New research facilities for studying children's cancer

New facilities have been opened for the children's oncology laboratory of the Institut de Recerca Sant Joan de Déu - SJD Barcelona Children's Hospital to celebrate 20 years of research. These laboratories are unique in their exclusive dedication to pediatric tumors and have over 50 researchers who focus on the study of more than ten developmental tumors.

The SJD Pediatric Cancer Center Barcelona at the SJD Barcelona Children's Hospital · Institut de Recerca Sant Joan de Déu has inaugurated their new facilities in the Pediatric Cancer Research Unit - CaixaResearch, the only one dedicated exclusively to pediatric oncology. The new space has received three million Euros of funding from the "la Caixa" Foundation, as well as other donations made by families of patients and other entities from wider society through several fundraising events.  

The new facility boasts 1,112 square metres worth of space, and has two distinct departments: a molecular diagnostics laboratory, and also a space dedicated to research and investigation.

'At first, molecular studies on tumors were only done in very specific cases, and more for research reasons than for care reasons. Now, however, we do it every time because tumor molecular diagnostics is essential to be able to prognose tumor evolution and figure out the most suitable treatment for the child. This is known as precision, or personalized, medicine. It's a part of standard treatment,' highlights Jaume Mora, Scientific Director of the SJD Pediatric Cancer Center and program coordinator in Pediatric Cancer at IRSJD.

In the research lab, a team of 50 researchers focuses on the study of a wide range of pediatric tumorsneuroblastoma; medulloblastoma; retinoblastoma; Ewing sarcoma; diffuse brain stem glioma, or DIPG; high-grade pediatric glioma; rhabdomyosarcoma; osteosarcoma; leukemia; vascular tumors; histiocytosis and low-grade gliomas.  

Key advancements over two decades of pediatric cancer research

Some of the research carried out over the last two decades has managed to improve diagnosis of some cancer types, allowing us to personalize treatment. In practice, this progress has meant there are children who can be successfully treated without needing chemotherapy, and others-who have very aggressive tumors – that can be treated with personalized, targeted therapies chosen as per the molecular specificities of the tumor.  

A clear example is in neuroblastoma cases, which is a tumor that originates in immature peripheral nervous system cells. In the beginning, the first team to start researching on this type of tumor, as it is the most frequent in the first five years of life. In 2012, this team identified several genetic markers which allowed them to predict the aggressiveness of the neuroblastoma immediately after diagnosis, within 24 hours. This information is key because it has made it possible that, now, half of patients diagnosed with a neuroblastoma overcome the disease with surgery alone, without having to undergo chemotherapy or radiotherapy.  

At the same time, researchers have taken part in a clinical trial on immunotherapy treatment for high-risk neuroblastomas, which has significantly improved survival rates (from 35% to 75%). Created at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and developed by a company founded by the father of an American patient, this monoclonal antibody (Naxitamab) was used for the first time ever worldwide in 2017 on a patient at the SJD Barcelona Children's Hospital. Naxitamab has already been used in more than 200 cases around the globe. 

Researchers at the SJD have also played a crucial role in treating retinoblastoma, or retinal cancer. For the first time anywhere in the world, an oncolytic virus has been developed in partnership with the biotechnology company VCN Biosciences, which has prevented three children from being left completely blind. The virus used is an adenovirus, or common virus, which is responsible for many of the symptoms of the common cold. It has been modified in the lab so that it can identify cancer cells, infect them and then replicate itself, meaning it can selectively attack cancer cells while sparing healthy cells. 

These new facilities are being opened on the 20th anniversary of the creation of the original lab, which was founded in 2003 and has grown over time thanks to donations from the public.

Due to the advancements made in the laboratory, certain children have been successfully treated without chemotherapy, while others, who have highly aggressive tumors and limited treatment options, have received individualized therapies.