Leukaemia triggered by infections like flu and likely to be preventable, says leading cancer scientist in 'landmark' breakthrough

New theory suggests germ-free environment for first year of life may increase risk of disease, and paves way for preventative treatments.

Most cases of childhood leukaemia are likely to be preventable and might be brought on by common infections such as flu,one of the UK’s leading cancer scientists has suggested in abreakthrough that could revolutionise treatment of the disease - writes independent.co.uk

According to the “landmark” analysis,such infections can trigger acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) in genetically predisposed children, but only those raised in germ-free early environments.

This means exposing babies to other children may actually protect them from the illnessby “priming” their immune systems against later infections.

Professor Mel Greaves of the Institute of Cancer Research , who brought together more than 30 years of research to develop thetheory, now intends to work on treatments that can prevent the cancer altogether.

“The most important implication is that most cases of childhood leukaemia are likely to be preventable,” said Professor Greaves.

“It might be done in the same way that is currently under consideration for autoimmune disease or allergies – perhaps with simple and safe interventions to expose infants to a variety of common and harmless ‘bugs’.”

ALL affects 500 individuals annually in the UK – making it the most common form of cancer in children – and this figure is rising every year.

In a paper published inNature Reviews Cancer, Professor Greaves explained how two steps are required for ALL to develop: a genetic mutation that occurs in the womb, followed by another genetic change triggered by exposure to one or more common infections.

The new research counters past suggestions that electricity cables, electromagnetic waves or man-made chemicals were behind the disease – ideas Professor Greaves said lacked robust evidence.

While one in 20 children are thought to be born with the pre-leukaemia mutation, only 1per cent of them will go on to develop the disease.

After reviewing anarray of studies carried out in everything from lab mice to large population samples, Professor Greavessuggested that a second genetic “hit” is required to trigger ALL – and this hit appears to come from infection by viruses or bacteria.

A case study on a spate of leukaemia cases following a swine flu outbreak appeared to confirm this idea, with seven children developing the cancer in Milan after being infected with swine flu.

A body of scientific evidence suggests there is a peak in the occurrence of ALL between the ages of two and five, but this is not seen in every country.

Instead, the cancer seems to become more prevalent in societies as they get wealthier, and the children in them are less exposed to infectious diseases from a young age.

Professor Mel Greaves described this as a “paradox of progress”, in which the more children are exposed to infectious diseases at younger ages, the more likely they are to develop severe illnesses.

This same mechanism has been proposed for other diseases including type 1 diabetes and allergies.

“The problem is not infection – the problem is lack of infection,” said Professor Greaves.

Studies have demonstrated that day care attendance and breast feeding both seem to protect children against ALL, probably due to the priming effect these activities have on their immune system.

While Professor Greaves emphasised it was wrong to assign blame for the onset of leukaemia, he said there were certain recommendations that could be taken from his research.

“Be less fussy about common or trivial infections and encourage social contact in the first year of life with as many children as possible – and actually contact with older children is probably a good thing,” he said.

“You pick up these priming infections from other children, that's the way they get spread – playing with each other’s’ toys and touching each other and so on.”

Other researchers welcomed Professor Greaves’ ideas, while emphasising there is still a lot to learn about leukaemia and that there is currently noproven link with a specific infection.

“This research sheds light on how a form of childhood blood cancer might develop, implicating a complex combination of genetics and early exposure to germs, dirt and illness,” said Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician.

“Childhood leukaemia is rare, and it’s currently not known what or if there is anything that can be done to prevent it by either medical professionals or parents.

“We want to assure any parents of a child who has or has had leukaemiathat there’s nothing that we know of that could have been done to prevent their illness.”

Dr Alasdair Rankin, director of research at the blood cancer charity Bloodwise, said: “While developing a strong immune system early in life may slightly further reduce risk, there is nothing that can be currently done to definitively prevent childhood leukaemia.

“As noted by this study, other factors influence its development – including pure chance.”

Scientists noted that despite the extensive work that contributed to Professor Greaves’ conclusions, the links he identified still required further investigation and any exposure of children to infections came with risks of its own.

Professor Chris Bunce, a translational cancer biologist at theUniversity of Birmingham who was not involved in the work, described Professor Greaves as “one of the superstars amongst modern cancer biologists”.

