Hitting Acute Myeloid Leukemia Where It Hurts


Research teams from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have teamed up to devise a new strategy for treating acute myeloid leukemia (AML). This new strategy is an outgrowth of new findings by these research groups that have identified an enzyme that plays a central role in the onset of AML.

During blood cell development in the bone marrow, hematopoietic stem cells divide to produce daughters cells, one of which remains a stem cells and the other of which becomes a progenitor cell. The progenitor cells can either differentiate toward the lymphoid lineage, in which it will become either a B-lymphocyte, T-lymphocyte, or a Natural Killer cell, or a myeloid precursor that can give rise to neutrophils, megakarocytes (that produce platelets), monocytes, eosinophils, or red blood cells. However, the means by which myeloid cells are formed in the bone marrow of AML patients is abnormal, and the myeloid precursor cells do not differentiate into a specific white blood cells, but, instead, remain immature and proliferate and crowd out and suppress the development of normal blood cells.

David Scadden, MD, director of the MGH Center for Regenerative Medicine (MGH-CRM), co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), and senior author of this Cell paper, had this to say about AML: “AML is a devastating form of cancer; the five-year survival rate is only 30 percent, and it is even worse for the older patients who have a higher risk of developing the disease.” Dr. Scadden continued: “New therapies for AML are extremely limited – we are still using the protocols developed back in the 1970s – so we desperately need to find new treatments.”

What genetic changes cause these developmental abnormalities that lead to AML? As it turns out, a wide range of genetic changes occur in AML (see Medinger M, Lengerke C, Passweg J. Cancer Genomics Proteomics. 2016 09-10;13(5):317-29; and Prada-Arismendy J, Arroyave JC, Röthlisberger S. Blood Rev. 2016 Sep 2. pii: S0268-960X(16)30060-1). In this paper, however, the authors proposed that the effects on differentiation had to transition through a few shared events. Using a method created by lead author David Sykes of the MGH-CRM and HSCI, the team discovered that a single dysfunctional point in the developmental pathway common to most forms of AML that could be a treatment target.

Previous studies had demonstrated that expression of the HoxA9 transcription factor, a transcription factor that must be inactivated during normal myeloid cell differentiation, is actually quite active in the myeloid precursors of 70 percent of patients with AML.  Unfortunately, no inhibitors of HoxA9 have been identified to date.  Therefore, Scadden and others used a different, albeit freaking ingenious, approach to screen small molecules that were potential Hox9A inhibitors based not on their interaction with a particular molecular target but on whether they could overcome the differentiation blockade characteristic of AML cells.

First, they induced HoxA9 overexpression in cultured mouse myeloid cells to design a cellular model of AML.  They also genetically engineered these cultured cells to glow green once they differentiated into the mature white blood cell types.  These groups screened more than 330,000 small molecules to find which would produce the green signal in the cultured cells.  The green glow indicated that the HoxA9-induced differentiation blockade had been effectively overcome. Only these 330,000 compounds, only 12 induced terminal differentiation of these cells, but 11 of then acted by suppressing a metabolic enzyme called DHODH.  DHODH, or dihydroorotate dehydrogenase, is a biosynthetic an enzyme that is a member of the pyrimidine biosynthesis pathway, which catalyzes the oxidation of dihydroorotate to orotate.

dhodh

This is a shocking discovery because the DHODH enzyme is not known to play any significant role in myeloid differentiation.  Corroboratory experiments demonstrated that inhibition of DHODH effectively induced differentiation in both mouse and human AML cells.

The next obvious step would be to use known inhibitors of DHODH in mice with AML.  They were able to identify a dosing schedule that reduced levels of leukemic cells and prolonged survival that caused none of the adverse effects of normal chemotherapy.  Even though six weeks of treatment with DHODH inhibitors did not prevent eventual relapse, treatment for up to 10 weeks seemed to have led to long-term remission of AML.  This remission included reduction of the leukemia stem cells that can lead to relapse.  Similar results were observed in mice into which human leukemia cells had been implanted.

