When cancer strikes the most vulnerable: New Canadian Cancer Society research grant will study ways to improve treatment of neuroblastoma, one of the most common causes of cancer death in children

27 April 2011

TORONTO -

A new Canadian Cancer Society-funded study will investigate the genetic puzzle of a devastating nervous system cancer that strikes infants, and identify potential new treatments for the disease. The study is one of 52 new research projects worth more than $21 million announced today by the Society. The projects cover a broad spectrum of cancer research from risk reduction to genetic studies to drug development and palliative care.

“With these new projects, the Canadian Cancer Society continues to support a vibrant research community that is seeking ways to reduce cancer risk, reduce cancer deaths and improve the quality of life of those living with cancer,” says Dr Christine Williams, Director of Research, Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute. “We’re making this announcement on our first nationwide Daffodil Day to underscore the importance of research in the fight against cancer and to remember those people who are on a cancer journey. We encourage Canadians to join us by wearing our new daffodil pin.”

Putting together the pieces of the neuroblastoma puzzle

With a grant of $430,302, Dr Meredith Irwin, a researcher and clinician at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), is leading the neuroblastoma study. This cancer of the nervous system, which causes tumours in the spinal cord, abdomen, chest and adrenal glands, is one of the most common childhood cancers and also one of the most frequent causes of childhood cancer death.

In her dual role as a scientist working in the lab and a doctor caring for these young patients and their families, Dr Irwin brings a unique perspective.

“I feel like I’m fighting the disease in two ways – I’m helping families through a tremendously difficult time with treatment and support, and I’m trying to make a difference in how we understand neuroblastoma and how we can make an impact on this disease,” Dr Irwin says.

There is another reason for Dr Irwin’s curiosity about this disease – her own cancer journey. “My experience makes me want to answer those basic biology questions – to know what makes cancer cells tick – so we can understand the cancers our patients are fighting and what types of treatment they need.”

Dr Irwin and her research team will use two approaches to better understand and potentially treat neuroblastoma:

  • They will study the various genes and proteins involved in killing neuroblastoma cells and try to determine how to activate these “death pathways”.
  • They will also study neuroblastoma cells that have spread to the bone marrow and try to understand how they are different from other neuroblastoma tumour cells that have spread to other locations in the body. Using this information, they will test drugs already used in other diseases to see if they can specifically kill neuroblastoma cells in the bone marrow, the most frequent site to which the disease spreads.

“Ultimately, what I want to do as a clinician-scientist is to be able to have a different conversation with children and their parents about a neuroblastoma diagnosis. If the results of our research allow me to say to some patients that we can successfully fight the disease once it comes back, that would be the best thing in my career.”

For a complete list of new research grants funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, visit cancer.ca/Research.

A survivor’s story: Leanne Waddell

Leanne Waddell was only 10 months old when she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma.

Today, more than 30 years later, Leanne knows how fortunate she is to be a survivor and to be able to help others going through a cancer experience.

“Fighting cancer has always been a mission of mine; it’s something I’ve always felt strongly about,” Waddell says.

It was Waddell’s babysitter who noticed one evening that the baby girl had difficulty breathing when she was lying down, but when she sat up she was fine. When Waddell’s parents rushed her to the hospital, the doctors found a massive tumour – about the size of a man’s fist – wrapped around her small spinal cord.

Surgery followed by radiation treatment left Waddell disease-free but her doctors had warned her parents she would never be able to walk because of the damage to her spine. Waddell proved them wrong.

And so began her personal fight against cancer. She started volunteering with the Society as a child, selling daffodils with her mom, and continued volunteering well into her adult years. Just two months ago she became the manager of a Canadian Cancer Society unit office. She also spends time with neuroblastoma patients and their families, showing her first-hand the many ways this disease can affect children.

She says research projects like Dr Meredith Irwin’s are vital in advancing our understanding of neuroblastoma. “We know it can be a deadly disease and it’s especially devastating when it relapses. It’s important we try to find it and treat it early so maybe it doesn’t get to that point.”

