Georgia Lowry’s survival from leukaemia as a baby was considered a miracle 20 years ago. Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia when she was just eight weeks old, her parents were told she had only a 2 per cent chance of surviving..
Georgia beat the odds and became one of the youngest patients in Australia to have a bone marrow transplant. However, the intense radiation and chemotherapy came at a price, causing serious side effects, affecting major organs including her liver and heart. It also restricted her growth, so the 22-year-old is the size of a young girl.
Now Ms Lowry’s genes are helping Perth researchers, who have made a medical breakthrough that could help other babies survive leukaemia with fewer side effects. The Telethon Kids Institute has discovered a drug cocktail that is powerful but less toxic than current treatments.
While children over age 12 months with a common form of leukaemia have a 90 per cent chance of being cured, many babies do not survive. Their small bodies cannot cope with traditional cancer treatments and they have different genetic and immune system features that make leukaemia more dangerous. The institute’s head of leukaemia and cancer research, Ursula Kees, said cure rates for babies had remained stagnant over the past 20 years.
“Unfortunately the cure rate for an aggressive type of leukaemia in children under 12 months is still only 40 per cent,” Professor Kees said.
Senior researcher Mark Cruickshank said the research, supported by the Children’s Leukaemia and Cancer Research Foundation and The Kids Cancer Project, could change that. Scientists screened about 100 cancer drugs to help find ones that would be most effective with less collateral damage. Laboratory tests using cancer cells from babies had identified novel compounds and the results had been confirmed in animal models.
“What we need to do now, before clinical trials can start, is confirm the best dosage and timing of the treatment,” Dr Cruickshank said.
Professor Kees said some of the drugs tested were already used in some adult cancer treatments but not used to treat childhood cancer.
“What we found was one drug in particular which enhanced the effect of an important drug that is commonly used to treat childhood leukaemia,” Professor Kees said.
Ms Lowry said that while she still had to go for hospital for regular check-ups, she was grateful to be alive. “I feel very humbled by the great work of the doctors and have only started to realise how much of a miracle it was that I survived,” she said.
PHOTO: Georgia Lowry with Dr Mark Cruickshank. Picture: Ian Munro