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The etiology of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) has long been studied piecemeal with investigations leading to a lengthy list of putative risk factors including several with immune modulatory effects. The ubiquity of many of these factors (e.g., daycare attendance, low parity, breastfeeding, normal vaccinations) belies the rarity of ALL as an outcome. In this commentary, Pombo-de-Oliveira and colleagues show that a key feature may be the combination of particular risk factors, as the birth characteristics "cesarean section" and "birth order" when combined interact to impart higher risk of ALL than would be suggested by the additive risk of both factors. This statistical interaction would be predicted by the "delayed infection hypothesis" wherein infant immune isolation promotes developmental vulnerability to ALL upon infection exposure later in childhood. Pombo-de-Oliveira and colleagues show further that lack of breastfeeding, a postnatal factor leading to further immune isolation, induces additional risk. In sum, the data reveal a combination of factors that together could impart a healthy "trained" immune system allowing for moderated responses to later exposures with microbial and viral antigens. Such priming of the immune system avoids maladaptive immunologic consequences of delayed antigenic stimulation leading to ALL and other diseases. Further research utilizing biomarkers of specific exposures (in addition to the proxy measures used here) will be helpful to realize the full potential for immune modification for ALL prevention. See related article by Pombo-de-Oliveira et al., p. 371. ©2023 American Association for Cancer Research.


Joseph L Wiemels, Rachel E Gallant. Infections and Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia: Is the Sum Worth More than the Parts? Evidence from Birth Characteristics. Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers & prevention : a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology. 2023 Mar 06;32(3):292-294

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PMID: 36872903

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