Cancer Advances Too Often Ignore Children

Medical innovation is as important as awareness and fundraising.

Posted Jan 09, 2020

Children are in danger of being left behind when it comes to cancer research.

There has been plenty of good news on this front. It was just announced that the cancer death rate in 2017 in the United States fell by 2.2 percent—the biggest single-year drop ever reported. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) recently announced a $50-million clinical trial. All 31 teams in the National Hockey League once again hosted a cancer awareness night at their arenas this season. The annual giving campaigns for St. Jude and other major cancer research centers continue to receive widespread public support.  

As one who lost a brother to leukemia, I’m heartened by such headlines. Yet I don’t believe it will be enough until new advances like precision medicine and other ground-breaking treatments can be applied to kids as much as they currently are applied to adults.

A half-century ago, children suffering from cancer benefitted greatly from the latest in meds and procedures. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) was once considered too problematic, too big a riddle to ever be solved. Yet a legendary cadre of doctors (James Holland, Lucius Sinks, Donald Pinkel, and others) dared to build on the ground-breaking research done by Sydney Farber. In doing so, they developed the chemotherapy “cocktail,” the blood centrifuge machine, and other procedures we take for granted today. Many of these key procedures were first developed for children.

For their trouble, the so-called “Cancer Cowboys” received little support from their medical peers and were often misunderstood by the public. To their credit, these doctors ignored indifference and even harsh criticism. Beginning at Roswell Park Cancer Center in Buffalo, the doctors stayed focused on the science and, in doing so, took ALL from a 3 percent survival rate in the mid-1960s to the 90 percent cure rate it has today.

But here’s the tragic part. Since the Cancer Cowboys conducted their landmark clinical trials, only four new cancer treatments have been approved for first use in children. That’s outrageous and it simply won’t get us any closer to real success, no matter how much money or awareness is raised.

“For too long, children have been treated with a one-size-fits-all approach,” writes Gwen Nichols, LLS’s chief medical officer. “But as we learn that the biology of cancer is different in children than it is in adults—driven by different mechanisms and with different mutations—there is a pressing need for therapies designed just for children.”

That’s why LLS’ new clinical trial—referred to as LLS PedAl—shows so much promise. It is the first global precision medicine program for kids with leukemia.

“Our goal is to get everyone to the table and work together,” says Todd Cooper of Seattle Children’s Hospital, who is heading the clinical trial with a goal to raise $50 million in the next five years. “We’ve come to realize that’s the only way to make further progress. To do so, we have to focus again on the children.”