The ability to improve diagnosis and refine prognosis in children with acute leukaemia is improving steadily. A growing number of tests can and are being performed on leukaemic cells. These include surface-marker analysis, DNA content, cytogenetics and studies of gene rearrangements. Increasingly large bone-marrow samples, now usually obtained under general anaesthesia, are required to make secure diagnoses. Ethical issues arise from three major areas. 1) Current research on leukaemia cells requested by the Medical Research Council is considered by local research ethics committees, but parents are not regularly given detailed information about or asked specifically to consent to such research; 2) substantial quantities of excess cells are stored indefinitely. This archive of stored material is a valuable resource for research but there has been little consideration of the ethical issues which arise from this practice, and 3) there is a potential for pressure to obtain increasingly large samples. 'Creeping growth' in sample size is likely to continue unless ethics committees consider future research proposals in more detail. These issues deserve attention in order that worthwhile research and its publication are not impeded for want of ethical consideration. The implications extend beyond the field of childhood leukaemia.
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