A paediatric oncology team, strengthened by funding from our Foundation, is making real progress in developing new treatments that are both more effective and less toxic for children with cancer.

Dr Quentin Campbell-Hewson

In 2016, we announced £1m funding for four new posts within the Innovative Therapies for Children with Cancer Unit, which has doctors, nurses and research staff based at the Great North Children’s Hospital and Newcastle University’s Wolfson Childhood Cancer Research Centre.

The team work with young patients from across the North East and Cumbria, and now from further afield, too, to ensure individual treatment needs are met and to drive forward trials of new treatments.

Our funding has enabled the Innovative Therapies for Children with Cancer Unit to expand by appointing a consultant level clinical fellowship post, two specialist nursing roles and a clinical study fellowship (early phase clinical trials).

Consultant Paediatric Oncologist, Dr Campbell-Hewson, leads the team and describes it as, “Basically the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre, but for children.”

In this region, the treatment for childhood cancer is centralised, with every child and young person diagnosed with cancer in the North East and Cumbria coming into Newcastle for specialist treatment.

Now a network approach to clinical trials of children’s cancer treatments, developed by Dr Campbell-Hewson and his team and also encompassing young patients from Scotland and Northern Ireland, is increasing the number of patients included in Newcastle-based studies, helping research into childhood cancers progress faster.

Dr Campbell-Hewson explains about the positive changes in treating childhood cancers, and how our Foundation is helping.

He says: “Thankfully, childhood cancer is relatively rare, we get around 110 new cases per annum in the North East and Cumbria.

“Within the Innovative Therapies for Children with Cancer Unit, the patients we’d consider for trials of new therapies are those who have either been failed by standard, existing, therapies or else they have one of a small sub-set of conditions where we don’t have good therapies just now.

“So, when you’re thinking about coming up with new treatments for these young patients, it needs to be effective for what are now very specialist conditions. The posts the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation has funded in our wider team have allowed us to address this problem.

“Thanks to the funding, we’ve been able to establish a network, based in Newcastle but including Scotland and Northern Ireland and the childhood cancer centres there, so that our studies base has a much larger population.

“Since 2018, this system’s been reproduced across the country and there are now four networks incorporated into what’s called the Paediatric Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC) Network.

“So, just as the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Centre at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care is the ECMC for adults, we are the ECMC for children.

“And within the Paediatric Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre Network, young cancer patients can be ‘matched’ with new treatments wherever they are available in the country.

“We’ve been doing this for a number of years. It’s been a slow build and the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation’s support has been a crucial part of us being able to continue to build, but also to speed things up.

“In the 25 years between 1990 and 2015, on average, we recruited one patient a year to a new trial. For the last three years, we’ve recruited 40 patients, so a massive difference.

“We’ve gone from a portfolio where we’ve had just one or two studies, to having 10 studies open and very substantially broadening out the opportunities there are for children where standard treatment doesn’t work.”

The work funded through our Foundation directly benefits cancer patients in the North East and Cumbria and plays a significant role in the international fight against the disease – funding cutting-edge cancer treatment and innovative cancer support services, including the clinical trials of new drugs at the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre.

The Sir Bobby Centre’s patients and staff play an important role in the clinical trials of new cancer drugs for adults and Dr Campbell-Hewson can see real changes for younger patients thanks to the Innovative Therapies for Children with Cancer Unit.

Dr Campbell-Hewson adds: “Our two most successful studies have changed the lives of patients taking part.

“There’s a trial of a drug called a MEK inhibitor for patients with brain tumours, who’ve had multiple lines of treatment and have run through them all. Our longest running patient has been on that study for more than two years.

“Another trial that we’re the most active recruiter in the world on, is being used to treat osteosarcoma.

“In some ways, the osteosarcomas are a harder set of patients to treat because we don’t have so many therapies that work for them and this drug, called a Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor, is a very positive change.

“In fact, we’ve treated more patients for this condition than anywhere else in the world.

“Again, we have young patients who have been on this treatment for two years who otherwise, tragically, simply wouldn’t be here now. Young people who are now going on holiday, starting new jobs and really living their lives.

“Moving cancer treatment for children forwards is my great passion, and we’re making very good progress. Clearly, there’s still a lot more to be done though and we’re hugely grateful to everyone who has made a donation to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and helped support our work.

“The Foundation’s funding has enabled us to approach new studies in a more effective manner, safely speeding things up. We meet with children and young adults with cancer every day and we know what these new treatments mean to them.”