Cancer in children is, thankfully, relatively rare compared to adults, with around 110 new cases diagnosed in the North East and Cumbria each year.
Dr Quentin Campbell-Hewson photographed before COVID-19
This means new treatments for young patients need to be effective for what are, by their very nature, extremely specialist conditions, and why clinical trials provide a lifeline for children unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with the disease.
In 2016, our Foundation gave a £1million grant to fund four 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 is led by Consultant Paediatric Oncologist, Dr Quentin Campbell-Hewson, and is embedded within the hospital’s clinical service, meaning research is not separate from routine care of patients and nearly all young patients are involved in clinical trial studies.
This ensures they receive the most up-to-date therapy possible and that progress continues to be made in developing better care. Through research, five-year survival rates for children with cancer have improved from about 30% in the 1970s, to around 85% today.
Given the importance of the trials, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Campbell-Hewson requested and received permission to continue with them.
Dr Campbell-Hewson says: “When the pandemic started, we didn’t know how much of a risk it would be for our patients and that was something we needed to discover. And we didn’t know to what extent our team would need to assist in other clinical areas or be redeployed.
“What we did know was that children’s cancer wouldn’t stop. It’s one of the leading causes of death for children and we can only combat this with the precise, timely and intensive therapies we use.”
Our £1m funding 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).
In the North East and Cumbria, treatment for childhood cancer is centralised, with every child and young person diagnosed coming into Newcastle for specialist treatment.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, individual treatment needs have continued to be met at the Great North Children’s Hospital and trials of new treatments driven forward.
The Innovative Therapies for Children with Cancer Unit has also recruited patients to a national study monitoring COVID-19 infection in immunosuppressed children and Newcastle is the highest recruiting site after the main trial centre in Southampton.
This revealed that COVID-19 infection rates are low and, thankfully, very rarely serious in children, even when they are severely immunosuppressed.
Dr Campbell-Hewson adds: “It’s hard to overstate the importance of clinical trials for young cancer patients. We meet with children and young adults with cancer every day and we know what these new treatments mean to them.
“We’re basically the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre but for children and we’re making very good progress. But there’s still much more to be done and we’re hugely grateful to everyone who has made a donation to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and helped support our work.”