Leukaemia Breakthrough: Twin Study Finds Stem Cells

Published: January 17, 2008 | 6912th good news item since 2003

A pair of identical twins from Kent could lead to a cure for leukaemia.

Doctors studying the girls – only one of whom has the blood cancer – have for the first time identified the abnormal stem cells that fuel the disease.

They now hope to develop smart drugs that are both more effective and lack the toxic side effects of current treatment.

Dr David Grant, of the charity Leukaemia Research, said: “Current treatment is very crude. If we know the target that we need to hit to cure this disease, then we can develop new treatments.

“This discovery is taking us a long way forward towards that goal.”

When four-year-old Olivia Murphy was diagnosed with leukaemia, doctors realised they had a golden opportunity to unravel the crucial early stages of the disease.

Her twin, Isabella, was genetically identical, yet remained healthy. So doctors compared their blood to find out why.

Both twins share pre-leukaemic cells that result from a genetic mutation while they were in their mother’s womb.

These pre-cancerous cells have remained dormant in Isabella.

But in Olivia, an unknown trigger, possibly a childhood infection, has caused them to be transformed into abnormal stem cells. The result is leukaemia.

The girls’ mother, Sarah Murphy, said the research had helped the family through the heartbreak of the diagnosis and treatment.

“Anything that would make the treatment less invasive on little ones would be fantastic. Any kind of result from this research would be very positive. I know any family will welcome less chemotherapy, because you just don’t want to see your child go through that.”

Current treatment cures 90% of children with leukaemia. But doctors know around half of sufferers don’t need all the drugs that are now routinely given. Some are so toxic that around 1% of the children are killed by the treatment itself.

Dr Phil Ancliff from Great Ormond Street Hospital, who is treating Olivia, said by monitoring the stem cells it should be possible to reduce the drugs given to children.

“What we would like to do is look at the leukaemia stem cells during treatment and see if they have gone,” he explained.

“If they disappear quickly, the child is likely to be cured. If they linger, the child will be at much higher chance of relapse.”

Published in Science & Technology
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