Pill breakthrough for some child cancers

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A drug producing amazing results in adult lung cancer is now doing the same with some childhood cancers.

6-year-old Zach Witt is a bundle of energy these days.

And his parent's couldn't be happier. It is quite a turnaround from barely a year ago.

In 2010, doctors discovered that Zach had an agressive form of lymphoma - cancer of the lymph nodes. His type is called aplastiic large cell lymphoma.

At first, chemotherapy fought off the cancer.

That changed last April.

His mother Pam recalls, "He started having flu-like symptoms. He was very tired."

Zach's condition deteriorated quickly.

"I still have a hard time talking about it," she says.

"He was getting swelling, his heart rate increased. I must say, we honestly thought we were going to lose him," she says.

Then, doctors at Children's Hospital put Zach into tests with crizotinib - a drug which made headlines for stopping some lung cancers in their tracks.

It targets an abnormal gene called ALK.

Dr. Yael Mosse, who is leading studies of crizotinib at CHOP, says, "It's really what that cancer cell feeds on, frelies on, is addicted to for its growth."

The drug turns the gene off, turning off the growth of the tumor.

In lymphoma cases like Zach's, the results were surprising.

"7 of these 8 patients have had complete response, which means the tumor has gone away completely," says Dr. Mosse.

"We do call it remission. We don't call it cure, because this is new territory for us," she notes.

Pam beams as she says, "On the third day, he literally ran down to the playroom - I'm not exaggerating."

Dr. Mosse has also studied crizotinib in a form of neuroblastoma which also has abnormal ALK gene activity. Several of those patients are in remission, while most of the others have had some response.

Dr. Mosse says it may be a matter of finding the proper dose.

Even with very high doses, there are very few side effects, unlike other cancer drugs.

Researchers at CHOP will continue testing the drug for lymphoma. Dr. Mosse hopes crizotinib wil be able to work along with standard chemotherapy, to reduce the amount of chemo and its side effects.

While Zach is in remission, he isn't cured. And he has to continue taking the drug. But now there is a sense of renewed hope.

It may also help with other cancers with similar genetic mutations.

Dr. Mosse presented her findings at a special program of ASCO, the American Society of Clinical Oncologists.

For more information on the study, go to Children's Hospital website.

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