Yale Researchers Discover Underlying Cause of Myeloma

Findings could fundamentally change the way cancers are treated

Researchers at the Yale Cancer Center have identified what causes a third of all myelomas, a type of cancer affecting plasma cells. The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, could fundamentally change the way this cancer and others are treated, the researchers say.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer involving the growth of antibody-producing plasma cells. The uncontrolled growth of these cells leads to anemia, bone pain, kidney problems, Gaucher disease, and myeloma. Despite recent advances, including several new FDA-approved therapies for myeloma, the disease remains incurable, and nearly all patients eventually die from it. The cause of myeloma has remained a mystery until now.

Senior author Dr. Madhav Dhodapkar said that the study, using tissue and blood samples from humans and mice, shows that chronic stimulation of the immune system by lipids made in the context of inflammation underlies the origins of at least a third of all myeloma cases.

“Understanding the origin of any cancer has several implications for how to best prevent it,” Dhodapkar said. “These studies set the stage for newer approaches to lower the levels of these lipids in patients with Gaucher disease and others with precursors for myeloma. Potentially, this could be achieved with drugs or lifestyle changes to reduce the levels of lipids to lower the risk of cancer.”

The new findings build on previous research from Dhodapkar’s laboratory demonstrating that patients with Gaucher disease, an inherited lipid-storage disorder, have a significantly increased risk for developing myeloma; the researchers also discovered a subset of lipid-reactive immune cells, called type II NKT-TFH cells, that promote the development of plasma cells.

The investigators used tissue and blood samples to show that the gammopathy (a precursor to myeloma) in patients with Gaucher disease is triggered by specific lipids, and that the antibodies made by tumor cells in nearly a third of myeloma patients are directed against such lipids.

Sources: Yale University; February 11, 2016; and NEJM; February 11, 2016.