Research money spent on cancer in children delivers ''a lot of bang for the buck'', according to Glenn Marshall, a leading specialist in the field.
Professor Marshall is the head of translational research and molecular carcinogenesis at the Children's Cancer Institute Australia. His comments were in response to a recent Canberra Times report on the death of former Radford College student Lachlan Smith from aggressive desmoplastic small round cell sarcoma.
Mr Smith's parents, Janey Wallace and Doug Smith, had contacted the paper to raise awareness of the need for more money to be spent on research into rare cancers that claim the lives of children and young adults.
Professor Marshall, who is also a full-time paediatric haematologist and oncologist and the director of the Centre for Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders at Sydney Children's Hospital, said drug companies invested the most into developing medicines for diseases that are common and more likely to prove profitable.
He said the approach was not unreasonable given that they had a duty to their shareholders. As a result, public donations play a significant role in driving research into the rarer cancers that rob children and young people of decades of life. ''A lot of the major early research into childhood leukaemia was significantly backed by donated money,'' he said.
Ironically, the outcomes of much of that research, including treatment protocols, subsequently proved applicable to the treatment of cancers in adults.
''In Australia each year about 600 children are diagnosed with cancer,'' he said. ''Of these about 150 won't make it. By contrast, about 100,000 adults are diagnosed with cancer.''
Despite the disparity in the numbers, childhood cancers rank second only to breast cancer in terms of the lives saved by medical intervention. ''If you can save the life of somebody under 10 they will live for 70 or 80 years,'' Professor Marshall said.
He noted there had been a dramatic turnaround in survival rates as a result of the research that had been carried out.
''The cure rate [for cancers in children] was about 10 per cent in the 1950s,'' he said. ''As of now, it is between 75 per cent and 80 per cent.'' Much more remains to be done, however, and the war is being fought on two fronts.
One is the development and refinement of drugs that attack the ''targets'' responsible for cancer in children. These are gene products that can be knocked out by the right chemical bullet.
Many of the existing medicines date back decades and have severe side effects. There is a constant search for new therapies that will increase survival rates and improve the quality of life during treatment.
The other area where research has yielded dividends is in the development of sophisticated diagnostic techniques that can detect the presence of very small numbers of cancer cells.
Professor Marshall said this allowed doctors to make highly informed judgments about which patients were most susceptible to experiencing a relapse. Their treatment could then be tailored accordingly.
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