NUI Galway researchers make key finding in spread of blood cancer cells

Team discovery may have implications for treatments

Researchers at NUI Galway have identified an enzyme that plays a key role in the spread of blood cancer cells.
The scientists say that the discovery affords “significant new insights” into the progression of multiple myeloma, a type of cancer resulting from overproduction of plasma cells. It may also have implications for treatments of other types of solid tumours, Health Research Board (HRB) clinician scientist and NUIG haematologist Prof Michael O’Dwyer has said.

The findings, details of which have been published in the international journal Blood, trace the overproduction of one specific enzyme to the spread and survival of the cells linked to multiple myeloma.
About 240 new cases of this type of blood cancer are diagnosed here every year, and Ireland has a slightly higher incidence than the European average, Prof O’Dwyer notes.

Prof O’Dwyer worked with Prof Lokesh Joshi of NUIG’s glysoscience group and Dr Siobhán Glavey – lead author of the paper – on studying the complex sugars which cover all cells in the human body, and many of the proteins in the bloodstream.Their focus was on alterations in a process called glycosylation, where proteins and lipids are modified by specific sugars.“In essence, we have linked the overproduction of a specific enzyme called sialyltransferase to disease progression,” Prof O’Dwyer explains.

“The increase in this enzyme activity causes a series of knock on effects,” he says. These include “increasing glycosylation, which in turn increases the interaction of the cancer cells with receptors on the walls of blood vessels called selectins – which then encourages their circulation, spread and retention in the bone marrow,”he says.

“Our aim now is to prevent these interactions that cause the spread using specific inhibitors,”he says.
“While treatments for multiple myeloma have improved over the last decade, and most patients are living longer, there is no cure,” ProfO’Dwyer notes. “Our research is crucial because it sheds new light on the biology of multiple myeloma which could lead to new strategies to overcome resistance to treatment.” The NUIG team worked in close co-operation with Dr Irene Ghobrial from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard in north America, and colleagues from the Institute of Cancer Research in Britain.


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