Scientists at Newcastle University make breakthrough in treating high risk childhood cancer

Scientists studying a common childhood cancer have made a major breakthrough which could lead to a cure for some youngsters who would not have survived the condition. 

An international study, involving Newcastle University, has for the first time found a genetic marker in tumours from patients with high-risk neuroblastoma. 

Neuroblastoma is a cancer of the nervous system that mainly affects children under five. It often begins in the adrenal gland, but in around half of cases has spread throughout the body when it is diagnosed - in these high-risk cases survival is only approximately 50 percent. 

Sadly, barely half of the children live beyond five years after diagnosis, despite treatment including high dose chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy and immunotherapy. 

Alexander Mohammed from Gosforth was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma five years ago and has been involved in the research.

For almost two years, Alexander had intensive treatment which included many aggressive cycles of chemotherapy at the Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle. 

He is now in remission and is monitored every six months.

Alexander’s dad Raphael, a doctor, 43, said: “When Alexander was diagnosed with cancer it was such a shock and not something that we were expecting as he did not have the classic symptoms of neuroblastoma. 

“To hear of this major breakthrough into the treatment of the condition for children offers real hope of personalised treatment options in the future so that more youngsters lives can be saved.” 

Professor Deborah Tweddle, from the Newcastle University Centre for Cancer and Honorary Consultant at The Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, led the UK part of the study. 

She said: “By identifying ALK as a genetic marker associated with the likelihood of a poorer outcome within the high-risk group of patients, it means we can treat these patients differently from the outset.  

“Most excitingly there are new treatments that target the ALK protein itself, used in other cancers that can now be used for patients with high-risk neuroblastoma with ALK gene abnormalities. 

“This research is an excellent example of personalised medicine. By treating those patients with an ALK genetic abnormality with an ALK inhibitor we are tailoring the treatment to the patients’ individual tumour type.  

Several European countries took part in the study and the UK-arm of the trial has been based at Newcastle University with the test being carried out within the Newcastle Genetics Lab, supported by grants from Solving Kids Cancer and Neuroblastoma UK.