New Research in Treating Childhood Cancer

submitted by Rich Leffler; photo by Mary Ellen O’Brien

Ken DeSantes 2 28 2018

Ken Desantes pictured here with Club President Donna Hurd

Dr. Ken DeSantes presented us with a hopeful account about the modern treatments for a dreadful, heartbreaking disease: childhood leukemia. Dr. DeSantes is Clinical Director of the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology program, and Director of the Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant program, at the American Family Children’s Hospital. So he knows of what he speaks.

Childhood cancer is not common, but even so, it is the leading cause of death for children and adolescents. Dramatic progress in treatment has been made in the last 70 years in treatment. In 1947 doctors (were they called oncologists then?) began to use a single drug that delayed the progress of Acute Lymphoblasic Leukemia. About 10 percent were cured. Today, using more sophisticated treatments, the figure is 80 to 85 percent. Yet that still leaves 15 to 20 percent who die. Current chemo treatment is rough and sometimes toxic and can take several years. Now, researchers at the AFCH, like Dr. DeSantes and Dr. Paul Sondel, are attacking leukemia with immunotherapy, which uses the body’s own T-Cells to kill cancer cells. They are using truly incredible, sci-fi techniques like inserting specialized DNA into cells that will enable T-Cells to overcome the cancer cells’ defenses. They can create an army of T-Cells that can kill leukemia cells. This “CAR Therapy” has now been approved to treat not just relapsed cancers, but newly diagnosed cases.

Another cancer, Neuroblastoma, has a bad prognosis. But a new technique that combines a genetically redesigned antibody with the body’s natural killer cells has shown a 20 percent better result than standard treatments. This MIBG therapy, which allows radiation to be taken up only by cancer cells, is still not curative, but work is being done by Dr. Sondel to improve the effectiveness of the treatment: a combination of immuno- and radiation therapy. Clinical trials are going on here.

Other cancers are being attacked using Haploid, half-matched stem-cell transplants. Techniques allow removing T-Cells that attack the transplants, leaving only the T-Cells that attack the cancer. In one recent Neuroblastoma case, a boy aged 6 was treated successfully, only to have the cancer return at age 11. Relapsed cancer cases are bad. But using the Haploid treatment, this boy has been in complete remission for two years.

In answer to a question, Dr. DeSantes noted that a very important amount of their funding for research came from relatively small gifts. And one questioner violated Club policy by making a statement: the staff members at Ronald McDonald House consider Dr. DeSantes and Dr. Sondel to be heroes. True enough.

If you missed our meeting this week, you can watch the video here.

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