Childhood cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease among young Americans. September marks Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, a time to highlight efforts to reduce the disease’s toll on children. At St. Jude, the past year has brought advances in understanding and treating childhood cancer, particularly in the areas of genomics and survivorship.
“One child dying of cancer is one too many and the need to find better treatments is as critical as ever,” said William E. Evans, MD, St. Jude Director and CEO. “As we learn more and more about the genetic causes of pediatric cancer through genomic research, treating these cancers becomes more complex and challenging.”
Pediatric Cancer Genome Project
Genomic studies have shown researchers that diseases previously thought to be single entities actually include multiple subtypes that often don’t respond to standard treatment. The challenge now is determining the genetic missteps that cause these cancers and finding existing drugs or developing new drugs for targeted treatment.
A number of significant discoveries related to these efforts have been made through the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project, a collaboration between St. Jude and Washington University to map the complete normal and cancer genomes of 700 young patients. This effort to understand what drives some of the most aggressive childhood cancers is the largest project of its type. When project data was made available in May 2012, it marked the largest-ever release of comprehensive human cancer genome data for free access by the global scientific community. The amount of information shared more than doubled the volume of high-coverage, whole-genome data available from all human genome sources combined.
“The sequence data represent billions of clues, and the real detective work for researchers is figuring out what they mean for the bigger picture,” Dr. Evans said. “Ultimately, this information provides the foundation for the clinical trials that lead to more effective therapies.”
Pediatric Cancer Genome Project discoveries during the past year include identifying missteps in two genes responsible for more than 50% of diffuse low-grade gliomas.
Late Effects an Issue
Today’s cancer researchers also have to be concerned with enhancing the quality of life for children when treatment ends. “With more childhood cancer patients surviving into adulthood, there is a growing need to study the late health effects of live-saving treatments,” Dr. Evans said. ■