The drug was shown to kill more than 90 per cent of chronic myeloid leukaemia stem cells in mice, says the study in the journal Cancer Discovery.
Chronic myeloid leukaemia is a rare form of blood cancer where normal blood stem cells are transformed into cancerous stem cells. These then produce large numbers of leukaemia cells which can overrun the blood.
Drugs used to treat the disease simply hold it at bay by killing the majority of leukaemic cells, but not the stem cells. This means patients are rarely cured, and have to take these drugs for the rest of their lives.
Dr Áine McCarthy, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said that when a cancer comes back in this situation it is a lot harder to treat, meaning “a person’s chances of surviving the disease decrease”.
The new drug, however, kills the cancer stem cells by switching off a molecule that has previously been shown to help cancer cells stay alive. This had previously never been seen in chronic myeloid leukaemia.
In lab tests, the drug was found to only target the cancer stem cells, leaving normal cells unharmed.
The researchers believe that giving patients this new drug alongside standard treatments could kill both the leukaemic cells and the stem cells. And therefore limit the chances of the disease coming back.
Cancer Research UK’s Dr McCarthy called the discovery “exciting”, because “it has identified a new way to target and kill leukaemia cells that can be left behind after treatment and sometimes cause the disease to return”.
“The next step will be to carry out clinical trials in patients to find out if giving this new drug in combination with existing ones is effective and safe,” she added.
Dr Mary Scott, one of the researchers behind the study, said the drug used in this research has had some promising early results in clinical trials on other cancers, and that it is safe, with minimal side-effects.