Friday Frontline: Beirut Explosion Costs Children’s Access to Cancer Treatment, Researchers Find Intestinal Bacteria ‘Supercharges’ Immunotherapy and More

Friday Frontline: Beirut Explosion Costs Children’s Access to Cancer Treatment, Researchers Find Intestinal Bacteria ‘Supercharges’ Immunotherapy and More

August 14, 2020

From the recent Beirut explosion compromising pediatric oncology hospitals, to researchers looking at how intestinal bacteria can supercharge targeted immunotherapies, here’s what’s happening in the cancer landscape this week.

After the devastating explosion in Beirut, dozens of children with cancer are now left without access to treatment as the region tries to find a way forward.

"It's hard to know that we have a deadly but treatable disease, and we cannot do anything for these kids because everything is destroyed," Peter Noun, the head of St. George's pediatric hematology and oncology department in Beirut, Lebanon, said in an interview. St. George’s Hospital, one of the city’s biggest hospitals, was one of two hospitals damaged in the explosion.

For the children being sent away from cancer centers, operating hospitals in the area are currently overwhelmed from treating the more than 5,000 people injured from the blast, but also have the threat of the novel coronavirus that is rising in Lebanon. Critical cancer patients have been sent to hospitals outside of the country, but Noun is worried more won’t have treatment if field hospitals aren’t ready soon enough.

At the age of 13, Caitlyn Mortus was diagnosed with cancer and had to receive treatment at MD Anderson’s Children’s Cancer Hospital. Ten years later, Mortus is working at the same hospital as a pediatric oncology nurse.

During her time at MD Anderson as a patient undergoing chemotherapy, Mortus found inspiration and encouragement from the nurses that helped her through her treatment to pursue her dreams of joining their ranks, and now Mortus is working with some of the practitioners from her original care team.

Along with her efforts as a pediatric oncology nurse, Mortus is also using her experience to help address everyday problems kids with cancer face, like isolation from their friends and family. Through her non-profit, Keep Kids Connected, Mortus looks to provide every kid going through cancer treatment with a tablet or computer to help stay in touch with friends and family while isolated from treatment, an issue that Mortus went through herself and addressed by getting a working laptop and sharing it with other patients.

“I barely knew anything about cancer when I first came here,” she said in an interview, “but now it has shaped my life and made me into the person I am today.”

A 5-time cancer survivor rode 80 miles on a handcycle to help raise money and awareness for Chai Lifeline and the summer sleep away camp it sponsors for children with cancer, Camp Simcha.

JJ Eizik has been faced with cancer five times before his 30th birthday and has underwent 20 surgeries that included the loss of his left leg, where a cancerous tumor on his femur originated. While cancer has taken a major toll on his life, Eizik hasn’t lost his love for athletics, making the bike ride not just a charity event, but a way to keep pushing himself despite past hardships.

"My message always is and has been: When you think you're done, keep pushing," said Eizik, in an interview. "It's a mental attitude that you have to develop, that I had to develop. It carried me through a lot of hard times."

Eizik was among 40 other riders that helped raise over $6 million for the sleepaway camp.

Utilizing intestinal bacteria in cancer treatment could boost its effects four-fold, according to research from the University of Calgary.

According to the lead researchers, these intestinal microbiomes can help to “supercharge” the potency of targeted immunotherapies for patients with cancer when the bacteria essentially turns on a switch in the immune cell, activating T-cells to stop cancer by generating a tiny molecule called inosine.

“With cancers (normally) susceptible to immunotherapy 20% of the time, and it responds at 80%, that’s a major increase in efficacy,” explained Dr. Kathy McCoy of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the U of C’s Cumming School of Medicine, in an interview. In this study, three types of bacteria were found to create the desired effect of making new specific T-cells to fight cancer.

“We actually found there was an increase in bacterium in the patients responding, but the studies were too small,” said McCoy. The researchers are seeking to expand their study to focus on lung cancer and melanoma over the next several years.


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