Stories of children and their families are receiving unprecedented coverage in press while buildings around the country shine golden lights in night skies bring attention to the disease that kills more Australian kids than any other.
Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September also gives pause to those working tirelessly behind the scenes to develop better treatments and cures for many different types of kids’ cancer – our preeminent scientists and researchers.
We spoke to a number of professors and doctors funded by The Kids’ Cancer Project to find out what the awareness month means to them. Here’s what they had to say.
“I work on childhood cancer because it’s completely unacceptable that any child should die from cancer,” said Associate Professor Alex Swarbrick, Garvan Institute of Medical Research.
Associate Professor Alexander Swarbrick, Garvan Institute of Medical Research.
“Childhood cancer awareness month is an opportunity for us all to remember the kids and their families who are going through cancer treatment or have died of their disease. From this awareness must come urgent action and investment in medical research to make deaths from childhood cancer history,” the Sydney-based scientist said.
Read more: MicroRNA drugs for the treatment of neuroblastoma.
Professor Bryan Day at Brisbane’s QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute spoke on behalf of his team and shared how they are motivated on a daily basis to discover better therapies for children with brain cancer.
“Our progress in the field of paediatric brain cancer means that more effective treatments can be made available to those who desperately need them,” said Professor Day.
Professor Bryan Day, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.
“Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity to reflect on and honour the struggles that families affected by paediatric cancer go through,” Professor Day said. “Awareness and funding are sorely needed in order to secure a future in which this suffering is significantly reduced. I am proud to sport a gold ribbon this September.”
Read more: Development of personalised medicine approaches to treat medulloblastoma.
Dr Belinda Kramer is working with Dr Geoff McCowage at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead to develop immunotherapy treatments for paediatric patients.
Drs Belinda Kramer and Geoff McCowage, The Children's Hospital at Westmead.
“Our project aims to take a child’s own immune system and re-educate it so that it recognises and destroys the child’s own tumour,” said Dr Kramer. “One way to do this is to generate T cells, called CAR T cells that can specifically target the tumour cells.”
Read more: Development of CAR T cell immunotherapies for paediatric patients.
“During Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, while the broader community learns about how cancer affects children, their families and their friends, our team gains a renewed enthusiasm to attack our project goal – that of developing new childhood cancer treatments,” said Dr Kramer.
“The increase in awareness that stems from Australians going gold in September is a great motivator for us, and a reminder that we have great support for the work that we do,” she said.
Professor Ricky Johnson shared that his team at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Victoria are also emboldened by the country going gold.
Professor Ricky Johnson, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
"Childhood Cancer Awareness Month inspires me and my team to work even harder to find a way to target genes that important for cancer growth and survival to improve chances of survival for children with low prognosis leukaemias," said Professor Johnson.
Read more: Therapeutic targeting transcriptional addiction in paediatric leukaemias.
Increasing survival rates is vitally important, but as Dr Rachel Conyers from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute shared, it is equal to reducing the toxicity of treatment.
“Curing cancer is imperative, but the cost of that cure is also important,” she said.
“My research focuses on one of the main side effects of chemotherapy, heart toxicity. As the success of cancer treatment in children continues to improve, focussing on survivorship and toxicity of therapy is becoming more and more important," said Dr Conyers.
Read more: Understanding the genetic basis of chemotherapy-induced cardiomyopathy.
WA Australian of the Year nominee and brain cancer specialist, Dr Nick Gottardo echoed the importance of developing kinder treatments. His team at Telethon Kids Institute are dedicated to improving quality of life.
“Brain cancer is now the leading cause of death in children due to disease,” said Dr Gottardo. “In addition, current treatments leave many survivors with serious life long side effects which can impact on their quality of life.”
“Our research is trying to change these dreadful facts by identifying new treatments. Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is critically important to raise community awareness so we can all work together to change the status quo,” said Dr Gottardo.
Read more: Using targeted chemotherapies to reduce intensity of radiotherapy in medulloblastoma.
Dr Raelene Endersby who works along side Dr Gottardo, spoke about celebration in relation to the awareness month, but tempered her enthusiasm with the enormity of the work that is still to be done.
Dr Raelene Endersby with Dr Nick Gottardo, Telethon Kids Institute.
“Every September we celebrate the advances that have been made in our understanding of these diseases and the new treatments that have been developed,” she said.
“Despite progress in researching childhood cancer, there is still immense work required as too many children diagnosed with cancer will still not survive. We will continue to dedicate ourselves to finding better brain cancer treatments for children until the problem is defeated,” said Dr Endersby.
Read more: Improving chemotherapy regimens for medulloblastoma.
Another clinician scientist at Telethon Kids Institute who is passionate about reducing the toxicity of treatment is Dr Rishi Kotecha. His speciality is infant leukaemia.
"Significant advances have been made to improve the outcome for children with leukaemia,” said Dr Kotecha. “However, certain types of high-risk leukaemia remain difficult to treat. This includes young babies, whose fragile bodies are vulnerable to the toxic effects of therapy.”
Dr Rishi Kotecha, Telethon Kids Institute. Image courtesy of the Community Newspaper Group.
“Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is critical to highlighting the need for more effective and less toxic therapies to help improve the outcome for all children suffering from high-risk leukaemia," said Dr Kotecha.
Read more: Combinational therapeutics in high-risk infant acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
Associate Professor Christine Hawkins is developing better treatments for bone cancer at La Trobe University. Her focus is on children who should have many decades of life ahead of them.
Associate Professor Christine Hawkins, La Trobe University.
“We are committed to identifying more effective treatments for kids and teenagers diagnosed with bone cancer, which eliminate their tumours while sparing them the severe side effects that can be triggered by currently-used therapies, so they can live long, healthy lives,” she said.
Read more: Exploring better and safer treatments for osteosarcoma.
And finally, Associate Professor Tom Revesz from Women’s & Children’s Hospital in Adelaide shared his passion for collaboration and science.
“Childhood Cancer Awareness Month reminds me every year how important it is to have patients and parents and dedicated philanthropic organisations join forces with clinicians and researchers in raising awareness of the need to further improve what we can currently do in terms of cure,” he said.
Associate Professor Tom Revesz, Women's & Children's Hospital.
The Senior Haematologist-Oncologist has been a passionate advocate for finding more effective treatments for children with relapsed leukaemia ever since his work in Australia started in 2004.
“It has been a great personal experience for me to see the incredible improvements over time in the treatment results for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). Unfortunately, a small proportion of the children still relapse and the treatment results are not good enough with current therapies,” said Associate Professor Revesz.
Read more: Clinical trial to improve survival for children and adolescents with high-risk relapsed ALL.
“I am convinced that research funding from fundraising organisations provide an invaluable resource for both clinical and laboratory research," he said.
Associate Professor Revesz speaks from experience as he's seen first-hand the treatment strategies that have come about from academic research, partly supported by government funding and partly by philanthropic organisations in several European countries.
"The Kids’ Cancer Project does a great job raising awareness and providing crucial help to promote our work," he said.
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