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New genetic test offers hope of more effective childhood cancer treatments

Children with brain tumours will be among those offered a new genetic test that paves the way for young patients to receive personalised cancer treatment.

Developed by scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, the test will be rolled out over the next two years at 21 UK hospitals which treat children with cancerous tumours.

The aim is to discover which genetic mutations are most common in children’s tumours and identify those which might be targeted most effectively by drugs already used to treat adult cancers.

Treatments that target specific genetic mutations within tumours are likely to do less damage to healthy brain cells and cause fewer side-effects than standard treatments.

Ultimately, researchers hope to use the results of the new genetic test to direct children with cancer into clinical trials of personalised treatments. However, they say more such trials must be set up in order to maximise the potential benefit of the test.

The test will be offered to children under the age of 14 with solid tumours.

The team that developed the test was led by Louis Chesler, (photographed above) Professor of Paediatric Cancer Biology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and consultant at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.

In another research project co-funded by The Brain Tumour Charity, Professor Chesler has focused on the genetics of medulloblastoma – the most common form of cancerous brain tumour in children.

Working jointly with researchers from Newcastle University, he discovered a range of genetic changes that appear only in some cases of recurrent medulloblastoma, raising the hope that these cases could be targeted more effectively by tailored treatments.

Speaking about the new genetic test to be offered to children with cancerous tumours, Professor Chesler said: “Children deserve the very best, modern treatments for cancer, but for too long there have been delays in applying the latest molecular techniques to personalise their treatment.

“A more comprehensive and structured approach to genetic testing to match children with cancer to specific targeted treatments could be an incredibly important step towards increasing survival.

“It’s exciting to be testing out this new approach to genetic testing in several hundred children with cancer, in what I hope will be a staging post towards routine use of genomic information for the care of all children with cancer in the UK.

“We still face major barriers in obtaining targeted cancer drugs for children and using them in robustly designed clinical trials. But my hope is that through this and other initiatives like it, we can help to drive forward the use of targeted drugs in children, and make the case very clearly that they should be more widely available, as they have been for adults.”