‘Flu, air pollution trigger childhood cancer’
Researchers carried out pioneering analysis of neuroblastic tumours in children and young adults in northern England from 1968 to 2011.
They found that cases spiked in certain years, before falling again, suggesting that short-lived environmental factors – such as flu epidemics, or atmospheric pollution, could be behind the fluctuations.
The study was published in the Journal of Environmental Health.
Neuroblastic tumours are cancers of a special type of cell which is involved in the development of the nervous system outside of the brain and spinal cord and they are predominantly seen in children under the age of five.
Researchers have suggested that infections like flu could damage the immune system making certain children more at risk of developing tumours.
“Our study has found that neuroblastic tumours occur in mini-epidemics that are geographically widespread and occur at specific points in time,” said lead author Dr. Richard McNally, from Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society.
A primary factor influencing the incidence of these tumours may relate to exposure to environmental factors that vary over time as we found strong evidence of temporal clustering.
“We interpret this finding as suggesting that short-term environmental agents may be involved somehow in the initiation of the tumours.”
The team obtained their data from the Northern Region Young Persons’ Malignant Disease Registry, which has details of all cancers diagnosed in northern England from 1968 to the present day.
Prof. Deborah Tweddle, Prof. of Paediatric Oncology at Newcastle University, said that normally the immune system kept cancer in check, but if it was weakened it may allow cancerous cells to spread.
“It is possible that an infectious agent might be linked with the development of neuroblastoma in some way,” said Tweddle.
“This might be indirectly affecting the immune system which normally seeks out and destroys cancer cells including neuroblastoma before they can take a hold.”
It is believed children would also require genetic changes to make them susceptible to the cancer. Experts say there is now the need for a larger national or international study to investigate the findings further.
Dr. Colin Muirhead, from Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society, said: “Whilst the patterns seen in our study might indicate a role for environmental pollution, there is currently little other evidence to support this.
“There is clearly a need for a larger national or international study to investigate further.”