Study finds correlation between sleep apnea, multiple myeloma

A study conducted on mice at the UI has shown a correlation between sleep apnea and a deadly blood cancer called multiple myeloma. The results of the study has led researchers to begin looking into potential treatments for patients of multiple myeloma.


Tate Hildyard

University of Iowa research student Mahmoud Ali poses for a portrait in the Medical Education Research Facility on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Mahmoud and his team discovered a link between sleep apnea and myeloma, a deadly blood cancer.

Annie Fitzpatrick, News Reporter

Research conducted at the University of Iowa linking sleep apnea and multiple myeloma could lead to potential treatment and prevention for patients at risk of the deadly cancer.

Studies conducted on mice have found a correlation between sleep apnea and multiple myeloma, prompting researchers to begin treatments on human patients.

Principal researcher in the study Assistant Professor Melissa Bates said she and co-author of the study Professor Michael Tomasson initially thought of conducting the study while at a seminar focused on sleep. After hearing about a study in Wisconsin that focused on how diagnoses of sleep apnea increase one’s risk of mortality, Bates said, she was interested in investigating multiple myeloma.

“I sort of had the idea then that …  maybe how you breathe when you sleep is an important contributor to this particular cancer,” she said. “And …  it really struck me as interesting puzzle because this cancer is far different than a lot of other cancers.”

Bates said that while most cancers are thought to be a disease of uncontrollable gene mutations and growth in the cells, this is not the case of multiple myeloma. Myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells, and genes are not strong enough to cause the cancer in these plasma cells, Bates said. Thus, there is reason to believe that something else, like sleep apnea, is helping the gene develop cancer.

“I am very inspired to work on problems there aren’t solutions for, and multiple myeloma is one of those,” she said.

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Tomasson, who treats patients of multiple myeloma, said that while researchers have made a lot of progress in treating multiple myeloma in the clinic, it remains an incurable disease. He said he wanted to use mouse models to understand the cancer and its mutations better because similar research has helped better understand other cancers in the past.

“I think the importance is raising the awareness of how myeloma develops and that sleep apnea may be a part of that, and that sleep apnea may be interfering with effectiveness,” Tomasson said.

UI postdoc research scholar Mahmoud Ali was in charge of conducting the experiments on the mice for the study. The experiments, he said, focused on several groups of mice that were exposed to intermittent hypoxia to mimic the condition of a patient experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea.

Mice were also injected with myeloma cells to see how the cancer cells affected the mice with different oxygen levels. The results of the study found that mice exposed to intermittent hypoxia developed the cancer and died at a much higher rate than regular mice.

“When you inject these myeloma cells into a normal mouse, they don’t die. The immune system of these mice … combat the cancer cells and they don’t develop multiple myeloma. But when we inject these myeloma cells into the mice exposed to the intermittent hypoxia, 66 percent of mice died,” Ali said.

The results of the relationship indicate a strong correlation between multiple myeloma and sleep apnea for mice, but the next step in research is to focus treatments on human patients. Bates said that through the Molecular Epidemiological Research Resource Core in the UI Holden Cancer Center, patients have the option to partake in a study that will test the correlation among humans.

Since January, multiple myeloma patients have had the option to take home a monitor and undergo analysis, she said.

“This is something that we can do in addition to the great therapies we already have to make those therapies work better,” she said.