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Solving a 50-year mystery: how is malaria causing cancer in Africa’s “lymphoma belt?”

Dr Robbiani has been trying to find out how the immune system might be playing a role in the development of one of the most frequent cancers among African children called Burkitt’s lymphoma.

In equatorial Africa, a region of the globe known as the “lymphoma belt,” children are ten times more likely than in other parts of the world to develop Burkitt’s lymphoma, a highly aggressive blood cancer that can be fatal if left untreated.  That area is also plagued by high rates of malaria, and scientists have spent the last 50 years trying to understand how the two diseases are connected.

The link has been a mystery: The parasite that causes malaria, infects red blood cells and liver cells, while Burkitt’s lymphoma starts off in infection-fighting white blood cells called B cells. So how could a malaria infection increase a child’s risk of developing this type of cancer?

Working with Professor Michel Nussenzweig and colleagues at Rockefeller University, their research has finally helped explain why.  Working in mice, they found that the same enzyme that helps create antibodies that fight off the malaria parasite also causes DNA damage that can lead to Burkitt’s lymphoma.  This research is published in the journal Cell.

Read more about this story in this week’s blog.