The Scientific Advisory Council (SAC) at CureSearch is comprised of eight children’s cancer specialists from institutions across the country. Led by Joe Simone, MD, the SAC is tasked with developing and guiding the organizations scientific strategy, agenda, and grants program. Recently, CureSearch sat down with Dr. Simone to talk about the SAC’s work and his thoughts about how children’s cancer research and treatment have changed, and how they will change again in the coming years.
Q: CureSearch for Children’s Cancer formed a Scientific Advisory Council (SAC) in 2012, which you chair. Tell us a little bit about why the SAC is important and what its work entails.
A: CureSearch, like any organization, needs to be constantly evaluating its go forward position. In this case, that means how to use current resources to best fund children’s cancer research that will help move the needle on finding treatments and cures. The role of the SAC to help do that. Together, we are identifying and prioritizing scientific issues affecting the childhood cancer research community, both in the laboratory and at the bedside, and choosing to fund research we think will have a significant impact.
Q: You mentioned funding laboratory research. Why is that important?
A: Laboratory research is important because there is a tremendous amount of work taking place that looks at the cellular level of children’s cancer to understand not only the origin of some of these cancers but also how to target minute activity in cells to get cancer to respond to treatment. This work is called targeted therapy, and it has to work in the laboratory before it can move to the bedside. This is an exploding field in all diseases, and we believe that investing resources in these researchers will help move some of this work to clinical trials in the coming years.
Q: So, the Scientific Advisory Committee looks at these areas and decides which researchers will be funded?
A: Not entirely. The SAC determines three to five areas of research it will fund in a given year. Then, a Request for Applications is issued for each of these areas, and researchers can apply for funding. As the SAC, we ask leaders in the field of each of the 3-5 areas to come together and review blinded applications and score them. The one in each area with the highest score will receive funding.
Q: When will you be announcing the areas of funding for 2013?
A:We plan to issue RFAs in March of this year, and announce the recipients of grants in September during a scientific meeting in Washington, DC.
Q: What meeting is that?
A: This fall, CureSearch will host its first scientific symposium. Titled The Future of Pediatric Oncology: From Targets to Treatments, we are excited to have assembled a panel of highly regarded experts in children’s cancer research and treatment. We will host a 1.5 day symposium to facilitate discussion between laboratory researchers and clinicians about the changing face of pediatric cancer research due to advances cellular therapy and immunology, with a focused look at metastatic and drug resistant cancers.
Q: You mentioned looking to the future. You have worked as a children’s cancer researcher for a long time. What are the three biggest changes in treatment you’ve seen?
A: The true greatest change has been the ability to now cure a majority of children’s cancers. This was certainly not the case when I first began practicing medicine.
In addition, I would say that the molecular analysis of specific cancers has been a boon to understanding and categorizing those cancers susceptible to current treatment and those that will need new approaches.
Finally, I’ve seen pediatric cancer studies that pioneered many of the therapeutic techniques later adopted for adult cancer, such as therapy with combinations of drugs pioneered in childhood leukemia, multi-modal and adjuvant therapy as used in Wilms tumor, and constructing different phases of therapy as used in many childhood cancers to reduce toxicity and the emergence of drug resistance.
Q: We know that CureSearch, and many other organizations are working hard to fund research to impact survival rates. What do you think are the largest challenges facing the field today?
A: The main challenge is when a cancer is, or becomes, resistant to therapy. Another challenge is that success in many childhood cancers makes it more difficult to change established forms of therapy, even if they are not perfect. Finally, molecular diagnostics divides some cancers into smaller and smaller subtypes meaning fewer patients in each subtype for testing newer treatments.
Q: Do you see those challenges being addressed in the next 5-10 years?
A: I believe all these challenges can be addressed… in fact they are being addressed now in laboratories and clinics. But they won’t be easy problems to solve and we must support the research of those working on solutions.
Q: If you had a crystal ball, how would you predict treatment to change in the next decade?
A: I think treatment will gradually simplify with the development of more oral and less toxic therapies for some cancers. Our ability to identify therapy-resistant cancers earlier will grow so patients are not given futile treatments for their particular cancer subtype. We will also do a better job of helping surviving patients with the effects of their illness and its treatment. Pediatric oncology has led in dealing with survivorship issues but there is much more to be done to help cancer survivors lead lives as normal as possible after their cancer treatment has been successfully completed.