Shift focus from bad stem cells to good to fight leukemia

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Maintaining a viable population of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) may be nearly sufficient to eradicate leukemia stem cells (LSCs) from the system, suggest the results of a new study.

HSCs, which are responsible for maintaining immune cells, red blood cells, and platelets throughout life, must be located in their ecological niche—the bone marrow—to regenerate themselves and their progeny, explained Adam L. MacLean of the Imperial College London, in London, United Kingdom, and colleagues in Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The progeny eventually exit the bone marrow and enter circulation.

Noting that cancer/leukemia stem cells and their progeny also occupy that niche and that the two cellular species directly compete against one another for resources, the investigators used computer modeling to explore the “ecology” of the hematopoietic niche. They carried out computer simulations to find conditions that would result in vanishing numbers of leukemia cells.

The findings indicated that maintaining a friendly environment for the healthy cells was a more effective cancer treatment than was targeting the damaged cells directly: The models showed that the greatest chance of conquering leukemia came from maintaining a healthy population of HSCs rather than from direct attempts to destroy LSCs.

“That's a slightly surprising result which nobody has explicitly stated before,” pointed out coauthor Michael Stumpf, also of Imperial College London, in a statement from the institution. “It allows us to understand these processes in a way that could be important for potential therapeutic responses.”

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