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Hope for New Zealand kids battling cancer

22 May 2018

Milestone research initiative brings hope for New Zealand kids battling cancer

An innovative child cancer clinical trial launches today which aims to use a state-of-the-art genetic test to improve outcomes and quality of life for New Zealand children with difficult-to-treat and relapsed forms of cancer.

The Precision Paediatric Cancer Project (PPCP), will use a genetic test called Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) to identify gene mutations in the cancers of eligible children and adolescents. A team of researchers around the country, led by paediatric haematologist-oncologist Dr Andy Wood from the University of Auckland, hope to find better ways to match specific cancer mutations to specific medicines known as ‘targeted therapies’.

This is a New Zealand-first clinical trial which will be available to all eligible child cancer patients, no matter where they live in New Zealand.

In an unprecedented funding collaboration, Cure Kids and Child Cancer Foundation have jointly committed $1.25 million to the PPCP.

“The Precision Paediatric Cancer Project is an important step towards personalised treatment, better outcomes and improved child cancer survival rates in New Zealand,” says Robyn Kiddle, Chief Executive, Child Cancer Foundation. “We are excited to be working in partnership with Cure Kids and the research team on a project that will have a real-life impact for children and families nationwide. Together, we’ll be able to make a difference by working towards a shared goal.

The PPCP funding collaboration will be officially announced this morning at the University of Auckland. The five-year project will build advanced clinical capacity in New Zealand to allow new targeted treatment options to be identified in children aged 0-18 years, where standard treatment options are ineffective.

Following the initial development of the NGS test, the clinical trial will be offered at both of New Zealand’s specialist paediatric cancer centres; Starship Blood and Cancer Centre in Auckland, and the Children's Haematology and Oncology Centre in Christchurch. The project aims to offer therapies that are ‘more gentle’, explains Dr Wood, who worked at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one of the world’s leading child cancer hospitals prior to returning to New Zealand to work on this research.

“Cancer treatments often injure healthy cells while attempting to kill off cancerous ones. Short term and life-long side effects may result, including infertility, heart problems and second cancers. Targeted therapies aim to minimise such risks and improve quality of life,” he says.

The NGS test is not expected to change treatment recommendations for the majority of the clinical trial participants. However, even when test results do not change treatment, testing can sometimes identify mutations associated with an increased risk of cancer. If heritable cancer predisposition mutations are discovered, other family members may consider screening to enable earlier detection and treatment.

“Precision medicine is an important part of the future of patient care and will mean doctors can get the right treatments to the right patients at the right time,” says Cure Kids CEO Frances Benge. “It also takes the pressure off the health system as funds and resources will be aligned with treatments that, in many cases, are more likely to be effective than current standard care. This research is a critical step towards realising these benefits for New Zealand child cancer patients.”

The PPCP is the result of both charities working with child cancer researchers and clinicians over several months to identify a nationally significant research project that could contribute to ongoing improvements in child cancer survival rates. Childhood cancer is the second biggest killer of New Zealand children after accidental death, with an average of three children diagnosed with some form of cancer each week.

“If in the coming years, the body of evidence internationally demonstrates that more comprehensive genetic testing and personalised drug screening improves outcomes, then the progress made as a result of the PPCP will position us to rapidly implement more advanced testing protocols across the country,” says Dr Wood.

Both charities have each committed $625,000 to the PPCP and are thrilled to see a more comprehensive approach to precision medicine being made available here in New Zealand.

“The science of precision medicine for child cancer is already used overseas, with New Zealand lacking a co-ordinated pathway to implement similar approaches here. Now, Kiwi children with cancer – anywhere in the country – will have improved access to a national trial on their home turf,” says Benge.

The PPCP has capacity to enrol around 25 child cancer patients per year for four years, with a maximum capacity of 120 patients. The genetic test will be developed over the coming 18 months and eligible patients will be able to enrol in the study once the study opens to patients. Families wanting more information are advised to speak to their paediatric haematologist or oncologist.

“We approached the New Zealand paediatric oncology research community because we wanted to know strategically what research would have the most impact for Kiwi kids with cancer. We chose the PPCP because it is translational research, and we’re confident it will make a difference and provide insights that will benefit future generations,” adds Kiddle.


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