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A study conducted by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, with contributions from researchers across North America, has found stark differences between children and adults with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a common kind of cancer that has increased slightly among children.

Researchers said the results point to significant concerns when it comes to giving children treatments that were developed for older people, and also called for more age-tailored treatments for young people with AML. The study may also have implications for the development of cutting-edge immunotherapies, the current frontier of cancer research.

Researchers studied the full genetic makeup of cancer cells from patients of all ages to discover the differences. The data came from the TARGET AML project and was compared with the Cancer Genome Atlas, a project hosted at Fred Hutch.

Dr. Soheil Meshinchi, who contributed to the study, says it will change how we think about treating children with cancer. (Fred Hutch Photo)

The study revealed that certain genetic mutations and other molecular markers that are common in adult patients are rare or nonexistent in younger patients. Those markers are being studied as potential targets for cancer treatments, but the research shows those treatments likely wouldn’t work for young patients.

Dr. Soheil Meshinchi, a researcher at Fred Hutch and a physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital who led the study, said the differences will have an impact on how doctors and researchers think about treating children with the disease.

“The whole idea of ‘trickle-down therapeutics’ — where you identify drugs in 60- or 70-year-olds and eventually this will help the 25-, 35-year-olds — this really does not hold true because those [targetable mutations] that are prevalent in older adults are either nonexistent or very rare in the younger population,” Meshinchi said in an emailed statement.

Seattle Children’s Research Institution is among several organizations already developing cancer treatments specific to children, notably immunotherapies. Those treatments reprogram the body’s immune system to fight cancer and rely on specific molecular structures in cancer cells to work.

The organization launched a $1 billion campaign in November, half of which will go toward building out its research capacity. Seattle Children’s CEO Jeff Sperring told GeekWire in a previous interview that the organization is focused on putting children front and center in the search for new treatments.

“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,” Sperring said. “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.'”

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