Understanding — and beating — childhood brain cancer
January 30th, 2012
Vancouver, BC – In March of 1993, Penny Flynn and Jeff Date received devastating news: their nine-month-old daughter Taylor had been diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a cancerous brain tumour. Cancer is the leading cause of non-accidental deaths in children, and medulloblastoma is the most common form of childhood cancer. The few children who do survive the aggressive and debilitating treatments must then often cope with a host of side-effects, such as learning challenges and physical disabilities. In essence, saving the child’s life is an important initial victory, but also the start of life-long challenges for the child, their family and the health care system.
A new national, multi-disciplinary team made up of experts in BC and Ontario is leading the way to change and improve how this cancer is treated. With more than $9.8 million in funding from Genome BC and other partners, they aim to develop laboratory tests to determine which type of brain cancer the child suffers from in order to more accurately classify the tumours for treatment. This would significantly increase the survival rate, and improve the quality of life of children with brain cancer.
Studies indicate that children with a good prognosis are often over-treated and could be spared complications by reducing the amount of treatment they receive. At the same time, children with a poor prognosis are often subjected to painful treatments which may in fact, be futile. The tricky part is to identify which children are being over-treated and could be spared some of the side effects of treatment.
Fortunately, baby Taylor was one of the lucky ones — her treatment was successful. As a way of giving back, she is participating in this study in the hopes that other children and families might be spared her ordeal. “By participating in this research project, I feel that I am making a difference,” says Taylor, now 19. “It may not be a big difference, but every little bit counts. The amount of stress and pain that my parents had to endure while looking after me and praying for my health was unbearable,” she says. “I hope that one day, with help from Genome BC and the amazing doctors and nurses at Sick Kids, cancer will be cured.”
As they unravel the genetic basis of brain cancer, the research team is also working with families like Taylor’s to determine what additional potential risks they would be willing to assume in reducing therapy to improve quality of life. It is anticipated that the results of this research will lead to new ways to treat childhood brain cancers more effectively, to enhance the quality of life of children struck by this devastating disease, and help ease the huge economic toll of an estimated $100 million that childhood cancers take annually on the health care system.
“One of the reasons I’m excited about this project is that it’s one of the times when a remarkable team of experts is being brought together from across the country, including such leading scientists as Dr. Carlo Marra, who is conducting economic analyses,” says Dr. David Malkin, project co-lead and a pediatric oncologist at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. “In my practice, I see kids who receive very toxic therapies, which can be effective at destroying the cancer. However, the economic and psycho-social costs to the child are extraordinary.” He adds that this project is an excellent prototype, on which other studies of childhood cancer could be modeled. “We have to start somewhere in finding new genetic targets for the development of new, less toxic and more precise drugs, and this project has the potential to hit home runs for children with brain tumors in future years. We will also learn important lessons that can be applied to other types of cancer.”
Dr. Michael Taylor, project co-leader and a pediatric neurosurgeon at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, agrees and also stresses the significance of the funding. “The funding for this program is generous enough to allow us to classify the disease using genomic approaches, then identify and develop lab tests, so clinicians in Canada and around the world can categorize the disease and we can start treating some kids less and the rest smarter,” says Dr. Taylor.
“We are very pleased that the DNA sequencing technologies have evolved to the point they can be deployed as part of this important clinical work,” says Dr. Marco Marra, project co-leader and Director of Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre.
Genome BC is funding “Stratifying and Targeting Pediatric Medulloblastoma through Genomics” as part of Genome Canada’s 2010 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition. “Knowing that we could make a difference in the life of a child and perhaps help a family suffer less makes me very proud that we are supporting this work,” says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. “I believe that this research holds the key to a much larger approach to childhood cancer treatment.”
About Genome British Columbia:
Genome British Columbia is a catalyst for the life sciences cluster on Canada’s West Coast, and manages a cumulative portfolio of over $550M in research projects and science and technology platforms. Working with governments, academia and industry across sectors such as forestry, fisheries, agriculture, environment, bioenergy, mining and human health, the goal of the organization is to generate social and economic benefits for British Columbia and Canada. www.genomebc.ca
Communications Specialist, Genome BC