Cancer experts back campaign for neuroblastoma vaccine research

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Children like brave Beau, six, who are diagnosed with high-risk neuroblastoma have only a 50/50 chance of survival.

But a jab given after other treatments may boost their ability to fight off the disease, reducing the risk of a devastating relapse.

Dr Juliet Gray, a consultant in paediatric oncology at the University of Southampton, said it was a “real opportunity for us to show international leadership” in tackling one of the worst childhood cancers.

She said: “Neuroblastoma accounts for about eight per cent of children’s cancers but 15 per cent of childhood cancer deaths.

“Compared to most childhood cancers, the amount of treatment that we give is huge and survival is poor.”

With charity Solving Kids’ Cancer UK, the Daily Express is urging the Government to invest £10-15 million to fund the European side of a transatlantic study as part of our Back Britain to Beat Childhood Cancer campaign.

One in five children successfully treated for neuroblastoma later relapse.

The experimental vaccine aims to prevent this by training the immune system to attack the cancerous cells if the disease returns.

Dr Gray said: “Creating vaccines for cancer is much more challenging than for a virus. A virus is completely foreign to the body whereas neuroblastoma develops from your own cells so it’s more of a challenge for the immune system.

“For neuroblastoma we’re lucky because there are molecules on the surface – GD2 and GD3 – which you can target. Not all cancers have something as specific.”

The vaccine is only available at a clinic in New York and desperate families are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to fly there.

Beau’s mum Shirley Hepworth has raised £690,000 so they can make the journey as soon as she is in remission.

But the New York study is highly unlikely to provide enough evidence for the jab to be approved for NHS use. A larger clinical trial with hundreds of children in multiple countries would be required.

Dr Gray said: “If the study showed the vaccine was beneficial and reduced risk of relapse, then that’s fantastic and we should be giving it to every child who finishes treatment for neuroblastoma.

“If it doesn’t show any benefit, that would stop children and their families raising hundreds of thousands of pounds to go to New York repeatedly.”

Dr Daniel Morgenstern, a British oncologist working at SickKids in Toronto, said children were also travelling to the US from Canada for the vaccine.

He added: “I find it very hard to counsel families as to what to do because at the moment there’s no definitive proof that it’s the right thing to do.

“That’s why it is really important that we as a community find out: Is it effective?”

Early data has shown the vaccine triggers an immune response and patients treated appear to have better outcomes.

Dr Morgenstern added: “To me, that acts as really useful proof of concept that the vaccine is actually doing something. What we need is proof as to whether it works or not.”

The pandemic rejuvenated interest in vaccine research and there is huge potential for their use against cancer.

The Government recently announced a partnership with Covid jab pioneers at BioNTech to accelerate trials of vaccines, including ones for cancer. It aims to deliver 10,000 doses by 2030.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Progress in treatment means the majority of children with cancer now survive but tragically that is not the case with neuroblastoma and more research is needed.

“We invested £98 million in cancer research last year through the National Institute for Health Research which is supporting an ongoing trial adding a targeted drug treatment for neuroblastoma. This trial is actively recruiting participants in the UK.

“We are working to find new and innovative ways to detect and treat cancers.”

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