Zayed Institute’s child cancer hope
Researchers at a UAE-funded medical research centre have made a major breakthrough in finding a cure for a common childhood cancer.
Doctors at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Paediatric Surgical Innovation in Washington have discovered a method to cure neuroblastoma tumours in mice.
Researchers estimate the vaccine is about five years away from human use but they hope it will one day significantly improve cure rates for neuroblastoma – and even other tumours.
Neuroblastoma are the most common types of cancer in infants under a year old, and third most common in children under 10, with about 35 to 40 cases reported in the UAE each year.
Dr Anthony Sandler, principal investigator at the Sheikh Zayed Institute – part of the Children’s National Medical Centre – hoped the finding would have further implications for treatment.
“This discovery is important not just for the treatment of neuroblastoma,” Dr Sandler said. “It may have wider applications for other tumours.”
The technique uses immunotherapy, which boosts the immune system’s ability to fight the tumour without the toxic effects of chemo and radiation therapy.
The research team “harnessed this immune activation by combining it with a vaccine made of the tumour to enable the immune system to attack and kill the cancer”, said Dr Sandler.
In 2009, Abu Dhabi launched the innovations institute with a grant of US$150 million, or more than Dh500m. “Our partnership with the Government of Abu Dhabi is helping us reach new heights in the field of paediatric innovation,” said Peter Kim, vice president of the institute.
“This research is an embodiment of how together, we can continue to harness the power of innovation to help children in the United States, the UAE and around the world.”
Dr Sandler said the work had improved scientific understanding of “how cancer cells change their behaviour and activate the immune system”.
“If or when a treatment does become available, we would hope that it would be made available in the UAE,” he said.
The next step for the researchers is to adapt the vaccine to other types of tumour.
Dr Sandler said some tumours were “unfortunately not curable despite chemotherapy therapy, radiation therapy, bone marrow transplant and surgery”.
Dr Muhammad Khanani, chief of paediatric haemotology and oncology at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, heralded the breakthrough, saying immunotherapy was “the future of oncology, not just for paediatrics but also other branches”.
“This is something oncologists have been waiting for.”
When neuroblastoma tumours are in stage four, where they have spread to other parts of the body, only 15 to 20 per cent cases can be cured, said the doctor.
He said in cancer for adults, immunotherapy has already passed through the second stage of clinical trials, in which the results are compared with another treatment already in use.
Dr Khanani believed the treatments would eventually improve five-year cancer survival rates “as immunotherapy would use one’s body to knock out the cancer gene”.
Updated: September 2, 2015 04:00 AM