News nr. 43 | September 2014
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Team at IMM-FMUL has identified a gene that could play an important role in Infantile Leukaemia

Editorial Team 

    An article presenting the results of three years investigation carried out by a team of researchers at the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Lisbon was published recently in the scientific journal “Oncogene”.

Using a pharmacological composition, the team discovered how to slow down the evolution of a form of leukaemia frequently found in children. This discovery could lead to the development of an alternative treatment for this form of cancer that is potentially “less noxious” to patients than the existing one.

“We found that patients with acute lymphoblastic T-cell leukaemia, which is a very aggressive paediatric cancer, have elevated levels of a gene called CHK1” explained Prof. João Barata, Head of the Biology of Cancer Unit of the IMM and Coordinator of this project.

In principle this gene should stop cell division as it has an anti-tumour function, but “paradoxically it benefits leukaemia cells” because while keeping them “under control”, it actually maintains them alive, states the scientist.

“If we inhibit the CHK1 gene or if we diminish its expression genetically, the leukaemia cells die because they enter in stress” adds João Taborda Barata.

This discovery began by chance... 

“A coincidence led us to study this gene”, the researcher admits. The team was trying to isolate genes that regulate another protein associated with cancer and “by accident” they discovered that CHK1 “appears to have an important function for leukaemia cells.”

This Portuguese research identified a “new target” and used a pharmacological composition developed by a pharmaceutical company to inhibit the CHK1 gene. They discovered that this treatment induced the death of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia cells without affecting normal cells.

“Identifying a molecular target like CHK1, which is selectively increased in malignant cells, offers a window of opportunity to use drugs that are selective for CHK1 and which will not, in principle, affect normal cells, or at least not affect them as significantly as present therapies for this type of illness do, because while these are very efficient in terms of treatment, they also have significant side effects” explains Barata.

The researcher highlights that this is a “first step” for the development of a new therapy, and that it will still take a number of years to produce applications in hospitals. The “ball” is now in the pharmaceutical industry’s court because the unit does not have “the capacity to develop the necessary clinical trials.”

“It would be natural to presume that the team’s findings could lead to concrete benefits for patients in about five years, "the expert predicts.

Acute lymphoblastic T-cell leukaemia assails “about one person in every fifty thousand, so it is a relatively rare form of cancer. It mainly affects children between the ages of two and six, with another peak of incidents in the over fifties age group”.

Five researchers from the Institute of Molecular Medicine from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Lisbon are working on this project which also involves specialists from other national institutes, such as the Gulbenkian Institute of Science, as well as foreign institutes.

Abstract of the article

(source: IMM Press Release)

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Prof. Doutor J. Fernandes e Fernandes
Editorial Commitee: Prof. Doutor J. Fernandes e Fernandes, Prof. Doutor Alexandre Ribeiro, Prof. Doutor António Vaz Carneiro, Prof. Doutor João Ferreira, Dr. Luis Pereira
Information Officer: Ana Raquel Moreira
Editorial Team: Ana Maria Silva, Ana Raquel Moreira, André Silva, Lara Ponte, Miguel Andrade, Rui Gomes, Sónia Barroso, Susana Henriques, Tânia Simões
Collaboration: Communication and Image Office - Ana Isabel Gonçalves da Silva, Bruno Moura
Design and Technical Support: UTI 
Design and development: Spirituc