Science

Scientists show that cancer can accelerate ageing

The phenomenon involving leukaemia cells has a destructive effect in the bones, a study has revealed.

Healthy bone marrow can be prematurely aged by blood cancer, a study has found.

It is well known that ageing promotes cancer development. Now, for the first time, scientists have shown that the process may also work in reverse.

In a series of laboratory and animal experiments, the UK-led team demonstrated that leukaemia cells trigger rapid ageing of cells in the bone marrow.

Leukaemia can drive premature ageing in the bone marrow, where blood cells are made (MaxPixel/PA)

Accelerated ageing was identified by cells suffering DNA damage and entering a state of “senescence” which caused them to stop multiplying.

The aged bone marrow cells also fuelled the growth of the cancer, creating a vicious cycle of worsening disease.

Lead scientist Dr Stuart Rushworth, from the University of East Anglia’s Medical School, 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.

“Our research reveals that leukaemia uses this biological phenomenon to its advantage to accelerate the disease.”

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia cells in a bone marrow sample (James Gellier/ Wikimedia Commons/PA)

Bone marrow is important because it is a factory for the manufacture of red and white blood cells – essential for transporting oxygen and providing an effective immune system.

The team, whose findings are reported in the journal Blood, tracked down the cause of the ageing phenomenon to an enzyme called NOX2.

The biological catalyst normally plays a key role in the body’s response to infection.

NOX2 in acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) cells was shown to generate a highly reactive “superoxide” that drove the ageing process.

By suppressing the enzyme, the researchers were able to reduce ageing in non-malignant cells and slow down cancer growth.

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

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