CancerCare program offers hope for hopeless young patients

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There's a chance Terry Fox would be alive today if he'd been able to take advantage of improved treatments now being used to attack the kind of cancer that took his right leg 40 years ago.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/11/2017 (1898 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s a chance Terry Fox would be alive today if he’d been able to take advantage of improved treatments now being used to attack the kind of cancer that took his right leg 40 years ago.

But the Winnipeg-born icon, who died four years later after suspending his courageous Marathon of Hope run across the country on an artificial limb, could also have been among the 20 per cent of young Canadians whose cancers return, spread or are resistant to treatment, says CancerCare Manitoba pediatric oncologist Geoff Cuvelier.

An initiative launched Thursday in Fox’s name offers a ray of hope to the 20 per cent of cancer patients in Canada who face that grim reality.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dr. Geoff Cuvelier in the kids area in the Pediatric Clinic at CancerCare Manitoba.

Called the Terry Fox PROFYLE (short for PRecision Oncology For Young PeopLE), the program offers molecular profiling of tumours for patients who are out of options in their fight to stay alive. A profile can help find an existing treatment not previously considered for a specific type of cancer.

“It’s taking a tumour into a lab for a hard-to-treat cancer and understanding the genetic landscape so we can then find a specific treatment,” Cuvelier said.

The program could prevent some families from turning to people offering expensive, experimental treatments or, worse, snake-oil fraudsters who prey on desperate families.

“We see families who have lost their homes paying for private things that have no evidence behind them. This offers those families some hope that there is something else we can do,” he said.

Genetic biopsies are important because one size does not fit all when it comes to cancer.

For example, the most common cancer in children is acute lymphoblastic leukemia, but it is not a single diagnosis, said Cuvelier.

In fact, it represents hundreds of different kinds of cancers, each with different molecular genetic signature, he said.

Cuvelier cited the recent case of a young local man for whom two rounds of chemotherapy had not worked, and the only option was a third round, even though it was obvious it had virtually no chance to succeed.

The young man was sent for molecular profiling of his tumour. What came back was a genetic makeup known to have poor responses to chemotherapy.

However, the profile indicated immune avoidance, which directed doctors to a drug used in other cancers — called an immune checkpoint inhibitor — that suggested potential.

“My understanding is this tumour has largely shrunk,” Cuvelier said.

“We would like to actually repurpose drugs that are already available and may be used for some other condition that we didn’t consider,” he said.

With about 200 Manitobans under the age of 30 diagnosed with cancer every year, the program could look at the 20 per cent who are otherwise at the end of the treatment road.

CancerCare Manitoba Foundation is investing $175,000 this year, and has pledged $1 million over five years.

Annitta Stenning, CEO of CancerCare Manitoba Foundation, thanked donators for allowing CancerCare to take part in the program, which include about 20 other pediatric cancer treatment and research centres across Canada.

The program will also see the centres sharing information instead of working “in silos” isolated from each other, Cuvelier said.

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