Certain blood cancers may be triggered by signals sent from surrounding bone cells, not by individual cells going bad, and interrupting those signals may offer a new approach to treating leukemia, U.S. researchers said on Sunday.
"Cancer is generally thought to be a single cell going rogue. It does so by accumulating a series of genetic injuries," said Dr. David Scadden of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, whose study appears in the journal Nature.
But Scadden and colleagues instead found that genetic changes in bone cells — where blood stem cells reside — can cause mice to develop myelodysplasia, a condition that can lead to an acute form of the blood cancer leukemia.
Studies in mice showed that when the team altered a gene in the bone cells called Dicer1, it had a damaging effect on blood stem cells as well.
"The blood started to take on a picture which resembled a very poorly understood human disease called myelodysplasia," Scadden, who directs the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a telephone interview.
"It has a complication of developing leukemia," he said, which is exactly what some of the animals in the study did.
"The reason that this is important is it says the environment can actually become such an important part of the function of the tissue — the blood in this case — that it can lead to the emergence of new genetic abnormalities that can become fatal for the whole organism," Scadden said.
He said the findings offer a new understanding of the source of some cancers, which can come from outside of cells.
Scadden said interrupting the communication between surrounding cells and cancer cells could offer another approach to making cancer drugs.