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Personalised cancer treatment for Australian children improves survival prospects, study shows

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At just four weeks old, Scout underwent surgery to remove a brain tumour.
Her parents Edwina and Sean Bradstreet say at times, it’s been challenging to remain optimistic, as their daughter underwent further treatments.
EDWINA: “I was always a very positive, like: oh it’ll be fine, it’ll just be this or it’ll just be that. And then the brain tumour was like oh God where do I find the positivity here?”
SEAN: “I think we tried every step of the way to look on the positive side of things to keep ourselves motivated. But Scout even from that age, like after her first surgery, she came out and the first thing she did was smile at us. And every time she’s gone in, or had anything done, the first thing she does is she comes out and gives us a little smile. So, I think she’s kept us going through most of it.”
Scout is one of more than a thousand children diagnosed cancer in Australia each year.
Previously, treatment was given to target the type of cancer, but now scientists have found a more effective method.
By analysing the genes within the patient’s cancer cells, known as precision medicine or personalised medicine, researchers have been able to find changes which make the cancer more responsive to different treatments.
Professor David Ziegler is the study’s author. He says it’s the result of almost 10 years of work.
“What happens is we find a genetic change, which may be unique, and may not be usually seen in that cancer. It might be a genetic change that we see in adults with melanoma, or adults with breast cancer, and not one that we normally see in children’s cancer. But we will then access the drug that’s usually used to treat adult melanoma patients; and instead use that to treat this child with cancer.”
Sean Bradstreet says for his daughter Scout, the drug used was developed from treatment used to treat adult lung cancer.
“They grew her tumour in the lab and it melted the tumour in the lab. So he’s like, if it works there it will work on her. So we started giving her the medication. And, the first scan was two months later and it showed t reduced the tumour by 30 per cent and ever since it’s been stable. Stable has been our favourite word at the minute, so that’s all we want to see.”
A number of the 384 children in the program had aggressive cancers that had not responded to standard treatment, such as chemotherapy.
Observed over three years, 55 per cent of the children in the group achieved complete or partial remission.
Professor Ziegler says after two years, researchers saw survival rates double.
“This has really changed how we interact with patients and parents – just over the last few years. Even just a few years ago, we may not have had any hope – or any other treatments to offer, to a place where we can now do this testing, we can find new treatments and we can offer these patients hope where previously we had none.”
The first tumour researchers looked at in 2015 took one year to analyse.
Now, they’re able to get comprehensive results back to clinicians in less than four weeks, meaning faster treatment and better outcomes for young patients.

The findings have been published in the journal Nature Medicine – and will be shared with clinicians worldwide to expand the benefits of this homegrown research.