Now, by studying how leukaemia cells infiltrate bone marrow, where blood cells are created, researchers led by a team from Imperial College London have made a crucial discovery. Studying mice and human samples, they found that certain areas in the bone marrow support blood stem cells, and when these are overtaken by leukaemia cells, these stem cells are lost and production of healthy blood is significantly reduced. This can cause anaemia, infection, and bleeding in patients, and affects the success of chemotherapy.
Crucially, the team also discovered that a drug already approved to treat a condition known as iron overload can protect these important bone marrow areas and allow blood stem cells to survive. Their results are published today in the journal Cell Stem Cell. The study's lead author, Dr Cristina Lo Celso from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said: "Since the drug is already approved for human use for a different condition, we already know that it is safe. "We still need to test it in the context of leukaemia and chemotherapy, but because it is already in use we can progress to clinical trials much quicker than we could with a brand new drug."