Making sense of childhood cancer

Making sense of childhood cancer Researchers are making sense of the mistakes found in the DNA of childhood cancer patients.

Dianne Sylvester, Children’s Cancer Research Unit, Kids Research, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, has lead a review of published papers reporting on underlying genetic mistakes in childhood cancer patients. Here she, along with Professor Jennifer Byrne, share the findings along with what it means as we strive toward 100 per cent survival of the disease.

It has long been suspected that cancer can be written in our genes, or in our DNA. This could also be true more often for childhood cancer patients. Cancer diagnosed at a young age could indicate a genetic cause, through a mistake written in the DNA. It is thought that approximately 8 to 10 per cent of childhood cancer patients carry a mistake in their DNA that may have caused their cancer. This is important, as childhood cancer patients with underlying DNA mistakes may be at greater risk of developing second cancers.
In our study recently published in the Journal of Medical Genetics, we compared the results from six different studies that investigated underlying genetic mistakes in childhood cancer patients. We found that these six studies differed in the types of childhood cancers that they examined, and also in the regions of DNA that they selected to search for mistakes.
Read more: Investigation of clinically relevant germline variants detected by next-generation sequencing in patients with childhood cancer: a review of the literature.
Furthermore, of the DNA mistakes that these six studies reported, only about half of them ‘made sense’, meaning that the type of cancer diagnosed in the child was known to be associated with the DNA mistake that was detected. Most of the other DNA mistakes were known to be associated with cancer development in adults. We are yet to understand if and how mistakes in genes associated with adult cancers contribute to the development of childhood cancers.
Our study highlights the value of comparing DNA sequencing results from large numbers of childhood cancer patients. By analysing the DNA from many childhood cancer patients, we will understand which mistakes are likely to be important, and which mistakes may not matter.

L-R: Dianne Sylvester, Dr Luciano Dalla-Pozza, Professor Jennifer Byrne.
In the future, more childhood cancer patients will have their DNA investigated for mistakes that may have caused their cancer. We need to continue research of these underlying mistakes, so that more of them ‘make sense’ in children.

Read more: Next gen sequencing to identify gene mutations in childhood cancer patients.

If we know which children have underlying genetic mistakes that confer a risk of developing cancer, this could lead to early detection, more successful treatment, as well the ultimate goal of cancer prevention.
Sylvester D, Chen Y, Jamieson RV, Dalla-Pozza L, Byrne JA (2018). An investigation of clinically relevant germline variants detected by next generation sequencing in childhood cancer patients – a review of the literature. J Med Genet. 55: 785-93.
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