Folic Acid and Childhood Cancer: Study finds B-vitamin protective against leukemia

Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research have shown that there may be a link between levels of folic acid available to the baby in the womb and leukemia in children. Women are already advised to take supplements of folic acid while trying to conceive and throughout pregnancy to help avoid the risk to the fetus of brain damage and spina bifida. Deficiency of folic acid is known to lead to breaks in DNA, and low dietary intake of folic acid has been associated with increased risk of some cancers in adults, including colon and breast cancer.

This latest research suggests that children exposed to higher levels of folic acid in the womb have a significantly lower risk of developing leukemia.

Professor Greaves of The Institute of Cancer Research says “We know that many cases of childhood cancer are initiated before birth by chromosome damage, so we wanted to find out if folic acid levels in cells in the developing fetus might influence risk.”

Researchers at the Cancer Foundation of Western Australia found a similar link between the dietary intake of folic acid during pregnancy and childhood leukemia. They found that use of folic acid during pregnancy almost halved the risk to children of developing leukemia. This new result suggests that folic acid in diet and inherited factors regulating folate levels in the body are also important pre-natal risk factors for childhood leukemia, just as they appear to be for several adult cancers.

Dr David Grant, Leukemia Research Fund Scientific Director, says “about one in 2,000 children will be diagnosed with leukemia, most between two and four years of age. Professor Greaves’ painstaking detective work at The Institute of Cancer Research is showing that some of these children are almost certainly born with defective blood cells which go on to become leukemia cells. The realization that damage to the DNA in these cells can be reduced with folate supplements in pregnancy is extremely exciting and could help to reduce the number of cases of this terrible disease in children. This is a very interesting lead and we look forward to the results of further studies.”

Institute of Cancer Research , April 23, 2003