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Some Childhood Cancers Are Still Killers

Better funding is vital to improve treatments, experts say

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Infants have a high cure rate, with about 90 percent alive five years later; that dips to 68 percent among children diagnosed between the ages of 1 and 4, according to the cancer institute.

The biology of a child's neuroblastoma is also key. "We used to think all neuroblastomas were the same," Maris said. "They're not."

Maris and his colleagues found that mutations in a gene called ALK are behind a rare form of neuroblastoma that runs in families.

An oral cancer drug -- already tested and approved for certain cases of lung cancer in adults -- targets ALK. In early trials, the drug, called crizotinib, led to remission in kids with the rare form of neuroblastoma and children with an uncommon, aggressive type of lymphoma.

At St. Jude, Downing and his colleagues have been working on a project to "decode" the genomes of more than 600 children with cancer in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the genetic origins of various tumors. They've found specific gene mutations in certain gliomas, neuroblastomas and rare subtypes of leukemia that they hope will someday lead to better treatments.

But even with highly curable cancers, such as ALL, safer treatments are needed. The chemotherapy, radiation and other therapies used to battle kids' cancer can have unfortunate side effects years later -- including other cancers and heart and lung damage.

"When you're talking about children, a cure is not enough," Maris said.

Both Maris and Downing pointed to better funding as a vital need. "We need advocacy at the legislative level to make sure pediatric cancers aren't unwittingly discriminated against," Maris said.

Public support -- including donations to foundations supporting pediatric cancer research -- can also help, Downing said. "This can't get done without support from the general public," he said.

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