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Leukaemia

A disease we might develop as we age

We know that our chances of developing cancer as we age increase.

Now research has shown that this also applies to leukaemia – a cancer of blood forming cells.

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge has just undertaken a major research project focusing on testing for errors in the DNA that are linked to blood cancers.

Their research has shown that it is “almost inevitable” that our blood will take steps towards leukaemia as we age. The researchers are now warning that the number of cases of leukaemia could soar as life expectancy increases.

Leukaemia is when cancerous cells in the bone marrow spill out into the bloodstream. There are several types of leukaemia but most types arise from cells which normally develop into white blood cells.

The study tested the blood of 4,219 people and the results showed that 20% of people in their 50s have potentially cancerous mutations.

The Institute reported that their scientists used a sensitive sequencing method which could detect DNA mutations present in as few as 1.6 per cent of blood cells. They analysed 15 locations in the genome (the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell) and were able to conclude that the incidence of pre-leukaemic cells in the general population is much higher than previously thought and increases dramatically with age.

The Institute’s joint first author of the study, Dr Thomas McKerrell, said that leukaemia results from the gradual accumulation of DNA mutations in blood stem cells.

“What surprised us was that we found these mutations in such a large proportion of elderly people.
“This study helps us understand how aging can lead to leukaemia.”

He did say though that the majority of people will not live long enough to accumulate all the mutations required to develop the disease.

However, leukaemia is still the eleventh most common cancer in the UK and responsible for nearly 5000 deaths in 2012 (the last available figure). More than half of deaths from leukaemia are in people aged 75 or over and as with most diseases, the earlier the diagnoses, the better your chances of treatment.

Symptoms can include anaemia, blood clotting problems, serious infections, pain in the bones or joints, weight loss and a persistent raised temperature.

There is some good information on line including at:
http://www.patient.co.uk/health/leukaemia-a-general-overview

 

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