When leukemia moves in, it makes itself right at home

April 17, 2012 | by City of Hope Staff

Cancer cells will do whatever it takes to stay alive, and a City of Hope research team has discovered the sneaky way some leukemia cells can cause cancer after treatment. In this video, Ravi Bhatia, M.D., describes how cancer stem cells that cause chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML, hide out in bone marrow and change their environment to protect themselves.

Bhatia, who directs the Division of Hematopoietic Stem Cell and Leukemia Research, and his colleagues published their study in the April 16 issue of the journal Cancer Cell.

Cancer cells can change the area around them to make conditions better for cancer to grow. In the case of a pancreatic tumor, for example, cancer cells can hide the tumor away from the immune system or encourage the pancreas to grow new blood vessels to feed the tumor. Cancer cells can change the immediate area surrounding the tumor — what scientists call the microenvironment — to help the tumor out.

Leukemia affects the bone marrow microenvironment in a similar way. It turns the area into a space that’s friendlier to leukemia cells. Even if powerful modern medicines successfully kill mature leukemia cells, leukemia stem cells can hide away in the bone marrow, manipulate it and emerge to cause CML again if patients stop taking the drugs.

Researchers think the information may lead to new strategies to counter CML. If scientists can better understand how the disease makes these long-term changes to the microenvironment, they may be able to find better treatments that can wipe out all leukemia cells and prevent them from returning. His team is continuing its investigations.

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