This type of leukemia is one of the most aggressive and fatal cancers out there.
Not only does acute myeloid leukemia (AML) usually appear without warning, but it’s one of the most aggressive types of cancer out there — the five-year survival rate for victims is just 24 percent.
Now, in a breakthrough discovery, researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, Australia have pinned down a protein that plays a key role in the spread of the blood cancer. Excitingly, new and improved treatments may emerge from these new insights.
When scientists cut off the production of a protein known as Hhex, the aggressive cancer could be stopped dead in its tracks. They’ve only shown this in laboratory conditions so far, but all of the signs have indicated a promising potential for eventual human application.
“There is an urgent need for new therapies to treat AML,” Dr Matt McCormack, one of the study’s researchers, said in a press release. “We showed blocking the Hhex protein could put the brakes on leukaemia growth and completely eliminate AML in preclinical models. This could be targeted by new drugs to treat AML in humans.”
What’s more, this treatment wouldn’t kill off healthy cells in the process, which is a major problem with most existing AML treatments.
"Most existing treatments for AML are not cancer cell-specific, and unfortunately kill off healthy cells in the process," McCormack said. "Hhex is only essential for the leukaemic cells, meaning we could target and treat leukaemia without toxic effects on normal cells, avoiding many of the serious side-effects that come with standard cancer treatments."
The Hhex protein works by disabling the switch that regulates when blood cells grow and replicate. In leukemic cells, Hhex is overproduced to the point where cancerous cells actually crowd out the other essential cells in the bloodstream. But if scientists were able to remove or block the Hhex protein, the leukemic cells would stop reproducing and eventually be filtered out by the body.
“We now hope to identify the critical regions of the Hhex protein that enable it to function, which will allow us to design much-needed new drugs to treat AML,” says McCormack.
Hopefully designing the new treatments will be much easier now that the scientists have a better understanding of how AML cells grow uncontrollably and how to stop the spread in its tracks. It will take time and further research, but the potential to combat one of the most aggressive types of cancer is exciting news for the field of medical science.