The Federal Government together with Minderoo Foundation today announced funding of $67 million to expand the Zero Childhood Cancer personalised medicine program (ZERO).
Led by the Children’s Cancer Institute and Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, ZERO is currently only available to children across Australia diagnosed with the most aggressive cancers, or who have relapsed with less than 30% chance of survival. Today’s funding announcement by the Commonwealth Minister of Health, the Hon Greg Hunt, of $54.8 million from the Federal Government and $12.2 million from Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation, will extend the genetic testing of the ZERO program to all Australian children diagnosed with cancer, by 2023.
This funding will mean all Australian children will have access to the program at the time of diagnosis, whereas today many of the children on the national ZERO trial have relapsed after receiving standard therapy. By enabling all children access early in their cancer journey, the program aims to reduce the chance of relapse.
According to Professor Michelle Haber AM, Executive Director of Children’s Cancer Institute, “over the next three years, every child diagnosed in Australia will have access to personalised treatment recommendations that aim to give them the greatest chance of surviving their disease; ZERO also helps to identify less toxic targeted treatments reducing the risk of side effects”.
In addition to providing access to ZERO for all Australian children with cancer, the funding boost will support the development of a comprehensive genomic databank of each patient’s healthy and cancer cells. This unique database will allow researchers to better understand the causes of childhood cancer, identify genetic markers that may be able to predict those at risk of the disease, and increase the ability to make better informed treatment recommendations.
Nowhere does this innovation mean more than on the hospital wards where kids with cancer are treated, Associate Professor Tracey O’Brien, Director of the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick explains “every time you have to tell parents that treatment has failed and there is little hope of cure it is devastating. By working closely with researchers in the labs, our doctors are driving new ways of thinking, discovering new treatment options, and giving renewed hope for survival. Zero deaths is our goal and we won’t stop until we achieve it”.
Built on a collaborative network of all eight children’s hospitals in Australia and 22 international research partners, the first ZERO national clinical trial for children with aggressive cancer was launched in September 2017. The results have been remarkable with over 300 children enrolled, personalised treatment recommendations have been made for more than 70% of the children and have been reported to the children’s treating doctors within eight weeks on average. For the first group of children who have received the recommended treatment plans, 50% have had a complete or partial response, or their disease has been stabilised. In addition, the findings from ZERO have led directly or indirectly to the opening of 23 new clinical trials for children with cancer in Australia.
The impact of Zero Childhood Cancer is demonstrated through stories like that of 15 year old Kaylee who was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma in 2018. For 18 months she was given every treatment possible - none of which proved effective. In mid-2019 Kaylee she was enrolled in ZERO, where the genetic footprint of her tumours were tested and a specific mutation was discovered in her tumour’s DNA. Lorlatinib, a drug typically used to treat lung cancers, was identified in the laboratories to possibly help target Kaylee’s specific cancer cells. While treatment is ongoing, Kaylee explains that “every child deserves something like this, it's so needed and it makes everything so much easier, it works like a miracle".
ZERO is changing the model of care for children with cancer by identifying new treatments specifically targeted to each child’s individual cancer and facilitating access to the right drug for the right child at the right time.