Broken cell 'stopwatch' could lead to blood test to signal how fast leukaemia will progress

Cancer Research UK

Scientists have pinpointed key changes to the telomeres in the cells of leukaemia patients which could play a crucial role in the earliest stages of the disease, according to research published online in the journal Blood.

The research, funded by Cancer Research UK and Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, used pioneering techniques for measuring the length of tiny structures known as telomeres – repeating sections of DNA which protect the ends of chromosomes during cell division.

Each time a cell divides the telomeres get shorter, limiting the cell’s lifespan.

But some cancer cells manage to bypass this safety check, allowing them to divide uncontrollably until the telomeres become so short they leave the chromosome ends completely exposed.

This makes them prone to fusing together causing instability and large-scale DNA mutations that can speed up cancer progression.

The discovery raises the prospect of developing a test to predict how quickly the telomeres are degrading which in turn would signal how fast the leukaemia was progressing.

It could also be a marker to help diagnose the disease earlier.

Dr Duncan Baird, lead author from Cardiff University, said: “This is the first time we’ve been able to directly show that shortened telomeres could trigger the progression of cancer.

“Our research shows that telomere length could act as a kind of stopwatch to predict how fast the disease might progress in cancer patients.

“Being able to detect key changes in the cell that trigger the progression of leukaemia is exciting – it could one day lead to a blood test to predict how aggressive a patient’s cancer is, helping doctors decide on the best treatment option.

“We’re now looking to see if telomeres fusing together may be a driving force in the progression of other types of cancer, such as bowel cancer.”

The researchers looked at blood samples from 41 chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) patients at different stages of the disease. They extracted chromosomes from the blood of these patients and measured the length of their telomeres.

The results showed that the cancer cells of patients at the most advanced stages of disease were more likely to have fused telomeres, suggesting that such events play a major role in the progression of the disease in these patients.

Dr David Grant, scientific director at Leukaemia Lymphoma Research, said: “The discovery that blood cancer cells multiply uncontrollably because of permanent damage to their telomeres is extremely significant. This finding could lead to new ideas on how to deal with the serious genetic damage that promotes cancer growth and the design of new drugs to target the problem.”

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “This discovery is incredibly exciting, especially if it can also be used to monitor disease progression in other types of cancer cell.

“Understanding the key events that trigger cancer in cells is crucial as it opens up the door for new drug targets for slowing the progression of the disease.”

ENDS

For media enquiries please call the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300 or the out of hours' duty press officer on 07050 264059.

References

Notes to Editor

About Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL)

  • Each year more than 7,000 people are diagnosed with leukaemia in the UK, that’s around 19 people every day.
  • CLL is a specific type of leukaemia which affects the ‘lymphocytes’ – a type of white blood cell.
  • In general leukaemia is the most common cancer of childhood, although chronic forms, such as CLL, mostly affect people over 60 and are very rare in people under 40.

About Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research

Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research is the only UK charity solely dedicated to research into blood cancers, including leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. These cancers are diagnosed in around 28,500 children, teenagers and adults in the UK every year. Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research was previously known as Leukaemia Research and has changed its name to raise awareness of its longstanding commitment to research into all the blood cancers - not just leukaemia.

We celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2010 and our expertise and focus enables us to invest in only the best UK research into better diagnosis, treatments and cures. As we receive no government funding and rely entirely on voluntary support, we need to raise £120 million in the next five years to continue this life-saving research. Further information, including patient information booklets, is available from www.llresearch.org.uk or on 020 7405 0101.

About Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Visit the University website at: www.cardiff.ac.uk.