Why has Dr. Poul Sorensen, a BC Cancer Agency senior scientist and the Johal Chair in Childhood Cancer Research, devoted his career to researching childhood cancers? Because, he says, as long as kids are sick, they need him to do more research.
“Many children do quite well with existing treatments,” he explains. “But we need to do better for the 30 to 40 per cent of childhood cancer patients who don’t respond to current treatments and whose cancer either returns or spreads.”
Up to two thirds of children also face long-term side effects as a result of their cancer treatments. They may develop learning and comprehension difficulties or physical ailments, and they are at risk of developing another cancer, later in life.
“There is a real need to develop better, more targeted, less toxic cancer treatments for children,” he explains.
Apparently, the benefits of childhood cancer research extend far beyond just these diseases. Often discoveries made in Dr. Sorensen’s lab apply to adult cancers as well.
For example, Dr. Sorensen’s team recently identified new strategies to target a protein called IGF1R, to improve outcomes for patients with childhood sarcoma. Since IGF1R is also believed to play a role in adult cancers such as breast cancer, the newly-developed treatments may apply to them as well.
“When I came to the BC Cancer Agency I knew I’d have the advantage of being able to partner with researchers looking into virtually every type of cancer,” Dr. Sorensen says. “But it’s also an advantage for them, because childhood cancers are much simpler. Their DNA isn’t as genetically complex as in adult tumours, so it’s easier to interpret. In fact, many researchers regularly read the childhood cancer literature to look for new insights in their own research.”
But there are still many challenges.
“Because childhood cancers affect such a small percentage of the population, we are working with very small sample sizes,” Dr. Sorensen explains. “We therefore rely very heavily on international partnerships to validate our research or prove our findings, to launch clinical trials and to be able to develop new drugs.”
Dr. Sorensen’s team also relies on the philanthropic partnership and funding support from organizations such as the BC Cancer Foundation, which provides significant support through its Ride to Conquer Cancer cycling event.
“We’ve been extremely lucky that the BC Cancer Foundation can support our work and that we can leverage those donated funds many times over,” he explains. “The Ride dollars are essential to our therapy resistance research because they’re not necessarily tied to conventional or ‘safe’ questions, as a typical grant might be. We can do more creative research and ask more speculative questions. And we are already seeing some very positive results.”
Those results can’t come soon enough for his small patients.
The BC Cancer Foundation, the fundraising partner of the BC Cancer Agency and the largest charitable funder of cancer research in B.C., enables donors to contribute to leading-edge research that has a direct impact on improvements to cancer care for patients. For more information visit: www.bccancerfoundation.com.
To find out more or to register for the 2011 Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer, visit www.conquercancer.ca.