Can We Be Too Clean? Leukemia Research Says Yes

“A little dirt never hurt” is an old saying many people probably heard at some point during childhood. The idea, usually expressed after dropping a prized piece of food, suggested that not all contamination was fatal. A new controversial study, in fact, provides evidence that not only does dirt “never hurt”, but may actually improve health and help prevent leukemia. Keep reading to learn more, or follow the original story here.

More precisely, the study suggests that creating an overly clean environment for children could increase their risk of childhood leukemia. Genetics plays another large role in the development of the leukemia condition. Taken together, sterile environments, and genetics can leave a child susceptible to common illnesses – such as the flu – which may trigger leukemia.

Professor Mel Greaves says that the theory may be a good way of preventing the most common form of childhood leukemia. Often referred to as ALL, acute lymphoblastic leukemia may be prevented, says Greaves, by “priming” and infants immune system. This would involve intentionally exposing the infant to harmless contaminants early on.

Probiotics, for example, could be part of this preventative treatment. More research is needed to confirm the theory, but a bacterial supplement of some kind may enter drug trials within the next five years.

The research behind all of this is available in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer. It is the culmination of 30 years’ work studying the cause of ALL.

“The research strongly suggests that ALL has a clear biological cause,” says Greaves. He continues to explain how the condition appears to be brought about by “a variety of infections in predisposed children whose immune systems have not been properly primed.”

The research debunks several myths surrounding ALL. Some previously claimed that pollution, or electromagnetic waves could be causing leukemia. The new theory, however, could also explain why ALL statistically affects more wealthy groups than those of lesser socioeconomic standing: affluence tends to lead to greater levels of sanitation.

Professor Greaves theorizes a two-step series of genetic alterations responsible for leukemia in children. The first genetic difference (which her research suggests may occur in as many as 5% of children) produces a “population of pre-malignant cells.” In most of the cases this occurs, however, the cells do not become cancerous.

Children with the first genetic change become vulnerable to a second genetic variable should their immune system fail to fully develop. A common illness such as a cold or flu may be enough to trigger the response.

These theories currently rely on lab tests involving mice. Mice raised in highly sterile environments were subsequently exposed to infectious diseases. As a result, the mice developed ALL.

Other diseases that may be connected to the idea of the “hygiene hypothesis” include Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and various allergies. Advocates of the theory encourage parents to keep their children in contact with as many other children as possible during their first year of life to promote a robust immune system.


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