Critical weakness in leukemic cells may pave the way to treatment as leukemic cells can be eradicated by removing a carbohydrate modification displayed on the cell surface.
Leukemia - Cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of blood cells to be produced and enter the bloodstream. White blood cells help your body fight infection. Your blood cells form in your bone marrow. In leukemia, however, the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells. These cells crowd out the healthy blood cells, making it hard for blood to do its work. There are different types of leukemia, including:
Acute lymphocytic leukemia
Acute myeloid leukemia
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
Chronic myeloid leukemia.
The research team has demonstrated that leukemic cells can be eradicated by removing a carbohydrate modification displayed on the cell's surface.
Director of Griffith University's Institute for Glycomics, Professor Mark von Itzstein is the Australian team leader. He said the discovery is an important advance against leukaemia, a cancer of malignant white blood cells that multiply uncontrollably. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is the most common childhood cancer.
"We have found that the leukemic cell has an altered cell surface carbohydrate decoration compared to normal cells and this also conveys resistance to drug treatment," Professor von Itzstein said.
"We have now shown that with the removal of this carbohydrate alteration the cells die."
Professors Nora Heisterkamp and John Groffen, leaders of the US-based team, Professor von Itzstein and their colleagues have published their research findings in the latest edition of the internationally acclaimed Journal of Experimental Medicine.
Professor von Itzstein said the research could lead to new ways to fight the disease, particularly where it has become treatment resistant.
"Up until 40 years ago, only one child in five survived ALL", but advances in chemotherapy have changed that outcome and now nearly 80 percent of children with ALL will be cured," Professor von Itzstein said.
"For the remaining 20 percent, however, the disease returns necessitating additional rounds of intensive chemotherapy. Unfortunately, most relapsed patients die within one year because their cancer cells are resistant to chemotherapy.
"In the future, we hope that this novel, structural approach to treating ALL may offer an effective treatment option for children battling drug-resistant forms of the disease."
Professor von Itzstein said the discovery had been made possible only through a unique sharing of research expertise.
"These results are the culmination of an international collaboration that commenced only a few years ago when Professor Groffen spent study leave in the Institute for Glycomics on Griffith's Gold Coast Campus," Professor von Itzstein said.
"It has been a wonderful opportunity to combine the US team's internationally acclaimed expertise in leukaemia with our own expertise in carbohydrate science.
"By exploiting this 'Achilles heel' in these leukemic cells, our collaborative research efforts are now focused on the development of a new type of drug therapy that targets this carbohydrate modification."
Patron of the Institute for Glycomics Leukaemia project in Australia, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston AC, AFC (Ret'd), said he was delighted with this latest advance.
"These new findings provide the groundwork for a new fight against this terrible disease," he said.
About Griffith University's Institute for Glycomics - Based at Griffith University's Gold Coast Campus, research at the Institute for Glycomics involves the study of the carbohydrates and carbohydrate-recognizing proteins in various biological systems, and the design of novel drugs and vaccines to treat or prevent clinically important diseases. This approach presents an exciting therapeutic platform for the control of a wide-range of medical conditions such as a variety of cancers, infectious diseases, inflammation and immune disorders. The Institute is the only one of its kind in Australia and only one of six in the world. For more information visit www.griffith.edu.au/science-aviation/institute-glycomics