For many people, an increase in genetic mutations that could trigger leukemia seems to be an inevitable part of aging, according to a new study published in Cell Reports.

British researchers looked specifically at mutations in blood stem cells. “Over time, the probability of these cells acquiring mutations rises,” co-lead author Thomas McKerrell, M.D., of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, U.K., said in an institute news release. “What surprised us was that we found these mutations in such a large proportion of elderly people.”

In the study, researchers looked at 4,219 people without any evidence of blood cancer. They found that up to 20 percent of people aged 50 to 60, and more than 70 percent of people older than 90, have blood cells with the same gene changes seen in leukemia.

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“This study helps us understand how aging can lead to leukemia, even though the great majority of people will not live long enough to accumulate all the mutations required to develop the disease,” McKerrell said.

Study senior author George Vassiliou, M.D., Ph.D., of the Sanger Institute and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, agreed.

“These mutations will be harmless for the majority of people, but for a few unlucky carriers they will take the body on a journey towards leukemia,” Vassiliou said in the news release. With the new study, “we are now beginning to understand the major landmarks on that journey,” he explained.


  1. McKerrell, Thomas, et al. “Leukemia-Associated Somatic Mutations Drive Distinct Patterns of Age-Related Clonal Hemopoiesis.” Cell Reports. DOI: February 26, 2015.