Uncovering new ways to aid recovery for leukaemia patients

31 August 2017
CSIRO scientist Ben Cao
Dr Ben Cao is part of a CSIRO research team exploring why some leukaemia patients respond to chemotherapy while others do not. By understanding what molecules are involved in regulating stem cell function in the bone marrow, Ben aims to develop more effective treatment regimens to overcome drug-resistance and cancer relapse. Ben recently received that Best Postdoctoral presentation at the 2017 Stem Cells Australia Retreat.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is the most common childhood cancer. Although high remission rates can be achieved with standard chemotherapy, drug-resistance and cancer relapse remains a significant problem. 

Leukaemic cell survival and drug-resistance is regulated by the interaction between receptors expressed by leukaemic cells and various proteins that are either expressed or secreted by cells within the bone marrow. For example, while it was known that ALL cells express certain receptors, such as ‘α4β1 integrin’ and ‘CXCR4’, and their binding to proteins within the marrow resulted in ALL cells becoming dormant and drug resistant, Ben and his colleagues discovered another receptor, ‘α9β1 integrin’ is also associated poor prognosis.

By blocking the function of both α9β1 and α4β1 integrins, with a molecule called ‘BOP’, the researchers then showed they could sensitise ALL cells to chemotherapy in a process termed “chemosensitisation”. This effect was seen if BOP was used alone or in combination with AMD3100, a molecule that blocks another receptor CXCR4.

This research implies that targeting these specific molecular interactions in the bone marrow of leukaemia patients may be an effective strategy for chemosensitising drug-resistant or relapsing ALL cells.

Ben’s presentation was entitled Integrin α9β1 is a measure of drug-resistance in acute lymphoblastic leukaemia’.

Ben was also recently awarded a prestigious Gilead Sciences International Research Scholars Program in Hematology and Oncology.

For more information about Ben’s research read The not-so-big BOP revolutionising stem cell harvesting (CSIROscope).