Childhood infections linked to brain tumours

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Brain tumours in children might be the result of infection with a virus or bacteria, according to research that could lead to new ways of preventing and treating the condition.

Brain tumours in children might be the result of infection with a virus or bacteria, according to research that could lead to new ways of preventing and treating the condition.

A study published yesterday showed that cases of childhood brain cancers occurred in clusters over short periods of time, suggesting that they were the result of outbreaks of infection.

Children born in winter were also found to be at greater risk of some types of tumours than those born in spring or summer.

Researchers from the University of Manchester said that this was another sign that a fluctuating environmental factor, such as an infection, was responsible.

The results, published in the British Journal of Cancer, provided the first evidence that brain tumours in children were the result of infection.

Sir Paul Nurse, joint director general of Cancer Research UK, which funded the study, said: "We believe that infections play a role in a number of cancers, so it is interesting that a virus or bacterium may be implicated in the development of brain tumours in young people.

"If an infection is playing a role, this might lead to new ideas for preventing and treating this important disease."

Some 290 children in the UK develop brain cancer each year and about 100 youngsters die from the condition, which has been increasing gradually since the 1950s.

Scientists had suspected that environmental factors such as infections might be responsible for the increase in childhood brain tumours, but until now had no evidence to support the theory.

A team from the paediatric and familial cancer group at Manchester analysed 1,045 cases of the disease occurring in the north-west of England between 1954 and 1998.

They found that in certain years, more children were diagnosed with cancer who lived close together than would be expected by chance.

This pattern of shortlived mini-epidemics at different times, and in different parts of the region, is typical of diseases that are caused by infections. Diseases caused by more constant environmental factors produce clusters of cases in one place over a longer period, the researchers said.

Professor Jillian Birch, who led the study, said: "Our results indicate that environmental factors are involved in causing brain tumours in children and the most likely explanation for the pattern we have seen is that one or more types of infections are responsible."

Clustering was particularly clear for two types of brain tumour, called astrocytma and ependymoma.

Children born in late autumn or winter were at the highest risk, possibly because they were prone to infections during the winter months.

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