The Laser Focused Approach to Curing Children's Cancer

Posted by Jessica Armstrong on

Jess in Conversation with Laura Hancock, Campaign Development Manager for CureSearch for Children’s Cancer

Hello Laura, it’s a pleasure to interview you about one of my favorite things in the world — CureSearch!  

Please share why you are a part of CureSearch.  What is your story and how long  you have been with CureSearch? 

I have been with CureSearch since October 2019, after my son finished treatment for Lymphoma in 2018. Through his treatment and afterwards I volunteered for a local family support organization. It was during that time, from speaking to many other families affected by childhood cancer, that I realized I wanted to do more. I wanted to be part of the solution. It was at that moment that I decided to change careers and seek employment with a non-profit that funded childhood cancer research. When I saw the job available at CureSearch I was ecstatic! I had originally learned about CureSearch while my son was in treatment, and I was very impressed with their strategic approach to funding research and the level of transparency with their financials. Although this role was very different from my previous career as a business owner, my skills were very transferrable and combined with my passion for childhood cancer. This job was perfect for me. Not only am I proud to be part of the solution with funding critical research, but I am also proud to work for an organization whose preclinical funded projects are 5 times more likely to advance into clinical trials, and they reach the clinic more than 2 years faster. This accelerated and laser focused approach is what makes CureSearch different, and I am honored to be a part of the team.  

What are the origins of CureSearch?

CureSearch has been a driving force behind childhood cancer research for more than 30 years. For many of those years CureSearch (originally known as the National Childhood Cancer Foundation) acted as the fiscal agent for National Cancer Institute grants to members of the Children’s Oncology Group. Today, the COG remains the largest cooperative children’s cancer research entity in the world with more than 210 member hospitals and over 7,000 physicians, nurses and other researchers. In the United States, COG member hospitals treat 90% of children with cancer.

In 2012, CureSearch became a privately funded organization. We seized this opportunity to examine the field of childhood cancer research and treatment, and to really understand the systemic barriers that keep new and less toxic treatments from reaching children in the clinic. We re-engineered our research portfolio to demand real patient impact from our funding as quickly as possible. 

With support from our generous donors, volunteers, and corporate partners like Peyton’s Potion, we drive forward our collective goal of creating a world where every child diagnosed with cancer has a safe and effective treatment option.

Can you expound on some of the cutting-edge research strategies CureSearch funds? 

We’re laser focused on driving new treatments to patients in an accelerated timeframe. We only fund projects with the potential to quickly advance a new treatment into clinical trials and to ultimately obtain regulatory approval. Our research grants give preference to areas of high unmet need - the cancers with the lowest survival rates, fewest or most damaging treatment options, and populations that are underserved, including adolescent and young adults. 

Something that is important to highlight is that other non-profits often make lots of smaller grants spread out among many different projects with many different objectives. CureSearch’s strategy is very different - we only invest in projects focused on new drug development, and we only award larger grants so researchers spend more time in the lab and less time looking for funding!

One project that I am personally very excited about is Dr. Elias Sayour at the University of Florida. Dr. Sayour’s project focuses on high grade gliomas which is the primary cause of death of children with brain tumors. His clinical trial is testing a personal immunotherapy that uses nanoparticles combined with mRNA to essentially develop a vaccine for each child’s specific tumor type. This amazing project has the potential to not only help treat children with high grade gliomas but other pediatric and adult solid tumors as well.  

What are some of the less toxic therapies that were developed that CureSearch has helped to fund?

Since we began funding pre-clinical projects through our Acceleration Initiative in 2013, multiple projects have directly led to the launch of phase one clinical trials, including trials that are now enrolling Ewing sarcoma and medulloblastoma patients across the country.

We supported the preclinical work of Dr. Mary Beckerle at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah. Dr. Beckerle and her team identified a novel targeted treatment for Ewing sarcoma, a common type of bone cancer in children, providing the preclinical data needed to move this therapy into clinical trials. This trial is showing encouraging results and is now enrolling patients at 8 sites across the country.

We also funded Dr. Richard Gilbertson at the University of Cambridge who was working to develop new therapies for three high-risk pediatric brain cancers: medulloblastoma, ependymoma and choroid plexus carcinoma. His results contributed to the launch of a phase 1 clinical trial testing combination therapies for malignant brain tumors, with Dr. Gilbertson’s research directly impacting patients with recurrent, refractory medulloblastoma. The trial opened in 2019 and is currently enrolling patients.

On the CureSearch website it states this "...the number of diagnosed cases annually has not declined in nearly 20 years."  What is known among researchers and those that are leading the endeavor to cure childhood cancers about why this is so?

Not only have the number of diagnosed cases not declined, but they are increasing. According to the National Cancer Institute, there has been an increase of 27% in the overall rate of childhood cancer diagnoses since 1975 in kids under age 19. Researchers do not fully understand the reason for this increase, primarily because the actual cause of childhood cancer remains a mystery. Fortunately, there is hope, because survival rates are also increasing over time due to the use of more effective therapies. The overall 5-year survival rate for pediatric cancer is 84.5%. This is a great sign, but there are certain childhood cancers for which survival has not improved in decades, like DIPG. It is on these cancer types and subtypes that CureSearch focuses our efforts. In addition, with more children surviving cancer, safer treatments that reduce late effects and promote quality of life beyond cancer diagnosis are another area of focus for us.

Currently, how many events does CureSearch hold in the U.S.?

In 2021, we have 7 Ultimate Hikes, our National CureSearch Walk with 6 local locations and virtual participation, and over 50 volunteer planned events, including golf tournaments, fitness challenges, local hikes, and more!

Thank you, Laura!  I'm so grateful that Peyton's Potion donates to CureSearch and I look forward to that being the case for years to come! 

To learn more about CureSearch, visit www.curesearch.org

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