Cancer in children is, thankfully, relatively rare compared to adults, with around 110 new cases diagnosed in the North East and Cumbria each year.
This means new treatments for young patients need to be effective for what are, by their very nature, extremely specialist conditions, and why clinical trials provide a lifeline for children unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with the disease.
In 2016, The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, part of Newcastle Hospitals Charity, gave a £1million grant to fund four posts within the Innovative Therapies for Children with Cancer Unit, which has doctors, nurses and research staff based at the Great North Children’s Hospital and Newcastle University’s Wolfson Childhood Cancer Research Centre.
The team is led by Consultant Paediatric Oncologist, Dr Quentin Campbell-Hewson, and is embedded within the hospital’s clinical service, meaning research is not separate from routine care of patients and nearly all young patients are involved in clinical trial studies.
This ensures they receive the most up-to-date therapy possible and that progress continues to be made in developing better care. Through research, five-year survival rates for children with cancer have improved from about 30% in the 1970s, to around 85% today.
Given the importance of the trials, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Campbell-Hewson requested and received permission to continue with them.
Dr Campbell-Hewson says: “When the pandemic started, we didn’t know how much of a risk it would be for our patients and that was something we needed to discover. And we didn’t know to what extent our team would need to assist in other clinical areas or be redeployed.
“What we did know was that children’s cancer wouldn’t stop. It’s one of the leading causes of death for children and we can only combat this with the precise, timely and intensive therapies we use.”
Our £1m funding enabled the Innovative Therapies for Children with Cancer Unit to expand by appointing a consultant level clinical fellowship post, two specialist nursing roles and a clinical study fellowship (early phase clinical trials).
In the North East and Cumbria, treatment for childhood cancer is centralised, with every child and young person diagnosed coming into Newcastle for specialist treatment.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, individual treatment needs have continued to be met at the Great North Children’s Hospital and trials of new treatments driven forward.
The Innovative Therapies for Children with Cancer Unit has also recruited patients to a national study monitoring COVID-19 infection in immunosuppressed children and Newcastle is the highest recruiting site after the main trial centre in Southampton.
This revealed that COVID-19 infection rates are low and, thankfully, very rarely serious in children, even when they are severely immunosuppressed.
Dr Campbell-Hewson adds: “It’s hard to overstate the importance of clinical trials for young cancer patients. We meet with children and young adults with cancer every day and we know what these new treatments mean to them.
“We’re basically the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre but for children and we’re making very good progress. But there’s still much more to be done and we’re hugely grateful to everyone who has made a donation to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and helped support our work.”
Rebecca Henderson’s story
Three weeks after her eighth birthday, Rebecca Henderson from Billingham was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer found in the muscles, bones and soft tissue areas.
It was a great shock to Rebecca and her family and in that instant her life changed. Previously a very active and sporty child, Rebecca suddenly faced lengthy cancer treatment.
Now 15, she has faced cancer four times in her young life, each time hoping it has been beaten.
Mum, Tracy, says: “Rebecca was first diagnosed in 2014 and again in 2017, 2019 and 2020.
“It’s really hard on her and every time she completes her treatment, we’re all hoping to hear the ‘all clear.’ We want her to have her life back and have freedom from treatment and hospitals.
“We all feel like the treatment she gets is truly cutting-edge and we know, as bad as things are, that we’re getting the best help we can.
“The last three times Rebecca has needed cancer treatment, she’s taken part in brand new chemotherapy trials, often being the first person on our ward to try the drugs.
“Throughout all the problems caused by Covid, the Great North Children’s Hospital staff have been amazing, they always are. It’s true that there’s been an extra layer of stress caused by the pandemic but everyone at the hospital goes above and beyond to help reduce that. Yes, everyone has to wear masks, but we always know there are smiles behind them.”
Rebecca says: “During different treatments for my cancer, I’ve taken part in eight research trials.
“Most trials have been easy but some have been difficult. One trial I did tested an anti-sickness drug on children. It really helped me and now children all over the world can use it, too.”