Study Identifies an Unexpected Cell Population Key to Blood Cancer Relapse

Source: McMaster University

Summary: Researchers have provided evidence of new cancerous cells they have termed cancer regenerating cells, which are responsible for the return of acute myeloid leukemia after remission.

Current therapy is effective at inducing remission in adult patients with acute myeloid leukemia, but most patients later succumb after a relapse. That relapse has been thought to be caused by rare and dormant cancer stem cells that escape chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is not entirely specific and destroys a lot of other tissues, making the patient’s body a difficult place to do the detective work to find cells responsible for relapse. To overcome the hurdles, a research team turned to a model where patient leukemic disease is established in laboratory mice, and chemotherapy can be administered to match the way patients are treated in the clinic. They have provided evidence of new cancerous cells they have termed cancer regenerating cells, which are responsible for the return of acute myeloid leukemia after remission. The study findings were published in the journal Cancer Cell.

Myeloid leukemia

Postdoctoral fellows Lili Aslostovar, left, and Allison Boyd, centre, at work in the lab with Mick Bhatia, right, director of the Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute at McMaster University. Credit: Kevin Patrick Robbins/McMaster University.

The team’s key finding was to identify the point at which the disease retaliates by becoming highly regenerative, setting the stage for eventual relapse. This offered a new roadmap to identify the camouflaged cancer cells that hide out in the bone marrow of leukemia patients shortly after chemotherapy treatment. Importantly, similar patterns of leukemic regeneration could be seen across a spectrum of different patient subtypes, providing a common thread to guide the development of new therapies at the critical time point after chemotherapy. This is a major clinical opportunity because this type of leukemia is very diverse and responds differently across patients. The researchers hope that this new understanding of leukemic regeneration will provide physicians the opportunity to introduce additional drugs in combination with chemotherapy treatment.

Lead author Mick Bhatia said, “Chemotherapy has increased the number of years cancer patients survive, but if you look at the overall death rates for people with leukemia, they are relatively unchanged” and further added, “The problem is that the tumour comes back. It’s the relapse, then, that kills the patients. Our goal is to prevent the relapse altogether.”

More Information: Allison L. Boyd et al, “Identification of Chemotherapy-Induced Leukemic-Regenerating Cells Reveals a Transient Vulnerability of Human AML Recurrence” Cancer Cell (2018). DOI:

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