Mel Greaves has a simple goal in life. He is trying to create a yoghurt-like drink that would stop children from developing leukaemia.
The idea might seem eccentric; cancers are not usually defeated so simply. However, Professor Greaves is confident and, given his experience in the field, his ideas are being taken seriously by other cancer researchers.
Based at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, Greaves has been studying childhood leukaemia for three decades. On Friday, it was announced that he had received a knighthood in the New Year honours list for the research he has carried out in the field.
“For 30 years I have been obsessed about the reasons why children get leukaemia,” he says. “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. Hence my idea of the drink.”
In the 1950s, common acute lymphoblastic leukaemia – which affects one in 2,000 children in the UK – was lethal. Today 90% of cases are cured, although treatment is toxic, and there can be long-term side effects. In addition, for the past few decades, scientists have noticed that numbers of cases have actually been increasing in the UK and Europe at a steady rate of around 1% a year.
“It is a feature of developed societies but not of developing ones,” Greaves adds. “The disease tracks with affluence.”
Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is caused by a sequence of biological events. The initial trigger is a genetic mutation that occurs in about one in 20 children. … For full leukaemia to occur, another biological event must take place and this involves the immune system. “For an immune system to work properly, it needs to be confronted by an infection in the first year of life,” says Greaves. Without that confrontation with an infection, the system is left unprimed and will not work properly.”
And this issue is becoming an increasingly worrying problem. Parents, for laudable reasons, are raising children in homes where antiseptic wipes, antibacterial soaps and disinfected floorwashes are the norm. Dirt is banished for the good of the household. In addition, there is less breast feeding of infants and a tendency for them to have fewer social contacts with other children. Both trends reduce babies’ contact with germs. This has benefits – but also comes with side effects. Because young children are not being exposed to bugs and infections as they once were, their immune systems are not being properly primed….
In other words, a susceptible child suffers chronic inflammation that is linked to modern super-clean homes and this inflammation changes his or her susceptibility to leukaemia so that it is transformed into the full-blown condition.
Crucially, this new insight offers scientists a chance to intervene and to stop leukaemia from developing in the first place, he adds.
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