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Central Coast organization helps immunotherapy drug get FDA accelerated approval for cancer in children

Posted at 8:15 AM, May 18, 2021

A breakthrough in the fight against a deadly cancer that mainly occurs in children; an immunotherapy drug received FDA accelerated approval to help fight neuroblastoma, a cancer affecting children all across the country, including right here on the Central Coast.

Let’s take an in-depth look at what neuroblastoma is. It’s a form of cancer that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord of children, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s the most common cancer in infants and accounts for roughly 6% of all childhood cancers.

Immunotherapy is used to help treat neuroblastoma. It’s less-invasive than chemotherapy and triggers the immune system to fight against cancer, instead of attacking all rapidly-dividing cells in the body. The new approval of this immunotherapy against neuroblastoma could be life changing.

KSBY’s Neil Hebert spoke with one local organization that helped get this recent FDA approval, and also with a local doctor on how he believes this will make a difference for children battling this disease.

“17 (years) to breast cancer. When it comes to neuroblastoma, kids will lose 70 years because it takes them out at a very young age,” said Frank Kalman, Executive Director of End Kids Cancer, a nonprofit organization based in San Luis Obispo that raises money for childhood cancer research.

Those are sobering statistics regarding this debilitating disease. End Kids Cancer, along with other local foundations, were able to fund most of the clinical research for the clinical trials that resulted in the accelerated FDA approval of Danyelza (naxitamab).

“Families and people on the Central Coast have given generously to the End Kids Cancer Foundation for this specific reason,” said René Bravo, a San Luis Obispo pediatrician, “because we’re trying to find medications and therapeutic modalities that are going to focus on helping children’s cancer.”

“The reason why this treatment is so important is when a child develops this disease, the likelihood of survival is pretty low,” said Kalman.

This discovery could mean less chemotherapy used for children with neuroblastoma, and as a result of that, better outcomes and lives of those able to thwart off the cancer. Immunotherapy is a much less invasive treatment that goes directly to the source of the cancer.

“Immunotherapy is almost like a magic bullet: It goes straight to the cancer without the side effects,” said Kalman.

“Going through a cancer treatment, and I can speak for it myself being a survivor of the process, a lot of the modalities that we use to treat cancer destroy healthy tissues of cells,” said Bravo. “The monoclonal antibodies of systems attack the cells uniquely.”

Side effects of chemotherapy in children include cognitive impairment for life, organ failure, and in some cases, death.

“There’s going to be a time when we look back at these days and say, ‘That was horrible,’ especially when you’re giving horrific amounts of chemotherapy to a child, who is in their formative years,” said Kalman.

Kalman’s daughter beat neuroblastoma after being diagnosed 20 years ago and upwards of five relapses.

“I remember the very first time they gave my daughter chemo, I remember the nurse walking into the room; she had on rubber overalls, big, thick gloves, a facemask, and I went, ‘Am I making the right decision to let them put that stuff in my daughter’s veins?’ There is nothing more horrifying to a parent to think that you made the wrong decision,” said Kalman. “That’s what we’re trying to address.”

Kalman told me less than 4% of money raised to fight cancer goes to pediatric cancer research. If you would like to donate directly to End Kids Cancer, click here. That money will go directly to pediatric cancer research.