CIRM funded research could lead to treatment to prevent recurrence of deadly blood cancer

Chronic myelogenous leukemia

Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) is a cancer of the white blood cells. It causes them to increase in number, crowd out other blood cells, leading to anemia, infection or heavy bleeding. Up until the early 2000’s the main weapon against CML was chemotherapy, but the introduction of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors changed that, dramatically improving long term survival rates.

However, these medications are not a cure and do not completely eradicate the leukemia stem cells that can fuel the growth of the cancer, so if people stop taking the medication the cancer can return.

Dr. John Chute: Photo courtesy UCLA

But now Dr. John Chute and a team of researchers at UCLA, in a CIRM-supported study, have found a way to target those leukemia stem cells and possibly eliminate them altogether.

The team knew that mice that had the genetic mutation responsible for around 95 percent of CML cases normally developed the disease and died with a few months. However, mice that had the CML gene but lacked another gene, one that produced a protein called pleiotrophin, had normal white blood cells and lived almost twice as long. Clearly there was something about pleiotrophin that played a key role in the growth of CML.

They tested this by transplanting blood stem cells from mice with the CML gene into healthy mice. The previously healthy mice developed leukemia and died. But when they did the same thing from mice that had the CML gene but lacked the pleiotrophin gene, the mice remained healthy.

So, Chute and his team wanted to know if the same thing happens in human cells. Studying human CML stem cells they found these had not just 100 times more pleiotrophin than ordinary cells, they were also producing their own pleiotrophin.

In a news release Chute, said this was unexpected:

“This provides an example of cancer stem cells that are perpetuating their own disease growth by hijacking a protein that normally supports the growth of the healthy blood system.”

Next Chute and the team developed an antibody that blocked the action of pleiotrophin and when they tested it in human cells the CML stem cells died.

Then they combined this antibody with a drug called imatinib (better known by its brand name, Gleevec) which targets the genetic abnormality that causes most forms of CML. They tested this in mice who had been transplanted with human CML stem cells and the cells died.

“Our results suggest that it may be possible to eradicate CML stem cells by combining this new targeted therapy with a tyrosine kinase inhibitor,” said Chute. “This could lead to a day down the road when people with CML may not need to take a tyrosine kinase inhibitor for the rest of their lives.”

The next step is for the researchers to modify the antibody so that it is better suited for humans and not mice and to see if it is effective not just in cells in the laboratory, but in people.

The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation

Smoking out Leukemia Cells to Prevent Cancer Relapse

Ninety-five percent of all patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), carry a Frankenstein-like gene, called BCR-ABL, created from an abnormal fusion of two genes normally found on two separate chromosomes. Like a water faucet without a shutoff valve, the resulting mutant protein is stuck in an “on” position and leads to uncontrolled cell division and eventually to CML as well as other blood cancers.

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An oversized bone marrow cell, typical of chronic myeloid leukemia. Credit:  Difu Wu

Gleevec, a revolutionary, targeted cancer drug that specifically blocks the BCR-ABL protein was approved by the FDA in 2001 and doubled 5-year survival rates for CML patients (31 to 59%) over that decade. Still, some patients who are responsive to the Gleevec class of drugs, become resistant to the treatment and suffer a relapse. Up until now, research studies pointed to an accumulation of additional DNA mutations as the driving force behind a rebound of the cancer cells.

But on Monday, a CIRM-funded UC San Diego team reported in PNAS that a reduction in just one protein, called MBNL3, in CML cancer cells activates a cascade of genes normally responsible for the unlimited self-renewing capacity of embryonic stem cells. Much like a researcher can reprogram a skin cell back into an embryonic like state via the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technique, this finding suggests that CML enhances its ability to spread by exploiting the same cellular reprogramming machinery.

CML is a slowly progressing cancer that initially begins with a chronic phase. At this stage, the cancerous cells, called blast cells, make up less than five percent of cells in the bone marrow. The phase usually lasts several years and is well controlled by drug treatment. A blast crisis phase follows when the blast cells make up 20 to 30% of the blood or bone marrow. At this stage, the patient’s condition deteriorates as symptoms like anemia and frequent infections worsen.

The UCSD team, led by Catriona Jamieson, director of Stem Cell Research at Moores Cancer Center, did a comparative analysis of CML patient samples and found that a reduction of MBNL3, a RNA binding protein, corresponded with CML progression from the chronic to blast phase. If you took intro biology in high school or college, you may recall that RNA acts as a messenger molecule critical to the translation of DNA’s genetic code into proteins. Some splicing and trimming of the RNA molecule occurs to prep it for this translation process. It turns out the decrease in MBNL3 in blast phase cells frees up stretches of RNA that leads to alternate splicing and, in turn, alternate forms of a given protein.

The study showed that in response to the decrease of MBNL3, an alternate form of the protein CD44, aptly named CD44 variant 3 (CD44v3), is increased in CML blast phase cells compared with chronic phase cells. Artificially over producing CD44v3 increased the activity of SOX2 and OCT4, two genes that are critical for maintaining the properties of embryonic stem cells. Genes involved with homing blood cells to the bone marrow were also upregulated.

Put together, these data suggest that this alternate RNA splicing not only helps CML blast phase cells preserve stem cell-like qualities, but it also helps sequester them in the bone marrow. Other studies have shown that the BCR-ABL protein inhibitor drugs are not effective in eradicating blast phase cells in the bone marrow, perhaps the reason behind relapse in some CML patients.

To try to smoke out these hiding blast phase cells in mouse CML studies, the team tested a combination treatment of a CD44 inhibitor along with the BCR-ABL inhibitor. While either treatment alone effectively removed the CML blast phase cells from the spleen and blood, only the combination significantly reduced survival of the cells in the bone marrow.

This tantalizing result has motivated the Jamieson team to pursue the clinical development of a CD44 blocking antibody with combination with the existing BCR-ABL inhibitors. As reported by Bradley Fikes in a San Diego Union Tribune story, the CD44 blocking antibody was not stable so more work is still needed to generate a new antibody.

But the goal remains the same as Jamieson mentions in a UCSD press release:

“If we target embryonic versions of proteins that are re-expressed by cancer, like CD44 variant 3, with specific antibodies together with tyrosine kinase [for example, BCR-ABL] inhibitors, we may be able to circumvent cancer relapse – a leading cause of cancer-related mortality.”