Childhood cancer cells face testing future
June 19, 2016
In the future, simple blood tests for circulating tumour cells or DNA could be an efficient and non-invasive way to track changes in patients with one of childhood’s more common cancers, neuroblastoma.
Testing cancer cells is an emerging topic at the Advances in Neuroblastoma Research congress (ANR2016) in Cairns this week.
Neuroblastoma is the most common solid tumour for children under five years old with the average age at diagnosis just two years. The disease is in the spotlight this week as over 400 medical researchers and clinicians from around the globe gather to share progress in the battle against the disease.
Conference convenor, Professor Michelle Haber, said the Advances in Neuroblastoma Research (ANR) research congress is held every two years but this is the first time the southern hemisphere has played host. Professor Haber is Executive Director of Children’s Cancer Institute, one of Australia’s largest centres of neuroblastoma research.
“The benefits from the conference will go beyond the research community, with a Parents’ Day being held to share the latest research and care information with parents of children with neuroblastoma”, she said.
“Some types of neuroblastoma have particularly low survival rates, making research into new treatments especially urgent” said Professor Haber.
Professor Murray Norris, Deputy Director of Children’s Cancer Institute and incoming President of the Advances in Neuroblastoma Research Association, says tests for circulating tumour cells (CTCs) or circulating DNA (ctDNA) could emerge as an efficient and non-invasive way to track changes in the cancer of individual patients.
“This technology offers a way to track a cancer by revealing molecular changes as disease progresses, particularly important in an era of personalised medicine” he said.
Cancers evolve, mutating over time, even within one patient and yet are often biopsied or sampled just once, at the time of diagnosis.
Traditional biopsies, where a sample is taken of a primary tumour, are invasive. They are uncomfortable and often painful, something parents of childhood cancer patients are understandably keen to avoid. And some tumours are difficult to biopsy because of their location in the body.
Liquid biopsies, on the other hand, are non-invasive. They use an easily collected blood or lymph sample to test for circulating tumour cells or free-floating DNA and rely on the fact that cancers spread by shedding cells into the blood and lymph to move to new sites in the body.
This has been known since 1869 when reported in a medical journal by a Melbourne doctor. Now, almost 150 years later, technology is catching up.
“If we can collect enough cancer cells from the circulatory system, we will be able to analyse them in minute detail with new techniques like rapid DNA and RNA sequencing and protein studies.”
“We can look to a future where non-invasive tests provide clinicians with a window into the disease, giving more information for treatment decisions” says Professor Norris.
“It may be years away from being reality, with technical challenges still to overcome, but if ‘liquid biopsies’ can work, in future we could have routine, non-invasive blood tests for cancer patients to manage their disease.
“This offers an insight into where personalised medicine for childhood cancer is headed” he said.
Other topics at the conference include tumour genetics, potential drug treatments, tumour variability, proteins that regulate gene expression and more.
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The Advances in Neuroblastoma Research Congress, ANR2016, will be held 19-23 June at the Cairns Convention Centre. This meeting will provide a key opportunity for research scientists, clinicians, early career fellows, nurses and other allied health care workers to be updated on the latest basic, translational and clinical research developments in the field of childhood neuroblastoma. There will also be strong engagement of parents and supporters with specific program content. More information at www.anr2016.org.
Neuroblastoma is a childhood cancer of specialised nerve cells which are involved in the development of the nervous system and other tissues. Neuroblastoma can occur anywhere in the body. In some children, neuroblastoma is found in the neck in nerve tissue in the chest, and also around the spinal cord. Like other cancers, no cause has been found. The average age of diagnosis is just 2 years old. Neuroblastoma claims more lives of children under the age of 5 than any other cancer. Over 20 babies and toddlers will die from this disease in Australia this year and a third of survivors will have long term side effects from their treatment. The average survival rate for neuroblastoma is only 50% and the rate for the most aggressive form of neuroblastoma can be as low as 15%. It is the most common solid tumour in early childhood. The cancer can appear in different parts of the body, but it usually occurs in the abdomen (stomach) as a swelling, in the adrenal gland.
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About Children’s Cancer Institute
Originally founded by two fathers of children with cancer in 1976, Children’s Cancer Institute is the only independent medical research institute in Australia wholly dedicated to research into the causes, prevention and cure of childhood cancer. Forty years on, our vision is to save the lives of all children with cancer and improve their long-term health, through research. The Institute has grown to now employ nearly 300 researchers, operational staff and students, and has established a national and international reputation for scientific excellence.
Our focus is on translational research, and we have an integrated team of laboratory researchers and clinician scientists who work together in partnership to discover new treatments which can be progressed from the lab bench to the beds of children on wards in our hospitals as quickly as possible. These new treatments are specifically targeting childhood cancers, so we can develop safer and more effective drugs and drug combinations that will minimise side-effects and ultimately give children with cancer the best chance of a cure with the highest possible quality of life.