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Groundbreaking research from two Canadian medical research teams could potentially lengthen the lives of leukemia patients and increase their quality of life.

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LLSC grant recipient Dr. Mick Bhatia is discovering new ways to predict acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow, before it occurs.GLENN LOWSON

At McMaster Universityʼs Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute in Hamilton, Ont., director Mick Bhatia’s team is doing research with genes that could transform the way leukemia, especially acute myeloid leukemia (AML), is diagnosed and treated. Although this cancer of the bone marrow is uncommon in people under 45, it is the second-most-prevalent form of leukemia in children.

“Leukemia is a little bit hard, because itʼs not like tumours, where you can take an image of [a solid mass] and you can do genetic evaluation to look at what your risk could be,” says Dr. Bhatia, whose research may help doctors to predict AML before it occurs or to diagnose it before symptoms are present.

His research team has discovered that normal cells develop myelodysplastic syndrome (a sign of preleukemia in mice when the GSK3-Beta gene is switched off and full-blown leukemia when they turn off a related gene, GSK3-Alpha. Researchers have been trying to find signs of preleukemia for decades, Dr. Bhatia says. “I think our model is probably one of the only ones out there that is really giving a glimpse of what happens in a human.”

Dr. Bhatia is optimistic about the possibility that his research on genes may one day be applied to other cancers. “It looks like a few of the genes [we’re studying] are involved in different types of cancers, specifically colon and lung function.”

His team is also testing drugs and chemical compounds to find a way to effectively treat early-stage AML. “If we find drugs that can inhibit the growth of these cells in a dish, I don't see a reason why they wouldn't work in a human,” Dr. Bhatia says.

In Mississauga, another researcher is working on a potentially revolutionary blood cancer therapy that promises to be less toxic to patients than chemotherapy or radiation and would require fewer treatments.

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LLSC grant recipient Dr. Patrick Gunning is investigating how to kill cancer cells while leaving normal ones intact.Elif Rey PHotography

A group of researchers directed by Patrick Gunning, a University of Toronto Mississauga chemistry professor has developed a small molecule that engages and then destabilizes proteins (especially STAT3 and STAT5) that play key regulatory roles in cancers and other diseases. “We hope that by knocking out the proteins we’re trying to target, [it] will lead to cell death,” says Dr. Gunning, whose lab is at the universityʼs Centre for Medicinal Chemistry.

It’s a breakthrough that could mean the end to traditional cancer treatments in the future.

Dr. Patrick Gunning, a University of Toronto chemistry professor

It’s a breakthrough that could mean the end to traditional cancer treatments in the future. “It’s all about having a therapeutic index between killing cancer and killing normal cells,” he explains. “You do everything you can to make sure that it doesn’t hit things that are important to the viability of normal cells.” In contrast to targeted therapies like his, conventional chemotherapies attack all rapidly dividing cells, including normal cells.

The new therapy, which might also be able to be used with brain cancer patients expected to benefit people living with AML, who tend to be elderly. “The survival rate for those with AML is pretty poor,” Dr. Gunning says. “If you're elderly and in poor health, I don't think that radiation and chemo is an option for you.

“These molecules are really performing amazingly well in the lab and we’re super excited to see if these work in humans,” Dr. Gunning says. “That would make my life’s work complete.”

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