We don’t know enough about what causes acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Prof Metayer is studying how exactly the nutrient folate might reduce risk of the disease, and whether this varies between different people. This could lead to new ways to identify children at risk, and prevent them from developing this cancer.

Project Details

  • Project Title

    Studying the relationship between folate and leukaemia risk

  • Lead Researcher

    Professor Catherine Metayer

  • Research Centre

    The Regents of the University of California

  • City & Institution Postcode


  • Start Date

    15 January 2020

  • Duration

    36 months

  • Grant Amount


Catherine Metayer researcher lady with glasses


Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is the most common cancer in childhood. Although the survival rates for the disease have improved, many survivors live with long-term side effects of the disease and its treatment. To stop children from developing ALL, we need to learn more about the causes of the disease.

Folate is an essential nutrient that can be found in lots of foods. Pregnant women are advised to take folic acid supplements, a man-made version of folate. We know from previous research that pregnant women who consume lots of folate have children who are less likely to develop ALL. However, we don’t know exactly why this is the case.
Scientists also suspect that differences in the ways of our bodies use folate can affect how much benefit children get from this nutrient. In this project, Prof Catherine Metayer and her team aim to find out exactly how folate affects different children’s chances of developing ALL. They will do this in a few different ways.

Firstly, the team will study how a child’s genes (the code in their DNA) affects how their body uses folate, and how this affects their risk of leukaemia. There are dozens of genes which are involved in how the body absorbs and uses folate. By studying variations in these genes, Prof Metayer and her team will find out whether any specific variations might affect a child’s chances of developing leukaemia. They will do this by studying the DNA of nearly 22,000 children, around 8,000 of whom have developed ALL working with the Childhood Cancer and Leukaemia International Consortium.

The team will also be studying blood samples taken at birth and at diagnosis of ALL. They will first study chemical changes in the DNA of the cells in these blood samples. By studying whether changes at birth persist into childhood, the team could reveal why low intake of folate in the womb has a lasting effect on leukaemia risk later in life.
The team will also look in these blood samples for chemicals produced when the body uses folate. They will look for differences in these blood samples between children who developed ALL and those who did not. This could reveal if the way the body uses folate has any effect on the risk of developing leukaemia.

Potential impact

Prof Metayer’s research will reveal new information about the link between folate and the risk of developing ALL, the most common childhood cancer. This could lead to new strategies to prevent the disease, for example, by identifying children who could benefit from folate supplements. This would mean fewer children having to go through cancer treatment and living with the long-term effects on their health and wellbeing.

About the research team

Professor Metayer is the Director of the Centre for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukaemia and the Environment (CIRCLE) at the University of California Berkeley, School of Public Health in the USA and the outgoing Chair of the Childhood Leukaemia International Consortium (CLIC). She has successfully conducted childhood leukaemia research for the past 17 years and will oversee all aspects of the proposed research.

In this project Professor Metayer will work closely with Dr Lauren Petrick, an Assistant Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (USA) and co-investigator in CIRCLE. As an analytical chemist and exposure biologist, Dr Petrick pioneered the use of using dried blood samples taken at birth in the CIRCLE project to investigate biomarkers for the environmental risk factors of childhood leukaemia.

This project will also involve Dr Joseph Wiemels, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Southern California and also and co-investigator in CIRCLE. Dr Wiemels has spent his entire career on childhood cancer research. In this project Dr Wiemels will oversee the integration of epigenetic and genetic data, with the support of a biostatistician.

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