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January 17, 2011

Towards a radical treatment for leukemia from Japanese Researchers

Major blood cells that differentiate from hematopoietic stem cells.
Hematopoietic stem cells differentiate into various types of blood cells. Acute myelocytic leukemia develops when phagocytic-lineage cells become cancerous.


Humanized mouse models help clarify the origins of leukemia and the cellular processes that lead to its recurrence, providing hope for a cure for this intractable blood disease.

When viruses or bacteria enter the body, they are eliminated by white blood cells. Yet white blood cells, which are so instrumental to our immune function, can become cancerous and proliferate abnormally and uncontrollably, resulting in a loss of the ability to produce normal blood cells. This disease is called leukemia, and it can occur in people of almost any age, from infants to the elderly. Several types of this intractable disease exist, including acute myelocytic leukemia, which has a higher incidence in adults. About three in every 100,000 people are thought to develop the disease. A small number of leukemia patients can now be cured completely through anticancer drug treatment or bone-marrow transplants, but acute myelocytic leukemia has a particularly high relapse rate, leading to death in many cases. In 2007, Fumihiko Ishikawa and the members of his Research Unit for Human Disease Model at the RIKEN Research Center for Allergy and Immunology (RCAI) discovered that the major cause of this high relapse rate lies in leukemia stem cells, which are resistant to anticancer drugs. In 2010, they presented new research results on two approaches to killing leukemia stem cells.



A possible cure for leukemia.


Treatment with anticancer drugs can kill non-stem leukemia cells, leading to a symptom-free state called the complete remission phase. The stem cells survive, however, because they are resistant to anticancer drugs, and continue to produce leukemia cells, leading to recurrence of the disease. Leukemia will be completely cured if all the leukemia stem cells are killed off, such as by starting the cell cycle of leukemia stem cells and administering anticancer drugs, or by using drugs that exclusively target leukemia stem cells.


Ishikawa and his team are moving ahead with their research with a strong will to achieve a cure for leukemia as soon as possible. “However, acute myeloid leukemia in adults is one of the most intractable malignancies. It has yet to be beaten despite a long history of medical research. We need to focus not only on drug discovery and clinical applications, but also on the essence of leukemia stem cells that cause the disease. We will then be able to find a new rational approach toward an effective treatment. We need effective approaches from different perspectives in order to overcome the difficult challenge that leukemia presents.”



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