Folate and risk of childhood leukemia.





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Leukemia is a type of cancer that attacks the blood cells in the body typically affecting the white blood cells. These leukemia cells look different and do not function as normal cells should in that they cannot fight off infection. Acute lymphocytic leukemia is the most common form of this cancer in children although it can occur in adults over the age of 65 years. Certain factors can increase the risk of this disease such as exposure to radiation or chemicals, although researchers are unsure of the exact cause of leukemia.

Symptoms of this disease can include severe fatigue and weakness, frequent infections, loss of appetite or weight, bleeding or swollen gums, and bone pain. Leukemia patients also may bruise easily and often have tiny red spots under their skin called petechiae. Doctors usually find leukemia before any symptoms can occur. Studying the blood under a microscope can show if there are any abnormal cells in the body, as well as bone marrow tests. Every year in the United States, 27,000 adults and 2,000 children are diagnosed with leukemia.1

Researchers recently investigated the role of folate supplementation in pregnancy as a preventative factor in leukemia. This evaluation took place in western Australia, from 1984 to 1992. The study consisted of 83 children with acute lymphocytic leukemia and 166 children (control group) who matched similar background to the patients. The ages of the children ranged from 0 to 14 years. The mothers of these two groups were interviewed regarding lifestyle, as well as what vitamins or supplements they used during pregnancy. The mothers who took iron and folate illustrated a 60% risk reduction in having children with leukemia. This reduction was typically associated with the intake of folate, whereas the intake of iron reduced the risk by only 25%. The authors suggested that folate supplementation during pregnancy reduces the risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia, although these findings were unexpected.2


1. National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Health. Leukemia. Update 2001.
2. Thompson JR, et al. Maternal folate supplementation in pregnancy and protection against acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in childhood: a case-control study. Lancet. Dec 2001;358:1935-40.