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Scientists Find Non-viral Pathway of Blood Cancer Development


Sunday 31 October 2010


An international team of scientists led by The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) has found three new regions of DNA linked to the development of Hodgkin lymphoma, one of the most common cancers in young adults.

Around 1,500 people are diagnosed each year in the UK with Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer originating from white blood cells called lymphocytes.

One quarter to half of all cases of Hodgkin lymphoma are thought to be triggered by infection with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)* however the disease can also develop in patients who have never been exposed to the virus. Scientists suspected inherited genes were involved in these cases, as having a family history of disease increases risk, but until now they have not been able to identify any specific genetic risk factors.

In a paper published in Nature Genetics today, Professor Richard Houlston from the ICR and colleagues reveal three new variations in the letters of the DNA code that give an increased risk of developing Hodgkin lymphoma. Two of these genetic variants are more common in people not exposed to the virus.

“Many cases of Hodgkin lymphoma are linked to Epstein-Barr virus, but we have found the first evidence of genes that could be involved in promoting this cancer’s development in people not exposed to the virus,” Professor Houlston says. “Understanding the biological triggers for Hodgkin lymphoma is crucial as it opens the door to creating new targeted therapies for this disease.”

In the genome wide association study, funded by Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research and Cancer Research UK, the team scanned the whole genome of 589 Hodgkin lymphoma patients and compared the results to 5,199 people without the disease. They found the genetic variants on chromosomes 2, 8 and 10 were significantly more common among Hodgkin lymphoma sufferers than healthy controls, and then confirmed the results in a further 2,057 cases and 3,416 controls. 

They also found the MHC region on chromosome 6 – which contains a family of genes involved in the immune system – is linked to a higher risk of disease, which has previously been suspected but not confirmed until now. 

The other genetic variants identified are also located in or near genes thought to play an important role in the immune system: REL on chromosome 2, GATA3 on chromosome 10 and PVT1 on chromosome 8. Furthermore, the team found evidence that these genes may interact, and could therefore all be involved in the same disease-causing biological pathway.

Importantly, the changes to the DNA regions on chromosomes 2, 6, and 8 were significantly more common in patients who had not been exposed to Epstein-Barr virus, implying that genes in these regions are involved in another way of triggering disease independently of the virus. Further studies will be needed to work out exactly how this is occurring and pinpoint the precise genes that cause cancer.

Dr David Grant, Scientific Director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, which co-funded the study, says, “More and more evidence is changing views on how Hodgkin lymphoma is caused. The link to EBV is still not clear after many years of research but this study will certainly throw new light on the genetic basis of this blood cancer. In the future new drugs can be developed to target these causes.”

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, which co-funded the study, said: “Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the most curable forms of cancer, with around four out of five people now being successfully treated. We know that the EBV virus has a role to play in the development of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but more than half of people with the disease show no signs of infection. This study takes us one step closer to fully understanding why the disease develops.”


Media Contact: ICR Science Press Officer Jane Bunce on 0207 153 5106 or after hours 077217 47900


Notes to editors:

* Epstein Barr virus is a very infectious type of herpes virus that can cause a number of diseases, ranging from mild cold-like symptoms to glandular fever and potentially other autoimmune disorders. In the US, about half of all five-year-olds and up to 95% of adults have evidence of exposure.


Having a family member with Hodgkin lymphoma increases disease risk by between three- and nine- fold; identical twins have a 99-fold increased risk. Most people who develop Hodgkin lymphoma are between 15 and 35 or over 55.


The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR)

  • The ICR is Europe’s leading cancer research centre
  • The ICR has been ranked the UK’s top academic research centre, based on the results of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Research Assessment Exercise
  • The ICR works closely with partner The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust to ensure patients immediately benefit from new research. Together the two organisations form the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Europe
  • The ICR has charitable status and relies on voluntary income, spending 90 pence in every pound of total income directly on research
  • As a college of the University of London, the ICR also provides postgraduate higher education of international distinction
  • Over its 100-year history, the ICR’s achievements include identifying the potential link between smoking and lung cancer which was subsequently confirmed, discovering that DNA damage is the basic cause of cancer and isolating more cancer-related genes than any other organisation in the world

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About Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research
Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research is the only UK charity solely dedicated to research into blood cancers, including leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. These cancers are diagnosed in around 28,500 children, teenagers and adults in the UK every year. Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research was previously known as Leukaemia Research and has changed its name to raise awareness of its longstanding commitment to research into all the blood cancers - not just leukaemia.

We celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2010 and our expertise and focus enables us to invest in only the best UK research into better diagnosis, treatments and cures. As we receive no government funding and rely entirely on voluntary support, we need to raise £120 million in the next five years to continue this life-saving research. Further information, including patient information booklets, is available from or on 020 7405 0101

Cancer Research UK

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  • The charity’s groundbreaking work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped save millions of lives. This work is funded entirely by the public
  • Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen survival rates double in the last forty years
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  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to beat cancer

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