Professor Andy Pearson is head of the Paediatric Drug Development Unit at The Royal Marsden (image via The Institute of Cancer Research London)
To coincide with the publication of our annual review, we caught up with Professor Andy Pearson, who’s leading our groundbreaking BEACON neuroblastoma trial.
From a very early stage in his career, Andy knew he wanted to take on childhood cancer, particularly neuroblastoma.
“It’s very simple you know. When I started looking after children with cancer, it was emotional,” he told us.
“I wanted to do something to actually improve their chance of a cure.”
Neuroblastoma develops from nerve cells left behind after a baby’s development in the womb. And around 90 children are diagnosed with the disease each year in the UK – mostly under the age of five.
Why these nerve cells keep growing after development remains a mystery, but one that researchers around the world are working hard to solve.
And this research has already made an impact. When Andy began his career as a medical student in the 1970s, less than two in every 10 children (20 per cent) survived neuroblastoma. Thanks to research, that figure now sits at six in 10 (60 per cent).
Andy’s career began at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, training as a paediatrician and paediatric oncologist. His time in Newcastle spanned almost 30 years, rising through the ranks to become Professor of Paediatric Oncology and Head of the Children’s and Young People’s Unit, before joining The Institute of Cancer Research London and the Royal Marsden hospital in 2005.
“My passion for neuroblastoma started when I was third year medical student,” he says.
A big part of that passion is to understand the disease and find the best ways to stop it. And this, ultimately, has led him to set up BEACON – a groundbreaking trial for children with aggressive neuroblastoma.
When neuroblastoma comes back
Despite improvements in survival, around half of the children treated for aggressive forms of neuroblastoma will see their disease come back.
Andy explains, once the disease has returned – called ‘recurrent’ neuroblastoma – it can be particularly difficult to treat.
“If neuroblastoma has spread, and this is particularly true of older children, it can be very aggressive and difficult to cure” he says.
“It’s because of the genetics, the very nature of the cancer cells.”
Andy believes that the BEACON trial will be a big step forward – both in improving our understanding of the disease, and in finding the best ways to treat it.
A vision for the BEACON trial
He says there are two “immediate questions” that BEACON will answer.
First, what’s the best combination of chemotherapy to help treat these children?
And second, can the abnormal tumour blood vessels feeding neuroblastoma be targeted with another drug called bevacizumab (also called Avastin)?
But as well as these questions, he’s set his ambitions much higher.
“We’re developing a trial that can actually move on, we can grow, and we can ask other questions, look at new drugs, in a very quick way.”
It’s a vision that has the potential to rewrite the rulebook on the future of research on neuroblastoma – and perhaps other childhood cancers too.
But getting the trial off the ground was no easy task.
“It’s going to be running in nine countries, around Europe. But once it’s established, we can just modify it to look at new exciting drugs as they emerge.”
It’s an approach that’s already being applied to trials on adult cancers too – something Andy refers to as a “living trial.”
Update 06/15 NP: This ‘living trial’ is already being expanded to include a new drug called topotecan (Hycamtin, Potactasol). And the team is now aiming to recruit an additional 40 children with neuroblastoma to find the best possible combination of treatments.
It’s this adaptable infrastructure that will allow Andy, and the international research team working on the trial, to answer vital questions about the nuts and bolts of how neuroblastoma works.
“We’ll also be able to look at the genes in the tumours,” he says – something that will feed into the trial system as potential new treatments are developed in the future.
“There’s a lot of new drugs coming in to the pipeline, which are just starting to be looked at in children.
“When we know more about these drugs, the best of those drugs, we can move them on to BEACON,” says Andy.
And this vision extends beyond looking at recurrent neuroblastoma.
He adds: “What we want to do is individualise the treatment, to personalise the treatment for children’s cancer.”
A long-lasting passion
It’s in this long-term outlook that Andy’s dedication truly shines through.
“I became kind of addicted to neuroblastoma, and children’s cancer, as a medical student,” he says.
“They’ve been my two main interests – over 39 years, to be honest.”
He recalls meeting a lot of children and their families in that time, “I met one child as a six month old baby, who’s now a grown lady, I met her 39 years ago.”
And they’re still in touch, “In my lectures, I show a picture of her,” he says.
We share Andy’s passion for research, but also for the people behind that research – something that he sums up perfectly when asked, why become a scientist to begin with?
“It upset me enormously that children were dying, and I desperately wanted to do something to help them.”
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