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Stem cells more vulnerable to toxic chemotherapy when protective molecule is disabled

Inactivating a protective molecule in leukemic cells to make them more vulnerable to chemotherapy might also make healthy blood-forming cells more sensitive to the toxic effects of those same drugs. These findings have been published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry by investigators at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The St. Jude researchers based their conclusion on results of a study of a molecule whose normal function is to rid hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) of a potentially toxic molecule called heme. HSCs are the "parent" cells in the bone marrow that give rise to red and white blood cells.

Heme is an oxygen-carrying molecule that is a key part of enzymes used by cells to extract energy from food and by red blood cells to carry oxygen to tissues. The basic building block of heme is porphyrin, which is toxic to cells when it accumulates in high concentrations, according to John Schuetz, Ph.D., associate member in the department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Schuetz is senior author of the Journal of Biological Chemistry article, which also reports on studies of a molecule called BCRP (breast cancer resistance protein), which protects HSCs from excessive levels of heme.

In conditions of low oxygen, cells tend to compensate by making more heme molecules. But the cells must also protect themselves from excess heme by making BCRP, which is capable of binding to these oxygen-carrying molecules and transporting them out through the cell membrane. The ability of cells to rid themselves of excess heme is especially important in the bone marrow, where HSCs are normally exposed to a low-oxygen environment that stimulates the cells to produce more of this molecule.

In addition to heme, BCRP carries a variety of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals out of cells, including certain drugs used to treat leukemia. Researchers elsewhere are developing molecules to block BCRP in leukemic cells in order to make them more vulnerable to chemotherapy.
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Contact: Bonnie Cameron
bonnie.cameron@stjude.org
901-495-4815
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
18-May-2004


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