Dr Michael Murphy, Childhood Cancer Research Group, University of Oxford

01 December 2011
Oxford Survey of Childhood Cancers.

As one of the largest studies of childhood cancer ever conducted, the Oxford Survey of Childhood Cancers contains records of more than 23,000 childhood cancer deaths. The archived database will be audited and preserved in a form that will make it available for future research and the team will use the data to investigate some of the unanswered questions relating to low level radiation exposure.

Amount of grant: £63,952  |  Date of award: December 2011

Dr Michael Murphy & Dr John Bithell, Childhood Cancer Research Group, University of Oxford; Professor Richard Wakeford, University of Manchester

The Oxford Survey of Childhood Cancers (OSCC) was started in 1953 by Dr Alice Stewart, who was then based at the University of Oxford.
The project investigators comprise an outstanding team with many years of expertise in both childhood cancer and ionising radiation
Dr Stewart collected information on children who had died of cancer and compared it with information relating to healthy control children. In this period, childhood cancer survival rates were so low that children dying from cancer were fairly representative of children diagnosed with cancer.

The Oxford study continued until the 1970s, after which Dr Stewart re-located to Birmingham, taking the study with her. The team continued to accrue information until the 1980s, by which time the survey included information on almost 15,000 children who had died from cancer, as well as 15,000 matched control children.

An early finding of the study – and still the most important one - was an increased risk of childhood cancer associated with antenatal diagnostic x-ray investigations. The results were received with some scepticism and - although they led to a change in practice - the findings remain controversial many years later, with several important questions remaining unanswered.

Whilst antenatal radiography is no longer practiced, children are still exposed to low doses of ionising radiation from other sources – including medical diagnostic procedures such as CT scans, the use of which has increased dramatically over recent years.

The OSCC remains the most important source of available information on the association between childhood cancer risk and exposure to low doses of ionising radiation in utero or in early childhood. It is therefore of major importance to obtain the best possible analyses of this existing data, both to make the best use of more recent data and also to look afresh at the associations in light of new evidence and analytical methods.

Resurrecting the OSCCThe use of ionising radiation in medicine is increasing, but there is a crucial lack of data on risks of childhood exposures. Generating new data is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible (in utero). The collected OSCC data must be put to best use to learn more about risk factors for childhood cancer.
Dr Michael Murphy, Director of the Childhood Cancer Research Group in Oxford, the original home of the OSCC, is leading work to resurrect and preserve the Survey. This is a timely project, in light of the imminent retirement of the Survey’s current custodian in Birmingham.

Dr Murphy will be working with Dr John Bithell, who worked with Alice Stewart on the Survey during her time in Oxford and co-authored the 1975 paper on x-ray exposure and childhood cancer risk, and Professor Richard Wakeford, an expert on radiation epidemiology from the University of Manchester.

The OSCC database contains records of 14,939 case-control pairs for deaths in the years 1953-81. In addition to the database, interview records exist on microfilm, with an estimated 750,000 pages in the collection.

Dr Murphy and colleagues will recover and document the existing data, bringing it back to Oxford and investigating ways of making it available to bona fide research workers in the future; they will then explore ways of using the resurrected data to update available information relating to antenatal x-ray exposure, in particular, but also other datasets.

What difference will this project make?
This project will take forward our knowledge of the risks associated with low dose radiation exposure, enabling investigation of some of the remaining unanswered questions. This could give an important insight into the risks associated with modern imaging procedures such as CT scanning.

Read more: Causes of childhood cancer


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