The modern, germ-free lifestyles many children lead could be responsible for the most common type of cancer in children - acute lymphoblastic leukaemia - according to one of the UK’s most well-respected scientists. Professor Mel Greaves, from the Institute of Cancer Research, has been studying for 30 years how the immune system can become cancerous if it is not exposed to enough bugs early in life. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia affects one in 2,000 children and is more common in advanced, affluent societies, suggesting cleaner modern lifestyles could play a defining role. Prof Greaves says the disease happens in three stages: a genetic mutation inside the womb, a lack of exposure to microbes in early life and an immune malfunction and leukaemia in childhood. He believes that it could be possible to prevent the condition. Prof Greaves said: "The research strongly suggests that acute lymphoblastic leukaemia has a clear biological cause and is triggered by a variety of infections in predisposed children whose immune systems have not been properly primed." Unfortunately, preventing the disease isn’t as simple as exposing children to dirt. They need, according to Prof Greaves, contact with beneficial bacteria. The best way to do this is to give them a safe cocktail of bacteria, such as in a yoghurt drink, that will help boost their immune system. [Related reading: Thumb-suckers and nail-biters less prone to allergies – study]
The food you eat could influence the growth rate and spread of cancer, a new study has found. According to scientists at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, breast tumours in mice struggled to grow without the dietary nutrient asparagine, which is found in asparagus, poultry, seafood and many other foods. When mice with an aggressive form of breast cancer were placed on a low-asparagine diet or given drugs to block the amino acid, their tumours struggled to spread. Scientists hope to be able to take advantage of cancer’s so-called culinary addictions in the future and develop new treatments based on certain foods. Prof Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician, said: "Interestingly, the drug L-asparaginase is used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, which is dependent on asparagine. "It's possible that in future, this drug could be repurposed to help treat breast cancer patients." But before you ban asparagus from your home, be aware that more research is needed, including trials in humans. Also, because asparagine is present in so many foods, it is almost impossible to avoid. Baroness Delyth Morgan, the chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said people should not drastically alter their diets as a result of this research. "We don't recommend patients totally exclude any specific food group from their diet without speaking to their doctors,” she said.