It’s an exciting time to be studying cures for cancer. New technology like cutting-edge immunotherapy treatments are opening doors to fight the disease, and the outlook for patients today is much better than it was even ten years ago.
But these cancer treatments might leave one group behind: Children. Cancer is the deadliest disease among kids in the U.S., but many of the advances in cancer being studied today are aimed at cancer in adults, not kids.
Seattle Children’s Hospital and Research Institution is hoping to flip that script with a huge research effort dedicated to creating and developing treatments that are purposefully designed to treat kids. It’s all part of the organization’s new $1 billion fundraising campaign, It Starts With Yes.
Children’s CEO Jeff Sperring told GeekWire that the industry often overlooks treatments for young patients or adapts them from existing treatments aimed at adults.
“Traditionally, what has always happened is that therapies come out for adults and then at some point we have to see if those will work for kids,” Sperring said.
“We didn’t want kids to have to wait in line for clinical trials, or for products that may come out by other corporations that are really going to be more focused on adults. So we felt like we had to take the lead and say, ‘We’re going to be the ones that are building the pipeline of clinical trials specifically for kids,'” he said.
The new campaign includes plans to build a research center near downtown Seattle that will focus on creating new immunotherapy treatments for children with cancer and other diseases, letting the organization run more clinical trials on the treatments it is developing.
Sperring also pointed out that retrofitting adult immunotherapy treatments for kids can cause unique problems.
Immunotherapies use the body’s immune system to fight cancer. They rely heavily on an understanding of the genetics around cancer and how the body’s immune system works.
“The genetics of pediatric cancers are different than adults. Their immune systems and all of their other systems are different — typically they’re healthier which is both good and, sometimes, can be an issue,” Sperring said.
That’s why developing immunotherapies designed specifically for pediatric cancer is so important. Seattle Children’s has already developed several immunotherapy treatments, most of which are CAR T immunotherapies that genetically reprogram immune cells to fight cancer.
One of those is now the flagship treatment of Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics, one of the top CAR T biotech companies in the country, where it is being studied and fine-tuned as a treatment for adult leukemia.
Other treatments are still being studied and further developed at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. The Institute announced a new clinical trial Wednesday, which will study a kind of immunotherapy that may prevent patients’ cancer from returning.
Of course, Seattle Children’s isn’t alone in working on pediatric immunotherapies: A treatment for children with leukemia made history in August when it became the first CAR T immunotherapy to be approved by the FDA. That treatment, called Kymriah, was developed by multinational biotech company Novartis.
In studies, more than 80 percent of children who took Kymirah went into remission, with no sign of cancer remaining. Some treatments being studied at Children’s have seen remission rates higher than 90 percent in early testing.
Sperring has big aspirations for Children’s research into pediatric cancer cures, as well as other childhood diseases.
“We would like to be the place that has discovered the cure for pediatric leukemia and other cancers. We’d love to be the place that has unlocked a significant number of new therapies for pediatric neurological and neurosciences issues,” he said.
The campaign is also working to improve children’s health in other ways.
“Our other big focus of this campaign is around community health and how we can help kids in the community stay healthy,” Sperring said. “Our mission is hope, care and cures, and this idea that we want every kid to live their healthiest and most fulfilling life possible.”
Connection to the community is an important element of Children’s work, he said. The hospital is something of a mainstay in Seattle, and is well-known to many because of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who visits the hospital weekly to meet with patients.
— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) November 16, 2017
Wilson gave a Twitter shout-out to Children’s It Starts With Yes campaign this week, and said his Why Not You Foundation is taking part.
“Seattle Children’s has been here for 110 years only because we’ve got such an incredible community that has always supported our work, that’s always been dedicated to doing the right thing for kids,” Sperring said. “The investment to build [research] facilities, to run clinical trials, is so significant. The community, people like Russell — that’s what’s made it possible.”