Hospitals around the UK are going to start examining the DNA of tumour cells from paediatric cancer patients in a pilot study starting later this year. The study organisers hope that genetic testing, planned for around 400 patients in 21 hospitals, will give greater insight into the nature of the patients' cancers, allowing doctors to prescribe better-targeted treatments.
Researchers at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and the Royal Marsden Hospital in London collaborated to design the test which concentrates on 81 genes that are often found to have mutated in tumour cells and affect the development of the disease.
Using genetic tests to better tailor treatments to the individual patient, or personalised medicine, is becoming increasingly commonplace in adult medicine. The pilot study organisers say that the approach could be especially useful for children, as the results of genetic testing can be used to help enrol young patients into the most appropriate clinical trials. The rarity of childhood cancer means that finding an appropriate clinical trial for a patient is more difficult for children than for adults.
The test was developed with funding from the charity Christopher's Smile, which was set up by two parents whose five-year-old son died from an aggressive brain tumour, after an arduous cycle of treatments with a great deal of side-effects.
'When our son died in 2008 there was no biological information available to clinicians about individual children's tumours,' said Karen Capel, Christopher's mother and a trustee of the charity. 'Our aim is that it will change the landscape for children and open doors to potential new trials with new treatments, benefiting those children who receive the worst prognosis.'
The study is due to last around two years, and will investigate samples from children aged 14 and under, focusing on samples from patients with solid tumours only, as cancers of the blood are relatively easily treatable. If successful, the researchers hope that the test will be rolled out to all eligible children.
Professor Louis Chesler, the lead researcher on the study who works at both the ICR and the Royal Marsden, said: 'A more comprehensive and structured approach to genetic testing to match children with cancer to specific targeted treatments could be an incredibly important step towards increasing survival.'