A study of four-year-old identical twin sisters, one of them battling leukemia, has allowed scientists to identify a type of cell that seems to be the root cause of this cancer in children. Leukemia is described as the excessive proliferation of white blood cells in the bone marrow, which leaves the body incapable of producing enough normal blood cells. Leukemia is the most prolific type of cancer in children.
Although only one of the sisters suffers from the full-blown disease, researchers found that pre-leukemic stem cells containing a mutated gene were present in the bone marrow of both children. Therefore, it is thought that a second genetic mutation in early childhood, possibly caused by an infection, is needed for the disease to develop. It is believed that approximately 1% of the population is born with these pre-leukemia cells. Among carriers of pre-leukemia cells, one person out of one hundred receives the second signal that triggers the disease.
Thankfully today, close to 90% of children suffering from leukemia can survive the disease because of aggressive chemotherapy treatments. This substantial percentage represents an improvement of nearly 50% in the last 20 years. But unfortunately, children still have to face the toxic effects of the treatment.
Directly attacking pre-leukemic stem cells in the bone marrow could prove a more effective way to treat childhood leukemia and ensuring it does not resurface. Furthermore, this discovery could also allow physicians to better evaluate the seriousness of the disease, and adjust the intensity of the treatment accordingly.
Finally, this discovery could promote the development of new medications that are adapted to the specific needs of these tiny patients. Saving them is already a wonderful accomplishment, but minimizing the toxic effects of their treatment would be that much better!