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CURE commits $4.5 million to build a program which will develop tailored treatments for individual cancer patients

Hundreds of tools can be in a garage. But if the right, precise ones aren’t selected for a job, often the problem isn’t really fixed.

With cancer, researchers are finding they face a similar – albeit, far more complex – dilemma. There is now a stunning array of promising discoveries that might lead to innovative treatments and even cures. But as researchers learn more about the complexities of cancer, they are having to sort through – often at a molecular level – a myriad of possible treatments to find the best customized approach for each child with cancer.

At the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, this search for tailored solutions has led to the creation of the Aflac Cancer Center and Blood Disorders Precision Medicine Program. Through a $4.5 million commitment from CURE Childhood Cancer, the program will allow researchers, technologists and doctors to work hand-in-hand to develop individualized cancer therapies for some pediatric patients – giving those children and their parents some optimism in often dismal situations.

“This could give immediate hope for patients who have failed with other therapies,” said Douglas Graham, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, who is leading the new program. “I hope this gives kids a chance at a better outcome – because we try to tailor medical treatment specifically to their needs.”

The program will be able to accomplish this through the “building blocks that are already in place,” Dr. Graham says, including:

  • The large volume and diversity of the Aflac Cancer Center patient population. Right now, the Aflac Cancer Center is consistently among the top ten centers that treat pediatric cancer in the nation. This top-rated standing leads to stronger science and better studies, because there is a wider population to check – and recheck – initial findings.
  • The commitment to state-of-the-art technology. Daniel Wechsler, M.D., Ph.D., director of pediatric oncology at the Aflac Cancer Center, said the program, for example, will use technologies that allow for rapid DNA and RNA sequencing, needed to understand the genetic markers of both individual patients and their cancers. In addition, this program will bring in a “bioinformatics specialist,” to analyze the data gathered.
  • The recruitment and retention of top researchers, doctors and technologists who can collaborate on findings. The program is forming a new “Aflac Cancer Center Molecular Tumor Board,” which will bring the best minds together to review daunting cases with patients’ clinicians. In addition, it will strengthen Aflac Cancer Center’s relationships with Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology; and form strategic partnerships with other similar institutions around the nation.

About 80 percent of children diagnosed with childhood cancers can be cured. However, for two out of ten patients, the outcome is not good. Either the patients are temporarily cured, with the cancer relapsing; or they fail to initially respond to any traditional therapies, making their long-term survival bleak. In about two-thirds of the patients cured, the toxicity of the treatment causes long term side effects, especially in areas of healthy growth and brain function.

However, technology has helped researchers discover far more about different types of cancer – whether they be solid tumors, brain cancers, or leukemias and lymphomas. From gene sequencing to tissue banking to the molecular delivery of therapies, things that were too expensive just a few years ago are now more easily accomplished. This often means doctors can pinpoint the exact genetic make-up of an individual’s cancer. It also means that the program, with its combined resources, could tease out a customized therapy, specifically designed to fight that cancer.

The first barrier, however, is how to determine which treatment is the best one.

Now, researchers and doctors are often dealing with too much hard data and too many soft unknowns. The challenge is finding what information should be examined, and what should be tossed aside: a modern oncologists’ version of a needle in a haystack.

“I worry about giving false hope,” Dr. Wechsler said. “We have this new technology, but it’s still going to take some significant time to figure out the best way to use it.”

Dr. Graham agrees. “The struggle is, as powerful as this technology is, we’re still at the beginning stages of this,” he said. “However, that said, the goal in sight is to provide more effective treatments for children with cancer.”