Glowing, drug-resistant leukaemia cells could help unlock new therapies

A new method for finding hidden leukaemia cells by making them glow has been investigated by ACRF grant recipient, Children’s Cancer Institute (CCI). Their method offers a more sensitive and accurate preclinical test for leukaemia drugs, increasing the chances of finding those most likely to succeed in clinical trials.

Dr Luke Jones’ research is based on making leukaemia cells glow to reveal reservoirs of the disease. In general, survival rates for childhood leukaemia are approximately 90% but some subtypes and relapsed leukaemias do not respond well to treatment.

Bioluminescence imaging can more accurately measure drugs’ effects on high-risk leukaemias that are either unresponsive to standard treatments or likely to relapse,” said Dr Jones.

“Using information from bioluminescence imaging will help make sure only future drugs with the best chance of success go on to be tested on human patients in clinical trials,” he explained.

An improved way to test treatments

Before new drugs can be given to children, their safety and effectiveness are tested in avatars that model different leukaemia subtypes.

Each drug’s effectiveness against these models is typically monitored by measuring the number of leukaemia cells in the blood. However, the blood is one of the last places leukaemia spreads to, and the first place it’s eliminated from with treatment. This means that cancer cells could be hiding away in organs like the spleen or bone marrow even if all leukaemia cells have been cleared from the blood.

Australian cancer research
Bioluminescent materials from nature can be used the lab.

Looking to find the hiding cancer cells, Dr Jones cloned the gene that makes fireflies glow into the DNA of the cancer cells. This meant that a scan could reveal any hidden reservoirs of leukaemia.

The new study is the first to compare bioluminescence imaging with traditional methods of assessing preclinical drug efficacy in an effort to increase the ability to predict clinical success.

It is also the first time bioluminescence imaging has been evaluated for its ability to track the amount of residual disease following treatment in a preclinical leukaemia model.

“Our paper shows that bioluminescence imaging gives us extra stringency,” said Dr Jones.

“It gives us more and better information to make decisions about which drugs to progress to clinical trials,” he concluded.

The results were recently published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.

This news article was first published on the CCI website. Images of Dr Luke Jones and wells with bioluminescent materials courtesy of CCI.

The Drug Discovery Centre at CCI came about as a result of an AUD $3.1 million grant awarded by the Australian Cancer Research Foundation in 2007. A subsequent grant of AUD $1.5 million from the Foundation helped transform the facility went to the ACRF Child Cancer Personalised Medicine Centre, the operational headquarters and key testing platform of the Zero Childhood Cancer Program.