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Wednesday, 15 September, 1999, 00:46 GMT
Sleepy key to leukaemia
A bone marrow transplant may be the only cure

Doctors hope the discovery that "sleeping cells" could cause the most deadly form of leukaemia will help them treat the condition.

Unlike other forms of the disease, chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) is able to withstand chemotherapy, but doctors did not know how it managed to do this.

The new research suggests these sleeping cells remain dormant while others grow rapidly, meaning the chemotherapy drugs - which target fast-multiplying cells - ignore them.

But the sleeping cells are just as dangerous, and cause the disease to persist even after a full course of treatment.

Explanations

Dr Tessa Holyoake, of Glasgow Royal Infirmary, led the research effort and said it was an exciting discovery.

"A small population of dormant cells which differ biologically from the more numerous actively dividing cells would explain why the present chemotherapy does not cure patients with this type of leukaemia," she said.

"We feel this discovery represents a major step forward in our understanding of CML.

"It gives us very much more to work on to improve outcome for patients with this life threatening disease."

Doctors had suspected that such cells existed, but Dr Holyoake and colleagues at Terry Fox Laboratories, in Vancouver, Canada, were the first to prove their existence.

High death rates

The only way to overcome chronic myeloid leukaemia - which affects around 500 adults in the UK each year - is to use a bone marrow transplant.

But the death rate from the disease is high - 70% - because transplants are only available for about one in three sufferers and not all survive the procedure.

Dr David Grant, scientific director of the Leukaemia Research Fund, said: "It is vital we find new ways to treat this illness.

"We need to find out much more about these dormant cancer cells so we can deploy new drugs to kill them or force them to behave normally."

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See also:
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17 Aug 99 |  Health
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02 Jan 99 |  Health
Leukaemia could run in families

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