Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics at Penn State Children’s Hospital: Bringing Hope to Young Cancer Patients and Their Families

By Valerie Lauer
Friday, November 18, 2016

Cooperation, innovation and a passion for saving young lives are the driving forces behind the Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics Program at Penn State Children’s Hospital.

Each year, more than 15,000 children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer. Despite advances that have markedly increased survivorship the past several decades, one in five of these children does not survive five years after diagnosis.

“For patients who are not responsive to conventional treatment or who face recurring disease, the prognosis is challenging,” says Valerie Brown, MD, PhD, clinical director of experimental therapeutics of the Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medial Center and Penn State Children’s Hospital. “To truly help them, we need to do more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to build a better boat. That’s what our Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics Program is doing.”

Evidence-based Hope

The Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics Program helps establish the safety and efficacy of pediatric cancer treatment protocols. By connecting patients to national clinical trials, the hospital provides local access to the most advanced treatments available.

“At any given time, we have dozens of research trials open to accommodate a large spectrum of patients,” Dr. Brown says. “There are five for neuroblastoma alone. Once we had a patient who came to enroll in a neuroblastoma trial for preventing relapse, only to discover her cancer had come back. However, I didn’t have to go to the family empty-handed. There were three other studies she qualified for. That’s the power of a program like ours. We have options for families — hope when they feel things are hopeless.”

Ongoing pediatric cancer research in the program includes, among other lines of investigation, work on relapsed or refractory acute myeloid leukemia, hepatoblastoma, refractory solid tumors, medulloblastoma, and ependymoma.

Connected to an Expert Network

As part of Hershey Medical Center, the Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics Program is linked to leading providers in a variety of fields, including imaging and oncology care. Ready access to ancillary services improves the patient experience and reduces stress.

Dr. Brown and her colleagues also work in a shared care model, forging collaborative relationships with referring physicians for optimal patient service. They use a similar team approach to make the clinical trials process as comfortable and convenient as possible. If another institution with which the program has partnered on a clinical trial is closer to a potential participant’s home, the family is advised of that option, Dr. Brown notes. That can spare patients and families the burden and expense of travel.

“Together, we are making a real difference in the standard of care for hard-to-treat pediatric cancers and other conditions,” Dr. Brown says.

Four Diamonds: Courage, Wisdom, Honesty, Strength

The care of children enrolled in studies through the Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics Program at Penn State Children’s Hospital receives crucial financial support from Four Diamonds. This fund was created in memory of Christopher Millard, who lost his life to cancer in 1972, but whose legacy lives on in innovative research conducted with the help of Four Diamonds.