“Drug companies tend to be skeptical of the kind of functional screening we used to identify DHODH as a target, because it can be complicated and imprecise. We think that with modern tools, we may be able to improve target identification, so applying this approach to a broader range of cancers may be justified,” says Scadden, who is chair and professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and Jordan Professor of Medicine at Harvard University. Additional investigation of the mechanism underlying DHODH inhibition should allow development of protocols for human clinical trials.

Scadden noted that this manuscript describes six years of work and, also, is a true reflection of the collaborative nature of science in pursuit of clinically relevant therapies.

Gamida Cell Phase 3 Study Design Outline Approved by FDA and EMA


Gamida Cell, a cell therapy company based in Jerusalem, Israel, has reached agreements with the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) with regards to a Phase III study design outline for testing their NiCord product. NiCord is a blood cancer treatment derived from a single umbilical cord blood until expanded in culture and enriched with stem cells by means of the company’s proprietary NAM technology.

Gamida Cell is moving forward now with plans to commence an international, multi-center, Phase III study of NiCord in 2016. Phase I/II data of 15 patients are expected in the fourth quarter of 2015. NiCord is in development as an experimental treatment for various types of blood cancers including Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), and Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML).

NiCord® is derived from a single cord blood unit which has been expanded in culture and enriched with stem cells using Gamida Cell’s proprietary NAM technology. NAM technology proceeds from the observation that nicotinamide, a form of vitamin B3, inhibits the loss of functionality that usually occurs during the culture process of umbilical cord blood stem cells, when added to the culture medium. Pre-clinical studies have also shown that the expanded cell grafts manufactured using NAM technology demonstrate improved functionality following infusion in a living animal. These stem cells show improved movement, home to the bone marrow, and show higher rates of engraftment, or durable retention in the bone marrow. Based on these results, Gamida Cell is currently testing in clinical trials (in patients) cells expanded in culture with the NAM platform to determine their safety and effectiveness as a treatment for blood cancers, sickle-cell anemia and thalassemia. NiCord is intended to fill the crucial clinical need for a treatment for the vast majority of blood cancer patients indicated for bone marrow transplantation, with insufficient treatment options. This segment has a multi-billion dollar market potential.

“The FDA and EMA feedback is a major regulatory milestone for NiCord. NiCord is a life-saving therapy intended to provide a successful treatment for the large number of blood cancer patients who do not have a family related matched donor. Gamida Cell is dedicated to changing the paradigm in transplantation by bringing this therapy to market as soon as possible,” said Dr. Yael Margolin, president and CEO of Gamida Cell.

“The positive regulatory feedback confirms that Gamida Cell’s NiCord program is on a clear path to approval both in the U.S. and EU. We look forward to continuing the development of this very important product in cooperation with sites of excellence in cord blood transplantation worldwide,” said Dr. David Snyder, V.P. of Clinical Development and Regulatory Affairs at Gamida Cell.

The Phase III study will be a randomized, controlled study of approximately 120 patients. It will compare the outcomes of patients transplanted with NiCord to those of patients transplanted with un-manipulated umbilical cord blood.

 

New Standard of Care for Umbilical Cord Blood Transplants


New research led by John Wagner, Jr., M.D., director of the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation program at the University of Minnesota and a researcher in the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, has established a new standard of care for children who suffer from acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

In a recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, Wagner and his coworkers compared clinical outcomes in children who suffered from acute leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome who received transplants of either one unit or two units of partially matched cord blood. This large study was conducted at multiple sites across the United States, between December 2006 and February 2012. Coordinating the study was the Blood and Marrow Transplant Clinical Trials Network (BMT CTN) in collaboration with the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Consortium and the Children’s Oncology Group.

