A study by Sheba researcher Dr. Omer Schwartzman has won awards around the world for its groundbreaking understanding of the role genetics play in childhood leukemia.
The study began by considering the occurrence of leukemia in children with Down’s Syndrome, who are 20 times more likely to be diagnosed with the most common type of childhood leukemia and experience higher chances of relapse. This points to a genetic component to the occurrence and successful treatment of childhood leukemia.
Researchers utilized innovative genomic sequencing procedures to analyze leukemia samples taken at diagnosis and relapse of the disease in 31 children. To their surprise, they saw that the majority of these tumors were characterized by genetic mutations that trigger increased intercellular signaling (as previous Sheba studies had shown). On the other hand, they also found that these mutations were not always identical in diagnosis and relapse. Meaning that these genetic mutations don’t just help leukemia to grow, under certain circumstances they could also prevent these cells from thriving.
Another remarkable finding of the study was that a mutation exists that decreases intracellular signaling. However, instead of preventing or slowing the leukemia’s development, the study demonstrated that under specific circumstances this mutation actually helped the leukemia survive. “It’s like the importance of getting the voltage right for an electrical appliance,” explained Dr. Omer Schwartman, who led the study. “If the voltage is too high or too low, the machine won’t function efficiently.” Similarly, if a child’s intracellular signaling is too frequent or infrequent, the leukemia will remain.
The most astonishing finding of the study was that innovative drugs designed to decrease the intracellular signaling and treat leukemia, might actually be backfiring, paradoxically nurturing leukemia cells when administered in low dosages.
“Our study demonstrated yet another level of complexity in the genesis leukemia and the failure to treat them,” said Dr. Schwartzman. “We’ve uncovered another mechanism that could be contributing to this complexity.”
This new research may well be the catalyst for a broad reevaluation in intracellular manipulation in the treatment of childhood leukemia. As a result, it is already receiving international recognition. To date the study has been awarded: the Outstanding PhD student award at the 22nd International Conference of the European Hematology Association, the Tel Aviv University Faculty of medicine Prize for Outstanding Publication by a Doctoral Student and the Dean’s Award for the Faculty of Medicine MD PhD student 2017.