September is National Childhood Cancer and Sickle Cell Awareness Month. This year’s observance comes as we continue to learn more about COVID-19 and its effects, and we are fortunate that our pediatric hematology-oncology patients have not been severely impacted. Two of our faculty members, Julie Wolfson, MD, MSHS and Emily Johnston, MD, MS are involved in a national research effort to collect information on pediatric cancer patients infected with the virus.
We never slowed down as the virus proved unpredictable and rapid in its effects. Most of our patients have life threatening conditions and cannot afford delays in their treatment. Our faculty and staff, including our receptionists, nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians and clinical research coordinators, ensured we maintained consistency when it comes to treating our patients during these trying times. We even continued to enroll patients in clinical trials, especially when a particular clinical trial was the only available option for patients and their families. That speaks volumes of the dedication of everyone who works at Children’s of Alabama and for that I am truly grateful and proud.
This September, and every day, we are committed to a cure. With about 150 new cancer patients seen each year at Children’s, opportunities are being sought to provide more potentially life-saving clinical trials. Our memberships in five national consortiums allow us to offer cutting-edge treatment options to patients in Alabama, as well as those in neighboring states. To manage the expected growth in clinical trials, a reorganization to improve efficiency and additional staff recruitment is under way. Other goals include recruiting scientists who can build on our portfolio, not just in brain tumors but also sickle cell disease and leukemia. Predictions are that the number of clinical trials, today at about 10, will double within the next two years.
We recently established a one-year clinical fellowship in pediatric neuro-oncology as brain tumors surpass acute leukemia as the most common form of cancer in children. The need for more pediatric brain tumor specialists is great as we join only 14 other programs in the U.S. that offer subspecialty training. In addition, Children’s has formalized a relationship with the Children’s Cancer Hospital in Cairo, Egypt, which sees about 4,000 pediatric cancer patients a year and treats about 60 percent of the country’s entire pediatric cancer population. We can offer a significant impact in helping to train their doctors.
Funding from the National Institutes of Health has bolstered our research in viral immunotherapy for pediatric brain tumors and renal disease in sickle cell anemia patients. And our collaboration with the UAB Division of Pediatric Surgery continues to advance our current knowledge of pediatric solid tumors through the Tumor Xenograft Project. Using primary human patient models, the Children’s-UAB Pediatric Tumor Bank and Tumorgraft Development Program’s long-term goal is to identify agents that are effective treatments for children with tumors having specific genetic and molecular profiles.
As we continue to adapt to these unprecedented times, our commitment to our patients and families remains as strong as ever. For more information about this month’s observance, please visit childrensal.org/committedtoacure.
Girish Dhall, MD is head of the UAB Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology and Blood & Marrow Transplantation and director of the Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s of Alabama.
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