B cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (B-ALL) is the most common form of childhood cancer. Although treatment has advanced remarkably in the past 50 years, it still fails in ~20% of patients. Recent studies revealed that more than 5% of healthy newborns carry preleukaemic clones that originate in utero, but only a small percentage of these carriers will progress to overt B-ALL. The drivers of progression are unclear, but B-ALL incidence seems to be increasing in parallel with the adoption of modern lifestyles. Emerging evidence shows that a major driver for the conversion from the preleukaemic state to the B-ALL state is exposure to immune stressors, such as infection. Here, we discuss our current understanding of the environmental triggers and genetic predispositions that may lead to B-ALL, highlighting lessons from epidemiology, the clinic and animal models, and identifying priority areas for future research.
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