Doctors hope for the future of pediatric cancer research

Roughly 4 percent of all federal cancer research funding goes towards pediatric cancer.
Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 11:43 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - 16,000 children a year will be diagnosed with cancer and roughly 4 percent of all federal cancer research funding goes towards pediatric cancer.

East Tennessee Children’s Hospital is not a research hospital but it is a part of a network of doctors called the Children’s Oncology Group.

Group Chair of COG and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Seattle Children’s Hospital, Doug Hawkins said they’ve come a long way with survival rates but there’s still a long way to go.

“A child diagnosed when I was born, had a very minimal chance of survival,” said Hawkins. “Now, we expect more than 80% of children who are diagnosed today to survive for at least five years, and most of those children will be cured.

Pediatric cancer is treated by the same methods as adult cases but the difference is...the treatment affects kids more because their bodies are still developing and the treatment might even cause a second cancer to grow after they beat their first.

“We still have unfinished business, we are not curing every child,” he said. “Not every child who survives for five years will survive long term. Even the children who are cured, many of them will experience long term side effects from the treatment.”

More than 95 percent of childhood cancer survivors have significant health related issues because of the current treatment options, according to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

For Hawkins, the future of pediatric cancer research is getting away from chemotherapy which can increase cure rates and reduce long term effects by using immunotherapy instead.

“Pediatric cancer is rare compared to adults but I think the return on investment for a successfully treated child is very great and that’s why it’s important that we invest the right amount of resources.”

The right amount of resources. Only 4 percent of the annual cancer funding from the federal government is directed towards treating childhood cancer, according to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

“Well, is that enough,” Hawkins said. “That percentage is probably not nearly as important as do we have the resources to do high impact, practice changing, studies that will lead to an improvement in the outcome for children with cancer.”

Children’s Oncology Group is trying to use the power of more minds to find a better, less toxic way of treating pediatric cancer that doesn’t have the lasting effect that chemotherapy does.

“We want these innovations to be available to all children with cancer, not just those who are treated in big cities, or big centers,” he said.

Resources at a big research hospital are not the same as the resources at a hospital like the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. Since ETCH is a part of the Children’s Oncology group, they have the ability to access the studies and treatment information. That means doctors at ETCH can use the research from a big research hospital like Seattle Children’s Hospital to treat children in East Tennessee.

Now with more than 200 participating locations in the US alone willing to work together, there’s hope more progress will come quicker than before.

“There aren’t many areas in society or in medicine, where people, hundreds of institutions, thousands of physicians, nurses, pharmacists all work together with a singular purpose to improve the outcome for children with cancer, being willing to collaborate and do it in a selfless way,” Hawkins said. “That’s the secret sauce of the Children’s Oncology Group. That’s where we’ve made all the progress, It’s because we’ve worked together.”

Hawkins said COG’s goal is not just to give a child a few more years, but to restore them to health and have them go on to live another 50, 60, or even 70 years.

“We all would agree, it doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum, that children with cancer deserve investment from our society to improve their outcome.”

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