Precision medicine for childhood cancer treatment

07 May 2021

More effective medications to treat childhood cancers are needed to save lives, said Dr Zhizhong Li, founder of Shiyu Children Foundation.

Dr Zhizhong Li owns a public Wechat Account in China with more than 1,000,000 followers

Dr Li, now a science writer, holds a PhD in cancer biology from Duke University and worked at Novartis Pharmaceuticals in the US for eight years, focusing on the research and development of targeted and immune system drugs for cancers. He spoke at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University’s Wisdom Lake Academy of Pharmacy recently about the application, challenges and prospects of precision medicine.

"About 30,000 children in China are diagnosed with cancer each year,” Dr Li said.“However, due to a lack of awareness, many children are misdiagnosed, or the cancer is missed. New drugs are lacking, and existing drugs are not effective enough.”

XJTLU students and staff from pharmaceutical industries and hospitals attended the Wisdom Talk

While many people think that childhood tumours are just smaller adult tumours, that is not the case, Dr Li said.

"Childhood and adult tumours are very different in terms of mutation and other aspects, so we must treat them differently.”

Another difference is that the cure rates of childhood cancers tend to be much higher than those of adults, he said. As an example, in the US, the overall five-year survival rate of childhood cancers has reached 84 percent.

"Most childhood cancers have the potential to be cured, assuming these patients have received appropriate, early treatment,” he said. “Once they have been cured, these patients can go on to lead a normal life. Therefore, we should not give up easily.”

Professor Mu Wang, Executive Dean of the Academy of Pharmacy, discussed the cooperation between the Academy and local biopharmaceutical industries

One reason for the comparative treatment success is that children often receive more intensive treatments than adults, Dr Li said. However, in the long-term, childhood cancer survivors often suffer side effects, he noted. More effective medications for childhood cancer with fewer side effects are needed, he said, but in the past 30 years, only ten new drugs have been developed.

According to Dr Li, precision medicine research and development show great promise to address this gap. China has high potential to do this research for two reasons, he said: The country has the most childhood cancer cases in the world, and the patients are concentrated in large hospitals, providing clinical research opportunities.

Professor Lei Fu, Associate Dean For Learning and Teaching of the Academy of Pharmacy, introduced the new postgraduate programmes

Dr Li said the cooperation between the Academy and the pharmaceutical companies in Suzhou Industrial Park will help both students and the industry.

"University students sometimes lack the perspective required. If they are interested in pharmacy and want a career in it, being in contact with more professionals and obtaining their guidance will be beneficial,” he said.

Dr Li’s talk was part of the Academy’s ongoing lecture series.

By Huan Zhu, translated by Xiangyin Han

Edited by Tamara Kaup

Photos by Zisong Ma

07 May 2021