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According to a recent article published in the journal Cancer, parental use of some medications or drugs prior to conception or during pregnancy appears to increase the risk of their offspring developing acute lymphocytic leukemia.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a cancer of the bone marrow and lymph system and is the most common childhood leukemia. The bone marrow produces early blood-forming cells, called stem cells, which grow and mature into the three blood cell types: white blood cells, which fight infection; red blood cells, which carry oxygen to tissue; and platelets, which help blood to clot. ALL is characterized by uncontrolled production of immature lymphocytes (white blood cells), of which there are two types: B and T cells. These immature lymphocytes never mature enough to perform their specific function of fighting infection. In addition, these rapidly dividing cells crowd out and suppress the formation of other important blood cells, such as red blood cells, platelets and other white blood cells. ALL is an aggressive cancer that must be treated aggressively for optimal chances of a cure.

Researchers have speculated that fetuses exposed to carcinogens may be at an increased risk of developing ALL as an infant or child which has prompted the initiation of studies to evaluate associations between environmental factors and the incidence of childhood ALL. Researchers from the Children’s Cancer Group, now the Children’s Oncology Group, recently conducted a clinical study involving questionnaires of nearly 4,000 families. Approximately half of the families had a child diagnosed with ALL, while the other half had children who did not have ALL. The questionnaires included questions regarding parental use of medications, vitamin supplements or mind-altering drugs including amphetamines and marijuana prior to conception and during pregnancy.

According to this study, data indicated that vitamin and iron supplementation by the mother during pregnancy reduced the incidence of childhood ALL in her offspring by 20%-30%. Anti-histamines, diet pills and mind-altering drugs used by the mother or father prior to conception, or used by the mother during pregnancy, were associated with an increased incidence of childhood ALL. The incidence of childhood ALL was significantly increased if both parents utilized any of these agents.

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These researchers concluded that maternal vitamin and iron supplementation during pregnancy appears to reduce the incidence of childhood ALL, which is consistent with data demonstrated by other clinical studies. Conversely, both paternal and maternal use of antihistamines, diet pills or mind-altering drugs prior to conception or maternal use during pregnancy significantly increases the risk of childhood ALL. Couples planning on becoming pregnant and pregnant women should abstain from these medications and/or drugs. Furthermore, pregnant women may wish to speak with their physician about the risks and benefits of prenatal vitamins.

Reference: Wen W, Ou Shu XO, Potter JD, et al. Parental medication use and risk of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Cancer. 2002;95:1786-1794.

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