Using Sleeping Stem Cells to Treat Aggressive Leukemias

British scientists have discovered that aggressive forms of leukemia (blood cancers) do not displace normal stem cells from the bone marrow, but instead, put them to sleep. If the normal stem cells are asleep, it implies that they can be awakened. This offers a new treatment strategy for acute myeloid leukemia or AML.

This work comes from researchers at Queen Mary, University of London with the support of Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute.

In the United Kingdom, approximately 2,500 people are diagnosed with AML each year. The disease strikes young and old patients and the majority of patients die from AML.

In healthy patients, the bone marrow contains hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) that divide to form either a common myeloid precursor (CMP) or a common lymphoid precursor (CLP) that differentiate into various kinds of white blood cells or red blood cells or lymphocytes. Individuals afflicted with AML, however, have bone marrow invaded by leukemic myeloid blood cells. Since red blood cells are derived from the myeloid lineage, AML causes red blood cell deficiencies (anemia), and the patient becomes tired, and is at risk for excessive bleeding. AML patients are also more vulnerable to infection those white blood cells that fight infections are not properly formed.

HSC differentiation2

David Taussig from the Barts Center Institute at Queen Mary, University of London said that the widely accepted explanation for these symptoms is that the cancerous stem cells displace or destroy the normal HSCs.

However, Taussig and his colleagues have found in bone marrow samples from mice and humans with AML contain plenty of normal HSCs. Thus, AML is not destroying or displacing the HSCs. Instead, the cancerous stem cells appear to be turning them off so that they cannot form HSCs. If Taussig and his coworkers and collaborators had determine how these leukemic myeloid blood cells are shutting off the normal HSCs, they might be able to design treatments to turn them back on.

Such a treatment strategy would increase the survival of AML patients. Only 40% of younger patients are cured of AML, and the cure rate for older patients in much lower. Current treatments that include chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants are not terribly successful with older patients.

Taussig’s group examined the levels of HSCs in the bone marrow of mice that had been transplanted with human leukemic myeloid cells from AML patients. They discovered that the numbers of HSCs stayed the same, but these same HSCs failed to transition through the developmental stages that result in the formation of new blood cells. When Taussig and his group examined bone marrow from 16 human AML patients, they discovered a very similar result.

Even though AML treatment has come a long way in the last ten years, there is still an urgent need for more effective treatments to improve long-term survival. This present study greatly advances our understanding of what’s going on in the bone marrow of AML patients. The future challenge is to turn this knowledge into treatments.

Under normal circumstances, stress on the body will boost HSC activity. For example, when the patient hemorrhages, the HSCs kick into action to produce more red blood cells that were lost during the bleed. However, the cancer cells in the bone marrow are somehow over-riding this compensatory mechanism and the next phase of this research will determine exactly how they do it.