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As all parents know, kids aren’t just smaller versions of adults. They think differently. Their imaginations are bigger. Their energy can be boundless. And, especially when it comes to medical treatment, their needs are unique.
Yet, for too long, children with blood cancer didn’t have treatment options well-suited to them. Now, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) is improving the outlook for thousands of kids with a game-changing initiative: LLS launched a first-of-its-kind global master clinical trial for pediatric acute leukemia, the PedAL Master Trial, which aims to match pediatric blood cancer patients with treatment based on their cancer's unique tumor biology.
“[Children’s] bodies work in different ways, and they undergo changes as they grow, which means we need different treatment approaches, especially for children with relapsed acute leukemias,” said Gwen Nichols, M.D., Chief Medical Officer at LLS and co-chair of PedAL. “Our vision is to identify the unique tumor biology of each child’s cancer to help match them with the most promising treatment.”
PedAL was developed to address an urgent need with pediatric cancer treatment. But even families who haven’t known the pain of a pediatric cancer diagnosis can relate on some level: During the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of families have come to know firsthand how difficult it is to wait for safe, effective treatments for kids—especially when approval comes much faster for adults. It’s an agonizing wait.
But waiting for effective treatments is familiar for many pediatric cancer patients. On average, children with cancer have to wait more than six years for new treatments. In those cases, delays in pediatric oncology research and therapies can threaten children’s survival. For example, progress with pediatric acute leukemia treatment has fallen way behind what’s available for adult cancer patients, and as a result, only 69% of kids with acute myeloid leukemia will survive more than five years.
Unfortunately, the treatments that are available to children battling cancer aren’t without risks or side effects, either. For Julie Guillot, it was the toll of four years of treatments that contributed to her son Zach’s death in 2014. “While the treatment really attacked the cancer, it also attacked his body,” she said. “Uncontrollable fevers, terrible nose bleeds, and his skin was burned from the inside out. He died at just 9 years old—really from the treatment that was meant to save him.”
The objective of PedAL is to replace one-size-fits-all chemotherapy with personalized treatments. Eligible families can enroll a child in one of the many PedAL therapeutic trials in progress. In addition to helping trial participants gain access to cutting-edge medical treatment, PedAL will create one of the largest collections of data from children with leukemia. With this data, researchers and scientists will be able to help countless other pediatric cancer patients by furthering effective, safer treatment options with fewer long-term side effects.
At the same time, LLS is working to improve access to clinical trials by expanding educational resources for patients, providing financial support and advocating for them across all levels of government.
Although there is still work to be done to advance blood cancer treatment and care, LLS and PedAL efforts are helping provide hope to children and families now. That means everything to parents like Julie, who vowed to help other kids battling a cancer diagnosis.
“We are so close to finding better treatments for kids with cancer,” Julie said. “It’s too late to save Zach. But working together, we can save thousands of kids just like him.”
Visit the Dare to Dream Project’s website for more information about PedAL.