September is Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month. Sema4 is proud to partner with Beat Childhood Cancer Foundation (BCC), a nonprofit organization, as part of our goal to enable personalized treatment to transform pediatric cancer care.
BCC’s mission is to use precision medicine to bring forward new therapies for children with cancer with the goal of finding a cure for these patients.
In this interview with Beat Childhood Cancer Foundation Founder Patrick Lacey, we cover cancer care, the future of genomics, and what needs to change in the field of pediatric oncology.
Q: What was the impetus for creating the BCC research consortium and the foundation?
Patrick: When I was a first-time father with a six-month-old, my son was diagnosed with cancer and, in the next 18 months, we did everything possible to help cure him. We then were told we had exhausted all options, to take him home and give him quality days. My son had just turned two years old and that was not the answer we wanted to hear. As we looked at other options available, it was a bleak landscape. We wanted to create an organization with a goal of creating treatment options for families.
Q: What are some of the challenges occurring in pediatric cancer care?
Patrick: Unfortunately, childhood cancer can be a difficult thing for anyone to fathom, whether it is your child or not. People say, “I don’t know how you can deal with this” or “I can’t imagine.” Oftentimes, people look away, instead of taking a hard look at childhood cancer. Sadly, many types of childhood cancer are incurable at diagnosis. And then there is the threat of relapse, which is a brutal reality. If we cannot open people’s eyes to it, we instead find people who are willing to work together to improve survival and find therapies that will help these kids.
What we’ve also discovered about childhood cancer is that having a single treating site in New York or another city, can create barriers to reaching every child who needs that treatment. We need to create treatment options and make them available all over the country so access is not a barrier. This accessibility enables parents and families to keep their jobs, maintain their support network, and be close to home. It also removes the challenge of making the choice to have to travel, often at tremendous cost.
Q: From your experience, how has treatment advanced during your tenure at BCC?
Patrick: The goal when BCC started out (in 2011) was to create treatment options, instead of hearing “there’s nothing we can do.” With the current clinical trials paradigm there is hope that a therapy or one of the drugs that comes out of research will start with a Phase I study, then if a signal is seen maybe move onto a phase II trial and maybe someday down the road have a path to drug approval. These kids need our help today and they do not have the time to wait for this to happen in five years. Treatments need to correct what is wrong but to do so while not damaging an individual beyond repair. We must work to identify a more effective cure but do so in a less toxic manner, without loss of organ function, vision, hearing, fertility, or other secondary cancers. There is so much more to do.
Q: What do you see as some of the potential impacts of the BCC/Sema4 partnership?
Patrick: Every cancer is unique, and there are unique features in childhood cancers that prompt researchers to look at not only genetic changes, but the pathways to those changes. That is why we work with our partners such as Sema4 to leverage RNA sequencing for personalized treatment and use tools and technology which can lead to possible new insights. Another big challenge of childhood cancer is how kids respond to therapy. By employing solutions to enable more precision treatment, therapies can be less toxic. What we are doing with Sema4 is new and exciting, with so much potential for hospitals and patients.
Q: How do you see pediatric cancer standard of care evolving?
Patrick: Cancer is not a foreign invasion of your body that you need to get out by surgery or some toxic treatment. Cancer is a sign that there is something in the body that is broken. By identifying which protein is not doing its job, there is the possibility of curing people by fixing what is broken and doing so with less toxicity than the standard of care for cancer treatment. Preventative screenings to identify at-risk patients are a start. By using these targeting approaches at ‘repair’ will lead to a dramatic decrease in the cost of cancer care. ICU stays, surgeries, and intense chemotherapy costing millions of dollars are unnecessary when you can identify a distinct protein to repair. There is the potential to fix the disease and repair the function without sacrificing organ function or quality of life. Increased survival, decreased toxicity all in the setting of a dramatic decrease in cost by preventing the traditional cancer journey from happening.
Progress has been made, but pediatric cancer has fallen through the cracks. Children deserve better. If you haven’t experienced it, it is difficult for people to understand the reality. I’ve spent time with families who have lost their children and the one question everyone asks is “why is no one is doing anything about it?” We need to fix it with research, funding, and partnerships to help save our children. The one thing that gives me tremendous hope is that with this partnership I now know the “who” and the “how” as it relates to childhood cancer survival increasing. Now we just need to get the funding and get to work.
Q: How do other children’s hospitals become a part of the BCC network?
Patrick: Our partners are always growing and open to new members. Hospitals that partner with BCC also have the added benefit of having access to research trials and support. We encourage all hospitals and research institutions to reach out to learn about what we do, our research goals, and the clinical landscape. There is the opportunity to help these kids, and we are creating that opportunity for patients and their communities. Every patient is unique. Our partners are identifying new therapies that every oncologist should have the chance to take advantage of.
Q: How can a patient leverage BCC?
Patrick: Your oncologist can refer you to a BCC consortium member, and you can go to our website for evaluation and enrollment. There are tools and resources to learn about trials through remote consultation. Any patient from anywhere can join us. For more information, visit www.beatcc.org.
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