Scientists are now looking to identify the virus or infection which a study says causes the blood disease in children.
Yesterday the Independent revealed that Sir Richard Doll, who first established the link between smoking and lung cancer, is convinced a virus is the culprit rather than radiation or environmental pollution.
In an article for the British Journal of Cancer, to be published tomorrow he says that he believes the principal cause of the blood cancer in children is an infection by an agent which has not yet been identified.
This was a theory developed by Professor Leo Kinlen, a cancer epidemiologist at Oxford University. Researchers at the University of Newcastle have now produced a computer model of his hypothesis which can correctly predict the incidence of leukaemia according to the amount of population mixing involved.
In the past, radiation has been cited as the possible cause of the cancer around nuclear processing sites such as Sellafield in Cumbria. However, scientific studies failed to establish a link with that or other factors such as chemical pollution.
Dr Judith Kingston, a consultant paediatric oncologist for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's children's cancer unit at the Royal London Hospital, said researchers have already started to build up banks of blood from affected children which could be used to develop a vaccine.
"Professor Kinlen has done a lot of research in the last 10 years and this is very important work," she said. "There may also be other reasons but this does now appear to be the major cause of the illness. The next step will be to identify the agent which is causing leukaemia and then to develop a vaccine."
However, anti-nuclear groups have reacted with caution to the findings of Sir Richard Doll and Professor Leo Kinlen.
Evelyn Parker, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Awareness Group in Newbury, which represents families affected by childhood leukaemia, said the research may explain some but not all the reasons for childhood cancer around nuclear stations.
"We do not deny Professor Kinlen's research and think there is something in it but you cannot write off some of the real problems which people have experienced which cannot be explained by this," she said.Reuse content