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Drinking While Pregnant Tied to Rare Leukemia in Offspring

There's no safe amount of alcohol for women during this time, experts say

THURSDAY, May 6 (HealthDay News) -- Pregnant woman may have another reason to avoid drinking, with a new study finding that alcohol use during pregnancy ups the risk for a rare blood cancer in children.

The research, by French scientists, found the chance of getting acute myeloid leukemia (AML), an often fatal blood cancer, increased by 56 percent for children whose mothers drank alcohol while pregnant.

The study reinforces doctor's warnings that pregnant women and women trying to conceive should avoid drinking, said the study's author, Paule Latino-Martel, research director at the University of Paris Unit of Research on Nutritional Epidemiology.

"Pregnant women and women who are trying to conceive are [already] advised to avoid drinking alcohol, in order to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome," Latino-Martel noted. "Our findings strengthen this recommendation."

"The balance of evidence suggests there is a risk, there is a link between alcohol and AML," added one expert, Dr. Patrick Zweidler-McKay, assistant professor of pediatric oncology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. "During pregnancy common sense should prevail."

While the perils of alcohol use during pregnancy have been widely publicized for years, too many pregnant women still drink. According to background information in the study, about 12 percent of pregnant women in the United States report consuming alcohol, as do 52 percent in France and 60 percent in Russia.

There are about 700 cases of acute myeloid leukemia in the United States each year, Latino-Martel said, and the prognosis for recovery has greatly improved in the last decade. The five-year survival rate for children up to 14 years of age has now reached about 60 percent, he said.

In the study, published in the May edition of Cancer Epidemiology, Markers & Prevention, the researchers reviewed data from 21 studies, looking at the connection between alcohol consumption among pregnant women and two rare cancers: acute myeloid leukemia and acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

The study compared the number of cases of acute myeloid leukemia within risk groups of over 8,000 women (mothers who drank) and control groups totalling over 10,000 women (mothers who did not drink). In a subgroup of nine studies, 731 cases of acute myeloid leukemia were identified.

Drinking during pregnancy boosted the risk only for acute myeloid leukemia, the researchers found. No greater impact was found during any stage of pregnancy, but the risk increased with the amount of alcohol consumed.

"I think what this study does is it pulls together a lot of data from several studies ... there is enough evidence here that there is a clear connection between alcohol consumption and AML," said Zweidler-McKay.

He believes that the fetus is most vulnerable during the early stages of development, but no period would be immune to risk.

Changes happen at the cellular level that could lead to cancer down the line, Zweidler-McKay explained. "A mistake is made when copies of cells are made early in fetal development," he said. "This mutation is caused by some environmental toxin, most likely alcohol or cigarettes."

Even moderate alcohol consumption is known to cause a variety of cancers in adults, added Dr. Stephen Ross, clinical director at the New York University Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction at the NYU Medical Center, New York City.

Ross cautioned that the retrospective study, which was supported by a grant from the World Cancer Research Fund International, does not show causality.

"It shows a connection, and they're careful to say that," he said referring to the study authors.

Because of a heightened risk for birth defects, Ross agreed that pregnant women should not drink alcohol at all because there is no known safe amount, or safe period during pregnancy.

Latino-Martel also cited research showing that alcohol consumption rate differences among pregnant women in different countries is closely related to the existence of national alcohol prevention programs.

More information

For more information on AML, head to the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

SOURCES: Stephen Ross, M.D., clinical director, New York University Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction, at NYU Medical Center, New York City and assistant professor, psychiatry, NYU Medical Center; Patrick Zweidler-McKay, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor, pediatric oncology, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas; Paule Latino-Martel, Ph.D., research director, Unit of Research on Nutritional Epidemiology, University of Paris; May 2010 Cancer Epidemiology, Markers & Prevention

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