Is childhood leukaemia associated with viral infection during pregnancy?

01 December 2011
Dr Kate O'Neill & Dr Michael Murphy, Childhood Cancer Research Group, University of Oxford

There is a substantial body of evidence indicating that the development of leukaemia in childhood may be linked to patterns of exposure to disease at different time points, including maternal exposure during pregnancy. This project will help to clarify the role of exposure to infectious diseases during pregnancy.

Amount of grant: £157,106  |  Date of award: December 2011

Overview

Leukaemia, a cancer of the blood, is the most common form of childhood cancer, affecting around 500 children every year in the UK. Leukaemia most commonly affects children under the age of five years. Risk increases rapidly after birth, peaks at around 3 or 4 years of age, and then declines.

There is a substantial body of evidence indicating that the development of leukaemia in childhood may be linked to patterns of exposure to infectious diseases (viruses) at different time points, including maternal exposure during pregnancy.

This project will help to clarify the role of exposure to diseases during pregnancy.

Background

Some forms of childhood cancer, including some leukaemias, are known to originate before birth, whilst the child is still in the womb. Indeed, some children are born with pre-leukaemic cells already in their blood.

Leukaemia is a cancer of the blood or, more specifically, of the white blood cells. White blood cells (leukocytes) are cells of the immune system involved in defending the body against infectious disease.

It is thought that childhood leukaemia risk may be directly associated with exposure to infectious disease. There are various different theories concerning the nature of this association including:

  1. that infectious exposure during pregnancy or around the time of birth increases the risk of childhood leukaemia;
  2. the absence of infectious exposure during the first two years of life impedes the development of the immune system and increases the risk of leukaemia following subsequent infectious exposure;
  3. unusual patterns of population mixing introduce a new infection to previously unexposed populations and childhood leukaemia is an unusual result of such an infection.

This project sets out to test the first of these theories.

Understanding the role of exposure to infectious disease

In the UK, within a few days of birth, a number of spots of blood are routinely taken from all infants. These tiny samples of blood are used for testing for certain conditions; an additional sample is stored on a ‘Guthrie card’.

The research team will obtain the Guthrie cards for children diagnosed with cancer (‘cases’) and registered on the National Registry of Childhood Tumours as well as healthy children (‘controls’) matched on certain key characteristics.

Cutting edge technology will be used to screen these samples for evidence of viral infection and the number and type of viruses will be compared between the cases and controls, to see if there is a difference between the two groups. Around 2,000 cases of childhood leukaemia and 2,000 controls will be studied.

What difference will this project make?

By the end of this project the team expects to conclude either that there is no association between childhood leukaemia risk and viral infection during pregnancy or to identify a link with specific infections. If specific infections are found to be associated with leukaemia risk, this opens up a number of possible preventive measures.

Read more: Causes of childhood cancer
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