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SCCRI uncovers unexpected cells responsible for leukemia relapse, offering new leads for therapy

Lili Aslostovar

Lili Aslostovar | Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Bhatia Lab has characterised the process of how leukemia cells initially respond to treatment but retaliate after chemotherapy. Findings help predict the risk of disease recurrence and can be therapeutically used to prevent relapse.


In Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood system, up to 80% of patients initially respond to therapy. However, the majority of patients succumb to a deadly relapsed disease in as early as 3 years, at which point therapy options become extremely limited and survival rates are strikingly poor.

Turning to sophisticated laboratory models, the Bhatia Lab was able to characterise, for the first time, the process of how leukemia cells initially respond to treatment but retaliate after chemotherapy. This led to a finding that, while chemotherapy is effective in depleting the most vicious cancer cells (known as cancer stem cells), it creates a reactive state in the cells that do survive therapy as a secondary effect. This phenomenon sets the foundation for an aggravated disease regrowth and eventual relapse. The team has uncovered the signature features of this reactive state and hope to use these as "biomarkers" to predict the risk of relapse, and for therapeutic purposes to prevent relapse from occurring altogether. These findings are published in the prestigious journal Cancer Cell, and can be read by selecting this link.

This study is a great next chapter in our growing understanding of therapy resistance in leukemia. Beyond AML, a similar paradigm may apply to a broad range of cancers that receive chemotherapy as the first line of treatment.

We would like to extend our gratitude to the patients who made this work possible by donating samples to our research. We would also like to thank our clinical colleagues for their determination and collaboration over the years.

Funding for this research was supported by grants received from the Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Canada Research Chairs Program along with additional support from a National Sciences and Engineering Research Council graduate scholarship, and Jan's Graduate Scholarships in Stem Cell Research. 

Mick Bhatia

Mick Bhatia

Director and Senior Scientist