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Childhood Acute Leukaemia Could Partly Be Caused By Lack of Infection

Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia aka ALL or acute lymphocytic leukemia is a form of cancer affecting the blood and bone marrow. In a healthy child, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells that later mature over time. And over time, a blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell.

However, in a child with ALL, too many stem cells become lymphoblasts, B lymphocytes, or T lymphocytes. The cells do not work like their normal counterparts- lymphocytes and are not able to fight infection very well. These cells are cancer/leukemia cells.

Also, as the number of these cancerous leukemia cells increases in the blood and bone marrow, there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets- which might lead to infection, anemia, and easy bleeding.

Now, Prof Mel Greaves, from the Institute of Cancer Research, has amassed 30 years of evidence that shows that the immune system can become cancerous if it does not “see” enough bugs early in life. Which means it might just be possible to prevent the disease.

Greaves explains a “triple whammy” that he thinks is the reason for this cancer. One in 20 kids, he states, are born with a genetic mutation that puts them at possible danger.  However they’ll be OK when their immune system is correctly installed. And for that to happen, they need to encounter benign viruses or bacteria in their very first year.

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Individuals whose immune systems aren’t fully functioning since they’ve not had an early challenge of this nature to cope with- and that then later experience a disease like a cold or influenza- may develop another genetic mutation which will cause vulnerability to cancer.

Professor Mel Greaves, who is the Director of the Centre for Evolution and Cancer at the ICR, said: “I have spent more than 40 years researching childhood leukaemia, and over that time there has been huge progress in our understanding of its biology and its treatment – so that today around 90 per cent of cases are cured. But it has always struck me that something big was missing, a gap in our knowledge – why or how otherwise healthy children develop leukaemia and whether this cancer is preventable.”

“This body of research is a culmination of decades of work, and at last provides a credible explanation for how the major type of childhood leukaemia develops. The research strongly suggests that ALL has a clear biological cause, and is triggered by a variety of infections in predisposed children whose immune systems have not been properly primed.”

“It also busts some persistent myths about the causes of leukaemia, such as the damaging but unsubstantiated claims that the disease is commonly caused by exposure to electro-magnetic waves or pollution. I hope this research will have a real impact on the lives of children. The most important implication is that most cases of childhood leukaemia are likely to be preventable.

“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’.”

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