While child mortality rates in the West are arguably the lowest in history, today’s children still face dangers. Mostly they’re in the form of accidents, avoidable but unforeseen. For example, drowning, the second leading cause of death for children younger than age five. On a tragic level, they may be victims of abuse, a situation that is being handled by collaborative efforts of law enforcement, child protective services, and psychologists. But what about cancer, the disease that affects one in 330 children under age 19?
Cancer is one of the biggest killers of children, second only to accidents. Some of the most aggressive types of cancer almost exclusively develop during childhood, such as the brainstem cancer called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). Despite that, a relatively low amount of funding is directed toward childhood cancer research. To get more public support and knowledge, September has been Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in the U.S. since 1990.
As we’re closing out the 28th CCAM, what strides have we made in childhood cancer research? Actually a couple notable ones. Genetic research, in particular, is helping our understanding of where tumor growth comes from and how we can target and treat cancers. Doctors and researchers in Great Britain are hoping to soon be the first country to offer accessible, extensive genetic testing to pinpoint and treat cancers and rare childhood diseases.
One type of cancer, in particular, is being genetically cracked by researchers in Denmark, who announced new findings during CCAM. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a devastating cancer for children, with remission rates of about 98% and a 90% survival rate at five years. Cases of ALL are on the rise the past few decades, making up around 25% of under age 15 cancer diagnoses in the United States. The Copenhagen research team’s groundbreaking hypothesis?
“That children with ALL are born with a dysregulated immune function that together with postnatal environmental exposures causes the development of the disease in childhood. Previous studies had indicated that children could develop ALL due to an overreaction to childhood infections.”
In a nutshell, genetic testing and close observation could give doctors the red flags they need to diagnose a predisposition to common childhood cancers like ALL. Now that we can better track even small genetic markers, research is honing in on the true causes of these devastating illnesses. Genetic testing is still pricy, often costing thousands of dollars out of pocket. The hope is that advancement in the field can eventually lower costs and make the testing available even to lower-income families looking to protect and treat their children.
Next Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, consider helping to sponsor a family or donating to a reputable research group. And remember, you don’t even have to wait until next September, you can help these children in need any time.