Scientists at Imperial College London hope to improve leukaemia treatment after being awarded a prestigious research grant by Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research.
Drs Cristina Lo Celso and Edwin Hawkins have received £250,000 for a three year project investigating how cancer cells use 'hiding places' in the body to avoid chemotherapy drugs.
Each year as many as 300 children are diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Nearly all respond well to initial treatment, but the cancer returns in one quarter of patients and is much harder to treat the second time around. The long term outlook for adults is much worse, with only 40% of patients responding to treatment. Patients relapse because current treatment is unable to kill every cancer cell inside the body.
Dr Lo Celso, at Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences, said: “We believe that some cancer cells hide in protective compartments inside the body while patients receive treatment. After treatment has finished they leave these hiding places and can again cause cancer. If we understand where the cancer cells hide, we will be able to develop better ways to treat patients and eliminate all cancer cells.”
The researchers will use high powered microscopes located in Imperial's Facility for Imaging by Light Microscopy (FILM) to detect fluorescent light inside cells. This technique will allow the team to look deep inside the bone marrow of mice in the laboratory and track leukaemia cells during treatment. They will be able to observe how cancer cells, which would otherwise be undetectable, survive.
Different compartments inside the bones affect how blood stem cells grow and function. Dr Lo Celso’s team believe that the compartments which regulate healthy blood stem cells are 'hijacked' and used by leukaemia cells. Understanding the similarities between stem cells and leukaemia cells will have a dramatic impact on the design of new drugs, enabling these hiding places to be targeted.
Professor Chris Bunce, Research Director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “Leukaemia occurs when the machinery that controls how blood cells grow and die breaks down. We now know that both normal blood cells and leukaemia cells are produced by a small number of stem cells that live inside compartments in our bone marrow. Understanding how these leukaemia cells hide from powerful anti-cancer drugs is vital to creating treatments for patients that will work faster and prevent the disease from returning."