Protein acts as a switch for leukemia

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AML switch discovered: protein responsible for leukemia

Researchers at the Hannover Medical School (MHH) have discovered a type of switch that has a major impact on the development of leukemia (blood cancer). The research group led by Michael Heuser from the MHH was able to identify a specific protein as a key influencing factor for the development of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) as part of their current study. By switching off the corresponding protein, the therapeutic processes could be significantly improved in the future, the researchers hope.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a particularly severe form of blood cancer, is largely determined by a certain protein that acts as a type switch for AML, Michael Heuser and his colleagues from MHH report in the current issue of the specialist magazine "Cancer Cell ". The researchers discovered the protein in their current study when studying the blood formation process in mice. The scientists now hope to be able to derive therapeutic procedures that enable efficient treatment or prevention of AML.

Development of leukemia in the blood formation process As part of their research, the MHH scientists examined the blood formation process more closely in the laboratory. In the Petri dish, Michael Heuser and colleagues observed how the cells of mice developed on the way to the mature blood cell. The cells generally go through several stages until they can end up performing numerous functions in the body as a mature blood cell. Stem cells become immature progenitor cells, later mature progenitor cells and finally the mature blood cells. In their laboratory tests, the researchers used mouse cells to which they had inserted a gene (MN1 gene) that can trigger the particularly aggressive acute myeloid leukemia. While observing cell development, Michael Heuser and colleagues found that only the immature progenitor cells developed leukemia, while the mature progenitor cells and the mature blood cells did not tend to develop blood cancer.

Protein determines the development of leukemia cells According to the MHH researchers, the fact that only the immature progenitor cells developed leukemia can be attributed to a certain protein (MEIS1), which is only present in those cells, but is missing in the further stages of blood formation. When the corresponding protein was used in conjunction with the leukemia-inducing MN1 gene in the mature progenitor cells, these also developed into leukemia cells, explained Michael Heuser and colleagues. This leads to the suspicion that "MEIS1 acts as a kind of switch", which determines whether or not there is leukemia, "Heuser explained. This assumption was also confirmed when the researchers switched off MEIS1 in existing mouse leukemia cells, the doctors write. Without MEIS1 "the cells could no longer cause leukemia in the mice," emphasized Heuser. The results of the MHH scientists sound promising because, according to Heuser, “switching off MEIS1” could be “an effective therapy for many patients with different forms of leukemia”. As a further research goal, the scientists proclaimed the search for suitable drugs to switch off or block switches such as MEIS1.

Increased chances of survival through improved therapeutic procedures For the approximately 10,000 people who, according to the Society of the Epidemiological Cancer Registries in Germany (GEKID), develop various forms of leukemia annually, the therapeutic improvements promised by the MHH researchers could mean a real glimmer of hope. If similar procedures can also be applied to other forms of blood cancer such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), chronic lymphoblastic leukemia (CLL) and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), the risk of a fatal course of the disease as a whole could be significantly reduced. According to GEKID, the relative survival rate after five years is currently 46 percent for men and 44 percent for women. Almost half of the leukemia patients die within five years of the consequences of the disease. An improvement in therapeutic measures could also contribute to a significantly higher chance of survival. (fp)

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Image: Johannes Höntsch /

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