Leuven researchers discover new way to stop rare lymphoma

Researchers from KU Leuven, UZ Leuven and the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) have found a new way to stop the growth of a rare but very aggressive type of lymphoma. KU Leuven announced this in a press release on Tuesday. Through the use of medication, they are able to curb the cooperation between two genes, which lies at the basis of the development of the cancer. 

The type of cancer that the scientists studied is peripheral T-cell lymphoma or PTCL. It is not only a very rare type - there are about ten cases a year in Belgium - but also a particularly aggressive cancer: 75 percent of patients relapse after chemotherapy and the chances of survival after five years are barely 10 to 30 percent. Alternative treatment options are virtually non-existent. 

To search for new treatments, the researchers analysed the DNA of patients. They discovered a new cooperation between two genes: MYCN and EZH2. It was already known that a strong activity of MYCN can be associated with aggressive tumours, but now it appears that it also causes a strong activity of EZH2. That gene, in turn, enhances the effect of MYCN, causing rapid growth and multiplication of cancer cells.

"We often see genes in our body that reinforce each other's effects, but this collaboration is new. When we inactivate one of these two genes in human cancer cells in the lab, we see a rapid decrease in numbers. From this we conclude that the cells depend on these two genes," says postdoctoral researcher Marlies Vanden Bempt. "Since this cooperation is so important for the growth of this type of cancer cells, it is an interesting target for patient treatment."

The researchers used a molecule that completely breaks down EZH2: as a result, the cooperation with MYCN no longer held and the cancer cells died. The new molecule was tested together with an existing drug against PTCL. This drug is currently only used in the United States because of its low efficacy, but by combining the two, each other's effect was enhanced.

The study was conducted in a lab environment on cells, patient samples and in mouse models. "There is still a lot of work ahead to optimise the combination of both molecules for the treatment of PTCL," says researcher Vanden Bempt. "But the first results in the lab already look good."



A scientist at work in a lab of the Rega Institute for Medical Research at the KU Leuven university, in Leuven. - © BELGA PHOTO LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ

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