Three children Alejandro Gutierrez, MD, treated for leukemia during his fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital still haunt him more than a decade later. One 15-year-old boy died from the toxicity of the drugs he was given; the other two patients went through the whole treatment only to die when their leukemia came back. “That really prompted a deep frustration with the status quo,” Gutierrez recalls. “It’s motivated everything I’ve done in the lab since then.”
Gutierrez, now a researcher in the Division of Hematology/Oncology, has made it his mission to figure out why leukemia treatments cure some patients but not others. And in today’s issue of Cancer Cell, he and 15 colleagues report progress on two important fronts: They shed light on how leukemia cells become resistant to drugs, and they describe how two drugs used in combination may overcome that resistance, offering new hope to thousands of children and adults with leukemia.
Clinicians have long known that children with Down syndrome carry an elevated risk of developing acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common pediatric cancer. Research consistently shows that children with Down syndrome are more likely to suffer complications from chemotherapy. At the same time, some studies have suggested that children with Down syndrome and ALL may have a higher chance of relapsing.
A new color-coding tool is enabling scientists to better track live blood stem cells over time, a key part of understanding how blood disorders and cancers like leukemia arise, report researchers in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Stem Cell Research Program.
In Nature Cell Biology today, they describe the use of their tool in zebrafish to track blood stem cells the fish are born with, the clones (copies) these cells make of themselves and the types of specialized blood cells they give rise to (red cells, white cells and platelets). Leonard Zon, MD, director of the Stem Cell Research Program and a senior author on the paper, believes the tool has many implications for hematology and cancer medicine since zebrafish are surprisingly similar to humans genetically. …
Although current treatments can cure 80 to 90 percent of cases, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) remains the second leading cause of cancer deaths in children. Patients with a resistant form of the disease, who relapse following successful treatment or who have other high risk features have few treatment options. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is also difficult to treat in children.
In a first-of-its-kind study, investigators at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center are testing precision cancer medicine in children and young adults with relapsed or high-risk leukemias. The goal is to determine whether powerful next-generation DNA sequencing can spot mutations or genetic changes in leukemia cells that can be targeted by cancer drugs. …
One of the immune system’s basic jobs is to tell “self” from “non-self.” Our cells carry markers that the immune system uses to recognize them as being part of us. Cells that don’t carry those markers—like bacteria and other pathogens—therefore don’t belong.
Cancer cells, however, fall into a gray area. They’re non-self, yet they also bear markers that connote self-ness—one of the reasons the immune system has a hard time “seeing” and reacting to cancer.
Can we focus the immune system’s spotlight on cancer cells? The provisional answer is yes. Research on cancer immunotherapy—treatments that spur an immune response against cancer cells—has boomed in recent years. (The journal Science recognized cancer immunotherapy as its Breakthrough of the Year in 2013.)
One of the hot trends in drug discovery could be called drug re-discovery: finding new uses for drugs that have already received FDA approval for a different indication.
It’s an approach that allows researchers and clinicians to rapidly test potential treatments for rare or difficult-to-treat conditions. Because the drug’s safety profile is already known, much of the preclinical and early clinical work that goes into developing a drug can be bypassed.
As a hematologist, I see all too many children battling blood disorders that are essentially untreatable. Babies with immune deficiencies living life in a virtual bubble, hospitalized again and again for infections their bodies can’t fight. Children disabled by strokes caused by sickle cell disease, or suffering through sickle cell crises that drug treatments can’t completely prevent. Children whose only recourse is to risk a bone marrow transplant—if a suitably matched donor can even be found.
Over the past 20 years, my lab and that of George Daley, MD, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital have worked hard to give these children a one-time, potentially curative option—a treatment that begins with patients’ own cells and doesn’t require finding a match. …
Leukemia and other cancer cells are really good at hurdling over the obstacles we throw at them. It’s the whole basis of drug resistance: we attack a mutation with one drug, and another mutation arises to cancel out the drug’s effect. Or the cell ramps up other pathways to compensate for the one blocked by the drug.
The news that your child has cancer always comes as a shock, but for one cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), parents can take comfort in the fact that doctors are really good at treating it. The cure rate for ALL has, over the last 40 years, climbed to nearly 90 percent.
Less comforting is the fact that some 10 to 20 percent of children who initially respond well to treatment suffer a relapse within five years. And right now, the drugs at our disposal aren’t very good at turning a relapse back into a remission.
Recently, in the hospital cafeteria, I overheard a group of researchers discussing the upcoming availability of whole-genome sequencing to physicians. “We should devise a way to study how physicians will use this,” said one of them—underscoring the disruptive nature of the transformation that is currently happening in medicine.
The ability to immediately obtain whole-genome sequences from patients holds enormous potential for understanding and treating human disease. The list of studies reporting successful diagnosis of otherwise elusive orphan conditions is already too long to recount—more than 600 articles in PubMed as of the date of this posting—including poignant examples of advancing clinical care. …