Patients with aggressive leukemias may benefit from an approach that blocks cancer cell growth, according to a study conducted by researchers at Duke University Medical Center.

For the study, published in Nature (2010 Jul 18. [Epub ahead of print]), researchers looked at 120 human specimens from patients representing different phases of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) progression and focused on the RNA-binding protein Musashi.

Results of the study found that Musashi levels increased dramatically as the disease became more aggressive. “We found high levels of Musashi in all of the human advanced phase CML samples we studied,” said senior author Tannishtha Reya, PhD, an associate professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University. Specifically, Musashi expression was 10 times higher in the more immature blast crisis CML phase.

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According to background information provided by Dr. Reya, there are two basic approaches to fighting cancer cell growth. One is to trigger programmed cell death in cancer cells or to block their growth directly. The other method, which may work in cases where the cancer is composed of immature cells, is to force these cells to mature and differentiate.

“The resulting depletion of immature cells can deliver a heavy blow to the continued growth of the cancer, as is seen in this study,” said Dr. Reya. Since high levels of Musashi appear to be an early marker of advanced CML, this might be a tool to determine patient prognosis as well, Dr. Reya concluded.