Calgary doctors join national effort to find childhood cancer treatments

Calgary doctors play integral role in national cancer research program
WATCH: A national cancer research initiative is targeting young people who are battling aggressive forms of cancer. Joel Senick explains why doctors feel their efforts could help save lives.

Researchers at the University of Calgary have joined a national network of institutions focused on finding treatment for young cancer patients who are not responding to conventional methods.

More than 30 cancer research and funding groups from across Canada now make up the Terry Fox PROFYLE project. Dr. Victor Lewis and Dr. Jennifer Chan will co-lead Calgary’s contribution to the initiative, which is the first of its kind in the country.

“PROFYLE is number one trying to make a difference for patients who don’t have any treatment choices left,” Chan said Thursday.

“Eighty per cent of kids are doing pretty well with our conventional therapy, 20 per cent do not do well and will recur and relapse.”

READ MORE: Canadian researchers team up to find a cure to childhood cancer

Dale Zukowski knows the latter situation all too well. Her son Joel was diagnosed with cancer when he was 10 and then relapsed years later. He passed away in 2015 when he was 16 years old.

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“They’re still scratching their heads about it actually, because he wasn’t supposed to relapse with this type of cancer,” Zukowski said. She has since become an advocate for cancer research and toured Chan’s lab Thursday.

Chan and her cross-country team hope to find treatment options to avoid the type of heartbreak felt by Zukowski and her family. However, there could also be other positive outcomes, even for those who do respond to conventional cancer treatment.

“By profiling people’s DNA in their blood as well as in their tumor, we already have identified that there are patients and families who are carrying a cancer predisposition syndrome, that they never knew about,” Chan said.

The network also focused on teamwork, which is essential in the childhood cancer field, according to Chan. She said since pediatric cancer is not “hugely common,” research is often limited because it’s hard to look at the small amount of experimental numbers and draw conclusions.

“One large centre can’t do it themselves, two large centres can’t do it themselves,” Chan said.

“We really need pan-Canadian buy in to make this a reality.”