Our scientific workshop

13 June 2014
Professor Geoff Pilkington
Professor Geoff Pilkington reflects on our recent scientific workshop, examining in utero exposure and cancer in children.

Researchers from all over the world converged on the Royal College of Physicians in London on 2 and 3 June 2014 to discuss how events in the womb might trigger childhood cancer.

The two-day workshop brought together scientists from the UK and as far afield as the USA, Canada, Italy and Thailand. The question they were addressing was whether exposures in the womb might influence the likelihood that a newborn infant goes on to develop cancer.
Genetic changes associated with several childhood cancers are thought to occur in utero, but their causes remain obscure.
Early development is a time of great vulnerability, as the fetus grows rapidly and its defence mechanisms have yet to mature fully. Genetic changes associated with several childhood cancers are thought to occur in utero, but their causes remain obscure.

Innovatively, the June workshop brought together researchers from very different areas of science and medicine. There was a strong focus on the placenta, one role of which is to act as a barrier to protect the fetus. However, it appears that harmful substances may not even need to pass through the placenta in order to damage the fetus.

The meeting discussed a wide range of possible cancer-promoting agents, including air pollutants, nanoparticles, dietary carcinogens, radioactive particles, alcohol, arsenic and magnetic fields. A session also focused on the intriguing idea that disruption of daily (circadian) rhythms might also have harmful effects on the developing fetus.
It was a real pleasure to chair the first section which covered an excellent and enlightening talk on the placenta...
The meeting also included presentations on the complex genetic changes seen in the most common childhood cancers, such as leukaemia and brain tumours. These events are turning out to be immensely complex, though researchers are making exciting progress in unpicking the events that cause normal cells to turn cancerous.

A recurrent theme of talks was that the (thankfully) rare occurrence of childhood cancers makes it difficult to study their origins, and to identify factors in common between cases that might point to their causes. Experimental work on possible cancer-causing agents is suggesting a range of possible concerns. Studies on the cancers themselves are illuminating and an important step towards new therapies, and may in time give clues to possible causes.
A combination of approaches – and sharing of information among disciplines as was possible at this innovative and thought-provoking meeting – may yet yield more progress in the future.
A combination of approaches – and sharing of information among disciplines as was possible at this innovative and thought-provoking meeting – may yet yield more progress in the future.

It was a real pleasure to chair the first section which covered an excellent and enlightening talk on the placenta, particular reference to the vulnerability of stem cell population and expert overviews of tumours affecting brain, blood and kidney in childhood. This was a major achievement for the charity in putting together such a diverse, informative and interactive programme.  This should facilitate interaction of different research groups with compatible skill sets to work together to discover how childhood tumours may arise and how we can better target them with effective, low toxicity treatments.

Prof Geoff Pilkington is Professor of Cellular and Molecular Neuro-oncology, University of Portsmouth and a member of our Scientific Advisory Panel.

Read more: Our scientific conferences
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