What Causes Neuroblastoma?
Neuroblastoma is caused by the abnormal development of immature nerve cells known as neuroblasts. As a fetus develops, most neuroblasts grow and eventually become mature nerve cells either before birth or in the first few months after birth. However, in some cases, neuroblasts do not develop correctly. Instead of becoming mature nerve cells, they continue to grow and divide. In some cases, these abnormal neuroblasts simply die off; however, in some rare cases, they develop into tumors or neuroblastoma.
Because neuroblastoma begins with the abnormal development of fetal neuroblasts, it is the most common type of childhood cancer in children under the age of one. As children grow out of infancy, these abnormal neuroblasts become less likely to either develop correctly or die off and more likely to turn into neuroblastoma. The average age of diagnosis for neuroblastoma is between 1 and 2 years of age, while 90% of all cases of neuroblastoma are diagnosed by the age of 5. Neuroblastoma is rarely found in children over the age of 10.
Unfortunately, scientists do not know why some neuroblasts develop and mature normally and others do not. Research is beginning to show a link between the development of neuroblastoma and abnormal changes to the DNA in the neuroblasts. These DNA mutations cause neuroblastoma cells to have an abnormal chromosomal structure (either too many or too few chromosomes). The abnormal chromosomal structure may cause the neuroblasts to develop into neuroblastoma; it may also impact how quickly the neuroblastoma grows and develops. In rare cases, this abnormal DNA is inherited from a parent. However, in most cases, it is the result of random gene changes that occurred at some point in the child’s development.
Can Neuroblastoma Be Prevented?
Random DNA mutations during fetal development, like the ones that scientists believe may be linked to the development of neuroblastoma, are random events that, in most cases, do not have a specific cause or trigger. Scientists do not believe that these specific DNA mutations are caused by lifestyle or environmental factors (as is the case with some types of adult cancers). Therefore, there is no way to prevent these DNA changes or the development of neuroblastoma. In fact, at this time, there are no known ways to prevent most forms of childhood cancer.
What are the Risk Factors for Neuroblastoma?
A “risk factor” is something that may impact your child’s chances of developing cancer. For example, some types of adult cancers may be linked to lifestyle choices, such as smoking, or environmental factors. However, there are no known risk factors linked to lifestyle or environment for most forms of childhood cancer, including neuroblastoma.
The two biggest risk factors for neuroblastoma are age and heredity.
- Age: Most causes of neuroblastoma are diagnosed in children between the ages of one and two, and 90% are diagnosed before the age of 5.
- Heredity: 1% to 2% of neuroblastoma cases seem to be the result of a gene inherited from a parent. Children with familial neuroblastoma usually have one or more family members who also had neuroblastoma as infants.
However, it is important to remember that neuroblastoma is an extremely rare disease, with only about 700 cases diagnosed each year.
Scientists also believe that having birth defects, or congenital anomalies, may also be a risk factor for neuroblastoma. Although the link is not yet clearly understood, scientists believe that genetic mutations in the DNA that cause birth defects may also increase the likelihood of abnormal cell development leading to the development of childhood cancer. Again, however, it is important to note that neuroblastoma is extremely rare and most children with a congenital abnormality will not develop neuroblastoma.
About American Childhood Cancer Organization
American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO) is a non-profit charity dedicated to helping kids with cancer and their families navigate the difficult journey from cancer diagnosis through survivorship. Internationally, ACCO is the sole U.S. member of Childhood Cancer International (CCI), the largest patient-support organization for childhood cancer in the world. Here in the United States, ACCO promotes the critical importance of ensuring continued funding into new and better treatment protocols for childhood cancer. And most importantly, ACCO is focused on the children: developing and providing educational tools for children fighting cancer and their families, empowering them in their understanding of childhood cancer and the medical decisions they must make during this difficult journey. All of ACCO’s resources are available free of charge for families coping with childhood cancer.