“This understanding of the origins of the disease provide insight to possible future strategies for leukaemia prevention,” he said.

The Institute of Cancer Research described the analysis as a”landmark paper”.

Professor Paul Workman, the institute’s chief executive, said the work had “cut through the myths about childhood leukaemia and for the first time set out a single unified theory for how most cases are caused”.

“It’s exciting to think thatin futurechildhood leukaemia could become a preventable disease as a result of this work,” he said.

“Preventing childhood leukaemia would have a huge impact on the lives of children and their families in the UK and across the globe.”

Read more news of London on our site.

independent.co.uk/
Leukaemia infections
If you notice an error, highlight the text you want and press Ctrl + Enter to report it to the editor
2 views in november
I recommend
No recommendations yet

Comments

Post your comment to communicate and discuss this article.

Society
Children living in London boroughs with high diesel pollution suffer from stunted lung capacity, putting them at risk of early death, a study has said. Pupils living in areas that failed to meet EU nitrogen dioxide limits were at increased risk of lung disease, researchers found. The research studied 2,000 London school children over five years. "We are raising a generation of children reaching adulthood with stunted lungs," researchers said. Academics fro...
Incidents
A private school teacher has been left partially blind after another woman smashed a glass in her face during a night out.  Lisa Bertsch, 30, was at the Be At One bar in Richmond when she was hit in her right eye. The tumbler shattered and left Ms Bertsch, who lives with her boyfriend in Kingston, needing emergency surgery. She said the attack happened when she tried to stop the assailant pouring a cocktail over her friend’s belongings. Ms Bertsch added th...
Society
Discarded syringes have been left in play areas and car parks as a BBC investigation found councils were being called 50 times a day to remove them. Figures obtained by the BBC showed councils handled 18,496 cases in 2017-18, a rise of 7% in two years. A volunteer pricked by a discarded needle has told how he faces a wait for HIV and hepatitis test results. The Department for Communities and Local Government said it was "committed to doing more to reduce d...
Society
The German Zeppelin bombing campaign of London during WWI has been brought to the fore again days before the centenary of the war in a film made by schoolchildren. The first ever example of strategic bombing in history - a tactic used in total war with the goal of defeating the enemy by destroying their morale or economy - was during the First World War Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II initially banned attacks on the capital because of his close connection to the...
Society
London’s busiest train station has recruited a hawk to scare off pigeons following a spate of complaints from angry passengers. Aria, a five-year-old harris hawk, has begun patrolling Waterloostation in a bid to stop people having to “fight" off pigeons while eating. There are 27 food and drink retailers at the Network Rail-managed station, and many customers have complained about pigeons pecking at food and leaving a mess. The birds have been pictured sit...
Society
London City Airport is going to fine airlines for breaching noise limits after a surge in complaints from residents.  The airport, based in the Royal Docks, has launched a “penalty and incentive” scheme for planes breaching its rules, and will name and shame them online. Bosses revealed the airport had seen a spike in complaints since launching concentrated flight paths in February 2016. The paths were changed after new air traffic control technology was b...
Society
The Crossrail delay will cost Transport for London almost £200 million next year in lost revenue, the Standard has learned. Latest calculations suggest the expected nine-month delay to the completion of the Elizabeth Line, first revealed in August, will cost the cash-strapped body almost £550,000-a-day.  TfL, which has a deficit of around £1bn, has told the London Assembly it will miss out on £170million income from passenger fares and up to £20million in...
Society
Motorists who park in cycle lanes in one of London’s “Mini Holland” boroughs could have their residents’ parking permits revoked, council chiefs warned today. A crackdown on illegal parking has been launched by Waltham Forest council amid growing anger at the way some drivers are blocking the new routes.  They are being introduced under a £30 million initiative to encourage walking and cycling by building Dutch-style segregated routes, including a three-mi...
Society
‘Only a bloody stark raving alcoholic is bloody drunk at 1.30pm in the afternoon,’ says Air India pilot. A senior Air India pilot was grounded after he failed breathalyser tests shortly before a flight from New Delhi to London on Sunday. Arvind Kathpalia, who is responsible for safety at the airline as operations director, denied drinking on the job and said he would contest the results of the alcohol checks. “It was 1.30pm in the afternoon, only a bloody...