Maintaining healthy blood cells could be key to fighting leukaemia

Instead of focusing on destroying cancer cells, maintaining healthy blood cells in the bone marrow could be the most effective way to fight leukaemia.

Scientists at London’s Imperial College have shown that keeping healthy blood cells alive could be more important in the fight combatting leukaemia than destroying cancerous cells.

Computer modelling was used to analyse the competition between these two types of cells using techniques more traditionally employed in ecological studies. This showed that maintaining an optimum environment for healthy cells was more effective than targeting the damaged cells directly. This result could change the way leukaemia, a cancer of the blood, is treated, as cancer treatment has traditionally relied on fighting the disease rather than maintaining health. A better understanding of the processes taking place in the bone marrow could therefore allow doctors to take earlier and more targeted action in combating leukaemia.

Lead author Adam MacLean said: "The first researchers to model competing populations mathematically were looking at predators and prey -- famously lynx hunting wild hares. Whilst we don't have predator and prey cells, we have two cellular species who directly compete against each other for resources, and our models analyse how that competition plays out within the biological niche of the bone marrow."

Michael Stumpf, Professor of Theoretical Systems Biology and one of the paper's co-authors states: "Maintaining health is more likely to eradicate leukaemia than fighting leukaemia directly without taking care of the healthy stem cells. And that's a slightly surprising result which nobody had explicitly stated before. It allows us to understand these processes in a way that could be important for potential therapeutic responses."

Professor Stumpf added: "We want to make the model more useful, and find cases where we can break the model if it's incorrect."

The study, published in theJournal of the Royal Society Interface, is the first attempt to model competition between these two types of cells using methods borrowed from the world of ecology.

A fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. Full medical glossary
Tissue within the bones where blood cells are formed. Full medical glossary
Abnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. Full medical glossary
Malignant, a tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of all living organisms. Full medical glossary
An element present in haemoglobin in the red cells. Full medical glossary
A malignant condition in which increased numbers of white blood cells, leucocytes, are produced in an immature or abnormal state. Full medical glossary
Cells with the ability to specialise into various forms. Full medical glossary