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Why we need more research into childhood cancer

WilliamsDavidDSC_0056PreviewlargeDavid A. Williams, MD, is chief of hematology/oncology at Boston Children’s Hospital and associate chairman of pediatric oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. This column was first published on Huffington Post.

The fact that childhood cancer is, thankfully, rare belies the fact that it is the leading cause of disease-related death in U.S. children age 1 to 19. The number of people with a direct stake in expanding research into pediatric cancer is quite large, well beyond the small number of children with cancer and their families. Not only are the life-long contributions of children cured of cancer enormous, but understanding cancers of young children could also hold the key to understanding a broad range of adult cancers. The time is ripe to allocate more resources, public and private, to research on pediatric cancer.

In an age of increased understanding of the genetic basis of diseases, one thing is striking about many childhood cancers. They are relatively “quiet” cancers, with very few mutations of the DNA. Young children haven’t lived long enough to acquire the large number of mutations that create the background “noise” associated with years of living. This makes it much easier to pinpoint the relevant genetic abnormalities in a young child’s cancer.

Add to this the growing realization that biology, including how various tumors use common “pathways,” is a major factor in how the cancer responds to treatment. Thus, a mechanism that’s relatively easier to observe in the cancers of young children could help scientists understand cancers in adults, in whom the same mechanism is hidden amid the clutter of mutations acquired over a longer life.

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