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An "Achilles heel" of acute myeloid leukemia

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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

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Heidelberg cancer researchers have found a new target in the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). A team of scientists headed by Prof. Dr. Stefan Fröhling from the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) has discovered that a specific subtype of this disease, which is particularly aggressive and difficult to treat, is strongly dependent on the activity of an enzyme that controls the cell cycle. Drugs that inhibit this enzyme are already being tested on patients with other types of cancer, so it might be possible to swiftly translate these findings into clinical applications.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is an aggressive type of blood cancer that cannot be controlled in a majority of patients. AML is characterized by an out-of-control multiplication of cells in the bone marrow that have undergone a transformation and no longer mature into functioning blood cells. This is caused by genetic defects that have accumulated over a person's lifetime in bone marrow cells. Until now, it has proven extremely difficult to find specific targets in the treatment of AML, because in most cases it is not possible to use drugs to directly inhibit the genetic changes responsible for the disease.

Stefan Fröhling and his team at the Department of Translational Oncology of the NCT/DKFZ investigated a particularly persistent subtype of AML that is characterized by mutations in a gene called MLL. The scientists systematically searched for "weak points" in these leukemia cells. To accomplish this, they switched off over 1000 genes using a technique called RNA interference, with the aim of discovering genes that play a particularly important role in the blood cancer cells.

The effects were especially dramatic when scientists used this method to block CDK6. This gene encodes an enzyme that controls the cell cycle. When the researchers inhibited CDK6 in experiments in the test tube and in mice, both exhibited a slower growth and maturation of AML cells with MLL mutations. Other types of AML, on the other hand, did not show a significant dependence on CDK6.

The researchers are hopeful that this finding can be translated into a new method of treatment more quickly than is usually the case. They observed that applying a drug called palbociclib, which is a CDK6 inhibitor, affects the leukemia cells in a way that resembles using RNA interference to block the CDK6 gene. Moreover, palbociclib is already effectively being used to treat other types of cancer and has proven to be well tolerated, for example, by patients with advanced breast cancer. Fröhling and his colleagues are now planning a clinical trial to study the effectiveness of using drugs to block CDK6 in patients with MLL-driven AML.

"Patients suffering from this type of AML have an extremely poor prognosis, because the disease does not respond to conventional chemotherapy," says Fröhling. "We urgently need to develop new treatment strategies for these leukemias, and their strong dependence on CDK6 is an 'Achilles heel.' We hope to take advantage of this to improve the prognosis of the patients."

The study was carried out in collaboration with Dr. Claudia Scholl (DKFZ and Ulm University Hospital. Further collaboration partners were Dr. Michael Milsom (DKFZ and HI-STEM) and Prof. Alwin Krämer (DKFZ and Heidelberg University Hospital) as well as scientists from Tübingen and Magdeburg (Germany), Cambridge (UK), Boston, Cambridge, New York and Philadelphia (all USA). The German Research Foundation (DFG) provided substantial funding for this research.

Theresa Placke, Katrin Faber, Atsushi Nonami, Sarah L. Putwain, Helmut R. Salih, Florian H. Heidel, Alwin Krämer, David E. Root, David A. Barbie, Andrei V. Krivtsov, Scott A. Armstrong, William C. Hahn, Brian J. Huntly, Stephen M. Sykes, Michael D. Milsom, Claudia Scholl, Stefan Fröhling. Requirement for CDK6 in MLL-rearranged acute myeloid leukemia. Blood 2014, DOI:10.1182/blood-2014-02-558114

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 2,500 employees is the largest biomedical research institute in Germany. At DKFZ, more than 1,000 scientists investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and endeavor to find new strategies to prevent people from getting cancer. They develop novel approaches to make tumor diagnosis more precise and treatment of cancer patients more successful. The staff of the Cancer Information Service (KID) offers information about the widespread disease of cancer for patients, their families, and the general public. Jointly with Heidelberg University Hospital, DKFZ has established the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg, where promising approaches from cancer research are translated into the clinic. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of six German Centers for Health Research, DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partnering sites. Combining excellent university hospitals with high-profile research at a Helmholtz Center is an important contribution to improving the chances of cancer patients. DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centers, with ninety percent of its funding coming from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the remaining ten percent from the State of Baden-Württemberg.


Dr. Stefanie Seltmann

Head of Press and Public Relations

German Cancer Research Center

Im Neuenheimer Feld 280

D-69120 Heidelberg

T: +49 6221 42 2854

F: +49 6221 42 2968

Dr. Sibylle Kohlstädt

Press and Public Relations

German Cancer Research Center

Im Neuenheimer Feld 280

D-69120 Heidelberg

T: +49 6221 42 2843

F: +49 6221 42 2968


Source: German Cancer Research Center
2.0 from 11 votes
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