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Infection Link Found to Childhood Leukaemia


Wednesday April 1 2009


UK researchers have for the first time identified the molecule that stimulates leukaemia to develop in children, according to a study published in the April edition of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research have observed that pre-leukaemic stem cells multiplied substantially at the expense of normal cells when exposed to a molecule produced in the body called TGF.

TGF is triggered as a normal response to infection and so the new finding provides the first experimental evidence as to how common infections might trigger childhood leukaemia.

“We had already identified that a genetic mutation occurring in the womb created these pre-leukaemic cells,” Dr Anthony Ford from The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) says.

“But we have been looking for a trigger that could send these cells down the pathway to leukaemia. We believe TGF is part of that missing link.”

In a study of identical twin girls last year, ICR scientists discovered a genetic mutation - the fusion of the TEL (ETV6) and AML1 (RUNX1) genes – was responsible for initiating childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in the womb.

This mutation means pre-leukaemic cells grow in the bone marrow as a silent time bomb that can stay in the body for up to 15 years, but requires other factors to convert into leukaemia. Evidence suggests that the mutation may be present in as many as 1 in a 100 newborns, but only about 1 in a 100 of those children with the mutation then go on to develop leukaemia.

The latest ICR study, funded by the Leukaemia Research Fund, found TGF creates conditions that allow the pre-leukaemic cells to multiply. This increases the chance that some will become even further damaged in a way that results in the child developing leukaemia.

“Identifying this step means we can determine how an unusual immune response to infection may trigger the development of the full leukaemia and eventually perhaps develop preventative measures such as a vaccine,” ICR scientist Professor Mel Greaves says.

Dr Shabih Syed, Scientific Director at Leukaemia Research says: “Before this study, there had been only circumstantial evidence to implicate infections in the progression from a child carrying pre-leukaemic cells to actually having leukaemia. There was no evidence of the mechanism by which this might happen. While infection is clearly only one factor in triggering progression, this study greatly increases the strength of evidence for its role in the commonest form of childhood leukaemia.”

The research was funded by Leukaemia Research, The Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund, The Institute of Cancer Research and the Medical Research Council.


Media Contact:  Jane Bunce on 0207 153 5106

The Institute of Cancer Research

The Institute of Cancer Research is Europe’s leading cancer research centre with expert scientists working on cutting edge research. In 2009, the ICR marks its 100 years of world leading research into cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment. The ICR is a charity that relies on voluntary income. It is one of the world’s most cost-effective major cancer research organisations with over 95p in every £ directly supporting research. For more information visit

Leukaemia Research

Leukaemia Research is dedicated to saving lives by funding research across the UK into better treatments and cures for leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. Every 20 minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with these cancers of the blood. Leukaemia Research has invested more than £300 million in UK-based cutting edge research into these terrible diseases. The charity receives no government funding and relies entirely on people coming together to fundraise.

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