Healthy and cancerous cells are locked in a battle for the finite resources that are essential for their growth. Imperial College London research into cancers tends to focus on examining the behavior of tumor cells, but this new work provides ways of modelling the interplay between healthy and cancerous cells, which also affects how cancers progress.
The Imperial researchers used three mathematical models based on blood data from 69 patients with the blood cancer chronic myeloid leukemia, who had been followed for a period of 6 years. Two of these models included data about the competition between a patient’s healthy and cancerous cells, while the third model took no account of this interaction. The researchers then assessed the accuracy of the different models by comparing the results of the modelling with real-life patient outcomes.
When competition between healthy and cancerous cells was included in the modelling, the results reflected how a patient responded to treatment more accurately than when this interaction was not included in the calculations.
Adam MacLean, from the Department of Life Sciences and lead author of the research said: “This study suggests that taking account of the competition between healthy and cancerous cells is crucial if you want to get a full picture of how the disease affects patients and how individual patients are likely to respond to treatments. Modelling gives us a useful tool for understanding leukemia that we hope could ultimately play a part in designing new treatments that target the right cells and processes. The current modelling involved a relatively small number of patients and it is specific to one form of leukemia. However, the cellular processes that we studied are general, so this work has the potential to also prompt new insight into other cancers.”
Leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells, which upsets cell production in the bone marrow. The new study looked at chronic myeloid leukemia, an uncommon form of the disease that affects around 600 people in the United Kingdom each year. However, the researchers hope that their new findings could also help researchers looking to understand the workings of other cancers.
Once information about competition was included in the modelling, researchers were able to unpick which factors most affected how the cancer progresses. The models made different predictions: one suggested that the growth rate of leukemia stem cells is the most important factor, whilst the other suggested that the death rate of another cell type, progenitor cells, is more important. Future work will test these hypotheses to discriminate between them and help the researchers to better understand how leukemia works.
Illustration: Imperial College London.
Imperial College London News Release (02/28/14)
Abstract (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; (02/25/14))