Lifestyle & Human Interest

For 30 Years, Professor Obsessed Over Reasons Why Children Get Leukemia. Now He Has Answers


Why do children get cancer? It’s a terrible question, one that arises from all sorts of situations in life.

Grieving parents ask it after getting the heart-rending diagnosis. The skeptic asks it, trying to make sense of philosophical conundrums.

The believer asks it when he finds his personal faith challenged. But one scientist has been wondering why children get cancer — and he thinks he has found the answer.

According to The Guardian, Mel Greaves from London’s Institute of Cancer Research has studied leukemia for three decades.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common kind of childhood cancer, hit one out of every 2,000 children in the United Kingdom during the 1950s. Fortunately, 90 percent of cases are cured.

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However, that’s not to say that such cures come without consequences. Though one out of every 10 children with the disease perishes from it, treatments often have lifelong consequences.

The Institute of Cancer Research said that Greaves saw this first hand in the 1970s. His interactions with young patients at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital inspired him to conduct his research.

He had a more modern-day reason to continue it: The disease has been on the rise in the U.K. and western Europe in recent years.

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“It is a feature of developed societies but not of developing ones,” Greaves said. “The disease tracks with affluence.”

That led him to further study, and a paper published in the Nature Reviews Cancer journal reveals some of the workings behind this particular cancer.

“For 30 years, I have been obsessed about the reasons why children get leukemia,” he said. “Now, for the first time, we have an answer to that question, and that means that we can now start thinking about ways to halt it in its tracks.”

Condensing the study’s findings, WJW explained that the first step involved a prenatal genetic mutation.

There isn’t much parents can do to combat that. However, the second step that Greaves believes primes the cancer to emerge is entirely behavioral.

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He discovered that children who lived in very clean homes and failed to interact often with other children tended to develop acute lymphoblastic leukemia more often. “For an immune system to work properly, it needs to be confronted by an infection in the first year of life,” he said.

“When such a baby is eventually exposed to common infections, his or her unprimed immune system reacts in a grossly abnormal way. It overreacts and triggers chronic inflammation.”

The inflammation can lead to further mutation, which eventually causes cancer. Fortunately, people aren’t without hope.

Greaves believes that reconstituting colonies of microbes in the human digestive system could help prevent future cases of leukemia. He is planning further research to develop a drinkable yogurt that could help very young children.

“I think the prospect is incredibly exciting,” he told The Guardian. “I think we could use this to reduce the risk not just of leukemia but a number of other very debilitating conditions.”

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A graduate of Wheaton College with a degree in literature, Loren also adores language. He has served as assistant editor for Plugged In magazine and copy editor for Wildlife Photographic magazine.
A graduate of Wheaton College with a degree in literature, Loren also adores language. He has served as assistant editor for Plugged In magazine and copy editor for Wildlife Photographic magazine. Most days find him crafting copy for corporate and small-business clients, but he also occasionally indulges in creative writing. His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. Loren currently lives in south Florida with his wife and three children.
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