By Gregory J. Aune, M.D., Ph.D. For the Express-News
President Donald Trump’s signing of the Childhood Cancer Survivorship, Treatment, Access and Research, or STAR, Act on Tuesday represents a significant legislative achievement in the ongoing battle to improve outcomes for children afflicted with cancer.
As a long-term childhood cancer survivor, I am grateful that this issue is receiving much-needed national attention. As an advocate involved in guiding this bill through Congress, I appreciate the teamwork of the childhood cancer community and our legislators in getting the STAR Act to the finish line. And as a pediatric oncologist and laboratory scientist at UT Health San Antonio, I am hopeful that passage of the STAR Act will improve the environment for pediatric cancer research.
UT Health San Antonio is among the vanguard of American centers conducting cutting-edge research to improve the treatment of children with cancer. Through scientific discoveries and the conduct of clinical trials of novel therapies, our pediatric oncologists are making a positive impact on cancer survivor rates and long-term quality of life. The STAR Act augments this by authorizing funding for clinical trials, building and enhancing cancer tissue biorepositories, and new research on improving care for the rapidly growing population of survivors.
San Antonio and South Texas are well-positioned to benefit from many of the provisions of the STAR Act. The Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute, part of UT Health San Antonio, is one of only two stand-alone research institutes in the U.S. focused solely on childhood cancer. Greehey Institute clinical faculty care for children in the University Health System, UT Health San Antonio’s primary clinical partner in pediatrics. Because our pediatric oncologists are nationally leading experts with experience in the latest treatments, parents consider UT Health San Antonio the right place to bring their seriously ill children. Greehey Institute faculty also are integral members of the Mays Cancer Center, the newly named home to UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center, the region’s only NCI-designated Cancer Center.
Through the efforts of Drs. Peter Houghton and Gail Tomlinson, we have two well-established blood and tumor tissue biorepositories, with biospecimens collected from more than 500 mostly Hispanic children with cancer in the South Texas region. These biorepositories have created a foundation to decipher the root cause of children’s cancer and are facilitating novel lab studies that will lead to new treatments.
Pediatric oncologists at UT Health San Antonio lead the region’s only phase one drug clinical trials and have established a multidisciplinary clinic to care for long-term survivors and screen for late health complications caused by childhood cancer therapies.
Despite tremendous progress that has pushed five-year survival rates above 80 percent, childhood cancer remains the No. 1 cause of disease-related death for U.S. children. In addition, long-term survivors of childhood cancer are frequently faced with extensive health problems caused by their treatments. Nearly all long-term survivors will suffer from late effects of therapy by age 50, many of them life-threatening or debilitating.
Development of new medicines specifically focused on rare pediatric cancers has been slow. In the past 30 years, more than 60 new drugs have been developed for adult cancer but only four new drugs for pediatric cancer.
Passage of the STAR Act signals a move in the right direction when it comes to pediatric cancer research. Most important, UT Health San Antonio and its Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute stand ready to capitalize on new sources of federal funding and welcome additional community support to lead a renewed focus on childhood cancer.
Dr. Gregory J. Aune is the Stephanie Edlund Distinguished Professor in Pediatric Cancer Research at the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute of UT Health San Antonio. A 28-year survivor of childhood Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he is a national advocate for children with cancer, and serves on the National Cancer Institute Council of Research Advocates and NCI Pediatric Leukemia and Lymphoma Steering Committee.
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