The effectiveness of treatments for neuroblastoma can also vary. Not all young patients respond to current treatments, which is why more research is needed. “Research is the only way we will find better treatments that will help more children.”

“My experience fuels my drive. I constantly do my best to make an impact against this disease, especially fundraising for research. Even if it’s a small difference, it’s still a difference.”

Highlights of other new Canadian Cancer Society research projects

The Society’s long-term goals are to deter, defeat and defy cancer, and research is a vital part of achieving these goals. The following are just a few examples of the new research projects we are funding which will help support Canadians fighting cancer throughout all stages of their cancer journey.

 

Deter cancer

  • Dr Angela Cheung, Toronto, $ 632,192 – Dr Cheung is studying the long-term effects of the drug exemestane on bone health as part of a large clinical trial testing whether the drug is effective at preventing breast cancer in post-menopausal women at increased risk for the disease. Exemestane is in a class of medications that may have negative effects on bone health, and this study will provide crucial information about the long-term safety of the drug and the risks and benefits for this group of women.
  • Dr Shelley Harris, Toronto, $ 846,000 – Brominated flame retardants are an emerging group of pollutants showing up with increasing frequency in the environment. Using blood and urine samples of women aged 18 to 44 – some who have cancer and some who do not – Dr Harris will investigate whether increased exposure to one type of brominated flame retardants, specifically polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), is associated with increased breast cancer risk.

 

Defeat cancer

  • Dr Raymond Andersen, Vancouver, $ 420,527 – Many of the most effective anti-cancer drugs have come from nature, and Dr Andersen’s study looks to the world’s oceans as a resource for naturally occurring anti-cancer substances. The goal of this project is to discover organic compounds that are present in marine invertebrates and micro-organisms to develop new drug treatments for cancer, with a particular focus on advanced stage prostate cancer.
  • Dr John Dick, Toronto, $ 432,000 – Dr Dick’s lab was the first to discover leukemia stem cells (LSCs) and is now working to identify genes and other molecular elements that determine how blood cells get programmed into LSCs. Using large-scale tests in human blood samples, the research team will induce leukemia by manipulating the MLL gene and characterize the biological effects that lead to the development of LSCs and leukemia.
  • Dr Aaron Marshall, Winnipeg, $ 418,977 – Dr Marshall’s team is focused on understanding molecular processes that lead to poorer patient outcomes by helping leukemia cells move out of the blood and into bone marrow and lymph nodes. In this study, they will focus on components in a molecular pathway called PI3K that help leukemia cells “team up” with other cells to proliferate and spread, to identify which patients might benefit most from chemotherapy that targets this process.
  • Dr Hanne Ostergaard, Edmonton, $ 432,000 – Some cancer drugs currently in clinical trials block the function of a protein called Pyk2 that helps cancer cells move, but Dr Ostergaard’s team believes this protein also helps the body’s natural killer cells fight cancer. This study will advance the understanding of Pyk2 and another protein called paxillin to help determine how to prevent cancer cells from metastasizing and promote killer cell function.

Defy cancer 

  • Dr Maru Barrera, Toronto, $ 566,969 – After overcoming the hurdle of childhood brain cancer, some young survivors face the additional challenge of weakened social skills due to injury to the brain. Dr Barrera’s team will evaluate the impact of a new program that helps to remediate social skills deficits – a program with the potential to improve these children’s abilities to manage relationships at home and at school.
  • Dr Ari-Nareg Meguerditchian, Montreal, $ 124,639 – Taking a daily anti-estrogen pill has significantly improved breast cancer survival rates, but many patients discontinue the treatment prematurely, particularly women 65 and older. Dr Meguerditchian’s study will use Quebec’s drug insurance databases to determine how many women in this age group took anti-estrogen pills between 1998 and 2005 and predict who is at highest risk of stopping the therapy before the end of the five-year treatment in order to better support this group of patients.

The Canadian Cancer Society is a national community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is the eradication of cancer and the enhancement of the quality of life of people living with cancer. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website www.cancer.ca or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939-3333.

For more information, please contact:

Christine Harminc

Senior Manager, Communications & Media Relations

Canadian Cancer Society

Phone: 416 934-5340