Eliminating the serious side effects of chemotherapy


For many children, the very same cancer drugs used to save their lives can all too often leave them with very serious and lifelong health problems. Professor Irina Vetter (pictured) is finding ways to maintain the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs whilst eliminating their incredibly harmful side effects.

In her research Prof. Vetter and her team have made steady breakthroughs. First, they identified why vincristine is so damaging and that it’s possible to maintain its cancer-killing properties, whilst also reducing its awful side effects. Today, her latest research project looks at how to apply these findings to kids with cancer like Tommy, helping them recover and lead happy and healthy lives after treatment. 

“In the past, we thought that all of the side effects of chemo came from the anticancer effect. But in fact, in the case of vincristine, our work has shown it doesn’t really have much to do with the anticancer effect at all,” says Prof. Vetter.

“That’s a really good opportunity; leave the anticancer effect untouched and effective, but just prevent or eliminate the side effects.” 

Given the wide range of debilitating side effects vincristine can cause, the importance of Prof. Vetter’s research cannot be underestimated. 

“Vincristine is one of those chemotherapy drugs that’s particularly damaging to nerves. It can cause extreme pain, tingling and numbness; but it can also affect motor functions,” she says.

“So, some kids might find they can’t write, or get dressed – it can even cause problems with walking. These side effects can be lifelong.

“The way we, and all kids, experience the world relies critically on the integrity of our sensory system and nerves. And so, if you affect that, every aspect of your life is impacted.”

Curing cancer and ensuring kids can grow up is only half the battle, ensuring they have a good quality of life after treatment is of the utmost importance too. 

“Although we’ve got a long way to go until all kids survive cancer, a lot of cancers can be treated quite effectively,” she continues.

“So I think there needs to be a little bit of a shift towards improving the quality of life of the survivors, especially for childhood leukemia survivors.

“Because the ultimate goal of any treatment is to cure a disease, it’s not to make somebody sick in a different way. We need to make sure that people are able to live healthy, happy lives for the rest of their lives − especially for kids.”

Currently, Prof. Vetter and her team are identifying existing drugs to limit or entirely eradicate the side effects of vincristine, and it’s looking promising that their research could benefit kids like Tommy in the next few years. However, securing funding is crucial to the ongoing success of the research, something that dominates far too much of researchers’ precious time. Prof Vetter says:

“Most of my year is spent writing grant applications that are unsuccessful, it’s pretty bad. That’s why I always go on about how thankful I am to the supporters of charities like The Kids’ Cancer Project.

“I really lack words, other than to say, to express how important funding from The Kids’ Cancer Project is and how it permits us to address these really, really important issues and have a positive impact on the lives of kids with cancer. 

“There’s just not enough government funding or the systems in place that fund a lot of important research like ours – it just wouldn’t be possible without kind people donating.”

Cancer treatment left little Tommy temporarily unable to walk. For other kids, it’s not temporary

Before he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, toddler Tommy’s world was beautiful and carefree. 

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