A tradition of breakthroughs
In the 50 years since its opening, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has led the way in transforming how the world treats pediatric cancer and other life-threatening diseases in children. Few organizations in the world are credited with as many paradigm-shifting discoveries as St. Jude. A group of St. Jude patients were the first children ever to be successfully taken off therapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The hospital’s researchers discovered that bone marrow transplants can cure sickle cell disease. St. Jude also pioneered personalized chemotherapy, eliminating the need for radiation therapy for the most common type of childhood cancer.
A logical question is, given all the progress that’s been made, what could possibly be next?
The answer is simple. Danny Thomas once proclaimed that “no child should die in the dawn of life.” Despite enormous progress in pushing overall U.S. survival rates from 20 to 80 percent, pediatric cancer remains the leading cause of death due to disease among U.S. children older than 1 year of age. Some types of pediatric cancer continue to have extremely poor survival rates, and the overall rate of improvement has slowed during the past decade. To further improve survival, big breakthroughs and innovative new treatments are needed; the kind St. Jude has proven it can deliver.
From DNA to drug discovery
St. Jude is engaged in the world’s largest project to sequence the complete genomes of pediatric cancer cells. This collaborative effort, called the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – Washington University Pediatric Cancer Genome Project (PCGP), is generating a remarkable amount of new knowledge to drive improved diagnosis, treatment and perhaps even prevention of pediatric cancers.
Before this project, no one had sequenced a complete pediatric cancer genome, and yet scientists are on schedule to complete more than 600 sets within three years. Each set includes a complete genome sequence of tumor tissue, plus a complete sequence for normal tissue from the same child. By comparing the two, researchers hope to discover what causes a white blood cell to become a leukemia cell or a brain cell to become a brain tumor. St. Jude freely shares all data from this project as soon as the information has been validated and published.
The hospital continues to strengthen its capabilities for drug discovery, given the lack of financial incentives for pharmaceutical companies to discover new drugs for childhood cancers. Each year, 12,000 U.S. children—approximately 160,000 worldwide—are found to have cancer. St. Jude has stepped up to ensure that these children benefit from the remarkable advances in technology, high-throughput screening systems for new drugs, and next-generation genome sequencing. St. Jude recognizes that children need to benefit from these advances, even if no profit-based company will pursue it. Information coming out of the PCGP should create new targets for these drug-discovery efforts. The hospital is committed to paving the way for new drugs aimed specifically at childhood cancers.
Creating long-term survivors
Treating childhood cancer today is not enough for St. Jude. Treatments developed and refined during the past five decades have created a new population that was almost nonexistent in 1962: long-term survivors of pediatric cancer. St. Jude is now studying long-term health outcomes of young adults who were cured at St. Jude of cancer 20, 30 or even 40 years ago, and is educating survivors about how to live healthy lives. These efforts are also helping us develop new treatments that are more effective and less toxic.
Just as the options for treating cancer today are much different than when we began 50 years ago, St. Jude is committed to changing them going forward, saving more lives and reducing treatment side effects.
The hospital is a national resource with a global mission. St. Jude discoveries help children around the world. Strategic relationships with organizations across the U.S. and abroad enable the hospital to even more quickly share knowledge and expertise to all corners of the world. For instance, the International Outreach Program helps more than a dozen developing countries increase and sustain access to modern treatments. The Cure4Kids Web-based educational program allows St. Jude to share critical knowledge and engage in real-time discussions with more than 33,000 health care professionals in more than 185 countries.
For researchers everywhere, the quest is survival for every child with cancer. St. Jude researchers will continue to chart new frontiers of discovery and innovation. The hospital’s faculty and staff will continue to embody a culture of compassion, collaboration and innovation. St. Jude will continue to attract the best people and will provide an environment where they can do their best work.
The hospital’s vision is unwavering: to make discoveries that save more lives; treatment advances that reduce side effects; and innovations that bring comfort, hope and support to families facing the toughest times imaginable.
The true measure of success will be the hospital’s ability to give children the lives they deserve: that first step, first day of school, first date, first job. A lifetime of everyday moments. That is the legacy of St. Jude.
Reprinted from Promise Spring 2012