Stories about: childhood leukemia

Getting to the root of a hard-to-treat childhood leukemia

Giving chromosomes their structure and shape, strands of DNA, shown in gray, are coiled around histones, depicted as spheres. Scott Armstrong thinks that drugs that block a particular histone methylation pathway could be the key to treating a rare but devastating childhood leukemia. (Courtesy Eric Smith/DFCI)

In the 40 years of the war on cancer, there is probably no greater success story than that of childhood leukemias. Once nearly uniformly fatal, some forms of acute lymphoblastic (ALL) and acute myeloid (AML) leukemias can now be cured in 80 or even 90 percent of cases.

The prognosis for the remaining 10 to 20 percent is not as good, especially if the cancer involves a reshuffling or rearrangement of the mixed lineage leukemia (MLL) gene. “We still only achieve about 50 percent success in treating these MLL-rearranged leukemias,” according to Scott Armstrong, a pediatric oncologist at Children’s and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “We need to find better ways of caring for these patients.”

Armstrong and his colleagues may have just given patients with MLL-rearranged leukemias a leg up by finding and exploiting a core epigenetic vulnerability in this type of cancer.

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