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Monday, 4 December, 2000, 11:58 GMT
Double leukaemia breakthrough
A vaccine could prevent childhood leukaemia
A vaccine could prevent childhood leukaemia
Two crucial discoveries have been made in the battle against leukaemia.

A vaccine to prevent children developing the disease could be a possibility after a key genetic clue to the disease was found.

And a new pill has eradicated all traces of the disease in 30% of patients in trials.

The possibility of a vaccine comes after scientists from the Institute of Cancer Research found a gene in the blood - TEL-AML 1 - which they think may be linked to the disease.

The gene is present in 1% of all new-born babies, but only one in 100 of those go on to develop leukaemia.

The genetic abnormality is known to develop in the womb, but children who go on to develop leukaemia do not do so until three to four years after birth.

Scientists believe that the gene is only spurred into action by an event which takes place in early childhood.

As yet they do not know what this event is, but one possibility is that a common infection triggers a reaction which makes the gene active.

If scientists can vaccinate to stop the gene becoming active, they may be able to block development of the disease.

Vaccine possibility

Around 450 children a year are diagnosed with leukaemia in the UK.

Some 85% of those with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia are cured.

Those who have acute myeloid leukaemia or rare blood disorders are harder to treat, but have a 50:50 chance of survival.

Professor Mel Greaves, who carried out the research, said: "Some form of vaccination in infancy might well prevent leukaemia occurring. That is our goal."

Dr David Grant, scientific director of the Leukaemia Research Fund added: "This work has major implications for our understanding of the natural history of childhood leukaemia.

"We need to identify the post-natal event which turns the possible into the probable, and then turn that into a n effective prevention strategy."

Helps remission

In the second piece of research, pharmaceutical company Novartis has released results from trials of a new drug called Glivec.

At a meeting of the American Society of Haematology in San Francisco, researchers said 30% of patients had seen their blood counts return to normal, meaning they had no detectable leukaemia.

Results from 388 patients showed after three months, 37% had "cytogenetic remission" - a drop in the number of white blood cells carrying the mutation which causes the disease. In 13%, the levels fell to zero.

After six months, 56% of 290 patients monitored had seen either complete or partial remission.

The drug works by inhibiting a protein which stimulates cancer cells to multiply, causing a form of the disease known as chronic myelogenus leukaemia.

It is hoped Glivec could eliminate the disease for long periods, or even permanently, in newly diagnosed patients.

The drug could be an alternative to bone marrow injections and alpha-interferon injection treatment.

The research, by the Anderson Centre in Houston, Texas, involved patients for whom the other treatments had not succeeded.

Preliminary results from a third trial of patients in the final stage of the disease showed 30% of patients were still alive a year after treatment started.

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16 Mar 00 | Scotland
Refinery cancer link dismissed
29 Oct 99 | Health
Child leukaemia 'starts in womb'
22 Nov 99 | Medical notes
Leukaemia: Medical notes
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