Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Although survival from ALL has much improved over the last several decades, it remains the most common type of childhood cancer, particularly among those aged 2–5 years. In addition, survivors of childhood ALL are at increased risk for heart disease and other health issues.

A new study of a UK cohort published in the American Journal of Human Genetics in late August found that people with a genetic predisposition to produce more of a particular type of white blood cell are at higher risk of developing ALL. GlobalData epidemiologists expect that these findings could one day inform newborn screening efforts to identify at-risk infants, subsequently increasing the number of incident cases of ALL.

Kachuri and colleagues conducted a genome-wide association study of 2,666 cases of ALL and more than 60,200 controls participating in the UK Biobank. Started in 2006, the UK Biobank is a population-based, prospective cohort of more than 500,000 participants aged 40–69 years at recruitment, who completed extensive health questionnaires and provided blood samples. The researchers found that participants with a genetic propensity for producing high amounts of lymphocytes have a 23% (7–41%) greater risk of developing ALL.

In the eight major pharmaceutical markets (8MM, namely the US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK, Japan and urban China), GlobalData epidemiologists expect diagnosed incident cases of ALL in children aged 0–5 years will be nearly 5,000 by 2029 (as shown in Figure 1). The current downward trend observed in diagnosed incident cases of ALL throughout the forecast is due to the declining paediatric population. Newborn screening could use the findings of this most recent study and similar work to one day incorporate screening for pre-leukaemia. If such screening practices were to be widely adopted, GlobalData epidemiologists expect incident cases of ALL would exceed those currently forecast due to earlier case identification. Earlier diagnosis would, however, also allow at-risk infants to be monitored and treated more promptly, leading, ideally, to an improved prognosis.

As survivors of childhood ALL are at increased risk of a number of other diseases, including heart disease and secondary cancers, this work has implications not only for ALL prevention and treatment, but also prevention of these associated conditions. GlobalData epidemiologists recommend continued monitoring of trends in the incidence of ALL and additional studies to confirm these results, observed in a population of mostly European ancestry, in other countries and cohorts.