Acute myeloid leukaemia is an aggressive form of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow by stopping the production of healthy blood cells. The cancer is treated with chemotherapy but survival rates, especially in older adults are only between 5% and 15%.

A team of medical researchers at Imperial College London have now found a way to make chemotherapy more effective in acute myeloid leukemia patients by studying how leukaemia cells infiltrate bone marrow. The team filmed the invasion of leukemia cells into bone marrow in mice and saw that certain areas in bone marrow harbour with blood vessels that blood stem cells from which mature blood cells are formed.

When these areas of bone marrow are taken over by cancer cells, the blood stem cells are lost and the production of healthy blood cells is reduced. They also examined human samples from leukemia patients and confirmed the loss of these special bone marrow areas, which can result in anaemia, infection and bleeding in patients and reduces the efficacy of chemotherapy.

The team then tested an iron overload drug called deferoxamine, which is commonly given to people who have undergone multiple blood transfusions and patients with myelodysplasia – a disease in which young blood stem cells do not mature into healthy blood cells. They found that the drug has a protective effect on the blood vessels within bone marrow areas and can allow blood stem cells to grow.

The researchers who have published their findings in the journal Cell Stem Cell said that the advantage of this drug is that it is already approved and known to be safe. However, the efficacy of the drug still needs to be tested on patients with leukemia and undergoing chemotherapy. The researchers are hopeful that the tests will show that deferoxamine can help chemotherapy outcomes for people with acute myeloid leukemia and other forms of leukemia.