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Research pinpoints susceptible target for leukemia


Vancouver, BC – New research from the BC Cancer Agency’s Terry Fox Lab pinpoints a susceptible target for combating many forms of leukemia. Scientists have identified a previously unknown gene involved in the beginning life cycle and spread of leukemias.

The research identifies several key genes- notably MEIS1-and their role in allowing normal cells in the bone marrow to transform into cancerous cells. The findings were published on July 12 in the journal Cancer Cell.

“We believe that MEIS1 in particular is an Achilles heel in many forms of leukemia,” says Dr Keith Humphries, director of the Terry Fox Laboratory, BC Cancer Agency, and agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority. “When we remove MEIS1 from leukemic cells in the lab, we are able to stop very aggressive leukemia in its tracks.

“MEIS1 is a master regulator because it controls the expression of many other genes. This means that we’ve opened the door to identifying what could be many downstream targets of new, more effective treatment strategies,” he adds.

Currently, oncologists are limited to the choice of chemotherapy or stem cell transplantation to treat most blood cancers, such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML), and these options and subsequent outcomes could be improved upon. The path to better treatment for blood cancers is through discovering the unique weaknesses of the cancer cells and designing new ways to target these weaknesses with therapies that will get rid of the cancer cells with minimal side-effects.

“If existing or newly developed drugs could stop the functionality of MEIS1, this would represent an exciting opportunity to potentially advance our treatment options for leukemia patients,” says Dr Andrew Weng, hematopathologist, BC Cancer Agency.

Dr Humphries credits the inspired work of Dr Michael Heuser, a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory, and a team of collaborators at the BC Cancer Agency for this discovery. Together with Dr Heuser-who is currently conducting research in his own laboratory in Hannover Germany-they are actively pursuing a search for drugs and other approaches that might effectively target and shut down the cancer-causing function of MEIS1.

The research will also be important to the newly launched personalized medicine project for AML also being conducted at the BC Cancer Agency. “We are very eager to learn if any of the mutations identified through the AML Personalized Medicine Project may be linked to the pathways identified in our study,” says Dr Humphries. “The timing of our discovery, just days apart from the launch of the AML project, is indicative of the full spectrum research taking place at the BC Cancer Agency.”

Read here for more on the AML Personalized Medicine Project.