Million-dollar boost for search for children’s cancer treatments
A University of Dundee researcher will benefit from a new million-dollar international award to help find more effective treatments with fewer side effects for Ewing’s sarcoma – a rare type of cancer that mainly affects children and young people.
Professor Kevin Hiom, from the University’s School of Medicine, will jointly lead a transatlantic team of scientists awarded a Stand Up To Cancer-Cancer Research UK Paediatric Cancer New Discoveries Challenge award of almost $1million, approximately £770,000 in sterling.
The awards are a collaboration between Stand Up To Cancer in the US and Cancer Research UK’s own Stand Up To Cancer initiative to accelerate the development of new treatments for some of the rarest and hardest-to-treat cancers in children and young people.
Ewing’s sarcoma affects the bones or the soft tissue around them. If caught early, most patients can be treated successfully, but the side effects of the chemotherapies can continue to impact young people for the rest of their lives. Sadly, for some patients with Ewing’s sarcoma, particularly if the disease has spread, their cancer doesn’t respond to the current treatments.
Professor Hiom welcomed the award, saying, “It is an ambitious goal, but we hope this research could lead to new treatments for Ewing’s sarcoma that aren’t as tough on young people as the ones we use now, and maybe new treatments that could help more young people to survive this rare cancer in the future.
“The award is also proud recognition of Dundee’s reputation as a world leader in biomedical research, one that offers unique opportunities. We’re proud to have been awarded this funding from Stand Up To Cancer and Cancer Research UK, and we’re looking forward to bringing our expertise to a global team to help more young people across the world with this devastating disease.”
The team of scientists from Dundee, the University of Texas in San Antonio, and the City of Hope Cancer Center in Los Angeles will look to build on recent discoveries they have made about how Ewing’s sarcoma affects the cellular machinery in the body to develop new treatments that could help more children and young people survive the disease with a better quality of life.
Professor Hiom explained, “Our studies have shown that the genetic malfunction that leads to Ewing’s sarcoma drives cells to start decoding their DNA much more rapidly. This causes ‘knots’ to form in the DNA, which puts the cells under stress and gets in the way of the cell functioning normally, so it becomes a cancer cell.
“Our research is focused on these DNA ‘knots’. We want to see if we can find a way to make the cancer cells form more of these ‘knots’, to put the cells under so much stress that they die. Our hope is that this approach could result in more effective treatments with fewer side effects, by targeting this particular part of the cell machinery, rather than the whole cell, which is how the conventional treatments for this disease work.”
The funding has been welcomed by the family of Grace Newton, of Falkirk, who was just five when diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma on February 21 2014. Following her diagnosis, Grace’s parents, Janet and Mark, waited anxiously as she endured a 10-hour operation to remove a tumour that was discovered in her right arm. Grace completed her 14th and final cycle of chemotherapy in 2016 after 118 doses of drugs and more than 40 blood and platelet transfusions.
Now a 12-year-old high school pupil, Grace has her heart set on a career in nursing so she can help other people going through cancer.
“We definitely welcome new research and hope it will lead to less harsh treatments for youngsters diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma,” said Janet. “Even now Grace’s immunity is lower than other people of her age and she still gets pain in her arm and shoulder.
“As well as the physical changes to the body that cancer treatment can bring, there are also mental wellbeing side effects. It would be great to see in the future better treatments which are not only life-saving but are gentler too.
“We had a fantastic medical team and were so grateful for the treatment that saved Grace’s life. Grace’s main tumour was removed and she had a 98% response to chemotherapy which was considered excellent. Grace has three small tumours remaining on her lungs. Doctors keep a close eye on them, but they’re considered stable and inactive.
“But the treatment was challenging and pushed things to the limit. It wasn’t just the side effects that people expect, like her hair falling out. At one point, Grace’s kidney function was so low doctors told us they were almost non-functioning. We were lucky that as Grace got better, her body recovered. It was a delicate balancing act for doctors to get rid of the cancer but keep Grace’s body working well.”
Stand Up To Cancer in the UK is a joint national fundraising initiative from Cancer Research UK and Channel 4. This Friday, October 23, will see special editions of Celebrity Gogglebox and The Last Leg broadcast to raise awareness of the cause.
Dr Victoria Steven, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for Scotland, said, “This funding award is fantastic recognition of the world-leading research that’s taking place in Dundee which will help shape a better future for children and young people, like Grace, affected by Ewing’s sarcoma.
“Every hour, around four people are diagnosed with cancer in Scotland. So, we’re working every day to get new cancer tests and treatments to people who need them the most. Cancer doesn’t stop in the face of a pandemic. It can affect anyone’s life, at any time so we only have one option: accelerate life-saving research.
“That’s why now is the time to Stand Up To Cancer. This October, we’re asking people across Scotland to donate or fundraise in any way they can, so we can keep funding incredible scientists like Dr Hiom and his team and help save more lives.”
To get involved, please visit su2c.org.uk