»We want to find a cure for childhood cancers«
People are surprised to hear that I enjoy working with children who have cancer. There are very special, very positive sides to my work, like witnessing a recovery or certain moments and experiences with the kids. It is a joy to see them grow up and be able to lead normal lives. Today, there is an 80 per cent chance of curing childhood cancer; in the 1960s, that rate was only 20 per cent. We made advancements through a better combination of chemotherapy and radiation, but there is not much more that we can improve in that area. Now, we need to develop new, molecularly specific drugs that can detect certain structures on the surface of a tumour and attack it – enabling personalised therapies for our patents. That is what we are working to achieve for the future of cancer treatment. We need to get to a cure rate of 100 per cent.
In my research group, we study individualised therapies for neuroblastoma in children. This type of tumour interests me because we have observed that it has two completely different life cycles. In one group of patients, this malignant tumour just suddenly recedes. It is fascinating and very un- characteristic – we have never seen this kind of behaviour with cancer before. You could say it’s a miracle. But we want to understand this process in order to apply those findings to the second, incredibly devastating life cycle: advanced or metastatic neuroblastoma that has spread to the liver or the bone marrow. For these patients, there is often little hope. Our success rate is very low, even with highly aggressive chemotherapy, radiation, or bone marrow transplants. That is why we want to develop new drugs to push the tumour into a positive life cycle.
When a therapy is unsuccessful, it stays with me. I go home and need to spend time processing the experience. When one of my patients relapses, it is usually a child that I have got to know well during treatment. In the worst case, the child dies. Unfortunately that is part of our work. When that happens, I often go to the lab and I feel motivated to do even more. Other times there are phases in my lab work when none of my hypotheses hold and none of my experiments provide any results. Then I look forward to going back to the paediatric clinic and spending time with my patients. Some- times I spend an entire night fighting for the life of a child whose prognosis was poor, but then ended up making it through. In the morning everything looks different. Those are experiences that you will never have in the lab.
Credits: Mirco Lomoth