Over the past 40 years, Professor Mel Greaves has been carrying out research to increase our understanding of childhood leukaemia, particularly how the most common form of this disease, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), develops.
We have made huge progress in our understanding of the biology of ALL, so that around 90% of children with ALL can now be treated successfully with a combination of chemotherapies. This is one of the greatest success stories of cancer research. However, the treatments for ALL are toxic and traumatic for young patients and their families, and the side-effects can be severe and life-long.
Earlier this year, Professor Greaves published the results of decades of painstaking research which showed for the first time the very likely cause of ALL. This research demonstrated the importance of properly ‘educating’ our immune system early in life, so it knows the correct way to respond to later infections.
The most important implication of this latest research is that childhood ALL is an unanticipated and paradoxical consequence of ‘modern’ lifestyles, but is likely to be preventable.
How does ALL develop?
Professor Greaves discovered that ALL develops in a two stage process:
- The first step is a genetic mutation before birth, as a baby grows in the womb. This mutation occurs at random in as many as 1 in 20 babies, and 99 per cent of children who carry this early mutation do not go on to get leukaemia.
- A second comes later in childhood, triggered by an infection in children with immune systems that weren’t adequately ‘primed’ in the first year of life.
- We are beginning to investigate the possible ways we could prevent ALL occurring in the first place, with simple and safe interventions to expose infants to a variety of common and harmless bugs.
We now know why ALL develops in certain children – but the journey isn’t over yet. This next phase of our research is at a very early stage, but we are excited about the possibility of resetting the immune system of infants with beneficial microbes, so sparing them and their families the trauma of a diagnosis of ALL.
Our research into childhood leukaemia over the past decades has had an enormous impact on the lives of children with cancer all across the world. With your support today, we can make ALL a disease of the past.