Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and University of Melbourne have identified the cells causing T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (T-ALL), a deadly cancer mainly affecting children and teenagers. The discovery is hailed as a major breakthrough.
About a fifth of children, affected by T-ALL, suffer relapses after radiation therapy.
In mice tests, the Royal Hospital team found that 99% of cells in thymus were killed by radiation. Thymus is a small organ in the upper chest which helps protect people from infections and as a result plays a key role in leukaemia,.
But the Lmo2 gene survived radiation because of its stem-cell like properties, suggesting it could be responsible for the disease, the Science journal reported.
Lead researcher Dr Matthew McCormack said: "The cellular origins of this leukaemia are not well understood.
"Our discovery that these cells are similar to normal stem cells explains why they are capable of surviving for long periods," he said. "It also explains why they are remarkably resistant to treatment."
About 50 new cases of T-ALL are diagnosed every year in Australia, two thirds of these in children or adolescents.
Dr Curtis, a clinical haematologist and head of the Leukaemia Research Program at Royal Melbourne, said the identification of the cells provided an important target for the development and testing of new treatments.
The team now will focus on treatments capable of killing these cells, which may lead to clinical trials within the next five years.