Scientists on track to find less toxic treatments for childhood cancer

Arthur Davidson was only five-weeks-old when he underwent his first chemotherapy treatment, but now there’s hope children like him can beat cancer without going through the same treacherous program.

Neuroblastoma is an aggressive cancer, best treated by courses of chemotherapy, but the side effects can be crippling.

"It's a big long program of treatment, some 14 months easily and heavy going all the way, intensive, in-and-out of hospital," Dr Geoffrey McCowage from the Children's Hospital at Westmead said.

Arthur is now five, filled with a love of Lego and jumping on the trampoline.

Thanks to four brutal rounds of chemotherapy, he's still alive.

He is one of the lucky ones. More than 40 percent of children with neuroblastoma do not survive.

“Hearing the word ‘cancer’ with your five week old baby is every parent's worst nightmare,” Arthur’s mum Jessica Bragdon said.

Jessica and her partner Paul had to make a tough decision on Arthur’s treatment plan; surgery or emergency chemotherapy.

Cancer survivor Arthur Davidson
Arthur Davidson and his parents Paul and Jessica.

Arthur had a tumour the size of a golf ball in his paraspinal area, close to his adrenal glands which would make surgery extremely difficult.

“[The decision was] Do we try to operate in this area that is really tricky place to operate or do we start emergency chemo and steroids to try and shrink everything down without knowing the stage of the neuroblastoma,” Ms Bragdon said.

“So, because of where it was located, we did emergency chemo.”

Along with these, Arthur endured blood transfusions and a staph infection.

“It’s just this position that parents are in where you would do anything for your child," Ms Bragdon said.

"You would give your life for your child and to have to give them a treatment that makes them sick to make them better is just a horrific decision."

Arthur is also still at risk of developing other types of cancer including leukemia, while the rest of his childhood will be filled with doctor’s appointments- blood tests and electrocardiograms (EKGs) to ensure the drug which saved him will not end up harming him.

Cancer survivor Arthur Davidson

But research by Dr Orazio Vittorio at the Children’s Cancer Institute provides some hope that one day the ordeal won’t have to be so great.

“The problems are the side effects. We are able to kill cancer cells but unfortunately we also kill the non-malignant cells, the cells which are healthy,” Dr Vittorio said.

“We want to develop more targeted therapeutics.

"There are drugs that can kill, and recognise, only the cancer cells.”

In 2012, Dr Vittorio found that a natural compound, catechin, when combined with dextran disrupts the blood vessel network formation in tumours and prevents the cancer from getting the blood supply needed to grow and spread.

“If you can make something that can reduce the side effects, they won’t need to deal, for the rest of their life, with other diseases which are unfortunately the secondary effect of chemotherapy,” Dr Vittorio explained.

That means extra time for little kids like Arthur to be jumping on the trampoline rather than having more of their childhoods robbed by hospital rooms and doctor’s offices.

Dr Vittorio said there’s still a long way to go from “the bench to the bed” but their goal is ultimately to get the research to clinical trials.

Ms Bragdon said any inroads that are made to lessen treatment and the subsequent side effects are a positive thing.

“Every time the outcomes are improved, there’s more hope,” she said.

“When you are in that position, you need to know there are positive stories, you need to know there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

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