St. Baldrick’s is all about shifting paradigms. When three men decided to shave heads at their industry’s March 17, 2000 St. Patrick’s Day party, they didn’t set out to change the landscape of childhood cancer research funding. But today the St. Baldrick’s Foundation is the largest non-government funder of childhood cancer research grants.
Twenty years later, the paradigm shifts keep coming, and Poul Sorensen, MD, PhD has been a part of several of them. Last month we joined some very special guests on a visit to his lab at the University of British Columbia, where he is a Professor of Pathology and holds the Johal Endowed Chair in Childhood Cancer Research.
“I’m an accidental tourist in the childhood cancer world,” says Patrick Sullivan, who chairs the Patient Advocacy committee for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation — Stand Up 2 Cancer Pediatric Cancer Dream Team. “It’s not a place I’d ever thought I’d be in, until I heard that my son had rhabdomyosarcoma in 2007.”
Patrick’s role is more than just tourist, though. When the Pediatric Cancer Dream Team was created, its goal was to push the envelope, to marry the emerging fields of genomics and immunotherapy to create targeted therapies for cancers. It was also important to the Dream Team to involve patient advocates, to inspire and work alongside the researchers, to maximize the Dream Team’s success. Along the way, each researcher was paired with a young investigator on the team, to help the advocates better understand the science and to help the young investigators better communicate their work to families and the lay public.
When the St. Baldrick’s Foundation — Stand Up 2 Cancer Pediatric Cancer Dream Team was created in 2013, the idea was to pursue breakthroughs, specifically in the area of immunotherapy enabled by the application of modern genomic technologies. Now, with St. Baldrick’s as the primary funder and each member institution also investing financially — the Dream Team looks to build on the tremendous momentum in immunotherapy for childhood cancers.
I was recently invited to serve as a patient family advocate for the St. Baldrick’s / Stand Up to Cancer Pediatric Cancer Dream Team representing the National Cancer Institute. If you’re not familiar with the Dream Team and what they’re doing, it’s worth taking a few minutes to read up on the project.
In short, it’s a multi-institutional effort to accelerate cures for childhood cancer by sharing the skill, knowledge and unique resources of 8 top-notch research institutions.
Carlos Sandi with his son, Honored Kid and Ambassador Phineas.
Honored Kid Madelyn was diagnosed with DIPG in 2010. A fashionista with a big spirit and an equally big heart, Maddy was an inspiration to those around her. She passed away in November 2011 after an 18-month battle with DIPG.
No child has ever survived a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma brain tumor, commonly called DIPG.
This aggressive pediatric brain cancer multiplies in the brainstem, which controls some of our most basic functions for living – our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and ability to swallow and speak. And because the cancer is so intertwined with its delicate surroundings, DIPG is often inoperable.
A DIPG diagnosis and a zero percent survival rate has remained the reality for kids and families for decades.
But what if there might be hope? What if that hope came from within the child’s own body?
I have something exciting to tell you, but first, here’s something I heard and quickly scribbled down during a meeting about research priorities: “It’s like we caught lightning in a bottle – and you just don’t know when that will happen again.”
That was one of our expert advisers talking about the amazing, incredibly fast and impactful work of the Stand Up to Cancer – St. Baldrick’s Pediatric Cancer Dream Team, funded jointly by the two organizations from 2013 through 2017. It was such a perfect description, it has stuck with me for more than a year.
This team of 150 researchers from eight institutions across North America has been working on new immunotherapy treatments for childhood cancers. In less than four years, their work is already saving lives.
Honored Kid Austin was diagnosed with a high-risk form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 2 years old. Now a survivor, he was one of the first kids treated on a trial of the immunotherapy Kymriah, which was developed with help from the Dream Team.
Every one of the experts who had looked closely at the team’s work agreed that this was work that must continue. To me, it was only natural for St. Baldrick’s to make that happen. And by St. Baldrick’s, I mean you – our donors and volunteers who make the funding possible.
So, I’m thrilled to announce that the Dream Team is back – with a new name and a continuing determination to find cures for childhood cancers.
The St. Baldrick’s – Stand Up to Cancer Pediatric Cancer Dream Team will continue from 2018 through 2022, with primary support from St. Baldrick’s.
From its inaugural Phase 1 clinical trial through its successful Phase 2 trial, we have traced the path of Kymriah, a recent immunotherapy and gene therapy breakthrough for kids with high-risk leukemia and few options, like Honored Kids Austin and Ori. (Read the whole series here.) Now, with a historic decision made in August, we are at the end of our story, but not at the end of the story of Kymriah. Instead, Kymriah’s is just beginning – and starting a new chapter of hope for kids with cancer.
Austin (left) and Ori (right) are both alive today thanks to Kymriah and their participation in the Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials.
On August 30, 2017, big news rippled through the childhood cancer community. On that late summer day – before the start of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month – the FDA made a historic move that changed the landscape of childhood cancer research forever.
Over a series of four blogs — catch up with parts one and two about the Phase 1 trial — we are tracing the path of Kymriah, a recent immunotherapy and gene therapy breakthrough for kids with high-risk leukemia, like Honored Kid Ori.
After relapsing for the second time and with his cancer spreading to his nervous system, Ori’s best chance at life was a Phase 2 trial of this experimental CAR T cell therapy. With a sunny attitude and staggering strength of spirit, Ori gave this new treatment a shot – with astonishing results.
Ori was in cancer treatment for much of his young life and throughout the journey, his strength and positive attitude have been remarkable. “He has been through so much, but has done it all with a great attitude and a smile on his face,” said his mom, Kaye.
When a child with cancer relapses the first time, their treatment options shrink. But when a child with cancer relapses again, their options and chances at survival don’t just shrink – they’re nearly extinguished. That is what happened to Ori.
2017 was a big year, full of breakthroughs, incredible stories and some pretty amazing achievements in the childhood cancer world. Join us as we reflect on St. Baldrick’s top 10 highlights of the past year — and make sure you give yourself a pat on the back, because much of this was possible because of YOU!
Are you ready to take a trip down memory lane? Here we go …
1) Passage of the RACE Act
Over a series of four blogs — read the first blog here — we are tracing the path of Kymriah, a recent immunotherapy and gene therapy breakthrough for kids with high-risk leukemia, like Honored Kid Austin. This 9-year-old pioneer was one of the first patients to receive this revolutionary type of CAR T cell therapy, which was made possible because of the hard work of the St. Baldrick’s – Stand Up To Cancer Dream Team.
Continuing from Part One, Austin’s bone marrow transplant has failed and we find his parents at a dead end in terms of treatment options — until a ray of light appears.
During his treatment, Austin always just wanted to be a kid. After finishing a chemotherapy and radiation treatment, he’d often joyfully run out to his backyard to play on the swings.
The options were few and the stakes were huge, but the choice was clear for Austin’s parents. With their 4-year-old son months away from death, they had to choose hope – hope in the form of a clinical trial testing a promising gene therapy called Kymriah.
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