New research out of Hamilton's McMaster University suggests that bolstering fat cells in bone marrow could help fight leukemia.

The study's results, which were published today in the journal Nature Cell Biology, actually came as a surprise to researchers, said Mick Bhatia, director and senior scientist with the Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute at McMaster University.

Researchers examined a drug that is commonly used to moderate diabetes that induces fat cell production in bone marrow, and it was found to not only help foster red and white blood cell production, but to also suppress leukemia.

"Patients with leukemia, everyone thinks about killing the disease … but the real problem for patients is they become anemic," Bhatia said.

Patients with leukemia suffer from anemia and infection because of failures in healthy blood production, researchers say, which are leading causes of hospitalization and death from the disease.

McMaster leukemia study

Fat cells (white circles) in healthy human bone marrow, left, compared to bone marrow in a patient with leukemia, right. (McMaster University)

By using this drug, doctors could "augment and activate" healthy cells Bhatia said, which would likely help patients feel better during chemotherapy treatment, and also make treatment more effective.

"This is a way to activate them, or wake them up, if you will."

According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada (LLSC), 5,900 patients were diagnosed with the blood cell cancer in Canada last year. About 22,510 people in Canada are living with, or are in remission from, the disease.

The LLSC says that about 20 Canadians a day die from either leukemia, or similar cancers lymphoma and myeloma.

Mick Bhatia

Mick Bhatia is the director and senior scientist with the Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute at McMaster University. (McMaster University)

To mimic how the treatment would work in humans, Bhatia and his team transplanted the disease into mice, then conducted the same treatments.

Researchers found it effective, he said, and with minimal side effects as the drug can be given in a much lower dose and with a shorter duration than in its intended use for diabetes treatment.

Now, after the three-and-a-half year initial study, the team is eyeing clinical trials on humans, Bhatia said. He expects it could take two to three years to get funding and approvals in place for that to happen.

In the meantime, Bhatia says he is heartened by the results so far.

"We think this therapy will make patients feel healthier," he said.