Umbilical cord blood provides a wonderfully rich source of blood-forming stem cells, and has been demonstrated to benefit many diseases of the blood or bone marrow, as in the case of leukemia and myelodysplasia, or bone marrow failure syndromes, hemoglobinopathies, inherited immune deficiencies and certain metabolic diseases. For leukemia patients cord blood offers several advantages since there is no need for strict tissue-type matching (human leukocyte antigen or HLA matching) or for a prolonged search for a suitable donor.

Wagner and others discovered that the survival rates of children who received either one or two units of umbilical cord blood were about the same, but, overall, their recorded survival rates were better than those reported in prior published reports. These higher survival rates, therefore, represent a new standard of care for pediatric patients, for whom there is often an adequate single cord blood unit, and for adults for usually require double units, since a single unit with an adequate number of blood-forming stem cells simply may not exist at time.

“Based on promising early studies using two cord blood units in adults for whom one unit is often not sufficient, we designed this study in order to determine if the higher number of blood forming stem cells in two cord blood units might improve survival,” explained Wagner. “What we found, however, was that both treatment arms performed very well with similar rates of white blood cell recovery and survival.”

Children with blood cancers who receive transfusions of umbilical cord blood show quantifiable clinical benefits even though the blood may not match their own tissue types. The reason stems from the immaturity of cord blood stem cells and their ability to suppress rejection from the immune system. This is an important aspect of umbilical cord blood transplants, since patients who cannot find a matched unrelated donor also benefit from cord blood transplants. However, cord collection from the placenta after birth often results in a limited number of blood-forming stem cells, which decreases the potential benefits of cord blood. The “double UCB approach” was pioneered at the University of Minnesota as a strategy to overcome this inherent limitation in the use of umbilical cord blood.

Despite the similarities in survival rates between children who received one unit or two units of cord blood, some differences were noted. Children transplanted with a single cord unit had faster recovery rates for platelets and lower risks of Graft Versus Host Disease; a condition in which the transplanted donor blood immune cells attack the patient’s body, which causes several complications.

“This is helpful news for physicians considering the best treatment options for their patients,” said Joanne Kurtzberg, M.D., chief scientific officer of the Robertson Clinical and Translational Cell Therapy Program, director of the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, co-director of the Stem Cell Laboratory and director of the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank at Duke University Medical Center. “We found children who have a cord blood unit with an adequate number of cells do not benefit from receiving two units. This reduces the cost of a cord blood transplant for the majority of pediatric patients needing the procedure. However, for larger children without an adequately dosed single cord blood unit, using two units will provide access to a potentially life-saving transplant.”

“The involvement of multiple research partners was instrumental to the success of the study completion,” added Dennis Confer, M.D., chief medical officer for the National Marrow Donor Program® (NMDP)/Be The Match® and associate scientific director for CIBMTR. “This trial is a testament to the importance of the BMT CTN and the collaboration of partners like the Children’s Oncology Group.”

Mary Horowitz, M.D., M.S., chief scientific director of CIBMTR and professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, concurred. “Because of this tremendous collaboration, we were able to expand the scale of this research to multiple transplant centers across the United States and Canada. And the results will undoubtedly improve clinical practice, and most importantly, patient outcomes.”

Interestingly, in this study, patients who received cord blood with significant HLA mismatches showed no detrimental effects on their outcomes. Future studies will examine a closer look at how the HLA match within the cord blood unit impacts outcomes for patients, particularly those within minority populations.

Inhibiting Leukemic Stem Cells


Blood cancers, also known as leukemias, are, in many ways, a disease of stem cells. A core of cancerous stem cells divide and produce progeny that overpopulate, overwhelm, and in some cases invade and destroy other tissues. However many cancer treatments are designed to specifically attack the progeny of the cancer stem cells and not the leukemic stem cells. Therefore, the disease is destined to relapse, since the main driving entities of the leukemia are left to flourish while their progeny have been killed off.

