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Boost For Child Cancer Research

Boost For Child Cancer Research

The Child Cancer Research Group at the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences has been given a big boost to its research effort after receiving a significant grant from the Child Cancer Foundation.

Director and Paediatric Oncologist, Dr Michael Sullivan, has welcomed the $357,000 grant over three years, which will allow the University of Otago researchers to continue their investigations into improving treatment for childhood cancers.

“Research funding is always a struggle, so we’re really delighted to receive this generous grant which will pay for key salaries and overheads for the next three years,” says Dr Sullivan.

“It’s very important to understand that the progress in curing childhood cancers over the last two decades is because of one main factor; medical research. It is absolutely true in our area that research saves lives.”

Dr Sullivan drives the point home when he mentions that survival from childhood cancers is now between 70 and 80%, much better than in adults. In 1981 when he entered medical school it was about 30%. The main reason for this impressive improvement has been the development of research-based international clinical trials for children with cancer.

“What we were using ten years ago is now considered out-of-date. At times the change and improvement is phenomenal, even to someone like me working in the area. However, these are not instant results, good research always takes time.”

Although it is the main team in the country for child cancer research, the Group is not large, consisting of scientists Dr Tracy Hale, Dr Dejan Arsic, Rachel Purcell, Tim Prickett and Jonathan Panckhurst. It is also supported by the clinical team in the Children’s Haematology Oncology Centre at Christchurch Hospital.

There are several research projects underway investigating different approaches to improving treatment for childhood cancers, and the main thrust of the new grant from the Child Cancer Foundation is for work on neuroblastoma. This is a solid cancer tumour, typically developing in young children in the abdomen, that may be relatively benign, or extremely aggressive and difficult to treat.

“Our research will continue to examine the genetic changes in neuroblastoma tumour cells to help predict how aggressive the cancer is going to be. We’re extremely interested in trying to work out which cancer cells are vulnerable to chemotherapy, and which are not, so we can target treatment, and make it more effective.”

Dr Sullivan says over the years the combination of chemotherapy, support for children, better use of radiotherapy and surgery have all made a big difference to survival, in association with rigorous research. Another key factor is the development of specialist child cancer units.

The other project Dr Sullivan is leading, on top of an extremely busy workload at Christchurch Hospital, is a national late effects programme for all children who have had cancer. The aim is to follow the long term effects, both medical and psychological, over the next decade. The $1.2million dollar project is due to be officially launched in late June.


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