Do fat cells cause leukaemia cells to ‘sleep’ so they can avoid being killed?

Lead researcher - Dr Bela Wrench, Barts Cancer Institute
Mechanisms of Tumour Dormancy in Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia....Escaping the “Trance” of Adipocytes
Amount awarded: £497,036
Award start date: 01 Oct 2018
Award duration: 2 years (24 months)

As many as nine in ten adults with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) will go into remission (where there are no detectable levels of cancer) after treatment with chemotherapy. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re cured. Unfortunately, some people will see their leukaemia return after treatment (relapse), and when it does, it becomes even harder to treat.

Relapse often happens because because a small group of leukaemia cells are ‘sleeping’ and are not affected by treatment, but can wake up after, causing the leukaemia to return. Dr Bela Wrench and her team at the Barts Cancer Institute have discovered that active dividing ALL cells might be switched into a dormant ‘sleeping’ state by the surrounding cells in the bone marrow - the soft spongy middle part of the bone. And when the ALL cells are sleeping, they can avoid being killed by chemotherapy, which only targets rapidly dividing cells. This means when chemotherapy stops, the sleeping ALL cells can wake up and cause the leukaemia to return after treatment.

In this project, she Dr Wrench is exploring whether fat cells can cause ALL cells to sleep, and is searching for ways to wake them up so chemotherapy can kill them.