Breakthrough signals alternative to chemotherapy for blood cancer patients

Less toxic treatment is being developed to treat leukaemia

Acute myeloid leukaemia causes the bone marrow to produce a large number of abnormal blood cells. Getty Images
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A leap forward in the treatment of an aggressive form of blood cancer is expected after the discovery of a new way to prevent the progression of the disease.

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), which causes bone marrow to produce a large number of abnormal blood cells, is difficult to treat, with a five-year survival rate of around 30 per cent.

AML, an often-fatal cancer, is most common in patients over the age of 75.

Rates of the disease are rising worldwide, but the cause is not known.

Leukaemia is the 12th most common cancer in the UK, where around 3,100 people are diagnosed with the disease each year, according to the NHS.

Studies show leukaemia is the fourth most common cancer in the UAE in women, and the second most common in men, with Emirati women almost twice as likely as men to develop leukaemia.

Chemotherapy has been commonly used to treat the condition for the past 30 to 40 years. But it often has severe side effects and while treatment usually works initially, the cancer commonly returns.

Now researchers in the UK have discovered a way to prevent the progression of the disease using a new compound called IOX5, which blocks an enzyme in the body's cells that senses changes in oxygen levels that could stop the disease from progressing.

The researchers say by targeting the pathways that our cells use to respond to oxygen levels, the drug provides a new way to treat leukaemia, without affecting the normal production of blood cells within the bone marrow.

Prof Kamil Kranc, Professor of Haemato-Oncology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, told The National there was an urgent need for new treatments for the disease.

He said: “We found a new drug called IOX5. But we managed to repurpose other drugs that are very similar to IOX5 but are not toxic but they manage to kill leukaemia and compromise those cancer stem cells that fuel leukaemia.”

He added: “We think that they are better because they are probably most effective but they are far less toxic, if at all toxic.”

The UAE's overall cancer rate is five times higher in young adults than in UK and US, which has been partly blamed on poor diet and lack of exercise.

A 2010 study by UAE University published in the journal Leukaemia and Lymphoma found the rate of AML was 93 per cent higher among Emirati women than men.

It suggested synthetic forms of henna dye could be the cause. Emirati women were also 63 per cent more likely to be affected than expatriate women.

The next stage for the latest research is to run trials using IOX5 in combination with the other similar therapies, Prof Kranc said.

“I have talked to clinicians in [the Institute of Cancer Research] who are very keen to take this trial forward to identify funding and the right patient cohorts,” he added.

There is also a potential for the treatment to be applied to other cancers.

The researchers are looking into its potential to treat breast, prostate, ovarian, sarcoma and some other cancers.

“We are seeing some promising data. But it’s unpublished and very preliminary. So I don’t want to give hope to the whole oncology field at the moment, but it’s what we are doing at the moment,” added Prof Kranc.

Prof Kristian Helin, chief executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: “Cancer exists in a complex ecosystem within the body.

“This work provides important insights into that ecosystem, and the way in which cancer uses signals within the environment – such as those relating to oxygen levels – to grow and develop.

“This study is also an excellent example of cancer researchers and chemists working closely together to develop and test new cancer therapeutics.

“It's exciting to see how a concept develops through a fundamental discovery project and the development of a first-in-class small molecule inhibitor, to potentially benefiting patients with this devastating type of cancer, and I look forward to seeing this research progress into clinical trials.”

Updated: April 18, 2024, 4:00 PM