A compound produced from fish oils which apparently targets leukemia stem cells may lead to a cure for leukemia, according to a new study.

Researchers found that the compound, delta-12-protaglandin J3 or D12-PGJ3, produced in Eicosapentaenoic Acid, an Omega-3 fatty acid found in fish and in fish oil, has targeted and killed the stem cells of chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML, in mice.

"Research in the past on fatty acids has shown the health benefits of fatty acids on cardiovascular system and brain development, particularly in infants, but we have shown that some metabolites of Omega-3 have the ability to selectively kill the leukemia-causing stem cells in mice," said Sandeep Prabhu, associate professor of immunology and molecular toxicology in the Department of Veterinary and Medical Sciences.

The compound kills cancer-causing stem cells in mice spleen and bone marrow, as it activates a gene in the leukemia stem cell, which programs the cells own death.

Each infected mouse was injected with about 600 nanograms of D12-PGJ3 every day for a week. Researchers focused on D12-PGJ3 because it had the least number of side effects.

The tests showed a normal blood count and that the spleen returned to normal size. The mice were completely cured of the disease and it did not relapse.

Prabhu said that killing the stem cells in leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells, is important because stem cells can divide and produce more cancer cells, as well as create more stem cells.

Co-author and associate professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences, Robert Paulson said that the current therapy for CML extends a patient's life by keeping the number of leukemia cells low, but the drugs fail to completely cure the disease because they do not target leukemia stem cells.

"The patients must take the drugs continuously," said Paulson. "If they stop, the disease relapses because the leukemia stem cells are resistant to the drugs."

"These stem cells can hide from the treatment, and a small population of stem cells give rise to more leukemia cells," said Paulson. "So, targeting the stem cells is essential if you want to cure leukemia."

The researchers said that they are currently working to determine whether the compound can be used to treat the terminal stage of CML, referred to as Blast Crisis, as there are no drugs available to treat the disease once it progresses to this stage.