What are the risk factors and causes of childhood cancer?

Posted in: Blog | January 15, 2015

A recent science publication has sparked much media attention thanks to its controversial suggestion that adults could develop cancer thanks to bad luck rather than their lifestyles. Could this research shine a new light on the enigma of the causes of cancer in children? Could it be that a bad roll of the “DNA mutation dice” is the major contributor in deciding whether a child develops cancer or not?


Over the last few years, scientists around the world have made huge progress in understanding how changes to a person’s DNA (known as “mutations”) can cause different types of cancer. DNA mutations can be either “inherited” from a child’s parents or can happen as a result of a “random” mistake, made when cells divide. Parts of our DNA (genes) control vital function within our bodies. Some genes control when a cell should divide and other genes control when cells should die. Malfunction, due to DNA mutation, of these so-called oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes is the primary cause of cancer in children and adults.


There is no doubt that children can inherit DNA mutations from their parents, which increases their risk of cancer. However, only 5-10 % of tumours are linked to these inherited mutations. It is important to stress that these inherited mutations do not cause cancer on their own. They must be accompanied by further random mutations that occur after the child is conceived. As a result most types of children’s cancer are the product of multiple random DNA mutations that occur in the early years of life or while the child is developing in the womb.


These random DNA mutations happen because cells need to divide as children develop and grow. When cells divide they must make an identical copy of their DNA but sometimes mistakes are made during this process, resulting in random mutations. These random DNA mutations have the potential to cause cancers if they occur in oncogenes or tumour suppressor genes. Cells that are dividing quickly, as they do in children, are more prone to making these kinds of mistakes.


The recent notion put forward by researchers that bad luck and DNA mutation are the main causes of adult cancer is extremely important. The study was based on the incidence of different types of cancer and was linked to how often cells divide within different organs. The more often cells divide the greater the risk of a cell picking up a cancer causing random mutation. The researchers, based at John Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Centre in the USA, suggest that the long term lifestyle experiences of an adult simply increases the risk of a random DNA mutation occurring. This loads the DNA mutation dice so that the odds of getting cancer become stacked against us. Obviously these lifestyle risk factors are less of an issue in children. However, in contrast to fully grown adults, the fast pace of cell division in growing and a developing child provides the perfect environment for random cancer-causing DNA mutations to occur.


Parents of children diagnosed with cancer frequently blame themselves for their child’s illness, perhaps by passing on a faulty mutated gene, feeding the wrong kind of food or simply exposure to environmental factors such as air pollutants. Hopefully parents who have agonised over the cause of their children’s cancer will find some comfort in this recent research.It seems that the random roll of the DNA mutation dice may be the single most important deciding factor in determining whether a child develops a malignant disease.


You can read about the study in more depth on the Guardian website here.

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