Leukaemia could be stopped in its tracks by neutralising rogue blood cells that fuel the disease, a study has revealed.
By suppressing a protein in the blood called beta-catenin, scientists found they could switch leukaemic stem cells back to a pre-cancerous stage of development.
The study also showed that more aggressive leukaemic stem cells that had become resistant to treatment could be “re-sensitised” to anti-cancer drugs.
The groundbreaking study, reported in the journal Cancer Cell, involved a dangerous strain of leukaemia driven by defects in the MLL (mixed lineage leukaemia) gene.
MLL cancer accounts for around 70% of infant leukaemias and 10% of those affecting adults.
Only 50% of children diagnosed with MLL leukaemia survive longer than two years after receiving standard therapy.
Professor Eric So, who led the King’s College London team, said: “These results are extremely exciting and represent a critical step forward in the search for more effective treatments for this devastating form of leukaemia.
“The findings provide compelling evidence that this protein could be exploited to develop an effective therapeutic target for this form of the disease.”
The scientists found suppressing the beta-catenin protein delayed the onset of cancer, slowed down cancer growth, and reversed leukaemic stem cells to a pre-cancerous stage.
Laboratory studies on leukaemic cells from human patients again showed that suppressing beta-catenin lessened their ability to multiply and renew themselves.