Common genetic differences affect vulnerability to childhood leukemia, new study shows

By focusing on molecular differences that define distinct types of childhood leukemia, scientists have discovered that vulnerability to one type of the cancer or another depends on something as simple as which form of a single enzyme a child inherits.

The discovery, led by a molecular epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, highlights the impact even minor genetic variation can have on disease, and also shows how distinguishing subtle disease differences can help reveal causes that would otherwise be masked, the scientists say.

The research indicates that children are protected against different types of leukemia depending on which form of an enzyme they have for metabolizing folic acid.

The research is being presented March 26 at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, and is being published March 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Currently we understand almost nothing about the causes of childhood leukemia, but such an understanding is essential if we hope to prevent this tragic disease," said Joseph Wiemels, PhD, lead author on the paper and assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF."Our research suggests that scrutiny of genetic changes in leukemia cells -- at the DNA level -- can reveal potential causes specific to each type of leukemia."

Wiemels collaborated on the research with colleagues in England and Scotland.

The United States is among the countries with the highest rates of childhood leukemia in the world, Wiemels said, with about 3,500 children in the U.S. developing the cancer each year. Cancer biologists now recognize at least three subtypes of childhood leukemia, based on different abnormalities in the chromosomes. Each subtype has a different prognosis and treatment protocol, but causes remain unknown and treatments often create other serious medical problems.

Until now, there has been no indication that these three leu

Contact: Wallace Ravven

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