Our contemporary germ-free life is the reason for the most common kind of cancer in kids, according to one of Britain’s most distinguished scientists. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia impacts 1 in 2,000 kids.
Prof Mel Greaves, from the Institute of Cancer Research, has accumulated 30 years of evidence to reveal the immune system can become malignant if it does not “see” enough bugs early in life. It indicates that it might be possible to avoid the disease.
The kind of blood cancer is more common in advanced, wealthy societies, suggesting something about our contemporary lives may be triggering the disease. There have been wild claims connecting mobile phones, power cables, chemicals and electromagnetic waves to cancer. That has actually been dismissed in this work published in Nature Reviews Cancer.
Rather, Prof Greaves – who has teamed up with scientists around the world – states there are 3 stages to the disease:
- The first is a relatively unstoppable genetic anomaly that takes place inside the womb
- Then a lack of exposure to microbes in the first year of life fails to teach the body’s immune system to handle threats properly
- This sets the stage for an infection to come along in childhood, cause an immune malfunction and leukaemia
This “unified theory” of leukaemia was not the outcome of a single research study, rather a jigsaw puzzle of evidence that established the reason for the illness. Prof Greaves stated: “The research study strongly suggests that acute lymphoblastic leukemia has a clear biological cause and is activated by a variety of infections in predisposed kids whose immune systems have not been properly primed.”
Proof that helped construct the case included:
- Research studies showing children who went to nursery or had older brother or sisters, which expose them to germs, had lower rates of leukemia
- An outbreak of swine influenza in Milan that resulted in 7 kids getting leukemia
- Lower rates in kids born vaginally than by cesarean section, which transfers less microorganisms
- Breastfeeding – which promotes good bacteria in the gut – protects against leukemia
- Animals bred completely devoid of microorganisms developed leukemia when exposed to an infection
This research study is absolutely not about blaming moms and dads for being too hygienic. Rather it reveals there is a cost being paid for the progress we are making in society and medication. Coming into contact with beneficial germs is complicated, it’s not just about embracing dirt. However, Prof Greaves includes: “The most important implication is that many cases of childhood leukemia are likely to be preventable.” His vision is offering children a safe cocktail of bacteria – such as in a yogurt drink – that will help train their body’s immune system. This concept will still take more research.
In the meantime, Prof Greaves stated parents could “be less fussy about common or trivial infections and encourage social contact with other and older kids”. Dr. Alasdair Rankin, the director of research at the blood cancer charity Bloodwise, stated: “We urge parents not to be alarmed by this study. “While developing a strong immune system early in life might slightly further reduce the danger, there is nothing that can be currently done to avoid childhood leukemia definitively.”
This study belongs to a massive shift happening in medicine. To this day we have treated microorganisms as the bad guys. Yet recognizing their essential role for our health and wellness is revolutionizing the understanding of diseases from allergies, depression to Parkinson’s and now even leukaemia. Prof Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, stated: “Childhood leukemia is rare and it is currently not known what or if there is anything that can be done to prevent it by either medical professionals or parents.
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“We want to assure any parents of a child who has or had leukemia, that there is nothing that we know of that could have been done to avoid their illness.”