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Annual Review 2010/11 – Helping more children beat leukaemia

by Oliver Childs | Analysis

1 August 2011

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Katie Currie, 8, from East Kilbride, Scotland.
Katie Currie, 8, from East Kilbride, Scotland. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia survivor

We’ve funded many of the world’s most successful trials of new treatments for children with cancer.

Continuing our series of Annual Review articles, we’re sharing the story of Katie Currie, 8, who took part in a clinical trial for the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Siobhan and her husband felt like their whole world had come crashing down when their daughter Katie was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). Two years later when Katie was five, the disease returned. ‘It was even worse – our instincts told us we were now fighting to save her life,’ says Siobhan.

Katie’s parents agreed to enrol her onto a clinical trial for a new treatment for ALL that returns, called mitoxantrone.

‘We believed that with the clinical trial Katie had the best chance of recovery. We would do it again to help other families and other children like Katie in the future. Without these trials, amazing new treatments may never be found. Mitoxantrone probably saved Katie’s life,’ says Siobhan Currie.

Increased survival

Over the past 40 years, thanks to huge improvements in chemotherapy, the number of children surviving ALL has risen to more than eight out of ten. But for children whose ALL returns, survival had remained constant at around 50% – until now. This trial, which we helped to fund, showed that mitoxantrone can increase survival to almost 70% for those children.

Manchester-based paediatrician Professor Vaskar Saha has been leading this research on mitoxantrone. The drug works by jamming a molecule in cancer cells responsible for untwisting DNA. Blocking this process literally ties the cell’s DNA up in knots, so it can’t grow and multiply. It also works on cancer cells that have resisted previous treatment – even if they’re ‘hidden’ amongst healthy cells.

Groundbreaking research

The trial results were so striking that it was stopped early so that all children taking part could be offered the new treatment – something that hasn’t happened in any previous trials for childhood ALL. Mitoxantrone is now the standard treatment for children like Katie across the world, offering hope to many families. With around 370 children being diagnosed with ALL every year, it’s a reminder of how vital clinical trials are in improving cancer treatment.

Today, thanks to research, more than three-quarters of children beat cancer, compared to just a quarter in the 1960s. But we’re not there yet. We’re determined that all children like Katie have a future.