Acute myeloid leukemia or AML is largely a disease of older adults, and even though the survival rates have increased, only about one out of every four adult patients survives for five years after the AML has been diagnosed. The mean survival time for this disease, which predominantly occurs in the elderly, is less than a year for patients over 65 years. Younger adults tend to do much better than older people. For example, more than half (50%) of the people under 45 diagnosed with AML will live for at least 5 years, and some will be cured. But in others, however, the AML will return and there is no way to tell in advance who has been cured and who will relapse. In people over 65 years of age the outlook tends not to be so good and around 12 out of 100 people (12%) are alive for more than 5 years.

Relapses and treatment failure in AML is almost certainly due to leukaemic stem cells, which cannot be completely eliminated during treatment. However, researcher Dr. Marin Ruthardt from the Hematology Department of the Medical Clinic II and Dr. Jessica Roos, Prof. Diester Steinhilber and Prof. Thorsten Jürgen Maier from the Institute for Pharmaceutical Chemistry has discovered a chink in the armor of leukemic stem cells. They report their data in the current edition of the journal “Cancer Research.”

AML stem cells require an enzyme called 5-lipoxygenase or 5-LO in order to survive. 5-LO plays a very important role in inflammatory diseases like asthma. Ruthardt, Roos, Steinhilber, and Maier and the members of their research teams showed that the leukemic stem cells in a subgroup of AML could be selectively and efficiently attacked by chemical inhibitors of 5-LO. These inhibitors killed the leukemic stem cells in cell culture model systems and in leukemia mouse models.

“These results provide the basis for the potential implementation of 5-LO-inhibitors as stem cell therapeutic agents for a sustained AML cure, although this must be investigated further in preclinical and clinical studies in humans,” explains Dr. Ruthardt.

Prof. Maier continued: “In addition, there are plans for further molecular biological studies with the objective of understanding exactly how the 5-LO inhibitors act on the leukemic cells.”

Hopefully these inhibitors can be fast-tracked for Phase I studies in human patients, and if they prove safe under clinical conditions, then maybe, if all seems well, they can be used to treat AML patients with aggressive cancers that do not respond well to more traditional cancer treatments.

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.

Stem Cell Gene Provides Target for Cancer Treatment


A gene called SALL4 encodes a zinc finger transcription factor protein that helps stem cells maintain their undifferentiated state and continue dividing. Cells tend to only express SALL4 during embryonic development, but in almost all cases of acute myeloid leukemia, and in 10-30% of liver, gastric, ovarian, endometrial, and breast cancers, SALL4 is re-expressed. This is solid evidence that SALL4 plays a central role in tumor formation.

Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI)-affiliated labs in Singapore and Boston have shown that knocking out the SALL4 gene in mouse tumors leads to a cessation of tumor growth. Additionally, designing small molecules that inhibit SALL4 activity also treat the cancer and cause cessation of tumor growth and shrinkage of the tumor.

“Our paper is about liver cancer, but it is likely true about lung cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, many, many cancers,” said HSCI Blood Diseases Program leader Daniel Tenen, who also directs a laboratory at the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore (CSI Singapore). “SALL4 is a marker, so if we had a small molecule drug blocking SALL4 function, we could also predict which patients would be responsive.”

Studying the therapeutic potential of a transcription factor is unusual in the field of cancer research. Transcription factors are typically avoided because of the difficulty of developing drugs that safely interfere with genetic targets. Most cancer researchers focus their attention on kinases (enzymes that attach phosphate groups to other molecules).

However, inquiry into the basic biology of the SALL4 gene by HSCI researchers has shown that there is another way to interfere with its activity in cancer cells. The SALL4 protein turns off a tumor suppressor gene, and this causes the cell to divide uncontrollably. By targeting the SALL4 protein with synthetic molecules that inhibit its activity, they could halt the growth of the tumors.

“The pharmaceutical companies decided that if it is not a kinase, and it is not a cell surface molecule, then it is ‘undruggable,'” said Tenen. “To me, if you say anything in ‘undoable,’ you are limiting yourself as a biomedical scientist.”

Earlier this year, Tenen’s co-author, HSCI-affiliated faculty member Li Chau, assistant professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Woman’s Hospital, published a report that synthetic SALL4 inhibitors have treatment potential in leukemia cells.

