The following appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on Sept. 24. The author is Gregory J. Aune, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Many citizens in our community may not realize that San Antonio is home to the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute — the largest freestanding pediatric cancer research facility in Texas and one of the few research institutes worldwide devoted exclusively to childhood cancer.
During this important month for childhood cancer awareness, it is imperative that all San Antonians recognize the significance of this highly unique research endeavor that is part of UT Health San Antonio.
One may wonder why a specific research effort is needed for a problem that affects a small minority of our residents. As a childhood cancer survivor and now physician-scientist and pediatric oncologist, I have a unique perspective that allows me to address this question.
Despite the dramatic improvements in survival over the past 70 years, childhood cancer remains the No. 1 cause of disease-related death for children in the United States. Moreover, survival statistics for childhood cancer focus on reaching the five-year mark, and these numbers provide no insights into the quality of life for those who do survive long term.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of childhood cancer survivors are faced with a lifetime of severe health problems that are the direct result of their “curative” pediatric cancer treatments. More than 75 percent of survivors will suffer from at least one chronic health condition related to previous treatments, and up to one-third are afflicted with a life-threatening condition.
A recent study estimated that by age 50, 60 percent of childhood cancer survivors will be either dead or suffering from a life-threatening health complication. Because our population of survivors is rapidly growing and will surpass a half-million in the United States by 2020, the ramifications for our health care system are obvious.
A common misconception is that research on adult cancers will adequately improve childhood cancer outcomes. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a group, childhood cancers are genetically and biologically distinct from their adult counterparts. Moreover, children treated for cancer face more severe toxicities from anti-cancer therapies because their bodies are still growing and developing.
Equally problematic for childhood cancer research is the massive gap in funding that exists between adult and children’s cancers. Because the overall numbers of childhood cancer cases are small, the economic incentives for drug development by pharmaceutical and biotech companies are lacking.
As a result, there is essentially no private-industry investment in childhood cancer research. Thus, our overall research climate massively favors the development of adult cancer drugs. When it comes to breakthrough treatments, kids are getting left behind. In the past 30 years, there have been approximately 62 new drugs approved for adult cancers. In contrast, during this same period, only four new drugs have been developed for children’s cancers. What happens to our children if this disparity is allowed to persist?
I have learned a great deal through my journey as a young cancer patient, long-term survivor, pediatric oncologist and physician-scientist. I am confident that anyone who has walked my path would advocate even greater support of children with cancer.
We all have a stake in the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute. This includes elected officials, health care and business leaders, foundations, philanthropists, families and UT Health San Antonio. With everyone’s help, the Greehey Institute will become one of America’s greatest centers of children’s cancer research, positively impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of children along the way.
Dr. Gregory J. Aune is the Stephanie Edlund Distinguished Professor in Pediatric Cancer Research at the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute at UT Health San Antonio. A 27-year survivor of childhood Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he serves on the National Cancer Institute Council of Research Advocates and the National Cancer Institute Pediatric Leukemia and Lymphoma Steering Committee.