Cancer Cells Survive Treatment by ‘Going to Sleep’

Genetic evidence shows cancer cells can 'go to sleep' therefore avoiding the effects of treatment, only to 'wake up' years later. Scientists believe it explains why some cancers return years, sometimes decades, after a patient is considered cured

One thing that has been puzzling those with cancer and the medical profession for aeons is the fact that one is never cured of cancer, one is always only in remission, with the chances of it returning at any time, even decades later.

Earlier this year, researchers at The Institute of Cancer Research in London published a study in the journal Leukemia, whereby they claim to have found the answer; the cancer cells can escape the effects of chemotherapy by “going to sleep,”  only to wake up years, sometimes even decades later.

By analysing a patient whose bone marrow samples had been taken when he was diagnosed at four years old, as well as those taken when he relapsed as a 25-year-old, after 22 years in remission, they discovered  a common genetic lineage linking the original leukaemia and relapsing disease decades later.

Researchers identified a specific DNA mutation in which two genes called BCR and ABL1 fuse together, in cancer cells from both blood samples, taken 22 years apart. They said this showed a common link between the original and the relapsing leukaemia; they also found many new genetic changes had occurred in the cancer cells when the patient relapsed.

The scientists found the reawakened cancer cells bore similarities to a group of cancer pre-cursor cells that pre-dated even the original bout of the disease.

The study provides striking evidence of cancer evolution in action, with cancer cells able to lie dormant to avoid treatment, and then to accumulate new mutations capable of driving a new bout of disease.

Blood cancer cells can avoid being killed by lying dormant - sometimes for decades

Blood cancer cells can avoid being killed by lying dormant – sometimes for decades

Scientists have long suspected dormant cells from original cancer were responsible for relapse, but had no evidence to support the theory – until now!

This study has now suggested the cells that trigger a relapse may have survived because they were growing at a much slower rate than other cancer cells, resisting chemotherapy which attacks rapidly dividing cells.

Blood stem cells regularly fluctuate between being dormant or ‘asleep’ and dividing very quickly, so it seems cancer cells are just borrowing this trick to avoid being killed by chemotherapy.

Prof Mel Greaves, director of the Institute’s Centre for Evolution and Cancer, told the Daily Mirror: “We have always known cancer can come back after many, many years. The big question is how? We think we’re a step closer to that answer now. Hopefully this means we can use what we’ve found to reduce the risk of relapse.”

Prof Greaves added: “In future it might be possible to speed up the growth of these pre-cancerous dormant cells so that they can be targeted and killed using chemotherapy, to reduce the risk of relapse even further.

Dr Matt Kaiser, head of research at Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, said there were still too many children whose cancer returns.

If we can build up a picture of what causes rare cases of late relapse and how we can detect and prevent it, we may be able to deliver more true cures for this terrible disease.


About LFCT

This is a blog about CHILDHOOD CANCER and CHILDHOOD CANCER AWARENESS Little Fighters Cancer Trust is a non-profit organisation that offers support and aid to Children with Cancer and their families. When a child is diagnosed with cancer it affects the whole family. One of the parents, usually the mother, must give up their job to care for the child and this creates financial problems for the family. In South Africa especially the majority of these families are not well-to-do; many of them are rural. A diagnosis of cancer can wipe out any family’s finances, let alone a poor family. The costs of special medications, special diets, hospital stays, transport to and from the hospital or clinic and accommodation and food costs for the mother who spends most of the time at her child’s bedside are astronomical. These are the people and problems that fall through the cracks, and these are the people that Little Fighters Cancer Trust has pledged to help in any way possible. LFCT takes a holistic approach to assisting the Children with Cancer and their Families, with the main aim to be the preservation of individual dignity and pride. Little Fighters Cancer Trust also focuses on promotion and advocacy of National Childhood Cancer Awareness in an effort to increase awareness of Early Warning Signs of Childhood Cancer. This would result in earlier diagnosis, giving the Child with Cancer more of a chance at Treatment and Survival. See "About" for more Background info

Posted on 25 November, 2015, in Blog, Research and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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