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St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened its doors on February 4, 1962, fulfilling the dream of the late entertainer Danny Thomas to build a research institution focused on eliminating life-threatening childhood diseases, because he believed that “no child should die in the dawn of life.” At that time, the outlook for patients with cancer was bleak, and that for children with cancer was even bleaker. Fewer than 20% of children and adolescents with the diagnosis became long-term survivors.
The hospital was unique from the start; all patients were treated, regardless of their family’s ability to pay. St. Jude was also the first pediatric institution that housed doctors, scientists, and patients under one roof, with the ultimate goal of efficiently translating laboratory discoveries into clinical treatments to improve the effectiveness of anticancer treatments.
In the 1960s, anticancer treatment consisted mainly of surgical removal or irradiation of tumors, and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common childhood cancer, was considered almost universally fatal. In 1972, Donald Pinkel, MD, the hospital’s first director, shared the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award for his contribution to the development of combination therapy in which the patient receives multiple chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy.
This approach remains the foundation for anticancer treatment in the twenty-first century. St. Jude investigators published the first research showing that childhood leukemia could be cured in nearly 50% of patients. It was also a St. Jude scientist who published the first article describing a genetic abnormality in a childhood cancer. Dr. Pinkel and subsequent generations of St. Jude directors, faculty, and staff have been central to transforming the fate of pediatric patients with cancer all over the world.
Today, nearly 80% of pediatric patients with cancer survive their disease, and 90% of children with ALL become longterm survivors. Treatment for childhood ALL is one of the great medical success stories of the twentieth century in that it was the first disease in which it was proven that disseminated cancer could be cured with chemotherapy.
At St. Jude, such advances have recently enabled us to discontinue the use of cranial irradiation in ALL treatment regimens, thereby avoiding adverse late effects such as cognitive deficits, endocrine deficiencies, and brain tumors.
The history of St. Jude is marked with research milestones not only in pediatric cancer but also in other life-threatening childhood diseases. Our understanding of and ability to effectively treat blood disorders (sickle cell anemia, hemophilia), immune system disorders (autoimmune diseases), and infectious diseases (influenza, pneumonia, AIDS) have improved due to research conducted here.
St. Jude clinical researchers were instrumental in minimizing the likelihood of treatment-related deaths caused by opportunistic infections in immunocompromised patients. Their work also helped save lives early during the AIDS epidemic.
The world’s first comprehensive study of sickle cell anemia and its impact on individuals of African descent was also conducted at St. Jude, and in 2003, the hospital was named one of 10 Comprehensive Sickle Cell Centers by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
The contribution of St. Jude, its faculty, staff, and patients has been widely recognized. In 1996, Peter Doherty, PhD, then Chair of the Department of Immunology, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for contributions to understanding viral immunity. In 2007, St. Jude was designated one of six Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.
In 2008, St. Jude became the only National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center focused solely on childhood cancer. In 2009, an interdisciplinary team of St. Jude scientists and clinical investigators studying ALL received the Team Science Award from the American Association for Cancer Research.
Major challenges remain, however. Cancer is still the leading cause of death by disease among children aged 1 year or older. Survival rates for children with some types of solid tumors have plateaued, and certain cancers remain resistant to current therapies. Infectious diseases and inherited disorders also continue to take a high toll. Furthermore, many modern therapies remain out of reach for the vast majority of the world’s children who live in developing countries.
To extend treatment advances to those children, the St. Jude International Outreach Program has established global clinical partnerships with 14 nations. In response to these challenges, St. Jude has expanded the depth and breadth of our laboratory and clinical efforts. We are the nation’s only pediatric research institution with an associated Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility, the Children’s GMP, LLC, located on campus that produces clinical-grade vaccines, gene therapy products, and other biopharmaceuticals.
As anticancer treatments have improved, the population of adult survivors of childhood cancer has grown. By studying the challenges faced by adult survivors of childhood cancer, St. Jude investigators are improving current anticancer therapies and helping survivors better manage their late effects while leading productive, healthy lives.
In 2007, the institution launched the St. Jude Lifetime Cohort study in which thousands of childhood cancer survivors are being followed through their lifetime to better understand the life-long impact of childhood cancer and treatment-related effects and to improve follow-up care.
In 2010, the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – Washington University Pediatric Cancer Genome Project was launched. During this 3-year collaborative effort, cancer genomes from 600 pediatric patients with leukemia, brain tumor, or solid tumor will be sequenced in tandem with the genomes of healthy cells from the same patients.
The overall goal is to index the genetic mutations underlying the least understood and most aggressive childhood cancers. The project has already yielded new insight into deadly leukemia subtypes and tumors of the retina, brain, and other organs.
The faculty and staff celebrate this 50th anniversary by working hard each day to fulfill the vision of our founder, to strive to accomplish the mission of the institution, and to build the legacy of St. Jude for the next 50 years.