Your doctor may tell you about some of these new treatments that are helping kids fight cancer:
Targeted therapy. Unlike chemotherapy, which destroys cancer cells and many healthy cells, targeted drugs shut off a specific feature of the cancer that helps it grow and spread while leaving healthy cells alone. This could be a gene change or a protein that doctors find on the tumor. Because these types of drugs don’t destroy healthy cells, they can have fewer side effects.
Targeted medications known as tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) have made a big impact on childhood chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).
“TKIs may turn CML, for which the only real cure was bone marrow transplant, into a disease that you can live with a very long time by just taking a pill a day,” Shaw says.
This same type of drug is helping kids with ALL who have a rare defect in their genes called a Philadelphia chromosome. “Before, these kids had maybe a 30% to 40% chance of being cured at best, but when we add the drug that specifically targets that mutation that number jumps up into the 70s or 80s, even. That’s a big deal,” says Stephen Sallan, MD, a pediatric oncologist at Boston Children’s Hospital/Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
CAR T-cell therapy. When your child has cancer, his immune system — the body’s defense against germs — doesn’t automatically fight the disease. But researchers are exploring a method called CAR T-cell therapy to trigger that.
In a child whose ALL comes back after treatment, researchers collect T-cells, a type of immune system cell, and re-engineer them to recognize leukemia. When doctors inject the cells back into the child, the T-cells see the leukemia as a threat and fight it just as they would infections.
Researchers are seeing good results in clinical trials. “It’s curing some kids that were not readily curable before,” Sallan says.
For now, CAR T-cell therapy only works in children with relapsed ALL. Researchers are trying it out in other cancers, “but it has yet to prove its mettle,” Sallan says.
Therapeutic vaccines. These might also trigger the immune system to fight cancer. Unlike preventive vaccines that keep you from getting sick, therapeutic vaccines help fight a disease you already have.
Clinical trials are checking to see if vaccines can be helpful for childhood brain cancer and other cancers. The early studies look promising so far, but more research is needed.