors to deliver personalised care.

She added: “What is amazing is that vesicles were previously dismissed as mere debris from the cancerous cell, but we now realise this absolutely not the case.  They are far more interesting than that.”

Dr Alasdair Rankin, Research Director at the blood cancer charity Bloodwise, said: “Treatments for the most common type of childhood leukaemia are gruelling and can last up to three years. In time this interesting research could lead to less painful methods of monitoring children during treatment, which would have a big impact on their quality of life.”