It’s estimated that around 20,000 people are diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) in the US every year. This type of blood cancer develops in bone marrow, and mostly affects adults over the age of 45. The five year survival rates are very low at just 20%, and it’s been decades since the last new treatments were developed. However, in a recent study, scientists have discovered a gene that could help to protect against certain types of cancer, including AML.

The gene is only found in the Y chromosome, which up until recently was believed to only carry genetic information that would lead to embryos developing as male instead of female. The scientists found that this gene could be used to provide extra protect against AML spreading. This could change the way scientists will look at the Y chromosome and its possible benefits, and it’s hoped that it could be used in the future to develop new treatments for cancer patients.

Lead author Dr Malgorzata Gozdecka, of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Previously it had been suggested that the only function of the Y chromosome is in creating male sexual characteristics, but our results indicate that the Y chromosome could also protect against AML and other cancers.”

Dr Alasdair Rankin, director of research at the charity Bloodwise, said: “Survival rates for AML remain tragically low, with current treatment that involves intensive chemotherapy, often combined with a stem cell transplant, only curing a small proportion of patients.This important research helps build a fuller picture of what goes wrong genetically as this highly aggressive leukaemia develops. Understanding this process is key to developing targeted drugs for AML, allowing us to move away from gruelling and often ineffective chemotherapy-based treatments.”

Professor Brian Huntly, of the University of Cambridge and a consultant haematologist at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “It is known that men often lose the Y chromosome from their cells as they age, however the significance of this was unclear. Our study strengthens the argument that loss of the Y chromosome can increase the risk of cancer and describes a mechanism for how this may happen.”

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