EU project investigates link between chemical exposure and childhood cancer

February 23, 2006

Brussels, 22 Feb 2006

Partners from 25 institutions in 16 EU Member States are to investigate how exposure to chemicals in food and the environment during pregnancy is connected with childhood cancer and immune disorders.

Childhood cancer has increased during recent decades, as has the worldwide prevalence of childhood immune disorders such as asthma and eczema. Childhood Leukaemia in particular has become more prevalent, and, as explained by project coordinator Professor Jos Kleinjans from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, the increase must be attributed to something. Two hypotheses exist: that the increase in cancer incidences has been caused by a change in human genes, or by changes in the environment. It is unlikely that biological changes have taken place, so the environment is therefore the likely cause.

There is, however, a lack of knowledge regarding possible links between the environment and disease. It is exactly this connection that the NewGeneris project will address. For example, there is no conclusive evidence that smoking by a pregnant woman will have any effect on her children. But it is known that tobacco smoke contains carcinogenic properties. The ultimate aim of the project is to contribute to improved child health by supplying data that will lead to better health policies, more effective food regulations, and higher standards of food quality.

The project partners will study maternal exposure during pregnancy to a number of carcinogenic and immunotoxic chemicals, including: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (found in processed food, polluted air, tobacco smoke); heterocyclic amines (processed food); nitrosamines (food, water, tobacco smoke); acrylamide (processed food); mycotoxins (contaminated food); dioxin (contaminated food, polluted air); PCBs (contaminated food, polluted air); and ethanol (alcohol). The researchers will not only be looking to ascertain the presence of these chemicals in the blood of mothers and children, but to follow through and establish the biological consequences of exposure.

Much of the research will be done using biomarkers. The difficulty in linking a change in disease patterns with environmental factors is that it may take a decade or longer after exposure for, for example, cancer to develop. One need only look at Hiroshima for evidence of this - many of those exposed to radiation by the atom bomb did develop cancer, but not for seven to ten years. Biomarkers enable researchers to get around this time delay by investigating the biological risk of contracting a disease, rather than the presence of the disease itself.

For example, it is known that cancer is caused by damaged DNA, and biomarkers can detect damaged DNA before the onset of cancer using blood and urine samples.

The project will also investigate relevant exposures of the fathers to chemicals. This is a relatively new area, although some work has been done in Norway and the UK. It is already known that germ cells, from which sperm are formed, are affected by chemicals, but how this may impact upon a foetus is unknown. Evidence on exposure of men to radiation and the susceptibility to disease of their offspring indicates that a link is likely. NewGeneris will further knowledge of the links between paternal exposure to chemicals and children's health with development of biomarkers for semen.

The researchers will use cohorts or biobanks in Norway, Denmark, the UK and Spain, and later on in the project, will also establish a biobank on the Greek island of Crete. Together, the banks represent a total of around 300,000 mother-child pairs, thus constituting one of the largest studies of its kind ever conducted.

Europe's best developed cohorts, in a scientific sense, are located in northern and western Europe, while facilities in eastern and southern Europe are few and far between. Professor Kleinjans told CORDIS News that NewGeneris will perhaps, at a later stage of the project, lead to the development of a biobank in eastern Europe.

Working in a consortium of 25 partners has its challenges and risks, but the size of the project also means that it has a relatively large budget - 15 million euro over five years. As underlined by Professor Kleinjans, in order for the project results to be conclusive, data on a great number of subjects is needed. This is very costly, 'but the financial scale of the project enables this'.

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2005
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