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The case of the disappearing tumour
Neuroblastoma affects a tiny portion of mainly young children
Scientists believe they may have identified the reason why some children with a rare form of brain cancer spontaneously get better.

The discovery could lead to the development of drugs which could cure the disease.

Just over 70 children a year develop neuroblastoma in the UK - most of them are under four years old.

The tumours can be highly dangerous and spread to other parts of the body, but in around 10% of cases, they disappear of their own accord.

A team of London scientists, led by Professor David Latchman, believe the reason is that the cancer cells spontaneously switch back to a normal cell.

Professor Latchman's team examined two protein molecules thought to play a role in the switch.

The scientists think the molecules act like green and red traffic lights, with one telling the tumour to convert to a normal cell and the other telling it to remain as a cancerous cell.

They believe the interaction between the two molecules may affect whether the tumour disappears.

"The growth of these tumour cells seems to be controlled by the molecules' antagonistic activity," Professor Latchman told News Online.

Amino acid

The team found that the presence of just one amino acid - a tiny part of the protein molecule's make-up - could make the difference between whether a molecule tells the tumour cell to become normal or stay cancerous.

In laboratory tests, the scientists changed the message given by the molecules by simply adding the amino acid.

The London-based team is now looking more closely at the amino acid to see how it affects the way the molecules interact with other proteins in the body.

Children's brain tumours are different from adults'
This could eventually lead to the development of ways to cure neuroblastoma, for example, by developing drugs that increase the production of the 'green' protein molecule or suppress the 'red' one.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, which has funded the research, said: "This is exciting research because it could take us a step closer to finding out what causes this type of cancer in children.

"This could lead to the design of better anti-cancer drugs in the future. Drugs that work on the same lines as these two important protein molecules and make the tumour spontaneously disappear."

Rare cancers

Childhood cancers are rare with only 600 occurring in the UK every year, compared to 250,000 in adults.

Brain tumours and leukaemia are the most common childhood cancers and account for around half of the 600 cases.

Childhood brain tumours are different from adult ones in that they tend to be related to brain development rather than wear and tear.

In a few cases, brain cancers clear up of their own accord, but neuroblastoma is the best documented of cancers in which this occurs.

See also:

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