UC Berkeley-led research team receives $6 million to find causes of leukemia

A UC Berkeley-led research team received a $6 million grant Tuesday to find the causes of leukemia, the most common type of cancer in children.

The grant — funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences — will allow researchers to continue examining how early exposure to toxic chemicals may contribute to the onset of leukemia in children. The campus-based Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment, or CIRCLE, will also conduct research for the project at UC San Francisco and Yale University.

“We know that leukemia is not something that you inherit from your parents, and it’s rarely something that occurs in families,” said Joseph Wiemels, CIRCLE co-director and associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC San Francisco. “We think that there is a big environmental component.”

With the grant, CIRCLE researchers will conduct three major projects. Using blood spots collected at birth, the researchers are identifying different chemical exposures at a young age that potentially caused genetic alterations that lead to leukemia.

Exposure to pesticides, pollution and heavy metals while in the womb or during early periods of development can cause serious and lifelong health concerns, according to EPA spokesperson Michele Huitric. The EPA funded the project because over the last half century, the incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia has steadily increased in children, with the highest rates reported in Latinos.  

Campus environmental health sciences professor Stephen Rappaport is leading research on the “exposome” — which refers to the totality of environmental and internal exposures that an individual comes in contact with over the course of a lifetime. By using controls, Rappaport hopes to find specific chemical exposures that may lead to the development of leukemia.

“We are studying approximately 1,000 children from Northern California who (have) childhood leukemia,” Rappaport said. “From each one of these children, we obtain the blood spots that are collected at birth, and we obtain another spot from a control who was born on the same day with the same gender and ethnicity.”

Infectious disease history of children seems to be related to leukemia, according to Wiemels, who added that a child is at a higher risk if they had a high number of severe infections during infancy.

The project focuses on the first genetic changes that occur both during pregnancy and shortly after birth, as previous research suggests that childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia is often initiated during this critical time period, according to Rappaport.

“We have a number of clues, but what we want to do is put those clues together into a clear picture where you can tell an individual parent why their child has leukemia,” Wiemels said. “This project is trying to put those pieces together.”

Contact Cassie Ippaso at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @cassippaso.

A previous version of this article may have implied that over the last century, leukemia has steadily increased in children. In fact, the incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia has steadily increased in children over the last half century.