Infections are known to cause various types of cancer, some of which can be prevented either by treating the infection or vaccinating against it. The HIV virus is particularly adept at damaging the body’s ability to fight infection, increasing its susceptibility to infection-related cancers. This pioneering project is focusing on the relationship between HIV and childhood cancer.
Our funding is enabling Dr Robert and his team to study the highly complex relationship between the HIV virus, infection and childhood cancer risk in southern Africa’s children.
Infection and cancer among children in sub-Saharan Africa
Dr Robert Newton
University of York
York, YO10 5DD
1 February 2012
Around 15 per cent of cancers are caused by viral or bacterial infections. The majority of infection-related cancers occur in the developing world, where the burden of infectious disease is the greatest. In theory, these cancers are preventable – by avoidance of infection, early treatment or vaccination.
This innovative project’s primary aim is to identify the different types of childhood cancer that are associated with HIV infection. They’ll also determine exposure to other infections by using new technologies to analyse blood samples taken from participating children. Another key aim is to establish a bank of blood samples – this will enable us to investigate other environmental and genetic factors that relate to rare cancers in children.
As well as the risks of developing cancer through exposure to infection, we know that immunodeficiency – the state in which the body’s ability to fight infectious disease is compromised or absent – increases the risk. Immunodeficiency is usually acquired either through treatment with immune-suppressing drugs or through infection with HIV or certain other diseases.
A range of adult cancers are associated with HIV infection but there are few published studies on the risk of cancer in HIV infected children. There are important differences between children and adults in this respect, but studies are difficult to carry out because children with both cancer and HIV are relatively rare.
This unique project is based in paediatric oncology centres in South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, and Uganda. The team aim to recruit children being seen for the first time with a new diagnosis of cancer, children who are routinely tested for HIV as part of standard procedures.
The work will improve our understanding of how viruses trigger cancer and will help devise new ways to prevent certain forms of the disease, not just in children from southern Africa but potentially in children worldwide. It will also create a substantial bank of biological material available for future studies.
The team is led by Dr Robert Newton, who is Reader in Clinical Epidemiology at the University of York. In 2012, he was seconded to work in Entebbe, Uganda, with the remit of developing a programme of work on non-communicable diseases. He’s particularly interested in the role of infectious agents and immune suppression in the causes of cancer.
He’s assisted in this work by Dr Tom Johnston, who is a Statistical Epidemiologist at the University of York, and Professor Cristina Stefan, Head of Hematology Oncology, the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, University of Stellenbosch, Cape Town.