Recent research by the University of Birmingham has revealed some of the ways MGUS can progress to myeloma.

3rd year Biochemistry Bsc student
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Researchers at the University of Birmingham have discovered some of the key metabolic changes which need to occur for a blood disorder called Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance or ‘MGUS’ to lead to myeloma, something which occurs in 1% of MGUS cases. MGUS is predominantly found in the older population; the condition does not produce any symptoms in patients and therefore goes undetected.

It is hoped that this new lead into the cause of myeloma will help in the prevention and the possible treatment of this rare form of cancer.

But, what is myeloma?

Myeloma is a form of blood cancer which develops from the bone marrow, the soft tissue inside our bones, which produces our blood cells. This type of cancer specifically affects the bone marrow’s production of plasma cells, which make up over 50% of our blood volume. Plasma cells are key to our health as they are vital in our bodies’ defence mechanisms against infections. They produce immunoglobulins, a type of cell that binds to bacteria and viruses in our blood stream and destroys these foreign cells, in order to protect our body from infection.

A patient with myeloma still produces these plasma cells. However, the type of immunoglobulin the plasma cells produce is called a paraprotein. Paraproteins are not like normal immunoglobulins. They can rapidly multiply and they also do not bind to bacteria or viruses like normal immunoglobulins, therefore allowing the body to become overrun by infection.

I’ve never heard of myeloma before, is it a common type of cancer?

Around 4,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with myeloma every year. So compared to the number of people diagnosed with breast cancer, 50,000, fewer people are affected by myeloma, so it is less well-known. However, as myeloma is a cancer of the blood, it does not form tumours like most other cancers, but instead the excess plasma cells and the paraproteins build up in large volumes in the blood. This causes excruciating bone pain for the patient.

So what have the researches at the university found out?

Researchers at the University of Birmingham have revealed that when the metabolism of the bone marrow cells from healthy patients was compared to patients with MGUS there were significant differences. Metabolism is the process which occurs in all body cells; it is the way in which we create energy in order for cells, and therefore our body, to function. There are over 200 different compounds created during cell metabolism that differentiate between the healthy patients and the MGUS patients. It is believed that these changes may be what causes myeloma to develop in patients with MGUS.

Dr Daniel Tennant, who led the research at the University of Birmingham, said, “Our findings show that very few changes are required for an MGUS patient to progress to myeloma as we now know that virtually all patients with myeloma evolve from MGUS. A drug that interferes with these specific initial metabolic changes could make a very effective treatment for myeloma, so this is a very exciting discovery.”