Every child with a tumour in Britain will have their cancer DNA sequenced so they can get the best possible drugs and help the UK catch up with treatment in Europe and the US.
The charity Children with Cancer UK has today announced £1.5 million in funding so that from today youngsters can be screened and given treatment which is far more effective and less toxic.
Sequencing tumour DNA allows doctors to match drugs specifically to the genetic code of cancer, which could mean some children would be spared chemotherapy if it was found to be ineffective for their disease.
Similarly if their cancer was found to be driven by a particular gene, drugs which target the specific problem could be given.
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Professor Louis Chesler of The Institute of Cancer Research, who is leading the initiative said: “Integration of modern technologies to cancer treatment is very important because it maximises the chance of developing a new generation of ‘targeted’ cancer drugs.
“It is incredibly exciting and their application to children’s cancers could be ground-breaking, but only if the drugs are properly applied to patients with very precise knowledge about the unique changes in genes, proteins and cancer cells that occur in each child’s tumour.
“This funding will help us move towards a more comprehensive and structured approach to genetic testing to match children with cancer to specific targeted treatments, which could be an incredibly important step towards increasing survival and reducing the side-effects of treatment.”
Around 1,600 children under 15 are diagnosed with cancer each year, meaning that one child in 500 will develop some form of the disease.
Childhood cancers account for 0.5 per cent of all cancers in the UK, and boys are slightly more likely than girls to develop disease than girls, particularly in lymphomas, which boys are more than twice as likely to develop.
In Britain, childhood cancer incidence rates increased by 38 per cent between 1966 and 2000. Some of this increase is thought to be due to improvements in diagnosis and registration but experts believe air pollution, pesticides, poor diets and radiation are also factors in the rise.
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Under the new plans children will find out the results of their DNA screening within two weeks of a biopsy being taken so that treatment can be adjusted.
Children with Cancer UK is hopeful that the screening will also improve treatments for rare and high-risk cancers which have poor survival rates.
“Our ambition is that all children, teenagers and young adults diagnosed with cancer in the UK have access to Precision Medicine through the NHS within the framework of clinical trials,” said Cliff O’Gorman, Chief Executive of Children with Cancer UK.
“This ground-breaking funding will help develop the first programme for Precision Medicine for young cancer patients in the UK, already started in parts of the USA and Europe.”