Ottawa researchers hopeful nano-particles can cure leukemia
Published Tuesday, August 13, 2013 4:05PM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, August 14, 2013 4:51PM EDT
Ottawa researchers are cautiously using the word "cure" when talking about new research into leukemia. The research is new and a long way from helping human patients, but in mice, they’ve developed tiny particles that, in the lab, cause cancerous white blood cells to kill themselves.
For patients with acute myeloid leukemia, stem cell transplants and heavy chemotherapy have been the only hope for a cure. But even at that, the survival rate is among the worst of all the cancers at 22%.
What's happening inside a lab at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute is giving new hope, though, for a cure for even the toughest types of leukemia. Doctors David Conrad and John Bell have developed a tiny nano-particle that causes human blood cancer cells to kill themselves. The results on mice have been dramatic.
“In 60 percent of the mice, we had a cure,” explains Dr. David Conrad, a hematologist conducting research in the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at the Ottawa Hospital, “so in other words, if we left these mice to continue living in the lab, they would live out their normal lifespan and were essentially cured of the leukemia. All the other untreated mice died within 21 days.”
The particles were able to kill multiple forms of leukemia in the lab including samples taken from local patients who had failed all other forms of therapy. It hasn't yet been tried on humans and likely won't for a couple more years.
Dr. Conrad has captured on video what happens to the leukemia cells when they're exposed to the killer nano-particles. At first, he says, the cells are happy and moving. Once the agent is introduced, very rapidly they change behavior.
“They become bloated and they shrivel up and you see all there's no movement and you see all the cancer cells in the plate completely dead.”
“They think this agent is Def Con 5 and they undergo suicide,” says Dr. Conrad.
For biomedical science student Mina Rizk, working alongside the researchers in a potential cure for leukemia is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
"I’m grateful to have found this opportunity,” says Rizk, “I'm very aware that not many students have the chance I do.
While their focus has been blood cancers, the researchers say they've had some success on solid cancer tumors, too. the next step, though, are clinical trials to see if they can kill the cancer cells in humans the same way they did in mice.