In scary movies, the killer often comes back to life mysteriously, attacking again when the main character least expects it. Blood cancers are like this too, finding a safe spot to hide during treatment and then striking again when a patient is in remission.
The return of a blood cancer, such as leukemia, after treatment is one of the biggest challenges patients and physicians face, which is why University of Florida Health researcher Christopher Cogle, M.D., is leading a research effort to root these cancer cells out of their hiding spots and kill them.
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society recently awarded Cogle and his team a two-year, $800,000 grant to find compounds that interfere with cancer cells’ ability to go into hiding. Cogle was one of 14 researchers in the United States to receive funding through the society’s Quest for Cures program.
“We will look for compounds that interrupt the binding of blood cancer cells to blood vessels,” said Cogle. “Recently we found that blood vessels are safe havens for leukemia cells and that targeting these sanctuaries makes the leukemia cells more susceptible to chemotherapy. A major goal of my research group is to make blood cancers more vulnerable to treatment by evicting them from their hiding spots.”
In 2013, 48,610 patients were diagnosed with leukemia and nearly 24,000 people died from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. About half of adult patients who go into remission after treatment for acute leukemias will eventually relapse.
The researchers are initially focusing on blood vessels because they run in and out of the bone into the spongy inner layer of the bone marrow, forming several cozy spots for cancer cells to lie in wait.
“In the big picture, this is just one part of the microenvironment for cancer cells,” Cogle said. “We will move on to other parts. Early results from our research group show that the inner bone lining may also protect blood cancer cells from chemotherapy and lead to disease return.”
Cogle teamed with researcher Edward Scott, Ph.D., a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology in the UF College of Medicine, to develop a mouse model that will allow them to track human blood cancer cells as they travel in and out of the bone marrow. The researchers will analyze where the cells go during chemotherapy and where they reemerge after treatment is over, Cogle said.
Understanding more about the environment surrounding cancer cells is crucial to unlocking better ways to thwart the disease, and is one of three key areas of focus for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society with the Quest for Cures research funding program. The other two priority areas include molecular stratification mechanisms and monitoring cancer cell heterogeneity.
To fund the Quest for Cures program, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society partnered with biotechnology company Celgene. Cogle said this public-private partnership benefits all by helping academic researchers obtain must-needed funding for research and by giving biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies the inside track on high-risk, high-reward discoveries.
“We are all looking for cures; that is the one thing we all share,” he said. “That is what binds us all.”