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Professor Ursula Kees’ Farewell Letter

Dear Foundation Supporter,

I have dedicated 34 years of my life to studying infant cancer at the Children’s Leukaemia & Cancer Research Laboratory.

With a grateful heart, I say thank you to the Foundation and its supporters for bringing me from Switzerland to Perth and giving me the chance to lead the Laboratory. It is with some sadness, that I announce that I have come to the end of my time as one of the founding scientists of the Children’s Leukaemia & Cancer Research Foundation (Inc.) (CLCRF) Laboratory.

During these 34 years, I have been struck by one word to describe the effects of infant cancer: AGGRESSIVE. Cancer in children is not the same as adult cancer. An adult cancer patient will experience five to 30 years of life lost due to cancer and its treatment. A child who is under 12 months of age is likely to lose 67 years of life through cancer and its treatments.

Sadly, one in 500 Australian children will develop cancer before age 15. Childhood cancer is still the leading cause of death from disease for Australian children.

Our Laboratory team has contributed to a world-wide effort to find better therapies for our young cancer patients – with great outcomes. In the mid-eighties, many patients did not survive. Today, successful therapies are available for the majority of our young cancer patients.

Here is a big BUT. Some of our patients initially respond to the therapy they are given, but soon the disease is back. This is devastating for the patient, the parents and siblings, for the doctors and nurses and for the researchers. My desire to help children survive through this terrible disease has driven me and my team these 34 years. We search for answers to fight childhood cancer in the Laboratory to bring better therapies to the patient.

For each patient, a treatment plan is worked out. The length of therapy may be a few months or up to three years. A patient may receive one form of treatment or a combination, depending on what researchers have found to be the most effective in destroying the patient’s particular type of cancer cells.

The most common types of treatment are chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. I started in the CLCRF Laboratory in 1984, at a time when a new treatment was talked about, called ‘bone marrow transplantation’. Dr Michael Willoughby, the specialist who diagnosed and treated childhood cancer patients at the children’s hospital, was a pioneer of this treatment. In what turned out to be a great collaboration, our Laboratory team was able to contribute to the Bone Marrow Transplantation Program at Princess Margaret Hospital. Many lives have been saved through this Program.

Some patients receive chemotherapy over three years – a very long time. For the first few weeks they are in hospital and afterwards they have to come to the children’s hospital for treatment – many times over three years.

They are given up to 12 different drugs that destroy the cancer cells. However, these very potent drugs can also cause damage to the patient’s healthy cells. These effects are short-term and long-term, because they cause harm to the growing bodies of the young patients.

Long-term effects of the treatment can be heart damage, second cancers, lung damage, infertility, cognitive issues, hearing losses and much more. Two-thirds of those who survive must face at least one chronic health condition for the rest of their lives. So, our key goal in the CLCRF Laboratory is to find therapies that have none of these long-term effects.

Leukaemia is a cancer of the blood. The leukaemia cells multiply uncontrollably, such that they crowd out the healthy blood cells. Leukaemia is the most common cancer in children. In a world-wide research effort, we helped to develop treatment protocols for leukaemia patients. They are very successful – today more than 85% of patients survive.

Sadly, this is not the case for babies who are diagnosed with leukaemia. Less than 40% survive. Our Laboratory team has focused on these very young patients, to find out why they do not respond to the drugs as well as older children do. What is the difference?

We found that the ‘mistakes’ or mutations that turn a healthy blood cell into a baby’s leukaemia cells are different from those in older children.

We managed to grow leukaemia cells from babies in the Laboratory, which was only possible because Jette Ford from our team has the skills to keep the leukaemia cells alive, such that they multiply – and we have a cell line.

Without these unique cell lines, our research to find better therapies could not have happened. The cell lines are absolutely critical to make a change for our youngest leukaemia patients. We screened many drugs that have come to market, and we found some that can destroy the leukaemia cells from the babies. Not only that, we also found out that these drugs work very well in combination. Best of all, these new drug combinations have fewer side effects.

It’s a matter of life and death.

By giving to the CLCRF you can help to improve the survival rate of children with cancer and better their response to treatment.

I am proud to say that our CLCRF Laboratory has attracted worldwide attention with our research into infant cancer. In Perth, our Laboratory boasts cell lines for testing that have been used across the world so that we can develop the best drug combinations to treat childhood cancer.

The CLCRF Laboratory is not government funded. Only one per cent of government funding is given to children’s cancer research. That is why your help is vital in the search for better treatment for children with cancer.

We rely on you to continue the dream of improving the lives of children with cancer. You can do this by investing in the legacy of research that we started.

 There are still many drug combinations that our laboratory aims to test to better the lives of children with cancer. This testing is vital so that we can see more children survive, but we cannot do this without your help. Your money goes towards increasing their chances of survival and enhancing their lives.

In order for the Laboratory to continue with this life-changing research, we need your help. So please dig deep and give generously to the CLCRF.

To demonstrate my belief in this key research that the CLCRF Laboratory is leading, I will continue to be a board member of the CLCRF.

You’ve been so generous in the past, we are very thankful. The wonderful team of researchers that I have lead for 34 years is working around the clock to find the answers to make children’s lives better. But time is running out, so make a donation now to the Children’s Leukaemia & Cancer Research Foundation (Inc.) to help these little ones who suffer so greatly.

Yours sincerely,

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 Professor Ursula Kees