Whilst many believe aging is a risk factor for cancer, pioneering research carried out at UEA has shown the opposite to be true.

Leukemia is a cancer which starts in blood-forming tissue such as bone marrow. It causes an overproduction of abnormal white blood cells which are vital in protecting the body against infection. New research involving patients with the disease has shown that healthy cells and cancer cells work together in a vicious cycle as the disease develops.

The findings revealed that whilst healthy bone marrow cells are prematurely aged by the leukemia cells surrounding them, the aged bone marrow cells then accelerate the development of the cancer in the body.

The research led by Dr Stuart Rushworth, from UEA’s Medical School, identified the precise biochemical mechanism by which this premature aging occurs. These findings could now be used to influence future research and treatments for patients with leukemia.

Dr Rushworth said: ‘Our results provide evidence that cancer causes ageing. We have clearly shown that the cancer cell itself drives the ageing process in the neighbouring non-cancer cells.’ This is the first time that cancer research has shown such results.

NOX2, an enzyme usually involved in the body’s infection response system, was shown to be present in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells. It was found to be responsible for creating conditions which promoted the premature aging process of healthy bone marrow cells, and the fast development of the disease.

The NOX2 enzyme generates a compound called superoxide which drives the ageing process. Researchers found that when they inhibited the action of this enzyme there was a reduction in the speed of aging in neighbouring non-cancerous cells.

Dr Rushworth said: ‘It was not previously known that leukaemia induces ageing of the local non cancer environment. We hope that this biological function can be exploited in future, paving the way for new drugs.’

The research was carried out in collaboration with the Earlham Institute, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing in California. It was funded by Norfolk’s Big C Charity the Rosetrees Trust. The full paper can be found in the scientific journal, Blood (the official journal of the American Society of Hematology).


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