Written By: Gina Crespo
Even though the month of September is dedicated to both Leukemia and Childhood Cancer Awareness, most people still have little knowledge about how cancers affect a person’s body or what goes into the research of cancers.
Leukemia is one of the deadliest cancers and the most common form in children. In leukemia, the bone marrow, where blood cells are formed in the body, is negatively affected.
“Patients with leukemia can often have over 100,000 cells/microliter of blood. The normal concentration is between 5,000-10,000 cells/microliter. In fact, there can be so many leukemic white blood cells in the blood that when it is drawn up into a test tube, instead of looking red, it actually looks white!” Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics and Director of Phase 1 Pediatric Clinical Research Program at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center Dr. Matteo Trucco said.
These white blood cells do not work properly and their presence can “crowd out” the normal blood cells.
As a result, patients with leukemia have a higher risk of infection, an increased risk of bleeding and bruising, and are anemic, meaning they have a low level of red blood cells. According to Dr. Trucco, patients are also in danger of losing a significant amount weight or even going into organ failure due to the lack of normal blood cells.
Researchers everyday attempt to find cures but the process is both lengthy and expensive. However, this extensive research process must start with the basics: the study of how blood cells develop and divide.
According to Trucco, researchers must study the normal cell division first because, “You can’t understand how something breaks and how to fix it if you don’t know how it works normally.”
After scientists have a good grasp on how cells divide, they begin studying how mutations that cause cancers occur. Then they attempt to find a way to target the mutation. Once they find out how, they can develop drugs and run lab experiments to test the treatment.
The clinical trial process is carried out in 3 phases.
“Phase 1 is testing the safety of the treatment and the dose. If the treatment is considered safe, and we have a dose, then a Phase 2 study is conducted specifically to test whether the treatment seems to actually work at treating or controlling the cancer. For these studies we set criteria for what we would consider the treatment to be “active,” for example does it eliminate the leukemia in 50% of patients in 2 months. If the treatment is deemed “active” against the specific cancer, then a Phase 3 study is developed where we test whether adding the new treatment to the standard treatment actually improves things. If the Phase 3 study is a success and shows that the new treatment improves the cure rate for the cancer, then approval of the treatment from the Food and Drug Administration of the government is sought. Each of these steps, from lab to clinic can take several years, and a lot of money,” Trucco said.
Several researchers all around the world are currently working on the development of better treatments for leukemia. For example, researchers, such as Dr. Julio Barredo, at the University of Miami are currently studying Acute Lymphoid Leukemia (ALL), the most common leukemia in children, in hopes of developing better treatments. However, due to the cost and length of the research process, the treatment may be a long way from being approved by the FDA or even being tested in clinical trials.
Cancer awareness clubs, like the one we now have in our school, organizations, and even the Awareness month events aim to aid these researchers in their journey to find better treatment methods.