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Genetic Link to Leukaemia Discovered

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 11/18/2009

There has been a major advance in our understanding of the genetic basis of one of the most common forms of leukaemia. For the first time scientists have showed a genetic susceptibility to developing Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia or CLL, research which could one day benefit people with leukaemia.

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    Leukaemia facts

    Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia is the most common leukaemia in the developed word. It's characterised by a build up of white blood cells and is usually diagnosed from middle age onwards. It is rare for someone under 40 to suffer from the condition.

    The body usually produces blood cells in a controlled and regulated way, but in CLL the process goes haywire and many more white blood cells are produced than is normal. These white blood cells are immature and do not function properly and eventually start to outnumber functioning cells. The condition usually develops very slowly over time.

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    Causes of Leukaemia - Genetic basis

    There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence that there are heritable factors to CLL, but up until now all attempts at locating a gene, or genes that may be responsible have failed.

    In this new study by scientists from the UK's Institute of Cancer Research, and published in Nature Genetics, researchers compared the DNA of patients with CLL with a healthy group that represented the general population.

    They found 6 gene variants or differences in genes suspected to lead to the development of CLL. They were present in the CLL group and not in the healthy group, strongly suggesting that they have a major role in the onset of the disease. The team involved in the study reckon that each variant on its own would not be enough to cause the disease, but together they increased the risk. The next big job will be to find out just how they cause the problems associated with the disease.

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    Better Treatment for People with Leukaemia

    This really is a major discovery and opens up the way for swifter diagnosis and one day, better treatment. Interviewed on the website of the Institute of Cancer Research, the scientific consultant of Leukaemia Research (who funded much of the study) observed. "This finding is very exciting as it carries the possibility of improving treatments for individuals who we know are at risk of developing this leukaemia. Clinical applications are still a little while away but this is a very important step forward in understanding the basis of this common leukaemia."