​Hope for young cancer patients

​Hope for young cancer patients

Team at La Trobe University in Victoria opened door to identifying kinder treatments. 

With thanks to funding from The Kids’ Cancer Project, a team at La Trobe University in Victoria have opened the door to identifying kinder cancer treatments for young patients.

Associate Professor Christine Hawkins and Mark Miles, a PhD student who is currently completing his thesis, published their findings in peer-reviewed online journal Cell Death and Disease.

Unfortunately, chemotherapy drugs (and radiotherapy) can damage the genetic material within normal cells, and sometimes this leads to the development of new cancers in patients whose initial tumours were successfully destroyed,” Associate Professor Hawkins said.

Therapy-related cancers can take years, even decades to develop, which is a particular concern to those diagnosed with cancer in childhood, adolescence or as young adults.

From 2016 to 2019 the charity has committed over $570,000 to a study lead by Associate Professor Hawkins directed toward better treatments for osteosarcoma, a disease that affects 20 - 30 Australian children and teenagers each year.

In a stark contrast to the dramatic improvements in outcomes for children and teenagers with other types of cancer, survival rates for osteosarcoma have changed little in the last four decades; only around 60 per cent survive more than five years after diagnosis.

While this work didn’t directly address the potential for improving cure rates,” said Associate Professor Hawkins. “It focussed on that cruel and severe side-effect of current anti-cancer therapies; that is their ability to stimulate new cancers.

Other aspects of our project funded by The Kids’ Cancer Project concentrate on assessing the promise of a new class of anti-cancer drug for treating osteosarcoma, in the hope that they will improve survival rates for patients diagnosed with this type of cancer.

Initial findings of that work have come together with exciting results. In the coming months, Associate Professor Hawkins and her team hope to have them published.

The data submitted in our manuscript suggests that these new drugs will be safer for all young cancer patients, not just those with osteosarcoma, and especially those at risk of getting new cancers after chemotherapy,” she said.

This is an exciting time in cancer research because scientists are enhancing their knowledge of the differences between cancerous and normal cells and are developing new classes of anti-cancer agents that function in completely different ways from conventional chemotherapy drugs.

I am very optimistic that these new therapeutic approaches will enable a much larger proportion of osteosarcoma patients to be cured,” said Associate Professor Hawkins. “In fact, I’m confident the cure rates will surpass 80 per cent within my lifetime.

This type of research is only possible through the generosity of the community. Cancer researchers work hard and long for many hours. Knowing the public is behind them not only provides the necessary means to keep trying, but also all-important morale boosts.

While it is very uplifting to facilitate better outcomes for cancer patients, by definition research involves seeking new facts and exploring unknown aspects of biology,” said Associate Professor Hawkins.

Sometimes we invest significant time and effort on lines of enquiry that end up yielding disappointing results. During these times especially, support from members of the community plays an important role in sustaining researchers’ motivation and commitment.

Financial contributions from donors enable researchers like us to tackle health problems that government agencies and pharmaceutical companies rarely support. Funding from those sources is increasingly scant, and tends to be directed to projects that are already well advanced (sometimes nearly complete). Donors who support projects in their earlier stages allow new angles to be pursued, and can facilitate more innovative research endeavours.

Sometimes too, donors provide crucial seed funding that allows researchers to mature their projects to a stage where they can attract funding from additional sources, as Associate Professor Hawkins recently discovered.

Our funding from The Kids’ Cancer Project generated the exciting data we just published,” she said. “This enabled us to compile a compelling application for another grant through a state-based funding body. Without that support, we would not have been able to submit what we believe is a highly competitive application.

We look forward to reporting on the success of that grant application in the coming weeks.

To read the abstract and full publication, visit www.nature.com