Chai took blood samples from patients with acute myeloid leukemia, and treated the leukemia cells with this synthetic inhibitor and then transplanted that blood back into the leukemic mice. The cancer showed gradual regression.

“I am excited about being on the front line of this new drug development,” said Chai. “As a physician-scientist, if I can find a new class of drug that has very low toxicity to normal tissues, my patients can have a better quality of life.”

Chai and Tenen are working with HSCI Executive Committee member Lee Rubin from the Harvard Institute of Chemistry and Biology, and James Bradner from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute (another HSCI-affiliated faculty member), to help them with the drug development part of their project. Demonstrating the potential of SALL4-interfering compounds is labor intensive, but might also be efficacious for the treatment of other cancers.

“I think as academics, we seek to engage drug companies because they can do these types of things better than we can,” said Tenen. “But, also as an academic, I want to go after the important biologic targets that are not being sought after by the typical drug company – because if we do not, who will?”

Abnormal Blood Stem Cells are the Cause of Leukemia


Cancer is, to a large degree, a disease of stem cells. When stem cells acquire particular mutations, they lose their controls on cell division and begin to divide uncontrollably. Several different studies have established that several types of cancers result from abnormal stem cells. Blood cancers, for example, form when stem cells accrue rare genetic mutations, according a new study. This discovery overturns the traditional view that blood cancers can originate from any blood cell, and it could conceivably help to prevent relapses in leukemia patients.

Stanford University researchers have identified the origins of leukemia. They used so-called “next-generation sequencing” techniques and various other methods to identify rare, pre-cancerous, blood stem cells in six individuals with acute myeloid leukemia. After identifying these pre-cancerous cells, they compared the genetic sequences from the pre-cancerous blood stem cells to the sequences of the same chromosomal regions from the patients’ leukemia-plagued stem cells. This analysis revealed the exact order of rare mutations that blood stem cells accrued in order to become cancerous.

Stanford hematologist Ravi Majeti, co-lead author of the study, commented: “I’m surprised that we identified the clonal hierarchy that led to leukemia in five of the six cases. I didn’t think we’d find that amount of evidence of pre-leukemia stem cells.”

Scientists have suspected for the last few decades that cancer stem cells, and in particular leukemia stem cells, lead to cancer. In 2005, a Stanford pathologist named Irving Weissman added a twist to this idea when he proposed that normal blood stem cells become cancerous stem cells by accumulating rare mutations. Weissman’s hypothesis suggested that leukemia originated in blood stem cells. Weissman’s hypothesis makes sense of a simple fact; blood stem cells live much longer than regular blood cells, which only live up to a few weeks at most. A few weeks is simply not enough time, to acquire the number of rare mutations necessary to become cancerous. Since blood stem cells are capable of self-renewal, they survive in the body throughout the lifetime of an organism. Unfortunately, such a hypothesis, despite its great explanatory power, is very difficult to directly test, and, therefore, has remained controversial.

The best way to test Weissman’s hypothesis is to identify the protein-coding mutations in several acute myeloid leukemias, and then isolate and analyze the rare, pre-cancerous stem cells to determine which, of the leukemia mutations were present in those pre-cancerous stem cells.

In addition to their sequencing approach, this team also used high-throughput flow cytometry to identify markers specific to a patient’s healthy blood cell-making stem cells versus their leukemia stem cells in order to isolate the very rare populations of pre-cancerous stem cells.

These techniques were pioneered by Thomas Snyder, who is a chief scientist at ImmuMetrix and co-lead author of this paper. Snyder worked as a post-doctoral researcher in the laboratory of Stanford bioengineer Stephen Quake when this he collaborated on this study. Together, Quake and Snyder developed those techniques to sort and study the genomes of each individual cell. “It is only when you can look at a single cell and determine its genotype that you can conclusively show the early stages in the evolution of the cancer,” said Snyder.