Western University researchers uncover clues about childhood leukemia

Researchers from Western University have identified a gene that has the potential to wipe out cancer cells in a common form of childhood leukemia.

Rodney DeKoter, an Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and a scientist with the Children’s Health Research Institute, and his team were investigating gene changes responsible for the onset of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a blood cancer that is the leading cause of cancer-deaths in children, when the discovery was made.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Immunology, demonstrates that reduced expression of the Bruton Tyrosine Kinase (BTK) gene plays a key role in ALL. DeKoter and Darah Christie, postdoctoral fellow and lead author, showed that a reduction in BTK is associated with the onset of ALL.

Conversely, when DeKoter and his team forced the expression of the gene in culture, it caused the leukemia cells to stop growing and die.

“Our studies showed that a gene-therapy type approach in the cultured cells killed the cancer cells, suggesting that this gene may be important for preventing this form of childhood leukemia,” said DeKoter.

BTK has been extensively studied in human populations because of its well-known association to a primary immunodeficiency called X-linked agammaglobulinemia. “BTK is a famous protein because a mutation in this gene is the most common cause of this type of human immunodeficiency,” DeKoter said. “Our study shows that the gene also plays an important role in leukemia and uncovers an unexpected link between immune deficiency and leukemia.”

The study was funded by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada.

MEDIA CONTACT: Crystal Mackay, Media Relations Officer, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University, t. 519.661.2111 ext. 80387, c. 519.777.1573, crystal.mackay@schulich.uwo.ca