Former local backs Zero Childhood Cancer program

DOING WELL: Isla Batchelor has finished treatment and is doing well, with her father, former local Darrin throwing his support behind the Zero Childhood Cancer program.  Photo: James Brickwood
DOING WELL: Isla Batchelor has finished treatment and is doing well, with her father, former local Darrin throwing his support behind the Zero Childhood Cancer program. Photo: James Brickwood

Former Nowra man Darrin Batchelor and his wife Sarah have thrown their support behind the Zero Childhood Cancer program, a national clinical trial, aimed at reducing the childhood death rate from cancer to zero.

The Batchelors’ daughter Isla was four-years-old when she was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, a particularly aggressive form of leukaemia.

In Australia, three children die from cancer each week, but doctors and researchers say they have a "game-changing" plan to drive the death rate down to zero.

The Children's Cancer Institute and the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children's Hospital announced on Monday the launch of the national clinical trial, in which scientists and doctors will work together to personalise treatments for children with the highest risk of treatment failure or relapse.

LOCAL TIES: Former Nowra man Darrin Batchelor and his wife Sarah with Isla, who has finished treatment and is doing well.  Photo: James Brickwood

LOCAL TIES: Former Nowra man Darrin Batchelor and his wife Sarah with Isla, who has finished treatment and is doing well. Photo: James Brickwood

While there was a good cure rate for Isla’s type of cancer, there was also a high risk of relapse.

Her doctor and researchers conducted MRD (minimal residual disease) testing, which allowed them to see whether leukaemia cells were still present after rounds of chemotherapy so they could further tailor her treatment plan.

"Anything they can do to minimise or reduce the side effects is fantastic," said Mr Batchelor, a police officer from Belrose.

"The Zero Childhood Cancer program gives every parent hope that the survival rate can be increased and their child cured."

Now six-years-old, Isla has finished treatment and is doing well, but she has already had to endure more than two years – one-third of her young life – of intensive, toxic cancer treatments.

Doctors and researchers are expecting to enrol more than 400 children with cancers such as brain tumours, sarcomas and neuroblastomas in the Zero Childhood Cancer program over the next three years.

BRAVE BATTLE: Isla Batchelor, survivor of T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, with mother Sarah, father Darrin and sisters Lily and Ainsley.  Photo: James Brickwood

BRAVE BATTLE: Isla Batchelor, survivor of T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, with mother Sarah, father Darrin and sisters Lily and Ainsley. Photo: James Brickwood

"I truly believe the Zero Childhood Cancer program is a potential game-changer," said Professor Tracey O'Brien, director of the Kids Cancer Centre in Randwick.

"The scale and sophistication of translating a discovery directly to the patient's bedside is unprecedented."

In an Australian first, scientists from 13 leading research institutes and doctors from all eight kids cancer centres across the country will work together to design the best treatment plan for each patient.

Professor Michelle Haber AM, executive director of the Children's Cancer Institute, said personalised medicine gave each child the best chance of survival because it was based on reliable scientific information, such as individual genetic mutations, unique to that child's cancer.

"For each of these children, wherever they are in the country, their cancer cells will come to the institute and we will conduct a series of tests using the latest technology, analyse the genetic sequence of the normal cells and then compare them with what we see in the tumour cells," she said.

"This will allow us to determine whether a child is likely to respond or not respond to particular drugs."

Professor Haber said they will then test the child's tumour cells in the laboratory against a range of cancer drugs to determine which drug or drug combination would be the most effective.

"That data is then fed back in real-time to the treating clinician to give every child the best possible chance of survival and the greatest quality of life," she said.

BRAVE: Isla has finished treatment and is doing well, with her father Darrin Batchelor.  Photo: James Brickwood

BRAVE: Isla has finished treatment and is doing well, with her father Darrin Batchelor. Photo: James Brickwood

More than 950 children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer each year.

About 150 of them will have a cancer with less than a 30 per cent survival rate, and a further 60 will relapse and then have less than a 30 per cent chance of surviving.

Professor O'Brien said hospitals were "desperate" for new, effective treatment options. She described Zero Childhood Cancer as the "most exciting experimental program" she has ever seen.

"Chemotherapies commonly used don't target just the tumour, they also do significant short and long-term damage to growing bodies," she said.

"Child cancer wards are full of patients suffering from the side effects of treatment as much as the cancer itself, so we need better targeted therapies."

The program aims to help children survive cancer while reducing the impact of drug toxicity, The Children's Cancer Institute said.

The national clinical trial builds on a successful NSW pilot study of nearly 60 children which began in 2015.

It is free to children who meet the clinical trial enrolment criteria.

The trial is sponsored by the Australian and New Zealand Children's Haematology/Oncology Group (ANZCHOG).

Fairfax Media is a proud supporter of the Kids Cancer Project, which is running Childhood Cancer Awareness Month this September.