Leukaemia is a cancer of the blood with a high relapse and mortality rate. This is partly because surviving cells are often resistant to treatment, allowing the cancer to spread and become fatal.
It is unclear how these treatment-resistant cells survive initial chemotherapy. Many scientists believe that they sit hiding in specific niches within the bone marrow that usually harbour blood stem and progenitor cells that can become all other blood cell types.
A new study, where the GABBA student Delfim Duarte is a co-author, reveals that leukaemia cells do not sit and hide. Instead, they were found randomly distributed throughout the mouse bone marrow and they were moving around speedily. Leukaemia cells that survive treatment were seen moving faster than those before treatment.
The researchers suggest that the act of moving itself may help the cells to survive, possibly through short-lived interactions with other cell types.
The team’s investigation into leukaemia cells’ behaviour also revealed that they actively attack bone cells, which are known to support healthy blood production. The researchers believe this insight could help scientists to develop treatments to safeguard production of healthy blood cells in leukaemia patients.
To investigate the working of leukaemia at the cellular level, the team used a technique called intravital microscopy that allows high-resolution fast imaging of live animals. The team used mice with a particularly deadly type of leukaemia called T cell acute leukaemia.
The research was led by a team at Imperial College London with colleagues from the Francis Crick Institute in London and the University of Melbourne in Australia, and was published in Nature.
Hawkins ED*, Duarte D* et al. T-cell acute leukaemia exhibits dynamic interactions with bone marrow microenvironments. Nature. 2016 Oct 17;538(7626):518-522.
Photo: Environments in bone marrow (blue, purple and green) as they are invaded by leukaemia cells (yellow). Image: Edwin Hawkins/Delfim Duarte/Cristina Lo Celso