When 6-year-old Alayna Baldwin’s cancer was discovered and she began treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, her parents were stunned and anxious. “You would think you’d have a hint,” Alayna’s mother Marla says. “But she had never been sick, not even a cold. The diagnosis was such a shock. Your whole vision of her life suddenly changes.”
Fast forward almost five years. Alayna’s hair, once lost due to chemotherapy, flows halfway down her back. The months she spent in isolation following a 2008 bone marrow transplant for an uncommon subtype of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are a dim memory. Today, Alayna rides bicycles, gets dirty playing outdoors and paints her dog’s nails. And, now, thanks to the St. Jude – Washington University Pediatric Cancer Genome Project, doctors know more about the mutations that give rise to the cancer Alayna had.
In the past three years, the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project has provided not only new details about the mutations that underlie the development and growth of a range of childhood cancers, but has also laid the scientific foundation for improved diagnostic testing and the next generation of more effective, less toxic therapies.
Three recent results from the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project have exciting implications for the future of cancer research and treatment:
- Scientists have discovered a genetic mistake responsible for a significant percentage of acute megakaryoblastic leukemia (AMKL) in children.
- The Pediatric Cancer Genome Project played an important role in the discovery of the genetic basis for a high-risk form of leukemia known as hypodiploid acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
- The project's scientists also found a new use for DNA sequences previously dismissed as a nuisance.
Focusing on the future
While St. Jude researchers work on these projects to help future patients with hard-to-cure diseases, Alayna prepares to celebrate her fifth year as a cancer survivor.
Donde Baldwin, Alayna’s father, recalls hours spent traversing the halls of the hospital pushing his then-toddler daughter’s intravenous pole and coaxing her to eat. Today, Alayna has to be reminded not to run and hug a nurse who asks about Froggy, the stuffed frog who endured every aspect of Alayna’s cancer treatment right along with her.
“Alayna always loves coming to St. Jude; she did even as a toddler. She still tells everyone that St. Jude is her hospital,” Marla Baldwin says. “We feel like she’s won the battle. St. Jude has given her the chance to accomplish what she wants to in life.”
Abridged from Promise, Spring 2013