Getting rid of childhood brain cancer

The Zero Childhood Cancer Personalised Medicine Program (ZERO) is helping to improve survival outcomes for kids most at risk.

Date published:
General public

Funding expands the program’s reach

Professor Michelle Haber AM is a world-renowned researcher and Executive Director of Children’s Cancer Institute. She applauds the generous MRFF support for the Zero Childhood Cancer initiative. As its name suggests, ZERO wants to get rid of the disease entirely.

‘Childhood cancer is the most common cause of death from disease in children across Australia,’ Professor Haber said. ‘It takes more lives than any other disease.’

The most recent MRFF funding, awarded in 2020, is worth $54.8 million over 5 years. It builds on an earlier $5 million investment through the MRFF’s Australian Brain Cancer Mission in 2018.

According to Professor Haber, the initial injection of funds helped to ‘pave the way for a new model of care for children with cancer, throughout the country’. It is bringing hope to Australian families and those they love.

Until recently, ZERO targeted children with high risk cancers. These are cancers with a less than 30% survival rate, either at diagnosis or after relapse. Close to 40% of these are brain cancers.

The latest MRFF grant from the Emerging Priorities and Consumer Driven Research initiative has let the state-of-the-art program grow. It is the first large-scale Australian study to provide personalised treatment recommendations for kids based on in-depth knowledge of their individual cancer.

A unique approach to precision medicine

‘It’s about finding the right treatment for the right child at the right time,’ Professor Haber explained. ‘It’s not one doctor, one decision. Instead, it’s about getting empirical evidence of what drives that child’s cancer. This gives us the greatest chance of success.’

Professor Haber said the research initiative harnesses the latest technologies to identify potential therapies. Where 60 years ago children with fast growing cancers did not recover, now around 80% survive.

‘The harsh drugs that have been the mainstay of treating child cancer can have severe lifelong side effects,’ she said. ‘They lower a young patient’s quality of life, and add to family stress.

‘In contrast, ZERO aims to identify potential genomically-guided targeted treatment options that will reduce side effects, as well as increase survival.’

The program is committed to global data sharing. It will generate more and more unique and valuable genomic and biological information about a poorly understood set of diseases in young people.

From bench to bedside and back again

ZERO is also fast-tracking the development of national and international clinical targeted drug trials for all children with cancers. The results to date show the value of using cutting-edge science and technology to analyse individual patient’s tumours.

Program leader Vanessa (Ness) Tyrrell steers the internationally best-practice study. She works with both the ZERO research team at Children’s Cancer Institute, and the clinical team at Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital.

‘Options for treating the high risk cancers we work with are very limited,’ Ms Tyrrell said. ‘MRFF has now made it possible to expand the program to all Australian children diagnosed with cancer by the end of 2023. This is up to 1000 children each year. We’re aiming to give more children and young people more potential treatment options than would otherwise be available to them, and to do this earlier.’

‘Since September 2017, we’ve been able to enrol over 400 children with high risk or undiagnosable cancers on the national trial,’ Ms Tyrrell said. ‘The MRFF funding has been critical to our achievements to date. It will continue to be critical to driving the planned expansion of the program to reach all children diagnosed with cancer by 2023.’

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