Julia Van Damme was only eight years old when they found it – a rare, inoperable brain tumour the size of a golf ball.
She couldn’t see out of her left eye but didn’t know there was a problem.
“I didn’t understand what the tumour was or where it was…I couldn’t tell that I lost my vision.” Van Damme, now 12, told Global News.
How her tumour was diagnosed is considered state-of-the-art. The testing that shed light on her diagnosis also paved the way for a less invasive treatment, a medication taken twice daily.
Van Damme was spared ongoing aggressive chemotherapy and radiation.
And the novel diagnostic test that determined Van Damme’s course of treatment has Canadian fingerprints all over it.
“This is a dream. Now we know in oncology is that we find the target, we find the key for every single tumour just to try to switch off the tumour,” Dr. Eric Bouffet, a medical oncologist at SickKids, told Global News.
Dr. Cynthia Hawkins, a neuropathologist and team out of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children say they’ve developed a new testing regime, the first of its kind in the world that zeroes in on the specific genetics of each child’s tumour.
“How those tumours actually behave and what therapies will they best respond to,” Hawkins told Global News.
It’s a game-changer. Right now, children are diagnosed with brain cancer using an MRI while specialists check for other physical symptoms.
The trouble is all brain cancers are tested the same way and, in turn, end up with the standard treatment regime.
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Instead, the Canadian doctors have figured out a way to biopsy the brain, run blood tests, and zero in on an accurate diagnosis and a personalized, targeted therapy route for their young patients.
The Canadian testing is adding to a growing trend in personalized cancer care. It’s a burgeoning field of medicine in which doctors rely on patients’ genetic information to put together a tailored treatment plan.
“This just adds a whole other level of information and it will help us to better tailor the therapy to what we really think is going to be the behaviour of those tumours,” said Hawkins.
And the SickKids technology is garnering attention worldwide: Doctors from around the world are now sending their pediatric brain biopsies to the Toronto lab for testing. So far, SickKids has tested 60 tumours from its own patients along with 150 samples from around the world including the United States, Australia, New Zealand and countries with limited cancer resources like Jordan, Pakistan and Morocco.
“We are doing a number of tests for patients in remote places, not only in Canada but outside the world,” Bouffet said.
“And this had, sometimes, spectacular impact on the treatment and even a domino effect,” he said.
The diagnostic tests are clinically validated for a handful of childhood cancers, including low-grade glioma, medulloblastoma, sarcoma, and acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
With the tests in tow, doctors piece together pivotal information from how a patient will respond to specific drugs, to how their tumour will behave over time. Ultimately, they try to predict the outcome for each patient’s specific cancer.
In Van Damme’s case, the test confirmed that she had low-grade glioma and provided a closer look at the specific tumour.
Now she relies on an oral medication and bypassed aggressive treatment of chemotherapy and radiation.
For Van Damme, the testing has meant keeping some normalcy in her life. She wakes up at 6 a.m. to get ready for school and to take her daily dose of medication.
“It’s a lot easier than driving all the way to SickKids and back,” she said.
And she’s incredibly grateful for the personalized approach.
“It feels really nice because treatment for other people can affect them like shrink the tumour. It can help them in a way. But if they gave it to me like everyone, my tumour could’ve grown. It could’ve been even worse than theirs,” Van Damme said.
With files from Allison Vuchnich and Veronica Tang