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Cracking the Cancer Code for Kids

‘Excitement’ and ‘cancer’ are two words that shouldn’t really go together, until you add the word ‘hope’ to the sentence. Those are the words flowing out of the mouths of researchers from the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth as they edge closer to answering what causes pediatric cancer, thanks to funding by the Children’s Leukaemia & Cancer Research Foundation (Inc.).

Dr Mark Cruickshank, who leads the Cancer Genomics and Epigenetics team, said it has been a long road to reach the pointy end of years of research and is excited to be on the verge of cracking the cancer code for kids. “This is one project where we have no idea what causes leukaemia in infants and that’s a really big focus of mine at present, because I’m very close to finding what we think are the answers to that conundrum,” Dr Cruickshank said. “It has taken more than four years to reach this stage, by studying the gene sequencing mutations in cells. This in turn has now escalated the drug therapy studies that are built on that gene research.”

Dr Cruickshank revealed that the research team has been analysing data from cancer cells of infants to identify mutations that are not present in patients’ healthy cells. As infants are ‘brand new’ to life they have had little time for their cells to mutate outside the womb, so there is something genetic causing them to have cancer. “We’ve found some extremely exciting signals from the data, statistical signals, and now we need to test these out in the laboratory. This could be a huge advancement and it could open up a lot of different avenues, for example we could look at cohorts of patients to see if a mutation is associated with treatment outcomes,” he said.

The genetic research and understanding has been crucial to take the team to this next stage as the make-up of the leukaemia affects whether the treatments will work or not. Having a genetic understanding can cut out the guessing games so patients can receive doses of drugs that are effective and also minimise the side effects to their bodies. “We already know some drugs fail in some patients and we think this is due to the genetics,” Dr Cruickshank said.

 While researchers may have found the causes of the diseases, the next step is to develop the best treatment protocols to deliver to patients and their families.

“I don’t really think that gaining short amounts of extensions of life is where we need to end up, we really need to cure these diseases. I want to reach a point where the therapies aren’t putting the families through a year’s worth of pain and then a lifetime of uncertainty,” he said.

“I believe in finding absolute cures – and that is the goal of the research, to do that we need help. To accelerate the research we need to be able to test the drugs in all different ways and we need the best technologies. We have the capacity to do this, but it takes money to do it.”

If you would like to contribute support to Dr Cruickshank and his team’s research to help make a difference you can donate to CLCRF or contact the Foundation via email or phone +61 8 9363 7400 for further information.

Read a recent paper on infant leukaemia cell lines and drug screening published in Volume 31 of Leukemia Journal by Dr Mark Cruickshank