Leukaemia breakthrough: Telethon Kids Institute researchers optimistic about new treatment for kids


Marny and Flo Parker with Dr Laurence Cheung and Dr Rishi Kotecha.
Marny and Flo Parker with Dr Laurence Cheung and Dr Rishi Kotecha.

TELETHON Kids Institute researchers have discovered a breakthrough in treating childhood leukaemia that could also slow one of its most painful side effects – bone loss.

Led by Mt Pleasant Dr Laurence Cheung, the team of experts found that bone loss occurred during the development of leukaemia and when treated could reduce the progression of the cancer.

Dr Cheung said the findings were pre-clinical but promising and suggested that the new treatment could help fight leukaemia and provide relief for bone loss – one of the most common and painful side-effects.

“To date, the main strategy for cancer therapy in children has focused on targeting malignant cells with chemotherapy, which is toxic for the leukaemia cells but also toxic for the patient,” he said.

“Our finding that the cells surrounding the leukaemia cells can contribute to treatment failure or success has led to a paradigm shift.

“It’s not going to replace chemotherapy, but we propose that using chemotherapy and treating the microenvironment at the same time will have more benefit than just the chemotherapy by itself.”

Karrinyup mother Marny Parker, whose seven-year-old daughter Flo was diagnosed with leukaemia four years ago, said the new research would offer patients and families hope for the future.

Mrs Parker said she was in disbelief when Flo was diagnosed and devastated to think of what the future held for her young child.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is the most common cancer among children and remains a common cause of cancer-related death before 20 years of age.

Although long-term survival rates for children and adolescents with ALL had increased, outcomes in high-risk sub-groups remained poor.

Dr Cheung’s study focused on the most common form of leukaemia in children, a subtype of ALL known as pre-B ALL, the leukaemia Flo was diagnosed with.

Mrs Parker said Flo’s treatment was intensive and included chemotherapy which had short term side effects of vomiting, diarrhoea, sore stomach, hair loss and stunted growth, while long term effects could include bone density issues.

“She may be looking at the early onset of osteoporosis in her 30s so to have treatments with less side effects would be fantastic,” she said.

“With a lot of treatment they don’t discriminate with the cells, they attack the cancer cells and normal healthy cells, so if there were drugs that could help eliminate compromising the normal healthy cells, that would be great.”