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The Zero Childhood Cancer Program

Zero Childhood Cancer is the most exciting childhood cancer research initiative ever undertaken in Australia. This world-class program uniquely brings together all major Australian clinical and research groups working in childhood cancer to offer Australia’s first ever personalised medicine program for children with high-risk or relapsed cancer. 

Led by Children’s Cancer Institute and The Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick, part of The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, it is an unprecedented collaboration that stands to revolutionise the treatment of childhood cancer and an integral step towards curing every child.

How will Zero Childhood Cancer Work?

The program will involve the detailed laboratory analysis of each child’s unique cancer cells, to help identify the drugs most likely to kill their specific cancer. Scientists and doctors will then work collaboratively to identify and deliver the most effective treatment plan, specifically tailored to suit each child’s individual disease.

On average more than 200 children and adolescents in Australia will be diagnosed each year with a cancer type that has less than 30% survival, either on first diagnosis or after relapsing from their disease. It is these children – including those suffering from the most aggressive forms of childhood brain tumours, sarcomas, infant leukaemias and neuroblastomas – who will benefit from the Zero Childhood Cancer program.

The challenge in curing every child is that each child’s cancer is unique, which means they respond differently to anti-cancer treatment. These treatments are harsh on developing bodies: hospital wards are full of children suffering as much from the side effects of treatment as they are suffering from cancer. Even among the 80% of children who will survive their cancer, almost half will suffer in adulthood from the side effects of toxic chemotherapy drugs currently available (most cancer chemotherapies used today have been in use for more than 40 years). The challenging commercial reality is that the pharmaceutical industry does not focus on childhood cancer, choosing instead to focus on the larger commercial markets of adult cancers. For this reason, pharmaceutical companies do no dedicated research into childhood cancers and have never developed a drug specifically for childhood cancer.

Personalised cancer therapy, tailored to each child’s cancer, with its own genetic characteristics and individual response to anti-cancer drugs, holds the exciting promise of one day pushing childhood cancer survival rates to 100%.

An unprecedented collaboration

Children’s Cancer Institute and the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick are jointly recognised as international leaders in the field of childhood cancer research and treatment. The Zero Childhood Cancer program will involve collaboration with major research centres in Australia, USA and Europe. The program will utilise the best-of-the-best expertise in Australia’s paediatric hospitals and research centres and will draw on a host of stellar medical and research establishments throughout the nation. 

The core research facility for the Zero Childhood Cancer program will be located at Children’s Cancer Institute. Childhood cancer research specialists from institutes across Australia will contribute to and share results at every stage of the pro- gram. The clinical trial program will be led by the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick in conjunction with clinical collaborators in every major city in Australia. Decisions on the precise personalised treatment advised for each child will be agreed by a panel of research and clinical experts representing the best capability and knowledge in Australia, USA and Europe.

What progress has been made so far?

The first stage of the Zero Childhood Cancer program commenced in 2016, with a pilot study for high-risk young cancer patients in New South Wales. Originally this pilot study was planned for 12 young patients, however more than 30 have been enrolled in the program as of December 2016 due to the high demand by clinicians and parents. During 2016, the pilot study has enabled development and testing of the platform required to establish the personalised medicine pipeline involving:

  • establishment of a central reception process for cancer samples to the Tumour  Bank
  • determination of optimal tumour sample size, shipping conditions and pilot site logistics to inform roll out of a national trial
  • molecular profiling including whole genome sequencing, in partnership with the Garvan Institute of Medical Research
  • drug screening with a customised anti-cancer drug library
  • drug efficacy testing methods using biological models.

What’s happening next for Zero Childhood Cancer?

Following successful completion of the pilot study, a national clinical trial will open in 2017, it is likely that up to 400 children will be enrolled by the completion of the trial to benefit from the personalised research and clinical program. The goal is for the program to be accessible to all children with high risk / refractory cancers at the completion of the trial in 2020.