Research into link between childhood cancer and air pollution

Children with Cancer UK has announced almost £1 million in funding for three major projects which collectively set the agenda internationally in ground-breaking research into the role of traffic related air pollution and childhood cancer.

24 July 2020

John Wright man with white beard and arms folded
  1. Cutting edge scientific studies to explore pregnant mothers’ exposure to traffic-related air pollution and the risks to the unborn child of developing cancer
  2. The first of their kind, Children with Cancer UK has awarded grants worth almost £1 million (£920,000) for collaborative research projects in the UK, Europe and the Far East.

Projects based at (i) the Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in collaboration with the University of Maastricht; (ii) the University of Bristol in collaboration with the Chulabhorn Research Institute in Bangkok and (iii) The University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in collaboration with other centres in Europe, are taking innovative approaches to analysing how exposure to air pollution contributes to the development of childhood cancer.

Most people are unaware that traffic related air pollution contains a range of toxic agents that have been linked to childhood cancers such as leukaemia and brain tumours. Such agents are frequently found in tiny so-called ultrafine particles which when inhaled, pass through the lung to reach all parts of the body including the brain. Inhalation in pregnancy can result in transplacental transfer to the growing foetus.

Researchers in Bradford are analysing the levels of air pollution to which expectant mothers are exposed and examining whether inhaled air pollution particles can cross the placenta and cause biological damage to the growing foetus, leading to cancer. Blood samples from 100 expectant mothers in Bradford and Manchester together with nearby air samples, will be collected over a period of 36 months. These samples will be analysed alongside corresponding placenta and cord blood samples to determine both the level of air pollutants reaching the foetus and biomarkers of damage that could lead to the development of childhood cancer.

Professor John Wright, lead researcher of Bradford Institute for Health Research, commented:

The funding we have received from Children with Cancer UK will greatly strengthen research into the link between traffic pollution and cancer. Our research has already proven that air pollution is damaging the growth of babies in the womb contributing to 20% of low birth weight babies, and up to 25% of childhood asthma cases.

In Bristol, scientists will be using state of the art technology to monitor air pollution in Bristol and Bangkok, specifically looking at the prevalence of carcinogens within the samples. At the same time, scientists at the Chulabhorn Research Institute, will be monitoring levels of air pollution near maternity hospitals in Bangkok that pregnant mothers are exposed to. At birth, samples will be taken from the mother, and the umbilical cord of the child in order to identify whether the trans-placental transfer of carcinogens has taken place.

Project researcher Dr James Matthews of the University of Bristol said:

This project is the first of its kind. While more and more evidence is beginning to show that there is a link between particulate matter and cancer, this research will ask the question: “can we demonstrate causation between exposure to ultra-fine particulate matter during pregnancy and the development of childhood cancer?

CEO of Children with Cancer UK Mark Brider, commented:

Every year, Children with Cancer UK invests more than £3 million in life-saving research into the causes, prevention and treatment of childhood cancer, and works to protect young lives. Our mission is threefold: cause, care and cure. Childhood cancers are very different to those found in adults but just 3% of cancer research funding is spent on childhood cancer.

In late 2018 Children with Cancer UK advertised a grant call worth £2.5 million for projects investigating the causal, promotional factors and possible preventative actions relating to the risk of cancer in children and young people. These research projects came from this call and we hope that they will increase our understanding of the genetic, environmental causes and biological mechanisms of cancer in children and young people.

 

Editors’ Notes

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About Children with Cancer UK

Children with Cancer UK is the leading national charity dedicated to research into childhood cancer.

We fund research into the causes and treatment of childhood cancers and provide support for families affected by childhood cancer. We have accelerated breakthroughs to improve childhood cancer survival rates and find kinder, more effective treatments with fewer toxic side effects. This ground-breaking research, which would otherwise go unfunded, saves the lives of children with cancer.  Children with Cancer UK receives no government funding and relies entirely on the generosity of donations from supporters.

About childhood cancer and Children with Cancer UK’s impact

Every day in the UK, 12 children and young people are diagnosed with cancer.

Fifty years ago, only 30% of children with leukaemia survived, and for most other forms of childhood cancer survival rates were even lower. Today, thanks to our supporters and the dedication of visionary researchers like those we fund, more than 80% of young patients can be successfully treated. More vital research is needed though as there are still a number of cancers affecting children and young people with low survival rates and life-limiting side effects. Cancer remains the single largest cause of death from disease in children and young people in the UK.