Our Experts Answer Your Pediatric Cancer Questions

Each September, we observe Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. It's a time to recognize how far we've come in our effort to end pediatric cancer. It's also a reminder of the work we still need to do. This week, our experts answer your questions about pediatric cancer care today and what the future holds.

What are some of the recent advancements Children's National researchers have made in cancer care?

“Cancer survival rates have improved drastically since I joined the field, but the physical toll of treatment can be quite dismal," says Dr. Anne Angiolillo, director of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Program at Children’s National Hospital. "Our goal today is to make treatment less toxic and more precise.”

Dr. Angiolillo oversaw the country’s largest clinical trial on standard risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) therapy to find a less invasive treatment for children. ALL is the most common form of pediatric cancer. Results from the clinical trial helped Dr. Angiolillo’s team develop a treatment plan with less frequent chemotherapy. “We can now lessen the burden and toxicity of this treatment while still maintaining excellent outcomes, which is a huge benefit to our patients and their families,” says Dr. Angiolillo.

Another recent advancement is the pioneering use of Magnetic Resonance-Guided High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (MR-HIFU). In 2015, our doctors were the first in the U.S. to use MR-HIFU to destroy bone tumors without scalpels or needles. This powerful, non-invasive tool for treating tumors greatly reduces the risk of complications, including infections and bone fractures, and offers new hope for patients.

Earlier this year, the FDA approved the use of MR-HIFU to treat osteoid osteoma (OO) in the extremities. Osteoid osteoma is a painful bone tumor that occurs most commonly in children and young adults. Our researchers are now evaluating MR-HIFU treatment for patients with relapsed and refractory (those that don't respond to treatment) bone and soft tissue tumors. “This is especially important as these patients don’t have any other good treatment options,” says Karun Sharma, MD, PhD, director of Interventional Radiology and associate director of clinical translation at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation (SZI) at Children’s National.

How are genetics used to treat or detect cancer?

Genetic information can help a child avoid chemo or radiation. It can spot risks earlier for quick interventions. Our Cancer Genetics Clinic finds and counsels families who are at greater risk of cancer. It was established by the Children's National Rare Disease Institute and the Division of Oncology provide early detection and treatment. Ultimately, the goal is to prevent the development of cancer or additional cancers altogether.

What are T cells? How are they used to treat cancer?

T cells are the body's immune system "sniper" cells. They seek out and destroy cancer cells or virus-infected cells, protecting the body from infection and malignancy. Children's National is a pioneer of a technology that trains T cells to recognize proteins on the surface of cancer cells, leading to the death of those malignant cells. This enables treatment to be more precise and prevent damage to healthy cells caused by radiation or chemotherapy. Children’s National offers clinical trials to assess how T cells can identify and attack leukemia and lymphoma, solid tumors and brain tumors. 

Why are clinical trials important?

The research we perform through clinical trials gives families the opportunity to participate in studies that will develop new treatments that can directly benefit their child, as well as patients around the world who are faced with a similar condition. Clinical trials provide our patients with access to the latest medications and therapies, some of which are only available at Children’s National.

How could cancer treatment look different in the next few years?

"In the next five years, I think that certain cancers may be treated without chemotherapy or radiation. Immunotherapy will become the standard of care and not a last resort for these cancers," says Dr. Catherine Bollard, director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National.

Dr. Bollard is one of the nation's foremost cell therapy researchers. She leads clinical and research efforts to fight cancer and other diseases by strengthening a child’s own immune system using cell therapy, including T cells.

“Children’s National is unique in that we have a novel cell therapy program and manufacturing capabilities to treat a broad range of diseases using many different cell types. Cell therapy can help children affected by so many different diseases and disorders beyond cancer — it’s the future of care, and we’re going to be at the forefront of it.”

You can help us write the next chapter in pediatric cancer's history: its end. Please contact Bethany Metzroth at [email protected] to learn more.

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