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September 29th, 2010
05:50 PM ET

Childhood cancer treatment sparks talk of a "cure"

It’s not often we use the word “cure” in a headline about cancer, but there’s news today that has some doctors buzzing. 

A report published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine describes a new therapy for a deadly childhood cancer.  The disease is called high-risk neuroblastoma, which affects the nerves lining the spinal cord and often forms tumors around the adrenal gland, in the abdomen.  226 patients were split into two equal groups.  In the half receiving the experimental therapy, 66 percent survived without complications for two years, compared to 46 percent of those who got standard therapy.

The difference was so dramatic that the study was actually stopped early, because researchers decided it would be unethical not to offer the new therapy to all patients.

The study was sponsored by the National Cancer Institute.

Like many newer treatments, this one harnesses the body’s own immune system to target cancer cells.  The approach is known as immunotherapy.  In this case, the homing beacon is a protein known as GD2, found on the surface of the cancer cells but not on healthy ones.  The treatment delivers a protein called anti-GD2 to attack those cells.  The therapy’s other component – drugs known as cytokines – increase the overall activity of the immune system.

Neuroblastoma typically develops early, with a significant number of cases in children less than a year old.  About a third of the time, surgical tumor removal is enough to save the patient without further treatment.  The majority of remaining cases are classified as “high-risk” based on genetic testing of the tumor.  While there are only about 600 cases per year in the U.S., because of its severity neuroblastoma accounts for 12 percent of cancer deaths in Americans younger than 15.

Dr. John Maris, head of the neuroblastoma research committee for the Children’s Oncology Group, a national consortium of cancer researchers, said he was thrilled by the results. “This is the important leap in cure rates that we’ve had in the last two decades.  For those of us who used to see 85 or 90 percent of the patients die, this is a major, major improvement.”  Maris is director of the Cancer Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and an author on the paper.

Maris said the general treatment approach could be relevant to many types of cancer.  Most immediately, he said the therapy should be effective against other cancers with the GD2 protein - most notably melanoma, a type of skin cancer.

The paper was one of two on neuroblastoma, published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine. The second study found that in “middle-risk” cases, patients could be treated effectively with lower doses of chemotherapy than are currently used in most patients.


soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. charle s

    This sounds like great news. I hope that it can be used with other cancers.

    September 30, 2010 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Jane Doe

    "The difference was so dramatic that the study was actually stopped early, because researchers decided it would be unethical not to offer the new therapy to all patients." So if everyone can't have, no one can have it? Or did they end up offering it to everyone in the study?

    September 30, 2010 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Smarter than your average Jane Doe

      Can you really be that stupid Jane Doe? Of course it was offered to all participants in the trial.

      September 30, 2010 at 15:26 | Report abuse |
    • Jane Doe

      You forgot a comma. That should say, "Can you really be that stupid, Jane Doe?" I appreciate the effort, but you just shattered your own glass house.

      October 1, 2010 at 08:29 | Report abuse |
  3. what

    I dont understand why chemotherapy isnt considered a "cure" for cancer. It kills off a lot of different types of cancers. What exactly is a "cure for cancer" anyways? A lot of cancer patients have a 90%+ survival rate with treatment, only some cancers will never go away. The way the media uses "cure for cancer" so often is starting to sound like theyre crying wolf, it has very little meaning these days.

    September 30, 2010 at 18:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • intel

      cancer is VERY complex disease. all of the cellular mutations that have to go wrong for cancer to progress is mind blowing. chemo is in NO way a cure. Its a treatment. Chemo kills cells, yes. But is that a cure? Chemo is so unspecific that it kills our own good cells- how is that a cure? in order to be a cure, a drug would need to alter the cell to eliminate the genetic mutations. because even if chemo does kill the cells and seemingly eliminates the outward presentation of the disease, it still doesn't correct the genetic defects that allow cancer to progress. you need to eliminate cancer at the micro level by altering the cellular processes

      September 30, 2010 at 19:18 | Report abuse |
    • JK

      Actually, for a treatment to be considered a cure, it has to eliminate the disease permanently. There are very few cancers which can be cured. Vast majority of tumors come back after 10-20 years. Chemotherapy is a treatment, and very ineffective one at that. Chemotherapy does not eliminate all tumor cells, thus some remain and promote tumor regrowth and metastasis. Unfortunately, you cannot "fix" the genetic aberrations found in tumor cells. The nature of a mutation is that it's a permanent event, so to CURE cancer, we have to kill ALL mutated cells; and that's an incredibly tough task.

      September 30, 2010 at 22:01 | Report abuse |
  4. Dr Bill Toth

    Finally – There seems to be a fundamental shift occurring in cancer therapy – from destroying a person's immune system with chemo and radiation to actually boosting and using the body's intelligent immune system.

    October 1, 2010 at 08:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. chris r

    i thought this was a great idea and there finlly seems that there is something hthat we can help do

    October 1, 2010 at 09:57 | Report abuse | Reply
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    What kind of food contain Gd2 protien?

    October 24, 2010 at 05:39 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.