Dramatically improving survival for the most common childhood cancer

Professor Murray NorrisSixty years ago, a diagnosis of leukaemia was nearly always a death sentence for a child. Today, the vast majority of children diagnosed with leukaemia will survive their condition, thanks in part to the amazing work of researchers such as Professor Murray Norris at Children’s Cancer Institute Australia.

When Professor Norris started his research career, he was immediately struck by how little research was being conducted into children’s cancers. He was especially concerned about how hard it was for oncologists to predict relapse in patients with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, the most common type of cancer affecting Australian children.

Leukaemia treatment typically involves a series of anti-cancer drugs that aim to kill off the cancer cells. Oncologists knew that when a child with leukaemia relapsed, this was due to cancer cells that had either escaped, or become resistant to, treatment. Once relapse occurred, their chance of survival was significantly lower.

Professor Norris realised that clinicians desperately needed a test that was sensitive enough to detect even the tiniest amount of leukaemia cells in a patient and rapid enough to provide immediate feedback on treatment effectiveness.

With seed funding from Cancer Council, Professor Norris went on to develop the “Minimal Residual Disease” test. Unlike existing clinical tests at that time, this test could detect the tiniest number of leukaemia cells – picking up 1 cancer cell among 1 million healthy cells. Further funding from Cancer Council enabled the MRD test be refined and optimised for use in a national clinical trial for patients diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. The MRD test helped give clinicians enough information to decide whether to continue treatment as usual or embark on more aggressive treatment for those children where remaining leukaemia cells were detected.

At the start of this clinical trial, the survival rate for children with high risk leukaemia was about 35%. At the end, results showed that the survival rate had doubled to 70%.

Following these astounding results, Minimal Residual Disease testing has become standard practice for all children with this disease in Australia.

Professor Norris isn’t resting on his laurels though. With three children still dying every week from cancer, he is driven to achieve a cancer free future for Australians. As technology continues to advance, and with the support of Cancer Council, he believes this will eventually happen.