Novel therapies offer new hope for children with cancer
[4 MIN READ / 10 MIN LISTEN]
In this article:
Cutting-edge cancer treatments, including CAR T-cell therapy and other immunotherapies can give children a fighting chance in the battle against cancer.
As a research site for the Children’s Oncology Group, our patients can participate in national research studies and receive experimental therapies for difficult-to-treat cancers.
Providence pediatric cancer specialist Ross Goshorn, MD, talks about some of the therapies giving kids a chance to overcome cancer and live full, active lives.
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, parents and family members can’t help but panic and fear the worst. But as the news sinks in and the care team gathers around to provide support, they learn something surprising: researchers are finding new, more effective therapies that can cure many types of childhood cancer with fewer side effects. Many of these therapies are available at Providence. This article highlights one Providence location, Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital, and how their participation in national research studies is improving care for our patients.
We recently spoke with Ross Goshorn, MD, a pediatric oncologist at Providence, about these new therapies and the hope they offer to children and their families. Here are excerpts from that interview. You can listen to the full conversation on the Let’s Finish Cancer podcast.
Revisit the first article in our childhood cancer series, “What happens after your child is diagnosed with cancer?”
Pediatric cancer care has come a long way in the last 70 years. Why is that?
Dr. Goshorn: Back in the 1950s, less than 10% of children with cancer were cured. Today, 84% of children with cancer survive five years or more. The reason for this huge increase is pediatric cancer research.
Decades ago, cancer researchers studied the disease in adults only. But they realized that children are not just small adults—cancer and cancer treatment affect them differently. So in 1955, the U.S. government established pediatric cancer research consortiums. These consortiums began the work of finding safer, more effective treatments for children. In 2000, the National Cancer Institute merged several of these research consortiums to establish the Children’s Oncology Group (COG).
Today, COG is the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to childhood and adolescent cancer research. COG unites more than 10,000 experts in childhood cancer and has nearly 100 clinical trials open at any given time. Providence Sacred Heart is an active member of COG, which means we can offer our patients many experimental therapies that are not widely available. Families travel to Providence Sacred Heart from all over Washington and many other states seeking advanced cancer care.
Talk about some of the exciting new therapies that are making an impact in pediatric cancer care.
Dr. Goshorn: Until recently, cancer treatment options included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Researchers are still making discoveries about how to use these treatments more effectively. But where we see rapid progress in both adult and pediatric cancer care is in immunotherapy. This class of treatments harnesses the power of a person’s immune system to help identify and kill cancer cells. We can use these therapies alone or with other cancer treatments, such as chemo. Some immunotherapies are already approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and others are only available through clinical trials at select hospitals like Providence Sacred Heart.
What are some examples of immunotherapy?
Dr. Goshorn: Pediatric cancer specialists like me are really excited about chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, or CAR T-cell therapy. This type of immunotherapy uses the body’s T-cells to detect and kill cancer cells.
Everyone has T-cells, which are an amazing type of immune cell—I call them wicked ninjas. When T-cells are working correctly, they recognize unique antigens that live in cancer cells. Then, they attack the cancer cells and kill them. People get cancer when their T-cells miss the antigens and fail to kill the cancer cells when they have the chance.
CAR T-cell therapy is an FDA-approved treatment that involves removing T-cells from a child’s body, programming them to recognize the antigens and returning them to the body to do their ninja work. We use this therapy for certain types of blood cancer, and it can be very effective without the toxic side effects of chemotherapy. Sometimes, reprogrammed T-cells continue fighting cancer cells for years. Now, cancer centers are using CAR T-cell therapy as a front-line treatment for children and adults with very high-risk cancers. In addition, researchers are testing CAR T-cell therapy to see if it will treat other kinds of cancer, too.
We also are using an immune therapy called checkpoint inhibitors. These are proteins we can make in the lab and inject into the body. They force T-cells against the surface of cancer cells to say, “Hey, you missed these.” This alerts the T-cells to do their job and kill the cancer. When these drugs work, it’s nothing short of a miracle. One day the cancer is out of control, and then on the next imaging scan, the cancer is gone. It makes your jaw drop to the ground! At Providence Sacred Heart, we’ve used this therapy on at least two patients, and they had a dramatic response.
How do you find time to learn about emerging cancer therapies?
Dr. Goshorn: So much is happening in pediatric cancer care that keeping current is a real challenge. My colleagues and I are perpetual learners—we are always reading up on emerging therapies and interacting with experts from all over the country who are making discoveries that have the potential to save lives. It’s exciting to bring new medicines and technologies to the children we serve here at Providence Sacred Heart. These therapies are changing the trajectory for some children in such a dramatic way that it’s impossible not to be excited about it.
Find pediatric cancer care
When your child has cancer or a blood disorder, you want the best care possible for your child. At Providence, our pediatric oncology and hematology specialists are here for every aspect of your child’s care. If you need to find a specialist or pediatrician for your child, you can use our provider directory.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.