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Cancer and leukaemia in children

6 May 2005

The Cancer and Leukaemia in Children (CLIC) Research Unit was set up in 1985 to study the fundamental changes that cause cancers to develop in children.

Over the past 20 years many exciting discoveries relating to cancer have been made around the world and the CLIC Research Unit has made important contributions to the increased understanding of childhood cancer.  This work is vital to ensure that more children are cured of their cancers, and to improve on the treatments already in use so that unpleasant side effects can be avoided.

Up until recently, the CLIC Research Unit has concentrated on one particular type of childhood cancer, a tumour of the kidney, called Wilms’ tumour, which affects about one in 10,000 children. Wilms’ tumour is one of the most frequently occurring solid tumours in children, who are typically between the ages of 2 and 4 years. It has a high cure rate (~85 per cent), however, 15 per cent of affected children still die from their disease, and present therapies can have serious short- and long-term side effects. Treatment usually involves removal of the whole affected kidney, comprising both the tumour and the attached remaining normal kidney. The patient then receives chemotherapy and sometimes also radiotherapy.

Recently, Drs Keith Brown and Karim Malik, in the Department of Pathology and Microbiology have studied the genes involved in the development of Wilms’ tumour. Their short-term aims are to identify the genes involved in childhood tumours and to how they cause cancer when they go wrong, while their  long-term goals are to translate this knowledge into new therapies for childhood cancer.

Wilms’ tumour is one of the most frequently occurring solid tumours in children

The major project in the Research Unit, which has just received new funding from CLIC, involves the identification of novel genetic defects in Wilms’ tumour and other childhood cancers, such as neuroblastoma and leukaemia.  These changes are called epigenetic alterations and are caused by changes in DNA methylation that switch genes on or off, so that too much or too little protein is made in cancer cells.  They are studying methylation changes in genes that they already know are important in Wilms’ tumour, as well as other new genes they have found.

The project expands the work of the unit from its previous studies on Wilms’ tumour into most major types of childhood cancer.  One of the main aims in this project is to develop cutting-edge technologies for screening childhood cancers for alterations in thousands of genes simultaneously.  This will provide invaluable information for clinical diagnosis as well as identifying new targets for therapy.  One of the beneficial properties of epigenetic changes is that they are potentially reversible, unlike other alterations in cancer.  A study of epigenetic changes could therefore lead to completely new ways of treating childhood cancer.

Keith Brown and Karim Malik Department of Pathology and Microbiology

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