Acute lymphoblastic leukemia
Oded Balilty/AP

Gene Discovery Could Help Kids Fight Cancer Relapse

January 09, 2009 02:45 PM
by Cara McDonough
A gene abnormality could make some children much more likely to have a recurrence of a certain leukemia. The discovery could change the way doctors treat these patients.

A Genetic Breakthrough

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is the most common cancer in children, making up 23 percent of cancer diagnoses in children younger than 15 years old. Therefore, the discovery that children who have abnormalities in a gene called IKZF1, makes some children three times as likely to have a relapse of the cancer is a major breakthrough.

The children with the abnormality would potentially be given more aggressive treatment to ward off a relapse, reports Reuters. While stronger treatment, such as intensified chemotherapy, is not always encouraged because of increased toxicity, the benefits may outweigh the risks in these cases.

If they don’t need to be treated aggressively, don’t treat them aggressively. But you want to cure them,” said Dr. James Downing of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., one of the researchers who contributed to the findings, published in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Arthur Frankel, a professor of medicine at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, who was not involved in the research, said that an added benefit of the discovery is knowing which patients do not need the extra chemotherapy. A newly targeted approach would “improve the quality of care and maybe improve quality of life and the cure rate,” he said, according to HealthDay News.

About 80 percent of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia are successfully cured after being treated. Roughly a quarter of those children suffer a relapse and about 30 percent of those survive only five years.

Related Topic: The controversy of genetic testing

While identifying the gene that signifies a possible leukemia relapse in children may not ignite too much controversy, other gene-related cancer findings have.

Two gene mutations, BRCA1 and BRCA2, have been scientifically linked to a woman having an increased risk of ovarian or breast cancer. Some survivors of those types of cancer are now pushing other women who have a genetic predisposition to the disease –such as those with family histories – to get tested, so that they may take action to decrease their chances of getting cancer.

There is some worry, however, that if the tests become more widely available, women could feel pressured into undergoing a test they aren’t comfortable with.

Genetic testing in general has become more controversial as it reaches the general public. In June, the state of California issued a deadline for companies to stop providing direct-to-consumer sales of genetic tests, noting that many of the companies do not require a doctor or other medical professional’s involvement.

But many consumers are fascinated with genetic tests, including those for much less serious conditions than cancer. While genetic tests can determine predispositions for conditions like heart disease and glaucoma, they can also determine the likelihood of going bald, and some even promise to calculate DNA-compatible mates.

Reference: Cancer


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines