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Why do children develop cancer?

Our bodies are made up of many billions of cells. In each of those cells DNA is stored. DNA is your unique genetic code. You can see the DNA as a big book of instructions on how the body should be built and how it should function. To provide all those billions of cells with DNA, the book has to be copied very often. During the process of copying it many times, mistakes can sometimes happen.
Traces in the DNA
At the Princess Máxima Center, we carry out a lot of research into the causes of childhood cancer. Ruben van Boxtel is one such researcher. He wondered whether it might be more likely for DNA errors to occur during pregnancy. That’s because over the course of nine months, a baby grows very quickly: from one cell to as many as 27 billion cells at birth.

Ruben discovered that the risk of DNA mistakes is indeed ten times greater before birth than after. But not all children get cancer, so something else must be going on.

Ruben looked for differences between DNA in blood cells of children with leukemia, and blood cells of healthy children. He discovered a trace of a particular kind of damage in the DNA of the leukemia cells: it was ‘rusty’. This trace caused even more errors in the DNA code, and led to leukemia. But why can DNA become rusty? Ruben and the other Máxima researchers don't know that yet.

Ruben is also looking at footprints in the DNA left by chemotherapy and cancer-causing substances. Chemotherapy is needed to kill cancer cells, but it also damages healthy cells. What are the consequences of that damage? And can we prevent side effects of chemo in the future? These are also questions that research into DNA footprints could help answer.

DNA footprints can also be used to find out if a child has a predisposition to develop cancer. Heredity plays a role in about 1 in 10 children with cancer.

At the Princess Máxima Center, we do a great deal of research into the development of all kinds of childhood cancer. In this way, researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the disease and discover better treatments.