Immunotherapy for childhood cancer shows promise in certain cancers and without the damaging, long-term side effects that can accompany conventional treatments.
Around the world, young people under the age of 20 receive a cancer diagnosis roughly every two minutes, affecting an estimated 300,000 children and adolescents every year. Although young people are affected by several of the same types of cancer as adults, the ways in which they develop―and the ways in which they must be treated―can be drastically different for several reasons.
Most cancers affecting young people involve a precursor cell, known as “blast” cells. Blast cells play a role in the formation of our bodily tissues, including our blood and immune cells, bones, eyes, and brains.
The most common types of cancer in children under the age of 15 are:
- acute lymphocytic leukemia
- brain cancer
- non-Hodgkin lymphoma
The most common types of cancer in adolescents between the ages of 15-19 are:
- brain cancer
- Hodgkin lymphoma
- thyroid carcinoma
- testicular germ cell tumors
For people under the age of 20, cancer causes more deaths than any other disease in the United States, where only trauma is responsible for more deaths in this group. Approximately 1 of every 285 people in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 20, and the average age of diagnosis is six years old.
The survival rates for these different types of cancers vary, but overall the majority of young people diagnosed with cancer are able to survive long-term thanks to advances in treatments, including immune-based therapies, over the past several decades.
Current treatments help most children and adolescents overcome cancer, but that survival often comes at a cost, as these treatments can cause long-term damage that can affect these patients for the rest of their lives. With new immunotherapy approaches, hope now exists that we can treat young patients not only more effectively, but also―due to the specificity of the immune system―in ways that prevent the damaging side effects that can accompany conventional treatments.
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Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are all common treatment options for childhood cancers. While chemotherapy and radiation have improved the survival of children with cancer over the past few decades and are effective for about 80% of young patients, those treatments often cause damaging, long-term side effects. Stem cell transplants have already been helpful for young patients with neuroblastoma, leukemia, and lymphoma, and there are many efforts under way to improve this treatment approach.
Immunotherapy is class of treatments that take advantage of a person’s own immune system to help kill cancer cells. There are currently five FDA-approved immunotherapy options for childhood cancer:
- Blinatumomab (Blincyto®): a bispecific antibody that targets CD19 on tumor cells as well as CD3 on T cells; approved for subsets of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)
- Dinutuximab (Unituxin®): a monoclonal antibody that targets the GD2 pathway; approved for subsets of pediatric patients with neuroblastoma
- Ipilimumab (Yervoy®): a checkpoint inhibitor that targets the CTLA-4 pathway; approved for subsets of pediatric patients with advanced melanoma
- Pembrolizumab (Keytruda®): a checkpoint inhibitor that targets the PD-1 pathway; approved for subsets of pediatric patients with classical Hodgkin lymphoma
Adoptive Cell Therapy
- Tisagenlecleucel AKA CAR T 19 (KYMRIAH®): a CD19-targeting CAR T cell immunotherapy; approved for subsets of pediatric patients with advanced leukemia
There are several immunotherapies under evaluation in clinical trials.
Find a pediatric cancer clinical trial
Several decades ago, less than one in every ten children diagnosed with cancer survived long term. Now, almost 80% survive. Stem cell transplants, a form of immunotherapy, have been critical to improving these childhood cancer survival rates. However, these transplants, as well as an immunotherapeutic antibody that is approved for pediatric neuroblastoma (a form of nerve cell tumor), are used in combination with chemotherapy, which can produce debilitating long-term side effects for these young patients, including graft versus host disease (GVHD).
To help address that problem, CRI invests in a diversity of projects which might improve treatment options. Some researchers are exploring ways to effectively perform transplants without the need for chemotherapy, while others are revealing new insights regarding the relationship between cancer and the immune system that could lead to entirely new approaches that improve outcomes and safety.
- Carl H. June, M.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, has led clinical trials that have successfully treated young patients with CAR T cells, including Emily Whitehead, who overcame her leukemia and has been cancer-free for over four years now.
- Three CRI postdoctoral fellows—Kevin C. Barry, Ph.D., at the University of California, San Francisco; Sofia L. Novais de Oliveira, Ph.D., at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Kevin M. Sullivan, M.D., at the University of Washington School of Medicine—and assistant professor of medicine Amy K. Kim, M.D., at Johns Hopkins University are exploring how immunotherapy could help against fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma (FL-HCC), a rare form of liver cancer that primarily affects young people.
- Mark P. Rubinstein, Ph.D., a CRI CLIP Investigator (2016-2018) at the Medical University of South Carolina, is working to improve the effectiveness of stem cell transplants, a common treatment for childhood cancers, by eliminating the need to wipe out a patient’s existing immune system prior to treatment.
- Bradley Wayne Blaser, M.D., Ph.D., a CRI Irvington Postdoctoral Fellow (2014-2016) at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, identified the factors that promote successful engraftment of transplanted stem cells in animal models, which he will then attempt to translate into improved approaches for human patients.
Explore CRI’s current funding for childhood cancer research in our funding directory.
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