Over 30 years of research has determined that acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common cause of cancer in children, could actually be prevented in a very simple way. Scientists believe that our obsession with cleanliness and fear of germs could actually play a role in the disease by stopping children’s immune systems from developing properly.
ALL is a type of blood cancer that affects the bone marrow. While it is most common in those aged 4 and younger, it can affect adults too, with about 6,000 Americans being diagnosed each year. Today about 90 percent of children with ALL are cured, although the treatments are unpleasant to endure. The discovery that the disease might be preventable is very exciting news.
Looking at a wide range of previous studies, and publishing their results in Nature Reviews Cancer, the researchers came up with the following theory for how too much cleanliness could lead to the disease.
About one in 20 children have a genetic predisposition to ALL, but if their immune system develops properly, they will remain healthy. However, if they’re not exposed to plenty of microbes in the first year of life, their immune system won’t develop as well and won’t know how to cope with infection. This is why cleanliness has actually been linked to the development of allergies.
Then, if a child with the genetic predisposition and a poorly developed immune system gets infected with something like a cold or the flu later on, a second genetic mutation can appear. This is what makes the child more likely to become sick with ALL. It doesn’t mean they’ll definitely get it, but it can make them more susceptible.