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Inherited Susceptibility to Childhood Leukaemia Identified


Sunday 16 August 2009


Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) have for the first time found inherited genetic variants that increase the risk that children will develop the most common type of leukaemia, according to results published online today in Nature Genetics.


The researchers say the findings are important because it brings them a major step closer to understanding the complex process by which acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) – the most common form of cancer in children – develops.


Most cancers are thought to be triggered by a combination of factors, including environmental exposure, inherited genetic susceptibility and chance. For childhood ALL, scientists at the ICR have previously found that a blood cell mutation occurring before birth and other mutations acquired after birth – perhaps triggered by common childhood infections – are involved.


While ALL does not appear to run in families, the ICR scientists have for the first time identified that inherited risk factors are also involved in its development.


They made the discovery using new technologies that enabled them to compare the whole DNA genome of patients against healthy controls to identify natural variations in genetic regions or specific genes that confer risk or protection against cancer. This tactic has proved successful for several adults cancers (breast, prostate, brain, and colon).


In a study funded by Leukaemia Research and the Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund, the ICR team discovered inherited variations in three different genes, which individually increased the risk of ALL by 30 per cent to 60 per cent. 


The genes themselves control the development of lymphocytes – the cells that are altered in ALL.


Professor Richard Houlston, head of the ICR’s Molecular and Population Genetic Team and lead geneticist on the study, said: “These findings provide the first evidence that genetic makeup plays a major role in the risk of ALL and insight into how the disease develops.”


Professor Mel Greaves, leukaemia biologist, Chairman of the ICR’s Section of Haemato-Oncology and co-investigator on the study, said: “This is a very significant advance in our understanding the complex process by which children develop leukaemia. The new results should not be taken, by parents or the public at large, to mean that children develop leukaemia because of an accident of inheritance. Genetic risk factors are just one component of cause. Finding the triggering exposures still remains a focus of intense effort, particularly with respect to possible future prevention.”


Dr David Grant, Scientific Director at Leukaemia Research, said: "This research has uncovered more important clues to explain how blood cells can transform to leukaemia.  A complete understanding of how leukaemia develops will lead to new, less punishing, treatments to cure all children with this cruel cancer."


About 400 children are diagnosed with ALL each year in the UK, making it the most common type of cancer in children.




Media Contact: Jane Bunce or 0207 153 5106 or after hours 077217 47900


The Institute of Cancer Research

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) is Europe’s leading cancer research centre with expert scientists working on cutting-edge research. In 2009, the ICR marks its 100 years of groundbreaking research into cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Scientists at the ICR have identified more cancer related genes than any other organisation in world. These discoveries are allowing for scientists to develop new cancer treatments. In December 2008, the ICR was ranked as the UK’s leading academic research centre by the Times Higher Education’s Table of Excellence, based on the results of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Research Assessment Exercise. 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 more than 95p in every £ directly supporting research. For more information visit


Leukaemia Research (UK)
Leukaemia Research is the only national charity devoted exclusively to improving treatments, finding cures and learning how to prevent leukaemia, Hodgkin’s and other lymphomas, myeloma and the other related blood disorders, diagnosed in 24,500 people in the UK every year. Further information, including patient information booklets, is available from or call 020 7405 0101. Over the next five years, Leukaemia Research urgently needs to raise over £100 million to commit to new research across the UK. From basic laboratory research to clinical trials with patients, Leukaemia Research is committed to saving lives by funding high quality, carefully selected research throughout the UK.


The Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund

The Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund awards grants for research on aspects of leukaemia and for relevant studies on related haematological malignancies. Grants are awarded for first class research on innovative proposals, particularly those close to the care of leukaemia patients or the prevention of leukaemia or related diseases. Programme/Project grants are awarded twice yearly, and Senior, Intermediate and Junior Fellowships of three to five years are awarded annually. The Fund also considers support for capital projects that will have direct benefit to leukaemia patient care.  For more information please visit

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