Page last updated at 00:02 GMT, Saturday, 7 February 2009

Cell find 'lifts leukaemia fight'

AML cells among blood cells
Purple acute myelod leukaemia cells visible amongst the blood cells

Research which sheds light on how blood cancer cells work may improve the power of leukaemia treatments.

A Stanford University study found that leukaemia "stem cells", which drive the spread of the cancer, work differently to healthy blood stem cells.

This might mean they could be targeted and destroyed more easily.

The study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, might one day reduce the chances of leukaemia returning after treatment, say experts.

These findings may have a substantial clinical impact
Dr Tim Somervaille
Study author
Cancer was once regarded a disease in which all malignant cells were the same, but in recent years, cancer researchers have focused on the role of cancer "stem cells".

These, like healthy stem cells, provide a source for new cells, and it is important to kill these to stop the cancer regrouping and returning.

This is a problem in leukaemia, in which there can be a significant risk of relapse even after apparently successful chemotherapy.

Conventional treatment for some forms of leukaemia destroys both leukaemia cells and healthy blood cells, but the latest research may point to ways in which therapies can be fine tuned to pick off the leukaemia stem cells more efficiently.

The researchers found difference between two types of stem cells.

Leukaemia stem cells, they found, tap into a genetic mechanism normally harnessed by stem cells in the embryo to allow their division into fresh cells.

Normal blood stem cells use a difference mechanism to prompt their growth.

This means that, in theory at least, drugs which targeted this process would stop leukaemia stem cells dividing, while leaving healthy blood stem cells unharmed.

Root removal

Dr Tim Somervaille, who led the research, said: "This study highlights the great potential of treatment aimed at genes and pathways that are of great importance to the function of leukaemia stem cells.

"These findings may have a substantial clinical impact."

A spokesman from charity Leukaemia Research, said the research could also help make future treatments better at completely wiping out leukaemia stem cells.

He said: "We will only be able to cure leukaemia if we can target and kill the leukaemia stem cells, something that current chemotherapy may not be doing as we would like.

"If you killed 90% of the leukaemia cells, but only 10% of these leukaemia stem cells, you haven't done well enough.

"This approach is like ripping out the roots of the cancer as well as the growth above the surface."

He said he would expect any treatment arising from the research to be delivered in combination with other anti-cancer drugs.

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