Children’s Mercy Looks to the Future of Childhood Cancer Treatment

Children’s Mercy Hospital offers cutting-edge pediatric cancer care while developing new treatment solutions through research.

A cancer diagnosis is any parent’s worst nightmare. For Emily, whose 3-year-old daughter Sophia was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in January, the first 28 days after the diagnosis felt like holding her breath.

Thanks to the team at the Division of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation at Children’s Mercy Hospital, these days Emily, who asked that her family’s last name not be included for privacy, is breathing a little easier.

Making a difference

The nursing staff and Child Life department, which provides services to make the hospital experience easier and more comfortable for patients and families, has been a particularly important part of her family’s experience at the hospital.

“They’re so amazing. They not only support your children, they support the whole family,” Emily says. “When you go into clinic, you kind of see the same faces. It’s just amazing to me—I know they must see hundreds of kids, I don’t even know how many per day—but they remember Sophia’s name, they remember her little brother, they ask her questions about what she’s been doing. They take a second to make it personal for her.”

Sophia turned four over the summer and is set to start maintenance in mid-October, visiting the Children’s Mercy clinic once per month instead of every 7-10 days.

“For a child going somewhere so scary, to feel that those are your friends when you go there, I just think it’s so valuable,” Emily says.

That personal touch is just one of the ways Children’s Mercy sets itself apart when it comes to treating pediatric cancer. The hospital is the only regional member of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), a research study group that conducts trials internationally, says Director of Children’s Mercy’s Cancer Genomics Program Dr. Erin Guest, the physician who is treating Sophia.

Dr. Erin Guest, director of Children’s Mercy’s Cancer Genomics Program.

“We can enroll patients here at Children’s Mercy on clinical trials that are the same exact treatment trials that they would receive at any major children’s hospital in the U.S. or other partner institutions,” Guest says. “That’s a really big deal because in childhood cancer, we try hard to get as many patients as possible because that’s how we standardize treatment and that’s how we end up learning in the long run.”

Earlier this year, the hospital announced a new development that bolsters its ability to provide the latest care: It joined the University of Kansas Cancer Center Nation Cancer Institute Consortium, which allows the organizations to collaborate with existing consortium partners Stowers Institute for Medical Research and the University of Kansas on pediatric oncology academic, scientific and research programs.

Guest says the partnership allows Children’s Mercy to get additional funding and resources for clinical trails and research, helping it stay at the forefront of treatment. KU patients also benefit from the partnership, through which Children’s Mercy ensure that adolescents and young adults at KU receive appropriate pediatric treatments, transferring patients over if necessary.

“I think it really is important to make sure each patient is really in the right environment for care,” Guest says, noting that studies have definitively shown the benefit of treating that age group with pediatric protocols.

The future of treatment 

Children’s Mercy provides comprehensive pediatric cancer care to nearly 2,000 children each year with childhood cancers, sickle cell disease, hemophilia and other blood disorders. The survival rate is around 80 percent, but improving those outcomes with the next generation of childhood cancer treatment is already being researched at the hospital.

Thanks to the money raised by Big Slick in 2014 and sponsors such as Black & Veatch, Children’s Mercy’s innovative Cancer Genomics Program launched earlier this year.

“Cancer genomics really refers to looking at what mutations are present in the cancer and trying to then figure out if there are treatments that can be tailored to each person’s cancer,” Guest explains. “It’s a molecular-guided treatment—if you know what mutations are there, you might be able to pick a certain drug that might target those mutations.”

One of the program’s first projects is now underway. The genomics team is taking more than 100 different frozen samples of leukemia taken from infants and sequencing them to figure out why a baby would be born with leukemia and why they tend to relapse.

Guest hopes to have made strides in the research and offer the service widely in the next five years.

“Our goal is to be able to provide molecularly targeted therapy to every patient that comes through so that we’re not just giving standard chemotherapy protocol—the same chemotherapy to patients with the same diagnosis—but if there’s a patient that has a certain mutation in their tumor, we can actually change the therapy to be very specific for that patient’s tumor,” she says. “I think that’s what genomics is going to provide for us. I think it’s going to help us better understand what mutations are there and which treatments we may want to try and then match those treatments up better.”

This year’s Big Slick fundraiser benefitted a cell therapy program removing T cells, which participate in immune response, from a patient’s body and genetically engineering them to fight cancer. Children’s Mercy is the only hospital in the region currently offering it and referrals are coming in from all over the country.

“The cellar therapy programs, the immunotherapy programs, they’re finding innovative ways to treat cancer rather than just chemotherapy and transplant and radiation,” Guest says. “We’re going to find that we can do it better, we can have less side effects and, with the addition of immune therapy, we’re going to really see better outcomes.” –Story by Kelsey Cipolla