Children find hope in Grand Rapids cancer trials

4:19 PM, Sep 5, 2012   |    comments
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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) - Every year more children are diagnosed with pediatric cancer, many will beat the odds but some won't.

Researchers here in West Michigan are looking for a cure for one of the most deadly pediatric cancers: neuroblastoma and they are finding success with a treatment that is putting some children into remission.

One of those children is Will Abernernathy, 4, who travels with his family twice a month from Georgia to receive the treatment.

Dr. Giselle Sholler is a researcher at the Van Andel Institute and studies neuroblastoma, her motivation comes from the fact that 50% of children with this unpredictable cancer will die.

"It's a cancer that while the cells under the microscope look the same, but act very differently, and so we really need to understand why is it growing in one area." Dr. Sholler has hope she can change those statistics.

A collaboration between the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital and the Van Andel Institute has created the Hayward Family Innovative Therapeutics Clinic.  "It brings the ability for us to deliver phase 1 and phase 2 research directly to the children and families who need it most," says Dr. James Fahner, a pediatric oncologist with the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital. 

Fahner says those clinical trials might be the last option for some families.  "These are children who really need different and better treatment options."

In her lab at the Van Andel Institute, Dr. Sholler examines the tumors of children participating in the clinical trials to determine which is best for each patient. She's seen a lot of promise with one of the drugs.

"We're using that as a preventive agent to see if we can, once we get the children back into remission, prevent the cancer from recurring using this agent. And we're hopeful that this will increase the cure rates for those kids," says Dr. Sholler. 

And it seems to be working for Will after only two months of treatment. Administering the treatment doesn't involve needles or harmful radiation, just the mixing together of medications and a little juice, that Will happily drinks down.

Children like Will are coming from not only around the country, but around the world to participate in the clinical trials being done right here in Grand Rapids.

Pediatric cancer gets the least amount of federal funding and relies mainly on private donations to support research like these clinical trials.

On Friday the National Stand Up 2 Cancer fundraising broadcast will be aired on WZZM at 8 p.m. And West Michigan will be represented. Two of the children involved in Dr. Sholler's clinical trials will appear on the live broadcast, and so will Van Andel reseacher Dr. Craig Webb. Stand Up 2 Cancer has awarded the Van Andel Institute grant money for two years in a row; to support the study of pancreatic cancer and melanoma along with Michigan State University.

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