Children’s cancer research continues through pandemic
Hello I am Quentin Campbell Hewson, a children’s cancer specialist at the principal treatment centre for the North of England at the Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle.
A full time NHS consultant, my specialties are solid tumours, palliative care and early phase trials. I also lead clinical research for children’s cancer.
Clinical research is crucial in children’s cancer. Through research we have improved five year survival rates from about 30% in the 70s, to around 85% today.
At our centre, we involve nearly all patients in clinical trial studies. This ensures they receive the most up to date therapy and that we continue to make progress in developing better care.
Our committed research team is embedded within our clinical service, so our work involves many other colleagues from the multi-disciplinary team, meaning our research is not separate from routine care of patients.
Before COVID-19 we focussed on phase 3 trials; testing modifications of the previous best treatments, studying the impact of treatment on the body and also new treatment studies for patients where standard therapies are either not available or successful.
When the pandemic started we did not know how much of a risk this would be for our patients and we did not know to what extent our team would need to assist in other clinical areas or be redeployed.
What we did know was that children’s cancer would not stop. It is one of the leading causes of death for children and we can only combat this with the precise, timely and intensive therapies we use.
So, while we were determined to help with the wider COVID-19 effort, we were committed to continuing key parts of our work, including clinical research which we believe is an essential service testing new treatments to improve outcomes for our patients.
With this in mind, we paused non-treatment studies but requested and received permission to continue both standard of care and new treatment studies.
We adapted to social distancing , teleconferencing and staff working from home and found ways to continue activities so that the fully clinical members of our team are able to work nearly as normally.
We are particularly grateful that we could do this – it has allowed us to continue building a portfolio of studies to support the treatment of patients who have exhausted standard therapies. These studies are only open in a few sites nationally or even internationally.
So far during the pandemic, we have been able to continue two trials treating children who can only access the drugs which are keeping them well through the trials. We have also been allowed to open a study with a drug that gives unique and complete responses to a collection of rare tumours. These conditions have no other useful therapies but respond very well to our trial drug and we are currently the only site in the country offering this treatment.
Through recruiting patients to the study monitoring COVID-19 infection in immunosuppressed children (Newcastle is the highest recruiting site after the main trial centre in Southampton) and collaborating in the national and international registry of COVID-19 infection in children with cancer, we can see that COVID infection rates are low and very rarely serious in children, even when they are severely immunosuppressed.
Over the last five years we have delivered many studies which have given huge benefit to the children participating. And so I’m very grateful that we have been allowed to maintain this priority for our patients, to continue delivering the best and newest treatment possible. Our research has also really benefited from strong local charity support, from both the North of England Children’s Cancer Research fund and the Sir Bobby Robson fund, for which we are also grateful.