In time for leukemia awareness month, a new genetic technique looks like it could help people with a specific type of leukemia. The therapy takes the wind out of the cancer’s sails, making it less likely to come back once its gone away.
Leukemia is one of the most prevalent childhood cancers, affecting the white blood cells. One in four children with cancer has leukemia, totaling 3,500 American kids diagnosed each year. People with leukemia sometimes experience seizures and vomiting; other symptoms include painless swollen lymph nodes, bleeding or bruising easily, joint pain, unexplained rapid weight loss, weakness, fatigue, and night sweats. These symptoms are not, of course, unique to cancer, but they may indicate testing is required, especially in people with a family history of leukemia or who have been exposed to radiation or to benzene.
One of the more common types of leukemia is called acute myeloid leukemia. AML is a suddenly occurring and fast-moving cancer of the myeloid cells, white blood cells that play a role in the creation of their red counterparts. Most childhood leukemia is of this type, though the risk increases with age. It generally presents with flu-like symptoms. The exact cause is unknown, but AML is associated with DNA damage to the cells that prevents them from functioning properly. Unable to do their job, the cells sort of gather in the bone marrow, preventing healthy cells from forming.
A study in Ontario, however, may have found a way to defeat this DNA damage. The technique involves using proteins on the cells to create an immunity to the effects of the damaged cells. This allows more normal cells to be produced, sidestepping the damaged cells entirely and preventing relapse that way. The immune system eventually destroys the cancer cells that remain, rendering them harmless. This follows on the heels of another discovery, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, that uses stem cells to introduce a “cell killer” that targets cancer cells.
Current treatments use chemotherapy and anti-cancer drugs. Stem cell therapy has begun to see limited use in recent years, using either donor cells or the patient’s own stored stem cells to create healthy bone marrow.