Mum of Bradley Lowery praises 'fantastic' breakthrough research in understanding childhood cancer

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A charity boss who set up a foundation to support other children following the death of her son has today praised major research in understanding childhood cancers.

Gemma Lowery, whose son Bradley lost his life to terminal neuroblastoma cancer in July 2017, welcomed an announcement from Newcastle University on Tuesday, November 26 which gives an insight into further understanding how the disease progresses.

Six-year-old Bradley, of Blackhall Colliery, inspired families up and down the country as he bravely fought the illness which would eventually claim his life.

‘Leading the way’

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Bradley pictured with mum Gemma. Picture: The Bradley Lowery Foundation.Bradley pictured with mum Gemma. Picture: The Bradley Lowery Foundation.
Bradley pictured with mum Gemma. Picture: The Bradley Lowery Foundation.

As experts speak of their focus on neuroblastoma cells and how treatment could potentially be personalised in future, Gemma has welcomed the step forward and how it could lead to a better understanding of the condition.

Neuroblastoma is a rare type of cancer of the nervous system which mainly affects babies and young children.

Gemma, CEO of the Bradley Lowery Foundation, said: “It is extremely important that as much research as possible is done into neuroblastoma to help improve treatments for children with the condition.

“In general, not enough research is done into childhood cancer so the fact that Newcastle University is leading the way in studying neuroblastoma is fantastic.

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Bradley Lowery pictured at his sixth birthday party.Bradley Lowery pictured at his sixth birthday party.
Bradley Lowery pictured at his sixth birthday party.

“It’s great that this research is a stepping stone towards personalised treatment as the standard treatment currently given is gruelling.

“Bradley was on life-support for 15 days, not from the cancer but from the effects of the chemotherapy.

“The Bradley Lowery Foundation is pushing for more people to become involved in scientific research and this is an example of the importance of it.”

Bradley spent a lot of time at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary throughout his short life – and it was his friendship and care for other children that inspired his family and friends to set up the foundation in his name in the wake of his death.

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Bradley Lowery when he was the England mascot at Wembley. Bradley Lowery when he was the England mascot at Wembley.
Bradley Lowery when he was the England mascot at Wembley.

What is the research and how will it help patients?

Neuroblastoma often begins in the adrenal gland – but in around half of cases the condition has spread throughout the body when it is diagnosed, particularly to bone and bone marrow.

In these high-risk cases survival is only about 50%.

A study, led by experts at Newcastle University and published in Clinical Cancer Research on Tuesday, has focused on neuroblastoma cells which circulate in the blood and spread through the bone marrow.

Experts now say it is possible to test the impact of newer targeted types of treatments on the circulating tumour cells without the need for an invasive biopsy.

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Professor Deborah Tweddle, from the newly-formed Newcastle University Centre for Cancer, led the national research.

She believes that it is a major step forward in trying to personalise treatment, as the number of circulating tumour cells indicate the strength of the disease.

Professor Tweddle added: “Our study is an exciting development. It has improved our understanding of the spread of neuroblastoma and why some young patients may be at high risk of the disease advancing.

“If the numbers of circulating tumour cells prove important in predicting the effects of chemotherapy then, in the future, we will hopefully be able to tailor treatment to an individual patient’s needs.

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“Through a greater understanding of neuroblastoma we hope to eventually improve the cure rate and, for those children who survive, we want to make sure that their quality of life is as good as possible after treatment.

“Our ultimate aim is to give those with this devastating disease the best chance possible and increase survival rates.”

How was the study carried out?

Scientists collected blood and bone marrow samples from patients at five paediatric oncology centres in England and Scotland.

A total of 40 patients were studied. Twenty-three of these had high risk neuroblastoma at diagnosis

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The team then analysed these patient samples using specialist equipment – an Image Stream Flow Cytometer, funded in 2013 with a grant from the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation - to count the number of tumour cells circulating in the blood and bone marrow.

Tumour cells were labelled with an antibody against a molecule called GD2, present on neuroblastoma cells. They were then photographed.

Anti-GD2 antibody therapy is now routinely used for treatment of patients with high risk neuroblastoma.

The plasma of the blood was also collected after the cells were removed and researchers found that they could still detect small pieces of tumour DNA.

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Genetic tests were then carried out on the DNA and it was identified that they were similar to that of the main tumour.

Professor Tweddle added that it was “early days” for the research – but that the pioneering work meant promising things going forward for treating and supporting patients.

Further studies will look at a larger number of patients and will be done as part of the next European high risk neuroblastoma trial, which is hoped will be open in the UK in 2020.

The Sir Bobby Foundation launched in 2008 and it has gone on to raise more than £13.5million to find more effective ways to detect and treat cancer.