It was in 1994 that researchers at the University of Toronto first identified cancer stem cells in acute myeloid leukemia or cancer of the blood marrow. Blood-forming cells or stem cells in bone marrow have the capacity to generate multiple cell types. Myeloid leukemia occurs when one or some of the cells created by the stem cells are abnormal or malignant cells. These cells keep dividing uncontrollably, overwhelming normal blood and immune cells the body needs to survive, resulting in leukemia. Leukemic stem cells are resistant to cancer treatments and one of the likely causes of patient relapse.

Thanks to the “Leucégène” research group, it may now be possible to develop new cancer drugs to fight acute myeloid leukemia. This multi-disciplinary team comprises scientists from the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) at the Université de Montréal (UdeM) and the Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital’s Quebec Leukemia Cell Bank. In a study published in Nature Methods, the researchers describe how they identified two new chemical compounds that can grow leukemic stem cells in culture.

Leukemic Stem Cells

Before this discovery, the major problem was growing stem cells and maintaining them in vitro, because they quickly lost their cancer stem cell character. This posed difficulties when it came to studying the growth of cells that cause leukemia. The “Leucégène” research group resolved this by studying leukemic stem cells from patients with acute myeloid leukemia, obtained from the Quebec Leukemia Cell Bank. Thousands of lab tests were conducted using various chemicals before they finally identified two chemical molecules that could preserve the leukemic cell features and keep the cells alive for at least seven days in vitro. This opens up possibilities for the development of new drugs to treat myeloid leukemia.

Detecting and studying stem cell mutations are technically challenging and require the use of specialized advanced laboratory equipment. In fact, the researchers who conducted this study stated that IRIC’s state-of-the-art facilities and access to cells of leukemia patients are key factors that made this ground-breaking research possible.

The next stage is to study the molecular mechanisms that control the survival and multiplication of leukemic cells as well as the resistance to cancer drugs.