Saving Lives in Kenya: Researchers Work to Diagnosis Leukemia

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Taking innovative approaches, ALSF funded researchers are working to bring cures to all children—everywhere.

In Kenya, where proper diagnostic testing is severely limited, many children are never diagnosed with leukemia and die without ever having a chance to receive treatment. 

Dr. Terry Vik, a two-time ALSF Epidemiology Grantee and associate professor of pediatrics at Indiana University, is leading a team of researchers working to develop leukemia diagnostic techniques at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, Kenya.  Using existing blood slides, stained for the detection of malaria, the team is working to develop methods for proper and timely diagnosis, which can lead to treatment for children with leukemia.

Malaria, which is prevalent in Kenya, is most often diagnosed by looking at a blood smear. Dr. Vik’s study made use of these existing slides, reviewing them for high white blood cell counts (WBC) or severe neutropenia—two key markers that can indicate leukemia. In the first phase of the study, which began in 2012, the team collected and analyzed nearly 40,000 slides from patients with possible malaria. A total of 32,000 blood slides were from one site and of those, 549 slides had WBC or severe neutropenia.  

For the second and current phase of the study, Dr. Vik’s team developed a technique to isolate DNA from the slides and use it for further genetic studies that could definitively diagnosis Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).  The team’s technique uses a PCR Method (a technique which rapidly clones genes) to amplify genes for T- and B-cell receptors. By doing this the team can see if the high white blood cell counts have a single clone of the receptor that would indicate they came from ALL and not from another disease or disorder.  

Since analyzing blood smear slides is familiar to local technicians who utilize this method to screen for malaria; local technicians can be trained to flag slides that show indications of potential leukemia.

“The ALSF funds are allowing us to teach the Kenyans that leukemia exists and can be diagnosed and treated early, making a difference in these children's lives,” said Dr. Vik. 

The current treatment protocol for ALL in Kenya is similar to the treatments used in the 1980s in the United States. However, even with a less aggressive treatment approach, Dr. Vik believes that proper diagnosis and timely treatment can save over half the children diagnosed with ALL.

Since the team is studying previously collected blood smears, tracing the patient with possible ALL remains a challenge. Dr. Vik is hopeful that further phases of his research can lead to more timely diagnosis and treatment of childhood leukemia in Kenya.  

The ALSF Epidemiology grants are designed to support the research of investigators who have a specific focus on incidence, distribution, detection or prevention of childhood cancer. Dr. Vik's research is co-funded by the Northwestern Mutual Foundation. 

ALSF is working to fund breakthroughs and find cures for all types of childhood cancer. Read more about our innovative grants program here.