Saturday, 27 February 2010

Twin study sheds light on leukaemia

Many national newspapers reported today on the story of Isabella and Olivia, four-year-old identical twins who have “unlocked the secret of leukaemia”. The papers describe how one twin was diagnosed with leukaemia and underwent chemotherapy, whereas the other twin did not develop the disease. Their unique situation of being identical twins who've had the same environment since they were conceived gave researchers an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the causes of leukaemia.

When researchers compared their bone marrow, they found that both girls had pre-leukaematic stem cells (which carry a genetic defect). However, Olivia (the twin who developed leukaemia) also carried a second mutation – a missing gene – that switched pre-leukaemia cells into full-blown leukaemia.

The Times reported that "the discovery will enable doctors to screen young leukaemia patients to establish the severity of their illness and spare some of the harrowing side effects of aggressive chemotherapy”.

The research behind these stories is an investigation of identical twins and a further laboratory study in mice that was inspired by the differences between them.

The causes of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (the most common childhood form) remain largely unknown. There has been a previous suggestion of some genetic link (with slightly increased risk in children with Down's syndrome, for example), in addition to theories about risks from radiation, drugs or infections. The study gives new insight into the mechanisms involved in the development of leukaemia in children, and opens up a new area for further study. Doctors and researchers will be particularly interested in the findings that pre-leukaemia cells could be used to screen for the disease and that further mutations appear to be needed to switch these on.

Until further research is done, it is unclear what strategies could be followed to prevent conversion to the full-blown disease, or whether this knowledge might have any influence upon the treatment of childhood leukaemia.

Story sourced via the Grantham Journal.Click HERE to visit their website.

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