12:23am Saturday 18 January 2020

Revolutionary microscopic imaging technology reveals origins of leukaemia

The researchers at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge studied tiny protein-producing factories, called ribosomes, isolated from cells.  They capitalised on improvements made at the LMB to a high-powered imaging technique known as single particle cryo-electron microscopy.
The microscopes, capable of achieving detail near to the atomic level, enabled the team to link the molecular origins of a rare inherited leukaemia predisposition disorder, ‘Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome’ (SDS), and a more common form of acute leukaemia to a common pathway involved in the construction of ribosomes.

The research, which was funded by the blood cancer charity Bloodwise and the Medical Research Council (MRC), is published online in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.

Ribosomes are the molecular machinery in cells that produce proteins by ‘translating’ the instructions contained in DNA via an intermediary messenger molecule. Errors in this process are known to play a part in the development of some bone marrow disorders and leukaemias. Until now scientists have been unable to study ribosomes at a high enough resolution to understand exactly what goes wrong.

Ribosomes are constructed in a series of discrete steps, like an assembly line. One of the final assembly steps involves the release of a key building block that allows the ribosome to become fully functional. The research team showed that a corrupted mechanism underlying this fundamental late step prevents proper assembly of the ribosome.

This provides an explanation for how cellular processes go awry in both Shwachman-Diamond syndrome and one in 10 cases of T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. This form of leukaemia, which affects around 60 children and young teenagers a year in the UK, is harder to treat than the more common B-cell form.

The findings from the Cambridge scientists, who worked in collaboration with scientists at the University of Rennes in France, open up the possibility that a single drug designed to target this molecular fault could be developed to treat both diseases.

Professor Alan Warren, from the Cambridge Institute of Medical Research at the University of Cambridge, said: “We are starting to find that many forms of blood cancer can be traced back to defects in the basic housekeeping processes in our cells’ maturation. Pioneering improvements to electron microscopes pave the way for the creation of a detailed map of the how these diseases develop, in a way that was never possible before.”

Single particle cryo-electron microscopy preserves the ribosomes at sub-zero temperatures to allow the collection and amalgamation of multiple images of maturing ribosomes in different orientations to ultimately provide more detail.
The technique has been refined in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology by the development of new ‘direct electron detectors’ to better sense the electrons, yielding images of unprecedented quality. Methods to correct for beam-induced sample movements and new classification methods that can separate out several different structures within a single sample have also been developed.

Dr Matt Kaiser, Head of Research at Bloodwise, said: “New insights into the biology of blood cancers and disorders that originate in the bone marrow have only been made possible by the latest advances in technology. While survival rates for childhood leukaemia have improved dramatically over the years, this particular form of leukaemia is harder to treat and still relies on toxic chemotherapy. These findings will offer hope that new, more targeted, treatments can be developed.”

The research received additional funding from a Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) Long term Fellowship, the SDS patient charity Ted’s Gang and the Cambridge NIHR Biomedical Research Centre.


For further information, please contact Henry Winter at the Bloodwise Press Office on 020 7269 9019, press mobile 07824 375880, or email: hwinter@bloodwise.org.uk

Notes to Editors

The findings are published online in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology on 19 October under the title ‘Mechanism of eIF6 release from the nascent 60S ribosomal subunit’. Corresponding author: Prof Alan J Warren, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, Cambridge.

About Bloodwise

Bloodwise is the UK’s biggest blood cancer charity dedicated to improving the lives of patients. The charity, which was formed in 1960, changed its name from Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research in September 2015. Its life-saving work is focused on stopping people from dying of blood cancer, improving the quality of life for patients and their families, and where possible, stopping people getting blood cancer in the first place.

The charity’s research is targeted at understanding more about blood cancer, finding causes, improving diagnosis and treatments, and running groundbreaking clinical trials for patients.  The charity champions patients’ needs by influencing relevant decision makers and influencers, and seeking to raise awareness of the issues faced by patients.  Their patient services provide information, support and assistance to patients at every stage of their journey.

Around 38,000 people of all ages, from children to adults, are diagnosed with blood cancers and related disorders every year in the UK. It is a complex disease area made up of 137 individual diseases.  Some affect thousands of people, such as common forms of leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.  Others affect only a handful. But together, blood cancers are the fifth most common form of cancer.
For more information visit www.bloodwise.org.uk.

The Medical Research Council is at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Thirty-one MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. www.mrc.ac.uk

About the University of Cambridge

The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. To date, 91 affiliates of the University have won the Nobel Prize.

Founded in 1209, the University comprises 31 autonomous Colleges, which admit undergraduates and provide small-group tuition, and 150 departments, faculties and institutions.

Cambridge is a global university. Its 19,000 student body includes 3,700 international students from 120 countries. Cambridge researchers collaborate with colleagues worldwide, and the University has established larger-scale partnerships in Asia, Africa and America.

The University sits at the heart of one of the world’s largest technology clusters. The ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’ has created 1,500 hi-tech companies, 14 of them valued at over US$1 billion and two at over US$10 billion. Cambridge promotes the interface between academia and business, and has a global reputation for innovation. www.cam.ac.uk
Henry Winter

Science Press Officer



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m: 07824 375880


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