Do results from research on children’s cancers ever shed light on cancers that adults experience?

A Syracuse woman submitted this question to “Upstate Answers,” and Amy Caruso Brown, MD, assistant professor in pediatrics and the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at Upstate, provides an enlightening answer:

(If you’ve got a general medical/science question you would like to see answered in this space, please send it to whatsup@upstate.edu)

Brown’s response:

“Yes! Definitely! There are a few ways to think about this question.

“First, around the world, thousands of researchers are studying cancer cells in their laboratories. Some study particular mechanisms that play a role in cancer development – for instance, changes in genes that cause cells to grow out of control – while others study how cancer cells respond to drugs, in test tubes or in lab animals, like mice.

“Most researchers perform experiments on several different types of cancer cells, including both pediatric and adult cancers, and cancer researchers at all levels talk to each other and exchange ideas and information. A discovery initially found in cancer cells from pediatric leukemia patients, for instance, may turn out to help us understand and better treat colon or breast cancer, which are extremely rare in children but common in adults.

“I recently worked on a protocol for a study of a new drug, a type of tyrosine kinase inhibitor, that was invented by a pediatric oncologist but also seems promising for treating some adult cancers. Since it has never been tested in humans, the first clinical trial of this new drug will be in adult patients.

“Secondly, adult patients sometimes get cancers that we would consider “pediatric” because they are much more likely to occur in childhood, and so most of what we know about how best to treat these adults comes from research done with children. We now know that young adults, particularly those with acute lymphoid leukemia (ALL), have better outcomes when they are treated with pediatric chemotherapy protocols and, in some cases, by pediatric oncologists.

“The Children’s Oncology Group is a consortium of more than 200 pediatric cancer programs (including Upstate) that supports about 85 ongoing clinical trials. Their study of the best treatment for a specific type of ALL called high-risk pre-B is currently open to patients up to age 30. ALL is the most common type of childhood cancer, but about a third of ALL patients are adults.

“Finally, outcomes for children with cancer have improved dramatically over the past 40 years, and much of that progress is due to the collaboration between pediatric oncologists and researchers around the world, through the Children’s Oncology Group and similar European research groups.

“The majority of children, adolescents and young adults with cancer – 60 percent – are enrolled in clinical trials, meaning that data on the treatment they received and how they responded is collected, analyzed and used to guide future treatment options. In contrast, fewer than 5 percent of adults with cancer participate in clinical trials.

“Many adult oncologists see the pediatric approach to research as one to emulate in order to more systematically improve outcomes for adults with cancer.”

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