The ‘delayed infection’ (aka ‘hygiene’) hypothesis for childhood leukaemia

  • Mel Greaves
Part of the Progress in Inflammation Research book series (PIR)


The common variant of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (cALL) is the most frequent paediatric cancer subtype. Its incidence rate appears to have increased substantially in Western societies during the mid-20th century and continues to increase at ∼1%/year. Worldwide cALL appears to track with affluence of societies. The ‘delayed infection’ hypothesis, first formulated in 1988, parallels the hygiene hypothesis and has an evolutionary foundation in the concept of a mismatch between prior genetic selection and programming (of the immune system) and contemporary social circumstances. In essence, the hypothesis predicts that ALL is triggered by an abnormal immune response to one or more common microbial infections and that the abnormality arises for two reasons: (i) infectious exposures being delayed beyond the immunologically anticipated period of infancy; (ii) some degree of inherited genetic susceptibility via, for example, allelic variation in genes involved in the MHC and/or immune response network. The hypothesis also has a framework in the underlying cell and molecular biology of ALL and its natural history. Epidemiological studies of social contacts in infancy (as a proxy for common infections) and risk of ALL provide indirect but strong support for the hypothesis. The idea still requires mechanistic and genetic endorsement and the appropriate studies are in progress.


Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia Childhood Leukaemia Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Hygiene Hypothesis Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Birkhäuser Verlag Basel/Switzerland 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mel Greaves
    • 1
  1. 1.Section of Haemato-OncologyThe Institute of Cancer ResearchSutton, SurreyUK

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