SCIENTISTS in the North- East have made a breakthrough in understanding treatment-related leukaemia, raising hopes the disease could be prevented.

Scientists working in the Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences at Newcastle University believe the breakthrough could help to prevent a condition called acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).

AML is a blood cancer that can arise as a consequence of treatment for other cancers.

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Professor Caroline Austin, who led the team, said: “The hope is that we will now be able to find ways of altering drug treatments to block this process, preventing secondary cancers from developing.”

AML is diagnosed in 2,200 UK adults each year, and it is thought that up to ten per cent of the cases are treatment- related.

Leukaemia is often triggered by DNA mutations within white blood cells when part of one chromosome becomes mixed up with part of another in a process called translocation.

For the chromosome rearrangements to occur, their constituent DNA must be broken, then repaired incorrectly.

The mutated cells then divide uncontrollably in the blood, crowding out healthy blood cells.

Up to a third of treatmentrelated cases of AML can be attributed to chromosome rearrangements caused by the interaction between anti-cancer drugs and a particular enzyme.

The enzyme is critical in managing DNA movement within cells. Many cancers including lymphoma, testicular, lung and prostate cancers are sensitive to drugs that block its activity.

The Newcastle scientists showed that drugs designed to inhibit the enzyme can be highly effective in preventing the rapid division of cancer cells. In some cases, the drugs increase the likelihood that leukaemia-inducing translocations occur.

Professor Chris Bunce, research director at Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, which funded the research, said: “This study represents a huge breakthrough.

“It is the first time that scientists have looked into what is going on in the cell nucleus and explained exactly what happens when treatmentrelated DNA mutations occur.”