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Four new research projects with support from KiKa

Four research studies in the Princess Máxima Center are starting thanks to new project funding from KiKa. Scientists are looking for a faster way to diagnose brain tumors, targeted therapy for leukemia, ‘theranostics’ for sarcomas, and to map the risk of late effects of treatment for a kidney tumor. They are all working on better treatments for children with cancer, with an optimal quality of life.

Precise diagnosis during surgery for a brain tumor

Surgery to remove a brain tumor always involves operating from within the tumor outward, to where it meets healthy brain tissue. Sometimes the interface is not clear or sometimes the tumor is in a part of the brain that should not be damaged. In those cases, it is very important for the neurosurgeon to know if a small piece of tumor tissue can be left behind without affecting the chance of a cure. This depends on the kind of brain tumor. The precise diagnosis determines whether the neurosurgeon should try to completely remove the tumor or if a small amount of tumor tissue can be left behind.

That is why it is important to diagnose a brain tumor during the surgery, and to make it as precisely as possible. That now takes around a week. In a new research project, dr. Bastiaan Tops and prof. dr. Eelco Hoving, together with colleagues at UMC Utrecht, will look at a way to establish the precise diagnosis of a brain tumor during surgery by analyzing the DNA in the tissue, within an hour.

If the technique becomes part of standard care, it can help the neurosurgeon to better decide whether to maximally operate. As a result, children could be less likely to have neurological side effects from the operation, or to need additional surgery.

New kind of therapy for leukemia

A type of DNA change that often occurs in leukemia is a so-called fusion gene, which originates from two genes that are normally separate. Such fusion genes do not occur in healthy blood cells, making them a good target for new, targeted treatment. But there is not yet a good way to reach fusion genes with medicines.

In a new project, Prof. Dr. Olaf Heidenreich will look at very small fatty spheres to deliver a piece of biological 'code' to the so-called RUNX1/ETO fusion gene. In previous research, his group saw that this code could slow the growth of leukemia cells in the lab. Now, prof. Heidenreich and his group will see whether they can make the spheres, 'lipid nanoparticles', suitable for use in children with leukemia. In the future, this research could lead to more effective treatment for children with leukemia, with fewer side effects.

Therapy and diagnostics in one

Radiolabelled drugs are used for diagnostics and making PET scans, but also for treatment with radiotherapy. This combination of therapy and diagnostics is known as 'theranostics'. This technology is already being used successfully in adults with cancer, but minimally in childhood cancer. Prof. dr. Max van Noesel, dr. Claudia Janda and dr. Alex Poot are embarking on a new research project looking for theranostics for sarcomas, soft tissue tumors in for example bone or muscle tissue.

The team will look for antibodies, small proteins that attack the tumor cells while leaving healthy tissue alone. These antibodies can then carry the radioactivity to the tumor. This results in a high quality image of the tumor, which is treated at the same time. With this, the team aims to monitor the tumor as well as delivering targeted treatment.

Late effects after a kidney tumor

Most children with a kidney tumor have a good prognosis. The treatment with chemotherapy is relatively mild. However, there is a risk of late side-effects in children who have been cured, as a kidney is usually removed and the abdomen and/or lungs are often exposed to radiation. In their new research, prof. dr. Marry van den Heuvel-Eibrink, dr. Geert Janssens, dr. Sebastian Neggers and dr. Harm van Tinteren will focus on the risk of late effects after a kidney tumor.

The team will look at data from survivors diagnosed with a kidney tumor between 1963 and 2002. They will look at factors including kidney function, muscle mass, bone density and premature aging. The researchers also aim to compare the risk of late effects with that of kidney tumor survivors in the United States, where children receive more radiotherapy. The team hopes the results will help pick out survivors at risk of late effects early, so that they can be treated in time.

The four new research projects are made possible by KiKa with a total of €1.4 million in project funding.