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Clinical trials: Helping more children beat cancer every year

by Simon Shears | Analysis

18 December 2012

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A child on a clinical trial

Clinical trials have helped to save thousands of children’s lives.

December is childhood cancer awareness month, so we thought we’d focus on an area that contributed more to saving children’s lives from cancer than anything else – clinical trials.

More and more children are now surviving cancer, and today there’s over 33,000 long-term survivors of childhood cancer alive in the UK. Clinical trials are at the heart of this progress, testing new treatments or different ways of giving drugs to see if they’re more effective than what’s already available.

In the 1970s, when clinical trials for childhood cancers first started, fewer than three in 10 children with cancer survived. Today nearly eight out of 10 make it.

This life-saving progress is fantastic, but we can’t rest on our laurels. With more than 200 children losing their lives to cancer every year in the UK, we’re still searching for cures. And for those we can cure, the drugs they’re given need to be made kinder and with fewer side effects. This will give them the chance to live full, long lives without a lasting legacy from their treatment.

To help bring hope for the future we’re running clinical trials for children with cancer across the whole of the UK. Here are a few we’ve recently launched.

Finding better treatments for neuroblastoma 

Each year around 100 children in the UK are diagnosed with neuroblastoma, and many have access to immunotherapy through a Cancer Research UK trial opened three years ago. This new trial is offering immunotherapy to children and young people whose cancer has come back– around half of all cases. Doctors hope that this new trial will mean almost all children in the UK have access to this cutting-edge treatment.

The treatment works by ‘flagging up’ cancer cells to the immune system, so it can hunt them down and destroy them. As well as offering more children access to immunotherapy, the trial will also look at a different way of giving it. Immunotherapy has to be given with a strong pain killer such as morphine because it causes severe pain, meaning patients need to stay in hospital. This trial will see if giving immunotherapy more slowly and over a longer time reduces the pain it causes so children could stay at home while having it.

Reducing side-effects

A number of trials are now also looking at ways to reduce the side effects that children experience during and after treatment.

One new trial is looking at treating a particular type of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Treatment for this cancer is often very successful and involves surgery and chemotherapy. But the chemotherapy drugs can cause some long term side effects.

This trial is seeing if giving children with this form of lymphoma less or no chemotherapy will still be as effective but spare them some of the long term side effects.

Understanding more about cancers 

While most clinical trials aim to find better, kinder treatments for children with cancer, some are also trying to find out more about how cancers behave and why they respond to drugs in the way that they do.

This international trial is looking at germ cell tumours – a very rare form of cancer that starts in the brain or spinal cord. All children with these cancers have surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But there are different types of germ cell tumours, so doctors want to learn more about targeting the different types, rather than using a ‘one-size fits all’ approach.

Each child will be treated in the way that their specialist thinks is best for them, but researchers will study the information collected to see how patients respond in the hope they can find better ways of treating this cancer in the future.

Co-ordinating clinical trials for kids

Setting clinical trials like these up, making sure they run smoothly and analysing the vast quantities of information they produce is a monumental task. Responsibility for this falls to the Cancer Research UK Children’s Cancer Trials Team, based at the University of Birmingham.

Under the leadership of Dr Pam Kearns, a childhood cancer specialist, the team co-ordinates over 20 trials that are currently running at hospitals across the UK. Their work is making it possible for new and innovative therapies to be made available to children diagnosed with cancer.

If you want to find out more about other trials for childhood cancers visit our Cancer Trials Database which lists all the trials ongoing in the UK.

And if you have any questions about childhood cancer or clinical trials, please call our team of Cancer Information Nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. They’re available from 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday.

Simon Shears