Research published earlier this month in Nature Genetics is the first to show that there is a genetic component to acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood cancer. The team, led by Professor Richard Houlston at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, identified three genetic variants that raise children's risk of developing ALL.
Previous research had suggested that cell mutations, possibly brought on by common childhood infections, were likely to be part of the explanation for why some children develop ALL. This study is the first to search the complete genome for possible inherited risk factors for ALL. However, the teams conducting the research were keen to emphasise that there is no one factor which explains development of ALL and environmental and genetic factors work in combination.
The study pooled the data from two case-control studies, resulting in the analysis of a total of 907 children with leukaemia and 2,398 controls without leukaemia. All three variants identified occur in genes (IKZF1, ARID5B, CEBPE) which are involved in the specialisation of white blood cells.
Whilst these findings do not provide solutions for prevention or treatment of ALL at present, study co-investigator Professor Mel Greaves described them as 'a very significant advance in our understanding the complex process by which children develop leukaemia.'