Potential new way to treat childhood leukaemia identified

In collaboration with the Press Association

An international team of scientists has discovered a potential new treatment target for T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (T-ALL), according to work published in Nature Genetics.

The team also showed that existing drugs which affect this target can kill T-ALL cells in the lab.

T-ALL mostly affects children. It is a cancer of cells of the immune system called T-cells.

The disease is triggered by faults in the genes that control T-cells.

Researchers already knew that a protein on the surface of T-cells - called interleukin-7 receptor and made by the IL7R gene - may be involved in the disease. To find out more, they looked in detail at the IL7R gene in leukaemia samples taken from 201 patients.

Nine per cent of the samples had some kind of fault in their IL7R gene. The researchers also found that the faults caused non-stop, uncontrolled growth in the number of T-cells. Uncontrolled cell growth is a key driver of cancer.

By identifying the mutations, more efficient therapies may now be developed to target the disease. Scientists also demonstrated that a number of currently available drugs can halt the effect of the faults, and kill cancer cells in the lab, opening up opportunities for future clinical trials.

Lead researcher Joao T. Barata said: "We discovered that the interleukin-7 receptor, which is essential for proper T-cell development, may also have a "dark side", acting as a Mr. Hyde of sorts.

"In particular, we found that certain mutations in this gene are involved in paediatric T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and characterised how they act.

"Our observations allowed us to identify potential therapeutic weapons against these tumours."

Oliver Childs, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "Although there has been tremendous progress in the treatment of T-ALL, more needs to be done, particularly for those patients who relapse. So it's encouraging to see that potential new treatment targets continue to be found through research.

"It will be exciting if these early results in cancer cells are mirrored in patients, but that may be several years away."

Copyright Press Association 2011

References

  • Zenatti, P et al (2011). Oncogenic IL7R gain-of-function mutations in childhood T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia Nature Genetics DOI: 10.1038/ng.924